Thursday

Five under, 7 birdies...


Had the pleasure of playing in an LPGA Australian pro-am last week with French pro golfer Joanna Klatten. Jo's a regular visitor to Aus and at time of wiriting has just blitzed the field to shoot a course record 63 in the last round of the NSW open and to win by two. 

Jo's a star in the making and delightful company to boot, but I wanted to share and recommend the opportunities to observe great golfers at work by playing in pro-ams like these. 

For the newbies, every pro tournament has a pro am where the top pros play with three enthusiastic amateurs, mostly celebrities or sponsor invites in an 18 hole tournament on the eve of the tournament proper. Most of the male pros detest pro ams and would rather be anywhere else, but the sponsors need looking after and so they're happy (ish) to spend five hours with a groups of 24 handicappers who want to know what club they hit on the par three. Despite the fact that the pros tees are usually in a different postcode.

Women's pro ams are an altogether different affair. Whether it's because the money isn't so plentiful or whether it's because they are, well, women, all of the women's pro ams I have played in have been an absolute delight. And if anything you learn more, far more compared to playing with a tour pro. 

The last few times I've played in Pro ams on the men's circuit I've been teeing off with people who hit it easily 100 yards further than me off the tee. People who hit wedges into long par fours when I'm tossing up between hybrid or 3 wood. People, to be frank that I have little in common with. Not great conversationalists either, if I dare generalise. 

The women's game is different. Whilst many of them hit it a long way, few of them ever hit shots at full strength. The pace of their game seems more measured. And best of all...they seem to be having a great time.

Here's a couple of things I learned last week. 

1. Leave the driver in the bag. In 18 holes, she hit driver once. It's a fact that she hit is so far that it took us ten minutes walk to get there, but despite that power and potential she hit driver once. She hit a four iron off the tee on a par five (you ever done that?) because getting on in two was impossible. And guess what...yes, she hit every fairway. 

2. Have a really good look at the line. Nobody wants club golfers to follow the lead of Jim "hang on I will have another look" Furyk but I noticed that while everyone else was putting she was studying the line like a hawk. Standing six feet away, just to the side of the line of the putt looking at what it would do as it ran out of pace, looking at the low side of the putt as Dave Stockton tells his pros Rory and Baddeley. And then best of all, having done the prep, when it was her turn to putt, it was one look at the line, aim and fire. Usually followed by the sound of ball hitting the bottom of the cup. 

3. Swing smooth. The key lesson from playing with or just watching lady professionals on the TV. Take it back smoothly and swing it smoothly. Not soft. Smooth. As Sevvy famously said, don't worry about swinging slow or fast, just think of keeping a constant speed from backswing to follow through. 

If you'd like to enjoy a round of golf under tournament conditions in great company where you'll learn more than a month of lessons, find a ladies PGA pro am near you and turn up and play. You won't regret it.  



Wednesday

Add yards to your drive!

Shopping in a golf store is a bewildering experience. When I first started in golf, you could buy a 1,2,3 or 4 wood. 5 woods hadn't been invented yet. And those woods, well they were made of wood. You know, the stuff that trees are made of. Nowadays, drivers are described in cubic centimeter sizes and not only can you buy an Eleven wood (made out of steel, naturally) but one of the worlds top pro golfers K J Choi has more woods and hybrids in his bag than traditional irons. 

It's the same with balls, putters, even tees for goodness sake. Wherever you look, there's a product that will shave shots off your game or help you hit the ball yards further. Yards. 

There's a couple of really important pieces of advice to help any golfer choose his best equipment. Unfortunately the one piece of advice NOT to follow is to ask the bloke in the golf shop. 

The most important club you will buy is the one that gets you on the fairway off the tee as often as possible and as far down the fairway as possible. While getting personally fitted for every club is ideal, I strongly recommend you spend most of your time finding that club. 

Firstly, find a driver that looks good to your eye when it sits behind the ball. Does it naturally point down the right line? Is it easy to line up. Does it make you feel like it's just a matter of swinging it? Yes? That's the first decision made. 

When choosing loft for a driver, the current industry view is that the higher the loft the better. For certain, don't be choosing anything lower than 9.5 degrees of loft. The forgiveness that you sacrifice won't be paid back in length. Life's not that simple. 

Choosing a shaft is more difficult. But if you're not able to get yourself fitted, watch out for the trap of thinking that good players play a stiff shaft. It's absolutely the stupidest decision golfers make. In fact, rather than choosing between stiff and regular, it's much more important to think about quality. A shaft in an off the shelf model will be a mass produced, mass assembled component that will have been produced as cost efficiently as possible. Here's a secret. It's the same for stiff shafts cause guess what. Most amateurs choose stiff because that's what their ego says is right for them.

Don't make the same mistake. Instead look for a regular shafted driver that is not one of the standard off the shelf model. If you're buying an R9 or Razr, you can easily pop your own shaft in by a couple of quick turns of the tool they provide. The best investment you can make is on a better quality shaft. Read online forums and magazines to find out what the good names are, consider people like Grafalloy, ProForce and Matrix and search ebay and second hand stores for good deals.

The big manufacturers have got wise to this over the years and now every big driver launch seems to use a shaft that is produced in partnership with one of the big names. Trouble is, the shaft in those clubs, even if it says Matrix or Ozik, is a mass produced version of the original. And it's the original you want. No substitutes. 

Choosing a putter is the exact obvious. Choose the one that gets the ball in the hole. Full stop.

Apart from the above, my best advice on buying clubs is to play the equipment manufacturers at their own game. In the last year, Taylor Made have released at least three new drivers. They're all top drawer and all have their own strengths. The best buy of all of them will be the one that came before, especially if you can find it in packaging and with the shaft you want. 

Golf clubs do not wear out, especially those that are "old stock" and it's common to see $500 drivers being knocked out as floor stock a year later for under $200. Same with irons. Shop around. Forget the new. Buy well known brands that feel good. 

And forget stiff shafts! 

Do you wanna be in the movies.

Jack Nicklaus has won more important golf tournaments than any golfer. His career straddles the semi-amateur age and the era of the millionaire golfer. During the 1960's the Golden Bear played John Lennon to Arnies "Macca" as between them they saw the world of golf, particularly in the USA transform into the multi-media, sponsor friendly juggernaut it is today. 

Jack's style was different to the flamboyant Arnie. As a golfer, Jack was a prize fighter, slugging the ball further than anyone. Strongly built especially in the upper body, Jack hit the ball hard and long. Around the greens, he developed his own style, a sort of awkward flamingo like stance with elbows splayed and feet aligned way left of the target. 

But despite a personal and unorthodox approach to the swing and his putting, Jack was one of the first professional golfers to truly embrace the idea of the mental game. He understood that spending time on the range was important but also that, as they say, the most important three inches in golf is the space between the ears.

In the mid 1960's  Timothy Gallwey was still to publish The Inner Game of Tennis, a seminal work on sports psychology that would be republished a few years hence with the world Golf in the revised title. Promising British 400m hurdler David Hemery was experimenting with sports psychology at Loughborough College, Britains leading sports college. Hemery would go on to win gold in Mexico and credit "visualisation" as one of the keys to his success. 

So it was early days for golfers to think about such new fangled ideas. Ben Hogan's view that "the answer lies in the dirt" his justification for hitting hundreds of balls to find the perfect swing was seen as the only route to success. In keeping with the times, the only way to be successful was hard work, repetition and dedication. 

Nicklaus however was different. By the time he wrote his life story, he was describing his method as much, much more than the endless pursuit of the perfect swing. Well kind of. For Nicklaus, his perspective was an interesting mix of spirit, competitiveness and the hard work ethic. 

The great man has gone on record as saying that he believes that one of his secrets was his commitment to trying his hardest on every shot. No matter whether it's a putt to win the Masters or a chip shot at the practice green, jack's approach is to say "I'll only get one go at this shot in my life. May as we'll make the best possible effort. I can." 

From the side of the green he was trying to hole out, every putt was aimed at the cup and every fairway was like an archery target. And more than just being determined to do his best,  Jack had a secret. 

He had discovered "visualisation". 

In interviews he describes how before he plays a shot he imagines himself in action, sees how high the ball goes, where it bounces, how the wind might affect it. He once said "it's like I'm watching my own home movie" 

And once he'd watched the movie, he'd get on and hit the shot. 

Experts in the area of visualisation believe that it's not a skill that everyone has, well not the seeing your home movies skill anyway. Some people see movies, some need to talk it through, some just zone in on target. 

It all adds to the same thing. The one thing that every one of the mental side of golf books agrees on (and I have read most of them!) is that before playing a shot you must have a really clear image of precisely what you are trying to do. 

Once you've got it, all you have to do is step up and trust your swing. Imagine. 

Tuesday

A book at bedtime

My current book of choice is Anneka Sorenstam's "Every shot must have a purpose". It's a good read, once you get past the "why can't you birdie every hole" nonsense.

Like most golf instruction books, there's a couple of key learnings that might help in my quest to make each shot add up to less.

One of my greatest weaknesses is the constant mental arithmetic that follows each shot. "Make par on the next three and I'll be back to level", you know the kind of thing. This book suggests an interesting fix to that, which is simply to con your brain into forgetting par and instead thinking of each shot as a separate challenge in itself. So on the tee, the only challenge is hitting the fairway. From there, it's all about getting on the dance floor in regulation. You get a "point" for each, as you do for a par. Two for a birdie. My best score for a round so far is twenty something. I'm working on it.

But the best thing about this system is the point you get for an up and down, irrespective of your final score. I've already noticed an improvement in my concentration when I've knuckled down to "knock this close and hole the putt for a point". I'm going to award myself a double bunger every time I knock it close enough to tap in. In fact, that's the thought I'll take to the course with me this weekend.

The rest of the book is a rehash of basic visualiation stuff, e.g. decide on the shot, picture it, commit and then go into the zone and hit it. We'll no doubt talk Galwey another day.

Woosie and the Killer Whale

Measuring five foot nothing and armed with forearms that actually were hewn from spending his teenage summers down on the farm, Ian Woosnam sure knew how to hit a golf ball. Using a driver fashioned, incredibly, from a lump of wood, the pint sized taff outdrove virtually everybody on the tour, sometimes hitting it over 250 meters. Wow.

And then along came John Daly and his Wilson Killer Whale. Resembling a thimble now compared with modern clubs, the Killer Whale was huge. And it came with a bright red Firestick shaft. When we heard the price tag (nearly 80 quid!) all the guys on Today's Golfer agreed that Wilson were out of their tiny minds. Nobody would ever pay that for a driver!

The Killer Whale was soon followed by the Big Bertha (299 quid), and then the biggest Big Bertha (499 quid!) each hewn out of a space age material called titanium. You probably know the rest. In 1996 over 70% of all new drivers sold were made by Callaway. A company that didn't exist in 1986. Because they worked. Golfers everywhere soon learnt that the hardest club to hit had just got easy (er) and best of all, the new weapons of mass destruction were long, scary long, reducing par fives to two just good Woosnam like smacks. Happy days...

Now I don't know what happened since to make golf hard again (and I do know that the average club handicap now is the same as it was 20 years ago), but all my stats reveal that despite the best clubs man can buy, I still don't hit many fairways. If I don't include near misses, it can be less than 50%. Ouch.
In my most recent round, I hooked my first tee shot 40 yards right, blocked the next one stone dead and found the trees on 10. Luckily, from there the course opens up...
Thing is, I also missed the cut stuff on 7, 8, 11, 13, 14. Six out of fourteen fairways hit for 38 points! So was it worth striving for distance? Not really. On 6 I couldn't get down in two. On 16 I missed right with a 6 iron. On 18 I missed right with a 4 iron.

So no then. Distance not the key.

Best round ever at St Michael's was the day after buying the hybrid. 45 points off 12 after a blob at the first. When I played off 6 I used a 3 wood. When will I learn?

Tee it up right.

The only time you get to place the ball where you want it in a normal round of golf is on the tee box. It's easy to forget that you have a heap of choices, all completely within the rules, of how you tee it up, and you may as we'll make the most of them. 

The first and most simple is to tee the ball so that you are hitting away from the trouble. If there is out of bounds down the left for example, teeing the ball up on the right means you are aiming straight at the place you really don't want to go, putting more mental pressure on an already tough shot. 

As soon as you arrive on the tee, picture the shot you want to play and the safe landing area before choosing the best place to put your ball. It might mean that you have to ask your partners to move themselves or their bags, but do it, they will respect you for it. 

Be certain also to choose a flat spot to tee the ball up. It sounds stupid but I've lost count of the times I've seen people standing below or above the ball, or with their feet near to a sprinkler or other obstacle. You are allowed within the rules of golf to tee the ball up anywhere behind the markers up to two full club lengths. You can stand outside the markers if you wish as long as your ball is within them and not less than two clubs length behind so make the most of what you have.

If you still can't find a flat spot, maybe it's time to join another club!

The most important tee box tip is also the most obvious and simple. Many years ago, I was paying in an Australian PGA event and my playing partner Justin Cooper pointed out to myself and the other amateurs on his team how he used the green keepers cutting lines to help him line up. The tournament was held at Royal Queensland and the course was in majestic condition in peroration for the Queensland Open, with the fairways symmetrically mowed with clear lines pointing straight down the fairway. Following the pro's tip. We each teed the ball up with one of the lines directly in line with our ball and took aim. 

It's a key secret of golf that if you have a very clearly defined target like that, especially on a long hole, you can usually miss by quite a large margin and still find the fairway. The secret is to have a clear target in your minds eye and there's no easier target to visualise than one that the green keeper has marked out for you. 

Similarly, when choosing your spot for teeing it up, it does no harm to pick a spot, divot mark or something similar on the line to the hole that you can use to check your alignment. Again, as you have the choice to tee it up anywhere, the opportunity to use an existing mark to check your alignment is just too good to miss. And it's in the rules!