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Clark: Golf is a reaction game

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To most of us golf seems like a deliberate, planned exercise where we act on the ball or we initiate the motion upon it.  But unlike baseball, where we react to the ball hit our way or the pitch thrown at us; or tennis where we react to the serve of the opponent, in golf it seems there is no need to REACT simply because the ball is just sitting there. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

If you go to a driving range and watch new players trying to hit the ball, it is a most instructive exercise. I enjoy it immensely because I learn so much from it.  Typically the progression is something like this. Swing, miss, swing, hit ground, swing, shank, etc. But sooner or later, by hook or crook, new players swing and put the club on the back of the ball, and voila! The ball goes in the air and somewhat in the direction of the target! At that moment, something magical happens in their life:  THEY BECOME A GOLFER!

They were not a golfer when they missed the ball or laid sod over it, but they joined the fold when the golf ball did some version of what it was supposed to do. Now, and here’s what is important for us to understand, the series of motions they executed to produce that ball flight tells them that they must have done SOMETHING right to make the golf ball behave that way. And they spend a good part of their golfing life trying to repeat that motion. The positive reinforcement is so powerful, it becomes the very foundation of their future swing and stays with them for quite a long while.  They are reacting to the first great shot of their lives! They saw the golf ball behave, marveled at its flight and wondered, sometimes aloud, what they did to produce that magical shot.

The most recurring theme in golfdom is simply this: golfers REACT. They react to one of two things: the shot they just hit or the one they usually hit. Right or wrong they habitually swing AWAY from their predictable ball flight.  Slicers come over the top, hookers (no, not them) drop too far inside. It is as inevitable as Monday after Sunday. The instinct to aim or swing left for a slicer is as strong as the batter hitting the dirt after a high hard one was thrown at their head. How do I know? I have watched it for many, many years. It would be insane to do otherwise. So if you think the golf ball is sitting innocently on the ground waiting for you to put your beautiful swing on it, think again. It is resting rather maliciously on the ground directing you to steer it AWAY from its predictable flight pattern.  I could threaten a slicer with bodily harm if they swing left and it would be no deterrent whatsoever to over-the-top! You program your next swing at impact of your last. The golf ball only reacts to the club face and path of your swing and YOU only react to the flight it produces!

What can be done for this seemingly chronic malady?  Can you do any drills; can you use any training aids?  Is there a swing thought to change the pattern? Answer:  NO!  I know all my friends who design the training aids will tell you I’m crazy, and they are entitled to their view.  I have just never seen anything effective until: THE BALL FLIGHT CHANGES!  Yep, the correction for a slice is a hook — the correction for a pull is a push and so on. Something has to be done to change the pattern of your shots so that you can REACT in a totally different way. So when I’m working with someone who hits the big banana, I’m working to get them to hook it, NOT HIT IT STRAIGHT!  Why? Well, because of everything I’ve just written.

Let’s say I have a student five degrees outside/in on my Trackman reading. I can assure you that they are not going to read three degrees inside/out anytime soon.  So let’s use this example. What to do? Try any or all of the following:  A much stronger grip, a very early roll over release, take the club face away more shut, swing your arms down early, hit balls with your back to the target, etc. ANYTHING that will produce a right-to-left ball flight, a draw, or better yet a HOOK. When this ball flight becomes the pattern, the norm, then and only then can we start building a new move designed to swing more from the inside.  I have used this technique for many years, and it is most effective.  Some call this a band aid, to which I would proclaim, “Then buy a whole a box.”  It is a training aid intended to change your habits. And it works. The problem is most folks see the golf ball going the other way and try to moderate it TOO SOON.  They wean themselves off the drill and new ball flight well before they are ready to affect any real change in their golf swing.

Finally, when should you stop doing the exaggerated drill? When you can actually produce a hook, a true inside/out shallow hook with the golf ball starting right and curving TOO MUCH to the left; then you are ready to step on to the “broad sunlit uplands” as Churchill once so famously described it; That special place of higher learning reserved for the select few who really want to change.

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Greg

    Jul 27, 2012 at 7:40 am

    You have a valid point here. But the difference especially with natural movement is still huge compared to other sports.
    Because the golf ball isn’t moving people are more inclined to repeat mistakes much more often because they don’t have the natural varience they have with other sports like soccer or tennis.
    Without instruction you won’t stumble upon the right path as easily.

  2. Pingback: GolfWRX.com – Clark: Golf is a reaction game | Golf Driving Hints

  3. joe the pro

    Jul 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

    this makes more sense than anyhting I’ve read. I can’t get my students to change their move if they keep hitting the same shot! Perfect sense. Where do you teach?

  4. adamyounggolf

    Jul 7, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I am a golf coach and would agree with this completely. I see in almost every case where the player is reacting to their normal pattern of shots by swinging the opposite direction – any attempt to correct this through forcing body positions is not hitting the real cause and is more of a band aid than the ‘better’ approach you describe. it’s the same problem with lag for example, people lose their lag as they want to see a high flying shot in many cases. Any attempt to force lag is not going to be long lasting

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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Instruction

Is There An Ideal Backswing?

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In this video, I talk about the backswing and look into optimal positions. I also discuss the positives and negatives of different backswing positions.

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19th Hole

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