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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Bobby Jones on "Playing by Feel"

Periodically I browse through some of my golf books, especially the stuff that was written a long time ago. I'm afraid we're falling into an obsession with mechanics and numbers that blinds us to the simpler aspects of the game, and I re-read these old books with the hope that I won't lose these little gems of knowledge.

One of my favorites is Bobby Jones because he played back in the days of hickory and, although he wasn't adverse to a modern approach (check out my post about his views on using video to improve your swing to see what I mean -- they did have slo-mo film back then, you know), he approaches the game with a less technical view.

With all the debate over players like Tiger and Yani Tseng "losing their swings" -- and just this past week, with Jordan Spieth suddenly losing his while Jason Day has "found something" and now can't seem to miss -- I thought a Jones article called Maintaining the "Feel" from his book Bobby Jones on Golf was appropriate.

Apparently Jones had been asked how great players could inexplicably lose their ability to play when they had been so good before. He was asked, "Is it because he [the player] can't play while he is thinking about his swing?" That's what we hear teachers and analysts on TV say all the time, isn't it? Here are a few of the things Bobby Jones had to say about the matter:
    It seems to me that this question implies that the better player, or expert, is able to play golf without thinking of anything at all except where he wants the ball to go. I know a good many fine young chaps engaged in big-time competition who would be highly pleased if this were so.
    Unquestionably, there are times when first-class players can play the game subconsciously. But the average player should remember that the most accomplished golfer can lose the touch as suddenly and for as little apparent reason as anyone else, and that, although at times he can immediately discover and correct his fault, there are also times when he is entirely at a loss for a remedy.
    This does not mean that the expert does not know how he should swing the club. But golf is a difficult game to play consistently well because the correct swing is not a thing the human body can accomplish entirely naturally. To hit the ball correctly the golfer has always to be under restraint. I have always, in my own mind, likened this restraint to that under which a trotting or a pacing horse must labor in a race when he must hold to an artificial gait although every urge must be for him to run like blazes.
    So any golfer may for a while have the feel so that he may think he can go on playing in that way easily and naturally; but the trouble is that the moment some mental implulse or physical necessity suggests to one of his muscles that it do something else at a particular time, it is likely to yield, because the thing it is doing is not the thing it can do most easily. (p10)
I think his explanation of why this is so is quite interesting. "The golfer has always to be under restraint." When I read that I think about teachers who say we should teach kids to swing as hard as possible and just straighten them out later. Somehow I don't think Jones would have agreed with that philosophy!

Anyway, he then phrases his answer to that original question this way:
    The answer to the question that started all this is, "Not because he can't play while he is thinking of the swing, but because he isn't sure what he ought to think about, and what he ought to try to do. (p10)
He muses that some people might have a great swing concept and still be incapable of performing it properly, but that such a situation doesn't alter the fact that
...the man who has the muscular control and sense of timing cannot play consistently well unless he knows what he is doing.
    But I think the nature of the problem is indicated when we realize that even the man with the control, the sense, and the knowledge finds intervals when his game is off and he can't find the reason. There are so many places to look and so many checks to make -- and sometimes the trouble is found in the simplest and least obvious locations. Golf is a game that must always be uncertain. (p10-11)
"Golf is a game that must always be uncertain." In an age of biomechanics and Trackman, this is a truth that rubs us the wrong way... but truth always has a way of doing that, doesn't it? On some days, some weeks, and even some months, our bodies simply won't repeat our golf swing no matter how hard we try -- and that's true even for the best golfers in the world.

I remember, back when Tiger first hooked up with Haney and he was recovering from knee surgery, he joined NBC's golf team in the booth and Dan Hicks asked him how he managed to get enough practice while his knee was recovering. Tiger's answer stuck with me; he said that the better he understood what he was trying to do, the less practice he seemed to need.

Maybe we've become too obsessed with our games. Maybe we've made the golf swing so complicated that we no longer understand what we're really trying to do. Maybe it's time we spent a little less time focusing on the science of the golf swing and spent more time just learning to have fun swinging the club and hitting the ball. And maybe we should realize that on some days our bodies simply aren't going to cooperate... and that those days are just part of the process.

Maybe we should just accept the fact that we're only human, get over it and try again tomorrow.

It's a thought, anyway.

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