I was 9, finally old enough to pull my father’s trolley (that’s a pull cart to you Americans). He would allow me to take the occasional ungainly swipe with one of his great big golf clubs and one particularly violent toe-snipe almost neutered my Uncle Weston.
Dad always believed that after any stinging blow, a vigorous rub would do the trick to relieve the pain. In this case, he told Uncle Weston, “Don’t rub them, count them.”
Dad decided, in the interest of safety, it was time I had a couple of weapons cut down to my own size.
In the corner of the pro shop sat a barrel of old clubs that Ernie Jones, the club pro, referred to as the “sheep beaters.” He hacked off about five inches from the shaft of a medieval 2-wood, did the same to a 5-iron from the Cretaceous period, and I was off and duffing.
With my father as a role model, I soon developed a decidedly agricultural action. I instantly fell in golf’s great trap — I did what came naturally or, in other words, what felt comfortable.
I held the club in my left hand with a five-knuckle grip and stood with a knock-kneed, wide open stance. Man, it felt good. Results were another matter. I could skelp the ball up the left wing and watch it finish 40 yards right of the fairway.
After 10 minutes of trying to follow the flight of my ball, Dad needed a chiropractor. He worked it out that the ball was going about 120 yards with the 2-wood, but unfortunately, only 70 of them were forward.
I was the proud owner of a majestic snap-slice so severe that into the breeze the ball would frequently end its odyssey heading back in my direction.
Sensing that I might never complete a dogleg left, my father had a sudden and uncharacteristic attack of common sense. He sent me to Ernie for a course of lessons.
Ernie had his hands full, and I’m certain that his first pint of the evening, after an afternoon with me, was downed in two swallows so he could begin the process of erasing the memory of what he witnessed on the practice ground.
You try teaching an uncoordinated 9-year-old with the IQ of a toilet seat. At that age, I was like a computer. You had to punch information into me and needless to say, I was not a model pupil.
Now, listen, my mummy could teach Tiger Woods. That’s easy — no offense meant to Butch Harmon. She’d say, “All right dear, I’d like you to stand with your legs straight and your feet together. Grip the club so I can see four knuckles on your left hand and none on your right. Thank you.
“Now, keep your left arm bent, your head up, and away we go!”
Tiger could do exactly as Mum directed and what’s more, he’d find a way to win with it.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t do as Ernie instructed simply because I didn’t want to. He changed my grip, a move I vehemently opposed. Why change what is comfortable and familiar for something that feels awful? You wouldn’t either, would you?
After much argument and the occasional rabbit punch, he convinced me, and when I learned how to lose a ball in the left rough, I considered myself a complete player who no longer needed tuition.
In the ensuing years, Ernie taught me a great deal more, including what now seems obvious. The day after you find the answer, someone will change the question. But it was not until I found myself at the peak of one of my many slumps that I was to learn my most valuable lesson.
In 1983, the game of golf had a firm grip on the waist of my boxers and was administering the death wedgie. I had a dose of the atomic yips and after missing 10 of 11 cuts by a single shot, I was ready to quit and apply for a job as a wringer-outer for a one-armed window cleaner.
I sat glumly in a clubhouse in the north of England, looking for someone to torture with my tale of woe. (I had not yet learned that 90 percent of people don’t care what you shot and the other 10 percent wish it was higher.)
The unlucky stiff turned out to be Gary Cullen, a Kenyan friend of mine. Gary sat beside me and, before I could open my mouth, suggested that I go see a friend of his, a sports pyschologist named Alan Fine.
I told Gary that I needed a shrink like I needed a worse putting stroke, thank you very much. Secretly, I had vowed to seek the man out, a kind of pilgrimage, if you like. I conjured up an image of a swami figure sitting in a lotus position, humming quietly.
I was dead right, except that he had a much bigger nose than I had ever dreamed possible. (And, I’m not nasally challenged myself.)
I explained to him that I could not get it into the hole from 18 inches and I needed him to tell me in 50 words or less (he charged by the hour) how to overcome his problem. He asked me for the two simplest outcomes for any given putt that I might face.
I told him that I could either make the putt or miss it. Duh!! Then, he asked, “What if those two possibilities were equally acceptable to you?”
At that point I realized that if my brain was made of dynamite it probably wouldn’t be big enough to blow the wax out of my ears. Then, he said, “The players who play the best are those who have the courage to play as if it doesn’t matter.” The bit that irked me most was the fact that he had just uttered the two simplest, most profound statements I had ever heard and he was still 11 words under the limit!
Then, to make matters worse, this man, who had never played golf in his life, gave me a putting lesson. Within minutes I was holing nearly everything from nearly everywhere and even enjoying the few I missed!
I learned that day what great players like Woods and Jack Nicklaus have known all along. The ability to turn one’s attention inward and merely observe what is going on is the trademark of a champion.
Now, you are saying, “Your most valuable lesson hasn’t done you a helluva lot of good, has it? You don’t even play anymore.”
True enough, but it is a lesson that was taught to me by my favorite coach, a man who I believe should be at the top of every top 100 list and not just for alphabetical reasons.
That man is Mike Abbott — formerly of the Sports Club of Dallas and now at Rancho San Marcos in Santa Barbara, California — and he was the man who would finally point my career in the right direction. He tells people that he coached me off two tours and into the commentary box.
Sometimes the best a coach can do is to tell you when to quit and play a different game. That’s a real friend.
Next month, I will be writing an instruction article (yes, really!). In it, I will elaborate on some of Abbott’s insight and Fine’s techniques.
For those interested in seeking Alan out, he works for a company called Inside Out in Provo, Utah.
He has recently taken up golf and I’m delighted to tell you that it drives him absolutely berserk.