Sunday, 23 November 2014

Another Season Almost Done And Dusted

Sitting indoors with the rain teeming down in deepest Berkshire, it feels like winter is finally here and that the golfing season for 2014 is more or less done and dusted. There are one or two more competitions at Royal Ascot Golf Club to enjoy in the run up to Christmas and then a full and active calendar starting again in January but for now it's time to sit back and reflect on where Homer's Odyssey took me.

Well first and foremost I didn't reach the promised land of single figures. To be honest starting at 11.4 in January I never really got the handicap moving the right way and loitered around 11 all season, reaching a low of 10.9 following 39 points in the Stone Cup over the May bank holiday. Since then it's climbed with the odd buffer zone thrown in but currently sits at 11.7 (playing off 12). All in all it moved up just 0.3 over the whole season and so I feel there has been far more consistency this year than recent years. However there is still a feeling of disappointment that after a good winter of lessons with Rhys ap Iolo working on the swing, I didn't manage to really ever get going.

However there is still much to enjoy. As I do each and every year, I've played different courses, met different people and really enjoyed my golf. It may not seem so at times on here, but despite the all the hard work I put in, and despite the set backs and pitfalls, every time I tee it up, I'm there for enjoyment first and foremost. If I do something well then great. If I have a bad round, I'll go back and start working even harder. That I'm afraid is just the way I am.

So what positives can I take? Well for one, the swing itself continues to develop and mature and has become far more robust and reliable. There are far less moving parts, it's on a better path and I am hitting it much better more often. The short game has come and gone and remains a source of constant frustration, although I have remedial plans in place for early 2015 to sort this once and for all. Putting has become a strong facet and both my pace, reading using Aimpoint and holing out from that crucial 2-3 foot range has become far more reliable.

I had a lovely win in March at the Golf Monthly Forum King of King's qualifier at Camberley Heath, shooting a gross 80 (net 68) including a back nine of just +4 gross and squeezed home on count back. It was one of those days when the driver in particular was working well and so I found myself in little trouble and could go for greens or lay up to the ideal yardage.

Since then, arguably the peak of the season, I've usually managed to find new and fresh ways of playing fifteen or sixteen holes in a round nicely and then chucking a real scorecard wrecker in from nowhere. It's been a recurring theme and I'm sure if you've been a regular follower of my progress (and if not why not?) then you'll know I've been going well in club competitions and right in the mix and then falling away. Of course there have also been rounds when I struggled to string two consecutive good shots together but that's the nature of this fickle mistress we call golf.

Below are my figures for the season with a comparison from the software (Scoresaver 2) on how that compares to my playing handicap of 12

Fairways Hit: 44%  (Hcap Std: 14)
Greens In Reg: 26%  (Hcap Std: 12)
Putts Per Round: 33.16  (Hcap Std: 15)
Sand Saves: 12%  (Hcap Std: 14)
Birdie Conversion: 11%  (Hcap Std: 20)
Par Scrambles: 16%  (Hcap Std: 19)
Penalties Per Round: 1.44  (Hcap Std: 15)

On first viewing that wouldn't seem to represent progress but many of these figures, especially greens in regulations and putts per round are far better (up from 22% and 34.65). The fairways hit is a little down and clearly I'm not making anything near enough birdies or scrambling well enough. Again in isolation they don't tell the full story but it does give me a benchmark to compare my progression year on year

Enough of the numbers. I have also been lucky enough to have enjoyed a fantastic opportunity courtesy of Golf Monthly to take part in New Golf Thinking at The Grove near Watford and in updates with the author John O'Keeffe since (http://threeoffthetee.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-secret-is-out.html). It's a developing thing with John and Golf Monthly and believe there's going to be an update in the magazine in the new year.

What this has done is give me a far clearer mind set on the course and the ability to play one shot at a time much more often. It's an ongoing project and I still don't do it all of the time but for the most part it's been a great asset as well as giving me the opportunity of a free round at The Grove. What it does so well for my own game is stop one bad shot or one bad hole becoming a downward spiral and compounding the errors on the next hole and the one after that. Again, if you've read my reports, you'll see that after I've chucked these silly holes in, I now seem to respond with a solid par or better at the next hole. In days gone by I'd have stewed, started thinking about technique and leaked more shots. It's been a great tool and for the price of a couple of pints I seriously recommend you downloading it on Kindle or buying the paperback.

I had a great day at the Golf Monthly Help For Heroes Day in September and was pleased to have helped raise over £15,000 for a great cause. We played at North Hants Golf Club and it's a course you simply have to play. Very challenging but still a fair test, its a heathland course that rewards accuracy and punishes heavily anything wayward. I didn't have my best day and finished mid-table but had a fantastic day with some Golf Monthly Forum members I'd only conversed with online from Scotland and Bolton. It really has become a must play event on the forum.

So where does the future take me? Well for starters I am steadfast in my belief I have the ability to get to single figures. That point has already been reiterated to me, not only by Rhys ap Iolo who has worked hard to get my swing working as well as it has but by a guy called Andy Piper at Lavender Park Golf Centre. I went to see him recently on the recommendation of several single figure players at my club. We only tweaked set up, including getting rid of a cupped wrist at address, better posture and alignment and I'm already reaping benefits. He has a pedigree in the short game and will be my secret weapon in this area for 2015.

For me, winter golf is more about getting out whenever the conditions and weather allow and just playing without too much focus on scores. It's a chance to take the work from lessons and the range onto the course and see how it stands up. The season won't really kick off until the start of March and I intend to be ready. I need to look at three areas over the winter and going forward. Chipping, short range pitches from the 20-30 yard area and bunkers. The latter is getting better but not good enough and the other two are just too inconsistent. I've got to the point now where I trust the swing to function more often than not. I will continue to work on it and can always get it looked at if it misfires. I've probably got it as close to a modern day swing as I'll get and it's nothing like the 80's model I've carried with me for three decades. The transition has been long and at time painful in terms of frustration, but I think it's been for the better.

So there we have it. A season of good and bad but far more consistency and I can end 2014 in a Homer happy place. It's been eventful but as I've said I've met new people, played new courses and had new golfing experiences on and off the course. I've learnt more and becoming a better golfer. Sometimes progress can't always be marked by handicap progression and scores. Yes, it's annoying that all the optimism at the start of the 2014 season really didn't manifest into a handicap drop and instead I slipped over the threshold to 12 but I've not really moved at all from the starting point. All round I've improved and I just need to find a way to string eighteen holes together and lose those killer shots at the wrong time. However, anyone watching the season ending coverage of the European Tour today on TV will see how even the best can make double bogey when right in the heart of the battle. It gives me hope even at my humble level.

I hope your 2014 season has given you all that you hoped and if not, you've understood why and will be able to find a way to make 2015 work for you. As for Three Off The Tee, they'll be a few subtle changes including a few more equipment reviews, more course reviews and some more general posts, akin to the ones I've done on club membership, dress codes and car park golfers. I doubt all of you will agree necessarily with my point of view but hopefully it'll promote some thoughts and comments. I'm hoping to post far more video footage of the swing for the guru's to consider. It won't be pretty necessarily but it doesn't have to be as long as it works. Hopefully the 2015 version will be bigger and better and I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, 17 November 2014

That Winning Feeling

No doubt I've bored you ad nauseam over the last year of so with promises that all the changes in lessons were working and that the swing was more robust, better technically and that good scores were just around the corner. The 2014 season has been a curious mix of good and the frustrating with rounds being ruined by one or two bad holes, usually from nowhere after going along nicely.

I posted last time out about feel versus real and that I working on something that would provide more control on the club face and that it had been ticking over rather nicely at the driving range. The season itself has drawn to something of a close. There's drainage works going on at Royal Ascot which has seen competitions put on hold while this is carried out. However there is the winter knockout, a better ball matchplay event and with the deadline looming, Saturday was the day to get it on.

There was much to be uncertain about. Not only was it the first round out since my lesson last week with Rhys ap Iolo but I was breaking in a new partner. My long standing, some would say long suffering partner of the last four years or so, Mike Stannard, has moved house and joined the beautiful Blackmoor Golf Club. That's a place you must play if you ever get the opportunity. A heathland treat and a very friendly and accommodating members club. His replacement, a new(ish) member of Royal Ascot and fellow Golf Monthly Forum member Adam O'Neill looked ideal with his 14 handicap and with the potential to play lower than this. We were drawn against long standing member John Munday off a competitive seven handicap and his partner Ian Stephen off sixteen. Both had won their respective divisions in the last stableford competition and were a fancied pairing to do well in this knockout.

Aside from this a shroud of mist clouded the course The early starters were forced off the course after a few holes when visibility reduced dramatically. They went back out as the mist lifted enough to resume and then teased them by coming back down and forcing them off yet again. Funny, sitting in the bar watching this but it did cast some doubt on whether we'd get out at all.

In the end we started two hours later than planned. Any fears about my partner were quelled at the first when he chipped and putted for a par to match the opposition. I hit a cracking drive down the second but on a very tight line flirting with the out of bounds. It landed in play and then kicked viciously back out of play and was lost forever amongst the ferns and bracken. We were one down. Not for long and my par at the fourth, a short par four that has a real nuisance factor was enough as both opponent found a way to make a bogey.

Adam then produced a moment of real skill at the sixth. Having missed the green left at the 178 yard par three he had a chip off a muddy lie. I'd made a bit of a mess of the hole and was out of contention. With the opposition close we needed something. He hit a chip and it came out low and looked like he'd thinned it a little. It bounced, skidded and spun close stopping inches away. It really kept the momentum going.

It was nip and tuck all the way and by the turn the game was still all square with par golf required on every hole. Aside from the sixth, I'd been hitting it as well as I had for ages. My driving, so long my nemesis had transformed. Rhys had looked at this in the lesson and we'd tweaked set up a little and suddenly I was hitting it higher and further than I've done. If only I could have taken advantage of the summer conditions a few months ago. I was hitting some very good irons into greens and my putting had threatened the hole each time. I'd made several crucial putts from the three to six foot zone for a half. All round it was firing and I was in a Homer happy place.

What I hadn't known until halfway down the fifth was that Adam had never played a better ball match before and was a nervous wreck on the first few holes. I think that chip at the sixth calmed him and he was enjoying the ebb and flow of the match.

We made a streaky half at the tenth when I holed from eight feet having missed both the fairway and green but lost the next to a par, which in better ball isn't what you need. The twelfth at Royal Ascot is already stroke index one. It's one of the holes that has undergone drainage work. A dog leg from left to right, the brave golfer can take the tree line on and carry it onto the fairway and leave a shorter second shot. However, with the introduction of a new drainage ditch, the tee shot now has to be perfectly struck to clear this new hazard as well. With the others electing to go the safer route and getting a shot on the hole I decided to take it on, buoyed by the way I was driving it. I absolutely nailed it. It made the carry with plenty to spare to leave just 147 yards in. Finding the green in two and two putting for a net birdie we were back on level terms in what was turning into an epic contest.

The 12th and the safe line. The braver golfer can take on the tree on the right and the tree line beyond
I made a par at the thirteenth despite a ropey swing. It was a bit nervy and I steered it rather than hit it but got away with it. I hit another great drive on the fourteenth. I was in the middle of the fairway with 197 yards left. And then.....as I'd done all season found a way to self destruct. I hit my hybrid straight right and out of bounds. With my partner in trouble we lost the hole. I've no idea where this shot came from. I'd gone through the pre-shot routine and the strike itself was fine, it just went straight right.

The fifteenth is a short par five and I'd left myself facing a ten footer for par after a poor approach in, pulled to the left of the green. With the opponents guaranteed a par and Adam in the left hand bunker, the dream team were in trouble again. Off a compacted and wet lie, he proceeded to produce the second miracle recovery shot of the day. Another low fizzing shot that looked to be too hot, it spun and gripped and stopped stone dead to save the day again.

We halved the sixteenth and moved onto the long 218 hole penultimate hole. John Munday found the green and both Adam and I missed right and had a pitch over a bunker to a tight flag, with the green running away from us. We did well to get to within ten feet but neither of us could match John's par. One down and one to go and definitely up against it.

The last is an uphill par five measuring 531 yards. I hit another long drive that just trickled off the fairway right and found a real wet winter lie, down in the grass. With Ian sadly out of bounds it was two onto one but we thought a birdie was needed as John was as steady as his seven handicap indicates and was on the fairway. His second wasn't perfect and he'd left himself a long way back for the third. I managed to conjure up a great shot. Not a textbook swing but club met ball perfectly and I got it well up the hole. John took on the brave shot and tried to get a fairway wood onto the green but found a bunker left, well short of the putting surface. My partner managed to get on the green for four and had a sixteen footer for a par. I only had 121 yards for my third. A smooth nine iron was all I needed. I'd done it many times before. With nerves and adrenalin flowing I tugged it left into a bunker.

John was unlucky to find his ball had wedged into the face of the bunker and with no stance and he did well to get the ball onto the front of the green but with the flag at the back, he faced a forty foot putt. He left the first putt woefully short. I came out of the bunker, short and my chip up five feet short. Adam missed (and the return) and John had a chance for a bogey and a win. It missed and I had the five footer to win the hole in ugly fashion. Regular readers will know I've worked hard on my short putting all year. This was the ultimate test and I rolled the left to right putt in, dead centre. All square and off to the nineteenth.

The first, or in this case the nineteenth is a 229 yard par three. No shots here and so every man for himself. Adam and Ian both hit nervous tee shots, way short and in the rough. My swing wasn't great and the ball came up thirty yards short. John had hit the best shot and was in the fringe pin high and definitely in the box seat.

What transpired showed just what nerves can do. Ian fired his next long and over the green. Adam found the green about twenty feet away. I didn't hit the best chip shot but it found the green twelve feet away. John had chipped solidly all day and so I was surprised when he knifed a simple chip across the green into more rough. Ian pitched back on and still had twenty five feet. John duffed another chip, only just getting on the green. Adam rolled his putt six foot past and so the best anyone other than myself could do was a miserable double bogey. I had left my first attempt just inside a foot away and hold out for a great win. We'd never been ahead until we won the 19th but it had been a classic match with never more than a hole in it and the quality of the golf was very high.

When the dust settled and we adjourned to the bar for a well earned drink, we added up the unofficial scores, bearing in mind putts were conceded, and it wasn't any great surprise that everyone had played a shot inside handicap. Our progress won't get any easier as we've two more single figure golfers awaiting next. Adam fresh from his better ball debut is already chomping at the bit.

Nothing beats that winning feeling but for me, the quality of my ball striking and all round golf has vindicated a lot of the hard work I've been putting in. I have to thank Andy Piper for the changes he made to the posture and alignment which in conjunction with the ongoing work Rhys ap Iolo has and is doing has made a real difference. The path is now more high to low and compressing the ball well again. Distances are up and dispersions are tighter. There are still issues with the odd bad hole still lurking in there to disrupt the round but other than that I'm happy.

I've managed to marry feel versus real from the previous thread. I'm still working hard to make the changes a more permanent part of my swing and to that end, I'm not overly worried about scores at this time of year and it's the perfect time to test the work I'm doing at the range and lessons in a real environment rather than bashing ball after ball. There's much to be happy about and this was a great way to christen the new partnership. My golf is in a good place and I hope I can keep the form going for a while longer. If not I'll just work even harder ready for Homer's Odyssey to sail under full trim to single figures in 2015.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Feel Versus Real

Welcome. It's been a while. Sorry about that but in truth I've not been playing too much golf in the last few weeks and what I have been playing hasn't been setting the world alight. I've been struggling in practice and in truth the swing has deserted me and I've lacked a bit of my golfing mojo.

I had a lesson a few weeks back with Rhys ap Iolo at the Downshire Golf Centre. It was the start of some Winter work to just try and make what I have a little more robust, stable and reliable. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel and Rhys is happy, or as happy as a teaching pro can ever be, with the progress I'd made in 2014. The hands and the path still need refining and it's a little too around the body and that the hands and hips get way too active at times as a result. This leads to the hands flipping and the ball going low and left or the hips and shoulders spinning too far left and hitting a big cut left to right.

All fine and dandy. The plan was to swing on a steeper path. The first feel vs real conundrum to try and get my head around was the fact that this felt like I was taking it way outside the line and chopping right down on it, much as a beginner with an over the top flaw might do. Rhys explained the concept on trying to get some more separation and  to get the hands coming down in a quieter manner. In essence the swing needs to feel more high to low into the ball. This won't be last time you hear that in this post.

As happens, while the lesson was in progress and Rhys was spreading the magic teaching dust, all was good and the swing seemed far more compact with a lower exit and finish, hands in a stronger position and the strike sublime. I say that, but the driver was a different issue and I struggled with this throughout. Not to worry thought I. Go away with the words of Rhys in my ears, the swing feelings were there and I was convinced it would come.

It didn't and in truth, as the range sessions progressed, there was some confusion on my point on exactly what I was trying to achieve and the swing seemed to manifest into a steeper and steeper creature until ball strike was heavy and direction was poor. This was magnified with the driver and by the time I set foot on Royal Ascot for a roll up game with the usual Saturday crowd my brain was full of chocolate frogs and confidence had waned. The score, especially on my front nine (the back nine of the course) was a mess and I barely managed double figures. I did rally on other nine but in truth it was more luck than judgement.

I've been using a driving range in Ascot and many of the members of the golf club had been singing the praises of a teaching pro by the name of Andy Piper. I'd seen him doing his stuff and I really fancied a fresh pair of eyes on my swing and booked a thirty minute assessment. I deliberately didn't mention what I'd been working on, just stood there and hit the shot. He verdict was refreshingly honest. In essence, the fundamentals had been forgotten and posture and alignment were poor. My shoulders were out over my toes at address and too hunched over and my shoulders were aligned way right of target.

However in his opinion, the biggest issue I had was a cupped left wrist at address which he thought was causing a lot of the issues at impact and the need I had to get the hands active. In the space of the thirty minute assessment, we did nothing more than change the posture so the shoulders were more on the balls of the feet, got the hands in a better place so the wrist wasn't cupped and the shoulders on line. The latter felt as though they were way open, pointing left, but again feel vs real, once an alignment stick was put across the shoulders they were on target. The net result was a significant change to both the quality of the strike and the power I was able to generate, now I had room to swing and could engage the big muscles and my arms much better.

I said several paragraphs ago that I'd be mentioning high to low again. Without even mentioning the work Rhys had done and the lesson I'd had, he wanted to seem my swing develop on a steeper path. I hit a few shots that way, feeling in my mind as though I was trying to hit a cut or fade. As I had in the teaching bay with Rhys I was nailing it.

I continued to work on the changes to my posture Andy Piper had given me and tried to work in the steeper path. Although new set up allowed me to make a much better pass at the ball, there was still this confusion about swinging too far outside the line and chopping down and when I played last Saturday, the round had replicated the last effort. There were more good shots than the previous outing. The chipping had improved, as previously my wrist was cupped at address. Standing taller and with the wrist sitting flatter I was able to drop the club on a steeper angle and popped it out nicely. I felt I was making progress but that there was a certain something still missing.

On a huge tangent, I have also been tinkering with my putter. I'd noticed a lots of professionals on the TV coverage, my own club pro and plenty of golfers at the recent Golf Monthly Forum Help for Heroes Day I played in were using jumbo sized putter grips. In simple terms, the idea of the bigger grip is to take the hands out of the putting stroke and allow a much better rocking motion with the shoulders. Unconvinced, I ordered an Odyssey jumbo grip which was duly fitted onto an old Odyssey White Ice #9 I had loitering around in the naughty cupboard. I'd taken it out and was blown away by how simple the stroke felt and I putted really nicely.

A jumbo putting grip, It's made the stroke much simpler and confidence has increased, especially on short putts
Having seen it work I put one on my regular putter, an Odyssey Protype Tour #9 with a milled face and played with that last weekend. It was as good as the test model and I holed out nicely. It's definitely helping and on the short putts I feel the club just goes back and through and the hands don't get involved at all. These jumbo grips aren't the cheapest out there and come in a number of different sizes but if you're struggling with the putter, and feel a little twitchy with the hands on the three footers, I would recommend you definitely have a serious think about getting one put on your putter. If you can find someone with one you can try first so much the better but if not, I still think you'll be pleasantly surprised just how smooth it makes the stroke.

Having struggled with this high to low concept both Rhys and Andy insisted would improve my swing, I'd taken the precaution of booking a lesson with Rhys on Monday night. I explained the issue I had chopping down and hitting heavy and that the swing felt way outside the line. He went back over what we're trying to achieve but I struggled to get the golfing brain switched off and trust what I was trying to do. However, once I actually saw a video of the swing and the path I was able to see that it wasn't the chopping action I had perceived and that I was actually getting into a good position. With trust and faith restored, I was able to swing with more freedom. I was making contact that was every bit as good as I'd achieved with Andy Piper and the ball fizzed off the face.

The hands were much quieter through the swing and the swing was compact and efficient and finally the penny dropped and I could understand exactly what Rhys wanted to achieve. Again, the driver wasn't quite as solid but again, there were some cracking drives in there to encourage me that I'm on the right path.

I ventured back to the range last night with the intention of working on this steeper path and getting the ball off the tee successfully with the big dog. I have to say the feeling with the irons when it goes well is fantastic. However the driver was still a step too far. However I had a light bulb moment. I went back to what I considered my "normal" swing but with a feeling of the hands being much quieter throughout. What a revelation. High and long and less flipping of the hands through impact and quieter body rotation and no more spinning out of the shot.

There's still much to be done to get where I want the swing to be. I'll be working hard on it for the rest of the week with a winter knockout match to be played on Saturday. I'm feeling much more enthused and the mojo is back and I'm hoping that the improved striking replicates itself out on the course. If it does, then I've the capability of getting round very effectively. The key will be how the driver works. If this fires, then I'm confident in the new steeper path I've been working on once the ball is on the fairway. Now that I can understand that I'm making a proper turn, can feel the hands going along for the ride, and that the finish is low and balanced, I can swing with confidence.

I'll ensure that I get back to you with the outcome and the continuing pursuit towards my target of single figures. When I see how the ball reacts and how much further it goes, I can appreciate the work both Andy and Rhys have put in. The improved posture is the starting point and the new path the engine room. With Winter weather coming, and talk of severe snow falls, the swing work will continue and if I can get the driver to follow suit with the progress I'm making with the irons then by the time the new season arrives I'm going to be ready to hit the ground running. There's a lot to be optimistic about again and the blip of the last month or so forgotten already. I promise not to leave it so long next time!