As a kid growing up in Patchogue, Long Island, I followed my father to Larry’s Barber Shop on South Ocean Avenue until Mike, my guy at Larry’s, opened his own shop on West Main Street, next to Patchogue Sporting Goods. This was in maybe 1973. I share this with the hope that this next part—my conversations with Mike—can be applied to your own golfing self.
While I sat in his chair, Mike told me on more than one occasion about his experiences as a caddie at the golf course in Bellport, one village east of Patchogue, and his youthful infatuation with the game. He said (as my memory has it), “I knew I was starting to get good when I could put the ball back in my stance and hit a slice when I needed it and put it forward in my stance and hit a draw.”
The ability to do that struck me then, and ever since, as a statement about golfing class. All my golfing life, I have tried to curve the ball. Forty-five years later, I’m here to tell you: The results have not been good.
I returned home (Philadelphia) from the Masters eager to start a new season equipped with a fresh swing thought. (HIT IT CLEAN IN ’17!) I had played some decent (sub-90) southern golf around the Masters with the use of a controlled pull-draw. I got that from watching the spectacular black-and-white YouTube video (the root source is film) that shows a hatless Ben Hogan hitting drivers into the Atlantic in George Coleman’s backyard near Seminole Golf Club.
Hogan is slightly closed at address. It looks like he takes the club inside on the backswing, but in fact it is square to his alignment. Some of Hogan’s swings, at the height of his 1950s powers, look complicated to me and impossible for the ordinary player to replicate. But the swings Hogan makes for Coleman (one of the big-wallet matchmakers in The Match) are just the opposite. Hogan sweeps it back, arms close to the body. He gathers himself at the top. Then he lets it go from the inside. Bam.
It’s a swing you can make, or at least emulate. I started hitting long (for me) pull-draws. You may find this to be true for yourself: If I drive it in play, I’ll generally make a par or a bogey. That’s an excellent recipe for breaking 90. Whenever I break 90, I return home happier than when I left. (I’m a yipping 14-handicapper. I putt all the little ones, frequently miss them, and count them when I do.) The Hogan swing was my new new thing.
But then came two post-Sergio rounds on difficult courses near home, courses with a lot of trouble on the right side and less on the left. I didn’t have enough trust in the Hogan pull-draw to aim in the direction of the trouble down the right. I have never even thought about trying to hit it straight. (Thank you, Mike the Barber.) And when I aimed left and tried to play fades, I instead hit dead pulls. The shots were on the face but were also crazily out of play, some more than 50 yards offline. Needless to say, I posted three-digit scores. Something had to give. I could not go through the new season without a new way to think about the swing.
I am not what you would call an early adaptor. (The phrase, I just learned from Wikipedia, has been around since 1962, but I am new to it.) My irons are beryllium black-dot Ping Eye-2s, and I love them. (Karsten Solheim, in the mid-1990s, told me that he never made a better iron.) I have heard—we all have heard—about TrackMan, but I had never sniffed the device. I signed up for a TrackMan lesson with Mark Anderson, a teacher at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, about whom I had heard nothing but good things. We met at High Noon on the last Friday in April.
(Again, I’m sharing this with the hope that my experience might be helpful to you. Isn’t that a tenet of the self-help movement?)
Mark was first-rate. Not chatty. Not a technocrat. A knowledgeable, understandable, encouraging teacher of golf, wisely slathered in sunscreen. I told him about the Hogan-Coleman video. He of course knew about it. I told him about my tendency to overdo whatever it is I’m trying to do. He’s seen that move too. I told him about my aversion to straight shots, even though everyone will tell you, modern golf is meant to be played hitting the ball straight.
“Your swing is so flat that the clubhead is outside the frame on the backswing,” Mark said when we watched the “before” TrackMan videos of my 93 mph driver swing. And it’s a generous frame. It was nuttily flat and I was so shut at address I looked like a 19th-century, playing-in-a-gale caddie-golfer in the old country.
Then Mark did a remarkable thing. He got me in some conventional positions. He encouraged me to think about hitting straight shots.
I told Mark that I would do anything he asked me to do at address. And that I would try to do anything he asked me to do on the backswing. And that I would attempt to do what he wanted me to do on the downswing. He nodded with understanding. “The downswing is maybe a second,” he said.
Here is the program Mark gave this right-handed golfer who stands a little over 6-feet tall:
1. Ball just inside the left heel. (Not in front of the left toe.)
2. Feet, body, shoulders square to the intended line.
3. Knees over feet. Shoulders over knees.
4. Stand closer to the ball. (Dr. Scholl’s foot powder on the driver face showed many shots being struck on the toe.)
5. Little more weight on the ball of the left foot. (I like to feel like an infielder prepared for a double-play grounder. Thank you, Dewey Arnette.)
6. Don’t toe the club in on the backswing. Let it fan open naturally. Don’t take it inside. Don’t take it outside. Just take it back.
7. Then bring the hands up. Up, up and away! (Dig if you will the picture: Davis Love III, circa 1988. RIP, AFKAP.)
8. Then: Let it go.
My thought became to get some sunshine on the knuckles of my gloveless left hand at the top of the swing. I also found that to make this swing I would have to use whatever stomach muscles I may have. There’s an element of stretch to it.
My TrackMan swing speed went to just over 100 mph. The flight was higher. There were no more toe hooks, no more pull-hooks, no more dumpster-diver line-drive dead-lefts. The shots were higher, longer, straighter.
Mark sent me the video and said, “Great job!”
America needs more teachers like Mark.
I’ll give you a follow-up report in a few days. That is: Spring Training, Part 2.
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