Project 2 Handicap

Online log of a quest to drop my golf handicap from a nine to a two within sixty months. Sink or swim, I'll give it my best shot. Advice is not only appreciated, it's encouraged!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Fleeting Nature of Good Golf

In my July 8th post I recounted how well I was striking the ball in the prior two rounds. That stretch of excellent ball striking continued through my next round at Keswick Hall last Monday, and through 16 holes of a Tuesday round at Stumpy Lake.

During this stretch my drives were nothing short of exceptional. Time and time again I found that I was able to essentially place the ball within just a few yards of my target. My hybrid and iron play was also solid.

Then, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, on the 17th hole at Stumpy Lake last Tuesday I badly heeled my tee shot. (It would have been a shank had I been swinging an iron.) I then stubbed an iron and limped to a double bogey. This was in stark contrast to my play earlier that day. Hole after hole I had been carding easy pars, just missing birdie putts. Through 16 holes I was just 3 over par and prior to a bogey on 16 was thinking about how I was going to card a couple of birdies and shoot par for the round.

So, after the fiasco at 17 I thought, "Okay, just forget that hole and play on". I felt like I was in a good frame of mind on the 18th tee, but once again - as it seems to happen with the shanks - I heeled my tee shot just as I had on 17. I recovered enough to bogey the hole, but my confidence, sky high just a few holes earlier, was a bit shaken.

So after finishing the Stumpy round so poorly I was eager to get back on the course, which I was able to do at Bow Creek on Friday. I could tell immediately that my ball striking was not at the same level it had been for the previous several rounds. I limped around the course, alternating good shots with poor ones, carding bogey after bogey and at the end of the day my confidence was badly damaged.

So then came yesterday. On the range prior to the round I struggled to regain form but except for a few good swings I couldn't find it. Then I played. As excellent as my recent ball striking has been - yesterday's was the polar opposite. So bad was my play, in fact, that I actually can't remember the last time I stuck the ball so poorly. At this point my confidence is pretty much shattered.

So, now it's on to the recovery stage.

My task now is to figure out where my swing went wrong. Did I over cook something? Is my complete lack of confidence a result of, or the cause of my swing failures?

My oh my, how quickly things change in this joyful yet frustrating game.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I had a wonderful ball striking round last Sunday.

So this post is primarily to remind myself of my Sunday swing thoughts. Successful golf being the fleeting entity it is I am hoping that I might be able to refer to this post in the future to recapture last Sunday's magic.

It all started on Thursday, actually. I was playing at Bow Creek - the course on which I learned to play golf and the course that I return to anytime I feel that my psyche is in need of repair, and after dropping seven strokes in my last three holes the week before my psyche was in definite need of repair.

About half-way through the Thursday round a memory of my trip to Augusta a few years ago came to mind.

My friend Nick and I were there for a practice round. For both of us it was our first time at Augusta. We wanted to see the full course so instead of camping behind a hole and waiting for all the golfers to come to us we walked the course.

My memory was of an observation while I was standing behind the tee box at eleven. Ernie Els, Adam Scott and two other golfers whom I didn't recognize came walking up the hill to the tee box. I've long been a fan of Ernie Els' languid swing and I closely watched his mannerisms as he approached the tee box. He was so relaxed, and... athletic. But then I noticed that each of the other 3 golfers had the same mannerisms. Had Ernie rubbed off on them or was I noticing a commonality?

As each teed off I became convinced that it was a commonality. Each golfer displayed easy, athletic, balanced yet powerful swings on that eleventh tee box at August. I burned the memory of those swings into my brain and that memory reappeared for me Thursday.

So I tried to duplicate those swings. The common characteristics were:
- at address each player seemed completely "grounded", as if their feet were nailed into the ground.
- each player displayed perfect balance both before and during the swing. There was no leakage of power or loss of ball control due to swaying. There was no swaying at all in their swings.
- more than anything else, I remember thinking to myself that each player seemed completely "centered". Centered in both the mental and physical sense. Each displayed both a mental and physical calmness before, during and after the swing. Each swing looked effortless, yet each was powerful and sure.

On Thursday, recalling these memories, I was able to come close to duplicating this "centeredness". I was able to "swing within myself", yet maintain and in fact improve on my usual distance and accuracy. In some sense, I think I found "the zone".

I want to stress again that there was both a physical AND mental aspect to this experience. By "centered" I am referring to both a mental and physical "balanced" feeling. Mentally I was calm and unconcerned about the outcome of the shot. (That's not a completely accurate description - it's more like I was completely convinced what the outcome would be so I was therefore not concerned.)

Physically I was calm and so both concentration and the actual physical swing came easy. Perhaps the mental surety carried over into the physical realm? I'm not sure. All I know is that BOTH were present.

And I was able to recapture these feelings on Sunday.

Will I be able to carry this into my next round?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Maintaining the Lag

Happy Independence Day, USA!

Well, long time no post, but that doesn't mean I haven't been working on my game.

The Bobby Clampett book The Impact Zone, discussed in my last post in March, has had a huge impact on my approach to the golf swing if not my scoring. Since reading the book I've been working on a number of swing changes prime among them maintaining the lag in my swing. I believe that I have improved this aspect of my swing with the result being an increase in swing speed and overall distance.

The key to my improvement has been a single change in my stance - bringing my back (right) foot forward (towards the target line) by somewhere between 3 to 6 inches. Why I did this will require some explanation.

First, my old stance was quite closed with my right heel setting up several inches behind my left. I developed this stance because it helped me bring the club into the ball on an in-to-out swing plane which encouraged a draw, my preferred swing shape. Until recently though, I didn't understand how this robbed me of power.

Several years ago an assistant pro at a driving range I would frequent would watch me swing and tell me to move my back foot forward. Since my stance was closed, he was essentially just telling me to move my right heel even with my left - parallel to the target line. He never explained why I should do this but whenever I made the change I found that I was able to bring quite a bit more power into impact. But the stance change felt funny and seemed to encourage pulls and so I would inevitably drift back into my closed stance.

After reading The Impact Zone I did some searching on the web for hints on maintaining wrist lag and I came across this writeup by Jeff Mann, which contained a link to this Hogan video. Watching the video it finally occurred to me why the pro's driving range tip seemed to work for me. Moving the right foot forward allows me to clear my hips in the manner that Hogan demonstrates in the video, and thereby helps me maintain a significant additional amount of lag in my swing.

Ergo, additional swing speed at impact, translated into additional distance!

Any swing change feels funny at first but I stuck with this one and it's finally paying off. Initially I experienced directional problems (pulls) but lately I've adjusted my swing path enough that my pulls are much less frequent. The extra distance has also played havoc with my club selection.

But these are adjustments that I'm happy to make in return for the extra distance.

Thanks Bobby Clampett, Jeff Mann, and Ben Hogan!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Book Review: The Impact Zone

One measure of my obsession with the game is how much of my free time I spend watching, thinking about, and reading about golf.

Regarding the latter activity, I've written before about my golf book collection - now numbering close to 200 - and how several books have had a profound impact on my game.

Add another.

In The Impact Zone, Bobby Clampett - the former PGA tour player now TV on-course personality - provides a fresh approach to learning the mechanics of playing golf.

His approach is also refreshing for it's simplicity.

He lays out five swing dynamics which he claims are present in every successful (non specialty) golf swing, with every club - from putter to driver. Concentrate on perfecting these dynamics, Clampett says, and you can forget about the dozens (or is it hundreds? thousands? millions?) of "style" distractions.

An approach this simple sounds too good to be true. But my (albeit limited) application of the concepts has me more excited about the possibility of improving my game than I've been in years!

Here's one example.

Swing dynamic two is that the "forward swing bottom" on all shots should be approximately four inches in front of the ball. In my own practice I have found that - while with putts this may be a bit much - on all other swings from chips to driver the result is a crisply struck, powerful golf shot.

Clampett, of course, has viewed thousands of professional golf swings and claims that he can accurately predict the handicap of a golfer simply by measuring how far - with an iron swing - the deepest part of the divot is from the original ball position. Pros swings result in divots four to five inches in front of the ball, while most amateurs bottom out their swings much closer to the ball, or even behind the ball.

At first I was skeptical of this claim that - even with a driver swing - the best swings bottom out four inches in front of the ball. So I did a "Swing Vision" search on Youtube, which brought up several videos of professional golf swings. Try this yourself and play the videos from the face on angle, so that you can observe the position of the golfer's hands at impact. You'll find, as I did, that in every single case - whether with an iron or driver off the tee - the hands are indeed forward of the ball at impact, after which the club catches up with the hands and reaches it's lowest point in the swing - about four inches in front of the ball's original position!

After this discovery I applied the forward swing bottom concept during my next round of golf - concentrating on being sure that my hands were in front of the ball at impact with every driver swing. The result was that my drives were longer and more solidly struck than I can ever remember.

So that's the good news.

The bad news is that I now have to review my entire game in order to determine where I am successfully applying these dynamics and where I need work.

But while the work may take some time (and some temporarily higher scores) it's a small price to pay for the potential improvement in my game that perfecting the dynamics promises.

So, stay tuned.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mysticism, God and emotional baggage

A friend's family tragedy hung over me like a rain cloud all weekend.

Fortunately for me, my own family was around for me when I needed them. My wife's sister, brother and his significant other arrived for a short visit Thursday. My son and his wife drove down from Charlottesville to visit the visitors. And my daughter and her boyfriend were also around all weekend. On top of my thoughts of my friend, this influx of my family and our happy time together put me in a reflective mood - a thankful to God mood - but also left me feeling melancholy.

Melancholy was still my state of mind as I drove to the course Sunday morning.

My playing partners, two brothers, arrived late and they had news as to why. Their stepfather had passed away during the night. The news wasn't unexpected - he was ninety years old and had been sick. But their news cemented my mood.

The older I get, as these sorts of experiences mount, I'm finally learning to savor every minute of life.

And to count my blessings.

And not to sweat the small stuff.

Like golf.

So, it was due to this sad turn of events that I finally felt what it is like to play a round of golf without emotional baggage. My score was inconsequential to me Sunday.

I played the front nine in one under par. I was just enjoying the company of my friends, and taking pleasure in focusing my energy into moving the ball to the hole. I hit a few shots really well but for the most part I just scraped it around without any big mistakes. I was just playing to my skill level, unburdened with any emotional baggage. My emotions were on an even keel. One under for nine was an unusually fine score for me, but I was in no mood to celebrate. At the same time, there were no nerves in play.

It was, after all, just a silly game of golf that were were enjoying.

A well struck 3 footer for par on 10 lipped out, bringing me back to par for the round. But what might have upset me on another day - well it just didn't matter Sunday. I had hit the putt that I wanted to hit and it just didn't drop. And that's just golf. And golf is just a game, not significant in the grand scheme. Pars on 11 and 12 put me on the 13th tee still even for the round.

Now, prior to this point in the round I admit to having allowed myself to wonder if today was going to be the day that I achieved my long time golf goal of shooting par. That thought came into my mind several times but never brought with it even so much as a raised heartbeat. If it was going to happen, it would happen, and if it wasn't it wasn't. Either way, it didn't really matter - not in the big picture.

So I stood on the par three 13th tee just as unburdened by emotion as I had been for each of the prior 12 holes.

That's when God stepped in.

I shanked my 7 iron into the closest bunker to the tee, and then - my lack of skill combined with poor execution of the skills that I do have - found me tapping in for a triple bogey just a few moments later.

My emotions then?

Same thing. My score remained inconsequential. Prior to each shot played during the disaster hole I had planned what I believed to be the right shot and then performed it to the best of my ability. I just didn't possess the ability to do any better than I did. I hadn't tripled the hole because emotions got the better of me. I just lacked the skill to do better. A shank. A slightly fat first sand shot. A misunderstood second sand shot. An unfortunate lie. A "best I could do" blast of a third sand shot. A well struck 20 foot putt that didn't fall. A tap in triple bogey.

On other days I likely would have reacted differently I'm sure. But Sunday it just didn't really seem to matter. How could I get angry with myself for not possessing the skill and hand/eye coordination I needed to recover from my shank?

I realized that I couldn't blame myself. And so I didn't.

And since my emotions remained in check I proceeded to play the last five holes as I had the first 12 - in even par - for a round of 75. Equal to my best ever at my home course.

So, on reflection I'm left with:

- A score of 3 over par - a mystical reminder that I played 17 holes of golf at even par and only the one at 3 over.

- A lesson that my skills, left to work themselves without my usual emotional baggage, can lead to some fairly good golf.

- A few reminders of where I need to improve those skills.

- An experience of what it is like, finally, to play an entire round of golf without any emotional baggage.

- A confirmation of the lesson that I had thought was true before but now know is fact. That, in golf, focusing on the process - staying in the moment and devoid of emotional baggage - leads to the desired outcome.

- And, of course, the big lesson - a reminder of how unimportant this silly game is in the big picture of life.

And, now that I see how inconsequential the matter really is I'm left to wonder if this is a seminal moment in my golf game.

How ironic would that be?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Round Report: 07/08/07

Well, my strategy of "making every shot" worked, not to perfection, but to about eighty five percent of perfection.

Turns out that this exercise was quite enlightening. I made "making the shot" my swing thought on every shot, and it usually worked to keep my emotions from wrecking any havoc on my swing. Prior to every swing I was convinced that I was focused, but I found that when I assessed my pre-swing state of mind after each swing, I could sometimes identify times when my emotions did affect my shots.

For example, on a par five, after a good drive I decided to go for the green in two. I was easily within 3-wood distance, but I had a slight downhill lie and the shot was over water. Prior to the swing I thought I was in good emotional shape - "don't worry about the outcome" I told myself, "just give it a loose swing and live with whatever happens". But then during the swing, "outcome worry" crept in and I tensed up. This resulted in a poor swing (and yes, a poor outcome as well).

I'm encouraged enough, though, to keep at this. I've been working on this technique with my putting for several weeks now and today my putting was phenomenal. My lag touch was off just a bit, but I "made" (and holed too!) all but one short (8 feet and in) putt, and I also holed a couple of longer putts. Actually, I counted only two putts that I didn't "make" during the entire round. I'm very please with that performance!

And yes, the exercise did translate to a pretty good scoring round - a six over par 78, including an even par 36 on the back.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Goal for Sunday: Make Every Shot

Wednesday, emotions kept me from playing my best golf. If I'm to reach my goal, I have to do a better job with emotions. Not controlling them, because emotions are part of golf, but playing the game the right way regardless of the emotions that I'm feeling.

So Sunday, I'm gonna try a little experiement...

A little while back I heard Dr. Joe Parent, author of Zen Golf discuss the idea of "making every putt" on a GolfSmarter podcast.

By "making every putt" Dr. Parent doesn't mean "holing" every putt, he means that we should try to roll every putt along the intended line, at the intended speed and consider that to be a successful putt. In other words, in order to keep emotions from interfering with the putting stroke, remove the desired outcome of holing the putt from the definition of success.

Easier said than done to be sure, but I have had some success with this on the greens recently.

In my next round this Sunday, I intend to extend this thought to my full shots too. Except that I'll have to revise it just a bit for full shots. "Success" on a full shot will mean that I played the shot without any emotional baggage.

Emotional baggage could mean, as with putting, concern about the outcome of the shot. Or it could mean playing a shot too quickly because I'm still miffed about my score on a prior hole. Or it could mean playing a shot that I don't really believe I'm capable of pulling off just because I want to make up for a prior poor shot on the hole.

Playing the shot without emotional baggage will mean playing within my routine; planning the shot and swinging the club in the manner that I believe will produce the shot that I've planned. Each shot that I play this way - in the present and free of emotion about the past or the future - will be counted as a successful shot.

The result of the shot will not be a factor in whether or not the shot is considered a success. So a skull, shank, top, chili dip or whatever could be a successful shot as long as I play the shot without emotional baggage affecting my preshot routine or my actual swing.

If I can pull this off then I can honestly say that I played the best golf that I was capable of playing that day.