Thursday, 26 June 2014

All The Motivation I Need

Some of the more observant will have noticed that it has all been a little quite with Homer’s Odyssey. The simple reason is the fact that the Royal Ascot race meeting last week brings the thronging masses to the vicinity of the golf club and it's very much a no go zone. Not only is the course reduced to twelve holes to facilitate the landing of helicopters for the rich and famous and their transfer across to the course, but the practice ground is also shut and turned into a coach car park.

However fear not, faithful reader. I’ve not been idle. I had a golf lesson last Monday (16th June) as a birthday present to myself. I hoped Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire was going to give my swing a mid season MOT and tweak. Instead, he’s brought forward some of the planned work for the coming winter and in particular the issues I’ve had with address and my hands coming into impact. For as long as I can remember my shoulders have been hunched with the left one significantly higher than it should have been. This has always meant I’ve struggled a little for room on the swing and it has resulted in the hands being very active in the hitting area. It has meant that when everything is synchronised all has been fine but all too often, especially under pressure the hands get busy, the right shoulder becomes dominant trying to find room and I get the dreaded snap hook or come out of the shot and hit it to the right.

We’ve significantly adjusted the set up into something that looks and feels incredibly different. In a nutshell, we’ve changed the address position so the shoulders are far more level at address and pointing far more down the line as opposed to closed. In the lesson itself, there was a marked improvement in the contact and the ball flight was a lot more neutral. I lost the big cut to the right but because I didn't wholly trust the new set up and the slight change of path on the way back we introduced, the right shoulder was still involved resulting in big draws and the odd hook. Not as destructive as my pre-lesson stock bad shot but still missing the target left. Rhys did say it was a big change and we were peeling away a large chunk of the remaining faults ingrained over thirty years and which I’d played with and had to compensate for over that time. The cunning plan is to make everything more neutral with far fewer moving pieces and with less to go wrong.

Having seen a video from my first lesson in December 2012, compared that to one at the end of January 2014 and both of those to one from the lesson, with the club path, moving parts, over swing and radical lateral movement it was amazing I could play at all let alone get it round with a handicap ranging from 14-10 in that time.

As always, it seems that once you leave the sanctuary of a teaching bay and the steely gaze of the teaching professional, the magic dust that transforms the swing into that of a competent golfer disappears. I returned to the Downshire Golf Complex the following day to work on the changes and bleed them into a compact and repetitive swing. The results were a real Heinz 57 of all sorts of shots but primarily big hooks left and high cuts right. I already knew that anything going left would mean I didn't keep the the shoulders down at address, and that the right shoulder remained in charge causing the path to return the club closed and imparting the right to left side spin. It seems so easy to do, in theory and seeing it here in writing. The ones going the other way were caused by a steeper path into the ball and the need to try and find more room into impact causing everything to lurch up and outwards. In between, there were rare glimpses of hope, a sliver of light in what was becoming a morass of darkness.

Plenty of ammunition to groove the swing

I returned to the scene of the crime on the Wednesday. One of the reasons I use Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire, apart from him being a terrific teacher, is that he genuinely has the pupil's progress at heart and if they struggle with changes he will give additional help and advice. To this end, he had some spare time and we nipped down to the teaching bay for a quick refresher and to see why I coudn't make the changes work. It's funny how a different feeling and a comment phrased differently got the penny to drop. I left him to his afternoon lessons and prepared to get to work. It was a much better session with all the clubs working well from the wedges up to the driver.

To finish the week, I’d arranged to have a playing lesson with Rhys on Friday so that he could watch the changes in action on the course and see how the new address position allowed me to hit the ball. I have to admit I was nervous as it was untried on the golf course. There were still the odd bad shot in there, partially through lack of trust, partially through rushing and partially because I’m an eleven handicapper and bad shots happen. However, using mental position A from my New Golf Thinking, there were far more improved shots, and those were longer and straighter than anything I’d produced this season. 2014 has already been a vast improvement on last year with a handicap cut, a win at the Golf Monthly Forum King of Kings qualifier at Camberley Heath, a flourishing short game and a much happier feeling to my golf.

I am getting much more distance as a result of this change. Getting into a better position at the start is getting me to deliver the club properly. To be honest, Rhys has knackered my club selection as I’ve no idea exactly how far I hit it anymore. As an example, I played the front nine at Royal Ascot this week. I had 138 yards into the third hole, normally a smooth seven iron. I flushed it and ended up twenty yards over the green. On the fourth, the fairway bunker, normally safely out of reach was found with effortless ease. I hit a driver miles down the par five fifth hole too. Granted I lost a ball on the sixth hole but that was pilot error. I was too quick, the right shoulder came in and I hit it left. I recovered on the next and my hybrid was in real danger of finding the ditch traversing the fairway some 230 yards off the tee. Despite the second shot going into the bunker I made a sandy par. To cap of my night, I bombed a driver down the ninth and again brought the ditch into play, finishing no more than ten yards short.

Normal service has now been resumed at Royal Ascot and this weekend is a chance to try the new address position in earnest in a couple of social rounds. Judging by the results playing with Rhys and on my own this week, I might just surprise a few people. I’m not getting too carried away just yet. I’ve often had success stripping away a layer of faulty technique but never really found a level of consistency to follow. At least there is no pressure on and I can focus on what I’m doing and evaluate the outcome from there.

The second half of the season starts now and all the big events like the club championships lie ahead. I am genuinely reinvigorated by the way I’m hitting it and how much short game and putting are coming on. I’m thinking better and clearer through the New Golf Thinking work I’ve been doing and everything suddenly seems simpler, clearer and focused. I have to say I’m now driven by that most basic of desires, to effectively stick two fingers up and prove people wrong. I overheard someone last night as I was working on my chipping and putting saying something to the effect “he spends so long playing and practicing but never gets better. It’s like he gets stage fright in a competition and bottles it”.

I’m afraid that’s a red rag to a bull. Those that follow my trials and tribulations on a regular basis know that Homer’s Odyssey is a long haul journey and not a quick trip. I knew from the outset that to strip away thirty years of ingrained golfing gremlins wasn’t an overnight job. Bit by bit, layer by later, it’s getting better, more often, and I’m unflinching in my belief that I’ll get to single figures. This has galvanised those intentions even further. Maybe there was a grain of truth in the fact that I’ve not always performed well in competitions at the club. I seem to produce my best golf away from “the heath of dreams” and particularly in events that have Golf Monthly anywhere in the title! Maybe familiarity has bred a degree of contempt and knowing the course so well means a degree of focus is missing. That’s where New Golf Thinking (for more see this month’s copy of Golf Monthly on sale now) will help.

The weekend will be a far better barometer of where the new address change has put me. If it works well and I play well, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t, it’ll be a catalyst for the big drive to single figures over the remaining part of the season. If not I’ll look at why and come back with a fix.

All in all then a rather eventful time considering I wasn’t actually able too play much. I love the journey and I’m enjoying seeing how these changes adapt on the course. Despite the naysayers, I’m enjoying my golf, and in my own mind at least feel like this year has been a bit of a breakthrough and progress made. I’m a stubborn old fool and so I’m more determined than ever now. Stay tuned to see how the weekend manifests itself. It could be an interesting ride.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The End Of A Good Spell.. Or The Start Of Another?

Things have been quietly improving over recent weeks. I had a lovely handicap cut over the Bank Holiday weekend and recent form has been consistent. It’s been a long time since I’ve written that word on here. I’ve had a far more positive outlook courtesy of the work I’m doing with New Golf Thinking and even the short game has been behaving itself.

With that in mind I was looking forward to the monthly stableford on Saturday. Warm up went well and I was confident. However a thirty minute delay for a passing thunderstorm didn’t help and it all felt rushed on the first tee. My opening drive was a big snap hook left into the pond and an opening triple bogey and no points.
In truth, things barely progressed from there and if I’m brutally honest I didn’t engage my golfing brain or any of the facets I’ve learnt from the work I’d done on New Golf Thinking. It has a whole section on positivity and bouncing back but I seemed to forget everything. In my defence the weather was atrocious calling for full waterproofs and I was more focused on keeping everything dry and avoiding the long grass than on anything else. However, with the swing misbehaving, and a living in a world of hook and push, the ball wasn’t going where I wanted. Nor was it finding the middle of the club. No amount of thinking, New Golf or otherwise, was going to change a directionally challenged shot.

In the end I crawled out in a miserable thirteen points. About right for the dross I’d produced. Still, there was another nine to go and a solid back half could still claw back an air of respectability. That lasted as long as it took me to play the tenth hole. Another double bogey.

At least by now the rain had gone and we were enjoying sun. It did little to brighten the mood. Despite a fairway and green in regulation at the twelfth for a par there was precious little change in fortunes and the second nine followed the trend of the first with too many bad shots, too many wasted ones and far too few that were good. Even when I did find the fairway or make a good swing, this was followed up by something that wasn’t as good and I just couldn’t cobble anything together. In the end, my measly twenty seven points meant a 0.1 handicap increase and a lowly sixteenth place finish in division one and an end to the recent good run.

I decided to bite the bullet on Sunday morning and sacrifice my golfing soul to the elite roll up group known as the “Hooded Claw”. I’ve been using Sunday’s to work on my game (and enjoy a lie in) but I wanted to get out in the sunshine and right the wrongs of the competition.

Joined by the walking book of knowledge (some of which may even be true) Mick Mills and Russ Adamson, a man never going to be lost in the dark with his bright golf shirts, I was determined to play better. Yet again, I failed to engage my New Golf Thinking and yet again I chopped it around the sun drenched “Heath of Dreams”. There is definitely a correlation between the power of this New Golf Thinking and an ability to play with a clear head and think and execute well. It does what is says on the tin.

The “Claw” has a special prize for the lowest score of the day, “the bitch”. The unlucky person has to do all the fetching and carrying of drink orders and I was pretty certain my score of 25 was going to be nailed on for that dubious honour. Fortunately my blushes were spared, just. However it had been another terrible round.

All in all then, definitely a weekend to forget and the end of my good streak. Or is it just the beginning of another one? I’m annoyed with myself for not using what has been working and for not swinging well. I’d worked hard on chipping and putting and also on pitching, especially in the 30-60 yard area. Could I buy a putt? Could I pitch? Was my chipping strong? Of course not. That’s frustrating. It’s all about the scoring zone from a hundred yards and in this summer for me and where much of my practice time has been targeted.  If I can get the ball close and make more up and downs, it’s going to take the pressure off the rest of my game. It’s the difference between a 0.1 handicap increase and the buffer zone or a handicap cut. More work to be done. That’s fine. I’m enjoying working on the chipping and putting and have fallen in love with all things short game connected.

I’ve done a lot of work on my swing over the winter with Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Complex in Wokingham and it had been working a lot better. There were a lot of old faults rearing their ugly head that I thought I’d banished. I’ve booked a refresher lesson for the 16th (my birthday!) to just tweak things and freshen them up ready to kick on for the second half of the season. That desire for single figures is as strong as ever and the recent cut to 11 has brought it much closer. I can see it there on the horizon and now it is pedal to the metal and time to accelerate onwards.

What can I take from the weekend? Well my crappiest golf this season is a lot better than it would have been this time last year. My short game, bad as it was, is still better than it has been. I did hit some nice shots too. Just not that many. It has also proved, as if I needed verification, that New Golf Thinking, is a powerful weapon in my armoury. Those of you that read my last offering (and if not, take yourself there immediately) will know that I was in contention for large periods of the Stone Cup over the Bank Holiday. My second round began poorly but I showed good mental fortitude to get myself back to a point where I was level with my handicap by the fourteenth hole. In the end I fell away but I was in with a shout right up until the last few holes. That is a huge step forward in itself. My rambling point is that I hit a lot of bad shots in the second round of that competition but a better mental attitude made a big difference.

I am making a big thing of New Golf thinking for a reason. As well as being in the new edition of Golf Monthly as part of a feature on the subject (be warned, there is a mug shot of me in there), and my recent trip to The Grove, it works. It isn’t some form of crutch or something I can pin my successes or failures against and it won’t hide poor technique and execution. It does however give me clarity and a feeling of calm sadly lacking at the weekend.
I do feel disappointed at the way I played. I always do when I don’t perform as I know I can. That’s just my golfing DNA. Let me make one thing crystal clear though. I enjoy my golf irrespective of the outcome. These days I play free from a myriad of swing thoughts over the ball and even if my score isn’t what I’d have wanted, I know I am still moving forward. I am driven. That’s just me and while some may say at times I’m too intense that’s the way I am with golf and I make no apologies for that. It’s probably way too late to change and even if it isn’t I won’t be doing so anytime soon. I’m like a dog with a bone and won’t be happy until I reach single figures. When I do, I’m sure they’ll be another golfing goal to be reached and so it goes on.

I hit the ball much better on the practice ground last night and hopefully I’ve sorted some of the problems out in time for the monthly medal on Saturday. I plan to thrown myself upon “The Claw” again on Sunday and then the course is effectively closed while the world famous Royal Ascot horse racing takes place next week. That gives me time to recharge the batteries, have the lesson to check everything is working and then put the work in on the range ready to come back after the enforced lay off ready to play my best golf.

I’ve consigned last week to history and it’s all about the next game. It's the start of a new good spell. Single figures will be mine.