The Five Fixes That Helped A Struggling Golf Writer Finally Break 80

Friday November 7th, 2014
Peaks of elation. Valleys of despair. In his heroic quest to find his swing, our writer discovers the real secret to breaking 80.
Kevin Sweeney

In an issue filled with golf fixers, Golf Magazine's editors thought someone should represent the fixees (the dubs, the hackers, the desperate, the terminally confused), defined here as anyone who has ever addressed a golf ball with the certain knowledge that humiliation is imminent.

Let me introduce myself. I'm Mr. Mats Only. For a quarter of a century, I have experienced and chronicled the full gamut of golf-instruction outcomes, from paralysis-by-analysis ineptitude to the much rarer "I'm-in-the-zone" bliss. My swing—wrecked during a 1989 sampling of golf schools for Sports Illustrated—has been overhauled or tweaked by a who's-who of swing swamis, including Stan Thirsk, Jack Lumpkin, David Leadbetter, Hank Haney, Rob Stanger and Brian Mogg. Their diagnosis: Lost Swing Syndrome.

Once an 8-handicapper, I spent the better part of a decade shooting in the low-to-mid-90s, beating balls at scruffy driving ranges and writing the "Mats Only" blog for Golf.com. I tried pretty much everything—gadgets, custom equipment, offbeat swing theories, sports shrinks. I shared my ups and downs with my readers, and they shared their experiences with me. Many of their e-mails began, "I feel your pain..."

Happily, I finally found my way back. I'm not a scratch golfer, but I can occasionally break 80. That makes me genuinely happy and fulfilled. I'll bet you'd take that, right? Being a guy who often threatens, and sometimes shoots, in the 70s? I'm 67, ridiculously tall, and recovering from my second frozen shoulder, so if I can do it, you can too. There really are "secrets"—fixes that can lead to instantaneous and dramatic improvement. I spent years searching for mine, but each successful fix had its "Aha!" moment.

Here, then, is my take on the Little Red Book. Call it The Search for 79. With grateful acknowledgment to the wily pros who got me back in the game, these are the five fixes that worked for me.

1) THE GRIP FIX: On my first visit to the David Lead-better Academy, in the early '90s, Brian Mogg noticed a serious flaw in the way I held the club. My overlapping grip looked good—the V's between my thumbs and forefingers pointed where they were supposed to—but when I squeezed a little harder, the clubface would close. Brian demonstrated this by having me grip the club with my left hand alone and then squeezing. Wow. The clubface snapped shut like a closing door.

"You've got really big hands," he said, an observation I've heard since I was big enough to palm a basketball. "We see a lot of bad grips where the shaft is too much in the palms, but you've got the club too much in your fingers." This was a problem because, like most golfers, I instinctively increased my grip pressure just before impact, causing the shaft to roll counterclockwise. No wonder I couldn't control my shots! I had a Wheel of Fortune grip.

Brian's fix was simple. First, he recommended a game-improvement glove that showed the proper routing of the shaft via a line transversing the palm and fingers. Second, he prescribed a "short thumb" placement of my left thumb on the shaft. Just like that, I could change grip pressure without closing or opening the clubface.

Honesty compels me to admit that I sometimes forget this lesson. Last summer, for example, I started hitting snap hooks and chunky wedges. I was bewildered until my club pro, John Bozarth, noticed that I had the habit of gently "milking" the club during my waggles to minimize hand and forearm tension. As a consequence, the club was slipping back into my fingers, rendering my grip unstable. (The check's in the mail, John.) Thus enlightened, I followed Sergio Garcia's example and ditched the re-gripping habit.

The bigger lesson here is that those wrinkled old pros are right when they insist that no fundamental is more important than the grip. I only fault them for not more clearly explaining why.

2) THE 9-SHOTS-OF-GOLF FIX: In the late '90s, I met Rob Stanger, a Johnny Miller disciple who was teaching at California's Mission Hills Country Club, site of the LPGA's Nabisco Championship. Rob's specialty is the playing lesson, and I learned a lot in our late-afternoon tutorials on the club's three posh courses. His key insight was that I shouldn't wait until my swing was repaired before I started trying to shape shots. "Golf isn't played here on the lesson tee," he said at the start, "and you'll never get your mechanics straight until you start controlling your trajectories and spinning the ball."

To underline his point, Rob raked some balls to his feet with a 6-iron and proceeded to hit nine shots with the nine available flight paths, i.e., three trajectories (low, medium, high) paired with three shot shapes (draw, straight, fade). It was a drill he'd learned from Miller, and he performed it brilliantly. He then started me out hitting balls low and high, right and left, knowing that reliable technique comes from learning to control the ball, not the other way around.

Today, if you give me a mulligan or three, I can hit eight of the nine shots—the high draw being the one that gets me out of bed in the morning. "The average Tour pro can hit six out of nine," Miller has said. "Anything above that, you're starting to get really good."

Here's the bonus that came with Rob's fix: The game was instantly more fun. You haven't really "played" golf until you've successfully attacked a back-left pin with a running draw, or neutralized a two-club, right-to-left wind by taking a stronger club and hitting a cut. You'll know you're there when you start calling your shots—"Knock-down 7-iron over the mound"—before you successfully hit them.

And if you happen to run into Miller's "average Tour pro"—well, good luck to him.

There really are "secret" fixes that can lead to instant, dramatic improvement.

3) THE TOUR TEMPO FIX: My Mats Only blog on Golf.com made me an easy target for every self-styled golf guru, sports shrink and Gyro Gearloose in the western hemisphere. "Give me 30 minutes," they'd write me, "and I'll get you back on track." I gave most of these guys a shot, no matter how goofy they sounded, because I knew I'd get a column out of it. Then, in 2001, I got a lunch invitation from an insurance broker and former Kansas State football center who claimed to have solved golf's most baffling mystery. "Give me 30 minutes on the range," he told me, "and I'll have you swinging like Al Geiberger on the day he shot 59."

That's how I met John Novosel, and that's how I wound up co-authoring his 2004 best-seller, Tour Tempo: Golf's Last Secret Finally Revealed. John, through the study of Tour-swing videos, had discovered that tempo was not a refinement of the golf swing; it was a fundamental, a prerequisite for powerful and accurate ballstriking. What's more, he'd found that virtually every Tour player—slow swingers and fast swingers alike—swung to the same rhythm, a 3-to-1 ratio of backswing to forward swing.

Crazy, right? But within a half hour, John had me swinging at the same sweet rhythm that Geiberger used, and I was hitting the ball with a consistency I'd never known. It turned out that I hadn't really "lost" my old swing; I had merely weighed it down with too many mental Band-Aids and enumerated "don'ts." My backswing had slowed dramatically, and not even the top teaching pros thought it was a problem because—well, because Bobby Jones insisted that "nobody ever swung a golf club too slowly."

Speeding up my backswing produced almost magical results, and in the past decade I've watched Novosel (and his talented son John Jr.) perform the same miracle countless times on the range at Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kan. If that sounds like a paid endorsement, it's because Tour Tempo was the biggest breakthrough of my golfing life. It got me off the mats and back out on the course.

4) THE POSTURE FIX: You may recognize Roger Fredericks from those "Roger Fredericks Reveals Secrets to Golf Swing Flexibility" infomercials, but I met the golf fitness guru through the teacher Rob Stanger, when both were operating out of Mission Hills. Roger put me through a diagnostic routine that revealed how my then 58-year-old body could perform after decades sitting crouched over a keyboard. (Not so well.) He then prescribed a stretching regimen that helped me a great deal, although I can't say I perform my drills with the zeal of Gary Player, Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, to name just three Hall of Famers who endorse Roger's program.

The most important thing Roger gave me was permission to ignore the accepted notion of what constitutes a good stance and setup. I'm 6 feet 7 inches tall, with long legs and short arms, so when I take a supposedly "correct stance" my club hovers three inches off the ground. To compensate, I flex my legs a bit more and allow my weight to shift toward my heels. This is not the recommended setup for your average golfer, but it gets me closer to the ball and keeps me from falling on my face after impact.

Roger said to me, "You want to know a secret? Most golfers simply aren't flexible enough to get into the positions their teachers want. Trying to do something you're physically unable to do is a recipe for more dysfunction."

Roger's key contribution was encouraging me to make allowances for my unique physique. His overriding message is reconstruction, not accommodation. "Flexibility is the answer," he said. "You can make a bigger shoulder turn and develop a freer, more powerful swing. And it doesn't matter how old you are." Or how tall you are.

5) THE COMMITMENT FIX: Last year I attended VISION54 schools in California and Arizona while gathering material for Be a Player, a book I'm coauthoring with renowned performance coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott. Pia and Lynn needed to watch me play only a few holes to notice how many strokes I threw away simply by hitting or putting without fully committing to the shot. Most of the damage happened on the greens because I am a notoriously poor reader of putts. I often draw the putter back while still debating if the putt is uphill or downhill, resulting in a sickly, decelerated stroke that leaves the ball well short of the hole. Either that or I take a desperate, jabby stroke that sends it racing past.

"I know I should back off and give it a second read," I said in our post-round group therapy session, "but I don't want to be one of those golfers who studies a putt from seven directions while a foursome waits in the fairway."

"John, you're not a slow player, and you don't waste time over the ball," Lynn said. "You could take just a little longer to make a decision you're truly committed to."

Pia added, "You can never know beforehand that you've judged your putt correctly, but you can train yourself to first make a decision and then to fully commit to that decision before you address the ball."

The next day, standing over a sidehill seven-footer, my mind went blank. I saw the hole-out, and I saw the line, but I couldn't remember how firm my stroke was supposed to be. In the past I would have simply guessed and made a half-assed stroke. This time, I stepped back and performed my mental calisthenics a second time. Then, I fully committed to both the line and weight of the putt, and I rolled that sucker in. Par save!

"Making decisions and committing to them is a skill," Pia said, treating my little triumph as a teaching opportunity. "But it's a skill anybody can learn. You don't have to be a Tour player."

So said the fixer to the grateful fixee.

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