Another “Either/Or” For You

Thanks for the good input, readers. It seems that you fall into two general groups, in some very unscientific way – those who genuinely feel like they are distance-challenged, and those who don’t. That makes a lot of sense to me.

In our own research with thousands of golfers who follow SCOR Golf, either as owners or fans, or both, we found that the vast majority report that they hit 6-10 approach shots – or more with lower handicap players – with an 8-iron or less to the green. That number is consistent with what Dr. Bob Rotella told me that the PGA Tour players average 10.5-12.5 approaches per round with an 8-iron or less.

But in my regular group, where we have players who carry handicaps from low-single digits to over 25, I see many of them play several par fours where they cannot get home in two shots, many others where even their best drives leave them outside realistic GIR range. Why would anyone want to do that? How can this game be fun when the idea of a birdie putt isn’t remotely realistic on most holes, no matter how good you hit your drive?

The very idea of golf . . . and par . . . is that you should be able to reach the green in two shots on a par four, three on a par five, and allow two putts to make par. So, if you take that possibility out of the equation on half or more of the holes, what game are you really playing?

The “powers that be” are trying to get us to “Tee It Forward”, and I think that is a stellar idea, but almost all courses have the forward tees reserved for “Over 65”. Well, I’m going to be there in three years, and those tees are too short for me. But our regular white tees are too damn long for lots of golfers who are a far cry from 65 years old.

If you are hitting hybrids and long- or mid-irons to most greens – or fairway woods and still not getting there – you are simply making the game overly difficult.

I’m on a soap box here a bit this morning, so let me just get on with my question for you today:

Which is more important – to play a set of tees that matches your distance (not handicap) profile . . . or to not appear a ‘wimp’ to your buddies and stay back on a set of tees that really does NOT fit your game?

And what do we, as the golfing public, do about it?

Longer or Straighter?

Everywhere you look, every golf equipment claim seems to be about hitting the ball further. From golf balls to drivers, fairways, hybrids, and now irons, the message that hitting it longer is the ultimate . . . and maybe only . . . goal we have as golfers.

While this quest for distance has certainly improved the performance of golf balls and many of the longer clubs, i.e. drivers and even fairway woods, is it really what makes the difference in a round of golf? I’ve written about this before, but today I want to get you all involved in a discussion of what really is important to each of us when it comes to hitting a golf ball where we want it to go.

As you all know, I am an unabashed fan of Mr. Hogan and the way he played the game. His control of the golf ball is legendary, and stories abound about how he rarely missed fairways and greens. He was known to control his driver ball flight to hit certain areas of fairways to give him the best approach to the flag. He aimed at specific areas of the green to give him the best putt. He worked the ball differently based on the flag position, hitting fades to right pin placements and draws to those on the left; bringing it in high to a front pin, and lower to release to one in the back. Of course, that was the way the game was played back then by all the top players; it’s just that Mr. Hogan seemed to take it to a whole other level.

As I contrast that with the power game of today, the best players in the world hit 2/3 of the fairways and about that same percentage of the greens. But they do hit it a mile, for sure, giving rise to the oft-quoted “bomb and gouge” approach to the game.

That approach seems to work for them, but does it for you and me?

What would improve your scoring, and reduce the “big number” holes that just deflate us? Is it being a few yards closer to the green off the tee? Or being able to improve your command of the ball so that you could keep it between the trees? Is it hitting a full-out 8-iron from 160 and hitting the green 20-30% of the time, or opting for a controlled soft 6-iron and improving that percentage by double or triple?

A golf research professional told me just a couple of months ago that what golfers say they really want out of the game is “to hit better golf shots more often”. What I’m asking is . . .

“What does that mean to you?”

Let me have it, guys . . .

Setting Up for Success

Chipping and taking full swings in front of the television on Sunday afternoons can be fun ways to pass the time and keep the golf muscles tuned up (especially during a winter like this one), but how can we get more out of the time we spend on the Afghan rug pretending to hit second shots at #11 at Augusta?

For amateurs, and even low handicap amateurs, it’s eerie how often the cause of a series of bad shots is something basic – something like ball position, or grip, or simple posture. When things go awry, the instinct is to start assessing the mechanics of the entire golf swing: “Did I cast there? Did I snatch the club inside? Am I out of sequence? I bet I flipped it at impact.” Things go wrong and we all turn into Peter Falk in Columbo, but are we following the right lead?

Pretty often, snatches and flips and casts are symptoms, not causes, and the first place we should be looking is at our setup. Which brings me to this: when is the last time you went through a full pre-shot routine before taking a cut off of the afghan rug in the living room?

It’s tough to hit consistently good shots without building a solid framework to start from. A good pre-shot routine includes repeatable cues for getting your hands, shoulders, feet, etc. into consistent positions. Having good posture, and being in good positions at the start don’t guarantee a good shot, but they narrow the range of possibilities. A 30 yard miss becomes a 15 yard miss. A ball in the hazard becomes an opportunity to save par. After all, golf isn’t a game of perfect; it’s all about who has the best misses.

I enjoy studying other player’s routines, and I can tell you with near certainty that I’ve never seen a good player with a wildly inconsistent routine. While a player like Keegan Bradley might drive you crazy with his stops and starts, there are components of that dance designed to get him started in the right positions. More clearly, a player like Jason Day has a component in his routine for everything from shot visualization, to grip, to posture to takeaway plane. It’s all built in.

The next time you’re stuck under a foot of snow, and you’ve got an itch to take a few swings on the shag, make sure to build a little work on your pre-shot routine into the mix. It’ll help to ensure that you’re building a consistent framework to start from, and you might actually get a little more out of your practice.

Let’s Talk About the Rules

There is so much talk about the Rules of Golf, with the hot topic of today being the use of the anchored putting stroke. Seems kind of silly to me, actually, even though I am one of the most pure of the purists about our game. Even with my own putting woes, I have not even given thought to that solution, and won’t even stray off toward non-traditional approaches like left-hand-low or the claw. Maybe that traditional bent is also fused with my “hard-headed Dutchman” upbringing.

In a discussion about this the other day, the conversation ventured off into just how many golfers play “strictly” by the rules, as they are written, with no variations for convenience. I suggest it probably is a relatively small percentage, actually, and mostly limited to those members of the best private clubs. But I certainly might be wrong, so I would like for you guys to sound off on the following topics:

1. Do you ALWAYS play the ball as you find it? The Rules of Golf are pretty unbending here, but do you play the game that way? Or do you occasionally/frequently/always bump the ball to a better lie because of the kind of course conditioning you encounter?

2. Do you ALWAYs putt out? The basic notion of golf is to finish every hole, but how many of us really do that? Do your buddies hit the short ones back to you often/always? And how do you define a “short one”? The original notion of “the leather” was the length of the putter grip, but it seems to have evolved to the distance from the putter head to the grip. What’s your take here, readers?

3. Do you ever take a mulligan? Enough said.

4. Do you ever hit a practice shot in the middle of a round? Maybe make another stroke at that putt you just missed? In match play that’s OK, but not in medal play. What do you do?

5. Do you carry only 14 clubs? Most club events I’ve played in waive the 14-club limit, but what does your bag include?

I’m really curious about how we all play the game recreationally, so please sound off with your thoughts on this topic. And do our little “indiscretions” with the Rules of Golf really damage the game? Or make it more enjoyable?

I’m listening . . .

A “New” Scoring Shot

One of the most treacherous but potentially valuable greenside recovery shots to have in your arsenal is the “flop” shot. We watch the tour professionals execute these weekly with great success, hitting that high and soft shot with their lob wedge to save a par or make a birdie on a par 5 hole.

But then we see recreational golfers struggle mightily with this shot, way too often dumping the shot well short of their target, or catching the ball right in the forehead which sends is screaming across the green and frequently into complete oblivion. It is the highest risk/reward shot in golf for those who have not spent dozens of hours practicing and perfecting it enough to be reliable.

Very simply, the flop shot is typically executed with your highest lofted wedge. You position the ball further forward in the stance, lay the face of the club open – much like a bunker shot – and swing more steeply. The ball pops almost straight up, either has lots of spin or is essentially dead, and hopefully flies the proper distance. That is the hardest part of the equation.

Now I’m going to offer you a little twist on the traditional flop shot that can simplify it and add to the arsenal of shots to call on around the greens. It begins with a simple understanding that there is no law that says you have to hit a flop shot only with your highest lofted wedge. In fact, you can execute this technique with any of your higher lofted clubs, all the way down to your 9-iron or P-club.

Understand that with any club, laying the face open and swinging more steeply will almost always increase the height of the shot and the spin. So, if you have a longer flop shot, rather than take a much bigger swing with the lob wedge, try dropping down to your sand or even gap wedge and hitting it just the same. You’ll get more forward “oomph” to the shot because of the lower loft, without taking such a big swing. You’ll see improved spin, too.

Of course, I don’t advise just trying this on the course until you have experimented with it a little around the practice green or on the practice tee. A useful exercise is to go to the range and hit 3-4 flop shots with your lob wedge, then 3-4 more with your sand wedge – trying to exactly duplicate the swing and force – then with your gap wedge. Heck, work on down with the same swing technique to your P-club and even 9-iron to see if they work and what happens.

What this exercise does for you is give you an idea of new shots you can add to your repertoire and how much additional distance you will get with each of these other clubs for a given swing length and force.

One of the great things about our game is all the fun new things you can do with your clubs, and interesting new ways you can approach a given shot or a given hole. I hope you all have some fun with this one. Please let all of us know what you find out.

Fix What’s Broke

When I was a young golfer, my father’s consistent words of wisdom about my golf game went something like, “There’s nothing wrong that another 5,000 practice balls won’t fix.” I think that was his interpretation of Mr. Hogan’s famous advice that “the secret is in the dirt, and you have to dig it out for yourself.”

I didn’t have to do it all alone, fortunately, as my father was a very good player who was most helpful, and we had a wonderful golf professional at our little 9-hole course who loved working with all of us kids. Carl “Swede” Gustafson was tough as nails when he needed to be, and gentle as a pony when that was called for. He nurtured our love of the game, taught us fundamentals and created drills for us to really learn how to execute various shots.

So, the point of all this is that as we enter another golf season, maybe we should reflect on what shots caused us the most grief this past year, and make those our focus for early season work. I know it is fun to head to the range and make lots of full swings, and pound drivers to see the ball rocket off into the distance. But is that what really caused your higher scores last year?

Or was it that your chipping wasn’t as sharp as it could have been? Your pitch shots weren’t ending up close enough to the hole? Bunker woes? Or you just weren’t making enough putts? Maybe you didn’t hit enough greens from short- and mid-iron approach range. But I assure you that if you really analyze your golf last season, you can isolate two or three things that could really improve your scoring in 2014.

And those are the pieces of your game that should get overtime practice duty early this year.

For me, it’s my scoring game – chipping, bunker play and putting. So that’s where I’m going to focus my work sessions. Starting yesterday, I spent an hour around the practice green hitting short chips and pitch shots. With a dozen balls, I worked my way around the green to give me all kinds of looks and all kinds of shot options. I worked on tempo, rhythm, set up and posture, grip pressure – all the basics. To me, yes, it is kind of boring, as I love the range as much as anyone. But if this handicap is going to come down this year, it will be because I’m better around and on the greens.

And I’m taking this routine to my pre-round sessions. Instead of pounding a bag of balls, I’m going to stretch, swing a couple of clubs to warm up, hit 15-20 balls with full swings . . . then spend about 20 minutes around the practice green and bunker.

What are you going to fix first?

Mr. Hogan and Pitch Shots`

Thank you all for the feedback and suggestions for topics I should write about. What came through clearly is that you all have an affinity for the Ben Hogan stories, which I’m always willing to share . . . both ways . . . telling and hearing them. But what you also said is you wanted more practical advice and input on how to hit better golf shots and get more out of your rounds. So today, I’m going to do both.

Hopefully most of you have had a chance to spend time with the wonderful coffee-table book, “The Hogan Mystique”. This beautiful work features dozens of black-and-white photographs taken by Jules Alexander at the 1959 U.S. Open I believe. It includes several fine essays by the likes of Ben Crenshaw and Dan Jenkins, but to me the ‘secret’ of the book is Ken Venturi’s insightful analysis of Mr. Hogan’s swing and approach to the game. I assure you that spending time studying these photos and Venturi’s commentary is a great learning experience.

One that has totally engaged me is a shot of Mr. Hogan hitting a soft little pitch from the rough, and Venturi’s simple comment,

“Hogan, like most low hands players, was an excellent pitcher of the ball.”

In the photo, Hogan is coming into impact and his hands are quite a bit lower than they would have been in a full swing. He was noted as an extraordinary wedge player, so much so that his opponents nicknamed his wedge “the equalizer”, a name which made its way onto Ben Hogan Company pitching wedges when that company began making golf clubs in 1954.

What Venturi was referring to can be observed on television every weekend. Watch these players around the greens and you will see them flex their knees more and get their hands very low to the ground at address, and keep them right through that same position throughout the swing, especially as they come through impact. Most even set their wedge lies 1-2 degrees flatter than their other irons to help promote this “low hands” approach. I suggest you pay attention to this technique this weekend of you watch some golf on TV, and go out and practice it.

I assure that Mr. Hogan was ahead of his time, but every great player’s short game is characterized by “low hands” around the greens.

Practice vs. Pre Round Warm Up

One of the topics that comes up often is the difference between a real practice session and a pre-round warm up session. I think your goals and objectives are entirely different in the two.

To me, a pre-round session is to get loose and find what’s working today. To get the feel of the club in my hands so that I am prepared for the round. I begin by stretching some, and then loosening up the muscles before my first swing. I like to swing two clubs, but one in each hand, with my hands together. That gives me the resistance in my shoulders and back of the two clubs, but when I go to just one for my first swing, the club doesn’t feel heavy.

I begin my pre-round session with some short chips, then longer pitches, then move into half and full shots with the high loft clubs. My goal is to get the feel of impact and set my tempo. I think progress through the set to a short iron, middle iron and hybrid, hitting shots until I get 2-3 really nice ones in a row, then move on to the next club. I then hit a few 4-woods and drivers, until I feel good about going to the first tee. I finish that session with a half dozen short chip shots again to re-install that feel and comfort. Then it is off to the putting green for 5-10 minutes of getting the feel of the greens and my stroke for the day.

In contrast, when I go for a practice session, I typically limit that to one thing I’m working on at the time. It might be tempo, take-away, weight shift, working a draw . . . whatever. I limit myself to one or maybe two things, depending on my progress. I begin that session by hitting some shots without trying to “do” anything, but rather “feeling” for what I am doing. Then I analyze and begin to instill changes.

I know my swing very well, so this approach works for me. If you don’t know it that well, I am a big fan of engaging an instructor to help you.

Once I find what I’m seeking that day, I keep hitting balls until I feel like it is ingrained a bit. But in doing this, I always keep in mind something I learned watching Harvey Penick give Tom Kite a session. He wouldn’t let Tom hit more than a half dozen shots with one club, then he would have him change to something else. He didn’t let Tom just rip 5-irons endlessly, for example. He would watch a few 5’s, then have Tom go to an 8. Then back to a 4, then to a 9, etc. I thought that made sense, so I have adopted that to my practice sessions.

Okay, guys, there’s today’s insight. I’ll dive into another one of these topics next week. I would also like to ask you to use the link below for your ideas, as that way I can keep a file of them for reference. It works much better for me than trying to remember under which post a question was posted.

Thanks again for your candor and honesty to help keep me on track.

What’s On Your Mind?

From your recent comments, it is apparent to me that I might have gotten mis-directed in my weekly writing. If so, I apologize. This is like having a one-way conversation sometimes, as I face the challenge every Friday of coming up with a topic that I hope the majority of you will find interesting. Apparently I miss sometimes.

If this column too often sounds like an advertisement for SCOR, I also apologize. But this company and this product are my only “children”, and most parents I know seem to go on and on about their kids’ accomplishments. I plead guilty as charged.

At SCOR Golf, we have information for you that you won’t get elsewhere. No, Iron Byron does not hit golf shots. He’s never played a round in his life. Can’t hit a soft chip or delicate pitch. Can’t read greens. Be imaginative. In fact, he can’t even walk.

But what Iron Byron does do is remove all the human elements and tell us exactly what a golf ball does from impact with a club. And he’s shown us the technical reason why you hit so many “wedge” shots that come up short. And why current thin-face short irons deliver such disparate distance results from impacts around the center of the face.

It’s not my fault that the SCOR technologies reduce dispersion patterns by 73-94% over conventional “wedges” and high-tech, thin-face short irons . . . .

Oh wait, yes it is. I observed these shortcomings of “wedges” and high-tech short irons for years. I digested Dave Pelz’ research on the miss patterns of tour pros, which proves that distance control is the culprit with the high loft clubs. I talked with and observed hundreds of golfers. And I led this little potential revolution. And I won’t apologize. Because I know what we do will improve the scoring of every golfer who lets us help him or her.

If you don’t want to at least try them, that is certainly your prerogative, but I won’t apologize for changing the high loft clubs, no more than Karsten Solheim should apologize for the Anser©, Ely Callaway should apologize for Big Bertha©, or Barney Adams should apologize for Tight Lies©, or . . . . well, you get it.

But my goal here for the past 8 years has been to respond to what people are asking about. What are the subjects on which you want to have me lend my 35 years of golf industry experience. And I still have that mission and goal. But in the absence of questions, I have to come up with my own. I sure would like for the bunch of you to allow me to be responsive here, rather than pro-active.

So, today’s column is my plea for participation.

What do you want me to write about? What subjects interest you? What burning questions do you have for an open-to-share industry insider?

Just let me know and I’ll dive right in.

Since We’ve Been Talking About Mr. Hogan . . .

Over the past few months, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the state of technology in the golf equipment marketplace and I enjoy reading your responses and take on where things are going . . .or not going.

It is most interesting to me that the major brands continue to try to convince us that they can totally re-invent irons, drivers, hybrids – whatever – every four to six months, offering another “breakthrough” that is going to deliver ‘x’ more yards on every shot. We talked about some of that pixie dust last week.

Also last week, we talked about the very first Ben Hogan irons, as set simply called “Precision”. Those were introduced to market in 1954 and began a long history of the finest irons in the game for many years. Mr. Hogan was personally very involved in every set of Ben Hogan irons until the company moved to Virginia in the early 1990s. The last Ben Hogan Apex iron in which Mr. Hogan was instrumental was the 1992 version.

But I digress. What struck me as very funny lately is to look at the “new” offering from a major brand. Look at this picture of the original 1954 Hogan Precision Irons and see what 60 years of ‘high technology’ has done to the evolution of irons.

Doesn’t this bear a striking resemblance to one of the newest hyped irons on the market from a major brand?

I’m not saying that we haven’t evolved iron-making technology a long way since 1954, because we have. Manufacturing processes, metallurgy, finishing skills . . . it all is much better. But just maybe Mr. Hogan was decades ahead of his time with this original Precision design, if the biggest brand in golf thought it was worth copying that closely.

I’m just sayin’ . . .