“Golf is perpetual loss and rediscovery.”
– Sports columnist Thomas Boswell
It’s that time of the year again – the days are steadily getting warmer, flowers are popping up, birds are chirping and the grass needs its first cut of the year. In other words, it’s time to start getting serious about our golf games.
The question is: How serious? Are you nine-time Major winner Ben Hogan serious? “I had to practice and play all the time. I've told you before, my swing wasn't the best in the world, and I knew it wasn't. And I thought, well, the only way I can win is just to outwork these fellas.”
Or are you more like 1930 Grand-Slam winner Bobby Jones? “I was not much of a practice-tee fellow, that was not good for me because on the golf course you’ve got to make the first shot, not the eighth one. On a practice tee you haven’t got that sense of responsibility.”
The truth is that even the best of us are “country-club golfers” who would simply like to lower our handicaps a bit – or at least not take a step backwards.
In order to come up with an action plan for 2021, I sought professional advice from two of my club’s (The Kansas City Country Club) golf staff – Assistant Paul Hooser, who played at the University of Missouri in the mid-70s, and Director of Instruction Evan Scobie.
Question 1. Please comment on the importance of practice for the “average golfer “– a golfer who has an established handicap and plays regularly.
Paul: As you can tell from your Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones thoughts the importance is different to different golfers. Generally, in golf, one of the things we can control is our preparation. Regardless of the routine for practice the desire for practice time is to improve performance and gain confidence.
Evan: Practice is a large part of your success on the golf course. Like anything, if you can repeat your swing correctly, you will see better shots and the only way to do that is practice. However, we are lucky at KCCC to have a golf course that you can go on and practice situational shots or holes that give you trouble. (I do not condone hitting extra shots into the greens just to make sure I stay on Pat Rose's good side.) I have never seen a good score on the range, just the course.
Question 2. What should we be working on? How should we be dividing our time between putting, chipping and pitching, bunkers, irons, fairway woods and drivers? In other words, what is the basic blueprint for someone who really wants to get better?
Paul: Golf shots are a series of random situations that we encounter with hints of similarity. Practice time should start with a warming up period in order to ready the mind and body. For technique development and maintenance, review the fundamentals: your grip, ball position, posture, alignment and the start to the swing. Hit those shots from a learning environment that provides certainty. Use alignment sticks to aide with posture, alignment and ball position. After a few satisfactory shots, turn practice into random targets with varying clubs. Half and half is a good mix for full swing and short game time. On the short shots, practice the same way then move on to playing putts, running shots, lofted shots and green-side bunkers from a different position and from a different lie.
Remember, practice fundamentals and then practice random shots to simulate playing golf.
Evan: Everyone needs to know his strengths and weaknesses, but if you have 60 minutes to practice, I would tell you 15 minutes on the range. Start with wedges and finish with full swing. Thirty minutes on pitch shots and around the green as well as bunker play. Even around the green your pitches are really just shorter golf swings with the goal of squaring the face and staying on plane through impact. The last 15 minutes work on putting -- mostly on the speed. If you judge the speed correctly, the hole gets bigger and you will make more putts.
Question 3. What about lessons? How important are they? How often should we take them?
Paul: The role of a coach is to help the golfer prioritize and focus his attention on the areas of greatest need. The frequency of coaching is tied to the goals of the golfer. Technique development, emergency attention and consistent game monitoring are each reasons for taking a lesson. Routinely meeting with a coach once a month or so to review fundamentals and to talk through playing situations should lead to improvement for almost every golfer. All golfers want to get better, so attention to technique development at least a few times a season would be good. A fair number of golfers only call in a coach when emergency attention is needed. Just like your car, your golf game will perform best with routine maintenance. Don't wait for a break down!
Evan: Lessons are the most important part!!! Spoken like a teaching professional. In all seriousness, it is incredibly important that you are swinging correctly. Otherwise, bad habits will be perfected. If you practice, you better be doing it correctly and a teaching professional will be able to do just that for you. We want you to be able to repeat a good swing and, more importantly, get you to a point where you can feel what you did right and what you might have done wrong. When you get to that point, you are on your own and ready to run with it.
No. 4. Any final words of wisdom?
Paul: Playing golf is a marathon, not a sprint.
Evan: Keep reading the golf magazines and watching the Golf Channel. Their potpourri of tips keep me in business!