Full disclosure, I’ve never written about golf equipment, instruction, or any technical aspect of this glorious (read: torturous) game. My wheelhouse is a little more, should we say, old school. I write about fashion. I write about style. I write about how two buttons is all you need in a suit jacket, and how even one button more is a travesty. I write about the art of being a gentleman, about cocktails, and about being a gentleman while drinking cocktails. He Who Shall Not Be Named (but was caught driving a golf cart on a green recently because he was too lazy to get his POTUS-ness out of his cart and walk 10 feet), would hate what I write about. Let’s just say that if I worked in a certain Casa De Blanca, I’d have been fired and been the focus of numerous Federal Inquiries by now for ripping on his wardrobe choices.
That being said, I do know a thing or three about golf, the golf swing, equipment, and club fitting. I’m a full-time golf coach and club-fitter that could write all day about how much I miss the click-clack of metal spikes on concrete, but I’m not here to talk to you about that. I’m here to tell you that the clubs in your bag, those gorgeous little forged things that you dreamt of and saved up for and skipped taking your wife out for your anniversary for… are most likely completely, totally, and unequivocally wrong for you.
I’m not judging. I used to be like you. I’d read every magazine that got stuffed in the mailbox. I’d drool over so-and-so’s sexy new shiny blades and the hot new x-stiff, tour-issue shafts that “Hot Young Golfer on Tour” was playing. And I thought to myself, “I’m a good stick. I swing fast. I need those clubs!” I was a decent stick. Good enough to take money out of the pockets of the older guys at Men’s League when I was 15. I’m even more decent now. Buttercuts, high draws, stingers, sandbag flops, and low skippers, I have them all. And I’m getting even better now because recently I made a very important life discovery. When you get older, you realize how very wrong you were about many, many things (silk button-downs in high school anyone?). I discovered the pure joy of hitting a 205-yard 6-iron with a 3-yard baby fade with my eyes closed (literally). I don’t play a fade, mind you. I make my whiskey money on a power draw that would make Kenny Perry blush, and I have since high school. But two weeks ago, I roped this fade with my eyes closed. Then did it again, and again and again. With my scratch handicap, 95 mile per hour clubhead speed, decent lag and pretty strong load in the transition, I did this, and I’m still doing it with… wait for it… a Ping Rapture “Super Game Improvement Iron” with an 80-gram regular-flex shaft. And I can work it both ways, on demand, depending on what the shot dictates. That’s right, a pretty decent player is loving his new (old) set of irons that everyone swears is only for 18 handicaps. It took me 30 years of playing golf to set aside my biases, get over myself, and actually take the time to find what clubs will allow me to play my best, regardless of what I see when I look down at the ball. And that’s exactly what you should do.
My golf coach and club-fitter (even coaches need coaches) is a bit of a mad scientist. He spent some time on the Nike Tour, and now coaches and builds clubs for not only a number of Tour guys, but also for guys with Q-School goals like me. He’s one of those guys who prefers to stay behind the curtain, so he asked me not to use his name, but his time for the spotlight will come. He uses physics and biomechanics along with a holistic approach to playing the game instead of relying on Trackman data. I have nothing but love for Trackman by the way, just to be clear, but we don’t use it much for my training. When we started working together, I was playing forged head irons with heavy, stiff-flex shafts. They were beautiful clubs and looked impressive in my bag, but I was hitting massive draws with them that would get loose sometimes and cause major damage to my rounds. He watched me on the range and just shook his head. After watching 10 straight pull hooks, he stopped me, mainly because he couldn’t stand to watch it anymore. He told me that my swing was great; we didn’t need to work on mechanics. What we needed, he said, was to start with a club fitting and find clubs that would allow me to “Swing My Swing” (Thanks Arnie!) so I didn’t have to change what I was as a golfer. The next morning he met me on the range along with a bag filled with 30 different 6 irons in different head styles, shaft weights and flex profiles, and we started hitting.
Each club had tape on it with different numbers. These numbers represented the weight and MOI of both the clubhead and the total club, along with the ratio between the two. There was also another strip of tape on the shaft with numbers like 1.56, 1.19, etc. These numbers represented the distance from the centerline of the hosel out to the “sweet spot,” or the center of gravity on the clubface. Don’t ask me the formula used to determine this point, because he learned it from his dad who was a physicist and that kind of math is punching way above my weight class. He handed me a club and I took a swing. Same old huge draw that I’m used to. Then I was told to close my eyes and hit it again. That alone might be one of the scariest things I’ve ever done as a golfer. I hit it pretty well, actually (You’d be surprised by your own ability to do this. Give it a shot.), but it was still left, just a bit less draw. I looked at the number on that club, and it was 1.22. The problem wasn’t with my swing. The problem was that the sweet spot was too close to the heel of the club for me, and the only way for me to catch it solid was to pull across my body and shut the clubface. Thus, a pull-draw. We started hitting the higher numbered clubs where the sweet spot was more out toward the middle of the face where I need it to be. That draw got smaller and smaller, and the pull became less and less, until I found that club labeled 1.62 on it. I started hitting laser-shot baby fades that went forever and exactly where I wanted them to go… with my eyes closed.
It turns out that I had been playing clubs since I was 10 that forced me to swing in a way that isn’t natural for the way my body moves through the universe. I’m not Nick Price. Never have been, never will be. Think more like Pat Perez or Payne Stewart, where the swing looks like pouring syrup over pancakes… in the winter. It’s not that I’m not “good enough” to play forged blades. I’ve got game. It’s simply a fact of me needing the sweet spot to be closer to the middle of the clubface. More and more players on the tours are switching to “game-improvement” irons, especially for the long irons. Do you want to try to tell them that they aren’t “good enough” to play a 4-iron that’s a blade? I didn’t think so. I’m not saying that this is true for everyone. Far from it. My brother (a damn good player in his own right) has a swing that happens to fit perfectly with those sexy Miura Tournament Blades. He has a very strong, purposeful and speedy swing. He needs the center of gravity as close to the hosel as possible. When a player like him swings my clubs, the ball goes right of right and he can’t control it. It’s about finding what works for you. Should we be saying that he “isn’t good enough” to play my “game-improvement” irons? Of course not. That’d be ridiculous, right? So why do we accept the opposite statement as pure truth?
Basically, unless someone designs a blade or muscleback iron with the CG closer to the middle of the face, I’ll be showing up at Q-School next year with some big, chunky, clunky, cavity backs. And I’m okay with that. I’m proud, but I’m not shallow. I’m more concerned now with how good my clubs allow me to play, not how good they make me look. “Not good enough to play blades”? You hear it all the time. GI, SGI, Players Irons… those terms are misleading and just plain incorrect. The terminology needs to change. I don’t care if my irons look like a Barcolounger that was found on the side of the highway with a sign on it that reads “free.” They fit my swing perfectly.
Guys will judge me silently when they look in my bag and assume I don’t belong there. Be my guest, fellas. I’ll be the one on the patio chilling with a Woodford on the rocks after signing for a 65 while the guys with the flashy blades crowd around the scoreboard and stress out, hoping that their 73s get them into a playoff for the last spot. Now onto much more important things, like those pleated trousers…
The 19th Hole: Mark Rolfing and architect David Kidd on Carnoustie’s challenges
It’s Open Championship week at Carnoustie! This week, Michael Williams hosts NBC and Golf Channel analyst Mark Rolfing and award-winning architect David Kidd (Bandon Dunes) to talk about how the pros will try to tame “Car-nasty.” It also features Jaime Darling of Golf Scotland on the many attractions around Carnoustie outside the golf course.
Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?
‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?
A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:
- It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
- It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.
That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:
- It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
- It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.
In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.
The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good and a negative number, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:
- Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
- Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
- Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.
Where does your game fall in these two important categories?
Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?
You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:
- They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
- The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.
That reminds me again of my very early days when Chuck Cook said to me: “Pete, Tour players don’t make errors in the short game!” See Chuck, I was right, they do! For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com.
Think Carnoustie’s hard? Try winning a title on it playing golf with one arm
When things get challenging during the 147th Open this week on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, the players would do well to think of Mike Benning–specifically the fortitude he channeled into success at the venerable venue.
Benning grew up with golf at Congressional while his father, Bob, was head professional at the iconic country club in Bethesda, Md. Due to a rare form of cancer, Benning, who was already a top junior in the Washington, D.C. area, lost his left arm below the elbow to amputation at age 14.
Rather than let that stop him from playing, he learned to adapt. So much so that he won back-to-back Society of One-Armed Golfers world championships in 1993-94. The first win came at Seaford Golf Course in Sussex, England, in 1993. Benning defended his title at Carnoustie in 1994, the 56th and 57th renditions of the annual event, which began in the 1930s.
Benning was low medalist in stroke play at Seaford, shooting 80-81-161. With the top 16 finishers advancing to match play, Benning won four matches in two days to become champion. He went to Carnoustie the next year full of confidence but couldn’t find the form initially that carried him at Seaford, qualifying 10th in medal play.
“My game wasn’t on, and the course was brawny and fast,” Benning said this week from his home in Scituate, Mass. “The course was so dry it was grey, and it was windy. That makes Carnoustie very difficult, even more challenging than normal. I had a difficult draw in match play, but I found my game when it mattered most, and only one of my matches went to the 18th hole.”
In the championship match, Benning defeated Scotsman Brian Crombie of Dundee, a 25-minute drive from Carnoustie.
“He had about 50 friends and family members rooting him on, the crowd was definitely behind him,” Benning recalled. “But I had a couple Americans following me. One was Mike Gibson, who now works for Titleist. He came out wearing a pair of red plus fours and an American flag shirt. He and Mark Frace really propped me up. I remember having a big decision on the 10th hole – whether to try and get a 3-wood over the burn – so I turned and looked at those guys behind me, and they encouraged me to go for it. I cleared the burn and ended up 12 feet from the hole.”
Benning was an independent sales rep in the golf business before joining Hanger, Inc., the leading U.S. provider of prosthetics and orthotics, where he is currently Marketing Manager. He has played other Open Championship courses but calls Carnoustie’s Championship layout “probably the greatest risk-reward course” in the rota. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do justice to the demanding test of golf it presents players,” he said.
To underscore his assertion, Benning cited the 6th hole – “Hogan’s Alley” – named after 1953 Open Champion Ben Hogan. Here is the description for it from the Carnoustie Golf Links website. “Normally played into prevailing wind, this can be a severe par 5. Bunkers and out of bounds await the miss-cued drive and although the best line is up Hogan’s Alley between the bunkers and the out of bounds fence, it requires a brave player to drive to that narrow piece of fairway. The second shot is no less perilous with a ditch angling across the fairway and the out of bounds continuing to be a threat. The approach is reasonably straightforward to an undulating green, particular care must be taken if the pin is located on the back-right portion of the green. A player should always be content with a five on this hole as it can be the ruin of many a scorecard.”
Benning said the pair of fairway bunkers side by side on the 14th hole – known as “The Spectacles – have to be experienced to be understood how hard they play for those unfortunate enough to find them.
“I hit into one of them during a match and it was the only time I had to hit backwards out of a bunker during the championship,” Benning remembered. “The face of the bunker was unthinkably high.”
The closing holes at Carnoustie’s Championship Course – Nos. 16-18 – may be the most difficult finish in all major golf, particularly No. 18, named “Home”.
“Just ask Jean Van de Velde,” said Benning, referring to the Frenchman who led by three strokes going to final hole of the 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde took triple bogey to fall back into a tie and playoff, which he lost to Paul Lawrie. No golf follower who watched the debacle can forget the image of Van de Velde standing in Barry’s Burn with his trouser bottoms rolled up, hands on hips, stunned disbelief etched on his face. Conversely, Lawrie’s final round 67 astounded Benning, who pointed out that the final round average score was significantly higher. The 18th also cost Johnny Miller the 1975 Open title, after Miller took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the hole.
Suffice it to say, Carnoustie will provide many of the world’s greatest players the chance for immortal golf glory this week, or demoralizing defeat. Maybe both. Whomever emerges as champion, Mike Benning will relate to the elation felt after prevailing on one of the game’s greatest courses.
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