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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Getting Out of Your Own Way

If you watched in awe as Cristie Kerr blew the field away at the Wegmans LPGA Championship this weekend, you aren't the only one. The other players were as amazed as the rest of us. I mentioned in one post that Kerr said she didn't think anybody expected to see a player in double-digits after 2 rounds. The fact is, they didn't expect it in 4 either. I heard an interview with Ai Miyazato Sunday where she was asked if she had come into the championship with a total in mind, and she said that she and her caddy had talked about it... and decided that -5 to -8 was probably the number.

In case you've forgotten, Kerr's number was -10 after 2 rounds... -13 after 3 rounds... and -19 at the end.

How do you go that low? It's a common question. Regardless whether you're a pro shooting for the low 60s, Ray Romano trying to break 80 on TGC, or a noob to the game trying to get out of triple digits, it's basically the same problem. After she won, Cristie broke down, saying "it's all coming out now" and adding "I fought it all day..." No one's exempt from the pressure to go low.

I have a book called Go Low. It's by Patrick Cohn, a sports psychologist who studied (and interviewed) several players who have broken through to personal best low scores. In fact, he subtitled the book How to Break Your Individual Golf Scoring Barrier by Thinking Like a Pro.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Ironically, you may be disappointed if you read the book -- not because it's a bad book, but because it probably won't tell you anything you haven't already heard. It's a great compilation of advice... but you won't find some "secret" that will make the game unfold like a magic carpet before you. Play smart golf, keep things in perspective, stop caring about the score... any of these sound familiar? Even Cristie, who works a lot with Dr. Joe Parent (author of Zen Putting), remarked that the things that had helped her golf had helped her life outside golf as well. Care for that old concept of balance, anyone?

I'm going to give you one that you may or may not have heard, although I doubt you've heard it quite this way. I know, because I've been hinting at it in several posts over the last few weeks (no, the Route 67 series isn't done -- I've just taken a bit of a break during this current series of consecutive majors) but haven't been able to put it into a few simple words until recently. It's not the do-all and end-all of getting out of your own way, but I suspect it's a problem for many of you.

Do you have 15 different swing thoughts in your head when you play? It's a particularly rough problem if you're taking lessons, because you're probably changing several things, but it also trips up a lot of players just making a "simple" change.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret that really might revolutionize your play. No, it won't suddenly drop your score 15 strokes... but it might free your mind up to concentrate on those other things that guys like Cohn write in their books. Are you ready?

The key is to realize what a swing thought really is. Did you know you can make quite a few changes to your swing and still only have one swing thought? The trick is realizing that a swing thought isn't a bunch of words describing the changes you want to make; rather, it's how your swing feels when you make it properly.

Are you clear on that? A swing thought is NOT a bunch of words; rather, a swing thought is how your swing FEELS when you do it properly. Follow me carefully here, and you should simplify your mind game considerably. Do this during your warm-up and between shots on the course if you need to.

Use as many words as you need to make yourself address the ball properly. Once you do that, you don't have to think about it again during the swing, so make lists or do whatever it takes. Get yourself set up properly, because you can't make a good swing from a bad setup.

Next, make your swing slowly, doing exactly what your teacher told you to do or making whatever change you're currently working on... but focus on how your body feels when you do it. Pay specific attention to the "quarters" -- halfway up the backswing, top of the back swing, halfway down, impact, halfway through after the ball is gone, and at the finish. (When you get it up to speed, you'll probably only pay attention to the extremes of the swing; that's normal and perfectly fine.) Swing slowly and pay attention to how it feels to make a good swing. You want to get into position without looking at it, but being able to identify if it's right or not. The technical term for this is "body awareness" -- and yes, you have it or you wouldn't be able to function during the day!

Then try to make the swing at regular speed, duplicating the feel of the slow swing. You can talk to yourself when you make the swing in slow motion, when you're trying to identify what it feels like (comparing it to something you already know how to do will make learning easier), but don't think any words when you swing at full speed! Don't say "do this" or "don't do that" -- just duplicate the feel.

And -- this is VERY important -- realize that the correct feel may not be what you expect. For example, one of the biggest "feels" Carl taught me was that, when I was in the correct position at that point halfway up in the backswing position, I needed to feel like I was pointing the clubshaft straight up in the air. You might wonder about that, but I was twisting the club too much to the inside when I tried to swing "on plane." When I did it his way, I was always on plane at the top. I could learn that feel and duplicate it without thinking "point the shaft straight up." I just learned that feel and duplicated it.

Unfortunately, I didn't use that technique for my complete swing, so I tended to think about 10 different things and I struggled to swing well. Funny thing was, I always got my club on plane! Why? Because I could duplicate that feel despite the 10 different things going on in my mind.

Here's why it works: We do things by feel all the time. We're comfortable with movements when we can feel them. Learn how the proper mechanics feel, then set up properly and duplicate that feel; the mechanics will be there automatically. This is the biggest "secret" you can learn in any sport or job that depends on motion; you would never try to drive nails with a hammer the way most of you try to drive a ball with a club! "Hold the hammer firmly, with the head perfectly vertical and centered over the head of the nail. Now, lift it up slowly, bending the elbow but not cocking the wrist until you change direction..." By this point, you'd be unable to hit a nail head the size of a frying pan!

Remember: If you want to get out of your own way so you can concentrate on where you want the ball to go, learn how the proper mechanics feel, then set up properly and duplicate that feel; the mechanics will be there automatically.


  1. always good's never fun having all those bruises on your feet, ankles, and calves when you don't get out of the way of your swing. :-D

    Played Druid Hills Country Club for the Am/Am before The Dogwood this week. ( My (talented) amateur partner (which tells you which amateur I am) was a young man who is transfering from Minnesota (golden gophers) to Augusta State (2010 National Champions) - so he's pretty good.

    The kid put up a smooth 66 without breaking a sweat. He missed 2 fairways all day, and one was a technicality as he was on the first cut which made his long approach to the par 5 easier.

    After the round, he said he just likes to have fun on the course. I said (jokingly) "shut up ! We want to at least have the fantasy that you guys are at least having to work a little bit out here - that the course made you think or challenged you." He just laughed.

  2. But it always seems to come down to that, doesn't it? Challenge or not, you should enjoy playing.

    That's why I wanted to do this post. Part of having fun is not having your mind cluttered with trivia. (Unless you're relaxing before your appearance on Jeopardy...)