Saturday, September 18, 2010

Understanding Bad Golf Scores.

It recently occurred to me that while we have discussed many of the questions asked at the United States Golf Academy, I had avoided one of the most frequent, “How can I have a great round one day and be terrible the next time.” Obviously, there is no easy answer for that one. There could a million different specific reasons, but the consideration of why someone can’t play to their potential on a consistent basis is something that can keep you up at night.

As a younger man I wanted to be a tournament player first and foremost. I worked very hard on my game, but did not have the success I hoped for or felt I deserved. After hearing me complain over and over, a good friend, who was very knowledgeable about tournament golf, sat me down and gave me three things to consider as I tried to understand why I was not playing up to my expectations.

The first point he made was that you cannot play the game when you are mad. It is one thing to complain about a bad result or misfortune, but if you are still thinking about it by the time you reach your next shot, the emotions will eventually catch up with you and result in some poor golf shots, which will make you angry, which will result in more poor golf shots. Eventually, you get out of the rut because you are too exhausted to care, but by then it is usually too late.

Second, he told me you can’t play scared. When you pick a golf club and a target you have to believe you are going to hit the ball as planned. If you play scared or assume a miss, you make timid swings that lack confidence. A full swing with confidence is always better than a scared swing, even if the scared swing produces a reasonable result. If you have always played scared you will never know how good you can be.

The final point he made was, “Is it possible you are not happy with your score because you have overestimated your ability?” You especially have to understand the difference between skill and luck. The tendency is to over-estimate your ability. In my case it was too many better ball games where I made a lot of birdies, but forgot the other scores that didn’t count. Another example, if you play in a lot of charity scrambles your team score is a lot lower than your individual score would have been. In addition, you might hit some good shots, but you don’t have to string them together. In the end you have a false impression of how you played for the day. This false impression often leads to taking the game for granted and avoiding the areas of your game that need improvement. I guess honesty is the best policy in golf as it is in life.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Making the Game Easier

My job description as Director of Instruction for the United States golf Academy is pretty simple. Answer questions about golf. This week I was asked the ultimate question for someone in my position. “Why is the game so ____ hard?” (I will let you fill in the blank.) This is an instance where the answer to the question might be more complex than the solution to the problem. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written describing the challenges of playing golf. I have written a few myself, and I have come to the conclusion that while it is important to understand the details of hitting a golf ball, it is also easy to become lost in an attempt to apply them.

Part of the problem, when attempting to describe the golf swing is that the description of the problem is offered in mechanical details. Wrist this way, hand that way, head stays here, shoulders do this, and feet placed there, all static descriptions of moving parts. These are important, but not more important than understanding the principles of motion. Balance , Rhythm and Tempo.

Balance. When your body is in motion your mind is constantly sending signals to all parts of your body to accomplish one thing. Keep you from falling down. So if your mind has to make an adjustment to keep you from falling down and that movement doesn’t match the best way to swing a golf club, the result is a poor strike and probably lousy results. More players have balance issues than mechanical issues.

Rhythm. I describe rhythm like a musical beat. Some swings are two beats, one the club goes back, two the club goes forward. These are up tempo swings like Ben Hogan or Tiger Woods. Others have three beat swings. One back, two on the transition from backswing to forward swing, three down and through. These swings are typical slower and longer, like Payne Stewart or Sam Snead. We all have a natural rhythm and our best results come when our golf swing matches it.

Tempo. Tempo is the amount of time it takes to complete your swing. Your goal as a player is for the time to be exactly the same for every swing. Too many of us change our tempo or time depending on how hard we think we need to hit the shot. The best players vary the length of their swings slightly using the same amount of time. For example a full swing at full speed takes 2.5 seconds. A ¾ swing at a slightly slower speed still takes the same 2.5 seconds. Keeping the time the same is what helps us control how fast the club is moving. We naturally relate to time so this is easier to achieve than it sounds.

As I wrote in the beginning, the explanation was more complicated than the solution. Make some swings with your eyes closed. Find a swing in balance, using your natural rhythm and tempo and see if this doesn’t make your game a little easier.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Distance Control for Putting

I was fortunate to be part of a team that introduced a game improvement technology called PuttLab to the United States. PuttLab is an ultrasound device that attaches to your putter and measures in great detail every movement of the putter during the stroke. Using this information, we can help players build a more functional putting strategy, based on personal tendencies, rather than forced body positions or concepts. We recently completed the first phase of a study, using PuttLab data compiled from students of the United States Golf Academy over the past three years. We made some fascinating discoveries about how people putt. One however was eye opening and was the only one that has applications for everyone.

We have the ability to measure the time of the stroke to 1/1000 of a second. The time is then broken into three categories 1. Time of the backswing. 2. Time of the forward swing to impact, or the time when the putter starts forward toward ball to impact. 3. Total forward swing or the time from the start of the forward swing to the end of the follow through. When measuring the time to impact we confirmed what had been found in an earlier study done by the company that developed the technology. An average stroke takes 1 second or 1000 milliseconds from start of the backswing to impact with the ball. The lower the handicap of the player the closer they were to exactly one second, as the very best players measured 950 to 1050 milliseconds. More importantly, we discovered the total time to impact did not change with the length of the putt. A five foot putt took one second to impact as did a fifty foot putt. So what does this have to do with controlling the distance a putt will roll?

The data proved that the best way to control distance is to vary the length of your stroke to the length of the putt, rather than using the same length backswing for all lengths, slowing down or speeding up depending on perception. Use a long stroke for long putts and a short stroke for short putts, with the time of the stroke being consistent at one second. The easiest way to control the time is to simply count to one second like we used to do as children, one thousand one. Start the count as the putter goes back and hit the ball on one. It takes a little practice, but you will find as you change the length of the putts your stroke will almost naturally speed up or slow down as the length of the stroke changes. Over a short amount of time you will develop a feel for the distance the putter needs to swing to control the distance you need. Another benefit is that your direction control will improve as well, as the putter position at impact is more consistent as the timing becomes more consistent.