Your swing is broken. You know it. Your playing partners know it. The 15-year-old kid picking up balls on the range knows it. There is something fundamentally wrong. Everything was fine, and then one day it wasn’t. Well, that’s not entirely true. You started to feel it slipping away a few weeks ago, like a slow leak in a tire, but you ignored it hoping that it would get better. Unfortunately it got worse, until you had a complete blow-out today. What happened?
You aren’t sure, and so the first chance that you get, you make your way to the practice range and buy three large buckets of balls, determined to find the answer. You then begin to randomly experiment, trying one thing after another. What was it you heard on the Golf Channel the other night? What about the tip that your brother-in-law gave you last weekend when you were up at the lake? Your mind begins to race. Maybe if you took the club back a little slower? What if you were to hold your finish? Maybe try pausing at the top? And then, before long, you find yourself lost in a maze of thinking.
In desperation you begin to tinker, hoping you can fix the problem yourself. You realize that there is a certain audacity in thinking that you can repair your own swing. You would of course call a plumber if a pipe burst in your house. Why wouldn’t you hire a teaching professional to help you with your golf swing? And then a random thought crosses your mind. He would probably charge less than a plumber. The truth is that you like to tinker with your swing. You think of it as a hobby. But then you remember what the speaker at last year’s men’s club fall banquet said: “I would agree that tinkering with your swing can be fun, but it is an absolute guarantee that you’ll never improve.”
What exactly is a “tinkerer?” The dictionary defines a tinkerer as an individual who would repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled manner. The key words in that sentence is “unskilled manner.” As a life-long teacher, I’ve witnessed times when a skilled player is able to fix their own swing by experimenting around the edges.
That is not the case with the average golfer, who more often makes the mistake of confusing the symptoms they are experiencing for a root problem. And then, in an attempt to fix it, an average golfer often puts a band-aid on what amounts to an open wound. The problem may then appear as if it has been solved, but only temporarily — maybe for a day, a week or a month — but then the original problem reappears again, but this time often in a more virulent form.
When that occurs, the player is then forced once again to search for a secondary cure, and then a third, and a then fourth, beginning an endless cycle of tinkering. And in time, they often find themselves so confused, it is as if they have tumbled down into Alice’s rabbit hole where up is down and down is up, creating their own wonderland where nothing seems to make sense anymore.
I attended a teaching seminar hosted by the Iowa Section of the PGA in Des Moines, Iowa, a few years ago. Butch Harmon was the guest speaker. He had just been fired by Tiger Woods a few weeks before. After finishing his presentation, someone in the audience asked him about Tiger. Butch was quiet for a moment, clearly weighing what to say — or not say. The room became quiet, and then when it seemed as if he may have forgotten the question, he said quietly, “He likes to tinker.”
In the mid ’80s, I had a student who loved to tinker with his swing. He was a 15-handicapper who never improved because he was constantly experimenting. In his case, it was to a degree understandable because he was a scientist. He would spend his day conducting laboratory experiments, mixing the contents of one test tube with another and then observing the outcome.
The doctor would come to see me for a lesson every week without fail. He was like a man who might go for a haircut or a massage on a regular basis, whether he needed it or not because he enjoyed it. And each time he came, it was the same. He had made a discovery. He would first explain his latest idea and then how it had come to him.
“I was lying in bed when it occurred to me that if I pointed my left elbow joint downward it might force my wrist into a better position at the top of the backswing. What do you think?”
“I think if it works that’s great,” I said.
“Let me show you,” he said, taking a practice backswing then looking at me like an expectant puppy begging for approval. “Do you think it will work?”
“We won’t know that until you hit a ball,” I said. “As you know, the practice swing and the real swing are always different.”
The problem was that he suffered from a nasty hook that might have put Ben Hogan to shame. The primary problem, was that like Hogan, he bowed his left wrist outward at the top of his backswing, which closed the clubface. The problem then was that he had to find a way to open up the clubface on the downswing so that at impact it was somewhere close to square. The doctor was capable of emulating the top-of-the-backswing position when making a practice swing, but then, when he went to actually hit the ball, his left wrist would revert to the same convex position.
And so lesson after lesson, the doctor continued to come up with a new idea, none of which worked. The next time he came for his appointment, I suggested that we talk for a moment. I started by saying “Doctor, there is something we need to discuss.” I could see the anxious look on his face. “Yes. I’m listening” he replied. He was used to doing the lecturing, but now he was on the receiving end. “I’d like you to stop tinkering with your swing,” I said. And then he said the words that I will never forget: “But I tinker to improve.”
I thought for a moment before answering him and then said, “I’m sorry doctor but I’m afraid that is just not true.” He looked at me as if I’d killed the family dog.
“You want me to stop tinkering with my swing?” he asked.
“Yes, that is what I’m suggesting,” I said.
“I’m not sure that I can do that,” he said. He paused. “But if you think it is important, I’ll try to stop.”
The word “try” gave him away. What I’ve learned is that when someone says they will “try” something, they are giving themselves a way out. They usually have no intention of following through on the promised action. I knew he couldn’t stop. I knew he wouldn’t stop. And so, at that moment, I resolved that I would allow him to tinker, and I would play the role of the janitor, sweeping up whatever mess he might leave behind.
The doctor continued to take lessons from me for a few more years after that with only minor changes in his swing — or his scores. And then one day he just stopped coming. He was elderly, but in good physical condition. And then a macabre thought crossed my mind; maybe he had passed away.
That night I had a dream. I saw a picture of him lying in a coffin. There was a pastor standing at the church alter inviting members of the congregation to come forward to pay their last respects. As I shuffled forward down the center aisle, I saw his wife, Francis, seated in the front pew with a black veil covering her face. She turned her head as I passed, nodding in my direction. As I neared the open coffin I could see that his hands were crossed, left over right. As I looked closer, his left wrist was bowed outward just like in his golf swing. And then I woke-up with a start.
A few weeks later, I was relieved to see him at the airport with his wife. He apologized for not mentioning it before, but they were going on a trip around the world. “I’ll call you when we get back,” he said, waving over his shoulder as the two of them made their way toward their gate with a porter trailing behind. That was the last time I saw him, but I tell his story as a cautionary tale to students of mine who are inclined to tinker with their swings
The Author (as a sponsor)
You enjoy tinkering, you say? I understand perfectly. Just realize that as a tinkerer, there is a good chance that you will never be a better golfer than you are today. And so if you really want to improve, quit tinkering. Should you make that decision, you will in all probability find that you have become addicted. And so, as you begin to pull away, you may experience a period of withdrawal. This is normal, but during this period do not let your guard down. This is when you are most vulnerable.
Also, it is important that you remove any forms of temptation that could draw you back into your old behavior.
Step 1: Go through your house with a large trash bag and put all of the books, magazines, and videos that you own, including those stashed under your bed, into the bag.
Step 2: Cancel your magazine subscriptions, effective immediately.
Step 3: This step is related to watching the Golf Channel. In the event one of the instructional segments should suddenly come on while you are watching, you should do one of three things immediately:
- Mute the sound.
- Switch the channel.
- Put your hands over your ears and start mouthing, “La, la, la, la, la,” until the segment is over.
As your sponsor, I want you to understand that the only way to break your addiction is to go “cold turkey.” You may feel an impulse to jump into your car and drive to the local drug store for a copy of the latest golf magazine. Should you feel that urge, I want you to start counting backward from 100. That usually does the trick.
Let’s return to the subject of your swing. You are probably wondering, “What should I do next? You are a little confused, and I understand. You’ve had a good deal of new information to process. Here is my thought. I’d advise you to sign-up for a series of lessons with a competent professional who has a track record of success working with players at your level… and then never look back.
Also, as your sponsor, I want you to remember that if you should need me during a moment of crisis, you can always reach me. I’m only a phone call away. And now before leaving, I want you to take the Tinkerer’s Pledge. Please raise your right hand while placing your left hand on this old copy of Golf Digest with Gay Brewer on the cover. Now, repeat after me:
“I, (then state your name for the record)…”