Wednesday, 22 July 2015

That Was Short Lived - SOS

Well that didn't last long. There I was enjoying a brief moment of good form, winning a monthly stableford, a top ten in the monthly medal and picking up a few quid in the weekend roll ups. My golfing life was rosy and I was in a good place. I had even managed thirty three points in my last competitive round, after struggling with some swing changes and not feeling like I hit the ball very well. Granted it was 0.1 back on the handicap, but it was only a handful of poor shots that really did for me.

And then it evaporated like a puddle in the summer sun. I have lost my swing completely and had to put an urgent SOS call out to Andy Piper at Lavender Park Golf Centre for a lesson. I had been trying to bed in the changes ( and make a wider, slower swing. However somewhere, somehow things had got lost in translation and instead of taking the club back properly I'd taken it back too straight and too wide and the dreaded shanks and some terrible strikes had begun to manifest. I had tried to grind it out on the practice ground but couldn't pin point the issue. It had also begun to have an effect on my back and I was getting some soreness from the weird way I was trying to do things.

Things came to a head a couple of weeks ago. I had a shocking practice session on the Friday night and couldn't get a ball going straight or from anywhere near the centre of the club. I went home in a filthy mood and got to the club very early on the Saturday morning to warm up and find that missing spark before playing in the usual Saturday roll up. It was arguably worse than the previous evening. And then I got a sharp pain down my right side of the back, through the buttock and down the leg. Hello sciatica my old friend! I knew it was pointless trying to continue and if I'm honest it may have been a blessing. The round had the potential to be four hours of absolute hell and would have severely damaged my fragile golfing psyche. I've always been a streaky player and usually ride the wave of good form for a good few weeks before having to then go back and scrap for everything I get.

I have to be honest and say it had got so bad, I was seriously considering chucking the clubs on E-bay and walking away from the game. I couldn't see any light. I was hitting shank after shank, and nothing was going forward in a straight and high manner.

I was fortunate that Andy Piper could squeeze me in for a lesson. I was dosed up on ibuprofen and Deep heat gel to keep the back loose and ward off the twinge in the sciatic nerve. It was good enough to warm up. I told Andy he had thirty minutes to stop the clubs hitting the internet. No pressure. In the end what ailed me was relatively simple. Posture (remember I've spoken about that before) was too hunched again, the left shoulder was closed to the target line, and I was taking the club back too straight, mistaking that for width. The last point was the biggest issue and my arms had become disconnected which was why I was returning the hosel to the ball. Andy brought back a drill from the golfing archive, putting the butt of the club in my navel and simply keeping it there as I made a small turn. Instantly it connected body and shoulder turn, and took the club on a more rounded, but correct path. Posture was easy to fix as was keeping that left shoulder out of the way and square. The results were instant and my golfing psyche felt a wave of relief wash over it like the sunlight appearing from behind a dark cloud. Add in a return to a shorter, better tempo and it was flying off the sweet spot. All done in twenty seven and a half minutes and just enough time to touch on pitching and re-affirming what we'd worked on before. Good times.

However the good times didn't last. I returned to the range a few days later and the strike and direction barely resembled what I achieved in the lesson. I was sticking rigidly to the posture, and the trying hard to take the club away properly. I didn't want to play last weekend but with the club championships on the horizon I knew I had to get out and work through it on the course.

It wasn't pretty. A meagre 27 points. Conditions were tricky with a brisk wind. There were some good holes in there but so many poor strikes as well. One bright spark was the quality of my putting and I holed a number of good putts in the ten-fifteen feet corridor and holed the niggly two-three footers confidently. It was just getting the ball to the green that was the issue.

As you may have realised by now, I'm a stubborn so and so. Belligerent you might say. I know I'm good and I know single figures will be reached. Several teaching professionals have said my game stands up to their lower figure clients, and not just in lessons, but merely passing by at the range. Most haven't even coached me, and some haven't even spoken to me before so it's not a case of ego massaging (or touting for future teaching business). So what you say? Well, I hit the range on Sunday again. A familiar story began to play out. The strike was a tad better but I was directionally challenged.

Something strange was happening. Next door to my bay was a teaching bay. In it was a mat with a line indicating the correct takeaway path on it and with a mirror on the back wall to check the posture. I shouldn't really be in there but it wasn't in use so what was the harm. The crazy thing was, if I hit one or two balls on that mat, I was nailing the ball perfectly. Sneak back next door to my own bay and I couldn't replicate the move. Even putting my own visual aid down to replicate the mat, it wasn't working. Step back into the teaching bay again and BOOM, off it went. Why? How?

Put me on this mat and I can hit it properly. Why couldn't I do it in my own range bay without the visual aid?
The range session on Sunday hadn't gone to plan and confidence had plunged deeper than the Greek economic crisis. Determined to find something, anything, I ventured to the club in the afternoon to play a few holes. You can't play golf on a range. A familiar mantra. If confidence was low before I went out, the bottom had fallen out of my world by the end of nine holes. If the PC had been to hand I would now be blogging about a new hobby (threeofftheline if I take up fishing?). I was trying to swing slow, compact and paying attention to posture and that left shoulder. So why was it still not working. As I had an hour or two to kill, having got permission from the wife to be out for eighteen holes, it was off to the practice ground. Suddenly I found the middle of the nine iron. And then again. And then the middle of the eight. And the seven. Not every time but more in the space of thirty minutes than the practice sessions that week and more than in the twenty seven holes I'd played at the weekend.

So a new week dawns. Club Championships next weekend over two days. A halfway cut to survive on Saturday and back for the second round (hopefully) on Sunday. Realistically, I can't win the major prize for the lowest gross score but there is a prize for the lowest net score. I've survived the cut for the past few seasons and managed to register a sixth place back in 2012. The last couple of seasons have been blighted a poor round, usually the opener which has left me playing catch up. This year, with form so patchy I am not under any illusion that the halfway cut represents an achievement at this stage and mentally I've resigned myself to getting 0.1 back on the handicap on Saturday, and the same on Sunday should I play.

I'm not being negative or defensive. In fact I'm hoping that going in with zero expectations will actually free the golfing brain and let the technique I've striven to improve to flow forth. I managed to play yesterday. I can leave you the reader on a more positive note. Things were getting better. I found a way to get it around. The ball striking was better. There were too many missed greens and poor irons, usually following a decent drive. Some tee shots were wayward. I found out of bounds at the seventeenth trying something different off the tee. It was actually a good shot, just too far left of target. I found the pond right of the last green but from where I struck the shot from I couldn't see it properly and seemed to take a horrid kick sharp right into the water. My pitching and chipping are coming together following my recent lessons and this will help especially if the ball striking isn't perfect. However there was a birdie at the tenth, several sand saves and some par numbers as well.

I am still not 100% confident with where the game is. I'm back out tonight to work on the chipping, pitching and bunker play. Tomorrow is pitching and putting and then Friday is about putting the final touches to the long game ready to peg it up on Saturday. The threat of the clubs hitting E-bay has passed and while my game is not where I wanted it to be, peaking for the biggest weekend in the club calender, it is what it is. I'll try my guts out to do as well as I can. My take has always been try and score as well as possible and handicap cuts will take care of themselves. Nothing has changed.

I told you before, it was going to be  roller coaster ride. The last few weeks have been wilder than normal, but that's part of the fun of this pursuit towards single figures. You have to hit the lows every so often (not too often) to enjoy the climb back up again. The game is in flux but we'll see what the final parts of my build up to the weekend yield and what round one has in store. I'll be back to share the highs, and learn from the lows. Not quite the blog I envisaged and it shows how fleeting form is for the average club golfer is. Things were ticking along and then we hit a big pothole in the road to single figures. A few running repairs and the tracking is back online, the engine has been given the once over and I'm ready to motor towards the second half of the season.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Back Up And Running

Welcome back to you the faithful reader of my humble offering. It's been a quiet few weeks. My golf club, Royal Ascot, was affected but the world famous Royal Ascot horse race meeting and it meant the course was down to twelve holes but with access in and out severely limited it was a virtual no-go zone.

I opted for a lesson on the Wednesday with Andy Piper at Lavender Park. I was hoping for a mid-season swing MOT. Instead I got two fairly hefty swing changes, both things we'd discussed previously. The first thing was to slow everything down. Speed kills and my swing is way too quick. I have needed to slow it down for years. When my timing is on, all is good. On a bad swing day I'm too erratic. The other change, and the one that is going to be the real stumbling block is to shorten the swing. Those that have seen the swing in action will know I struggle with a huge over swing, which results in a lift of the head on the back swing as the shoulders continue to rotate. The wrists over hinge and again it takes timing to get it all working. After thirty years of doing the wrong thing, it's going to take time to break a cycle.

The results were not pretty post lesson. I struggled to marry a slower tempo, almost slow motion, with stopping the swing after completing the turn and resisting the thirty year pattern of keeping going. In itself I would normally hit the range for a number of sessions to groove the changes and work on the drills. However in this case that wasn't an option as I had a game booked the following day at Studley Wood in Oxfordshire and Reigate Hill in Surrey on the Friday. Neither round will live in the memory although both courses, especially Studley Wood, were excellent.

I have been working hard. Very hard, and I have to be honest, it's been a bit of a grind and rather frustrating. The tempo side of things I can do. It takes a lot of effort and will power but I can do it. As for shortening the swing, that has been so, so hard. I can do it. When I do and I tie it in with a slow tempo to allow me the time and the room to make a proper coil and release, it's sublime. I'm longer and straighter and it's abundantly clear why Andy has insisted I try and work through this to give me the best chance of finishing the 2015 season as strongly as I can.

I have been experimenting with the S55 irons I bought not so long ago with the intention of using the smaller head and heavier shaft to improve my ball striking. ( It has helped a lot and I can really feel the turn and when the wrists start to over rotate. It's harder when I go back to my normal I25's and the issue I have is I'm not good enough (yet) to be able to use the S55's on the course regularly. The I25's being lighter are a little harder to feel where they are in the swing and to make a compact short swing

The competitive diary has been light at the club in the wake of the Royal Ascot race meeting and it has given me a chance to play some practice rounds in the usual roll up groups and hit the practice ground as well. Whilst I've not shot the lights out, my play has been steady but there have been some serious trust issues on the course. It's really difficult, and perhaps hard for the reader to appreciate, how hard to break something so ingrained is and still try and play without a plethora of swing thoughts over each and every shot.

It was back to competitive play at the weekend and the monthly stableford. I was in a happier place with my swing after another week of grind and practice. It is still a work in progress and far from the finished article but I'm not hiding and will take it out on the course at every opportunity to try and play with it. Being paired with a young three handicapper in Luke Downey and a fine Scottish chap off seven called Stephen Hamilton I was in a tough school for a first outing in anger with the new game.

I started reasonably well. I was unlucky to find sand at the first off the tee but made a safe net par and was ahead of the scorecard after the first three. I was only 104 yards out on the fourth hole, with a wedge in my hand from the semi rough left of the fairway. I hit a massive pull left that hit the bank on the side of the green and rolled out of bounds. It was inevitable once I saw what I'd done and given the firm conditions and I was reaching for a new ball before the shot had touched down. In the end it was an ugly quadruple bogey with a duffed chip, after the second approach with a wedge went long. I bounced back with a par at the next, gave one back at the sixth and another at the eighth. In the end I turned in sixteen points, which considering the horror on the fourth, was a pleasing effort. There were some fine shots in there and one or two wayward ones but it could have been a whole lot worse.

July Stableford Statistics

I made a par at the tenth after an excellent tee shot and again was unlucky to miss the green at the eleventh and find sand. I was even more unfortunate at the twelfth, the hardest on the course when a superb six iron from 165 yards was a matter of inches from clearing the trap and being very close. Golf can be a game of fine margins. I gave a shot back at the par three thirteenth although this hole often plays harder than the stroke index of 17 would indicate and I'm often happy to take bogey here and move on. My obligatory bad hole on the back nine came at the fourteenth. A hooked drive (tempo too quick and a swing far too long) into deep rough meant I could only chip out. I hit my third right into a lateral hazard, dropped under penalty and pitched and putted for a double bogey, although it added a single point to the total. Another point went at the fifteenth but I made a rare par at the sixteenth (SI 3). My drive was a little right, but a fantastic hybrid from 221 yards told me exactly why I've embarked on the swing changes. Two putts later and a safe par secured. I missed the green right, at the penultimate hole, a 218 yard par three, although it was another fine tee shot that came up just shy of the green. A so, so chip to eight feet and then a great putt salvaged a par.

My tee shot at the last was arguably the best of the day. Sadly it got me over excited and I reverted to a quick, long swing for the next and left my ball just short of a tree in the rough on the right with water between my ball and the green. I went for the miracle shot and it didn't come off. A penalty drop and with the green side pond to negotiate again. I didn't hit a great pitch technically but it made the journey to the sanctuary of the green and I made a good putt (even if it did a lap of honour) in front of the masses enjoying a drink on the patio in the summer sun. Always play to the crowd.

In the end, my 33 points was one shy of the buffer zone and so it's 0.1 back on the handicap which now stands at 11.9 (12). However it was a pleasing first effort and perhaps the competition came a week or two too soon. So what can we make of all this? Why am I doing it? Shouldn't I leave well alone?

The simple answer is while the work I have done over the last few winters has moved the swing forward enormously compared to where it was even two years ago, it isn't as robust and consistent as I know it can be. The issues can always be traced back to tempo (swinging too fast) and length (over swing and lifting). Both then require compensatory moves. Fine when I'm on and a dog to get right when I'm off. I have spoken to Andy Piper, a coach with a fine pedigree and stable of clients including professionals, county players and many single figure golfers and he feels I am beginning to gain the credentials to get myself to where I want to be. The short game is still an issue, not for the first time and I will need to switch attention to that again, but for now the focus is on the long game and bleeding the changes in again and again.

The biggest part of the swing change, and reducing the length of swing, involves a wider take away, without breaking the wrist and coming inside as has been my want for so long. From a wide start it should be a simple shoulder turn into what would probably be considered a "two plane" (for those familiar with Jim Hardy's one and two plane work) position. It is this last bit I struggle with and it's still a fight to stop and not let the hands work independently and onwards making me lift. When I do it right it feels like a three quarter length swing (but I'm actually making a coiled full turn). As I've alluded, distance and dispersion are beginning to come as a pair.

Many on here will see this as more mumbo jumbo, way too many technical thoughts, more snake oil and way too much detail. You may be right and perhaps putting it in print, although cathartic for me, isn't actually doing justice to what I seek to achieve and perhaps I need to find a before swing and take one of where we are now for those that know about these things to consider and view.

Whatever your take, and you're all welcome to your own opinion, it's something I'm working hard on right now. It wasn't something I planned to be doing but I have found that Andy Piper hasn't really changed too much since I started using him, and that for the most part the tweaks we've made have helped and got me back playing good golf and even back into the winner's circle. You can't get better than that (

If he feels this is the time to make the change and that the swing and my progress towards single figures will benefit then I trust him. We're not reinventing, we're refining, albeit after thirty years of it being wrong. I've a match this Wednesday in the Nike Matchplay (a national better ball matchplay event) and my partner and I have a home draw. I'm hoping the swing will continue to manifest into something robust, reliable and with fewer moving parts and at least I'll have a wing man to carry me along.

Going forward will be attritional.  I am under no illusion that there will be set backs and the swing won't be perfect overnight. I've always said I'm here for the long haul. For now though I'm happy that the club is fully up and running again and we're back on the course. I'm in a happy place with the new swing, even if it can still be improved a lot more yet. I had a couple of dodgy holes in the competition and still threatened the handicap buffer zone. It's a monthly medal next weekend and there really is no hiding place there. Let's see where it take me.