Friday, 29 July 2016

Club Championship Weekend - Round One - Ying

Last weekend was the club championship at Royal Ascot. Played in blistering hot conditions, on a course set up to absolute perfection, there were two prizes on offer. There was the gross prize, the club champion, and one for the best net score. Clearly, there is only a handful that are really in contention for the big prize but there's always a fierce battle for the net prize and it does give everyone something to aim for and makes it an inclusive event. As always, it was played over two days with a halfway cut for the top sixty and ties with the scores out in reverse net order apart from the top dozen contenders in the gross prize which are sent out last to duel it out for the spoils.

As always, the aim is always to not play yourself out of contention in round one and remember you can't win it on day one but you can give yourself the Sunday off. I haven't played too much since my lesson with Andy Piper and so there was an element of doubt about what version of my golfing incarnation would turn up. Sometimes I can be excellent in warm up and play like a drain on the course or I can struggle for timing and tempo on the range and then string an acceptable score. Of course sometimes I can turn up and look like I've never picked up a club before.

However, last Saturday I arrived with an absolute air of tranquillity and calm. I started working on my putting, hit a few chips and then took a large bucket of balls to the practice ground. A few stretches and pitch shots to warm up and then into my routine. I was hitting it like a dream. No really! It was calm, in sync and going great. As it was so warm I left a lot of the balls, having hit a few bunker shots and retired to the cool clubhouse to prepare and get my card.

If you have followed my ramblings over the years, you'll be aware that the first at Royal Ascot asks some tough questions from the outset. Playing 229 yards off the whites, there is out of bounds right, a pond short and left, a line of trees right that jut out from the out of bounds towards the green and will catch anything pushed. Add in two bunkers left, another right and a lateral hazard left from the pond and behind the left hand bunkers and it's perhaps harder, at least mentally than the SI 10 on the card. In my calm state, I took a five wood, pegged it up and put it on the green some twenty feet from the flag to set up an early par.

I was only one over gross after the tricky opening quartet, and spurred by a great up and down for par at the fourth from behind the green to save par it was onto the fifth a 503 yard par five that offered a chance to make more progress. I was green side in three in the bunker. And then the air of calmness vanished as I bladed the sand shot through the green into deep foliage and a lost ball. In the end I did well to keep the damage to a double bogey. However it was the start of a scrappy run (bogey, double, bogey) from the sixth to the eighth. I was on the ninth in two after a good drive and majestic four iron from 188 yards. I walked off after three putting. Out in forty three and one over handicap. Not a disaster especially given the two doubles and that pesky three putt.

I blew a chance at the tenth missing the green on ten but made a solid par at the eleventh hitting the heart of the 178 yard par three. Another fine drive followed at the twelfth, SI 1 which was testament to Andy Piper's tuition in the lesson. I hit what I thought was a fine four iron high and straight expecting it to bounce onto the green from the baked approach. It dug in, caught some fringe grass and came up short. A good chip but a missed par. If I had made a few unforced errors to date, I was truly unfortunate at the 13th, another 178 yard par three. I hit a hybrid which just ran through the green. When I got there it was in a massive divot. It had looked like someone had tried a Phil Mickleson flop shot and taken a huge chunk of turf which they didn't replace. I couldn't get any iron behind it, nor a hybrid or fairway wood. In the end I tried to blade a seven iron, half heartedly and it came up short for a rather undeserved bogey.

I was nice and steady until the sixteenth, usually a hole I struggle with off the tee. With out of bounds tight left, no more than fifteen yards left, two large oaks on the right of the fairway at around the 220 yard mark and a number of young trees and lush rough on the right for those determined not to go left it is arguably the hardest driving hole on the course. I hit another fairway, missed the green from 198 yards but produced another up and down for par

Club Championship Round 1 Statistics

The last two holes were net pars. I hit the poorest drive of the round at the last into the right hand rough. I moved it forward but left myself around 165 yards. With a pond cutting into the green from the right, today wasn't the day to take this shot on. Saturday morning roll up and I'd have pulled a five iron and gone for it with gusto. The calm persona had returned and I just wanted to lay it up towards the fifty yard mark to leave a simple pitch in. I pulled it horribly and it was lucky not only to miss the bunkers short and left but to not kick on into the heavy rough separating the last from the ninth. Perhaps it was reward after my bad break at the thirteenth. I pitched on safely, two putts and time to shake hands.

When it was all added up, I'd come back in 41 which gave me a gross 84, net 71 (+1) and a decent sixteenth place after the opening round. It had been a good round, arguably the best I've played in the 2016 season. It was certainly the best I've felt about myself on the course, and made some very good decisions and executed with precision. I don't know what was different and as we'll find out later, it's something I wish I had bottled for future use.

My driving was much improved and the changes from the lesson have clearly paid off hitting 58% of the fairways. I even managed 28% of greens in regulation which is significantly improved on anything I've had all season. The only down side was the 35 putts and I really couldn't make a putt all day with many grazing the hole but refusing to drop, and the scrambling statistics with only 15% of up and downs. My bunker play was poor all day, prompted by that nightmare on the fifth after which I was tentative and nervy.

I was very, very happy. It was a good round that could have been a few shots better but I doubt even in my wildest dreams if it would have got close to the net 65 (-5) posted by the first round leader. On the plus side I was safely ensconced into the second round with a relatively late tee time. I left the club in the same calm state I'd had on the course and returned home thinking of daring deeds to come in round two and hoping a low score could have me right in the mix for the net prize. What a difference a day would make.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Back To School Again

Despite my last lesson with Andy Piper, my game hasn't really kicked on as I hoped. I've been struggling to get much golf in which hasn't helped but what golf I had managed wasn't good. I had already had a catch up with Andy booked in. The driver had still been misbehaving and I wanted a different look at bunker technique. This is the one area of the linear short game that hasn't gelled since my lesson in any fashion and I just wanted to see if a simpler approach would help.

The curious thing is despite having played poorly, the swing didn't feel miles off. It was just that the bad shots were catastrophic. There was some good stuff chucked in there and the linear chipping has come on but I couldn't buy a putt.

I have bought a DST compressor eight iron (DST Compressor) to improve my strike and get the hands forward as Andy Piper had been asking at it's been starting to work and improve my striking and getting me in a good position (review will follow in due course). When I started hitting balls in my lesson, Andy was happier with my set up and more importantly my impact position. However there were still issues. In particular I still set up with the heel of the club totally flat on the ground which seems to set the hands rather high at address. Andy wasn't happy and explained it could lead to the toe coming in first given my swing and path. He got a small coin and wanted me to lift the toe enough to slide that under and hit shots without touching the coin.

Setting up properly with the toe off the ground

By lowering the hands a fraction and at the same time softening the right elbow into the body a fraction I could feel the arms and shoulder begin the swing and that the club was turning much better. From the top, it was about my old friend tempo, and making the swing and turn smooth and not a rushed move, lunging forward but trying to stay on top of it. Suddenly with a couple of subtle changes I was chasing range balls towards a target at 150 yards with a seven iron. That's long for me.

Softer right elbow - I need to be aware of not turning it open and keeping it more on top.- this one is a fraction over cooked
Having got the seven iron singing, we move onto the driver. This is a real troublesome club at the moment and either finds the middle of a fairway or is so far right it's in the knee high stuff never to be seen again. No middle ground and I've no idea hole to hole what's coming next.

As expected I hit the first one relatively straight, short but you'd find it on the course. The next couple were carved right, with a bit of right and some additional right on it. Now bearing in mind I'm six feet tall and Andy Piper is several inches shorter. He measured where I was standing at address with the driver and he got in and set up and I was actually closer that he was. I needed to step back, give myself more room  and use my longer arms as levers to generate the power and the ability to hit through freely.

As with the irons and as I've said many times before, Andy Piper doesn't make huge changes unless absolutely necessary and it tends to be simple nips and tucks to get a golfer's swing back. The driver started to fly much higher and longer. I still had a miss right but it was now more of a block and Andy quickly spotted that I was simply holding onto the shot and not releasing properly. I've a couple of drills now to work on that but when I let it all flow, I was ripping it. There is more to come but now I've got the tools to start getting the job done.

That was two easy fixes and so onto the bunker. If you've been following my exploits. you'll know I've been using the linear method of short game and had a lesson with Gary Smith the guru of this style of playing short shots. We looked at bunker play and during the lesson it had worked perfectly but in the weeks since then, issues have crept in and my bunker play hasn't been as good as I'd like. The pitching and chipping are fine but I'm not happy with how the technique translates to the sand. I asked Andy to look at a conventional methods, having shown him my linear. method. He understands it but thinks I can make life simpler. He went through the set up and simply wanted me to turn the body as I have a tendency to just use the arms and not turn through. I was popping them out sweetly, very sweetly to within several feet. Of course this now throws an interesting conundrum about sticking with linear or doing what Andy wants and keeping it simpler.

Another superb hour of tuition was over in a flash but I walked away on a cloud and so much more in tune with my game. The down side is health issues have robbed any opportunity of putting this into practice on the course. In practice, this has still been working fine but I need to find game time. It's club championship weekend next weekend and so I need to find time after work to go out and work hard and get some on course work in. It's a two round event with a cut after round one and the top sixty (and ties) get into Sunday going out in score order so the highest from round one get the early start times. I've made good progress in recent years having not missed a cut and don't intend to break that now.

That's the tuition done for a while. I just need to get the health back to full golfing fitness. It's coming and so with a week to get my game in shape before the club championship I hope to finally get the season off and running. Sadly it has felt so stop/start all year. The handicap has quietly risen from 12.2 to 13.0 and the form has been patchy. It hasn't been all plain sailing and I feel to a degree I've let myself down a little in 2016. However with the big events now here, starting with the club championships at the weekend I still have a chance to get the handicap moving in the right direction. Working with Andy has really helped and I just need to find a way of translating this onto the course. In fact I just need to get out on the course. It seems to be the odd roll up and competition for a few weekends and then something getting in the way to prevent me playing for a while. I work hard on the game, not always successfully and then go out, under prepared and not fulfilling my potential and generally making mistakes and playing poorly.

I've enjoyed my golf to date and really enjoyed my tuition. I've often been accused of getting too many lessons, paralysis by analysis and over complicating things. That's possibly very true. I do like to practice hard and very much like Padraig Harrington (a favourite of mine) enjoy the tinkering process. I stand on the first tee and I never feel overly concerned and worried. I see the first shot, rehearse and commit. It's been known to be a good day. Too many bad days for my liking this year but I still have a committed belief in my ability and once I'm back to full fitness (not long now) I'll be back. I need to take just get my range game onto the course but that's been the story for far too long. Let's see what this week brings, how my game develops and whether I can survive the cut and play both rounds of the club championship. That's my first target. Play well and as I've said before handicap cuts will come along of their own accord.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Gary Smith - Linear Method

As regular followers will know, I've been dabbling with a very different method of playing all things related to the short game, the pitching, chipping and bunker shots. It's called the linear method as advocated by Gary Smith, a Golf Monthly top 25 coach and coach to the England Golf Squad. If you search linear method on here there are numerous blog pieces going back a number of years.

You may even recall that I was given an hours tuition with Gary as a Christmas present from my wife and so with Royal Ascot Golf Club difficult to get to amidst the mayhem of the Royal Ascot race meeting I opted to take it on Friday 17th June. It was booked for Gary's teaching base at Sutton Green Golf Club near Guildford in Surrey and all was set.

I have dabbled with this method on and off and feel I've ended up being caught between two stools, trying to persevere with the linear version, self taught via a Gary Smith DVD and utilising something far more conventional for which there are ready made coaching solutions should it go wrong. However mentally, the linear method sits better in my head and I feel it gives me more margin for error.

As always with a lesson I arrived early to get my bearings and warm up. I was shown to the their dedicated short game area. I started hitting pitches to a target approximately 30 yards away using the technique I've adopted. It was all going rather well. I ventured to the bunker, where things weren't quite so good. Finally I finished off with some chips around the green which were a little hit and miss but why panic when you are in the capable hands of an Advanced Fellow of the PGA. Bang on time Gary wandered across and with the introductions over, it was time to show him what I had. I don't normally get nervous in lessons but meeting someone with Gary's reputation and resume, and knowing that potentially I had bastardised his fantastic technique with my own take on things, this time was different. Fortunately the first couple flew off sweetly as he stood on and watched. I threw in the inevitable thin and fat to show him the full gamut of my short game repertoire.

Fortunately, he seemed suitably impressed with my overall interpretation and that all in all the fundamentals were sound. He made a few changes to the set up, standing a fraction taller, but more importantly getting my hips far more to the left to help promote a better turn. We tweaked the head at address and then he got me to hit some more, concentrating on simply letting the body turn and the right hand control the shot.

Gary Smith - pitch technique

It was then off to the bunker. As per my warm up this was a real mixture of the good, bad and indifferent. Again, my major issues related to set-up and posture and I need to stand taller and as per the pitching, adjust my hips and head. This felt far more alien than it had on the sanctuary of a mat but once I "felt" it and got use to turning and releasing with the right hand, the ball popped up softly and I produced bunker shots I'd only dreamt off. It just seemed so easy. Even moving onto the dreaded long bunker shot of some twenty five yards I put three balls down, on target, no more than a sand wedge apart. Simples

Linear method - bunker shots

Gary wasn't changing much at all. It was simply tweaking and improving what I had already and I felt pleased that I hadn't been off point too far. The ball position at address was perhaps the strangest looking thing as the hands were definitely placed a lot further behind the ball. It looks weird, weight forward, hands back and it's one thing I've been self conscious of taking it out on the course. I understood even better, how the correct set up now promoted greater use of the bounce and how in both sand and off grass, it really could work. It cemented in my head the thought that this technique was what worked best for me. I had been asked on the Golf Monthly Forum ( about how this shallow of angle of attack would work off compact wet sand. The bunker was suitable wet and Gary quickly knocked up a compact scenario and we gave it a go. As the right hand keeps the loft on the club, even on hard, wet lies, it was still possible to take a shallow divot and allow the ball to pop up. I hoped it would be that easy and like the standard shot I was still able to escape with a slightly lower trajectory but which landed softly and stopped.

Our final stop was the putting green to sort my chipping out. Situated near the first tee at Sutton Green my air of self consciousness was heightened with a society mingling around ready to tee off. However, Gary and I got to work. The chipping method is marginally different, as there isn't the need for so much momentum to propel the ball forward.

Linear method - chipping technique

I'm not sure if it was the fact that others were watching on intently or I wanted this to work so well, being the weakest part of my short game but I struggled early on and the swing was too quick and dis-jointed. I kept at it and with a few tweaks, particularly softening the hands, it started to come. As the lesson ended and Gary and I shook hands and discussed what we had covered I decided to stay put and plug away. As Gary disappeared behind the club house, I holed one and then three balls later another. Dream land.

Unfortunately my playing opportunities have been somewhat curtailed in recent weeks and will be again this weekend. However I have managed a few practice sessions after work. It hasn't been as good as I'd hoped especially the bunkers but in my defence, the practice bunker has normally been partially flooded due to the huge rainfall we've had in June. The pitching has been there in fits and starts and is still a work in progress. I did play in the monthly stableford last weekend (the less said the better about my general game) but I chipped stone dead at the first for par, got up and down at the next and ended up making two out four (50%) sand saves. Although my up and down statistics weren't great overall, I chipped with more confidence than I have lately. I needed to putt better but that will come and is usually a bedrock. Sadly my long game is in sharp decline and hasn't picked up or kicked on since my lesson with Andy Piper. I don't know what the problem is and we're having a catch up next week.

I'll try and work on it this weekend, although health issues are making my playing and practice time sporadic. If I do, I'll try and get some video footage up. As I've mentioned, I'm not there technically yet. It will come. It sits right mentally, and Gary has given me more confidence to go out and work on it until I am happy and it stands up under pressure on the course.

It was a real pleasure to meet Gary Smith. He has developed a radical method but it works. He is a very good teacher, having seen it all before. He seemed pleased I had taken the first steps to learn the linear method and was happy to add meat to the bones. As one of the best coaches in the UK it could have been rather off putting but he was concise, friendly, open and able to pitch his teaching method perfectly to my learning style. All in all, it was an eye opening experience, one I enjoyed hugely and one I plan to repeat in a few months time to get Gary to monitor my progress. His rates are at the higher end of the scale but you do get what you pay for. Top quality coaching. All in all another very satisfied customer.