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The problem with golf instruction books

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“When I came to this seminar, I was confused. I’m still confused but on a higher level.”  Enrico Fermi

I have worked with many great teachers in my life; men and women who really understood the nuts and bolts of teaching golf. Together we learned to correct golf swing errors. We learned that every golfer was unique, with their own personal learning style, swing problems, physique and habits. We understood there is no one way to play golf, and the more we allowed for individual differences, the more effective we were in helping them.

But the field of golf instruction is not unlike the academic profession, where the motto is and always has been “publish or perish.” Teachers feel the need to write a book, publish a video, or somehow get their message out to their devotees to be successful or to reap some gain, financial or otherwise. The result of this is often a deviation from their original approach to teaching. Authors choose a title, let’s say How to Swing or How to Set Up, and they set about expressing their belief in the best way to go about that task. When the same teachers are on the lesson tee, however, they’re dealing with a variety of ways to swing or set up, all based on the needs of the individual in front of them. And I think this problem is exasperated when the authors are former players, who are suggesting things almost entirely based how they achieved success at golf.

This is when instruction books and tapes are at their most vulnerable and, in my opinion, are least helpful.

Let me cite one very well-known example to make my point. There is perhaps no more famous illustration in golf books than Anthony Ravelli’s wonderful drawing of Ben Hogan’s grip. There is one very big problem with that picture, however. While Hogan’s hands are positioned perfectly for his swing, they demonstrate a position that may be too much to the left (weak) for many golfers. That grip can be very effective for those who fight a hook, perhaps 15 percent of the people who play golf. And of course, it is the way Mr. Hogan learned to hold the club to offset his own tendency to hook the golf ball early in his career. But the vast majority of golfers may very well slice from that “weaker” grip.

Ben Hogan was perhaps the finest striker of a golf ball who ever lived, very few people in our game would take issue with that at all, but by advocating his personal preference he is not taking into account many of the people who, of course, do not have his talent, his swing plane, his lag, his ball position and so on. And, what’s even more harmful is this: because the great man said it, it became the bible for many readers.

Alex Morrison said golf is a left-sided game, but Ben Hogan said he wished he had three right hands. Ernest Jones said swing the clubhead, but Eddie Merins said swing the handle. Jimmy Ballard teaches moving off the ball, but Andy Bennet wants you to stay on the ball. John Redman suggested a strong grip, but Tommy Armour a weaker one. On and on, ad infinitum… but here’s the catch. I’m willing to bet that every one of those great teachers would make exceptions based on the student that was in front of them on the range. That’s because in golf instruction, there is nothing that’s for everybody.

Some instruction manuals are decidedly more “choice” in their approach. Jim Hardy has always taken the more alternative approach in his work. “The Plane Truth,” criticized by some for taking an only-two-ways-to-swing approach, still offers a choice. In it, Hardy explains that IF you swing one way, THEN you should do this to to complement it.

John Jacobs wrote the seminal work on this subject in his book “Practical Golf” many years ago. Although science has gone on to disprove some of the findings in the book (the initial direction of the golf ball is NOT the result of the path of the golf club, for example), the information is still invaluable from an alternative approach to swinging the club.

If you are attempting to learn to swing from a method-oriented book, you must be very careful to get the whole picture before attempting to incorporate the method into your golf swing. This is one of the most common reasons I see players get stuck in the mud in their improvement. If you are reading a certain book and NOT getting anywhere, there is one of two reasons: the book is spewing misinformation OR you are not doing ALL the book suggests.

When the teacher becomes an author, he or she is entering another realm; an area often removed from the craft of teaching people to play golf and into an area of teaching golf. There is a quantitative difference between the two. Myself and many teachers like me teach people to play golf; we do not teach golf. If you read through my writings on GolfWRX or anywhere, really, they are always written in an if-then format. If you tend to do this, THEN try this… there is no other effective way, at least none that I’m aware of. And if anyone knows of one, I’d be happy to hear it.

Those of us who dare to teach must remain students of our individual disciplines, and our continuing education needs to be shared on a case-by-case basis. Offering universal prescriptions for individual problems is a dead end in my work, and unfortunately many golf instruction manuals are written in this way.

I have an online swing analysis program that many GolfWRXers have tried and enjoyed. If you’d like a diagnosis an explanation of exactly what you’re doing, click here for more info, or contact me on Facebook.

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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 JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

36 Comments

36 Comments

  1. stephenf

    Feb 16, 2017 at 11:25 am

    “Exacerbated,” not “exasperated.”

    Anyway…of course your idea is basically right. It’s hard to write an instructional book that allows for different inclinations and different habits a student might bring, but some have done better than others. Even with the best, though, it gets really difficult not to end up trying to cover all possibilities, so that the book becomes encyclopedic and (sometimes) overwhelming. Leadbetter’s stuff has been criticized for this, but the truth is that any individual player who goes to take a lesson with Leadbetter is going to get a couple of critical things to work on that will probably improve his game, not the whole range of possibilities, as ends up happening so often in a book.

    I think this is why some of the best instruction books are often those that limit themselves to a specific approach or a specific problem. One that comes immediately to mind is Peter Kostis’ _The Inside Path to Better Golf_, which to me is the best almost-completely-unknown golf instructional book of all time. When I was teaching I almost never found a player who wasn’t, or wouldn’t have been, helped tremendously by both the concepts and the drills. Kostis (this is back when he was working with the Golf Digest schools, before he was a TV commentator and ended up glurging a variety of contradictory instructional approaches into one big ball) advances the specific and relatively limited idea that most amateurs do things in their swing that get them outside and steep on the downswing, and it kills their games, so the aim of instruction ought to be an inside and shallow approach to the ball, with a free and full release. Anything that helps that is good, and anything that hurts it is bad. That’s the simple mode of the book. He addresses the elements that contribute and those that impede, and he has the student go through organized stages of development, starting with the release of the clubhead from the hands, then adding the rotation of the arms that supports and adds to that release, then the movement of the trunk and legs that supports and enables the swinging elements (hands-arms-club), then the timing that makes it work.

    In fact, the principles from that book (I had a live teacher who recommended it, actually) were what got me from being a sort of scrambling scratch-to-two-or-three handicapper — and I wouldn’t have been anywhere near scratch if I hadn’t had a ridiculously good short game (out of desperation and need, actually) — to a plus-2 and beyond (better than that when I was playing as a pro) who could actually, and finally, strike the ball as well as the other good players I was playing against, which had never been the case before.

    It’s true that any approach like this is overdoable, and eventually you might have to do things to moderate the degree of the inside path and so forth (Kostis covers that possibility briefly at points, but doesn’t let it sidetrack him), and that in fact is what happens with a lot of pros and explains why what works for them at an advanced stage in their development might be literally the opposite of what works for a 12-handicapper. A pro who has already trained himself to swing the club from the inside with an emphatic and free release of the clubhead might need some adjustments that keep him from turning a draw into a hook or from getting so shallow the ground gets in the way (Haney had to cover that with O’Meara at one point, in fact), but almost any amateur who does the same things that pro does to address the opposite problem from what the amateur has is going to be driving the wrong way down a one-way street. (In my specific case, I _never_ had to stop working on shallow-and-inside, and still am to this day, probably because of basic physical characteristics — 6’3″, long arms and legs, etc. — and various natural inclinations. Some people will, some won’t.)

    Anyway…that’s just one example of a book that avoids the “encyclopedia of everything” approach, instead preferring to focus on a specific solvable problem, in my opinion to great — and very underrated — effect.

    Of course, you can be a true genius and write the kinds of books John Jacobs did, too, which manage to boil down a range of possibilities into simple explanations and conditional statements without being confusing or overwhelming at all.

    • stephenf

      Feb 16, 2017 at 11:30 am

      Sorry, have no idea why hitting the enter key twice doesn’t space paragraphs apart.

      Also a good example of a “limited and specific focus” book: Ernest Jones and his ideas about swinging versus levering. Or Eddie Merrins and “swing the handle, not the clubhead.” Ironically, both were talking about essentially the same thing, even though they put it in superficially contradictory terms — Jones advising to swing the clubhead, Merrins to avoid swinging the clubhead. If you read the substance of both, though, you’ll find that by “swinging the handle, not the clubhead,” Merrins is talking about avoiding a throw of the clubhead with a levering action, while Jones is talking about a true swinging motion that ends at the clubhead.

      • stephenf

        Feb 16, 2017 at 11:32 am

        Also, of course it’s a good point about Hogan, corroborated by others. I forget who it was who said Hogan’s book should’ve been retitled “How not to Duck-Hook, by Ben Hogan.”

    • stephenf

      Feb 16, 2017 at 11:40 am

      As for Jim Hardy, he’s a smart guy who has had a good influence on some teachers (notably Hank Haney) and says a lot of true things, but the basis of his “two categories, 1P and 2P” idea is really flawed. Almost every tour pro and every great player in history, including the ones 1P devotees cite as being 1Pers, actually swings the club on two planes to some extent. Really it’s a matter of a continuum. If you’re exactly perpendicular to your spine angle and exactly across your shoulder line (assuming it’s also perpendicular) at the top, it’s true that you can do certain things and emphasize certain actions more than somebody who is dramatically off perpendicular. But the truth is that very close to 100% of good players are off perpendicular to some extent. It’s a matter of _how_ much they vary from perpendicular, and what they do to accommodate that. It’s also true that forcing a swing into that exact-perpendicular configuration isn’t possible for most players without creating a list of other necessary compensations or problems.

      It’s a good example of a theory that is oversimplified (in posing a bright line between the “two types of swing”), and yet a theory that has helped some players and is useful in certain ways.

  2. baudi

    Oct 25, 2016 at 4:36 am

    Nice article! What I like is the reasoning behind your thinking. Following ideas may/will lead to situations where the player gets stuck with his game. To solve this problem there are many possibilities but not any solution fits in as a solution. It takes hard work and a holistic view to get back on track. To get a holistic view on a swing expanding knowledge of certain types of swings is useful. Hence a lot of golf books to be studied.

    However, the chosen examples of Hogan and Jacobs do not make your point. My study of golf books lead to the following futile remarks.

    The grip as demonstrated by Hogan/Ravielli/Wind is not just a picture. It is explained, demonstrated in a full chapter of 19 pages! There is a complete and very consistent motivation behind it. Pages 67 and 102 will contain vital information related back to this chapter. These are the very best pages I’ve ever read on gripping the club.

    Concerning John Jacobs: you write the initial direction of the golf ball is NOT the result of the path of the golf club.
    There is no such claim in Practical Golf. Jacobs’ description and drawings of balllfight/impact geometry are very precise and clear. In the introduction he states : the direction in which the clubface looks is the most important of the four impact elements that determine the behavior of every shot you hit. In the early 70’s Jacobs was not aware of Jorgensens D-PLane but I am sure Jacobs’ would have acknowledged his ideas.

  3. Steven

    Oct 20, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Great Article Dennis. I 100% agree. A major problem is that most amateurs don’t have the time to ingrain the entirety of a “method”. Many golfers will also give up when getting the full method doesn’t happen quickly. I believe it is much better to work with the good parts of a swing that is natural for the person and then make adjustments for consistency, etc.

    The classic example for a non-traditional swing is Jim Furyk, but you can also look to Dustin Johnson. His bowed wrist and closed clubface at the top are not advised, but he clears his hips fast and gets the face square when it matters. Jordan Spieth has a modified chicken wing finish. No one is the Iron Byron, so we all need something that works with our natural tendencies. The smaller the adjustments to our natural swing, the easier it is to take to the course.

    Keep up the good work Dennis.

  4. Bilo

    Oct 20, 2016 at 6:44 am

    Hogan 5 lessons and Stan Utley was all I needed to become scratch. Reading is fundamental!

  5. Riggie

    Oct 19, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Many, like me, start with one or two golf instruction books, do not like what they read and end up buying more and more till the golf books are not really teaching nothing but becoming a hobby collecting golf books…my reason trying to find the same ideas in two different books…while after about 60 instruction books I gave up….no two teachers seem to highlight the same principal ( I even have 3 different versions of the Moe Norman single plane SIMPLE single plane swing). Just go to the driving range and find a way to take the club back and bring it back so club face points where you want to hit the ball..once you can hit it where you can find it you can figure out how to hit it higher, lower, farther.. or better yet one you can hit it “more or less” toward the green go and practice putting for hours and hours..that will lower your score..

  6. Grizz01

    Oct 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Periodicals are pretty much useless as well. Once you have 6 months worth they just start to repeat themselves. Seriously, this is not rocket science. Very few things are new to golf/golf swing for the last 40 years. In fact I think most average golfers are dying from information overload. Just hit the ball.

  7. Stevo

    Oct 19, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    I have bought many instruction books (Nicklaus, Leadbetter, Watson, etc.). I agree that each one taught something different and were generally not much help.

    I have gone thru 5 instructors (multiple lessons from some) who said I had a decent swing, but never really offered anything different to try. Of course, as often happens, I hit the ball pretty well when I was with them. But on the course, I never knew where the ball was going, usually not where I wanted it to. Scared of the hook, so I might over-compensate with a slice, and then vice versa. I tried every kind of swing change (including some useful info from Martin Hall on GC), but never found the magic elixer.

    Ready to give up the game at 69, I recently decided to go back to the beginning, the grip. I felt I was all over the place at the top. I dug out my Ben Hogan Five Lessons, and used his grip concept. Wow, for the last 4 rounds I have been hitting them where I am aiming. I rarely lose a ball, whereas I could lose 10 a round before. Looking forward to practicing and using Ben’s concepts, recommend you at least give it a try.

  8. ooffa

    Oct 19, 2016 at 9:14 am

    I would much rather read and study a book then work with a golf instructor.

  9. dapadre

    Oct 19, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Great article as always Dennis and so very true! I was having this sort of conversation in the clubhouse the other day. Since every individual is so unique (long arms , short arms, flexibility levels, eye dominance etc etc) there is not perfect swing for everyone. I love BH 5 fundamentals an he was without doubt one of the greatest ball strikers BUT………….He fought a hook so his whole mind set was avoiding that left side. He set up pretty closed on his mid to long irons/woods, Trevino on the other hand setup crazy open with a strong grip in a time mind you they said with strong grip you couldnt win. Scott Percy uses a baseball grip, Steve Jones used a reverse overlap to win the 1996 US Open. I could go on and on. I believe you need to find that which works for you as it revolves around you based on sound golf basics. At the end of the day, im a firm believer that IMPACT (ZONE) is everything. Take all swings and see the impact position……..the same.

  10. Mat

    Oct 19, 2016 at 6:16 am

    I guess that’s why Bobby Clampett’s stuff resonates with me. In a lot of ways, he isn’t teaching the “swing”, rather he’s focusing on making sure the student understands what the club head is supposed to do *at impact*. It’s something that 95% of players don’t fully grasp to a material level. You don’t have to know trackman stuff, but you do have to understand “compression” / the feel of proper impact, how your path affects it, and how to achieve it within your body’s abilities.

    I’ve read many how-to-swing books, and most demonstrate what works for them, or a “majority”, or whatever. Perfect detail. But when a player reads it with a terrible idea of how to hit a ball, it engrains the wrong thing. It makes you better at hitting a bad shot!

  11. Tim

    Oct 19, 2016 at 12:54 am

    Dennis, I get what you are saying, but don’t you agree that, ideally, biomechanics and physics would create swings that look very similar among golfers without viable physical handicaps or serious mobility issues? Other than small variances, we are all made the same with muscles that contract the same way and we all work within the limitations of the laws of physics. My point being that there should be and is a “best” way to swing that works within these scientific laws. This would give everyone the highest odds of making a repeatable swing that creates the greatest accuracy and distance possible given your physical make-up. I get that there are thousands of ways to play golf well. Hopefully I have made it somewhat clear that scientifically there should be a best way to swing that could be applied to the masses because of our shared, slightly varied, biological factors and the laws of physics that we are forced to operate in.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 19, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Tim, I agree to this extent: Biomechanics and the resulting physics of ball flight are universal but the programming of those motions is individual. In my experience as a teacher, i have observed that the neurons activated to direct the physical motions are highly individualistic. Everybody I teach internalizes the result of an unwanted outcome differently. To some it is an abject failure and to others a learning opportunity. Therefore they will DIRECT their body to activate a quite different set of motions. Yes these too have existential limits as you noted, but if we, as teachers, disregard the mind’s effect on HOW to program muscle, tendon, skeletal movement, we are removing the “human element”, as Homer Kelly said. I have learned not to take that risk. That is what I meant by teaching people to play golf, not teaching golf. If I isolate the instruction to simply the motions and not the person, I’m on shaky ground…brain dead people unfortunately do not move. The uniqueness to which the article makes reference, is more neuroscientific than scientific, I suppose. I wonder if Jim Furyk learned to program his muscles to first lift the club straight up, OR did he first learn to drop it way behind him? It really doesn’t matter, does it? Thoughts? Thx

    • Bob Pegram

      Oct 20, 2016 at 2:39 am

      Tim –
      You are not considering that people learn physical performance habits from other sports or even other physical tasks before they ever get serious about golf. Those physical performance habits become second nature and are often difficult or impossible to get rid of when learning the golf swing. They affect what methods work. Sometimes only unorthodox methods work.
      There are also physical variations that greatly affect a golf swing. For example, there is no way a golfer on the loose-jointed end of the spectrum can swing the same as a golfer with very little flexibility. Their ranges of motion are extremely different, therefore their methods of swinging a golf club have to be different to be successful.
      Arnold Palmer learned to slash at the ball when he was very young. Even though, when he was middle aged, he could swing smoothly and gracefully when relaxed, as soon as it counted, the slashing swing overwhelmed any other type of swing he knew how to perform.
      We all have tendencies like that and so there will never be a standard swing for successful golfers. We all have to adapt our swings to our physical quirks.

      • Dennis Clark

        Oct 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm

        True Bob. Many boys for example start with baseball; the biggest habit learned at a young age is “step into the pitch’. This “habit” often equates to what Brian Manzella calls “handle dragging” and…of course slicing!

  12. Rmauritz

    Oct 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Faldo’s A Swing For Life is the best golf instruction book I have read.

  13. Pingback: The problem with golf instruction books | Swing Update

  14. Tom Stickney

    Oct 18, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Great article Dennis

  15. Tom

    Oct 18, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Swing the club head through the sweet spot with a square (ish) face and a straight (ish) path at a high rate of speed.

  16. Mike

    Oct 18, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    So do you think the BioSwing guys are closer to getting it right describing various difference characteristics and coming up with screening tests to see where players fit?

    This is not a pitch or a b*%#& about BioSwing either. I know little about it.

  17. farmer

    Oct 18, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    The biggest problem is that feel is not real. What you think you are doing is not necessarily what you are doing. If you could video your swing and play it back on a life sized screen, you would see what an instructor sees, at least to scale. It is unlikely that a hdcp player could accurately identify where they go off the track, and even less likely that they could identify the cause.

    • Philip

      Oct 18, 2016 at 4:48 pm

      Except even video is not necessary “real” – I can change how a swing looks by changing the angles used to take the video, or lens/camera combination, or f-stop. I think one just needs to use consistent perspective when evaluating their swing and understand how to compare it to anyone else if they want to. I used to think my swing was really flat and that I had very little back swing because I was viewing it by turning my head versus from a mirror in front of me.

      • Dennis Clark

        Oct 18, 2016 at 6:40 pm

        True Phil. moving the camera even a few inched can make a difference. Radar better but 3-D Best! Look into GEARS eval, it’s well worth it!

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 18, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      Feel and real are not only NOT the same thing, in golf, they are not even close!

  18. James Lahey

    Oct 18, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Nice article.

    To me this underlies the importance of taking from a variety of sources. That way, any one teacher’s bias will be balanced out–not all that different in how we build our life values and philosophy. Just another way our the path through our golf lives mimics our real lives.

    ~JL

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 18, 2016 at 6:38 pm

      True JL, golf is a microcosm of life. Have you read “Golf in the Kingdom”?

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm

      Old Percy, turn-in-a-barrel, Boomer…Great contributor in early days of golf.

      • Greg V

        Oct 19, 2016 at 8:07 am

        Dennis,

        I think that “turn in a barrel” is an over simplification of Boomer’s concept. What is lost in that, is that Boomer wanted the hips to turn “high”; if they sink, they can get stuck in the barrel – which can happen when the legs flex too much, or when the spine angle is lost.

  19. Bobalu

    Oct 18, 2016 at 11:49 am

    Spot on article!

  20. Greg V

    Oct 18, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Excellent article.

    This is precisely why I love to read, and re-read Percy Boomer’s book “On Learning Golf.” It is precisely because Boomer taught by feels, and not by “do it this way.”

    Fortunately for me, Boomer’s “feels” are still relevant today: the braces, the feeling of keeping the hips and shoulders “up” but the arms “down” and others.

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Opinion & Analysis

Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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