Monday 20 November 2017

There's madness in the method

Better golf cannot be achieved without lessons on the range

Rory McIlroy plays from the fourth fairway on his way to a third-round 65 at the Wells Fargo Championship
Rory McIlroy plays from the fourth fairway on his way to a third-round 65 at the Wells Fargo Championship

Dermot Gilleece

With a new club season upon us, it's time to dust off the toys and set about applying those marvellous tips from our favourite golf magazines and instruction books. We can 'Find more Fairways' Tom Watson's way and 'Hit Every Green' with Rickie Fowler, while confidently applying 'Tiger's 3 Keys' as insurance.

If only it were that easy. Jim Murray, the legendary scribe of the Los Angeles Times, was pretty much on the money when he observed: "Golf is the most over-taught and least-learned human endeavour. If they taught sex the way they teach golf, the human race would have died out years ago."

Fresh light was shone for me on the popular myth of playing the game the way the perceived greats do on a recent reading of an essay titled 'The Missing Aristotle Papers of Golf' by Alistair Cooke from almost 50 years ago. By way of proving the old adage that there's nothing new in the golf swing, his thesis was illustrated beautifully by an experience I had at the 1995 US Masters.

That was when Jack Nicklaus, as a 55-year-old, thrilled the opening day's attendance with a sparkling 67. Then, after we had waited eagerly for him to disclose the source of the magic, the author of Golf My Way offered a crushingly simple explanation. "While hitting balls on the range this morning, I found something," he said. That was it.

Therein lies the problem for those believing they can do it the Nicklaus way. As Cooke wrote: "Anyone who has laboured over the literature, and then discovered how reluctant the human body is to see the word made flesh, is bound to conclude sooner or later that the trouble with books is that they are mostly written by men who play great golf and write duffer prose."

He went on to explain that while instruction books may carry the by-line of a champion, they've more than likely been ghost-written. Indeed, as one such ghost-writer put it, the so-called authors have as much to do with the actual writing "as King James did with writing the Holy Bible."

From a sales standpoint, magazines consider tips from the leading tournament professionals to be a critical element of their content. But do these exponents actually know how they do such wonderful things with a golf ball? Or is it a question of the ghost-writer having to deal with feelings so fine that they could be conveyed only by someone capable of handling complex emotions in "the barest prose?" Which is why Nicklaus settled for having "found something" on the practice ground at Augusta National.

In the same way, how could Christy O'Connor Snr have explained the deliberate presence of three seven-irons in his bag while competing in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1979? No more than he would have been able to explain the customisation of certain grips which had been crudely fattened with insulation tape. How do you explain feel?

As I've written in these pages in the past, nowhere in sport is the gobshite factor accorded such free rein as in golf. Intelligent practitioners delude themselves that they can buy a game, either through equipment or instruction literature or both, without recourse to lessons on the practice ground.

All of which is certain to create problems for teaching professionals, despite an awareness that their pupils are unlikely to complain, for fear of drawing attention to their inadequacies. One of the most honest notices I have seen in golf was outside a Gary Player academy in Malaysia. It read: "Golfers are not created equal, but we'll make you better."

A few days ago, I paid a visit to the Irish seat of golf learning at Carton House where the GUI's National Academy is based. Karl Morris, the noted sports psychologist, happened to drop in while I was there and recalled a seminar of golf professionals he had addressed in Germany.

"When I asked how they would feel about being judged on their results, as happens in other teaching pursuits, there was a deafening silence," he said. "The obvious conclusion was that their results can't have been especially impressive."

Which, if you think of it, offers a wonderful get-out clause for the purveyors of written golf instruction. As in: "Surely you don't expect to be able to play golf like Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Rory McIlroy, Jack Nicklaus or Nick Faldo?" Noel Fox, who has joined the Academy staff with National Coach, Neil Manchip, as his training professional, could recognise the duplicity.

"It's not unlike the cosmetics industry and its anti-ageing creams which carry the promise of eternal youth," he said. "Even the most optimistic customer must know that it's not going to happen."

A Walker Cup representative who has won six significant championships, Fox ranks among the most knowledgeable people I have met in golf, which goes some way towards explaining his long-time friendship with Pádraig Harrington. "Back in the 1960s, Mark McCormack opened the door to the marketeers through his endeavours to sell the phenomenon that tournament golf was becoming," he said. "That, I believe, was the birth of what could be called method-teaching."

He went on: "Golfers were beguiled by the attractiveness of what they were being sold. Pretty was good. If the club was swung in a certain way, good things would happen. Which, of course, is not necessarily the case. Ugly swings can also deliver effective results. And once money entered the picture, a proud process had lost part of its integrity.

"If you want to improve your game, the sort of instruction from the greats that you get in magazines and books should be largely ignored. Continue buying your favourite magazine, but have the discipline to flip past the instruction stuff. And when you're watching golf on Sky, their regular visits to the Shot Centre would be a good time to pop out and make yourself a cup of tea."

Then he added: "Find yourself a pro you can have a rapport with and who'll understand the embarrassing questions you have about your golf. He will be aware that impact is the only thing that matters and will set about tailoring your fundamentals so as to create a better impact feel."

In glorious weather, the Academy was busy with golfers of differing age, talent and gender. "Everybody's a misfiring elite player," said Fox with a grin.

Those gathered around Manchip, however, were clearly the genuine article. And with his brisk manner and athletic frame, he had their rapt attention.

"There is no Manchip method of teaching," he said. "There's only golf clubs and golf balls and a golf-course environment that tells us the sort of shot we need to play. Maybe it's a tight, tree-lined course with soft greens. Maybe it's a windy course and the greens are firm."

Maintaining an emphasis on simplicity, he went on: "A player shouldn't be attempting to replicate anybody else. What they should be seeking is the best version of themselves. And as far as hitting the ball is concerned, we're all attempting to do the same thing. The golf club has three, main components – the face, the head and the shaft. And by achieving control of these parts, we can play the shot we want to play."

Bobby Jones, who knew about language as well as superb ball-striking, claimed that the words used to describe feel were "necessarily vague and susceptible to varying interpretations among different persons". Which suggests that personal contact with your local pro is the best way of learning.

As for instructional tips from the game's greats, we should note the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, who famously remarked that a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.

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