I once had a professor who taught Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Dr. Johanna Bos, whose lectures were so exquisitely crafted that, rather than dutifully scrawling notes in my notebook, all I could do was listen with mouth agape, hoping to drink in 1% of the brilliance I was hearing. Her politics and the angle by which she approached the OT was (at least it seemed to me) extremely liberal, but that didn’t matter: this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff; if anyone walked out of her lectures without a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s involvement with Israel and His intentions for Creation you were beyond hope. Her lectures were a mystical and life-changing experience.
I say this because my lesson with Alex Black on Saturday was something akin to that – everything he said was so on target and applicable to my golf game that I was frantically trying to commit his every word to memory while still attempting to stay in the moment and apply what he was saying to our 45-minute lesson. We started out talking about my goals for 2014: bogey golf and 88-95 on a regular basis. I told him I knew I could do it – heck, I had posted scores of 90 and 91, and shot a dozen rounds around 100 over the past year while pissing away at least a dozen strokes a round.
That didn’t sit well with my swing coach. “That’s an awful lot of strokes to throw away during a round”, says Alex. “How did you do that? Penalties? Mistakes? Too many putts?”
“Yes, yes, and yes”, I replied.
I shift the subject quickly to my need for a more consistent transition from backswing to downswing and shifting my weight from back to front. Alex, being the kind of teacher he is, oozed confidence: “I’ve got a great drill to help you with that weight shift. But there’s more to it than that – if you want to shoot bogey golf, as most of my students do…”
Most of his students? At this point I’m ready to face the machine guns and take the next foxhole just for him.
“…we’re gonna have to take a hard look at your swing.” A pause. “And your game.”
Ugh. I didn’t know this was going to turn into a golf intervention. Still, I know there’s no way I can improve to where I need to be without significant changes, not only technically with my swing, but in my overall approach to the game as well.
Like last year, Alex reaches into my bag and grabs a 7-iron – which is great, because I hit my 7-iron like John Daly hits his 5 (not really, but it sure sounds fun to write). I hit a few – a couple good, a couple thin, and Alex is on it like white on rice.
“You’re playing your ball too far forward, so we’re gonna drop that back a couple of inches. More importantly, you’re not getting enough lag in your downswing. Here, let me grab my camera…”
…which he does, and we videotape a few swings from the side and the back. We then head under the shade of his tent and do the whole “film at 11″ bit:
From the video, Alex is able to identify the source of my problem by pointing out that my head, rather than staying on top of while the club is making contact, is coming up and sliding behind the ball, meaning the club face at impact is too far forward on plane. If I were producing a better lag and keeping my upper body quieter, my head would be on top and my club face holding back through impact; instead, I’m behind the club face and finishing up on my back foot instead of my front, with my upper body ahead of my lower.
Alex grabs my pitching wedge and places it under my back foot, my foot on its face so the shaft is sticking up behind me, and he has me take some swings to get the shaft to hit the ground before the club face makes contact with the ball. It’s a great drill for the driving range. We also work on my alignment, which continues to be slightly open at address. He asks me how I align my feet at address. I’m sure this is something very important, but I’m not smart enough to get where he’s going.
Alex senses that I’ve just taken the next off-ramp towards Clueless City.
He explains. “There are only two times on a hole where you can handle the ball – on the tee, and on the green.” I finally get what he’s trying to say. I’m thus given the go-forward task of making sure the lines on my golf ball are always pointed where I’m aiming whenever possible so my feet can follow suit to ensure that everything is square and moving towards target. For someone who finds it hard not only to concentrate while out on the golf course, but slow the game down to where everything you are doing has a specific purpose, it’s a truly “wow” moment.
There would be more.
“Do you take a practice swing while out on the course?”, asks Alex.
There’s an awkward silence. Looks like I’m taking a practice swing regularly out on a course going forward.
We talk about a “one and two” count in the swing – “one” being the backswing, “and” the first move downward where the back leg starts moving forward and the club is allowed to drop into the slot, and “two” the move forward where the weight shifts from back to front and the club moves through the ball, clipping the grass in front of the ball (no divot necessary). For someone who has historically used my upper body to try and hit the snot out of the ball whenever possible, hearing Alex stress the need to keep my upper body “numb” during my downswing, I feel as if I’m learning to play real golf for the first time.
“Last year was all about the fundamentals”, says Alex. “This year it’s all about the kind of contact and repetition that leads to scoring.”
I hit several 7-irons as pure as I have ever done. Not only is the contact cleaner, but I’m picking up some trajectory as well, since the angle coming through the ball is a little more steep than I had been doing previously.
We move on to my hybrids. I love hitting my 3- and 4- hybrid but confess to Alex that I never know where one is going from one swing to another. He makes sure I understand that the swing I’ll be taking going forward with my hybrids is the same as with my irons – in other words, the “and” position of bumping my hips forward to create lag and letting the club fall into the slot (sounds like a surfing term to me). Playing the ball in the middle of my stance (unlike forward as I’ve been doing), I’ll be hitting more down on the ball instead of sweeping it off the turf, just as I would do with an iron. I proceed to hit three of the most perfect 3-hybrids I have ever hit in my life.
“How did that feel?”, Alex asks.
I’m speechless. “Um, good” is all I can utter.
We next head to the 3-wood, which I’ve been having a boatload of issues with recently (in fact, there’s currently a restraining order against me). I mention to Alex that I’ve been playing with the idea of a stinger for those tight holes where hitting the fairway is a must. I might as well have told him I forgot my wallet at home. You see, Alex doesn’t believe in stingers. “If you can hit a 3-wood or a 5-wood they way you’re supposed to you don’t need a stinger.” I dutifully nod in agreement.
I’d be lying if I said all the 3-woods he had me hit were perfection. They weren’t. While it is true that a precious few were as good as any I’ve hit in my life, most were pulled and topped as a result of not getting my weight shifted properly. So there’s obviously a bit of work left to be done there.
We take a few minutes hitting pitching wedges to 100, 75, and 40-yard targets. I understand where he’s going with this: if I want to play bogey golf I need my smaller clubs to get me to more one putt (or at the very least, easy two putt) distances than I’ve been giving myself to date. Besides, it’s great practice for shifting my weight from back to front.
In forty-five minutes I feel as if I’ve been in deep golf therapy. Last year’s lesson was like practicing swimming in the shallow end of the pool with water wings; today I was fourteen years old again and thrown off the motor boat by my Uncle Don into Lake Ossipee with my brothers and cousins and forced to sink or swim. There was so much information on different levels being passed my way that all I could say to myself was “wow” after paying Alex and heading off for some putting practice on the incredibly fast and fickle Superstition Springs putting green.
We weren’t done.
“It’ll be quieting down here in a few weeks”, says Alex, “I think you’d find it helpful if we were to go out and play nine holes. I want to see how you manage your way around a golf course.”
My veins immediately start running ice water cold – after all, who would want to put their Achilles heel on display before your very own swing coach? I gulp and say it’s a great idea – in fact, let’s do it on Superstition Springs’s back nine, the place where bogey golf hopes go to die in a series of tight finishing holes with lots of water. After all, if I’m going to show off my (lack of) course management skills, why not where they’re tested to the point where I still don’t know how to properly play holes 14, 17, and 18. We agree to exchange e-mails in a few weeks. It would be a great learning experience.
Our initial session last year was all about the basics and fixing the historical flaws in my swing that had been there for twenty years. This year was like jumping from basic arithmetic to calculus. But I expected that – after all, if you boldly proclaim you want to shoot between 88 and 95 regularly but to date have only shot two rounds in the low 90s, you have to expect to be introduced to all sorts of things you have never considered before.
I’m excited about the homework I’ve been given. I know I’m up to the test.