The Ways Golfers Screw Up
The biggest problem with us golfers, I suspect, is that we are eternally hopeful and anyone who plays the game demonstrates time and again that old adage about re-marrying ? it demonstrates the triumph of optimism over experience.Despite the fact that the game can make happy men very old, that the best we manage is to ride the crest of a ripple and that our dreams of playing well and taking the money from our opponents usually disappear before the third tee, we nevertheless always think ? or hope ? that it will be better next time. And that?s part of the problem. A round of golf offers 17 fresh new starts, so no matter what we did on the previous hole, there?s always the possibility of getting it right, starting with the next tee shot.What we singularly fail to appreciate is that ?getting it right? is impossible and the best we should expect or hope for is to get it less wrong than we did last week. Sadly, this would require us to think and analyse our mistakes, and then to practice in order to eradicate or lessen them ? and where?s the fun in that?Nah, let?s just carry on as we are, and celebrate the two days a year when we almost have the game mastered. And in the meantime, here?s a list of the most obvious ways in which we get it wrong.Starting a roundWe should:Arrive at the course with at least a half hour to spare. Hit a few balls on the range or practice ground ? no more than a dozen; it?s just to see what game we?ve got that day and to loosen the muscles. Visit the practice putting green for five minutes, check our bag to make sure we?ve got no more than 14 clubs and that everything we might need ? waterproofs, spare balls, drinks and so on ? are also there.We do:Arrive late and hop onto the first tee, dropping things as we go, trying to lace up our golf shoes and run at the same time. Oh, and on a bad day we run out of golf balls by the 13th because we didn?t have time to check our supply before the game.During the gameWe should:Concentrate fully on every stroke, especially the most important of the day, the opening tee shot. Thereafter, it is important to look only ahead at the next shot, not back to the previous one. It is equally important, however, to not get ahead of ourselves. The game really is played one stroke at a time.We do:Hit a bad shot and instantly realise that we had no idea what we were thinking about or trying to achieve during the swing. A truly bad stroke, such as a missed two-foot putt, plays on our mind for several holes, by which time our score is wrecked or the match lost. Conversely, if we?re playing well, we start to imagine how good our finishing score could be, begin to press and run up double figures on a hole.Club selectionWe should:Make allowances for wind direction and speed; whether the shot is up or downhill, and the way we?re striking the ball on that particular day. If in doubt between clubs, always select the longer, on the basis that our golf ball will fall short of its selected target at least 12 times in a round.We do:Know that we once busted a 7-iron 160 yards, downhill with a following breeze on a warm day; so for ever more we delude ourselves that 160 yards is, for us, a 7-iron. We also wonder why we keep finding the bunkers at the front of the green, and never put two and two together, no matter how often we play.After the gameWe should:Clean our clubs, dry any equipment that might have got wet, put newspaper and / or a shoe tree into our golf shoes to draw out the moisture or prevent them cracking or losing shape.We do:Throw the clubs and shoes into the garage and forget about them until our next round.PracticeWe should:Hit a few wedges to get the muscles loose and then build up via 8-iron, 4-iron and fairway wood, for example, before trying the driver, and then wind down slowly, finishing off with a few half or three-quarter distance wedges. We also know how important it is to practice the short game, as that?s where most strokes are taken.We do:Not practice, except on very rare occasions, when we turn up for a round having forgotten that the course is closed because it?s hosting an important event. So we reluctantly head for the range where we whale away with the driver for half and hour.The RulesWe should:Ideally have a good working knowledge of the Rules of Golf, but at least have some understanding of the ones most commonly used.We do:Not even know how to properly take a drop from a water hazard.NB: This is probably, though, the exception in this list, as only three people in the world have a complete understanding of the Rules of Golf. They are, David Rickman, rules secretary at the R&A, his USGA counterpart and whoever you?re drawn against in the next round of your club?s knockout matchplay competition.EquipmentWe should:Consider custom-fitting. It guarantees getting the best clubs to suit our particular swing. Why buy off-the-peg when you can have something tailored to your own idiosyncracies, for no more cost? Failing that, a visit to our local pro for advice would not go amiss. Most importantly, once you have a set of clubs that suit you, stick with them.We do:Spend far more than we can afford, and hanker after the latest ?hot? irons or woods, simply because Tiger or Ernie plays them. We still think that good scores can be bought in the pro shop, whereas the most important things you can get there are tees, drinks, Mars bars, replacement balls for the half dozen you lost last week and a chance to dry out, having been caught in a freak shower between car park and clubhouse.LessonsWe should:Regularly visit a PGA-qualified professional; building a relationship and trust, knowing that someone with an experienced eye is familiar with our swing and the old habits into which we can fall if not careful. In addition, we should have lessons in all areas of play ? bunker shots and putts, for example ? and not just the full swing. Finally, it?s often a good idea to have a lesson when you?re playing well, to reinforce what it is you?re doing properly.We do:Listen to advice from anyone on the course, no matter how many strokes higher than ours their handicap happens to be. And we only go for a lesson when our game has deteriorated to the point where it is virtually beyond all help. After the lesson, by the third hole of our next round we find the changes we?ve been told to incorporate are too difficult to master so abandon them and go back to all our bad habits, happily muttering: ?Better the devil you know.?AmbitionsWe should:Remember the old but nonetheless true adage: ?It doesn?t matter ?how? but ?how many?. This is the philosophy adopted by Tour pros who are, after all, the absolute best in the world at what they do ? to the extent where they even have a phrase for it, which is ?playing ugly?. This means being able to scrape together a score, no matter how badly they?re swinging the club.We do:Constantly beat ourselves up for falling short of some vague, idealised notion of how we should play. Not convinced? Then answer the following question honestly.If given a choice, on a par three hole would you rather?a) Hit the ball so sweet and pure that it goes further than you?ve ever hit that particular club before, with the result that it flies the green.b) Top the damned thing so badly that your fingers sting and the ball runs along the ground, between two bunkers, onto the green.If you answered ?a? you illustrate the point perfectly. If you answered ?b?, you?re lying.Pace of playWe should:Move briskly, be ready to play when it?s our turn, refuse to copy the more ponderous antics of Tour pros, not leave bags and trolleys to the ?wrong? side of the green, mark our scorecards on the next tee and generally get a move on.We do:Chatter to our companions and forget whose turn it is to play, make a point of plumb-bobbing every putt, even though we have no idea what it achieves; park our trolley too close, so that after taking up our stance we have to move it because it interferes with our intended line of swing; find ourselves gazing in reverie at a particularly attractive cloud formation, or a nice view. We also wonder why the group in front of us always move at the speed of a glacier, while those behind dash around at 90mph, pointedly letting their body language spell out that they?re bored, frustrated, and ready to play as soon as we get the hell out of the way.EtiquetteWe should:Repair pitch marks, replace divots and rake bunkers. Talk quietly, call others through as soon as it becomes apparent that we need to search for a ball, and put all our rubbish into one of the on-course bins, or our bag, until we can dispose of it later. In addition, we should dress sensibly and in accordance with the club?s dress code.We do:Turn up in an old pair of gardening trousers and a T-shirt bearing the legend: ?Where?s the first tee and what?s the course record?? We repair pitch marks and so on only if someone else is watching and, if we can get away with it, toss our empty drinks cans into the nearest bush (well, someone must because every time I have to search for a ball on my home course the woods and foliage are full of empty cans and cigarette packets). Oh, and it?s a point of honour to never, ever call another group through unless you happen to know that the club captain, president or secretary is among them.BehaviourWe should:Treat our opponents and fellow competitors with respect and civility by, for example, not jiggling coins in our pocket, sneezing, coughing, or dropping a full set of golf clubs on the ground as he?s about to play. We should remember that golf is the last bastion of sportsmanship and that ?etiquette? is even woven into the Rules of the game.We do:Anything we possibly can to ensure that his day is worse than ours. This includes betting on everything to try and put him off his stroke, saying: ?Two for the half? when he has an 18 inch putt to win the hole, and asking how come he hits the ball so far with such an obvious lateral pronation of his wrists during the first part of the takeaway. This last ploy, incidentally, is as old as the hills but some golfers still fall for it.TacticsWe should:Weigh up our options and not go for the once-in-a-lifetime shot unless we?re playing matchplay and so far behind that it?s hell or bust. Never be ashamed of declaring the ball unplayable. We should also, when in trouble, take our medicine, hack or chip out sideways and try to limit the damage.We do:Have a vastly inflated sense of our own ability, with the consequence that we constantly try miracle recovery shots that do, nevertheless, come with a guarantee that you won?t run up a double bogey. Problem is, the guarantee ensures that you?ll end up taking double figures instead.Clubhouse etiquetteWe Should: Remember that golf is a game for gentlemen and behave accordingly, making sure to wash our hands after a round before going into the bar, and to not treat it like a men-only club (unless it is, of course). While there we should spend at least as much time listening to others? golfing stories as telling our own.We do: Tell filthy jokes in a loud voice, ignoring the women and juniors cowering in the corner, before regaling everyone about the desperately unlucky bogey six we scored on the 18th ? while not allowing our best friend, who has just scored the best round of his life, which included his first ever hole-in-one, to get a word in edgeways.Attitude to othersWe should: Regard juniors, seniors, women and visiting societies as having every bit as much right as ourselves to be on the course and extend them the same courtesy, consideration and good-manners as if they were a group of visiting Tour pros.We do: Mutter, moan and curse at every stroke they make, forgetting entirely that we were once relatively unskilled and hated being looked down on by golf snobs who think the only valid measure of a person?s character is his (or her) handicap.Playing the gameWe should: Remember always that golf is much more a game of subtlety than strength, and that hitting it straight is far more important than hitting it long. As Harvey Penick, who taught both Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite throughout their distinguished careers used to say: ?The woods are full of long hitters.?We do: Throw ourselves off our feet in increasingly desperate efforts to squeeze out a few more yards and we measure all golfers by one criteria and one alone ? the distance they hit the ball. If we play with a retired bank manager who hits a 5-iron on every hole, bunts it no more that 160 yards and scores 82, we?ve forgotten all about it after two hours. But pair us with a gum-chewing Neanderthal with misspelt tattoos who hits it, by his own admission, ?well large? on his way to shooting 112, we tell all our friends ? in tones of hushed reverence ? for days afterwards.SportsmanshipWe Should:Show respect and offer encouragement to fellow golfers, whether they be playing partners or opponents. This means congratulating them on good shots and offering commiseration for poor ones. And if you lose a match you should shake hands, say ?well done? and mean it.We do:Use every aspect
of gamesmanship we can to put them off, without directly cheating. We also, of course, wish nothing but harm on their ball while it is in flight and, if the ancient curse we mutter under our breath causes it to do as told and fly out of bounds, we grimace in fake sympathy and say ?hard luck?.Club membershipWe should:Have understanding, sympathy and encouragement for all club employees, whether they be the secretary, pro, greenkeeping, catering or other staff. We should realise that they have particular skills, knowledge and abilities that we do not possess, and look for ways in which we can help them in running the club.We do:Join the greens committee and, solely on the basis that we have a lawn so we know what we?re talking about, presume to lecture the course superintendent (who only went to college for three years to study agronomy, topography, meteorology and several other ?ologies?) on the best way to restore the 12th green to its former glory. And if he or she doesn?t listen, we make the secretary?s life a misery by demanding that the superintendent be sacked.StrategyWe should:Study the hole carefully from the tee, trying to understand what was in the architect?s mind, and why hazards, trees, rough and other potential dangers are sited where they are. We should then focus on a particular spot on the fairway (or green) from which we have the best opportunity to attack the flagstick with our next shot.We do:Always take driver on par four and five holes and aim, vaguely, for ?anywhere on the short grass?.
Err, that?s it.Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today?s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book: With Friends Like These; A selective history of the Ryder Cup, was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the website http: / / www.rarebirdie.com
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