Focus: Golf’s Ultimate Lesson

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Or perhaps Patience might be the key lesson the game of golf teaches. Whichever, I’m focusing, as it were, on keeping your Focus.

As I’ve written before, and as others have written much more eloquently and authoritatively, golf is a difficult game to master. At best, most of us can only hope to play it well enough to gain more enjoyment than frustration. I have reached that plateau but maybe only because I have more patience than most. My game is still not very good.

One thing I’ve taken from playing tennis and applied to golf is a desire to learn how to play the sport properly, even if I don’t achieve great results (I was a B player at best on the tennis court). While there are obviously many variations to any particular aspect of golf (or tennis), fundamentals and basic good practices are still key elements to building a foundation to your game. Proper grip and setup, for example. If you don’t have those right, you’re unlikely to strike the ball well and even less likely to have it go where you’re aiming. Getting the ball to go where you aim it is 90% of the game. The other 10% is knowing where to aim – particularly with tennis – but that’s a different subject.

The two sports diverge when applying specifics. So I’ll leave tennis behind and focus on golf.

Recently, I played a round at one of my favorite courses in Bend. I did OK, for me, and managed to maintain my rather remarkable consistency at that course: in the six rounds I’ve played, my scores have all been within three shots of each other. I’m not sure why but that consistency plays out at other courses as well, albeit not quite so much. I’m a consistent golfer.

I played the round with a fine gentleman, older than me and apparently well off in his retirement based on what he said he did for a living. He played the game about as well as I and more importantly, played it with the same level of intensity and focus (there’s that word). Casual on the tee and while we waited, he concentrated on his shots when it was his turn. We exchanged remarks on how the greens were rolling and other aspects of the course as we played. Critically, he offered no swing advice or distracted me when it was my turn to play. In other words, a great playing partner. It is during these rounds where I have no unwanted distractions and a comfortable setting that I can focus on my shots. More so if I’m playing solo.

Specifically, I can focus on what I have learned about how to hit a particular shot and focus on the ‘swing thoughts’ that work for me. Swing thoughts are what you think about as you are executing a shot. It is important that they be few and simple – you usually won’t make a good swing if you burden your mind with half a dozen imperatives while you swing, even if all those things are important to do. One or two things only is best. Unlike a lot of physical activity, golf is not natural, so I have to remind my body and mind how to perform each time. So, focus. I need to focus on each shot.

One might think focusing on every shot is easy, no big deal. After all, golf is a game played in short spurts – most of the time you are either moving from one place to another or waiting. Sure, those times you might be thinking of your game or even the next shot but not in a way that requires focus. So why is it hard? The short answer – and probably the longer one – is I don’t know, but it is. I have yet to play a round where I focused on every shot. Inevitably, there are a few where because of whatever circumstances are present in the moment, I’ve simply gone up to the ball, gone through my usual mechanical routine and swung. Note that going through my routine is quite different from focusing. To focus, I need to concentrate on my swing thoughts.

Aside from the very relevant tennis analogy, I can’t think of a whole lot of non-emergency situations I’ve been in where focusing is so critical. Working in energized panels on the submarine and power plants is one but generally those weren’t on/off situations like a golf round. If I was elbows deep with 240 or 440 VAC around me, you bet I was focused the whole time. But it wasn’t focus on/focus off 90-100 times in the space of four hours as with a round of golf.

Driving here in Central Oregon might come close. We have a lot of critters that apparently think traffic laws don’t apply to them. Big critters like deer and elk. Driving often demands that you be prepared for a bull elk to be in your face in those stretches of road where they might pop out without warning. That’s hard to do on a longer drive. Your mind inevitably strays to other things. You lose focus.

I like to think that playing the game of golf improves my ability to focus but I’m not so sure about that, either. It might, or it might just teach my mind that focus is something required on the course (and for elk avoidance). Why do it off the course?

Anyway, that’s the meat of this blog entry. Golf – a game of focus that may or may not have lessons to apply to life in general. For those who don’t play golf or don’t particularly care how I play the game or who have lost focus while reading this, you’re excused. Thanks for reading. For those who are so bored that one might question your enthusiasm for life, the remainder of this entry comprises specifics on how I play golf, club-by-club, and what I focus on for each.

So, here’s what works for me:

Driver: The most powerful club in the bag, it is the one that can get you into the most trouble. Unless you are a tour pro, the driver is used only on the tee and even pros rarely use it off the tee (hitting the driver from the fairway is called ‘driver off the deck’). With the driver, the goal is to get the ball a good distance down the fairway. For me, accuracy is not paramount as long as I hit the fairway, so I usually aim for the middle. Missing the fairway by a little is often still OK, but a shot that veers too far off course will find landing spots that can add multiple shots to your score. Hitting out-of-bounds, for example, automatically is a two shot disaster (you have to hit the ball again from the original spot and there’s a one shot penalty). Hitting a water hazard or losing the ball in the weeds similarly add shots. So, my imperative is to hit the fairway. It doesn’t matter all that much how far I hit it. If I strike the ball well, the distance will take care of itself anyway.

Swing thoughts: For the driver, I will think of two things. One, I must shift forward on the downswing, putting more weight on my left leg. Two, I focus on swinging through the ball along the target line. If I have done my setup right, those two things will almost always result in a ball flight well into the air and close to my target line. If I lose focus and fail to do those two things, bad things can happen. Failing to move forward, I may not strike the ball with the proper upswing (the driver is the only club where you hit the ball as the club-head is going up, albeit slightly) and I may even hit the ground before the ball. If I don’t swing through the target line, the difference between club face angle at impact and the swing path will result in a slice or hook, depending on which errant path I take. Either fault may result in the ball ending up in a place I really don’t want to be. So far, I’m pretty good with the driver but only because I don’t swing very hard. I lose a lot of distance but gain accuracy.

Fairway wood: Also known as a fairway metal because golf clubs aren’t made of wood anymore. I see no reason to rename the club. For me, a fairway wood means a 3-wood but they come in different numbers (e.g. 5-wood, 7-wood) and many golfers carry more than one. A fairway wood is sort of a smaller driver – similar shape, just shorter club shaft and smaller head. On shorter holes or where the fairway doesn’t have enough room to accommodate the distance a driver will provide, golfers will use a fairway wood off the tee. Pretty much all the swing aspects applicable to the driver will apply with slight modification, such as a lower tee height.

Hitting a fairway wood when the ball is lying in the fairway is a whole ‘nother animal. If you try hitting a fairway shot using a driver swing, you will fail spectacularly every time. The reason is an obvious one: on the tee the ball is sitting up a couple of inches above the ground, allowing (mandating, if you do it properly) that slight upward path at impact. On the fairway, the ball will be sitting on grass and maybe slightly sunk into the grass. There’s no hitting up on the ball. The proper swing is one that ‘sweeps’ the grass with the club-head, achieving the low point of its arc pretty much right at impact, or maybe slightly after the ball. And that is why fairway wood shots are so hard to master. If the bottom of the arc is a little early, you’ll ground the club before impact, resulting in short, unpredictable ball flight, if not a complete duff. If the arc is too late, that’s better but won’t give you the control and distance you need from the shot.

Swing thoughts: I admit I’m not real great with this shot so I try to keep it simple by using the same thoughts as with the driver: shift weight forward and maintain proper swing path. The difference between a fairway shot and a tee shot is where the ball is in my setup (more forward on the tee). My fairway mishits usually involve hitting the ground first because I lost focus and didn’t shift weight forward.

Hybrid: A hybrid is a club that typically replaces one of the long irons in a golfer’s bag. It has a larger head designed to hit through grass without the club-head getting caught up too much. Most pros don’t carry one because they are so good with their irons, even out of the rough. I will use my 4-hybrid or 5-hybrid to get out of the rough or when a ball is sitting down in the grass too much for me to be comfortable with the 3-wood (see above). Beyond that, the hybrids replace the 4 and 5-irons in my bag, with distance somewhere between the 6-iron and the 3-wood.

Off the fairway, I will hit a hybrid the same as I would the 3-wood. If I’m using a hybrid to get out of a bad lie, I adjust my swing and try to ‘punch out’. That is, a short swing that results in a low shot that doesn’t travel as far as with a full swing. For that, I set the ball back well in my stance and swing down on it, allowing the club-head to travel though less grass before impact. Swinging down also delofts the club, resulting in a lower trajectory and avoiding any tree branches that might be in the way. Results vary wildly but that’s why they call it a ‘bad lie’.

Swing thoughts: If using the club as I would the 3-wood, see above. If using it to hit out of  bad lie, my thought is just one: solid impact on the ball. That’s it. I’m just concentrating on getting clean contact, hoping for a better lie on the next shot and hopefully a lot closer to the green.

Irons, Full Swing: Most people categorize their irons based on distance: long, mid and short, with lower numbered clubs (2, 3, 4, 5, say) being long and the wedges (pitching, gap, sand, lob) being short and the rest in the middle (mid). Me, I tend to categorize them into two bins: those I can comfortably hit off the fairway with a full swing and those I can’t. I don’t even carry a 2, 3 or 4 iron and I’ve recently given up on my 5 in favor of a hybrid. I just can’t hit long irons so I don’t even try anymore.

That said, there are two situations where you’d want to hit a full-swing iron. First, on the fairway where your target – the green or a spot further up the fairway – lies a good distance away.  Note that my target is not always the green even if it’s nominally in range of my irons. Because of my poor iron play, I usually prefer to lay up close to the green and then try to hit a half-swing wedge close to the hole. The second situation is on the tee at a par 3 hole. There, I will hit a 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 off a tee set just above grass height. I have yet to encounter a hole short enough that I can reach it with a 9 iron off the tee.

A full-swing iron shot is a complicated matter, particularly off the grass. Unlike a fairway wood where you’re trying to ‘sweep’ the ball off the grass, with an iron you’re trying to hit down on it a bit with the low point of the swing coming just after the ball. That’s why better players take a divot with a iron. The club is literally plowing a trench behind where the ball was. You do this because it is imperative that you hit the ball first, not the ground, and the club-face design for irons really doesn’t allow it to travel along grass easily without the face being jerked off target, as a fairway wood or hybrid can do.  So, with the ball somewhere in the middle of your stance at setup – further back the shorter the iron – as you downswing, you must move your hips forward, allowing the bottom of the swing arc to be behind the ball. There’s a lot more going on as well: hip rotation, weight shift to the front leg, wrists ahead of the club-face, etc. If you get any of it wrong, if you lose your focus, you will not strike the ball solidly and may even hit the ground in front of the ball. Results are usually very poor if you do.

If I’m hitting off the tee, the swing is the same, I’m just not trying to take a divot (I rarely take divots anyway – my swing force is too low). I’m still trying to bottom out the swing arc behind the ball but not into the grass. Off the tee is a lot easier to do than a fairway iron shot. That’s why Jack Nicklaus says to always tee up a ball on the tee box*. Never hit a ball off the ground when on the tee, no matter what club you use. I have a friend who insists on hitting his par 3 irons shots off the ground. I don’t understand that – why penalize yourself? The game is already hard.

* As I write this, I realize that the ‘tee’ terminology is confusing if you don’t know the golf context. The term ‘tee’ can mean either the tee peg you use to prop a ball up, or it can mean the tee box, which is the area where you hit your first shot on each hole. ‘On the tee’ means you’re in the tee box hitting your first shot, whether you use a tee peg or not.

Swing thoughts: With all that, it’s easy to get too complicated as you swing an iron on the fairway. For me, I think of two things: weight shift forward and a sensation that I’m driving the club down from the handle as I start my downswing. If I do those two things correctly, I will probably strike the ball solidly and hopefully in the right direction. I tend to hit otherwise solid iron shots to the left, so maybe I need to add a third thought, club path through to the target. Or not. If I concentrate on that, I might botch the other two.

With tee shots, my swing thoughts are weight shift forward and club path towards the target. I’m not thinking about driving down into the ball when on the tee.

Irons, Half-Swing: Unless you hit the green from long distance, you will eventually have placed your ball relatively close to the green. From there, you generally can’t take a full swing no matter what club you use. You have to use an abbreviated swing to avoid overshooting the green. These are called pitch and chip shots. Pitch shots being used a bit further from the green and chips from right up near the green.

I’m pretty good with these shots, even granting that they are generally easier for anyone. Because I don’t hit the ball very far, I usually can’t reach the green from the fairway on my second shot (or third on a par 5). So I’ve taken to not even trying. I will lay up short of the green and try to hit a wedge close enough to make par with one putt. Most of my par scores on a hole are achieved this way and I’ve spent many hours practicing chip and pitch shots.

By now it has to be apparent that virtually all non-tee golf shots are dependent on the lie – how the ball is sitting in the grass. Pitch and chip shots are even more dependent on the lie because you are not swinging with much force. Back in the fairway, even if the ball is sitting a bit lower than you’d like, the speed of the club-head at impact can neutralize bad lies to some degree. You can drive the club through the grass and still make good contact with the ball. Not so with the more delicate short shots. A ball sitting up nicely in grass will dictate a different shot selection than will one sitting down. This is true even if you are in the fairway, which is supposed to have evenly cut grass everywhere but in reality still offers varied lies.

Pitch shots are a bit easier to describe. With a good lie, I hit a pitch shot essentially the same way as I would a mid iron but with less force, less weight transfer, less arm swing, less hip rotation. If the ball is sitting down, I will use a more lofted wedge and play the ball back a bit in my stance.

Chip shots are where the technique starts to differ, although it’s really a continuum as you get closer to the green (the further away you are the more it looks like a standard iron/pitch shot). There are two basic chip shots: one is a high shot designed to have little roll after the ball hits the green and one is lower where you want the ball to roll to the hole. The technique is quite similar, the difference being where you put the ball in your stance and what club you select. Which shot you choose mostly depends on the green in front of you. If it slopes away from you, it will be difficult to judge how much the ball will roll so you’ll want to hit the ball higher and have it drop close to the hole and not roll away. If the slope is towards you, a low, rolling shot may be best because that is more like a putt and putting always beats chipping. Or so they say. You also need to pay attention to left and right slope to determine where your target line should be. Very often, you will not hit directly towards the hole.

For a high shot, I’ll use my lob wedge or sand iron, depending on how far I want the ball to travel. Feet no more than two club-faces apart, a moderate amount of wrist action on the backswing and follow through, ball well forward of center. Most of the power is derived from the shoulders, not the hips. I will take multiple practice swings in an area where the grass is similar to my lie. It does no good to practice swings in grass higher or lower than your ball lies. You need to get a feel for how the club-face and grass are going to interact, which will dictate how hard you swing.

For a low shot, I’ll use something with less loft, maybe a 7, 8 or 9. The setup and swing are similar but the ball will be back in the stance and I won’t hit it as hard. I’m not really good at judging low running shots yet, so I tend to go for the high shot.

Some golf instructors advocate using only one club for chip shots, saying you should vary the swing tempo and ball position to get the right distance and roll. Others say you should take advantage of your bag and use whatever club will carry the right distance using the same swing. Me, I really like my Cleveland 58 degree wedge, so I use it 90% of the time for chip shots, adjusting for roll by where I put the ball in my stance. It works for me. There’s also the Matt Kuchar shot – use a fairway wood or hybrid to generate roll when you have a lot of green to cross. That takes a lot of practice. Those clubs can easily send the ball flying right through the green.

Swing thoughts: With chips and pitches, I concentrate on one thing: brush the club under the ball. In other words, don’t stub the club in the ground and don’t blade it. As I said, I will take several practice strokes. It’s then that I make sure my swing is proper in terms of hips, weight, wrist, etc. Because the shot is low force, it’s a lot easier to repeat once you’ve taken the practice swings.

Putting: If you had to divide the game of golf into two categories, it would be putting and every other shot. All non-putting strokes involve lofted clubs, body rotation, large swings, ball flight and various techniques to deal with the ground (or tee). With the putter, you’re just trying to get the ball rolling across an even surface, albeit one with considerable slopes and undulations. Your grip is different, for some golfers wildly so. The putter is much shorter than the other clubs, so you need to adjust your stance to be over the ball.

Putting also involves a skill not required for most other shots: reading the green (with chips and pitches, you need to read the green as well but it’s not as important). By reading the green, I mean getting down low and looking at the ground (grass) between the ball and the hole and imagining how the ball with Break (curve) as it travels to the hole. It may break left, right, or left then right. You also need to look at the path from a side view to determine whether its uphill, downhill or both. From all that, you must judge two things: what line (direction) to start the ball off on, and how hard to hit it. The two interact: if you hit the ball harder it won’t break as much as if you hit if softly. There is no one correct combination that will get the ball to the hole. You may try for a harder shot with less break but risk hitting it well past the hole if you miss. You may hit it softly, trying to just get it to the hole but risk misjudging the break or coming up short. Even the type of grass and its condition will influence the read.

While there are techniques you can use to read the green, to be good at it requires skill and practice.  But one technique I’ve found to be invaluable and a lot of pros do it: place a line on the ball’s circumference with a black marker. This does two things. First, after you’ve done your green-reading, by placing the ball on the green with the line aimed along your intended starting path, it eliminates having to judge what that path is after you stand over the ball preparing to putt. The line tells you all you need to know. Except for getting a feel in your mind as to how hard to hit it (based also on your green-reading), you really don’t even need to look at the hole as you putt. Second, the provides visual feedback to help you align the putter face perpendicular to the path. It does no good to correctly read the green if you then hit the ball off-line. Both of these things are remarkably hard to do without the line on the ball. As you look down on the ball, it is difficult to visualize the intended path because it lies in your peripheral vision from that vantage point. And it’s harder to ensure your putter is aligned with that path.

Swings thoughts: So, after reading the green, lining up the ball, getting my putter aligned with the intended path, what’s left? Striking the ball, of course. Even after addressing the ball with the putter and ensuring it’s lined up, you might still hit it off-line during the actual stroke. Minimizing that involves good putting technique and just as with all the other golf shots, you can have too many things in your head. For me, I do two things. During my practice swings, I look at the hole and imagine hard I have to hit the ball to get to the hole. As I swing, I focus on a good pendulum action with my shoulders, keeping the rest of my body still. I’m getting to the point where putting is a strength of my game. My usual miss is short, so I’m working on that.

 

Focus. To play the game of golf at any level of proficiency, you have to focus. I don’t know anyone who can play golf well who doesn’t at least pause briefly to focus on their shots prior to swinging. Beyond scoring better, it feels great to focus on doing something right, and then having it actually happen as intended.

During a round not long ago, I had a good lie in the fairway and according to the golf GPS app that I use to judge distances, I needed to hit a 7-iron. The app is programmed with my usual distances for each club – it’s very handy.  Because I don’t hit my irons very well, my typical 7-iron shot doesn’t travel very far. In this case, I was looking to hit a shot to the front of the green and the app said my 7-iron was the right distance. Well, I hit the best 7-iron of my life. Everything worked. I made good contact, the ball flew up high and straight at the green. I think I even took a divot. Woo hoo!

And the ball landed a good ten yards over the back of the green, way beyond what I had intended. Ordinarily, that would be cause for disappointment. I just missed the green horribly and probably was looking at a double or triple bogey. But I was kind of elated. I had just hit a 7-iron well! That almost never happens. So, even though my shot didn’t produce the expected result, it felt good to focus on a proper swing and pull it off.

I still remember the feel of that shot.

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