Saturday, August 2, 2008

PGA Championsship

Tomorrow morning the 90th PGA Championship will begin play at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. This event is a little more special to me than all the others for a few reasons. First, as a PGA member it is our championship and the one, if by some miracle my game would hold up, would be my best chance at competing in a major championship. Second, I have had the honor of knowing a couple of past champions. At my first golf job I worked for 1954 PGA Champion, Chick Harbert. Chick told many stories about winning the event when it was a match play tournament. A friend and mentor of mine, Dow Finsterwald won the Championship in 1958, the first year the event was played at stroke play. Finally, it is special to me, because of a person who didn’t win it. I was an employee of Arnold Palmer from 1981-1996. Mr. Palmer was in his 50’s then and yet every year when the PGA rolled around the preparation for the event became quite intense. He had won just about every other golf tournament in the world but he could never seem to win a PGA Championship. He had a number of chances, the most famous in 1964 at the Columbus Country Club where he became the first player to break 70 in all four rounds of a major, only to finish 2nd to Bobby Nichols. Mr. Palmer finally broke his PGA jinx in by winning the first Senior event he ever entered, the 1980 Senior PGA Championship.

I used the word jinx because for almost any golfer there is a jinx or more appropriate, a mental block or barrier that keeps us from performing at a higher level. For Mr. Palmer I think it was the PGA Championship. For the rest of us it may be an event or a score. My personal barrier for a couple of years was a score of 70. One summer I shot 40 rounds of 70 without ever shooting a single round in the 60’s. It may just be a mental block with a certain club, like a driver or putter. Regardless, once you have convinced yourself you cannot do something it can be pretty hard to overcome. In golf the key to overcoming these barriers is to fight back and not give up. I solved my scoring barrier by playing from the shortest tees on our course until I got used to shooting a score in the 60’s. For our students that fight a certain golf club, we focus on that club. If you are intimidated by your driver, using your 3 wood instead is not the solution. Learning to use the driver is the solution. Some solid advice from your local PGA professional and a little practice will usually solve the problem.

Great vs. Want to Be Great

Golf is a crazy game! A 53 year old business man and entrepreneur, after playing a couple of golf tournaments and working in an occasional practice session, leads the biggest golf tournament in the world at the end of the 3rd round? Sure Greg Norman was a former # 1 player in the world and is an extremely talented player, but to play as little as he has over the past 5 years and all of a sudden compete with the best players in the world is a remarkable accomplishment. Yet even though his physical talents may have slipped from a lack of use, he still found a way to stay in the tournament and play with golfers at the peak of their skills and in the end beat all but two of them.

Greg’s great performance reminds me of a number of conversations over the years about what separates the great from the “want to be great”. I have always felt that the differences are an explanation as to why those of us who “want to be great” never quite get there. We use these examples at the Academy every day:

The great players use what they have while the “not so great” are always trying to fix what they have. Arnold Palmer always used his warm up session to decide how the ball was going to curve on that particular day and then used that shot shape for the rest of the day. The “not so great” typically spends the entire round trying to fix or change the slice or hook they found on the practice tee.
The great player understands that it is distance control not distance potential that makes the difference.
The great player understands that score is more important than technique. Where I hit it and how many times is more important than how.
The great player worries about tempo and control. The “not so great” about speed and power.
The great player realizes the shorter the shot the greater the importance. The “not so great” spends so much time worried about length that they neglect the shots that most influence the score.
The great player never lets a missed shot influence the next. The “not so great’ is always trying to fix the previous miss with the next shot. “If the last ball went left then I aim more right on the next one.”

Regardless of skill level none of these examples require anything but a change in attitude to accomplish. The moral of the story is that the best way to shoot lower scores is to focus on what it takes to shoot lower scores. Get help where you need it and look to minimize your mistakes rather than conquer them.

The Right Clubs

OK. We have been playing golf for about two months this season. Our games are not any better than last year and in many ways worse. Despite all of our reading and Golf Channel watching we can’t lower our scores to meet the preseason expectations. We have spent the last few weeks discussing most aspects of our games from a swing perspective. Maybe it is time to take a hard look at our golf equipment.

If you live in northern climates now is absolutely the best time to purchase golf equipment. The opportunity to demo equipment outside is much preferable to buying clubs over the winter when we can’t see the ball fly. Unless the facility is equipped with accurate technology to measure ball flight, trying to buy clubs in the winter is difficult.

As you look at your golf bag think about each individual club and not the bag as a set. One hundred years ago your clubs were built for you one at a time. You purchased a driver, a long fairway club, middle fairway club, short fairway club, specialty clubs for rough or sand, and specific clubs for around the green. This is the best way to build a set and easily done in the modern age. Some other recommendations:

Make sure the new clubs fit your body type and swing. Go to an expert for help. There are hundreds of “clubfitters” out there. One way to find a good one is to ask the manufacturers. They want your purchase to be successful and they would be glad to recommend their best fitters.

Fit for distance. Don’t assume that a “set” of clubs will give you the equipment you need for your distance requirements. First find a driver that gives you the best results. Then find a fairway club that gives you the best combination of distance and trajectory. This is not necessarily a 3 wood. Now find the best high lofted wedge for you. This will be a club with between 56 and 64 degrees. What is the distance of each club? Let’s say the best fairway club you can find is 200 yards. The wedge you chose goes 68. You have chosen a driver, fairway club, wedge and you need a putter. So we have ten available clubs to cover the gap of 132 yards. A reasonable gap between clubs is about 12 yards. Now find a club for each yardage. What is your club from 188? Or the club you use from 92?

There two real advantages your building your set of clubs this way. First, it makes you a better player with a better understanding of your equipment. Second, it is a lot of fun to build your personal set.