The culture of golf thrives on “tips.” Every golf magazine is filled with them. The “Golf Fix” is one of the most popular shows on the Golf Channel. Readers and viewers hungrily devour them, hoping that the next one will be “the” key to a great golf swing or “the” remedy for a poor one.
Wishful fantasies, all of them. When they don’t provide help over time, it’s hard not to feel seduced and abandoned!
The very instructors who privately believe and teach that improving your swing is a long-term process, demands awareness, commitment, and many hours of practice, readily dispense quick tips that indulge these fantasies. And because we, average golfers, are desperate for help, and because these teachers have beautiful swings or coach famous players, we endow these tips with an almost reverential authority.
As someone who has gotten his share of fixes, I know that most of them don’t work or, if they do, they don’t last. I “get it,” barely able to contain my excitement at this “breakthrough,” only to find that myself eventually returning to my old swing—or, at least, my old score–nostalgically wondering how I could “lose it” so quickly!
To say the obvious: Golf tips work when they seem to address a very particular issue in a manner that enhances awareness. They stop working when they aren’t accompanied by expanded awareness.
To illustrate what I mean by “expanded awareness,” take the suggestion made by Jack Nicklaus that we aim our club by focusing on a target a few feet in front of the ball, and then an intermediate point, rather than one in the distance. This is a useful tip, but will only “stick” if it is practiced in the context of an overall awareness of alignment, a genuine curiosity about and experimentation with the distinction between correct and incorrect alignment of body and club. Without that, Nicklaus’s tip will invariably erode.
While any tip can be useful to someone, there is some advice—fixes given so often that they’ve become truisms–that I believe is relatively useless to the average golfer (the USGA tells us that the average male golfer plays with a 16 handicap and the average woman a 29).
So, from an average golfer’s point of view, here are my Top Ten Useless Golf Tips:
1) The greenside bunker shot is the easiest shot in golf. Just open the face and “thump” the sand 2 – 3 inches behind the ball. The ball will pop right up onto the green.
The Problem: First, don’t tell me that the shot is easy. I fail at it too often, and thinking that it’s easy makes me feel worse. Second, as an amateur, I don’t really know what “2 – 3 inches behind the ball” feels like. If I had that kind of control over where my club head landed, I wouldn’t be hitting shots thin or fat. The discrepancy between my intention and/or perception about the bottom of my swing and the reality of it may be, on average as much as 4 inches (usually behind where I intend). Telling me to strike the sand 2 – 3 inches behind the ball presumes a level of awareness and control that I—and most amateurs–simply don’t have.
What I Need: Help me develop a deeper awareness of the bottom of my swing that I can use in every shot. Then, the bunker shot will become an easy one.
2) The torque created by the difference between the shoulder and hip turns generates power. Therefore, extend your arms through the backswing. Think about making a wide turn and create distance at the top between your club and your head. Notice in these pictures of _______ (fill in the blank with some professional tour player), what a tremendously wide turn he makes and how high his hands are at the top.
My Problem: I’m a little over 60. My body doesn’t work that way. When I try to do it, within the first 2 seconds my shoulders hurt—I mean really hurt. Quit subtly suggesting that I ought to look like Tiger when I try to get the club up there. It makes me feel like a cripple
What I Need: Help me make my body—one that can’t extend and get “wide”– work more efficiently and powerfully. Aim your teaching at the real bodies of the people you’re teaching, and help me understand both the possibilities and limitations of my particular reality.
3) Don’t swing at the ball, swing through the ball. Swing the club and let the ball get in the way.
The problem: I know this is good advice, but it’s a poor tip because it’s almost impossible. It’s like telling someone, “Generate more club head speed!” We would if we could, don’t you think? Amateurs are ball-centered. We don’t admit it, but our secret target is the ball itself, making contact with the ball. This results from the universal fact that we amateurs lack confidence in our ability to strike the ball well enough that we can then forget about it, let it go, and instead focus our awareness where it should be focused—on the actual target “out there.” Our practice swings are beautiful because there’s no ball. Being told to bring that swing to the ball is like being told to “play better.”
What I Need: Help me get more target centered. Tell me how to practice that way. Fred Shoemaker has his students “throw clubs” and films them doing so. These swings are beautiful, athletic, and efficient. He asks his students to move back and forth between club throwing and hitting balls, deepening their awareness of how the difference feels in both body and mind. So, don’t tell me to ignore the ball; help coach me to a feeling that I can reliably go to under real conditions.
4) To better hit the ball off sidehill, uphill, and downhill lies, make the following adjustments to your posture, stance, and ball position (depending on the focus of the article or video, these adjustments are described). Be sure to play for the inevitable fade or draw.
My Problem: First of all, my practice range has mats, not grass. And the mats are on a perfectly level concrete slab. If I’m really lucky, I might be able to find some uneven slopes in my short-game area. Perhaps professionals have – or have had – access to expansive and luxurious courses and practice centers where they can hit more than one of these shots every 2 weeks (like I do). So, I’m sure you’re right, but since I can never repeat it, I can’t practice it and, as a result, even with your theory in mind, I usually mishit it.
What I Need: First, I need you to acknowledge the problem. Then, I need some creative solutions. Is there any way of simulating these lies? Can I take a golf Wiffle Ball and create something in my back yard? Tell me something I could realistically do. Imagine what my everyday golfing life is like, not under ideal conditions but under the actual conditions of my life.
5) Maintain a wrist cock until late in the downswing. Look at the swing sequence of (fill in the blank…Sergio, Ernie, etc…..)
My Problem: Sorry. I can’t do that. I can’t try to create this angle. I can’t intentionally or deliberately hold onto my wrist cock. My downswing takes one second and the angle of my wrists is not easy to visualize when it’s happening. In fact, I don’t think it can be done intentionally by anyone, but certainly not by an amateur.
What I Need: The wrist cock happens naturally when the swing and the swinger are oriented exclusively toward a target. It disappears to the extent that we’re focused on the ball—a mistake which is almost universal among amateurs. Teach me how to broaden my awareness of the target. This can’t be a “tip” but a process.
6) Look at these pictures or this super slow-mo video of Tiger’s swing. Notice that the downswing is initiated by the forward movement of the left leg. In fact, the left leg begins its forward movement while Tiger is still completing his backswing.
My Problem: Your point being? The fact that the left leg moves first does not mean that I can or should intentionally focus on it, that I should deliberately practice initiating my swing by moving my left leg forward. The left leg moves as a consequence of a series of other movements and intentions, or as an accompaniment to them. Any suggestion that one should focus on moving that leg breaks up the integration and connectedness of the swing.
What I Need: If you see the movement—or lack thereof—of that leg as a problem, help me understand the underlying issue. Why am I holding myself back on my right leg? How might that be an unconscious adaptation to yet another problem or blind spot? In other words, try for a moment to visualize what it’s like in my body as a whole making this clunky swing. Rather than look at a part of it, try to help me understand the source of the problem, the place where I have a blind spot.
7) During your warm up, notice your tendencies, what seems to be working and what isn’t. Play with that swing. Don’t try to change it
The Problem: Really? You think I have something called “the swing I brought to the course that day?” I wish I had such a swing and, therefore, that I could eliminate my frustrations by simply accepting it and not furiously try to fix it on the range. The fact is, however, that I’m making a veritable gaggle of “mistakes” on the course and on the range. Noticing that my fade seems to be working better than my draw is hardly my big problem!
What I Need; I need your help in winnowing down the various issues with which I’m working and, perhaps, focusing on one in particular. And more than that, I need your help in lowering the overall critical chatter in my head on the range and on the course so that I can truly play with what I have.
8) If you’re having difficulty with your driver, tee off using your 3 wood. Don’t let your ego make you repeatedly go to a club you can’t hit well. Besides, as an amateur, you will probably find that you hit your 3-wood almost as far as your driver plus you will have added accuracy.
The Problem: When we watch professionals play, their choice to use a 3-wood off the tee, when not governed by a simple consideration of distance, is often because it’s much “safer” than the driver, and, therefore, it’s a club that they can almost guarantee enables them to stay on the fairway. Unfortunately, for a 16-handicap golfer, the difference is usually minimal. There is more similarity between the driver and 3-wood than difference, and the problems we have with the driver almost surely affect our 3-woods equally.
What I Need: I need help in hitting the driver. Help me not be afraid of it. Understand that, like most amateurs, I want to use the driver. If you want to help me reconsider my ego-invested relationship to length off the tee, consider making more radical suggestions to me about my tee shots. What about suggesting to amateurs that they tee off using the club with which they feel absolutely confident they can hit straight! Maybe that’s a 5-wood, but maybe it’s a 6 iron. Rather than technically “fixing” my problem with a driver by suggesting a 3-wood, which usually doesn’t work, what about coaching and mentoring me to figure out how I can approach the tee with an attitude of relaxed and athletic confidence—regardless of the club.
9) Visualize a good shot. Remember and re-evoke the experience of hitting a good shot in the past. If you start thinking that you might hit the ball in that lake or bunker, you’re more likely to do it.
The Problem: Overall, thinking good thoughts is probably better than focusing constantly on a shot’s dangers and on your deficiencies. When you can do it. Most amateurs can’t really do it. There are too many dimensions of the swing that are invisible to them—alignment, swing path, clubhead position, target awareness, etc.—and these things pop up seemingly out of nowhere to interfere with their confidence. In addition, despite popular wisdom to the contrary, you can’t train your golfing mind by giving yourself positive images. There is too much interference from judgments, fears, hopes, and disappointment in our minds, and too much pressure from the outside world in the form of a fixation on scoring.
What I Need: I need to learn how to be more generally self-accepting, more curious about learning from my mistakes, and more able and wiling to notice negative judgments without giving them any undue weight or authority. I need help in being “in the moment,” in all of its positive and negative dimensions, to detach from both experiences and both sets of memories so that they don’t determine my next shot, my future. “Thinking positive” is too narrow and not realistic for the amateur.
10) Practice putting.
The Problem: Yes, I know. Few of us practice putting, and those that do, do so inefficiently. But let’s say I have an hour to practice putting. What do I literally do for that hour on the practice green—my practice green, not a huge beautifully manicured one at a private club, but one that can get crowded and doesn’t have a lot of holes with much break or contour? You frequently tell me how crucial putting is, but you don’t really spend much time describing how one practices it.
What I Need: I need multiple varied approaches to practicing putting that emphasize alignment of body and putter head, speed, feel, break, and that are fun to do. How do I not get bored? If I’m supposed to “roll it and not hit it,” how do I tell the difference? Is there one gizmo/aid that everyone practicing putting should own? If I’m alone, are there games I can play other than mimicking Phil Mickelson’s tortured practice of sinking 100 3-foot putts in a row? Is there a way to really learn feel?
The common thread here involves a teacher shifting his or her intention from one of “fixing” a student’s swing to coaching or mentoring a student’s development. In order to do this, the primary requirement is, first, careful and empathic listening and observing, trying to understand who the student is, what his or her body can do, and what it’s like to be inside that student’s experience of the golf swing. From that vantage point, any “tip” or advice can be a door to greater awareness, experimentation, and growth. But if I can’t feel the distinction between the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things, can’t become curious about this distinction and want to explore it—if, in other words, my teacher and I just want to get a “fix” that momentarily creates a more effective outcome—then the changes wrought will be transient. The result will be disappointment, the prevalence of which probably accounts for the fact that most students don’t really get it