Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stupid Range-Finder

Saturday, November 22, 2008

As I arrived at the range, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to work on. So far, my main focus has been on my impact position, alignment and grip. Now, that’s not to say those things aren’t important, but at this point, I need to move onto the next step.

And I think my next set of practice sessions will be devoted to one thing: distances for my half-wedge swings. Three to four years ago, I took Pelz’s Short Game Bible to heart, and bought a laser range-finder (this was prior to my days of caddying, where I spent 3 years HATING these devices because of how OBSOLETE they were) to focus on distances for my pitching, sand and lob wedges with ¼, ½, and ¾ wedge swings. Pelz’s theory was that I would then have 9 yardages inside of 100 yards that I could draw from while on the course. Now, it’s a nice thought, but one thing I found out all too quickly was how difficult it was to stay focused when you’re making these baby wedge swings for an hour on the range. So I shortened his suggestion and simply recorded distances for half (9 o’clock) swings with my three wedges. I would make sure that I had made at least 10-15 “solid” shots with each wedge, and then used that infernal range-finder contraption to obtain the average distances. I remember that for the next couple of months after I began practicing these shots, I won a crap-load of money off of my playing partners because my ability to get up and down from inside of 100 yards increased dramatically.

So I decided that today, after warming up with my 6-iron with a few punch shots, half and full swings, I would focus on recording yardages for my pitching, sand and lob wedges.

At least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. First, I left my range-finder at home (probably an old habit from my caddying days, where a range-finder is to a caddie what garlic is to a vampire), and there weren’t really any yardages at the range, so practicing with my wedges didn’t really materialize. There was, however, one challenge I wasn’t really expecting: the ground below my feet.

As I walked over to the range, the wind was blowing hard enough to create white-caps on the water and turn it black. With the location of the range, I knew I’d have to deal with hard right to left gusts today. To be honest, that was just fine with me, as my strong grip has led me to believe that such a wind direction could very well be my Achilles heel. Good. I get to work on a weakness today.

But when I arrived at my station, I immediately noticed a new challenge. The teeing ground was moved up to the front of the range, and the front of this range…is…crowned earth. Now, I’ve been a caddie, worked on the outside staff and been responsible for setting up the range, etc (as an aside, driving that range cart to pick up golf balls is not as fun as advertised. You often have to go over the same patch of balls multiple times before you’re able to pick them up, and you KNOW every golfer and their mother are gunning for you.). So I’ve been responsible for setting up a driving range before. I’m not saying it’s hard, but WHY would you set up the teeing ground right on the FREAKIN CROWN. I know not all driving ranges can be perfectly flat the whole way around, but why would you MAKE golfers hit from uneven lies. That sort of punishment should be self-induced.

I hate to be that picky, but I was a little frustrated because I wanted to keep working on fundamentals and getting back the swing I remember…I wasn’t in the mood to hit 70 awkward shots with a strong crosswind. Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of professional golfers out there who would LOVE to practice under those conditions so they can be prepared for all situations. Well fine…I guess that means I’m HAPPY about it. GREAT.

The first few swings were UGLY. Chunk, back-tweak, chunk, chunky-monkey. It wasn’t until I started remembering some of my basic golf instruction material that it started to work out for me. First, obviously, I made sure to angle my shoulders with the slope. Then I took a few short swings without a weight shift, keeping my lower body still. It was only after I started making consistent contact that I started to make full swings again. But even after I started becoming comfortable with the ball position, stance and alignment (because of course I had to aim right of my target due to both the wind and the lie), I couldn’t seem to stop falling forward after each swing. The downhill/side-hill lie made it impossible to end with a balanced finish position. So every swing looked and felt awkward. I suppose the plus here is that after 20-30 balls, I became fairly proficient with it, putting a good move on the ball and letting the wind carry it to my target. I’m sure my back will feel great on Sunday.

I didn’t finish the day without some putting practice though. The strong winds and firm greens proved to be both annoying and highly enjoyable. Enjoyable because I didn’t have to take the putter-head back very far for a hell of a lot of roll, which is great because I’ve been working on a good impact position with my putter as much if not more than my full swing. The annoying part came in because the ball oscillated each and every time I was about to putt, and due to the firm greens, there were some ridiculously subtle breaks that blew my mind. But after 30-40 minutes, I discovered that what I loved most about practicing my putting was not about getting it in the hole. It was about hitting the ball on the line you wanted and being able to repeat the same swing and resulting distance 3-4 times in a row without a mistake. I mean, if you think about it, the same goes for the full swing: if you know that you usually draw or pull your long irons, wouldn’t you make sure you aligned yourself right of your intended target from those distances? If caddying for players has taught me anything, it’s that golf is all about managing your mishits.

Anyway, I’m rambling, but the important thing I learned is not to fight things like the wind or the lie, contorting your swing or putting all of your force into an awkward shot, but to try and use the circumstances you’re given to produce the easiest shot for your own abilities.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I made sure to bring my range-finder on Sunday, dead-set on getting at least 2 yardages down for my PW and SW. I had some wind behind me, however, so I know these yardages are a little off. I started my warm-up with the 6-iron again, punching balls with little half-swings and getting a good feel for my impact position again. Once I felt I had a pretty good grasp of my swing, I grabbed my pitching wedge and tried to mimic the guidelines set by Dave Pelz in his Short Game Bible: neutral grip, use the big muscles to take the club back, and check your ball position for consistency prior to the shot.

Chunk. Super chunk.

Guess I’m not really ready to dive into this…So I just took normal half-swings, hoping my strong grip would still suffice, and I started making solid contact again. After 15 balls, I got a good sense of an average distance, and zeroed in using my laser: 115. Now, I’m taking that as an average. My balls ranged from 108 to 125, all with what I thought were half-swings. Now remember, I had a fairly constant wind at my back, and so my 115 average is probably about 10 yards too far. But at least I was consistent throughout and didn’t deviate too much from my intended target line. Although, that’s pretty hard to screw up with a pitching wedge in your hand. I could understand a 3 or 4 iron spraying quite a bit, but a pitching wedge? Alright, 115. I can work with that.

Then I moved onto my sand wedge. For whatever reason, I play with a 54-degree wedge. I know back in the day I had a good reason for this. Maybe it was because I feel better about playing a 54-degree from the fairway than a 56-degree. Or something like that. It’s all psychological.

So again, after getting comfortable with the first few shots, and then moving onto my 10-15 balls for an average, I was landing the ball anywhere from 86 to 100 yards. Obviously, I need to keep coming back and practicing, because even if I take an average, and factor in the fact that the wind was at my back, that’s still a large spectrum of possible yardages. So for now, let’s say I was averaging 90 yards. Again, this is probably off due to the wind, but for right now, I can remember that yardage for the course and see how it works out for me.

Now, I still have to laser-in my lob wedge, because right now, I don’t have any of those fun distances from 50-75 yards “dialed in” yet. I just hope the next time I’m at the range I won’t run into so much wind. But with my luck, it’ll probably be right in my face and I’ll be hitting my lob wedge 5-10 yards with a full swing and a Tiger-esque-stinger-flair. Who knows, if I get under it, it might even fly over my head and end up 10 yards behind me. Although, if that happens, I’ll probably have to patent the shot or something because that’s a shot Phil might want to steal and pull out when he’s in one of his “going for broke” moods on any given Sunday.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Me and My Shadow

I went to the range today with just one goal in mind: working on getting comfortable with a strong weight shift onto my right side. As I mentioned before, due to my half-swing practice regimen thus far, I’ve been steadily improving my impact position and making good, crisp contact, but when it came to me transitioning to the full-swing, my muscle memory seemed a little weak when it came to loading up my right side.

So that was my goal. At least, that was the initial plan. I only say that because once I actually arrived there, I realized there were a couple more obstacles to deal with today: wind and my own damn shadow.

Now don’t get me wrong—this was a great thing. As long as the wind isn’t blowing directly behind you, taking all spin off of the ball and making you look like King Kong with a pitching wedge, having the wind blowing strong can really help you work on things like balance, tempo, contact, and overall focus. I can’t remember how many times back in the day I’d be caddying for some poor guy and the wind would gust up right as he was about to hit the ball. Having wind in my face that SAILORS would envy today was a good thing.

My shadow: it’s funny, but only in the last year or so has this been a real issue. I don’t know what it is, but I seem to get incredibly distracted when my shadow is cast over the ball and within my field of vision. I’m more apt to watch my own swing than the ball. And it sounds like a ridiculous problem…and you’re right. But at least today I got to exercise some demons and try to work out a solution.

I started with my pitching wedge, doing some quick stretches and taking my routine half-swings to get the session going. I decided not to wear a glove today, as I felt my last practice session yielded some great feedback without one. Well, that, and I’ve always idolized Ben Hogan and perhaps at some point my hands will bleed while hitting balls as well. But I don’t think I’ve reached that deity status yet.

After the first few shots, I grabbed another club and aligned myself at a far-off flagstick, just to make sure that I wasn’t slacking off in the alignment department. And I’m really glad I did, because I immediately noticed a problem: my shoulders were out of alignment. For some strange reason, my shoulders naturally align slightly closed. Now, I’m not sure what Mr. Haney, Mr. Smith, Butch, or the rest of the gurus would say about that. Perhaps new school knowledge would tell us that my natural shoulder alignment is acceptable. But nevertheless, I opened up my shoulders a bit to keep them square, and something strange happened when I moved onto my 6-iron: I didn’t pull-hook the ball even once today. All of my shots today were straight or had a slight fade. Normally, my ball-flight is either straight, slight draw, or pull hook. I blame that on my strong grip. I think I’m going to have to look this up somewhere, because I’m not sure how much of a factor changing the alignment of my shoulders affects ball-flight, but my shots really did look unfamiliar today. Then again, it very well could’ve been the wind. But even with a strong left to right wind, a pull-hook is a pull-hook is a pull-hook. Oh well. At any rate, it felt great to have a very consistent ball flight today.

Surprisingly, the only moment today when I screwed up a shot because of my own shadow was when I was on my last ball of the day and said: “I can’t believe my shadow hasn’t screwed me up today.” Shank. Normally, I would’ve braved the balls of fury from the surrounding amateurs and grabbed another ball from the range to re-tee it and end on a good note, but I just laughed. I think the solution I came up with for dealing with my shadow today was just to stay focused on the ball. And that wasn’t hard to do, especially when I was working on loading my right side and finally making a good weight-shift. I’d say my focus on achieving that goal today overshadowed issues with my shadow. Ha…sorry for the redundancy there.

But I was amazed at how easy it was to make a proper weight shift. I didn’t feel out of alignment or feel like my swing-path was compromised at all. The new issue, however, is my follow-thru. I’ve put so much thought into my backswing and impact position lately that it seems I’ve become un-focused with my follow-thru. I feel like after making a good backswing, staying steady and making solid impact, the rest of the swing should take care of itself. But what I saw today was that if I didn’t focus on releasing my hands and making solid contact all the way around, my poor follow-thru seemed to pro-rate issues from follow-thru to impact, meaning my impact position started becoming weak and I could feel the feedback in my hands as I “toed” or “thinned” a shot I knew I could’ve smoked.

And after reading over that last sentence, I feel like it doesn’t make any sense at all outside of my own head. But basically, I just need to focus on more of a full-release throughout the follow-thru.

But that’s it for now. At least I know what to keep working on next time. Then again, I’m sure the next time I go to the range I’ll be opening up another massive can of worms. A golf swing is, of course, a house of cards.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Glove-less Practice

I apologize for the hiatus, but two rare events prevented me from practicing recently: an incredible amount of rain decided to fall precisely from 7-6 pm both days this past weekend, and the Buffalo Bills lost to the Miami Dolphins the weekend before.

Now, I understand the rain. But come on…the Bills losing to the Dolphins? Ridiculous. And of course, a Dolphins fan came with me to see the game. So my golf game had to take a backseat to the trash-talk and drinking. Then again, I suppose trash-talking and drinking are sort of where the game of golf started with those crazy Scottish guys, so I suppose it wasn’t a FULL break from this great game we all love and respect.

But one thing I have been doing is keeping up with my work-out regimen and stretching everyday. And wouldn’t you know it: I actually feel like I’m grooving a swing again. I think one of the most frustrating things I’ve had to work through recently is trying to get my body to react to the demands of my brain. What I mean is, back when I was playing regularly, I witnessed and catalogued the shots I was able to pull-off. Now that I’m back to playing again, finding myself in these similar situations is depressing, because I know what I was capable of at one time. I try to visualize, align myself properly and let it fly, but it just doesn’t seem to work as well as it once did. It’s like I’m going through some sort of rehabilitation process where I’m hoping to retain full-use of my motor skills at the outset.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is how much feedback I’m able to receive when I practice at the range without a glove. Perhaps it’s all in my head, but once I take off my glove and work my way through a bucket, I can feel exactly where on the club-face the ball makes contact as well as every subtle twist of the club-head at impact. Obviously, this wouldn’t really work on a hot day. And I know a golf glove is rather thin, so it doesn’t seem like swinging without one would make much of a difference, but it did.

And, after the first 10-15 balls as I started putting together strings of solid shots—meaning I passed my own “glove-less impact test”—my mind began to drift to other parts of my swing, and for some reason I became focused solely on my backswing. More specifically, the weight transfer onto my right foot. There is such a fine line between proper weight transfer and “swaying,” isn’t there? Right now, I feel like I’m not loading my right side enough or that I’m potentially overdoing it, feeling like I’m falling out of my own personal “swing track.”

But I guess one more thing to focus on couldn’t hurt, right? I guess the weight transfer was never something I thought about, but now that I’m trying to groove a swing again, it’s the most noticeable part of my swing now. I almost want to blame by practice drills: I’m achieving the impact position I want, but due to all of the half-swings, the weight-transfer necessary to achieve a full backswing has somewhat atrophied. Well, it’ll come back. “Practice makes permanent” as David Leadbetter would say.

As a bonus, I was extremely comfortable with my putting today. My contact and speed control were consistent and controllable, as evidenced by the small rings of balls around the holes on the putting green. Perhaps my work thus far is starting to pay off. Well, either that or I just feel comfortable with my new putter. I’m sure many of you would attest to putting really well with a putter you like. It’s weird how something so simple as the design of a putter-head could affect the way people perform. Take me for example: I can’t stand those three-ball putters. If some of you out there own and love them, great. But for me, they look like you could either cook an egg and bacon breakfast on them or plug a set of earphones into them and rock out to some mp3’s.

Take care everyone.