My Dad's the Pro
I had driven the ball into the trees. This was not uncommon for me. My father used to say, "The woods are full of long hitters," so Dad always knew where to find me. Someday, he promised, he would teach me to be a straight hitter, too. But at this moment we were looking for my ball among the tall pines of coastal Georgia, on a golf course owned by the Cloister Hotel at Sea Island, where my father was a teacher of golf -- and some other things, too. I was a guinea pig for a lot of his ideas, his best pupil in some ways, his worst in others.
We found the ball and I surveyed the shot and surveyed my father. He was never one to state the obvious; his eyes, even through his glasses, said all I needed to know: I was dead. The only things between my ball, sitting on a bed of pine needles, and the hole were trees and trouble. I took out a 3-iron, made a big, violent pass at the ball, and hit it cleanly and well. The ball rose quickly, passing one tree on the left, whizzing by another on the right, over a third tree, soaring into the daylight until it reached its apex. There, my ball made a soft righthand turn before landing 20 feet from the flagstick, which stood at attention 220 yards from where my father stood in awe.
"Of all the millions of people who play this game," my father said to me, "the two most exciting are Seve Ballesteros and you."
I was a kid, a teenager. Seve Ballesteros was one of the best players in the world, maybe the best, a winner of the British Open and the Masters. He was one of my heroes.
Analyzed rationally, my father's praise was absurd; there was no sensible way to discuss Seve and me in the same sentence. But my father did, and in so doing he made me the golfer, and the person, I am today. Seve is no longer a hero to me; he's a colleague, a friend, a competitor. He's another guy I'm trying to beat. My late father, for whom I am named, is still my hero. He always was; he always will be.
I wish every golfer could have the kind of golfing education I had. I wish every child could have the kind of father I had. If someone could grant me those wishes, the world would be a better place, and scoring averages would be a lot lower, too. I miss him. Writing this book has made me miss him more. Today, people who follow professional golf in the United States know my name, and that's nice, but to me it was always my father who was the famous one. Everywhere we went, people knew him, people admired him, people respected him, and I knew at a young age that I wanted those same things for myself. As a little kid I'd say to people, "My dad's the pro!" And they would nod and murmur, "Yes, son, we know that." The way he introduced me to golf is the way I plan to introduce my two children to the game. The way he taught me is the way I plan to teach them. The way he raised me is the way I hope to raise them.
One of the things I remember best about him is his hands. Dad had the most amazing hands. He never wore sunscreen or golf gloves and he was outside all day long, all year long, and he always had a golf club in his hand, so his hands were really dark and really tough. I can remember as a little kid, walking hand-in-hand with my father, how hard his skin was, like the skin of a lizard. I used to love to poke at his calluses. You couldn't make a dent in them; they were like a piece of leather left in the rain and then baked in the sun. Now my children -- my wife Robin and I have a daughter, Alexia, who was born in 1988, and a boy, Davis IV, who was born five years later -- do the same thing with my calluses -- they poke pins right in them. They think that's sport.
My father wore a rather peculiar expression on his face most of the time. It was like a serious smile, as if he was enjoying what he was doing, but what he was doing was serious. You seldom saw his whole face unobstructed. It seemed as though from the moment he woke up in the morning until he went to bed he wore his glasses and a white or light blue bucket hat with the brim down, to cover his mostly bald head. (Of course, he took the hat off inside and when he talked to ladies. There was a lot of the Old South in him.) But even with the glasses and the hat, when you looked at his face you noticed right away that his eyes were alive. They were always moving. There was always light in them.
Dad was kind of fidgety. The only jewelry he ever wore was a plain gold wedding ring, and he was always fiddling with it. When he gave lessons, he was always jangling the change and the keys in his pocket. That sound drives me berserk to this day. I'm not temperamental on the golf course about crowd noise, but when we're playing on a cold day and the old men in the gallery have their hands in their pockets, jingling, jingling, jingling, it makes me crazy.
(Now that I think about it as an adult, I think the reason my father was so fidgety was that he was probably addicted to nicotine, even though he wouldn't even admit to being a smoker. The fact is, he smoked a fair bit, he just never bought cigarettes. If he was giving a lesson and he saw something green in somebody's pocket -- Kools, Salems, whatever -- he'd go right for it, bum a cigarette from a complete stranger. Then he'd run off to the snack bar or behind a tree and sneak a quick smoke. I think he honestly thought my brother, Mark, and I didn't know that he smoked -- as if we couldn't see the billows of smoke coming from behind a tree, as if we didn't see Dad popping out from behind the tree when he was done, as if we couldn't put two and two together. It bothered Mom that Dad smoked, and rightly so. He wasn't a drinker and never used profanity but he was addicted to cigarettes. Cigarettes and ice cream -- those were his vices. He snuck his cigarettes because he didn't want us to see them. Looking back, it makes me realize that he wasn't perfect. But as best he could, he tried to present himself as a model.)
My father read, all the time. He loved to read. Golf books. Books about philosophy. Self-help books. Books about religion. Detective novels. He loved to read Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain and Stephen King. I think you pick up the habit of reading from your parents. I love to read now, too. Once at a tournament I was talking to Frank Hannigan, the TV golf commentator, and I said, "That reminds me of that Hunter S. Thompson story about..." Hannigan interrupted me and said, "You read Hunter S. Thompson?" I said, "Sure." And he said, "Well, you and I are the only two out here who do." My father felt reading could take you to places you wouldn't otherwise know existed.
Because he loved to read, he loved to write. When he died in a plane crash in 1988 at age 53, he left behind closets and cabinets filled with loose pages and legal pads containing his notes about the golf swing. I go back to these notes often. Most of the ideas expressed in this book can be traced, in some form, to something written somewhere on one of my father's legal pads. He used the long ones and he preferred yellow, but he'd use white, too. He'd also use envelopes and hotel stationery and the back of shopping lists, if that's all that was available.
Whenever my father had an idea, he wrote it down. He was interested in many things, from the lyrics of country music to the afterlife of the soul, but it was the golf swing that motivated him to put pen to paper. He felt that if he didn't write an idea down he might lose it when the next one popped into his brain. He believed in the written word. Over the years, he wrote many instruction articles for Golf Digest; he was a longtime member of the magazine's teaching staff.
Dipping into my father's notes, I find hundreds of pages where he recorded my every shot in a round in a shorthand that wouldn't be intelligible to anyone but me. I see outlines for instructional articles. I see inspirational letters for me filled with little sayings. I see lesson plans.
One page looks like this:
KEEP THIS -- READ OFTEN -- USE WHAT YOU NEED MOST
1. Let your attitude determine your golf game. Don't let your golf game determine your attitude. [That was probably his favorite saying about the playing of golf.]
2. Our emotions get in the way of doing for ourselves what we would like to do for others.
3. Don't be afraid to be a kid -- have fun.
4. Don't let self-esteem get mixed up in golf score; golf is different from life.
5. Don't run away from yourself. Wherever you go, there you are.
6. There is nothing you can do to lose our love.
On another sheet he had written only this:
Knowledge is power. The more we know, the better. Study language. Direct relationship between vocabulary, income and success. Learn new words.
His lesson plans for me might look cryptic to somebody else, but not to me:
WATSON "POP" STROKE
1. Don't let eyes follow backswing.
2. Swing putter back shorter than through.
3. Listen for ball to drop.
4. Clear and firm -- decisive stroke.
5. Always have a positive thought.
In longhand, those five lines mean that to imitate Tom Watson's putting stroke, the key to which is the "pop" he gives the ball at impact, you have to do five main things: While making a backswing, you must keep your eyes on the ball, not the putterhead. Also, the backswing must be shorter in length than the follow-through. After you make impact with the ball, don't look at the hole, look at the spot where the ball was, and then just listen for the ball to drop. Once you decide on the line of the putt and how hard to hit it, don't be tentative, know what you want to do with the stroke and do it. Always believe you can hole the putt; don't attempt a putt you don't believe you can make.
An outline for an instructional article about the difference between "hitting" a golf ball and "swinging" a golf club included these notes:
1. Ben Hogan was the best hitter I ever saw, but nobody can swing like Ben Crenshaw.
2. Swing like you were being paid by the hour, not the job.
3. Some golfers might be able to "hit" the ball from a very forward position, but their "swing" wants the ball back a few inches.
The legal pads, as in the examples above, were filled with sayings from his mentor, Harvey Penick, and from other teachers. My father had many original ideas, but he also believed that the teaching of golf should be done with colleagues, that ideas should be shared, and that good ideas should be repeated and incorporated, regardless of where they came from. He felt the teaching of the golf swing -- but not the golf swing itself -- was a complicated task because students had such widely varying needs. Therefore, he felt the discovery of the best approaches to teaching required a team of scientists, a group effort.
But there were other times, as his notebooks reveal, when he was all on his own. When he made the biggest professional decision of his life, to leave the security of the head professional job at the Atlanta Country Club to become a fulltime golf teacher, he weighed the pluses and minuses -- on his legal pads, of course.
Lean years/good years
More time on road
Potentially more pay
When home, more time with boys
He made the move, and I think the last item in the second column had a lot to do with his final decision.
Golf was a father-and-son thing for him, too, sort of. He grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas, and his dad, who traveled a lot on business, was a weekend golfer. My father would caddie for his father when he was home, and Dad became smitten with the game. He became good at it, too; he played golf at the University of Texas under Harvey Penick. After serving in the army in Korea, he became a club pro. His first head professional job was at the Charlotte Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is where he met my mother, Penta -- she was working as a secretary for the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte at the time. I was born in Charlotte, in 1964, on April 13, the day after the last round of the Masters in which my father shared the lead after the first round. (He shot 69, as did Arnold Palmer, Bob Goalby, Kel Nagle, and Gary Player. He finished in a tie for 34th, no doubt worried about Mom back at home.) In 1965 he took a job as the head pro at a new club, the Atlanta Country Club; Mark was born in Atlanta the next year. In 1978, he got out a legal pad, made his lists of pros and cons, and moved the family to St. Simons so he could teach golf at The Cloister and for the Golf Digest Instruction Schools, which were held all over the country. One of the reasons he wrote out so many lists was that he always wanted to build a consensus in the family before making a decision. I try to do that in my house today and it drives Robin crazy. She'll say, "Would you stop all your talking and just make up your mind!"
My first memories of golf go back to Atlanta. Our house was on the course of the Atlanta Country Club. From our backyard Dad could hit pitching wedges to the second green and drivers to the third green. The ball just seemed like it was going miles, and I remember the terrific whistling sound it made as it left the clubface and went off, soaring. He worked at golf and played golf all the time. Mondays were his only day off. He'd put me on the cart and I'd watch him practice while I goofed around with clubs and balls. Work and play, I think those words meant the same thing to me when I was a real little kid. Dad would say, "I'm gonna go work on my putting, wanna come?" I always wanted to come, because Dad's "work" was fun.
He was an only child, and I don't think he had that much fun growing up. His father was an imposing man, very serious. When we went to visit our grandfather as kids we had to put towels down on the back seat of his big black Chrysler so we wouldn't mess it up. In his own way, I think my father spent his life revolting against his father's dourness.
I think that's why he devoted his life to golf: Golf is fun. Of course, it's also incredibly exasperating, but it's fun. Whenever I'd go out for a round, particularly an important competitive round, he'd say, "Have fun." Those weren't empty words. He meant them as much as anything he ever said.
Years later, whenever I would say, "I've got to work on my long putting," or some such thing, he'd say, "Don't think of it as work. Think of it as play." That's why he loved his profession so much. He didn't regard it as work. He enjoyed giving golf lessons.
When I was a teenager, I used to go with him, when I could, to his Golf Digest Schools. A lot of the guys he taught with -- Paul Runyan, Bob Toski, Peter Kostis, Jack Lumpkin, Jim Flick -- are considered today to be the leading teachers in the game. But teaching golf day after day can make a man crazy; the golf swing can be very elusive to some would-be golfers, and that can take its toll on an instructor. Dad's colleagues all marveled at his disposition.
When they taught chipping at the Golf Digest Schools, they had a little phrase for their pupils: Minimum air time, maximum ground time. It meant that when chipping you should get your ball on the ground as quickly as possible, that it's better to chip with a 7-iron than a pitching wedge. One day Peter Kostis was explaining this approach to chipping to a pupil, and when he was done the student, a grown man, asked, "Peter, do you really believe it's important to get the ball on the ground as quickly as possible when chipping?" Kostis went nuts, and I could understand why. It was frustrating. Kostis started kicking buckets of balls. He was foaming at the mouth and screaming, "What have I just been saying here for the past 15 minutes?" My job was to pick up the students' practice balls with one of those shag-bag plungers, and I very sheepishly went off to collect the balls Peter had just sent flying all over the place. My father came over very quickly, settled Peter down, and told the student, "You ask if we believe in minimum air time, maximum ground time. It's a good question. We certainly do. It's one of our maxims." Dad was a peacemaker.
Episodes like that were critical to my golfing development. I was not a golfing child prodigy. Before I was nine or ten, I was mostly just fooling around with the game. The only thing my father worried about was that my golf not interfere with somebody else's. Aside from that, he let me do whatever I wanted to do, which included a cross-handed grip for one stretch of time and a baseball grip for another. I'd play a few holes from the ladies' tees when the course wasn't crowded. There was very little talk about score, although if I made a bogey, say, on any given hole I was showered with praise. I would say, though, that from the very beginning, my dad -- and my mom, with whom I played often -- told me about the rules. You tee up behind the markers, Trip, which is what they called me. You don't touch the sand with your club, Trip. You keep hitting the ball until it goes in the hole, Trip. They didn't care if it took five shots or a dozen. But they could see that I was enjoying it. I also enjoyed hockey, reading, watching TV, going to baseball games, goofing around. I didn't pursue the game with some crazy monomaniacal vengeance. That, I think, my father would have worried about, at least at that age.
Then, in the summer after I turned 10 in 1974, I went with Dad to the PGA Championship. That was an eye-opener. My father played in the tournament, and I was mesmerized by the atmosphere, by the idea that there were gallery ropes and only the players, like my father, were allowed to go inside them. The players hung out in the locker room, telling stories while changing into shiny, expensive shoes. All the stars of the game were there, and my father knew them and they knew him. Gary Player. Lee Trevino. Nicklaus and Palmer. Newspapermen wanted to talk to these men, kids wanted their autographs, and my father would chat with them like they were the guy down the street who was thinking of buying a new used car. I thought to myself, "Man, this is the life."
After that, I started playing more. I'd play 18 holes on some days, and on other days just a few. Every so often, I'd go to the practice tee and hit a few balls, or putt a little on the practice putting green, but I had no formal instruction from Dad. My father never really started me in golf; he just made clubs and balls available to me and brought me out to the golf course whenever I felt like it. If I asked him a question, he'd answer it, in as few words as possible. I realize now that what he wanted me, and Mark, to do was enjoy the game for the game's sake and see for ourselves what works and what doesn't work. When I was 10 I shot mostly in the 90s. When I was 11 I shot mostly in the 80s. When I was 121 could break 80. I was just playing. I had dreams of the tour, but I never thought about the effort and time necessary to get there.
Then, when I was 13, we moved to St. Simons, and things changed. That's when I became serious about golf. On St. Simons, we again lived right near a golf course, but things were different now. My father wasn't a businessman anymore. He wasn't selling merchandise out of the shop. All he was doing was trying to figure out the swing and figure out the best way to teach it. Having moved to a new place, I didn't have the distraction of a whole gang of friends pulling me to do this and do that. My father's fascination became my fascination. One day, I told my father I didn't want to play hockey anymore, and that I wasn't interested in playing football and soccer, like Mark was. I told him that all I really wanted to do was get good at golf. And my father asked me, and this has become part of our family lore because it was a pivotal conversation, "How hard are you willing to practice?"
I said, "I'll do whatever you think is necessary."
And Dad said, "I'll help you reach your goals. But you've got to listen to me." I did and he never had to say those words again. He wanted to make sure I knew and understood what I was getting myself into.
After that, my golf became much more regimented. Dad would say, "Let's go to the practice tee and see what you're doing with your fairway woods." Dad and I would stand on the tee of a par-3 and he would say, "If the wind is blowing left to right, and the flagstick is on the extreme right, where are you going to start the ball?" Dad would say, "Let's hit five balls out of the bunker from the same lie with the clubface in five different positions."
But one thing Dad always stressed, above everything, was that golf was supposed to be fun. He said it often and he meant it. He had me do a lot of drills, like hitting with just my left hand, or just my right hand, because he knew the drills were a challenge and that I loved challenges, but chiefly because they were good for my golf, and they were fun.
He would have me hit balls in all sorts of strange ways: Standing on my left foot. Standing on my right. Sitting in a chain Trying to hit a driver just 100 yards, but straight. Trying to hit a 5-iron 300 yards without caring where it went. Half-shots -- my father was big on half-shots. He reasoned, quite accurately, that if you can't hit a hip-to-hip 7-iron straight, you won't be able to hit a full one straight. Conversely, if you can hit a half-shot with a 7-iron straight, you're halfway to hitting a full 7-iron straight. When I got out on tour, I sometimes forgot how all these drills served me so well, but when I'm at home, they come back to me. Trying odd things is a great way to stumble onto something basic about the game that may stay with you the rest of your golfing life. When we practiced our putting we made a game of it. The same was true for chipping and bunker shots and everything else. We played for ice cream. When I was 13, 14, 15, my father didn't give me 45-minute lessons starting with, "Today, son, we focus on the pivot." It was more like a steady stream of little suggestions about this and that, always said in the fewest words possible. I never knew I was getting lessons.
Probably the most important single lesson I ever got from Dad came shortly before we moved to St. Simons. It taught me what golf meant to my father, and how golf is meant to be played. It probably paved the way for everything that my dad and I did together thereafter.
I was 12 going on 13, and the family was together having dinner at home, as we always did. My father asked me how I had played that day after school.
"Uh, I shot 36 today," I said.
My father looked at me carefully and said, "Thirty-six? Even par? That's quite a score. I don't think you've ever shot even par for nine holes before."
I had shot 36 for eight holes. Our house was near the eighth green of the Atlanta Country Club course and I didn't play the ninth because I was too lazy; I didn't want to walk all the way back from the ninth green to the house for dinner. I had quit after eight holes and 36 strokes.
"Isn't that right, Davis?"
I didn't say anything.
The next day, he started telling the guys in the pro shop, in front of me, about how I had played nine holes in even par for the first time in my life. I felt sick. I never lied about a score again in my life. I never lied to my father again. I didn't know then what I'm sure of now: Of course Dad knew that I hadn't shot 36 for nine holes. If I had, I would have sprinted from the ninth green all the way home to tell him the news, and he knew it. I think another father might have said, "Are you telling me the truth about that score?" There's nothing wrong with that. My father's approach, though, was different. His lesson took quickly, and will stay with me forever.
This memoir of a teaching pro would be incomplete without my father's teachings, his lessons and stories, his fables and theories. Many of the golfing tips in these pages are from my father's notes, items that have been tucked away in filing cabinets for years. Others are from a Southerner's oral tradition, stories told and retold on practice tees and putting greens and in grill rooms, stories that I'm glad to have down now on paper. All these little items have two things in common: They've been helpful to me, and I think they'll be helpful to you.
A TIP FOR MY MOTHER
Some golf teachers are afraid of giving "tips." Some teachers think of tips as Band-Aids for more serious swing maladies. Not my father; he thought of a swing tip as a manageable, insightful way into a golfer's swing. He was a great believer in tips and he knew you had to try out a lot of tips on a player in order to find one that would really sink in. Like with my mother, for instance. People naturally assume that I was the pupil my father was proudest of, but the truth is my mother was his best student ever. He took her from a raw beginner, with no particular bent for sports, to a formidable player. Even now, approaching 70, she breaks 80 pretty much every time she tees it up, and she's particularly strong on difficult courses on blowy days. I asked her once what was the single best golf tip she had ever received from Dad. She didn't hesitate to answer: "When the club is at the top of your backswing, your left thumb must be underneath the shaft, supporting the shaft." That is absolutely correct. A good golf swing cannot be made with the thumb anywhere else. Whenever my mother's swing goes awry, she goes back to that basic thought and gets herself back on track.
THE FEEL OF THE SWING
My father always believed that the ultimate beauty of golf is that it's a sport that can be enjoyed by all people, not just by "natural" athletes. Even on the tour, there are many players who are not natural athletes, who can't hit a baseball, or make a jump shot, or run very fast. One advantage that the natural athlete has is his ability to feel a golf swing instinctively, because natural athletes seem to have a heightened sense of rhythm. The rest of us, myself included, have to learn to feel the swing.
One of my father's best methods for doing this was a drill in which he would hold a club vertically in front of him with his left hand. Then he would throw a ball sidearm with his right hand underneath his left hand. Try it. That motion you just made with your right hand? The way your feet just moved? The way your hips just rotated? It's called the golf swing, and the basics of it are in just about all of us. When he would tell beginners that, their mouths would drop open.
Every golfer has one ideal ball position in his or her stance. The old adage was that you pretty much played the ball off the left heel, maybe moved it back a few inches as you approached the pitching wedge. My father felt that one size did not fit all in that regard. He would have his pupils take a swing without a ball, and make sure they took a divot. The beginning of the divot indicated where the ball should be positioned.
A BASEBALL SWING
Most Americans, men and women, are introduced to baseball or softball before they take up golf. A common lament among teaching pros is, "Uh-oh, this guy has a baseball swing." My father always felt a baseball swing could be applied very usefully to the golf swing, particularly when trying to teach how to get a golfer's weight through the ball. He'd have a golfer address the ball in the normal fashion. Next he'd have them bring their left foot back to the right foot. Then he'd have them step into the swing, as if they were hitting a baseball, making certain that the left foot returned to its original position. The correct leg motion is critical to a balanced, powerful swing -- and good leg action can happen naturally, if you allow it to. My father knew that baseball gave you some natural movements a pro could build on.
When I first started playing golf, like most kids, I used a baseball grip, and I used it for years until my father showed me the Vardon, or overlapping, grip I use today. Since the grip is such a critical component in building a proper swing, I've often wondered why he didn't get me away from the baseball grip earlier. I got my answer when my son Dru was just two years old. He's an exceptionally athletic little guy who could hit a plastic baseball with a plastic bat by his second birthday, and he did it with the prettiest little swing you ever saw. But when it came to golf, he was always chopping at the ball; he'd hold the club up over his head and chop down on top of it, as if he were chopping firewood. One day on the practice tee at Sea Island, Louise Suggs, the legendary golfer who was one of the pioneers of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, was watching Dru do his chopping bit. I asked Louise, who knew my father, for help. She turned to Dru and said, "I know you love baseball. Can you make a baseball swing with your golf club?" Dru gave her a big nod and made a baseball swing with his club. "Good. Now can you put the club behind the ball and give me another baseball swing?" Dru did just that. "Beautiful!" Before long, Dru was flying the ball 15 to 20 yards. By his third birthday he was hitting it 40 yards in the air. There's not much difference between a golf swing and a baseball swing, except that a baseball swing is parallel to the ground and the golf swing is not. After Louise said that, I remembered how useful my father said it was to have a beginning student who played baseball or softball as a kid. He'd say, "Did you play baseball as a kid?" If the answer was yes, he'd say, "Wonderful."
OTHER PEOPLE'S MISTAKES
If you spent enough time with my father -- I spent a lot of time with my father, and now my only wish is that I had spent more -- sooner or later you would hear him say something about the role of just about every part of the body in the golf swing. This is what he said about the right leg: "Use the right leg as a brace; turn your swing around it. The right leg barely moves; it always keeps its flex." One of the things that made him a great teacher was that you could always say to him, "Why?" Sometimes he had a very philosophical answer for you, sometimes he had a numbingly mechanical answer, and every so often he'd just say, "Over the years, I've found this works best. Every time I've seen a straight right knee on the top of the swing, I've seen bad shots." Through my father, I was able to learn from other people's mistakes.
ONE SET OF HOLES
Sometimes golfers may sound a little neurotic to nongolfers, but sometimes we have to be, in order to make ourselves understood. For instance, my father felt it was fine -- important, actually -- for the left foot to come up in the backswing. But he also thought it was critical for the left foot to return to its original position on the downswing. To express this thought to me, he'd say, "You know the holes your cleats make in the ground when you address the ball? When you begin the downswing, and your left foot returns to the ground, I want the cleats in the same holes they were in originally."
My father found it amusing that professional golfers spent a lot more time on swing basics than the average amateur. He knew that that shouldn't be the case. And to him, one of the most basic of the basics is alignment. If you're not aimed properly, hitting a straight shot is all but impossible. In fact, a straight shot from improper alignment is, actually, an off-line shot. Before you make any swing, there's a final step you should take to make sure your shoulders and hips and legs and feet are all aligned properly: If you're aligned properly, you should be able to just rotate your head, move your chin from six o'clock to nine o'clock, and have your target come immediately into view. If you have to twist and cock your head to find your target, there's something wrong with your alignment.
One of Dad's favorite phrases was, "Faced with an obstacle, do not ignore it, overcome it!" Those ten words have many implications beyond golf, but on the course they are incredibly useful too. There were times in my golf career, particularly when I was starting out, that I didn't give enough weight to the obstacle I had to overcome. I thought if there was a tree I had to bend a ball around, I could will the tree away and, with it, my problems. After hitting many trees, resulting in many bogeys, I realized the truth to my father's words: You cannot ignore an obstacle, you must figure a way around it.
This is true in how you approach learning different aspects of the game, too. If you can't play downhill greenside bunker shots -- and not many players can -- then that's an obstacle you must overcome, one that can't be ignored. Go to an able teaching professional and say, "Teach me to play downhill greenside bunker shots." That's a lot better than praying that you're never going to face that shot -- because sooner or later, you will.
Obstacles can be pretty subtle sometimes. You might have a caddie who is reading greens for you when you don't want him to. After a while, all you're thinking about is your precocious caddie and not your own golf game. Don't ignore it, overcome it. Say to the caddie, "I appreciate your effort, but when I'm unsure of the read on a putt, I'll ask. Thanks."
A QUIET HEAD
Some people will do anything to keep their head down during the golf swing. Sometimes you see a guy who sticks his chin into his chest and keeps it there for the entire swing. Not a great look! When nongolfers would meet my father, they might say, as a way of making conversation, "Gotta keep your head down, right?" Golf's greatest myth! A golfer's head may move during the swing; Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange, two of the best golfers of my time, move their heads a lot. The head may come up at impact; Annika Sorenstam, the women's U.S. Open champion, doesn't even see the ball when her clubhead makes impact with it. The head should not be frozen, my father would say. But it should be "quiet."
My dad's favorite drill for teaching a "quiet" head was a drill he called Right Foot, Left Toe. My goodness, it seems like a goodly portion of my youth was spent on RF-LT, as we called it in the house. He'd have me address the ball with my feet together. Then he'd have me drop my left foot back and have my left toe point into the ground and my left heel up in the air. Then he'd have me make little half-swings in that position and ask me to be aware of what my head was doing. You can't move your head too much with that foot stance, or you'll wind up on the ground.
ADVICE FOR TEACHING PROS
Dad was a meticulous man, determined to always improve himself. That's why he was always writing himself notes, and I'm just so glad that he and my mother saved them all, or most of them, over the years. Going through his notes, I found one he had typed for his own use during his early days in the business, when he was head professional at the Charlotte Country Club. I'd like to share it with you because I think it gives an insight into how he analyzed situations, and I also think it offers some sound advice for teachers and students alike:
* Talk to your member on the way to the practice tee. Find out what he shoots, what his problems are, and what he wants to get out of golf. Not every player wants to be the best golfer in the world. Many members do not have the time or inclination to completely revamp their swing. They do not want to go through the drudgery of mastering major changes in their swing, so don't be too anxious to condemn or criticize any and every moment in their swing that deviates from the "normal" or the "correct."
* Any move in your member's swing that repeats can be used to his advantage. No matter how wrong it looks, think long and hard before tampering with any part of the swing that consistently repeats. You can build around this motion and produce an effective swing because repetition is the key to success in this game, whether or not it conforms to the "standard" swing.
* Stay away from major changes, unless it is in your junior program.
* Teaching with criticism is the easy way out, but not the most successful. Be a creative teacher! Put all your energy and enthusiasm into every lesson you give and you will find that you will reap benefits not only in satisfied customers and increased lesson business, but also increased shop sales as well.
Dad never went anywhere without a can of spray paint, and it's not because he was a graffiti artist. He was forever drawing lines on the grass of whatever practice tee he was standing on. The line would show the shape of the backswing and follow-through. On the backswing, the line would go straight back from the ball for a few feet, then curve gently in. On the follow-through it would go straight to the target. He'd have his pupils swing along these painted lines in practice. With enough practice, the lines would "appear" in their mind's eye on the golf course. That's the best way to get to know the proper swing path.
Once I asked him, "Dad, what would've happened if you hadn't discovered spray paint?" He said, "I would've had to pay a lot of money in college tuitions." In other words, Dad felt that Mark and I became the players we did -- good enough as seniors in high school to win golf scholarships for college -- because we had down the principle of a good path and a good plane. Everything flows from that. But you don't really need a can of paint to perfect your plane and path; you can lay down clubs, grip end to clubhead, or you can use tape or string. Regardless, when you're learning about plane and path, get something tangible to help show you the way.
NOT JUST ANOTHER STUDENT
Jack Nicklaus, Jr., a.k.a. Jackie, the oldest son of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, was on the golf team with me at the University of North Carolina. Jackie and I have very similar physiques -- tall and skinny and flexible -- but Jackie's swing was modeled after a man much shorter, thicker and stronger than he is. (Any guesses who?) Jackie would sometimes seek my father's swing advice and Dad would answer his questions, but in a very quiet voice. The son of Jack Nicklaus is not just another student. What my father told Jackie was that he, like me, should try to keep his left heel on the ground as much as possible, because that helps create stability for a tall, skinny, flexible golfer. Dad had another observation, though, that he would never have told Jackie: There was no way Jackie could or should model his swing on his father's, just as I could not model my swing on my father's swing. In both cases, the physical differences from one generation to the next were too considerable. Over the years, I observed that Jackie's swing started to look less like his father's and more like, say, Al Geiberger's, a tall, skinny, flexible man. Jackie developed into a good player; in fact, in 1985 he won the North & South Amateur, the same event I won in 1984. As I watch my son take to the game, I'll always bear in mind what my father said about Jack and Jackie Nicklaus.
ADVICE FROM A LEGEND
Because of my father's job, I had a privileged youth in many ways. As a teenager, I got to play once with Sam Snead. Sam didn't say much, if anything, about my swing, or even my length, but he did say one thing I'll never forget: After watching me play an iron shot on a par-3 without the benefit of a tee, Snead said to me, somewhat derisively, "Son, I've never seen a player good enough not to use a peg when the rules give it to him. Not yet, anyway." Before that, I always thought I was cool in teeing up the ball on a little tuft of grass on par-3s. After that, I've never not used a "peg."
FEEL THE ARMS
To understand the golf swing, my father always said, you had to feel the role of the arms in the swing. To teach that, he had to find a way to momentarily take everything out of the swing except the arms. To do that, he had his pupils hit balls with their feet together. That forces you to hit the ball with just your arms. As a teenager, I hit so many balls with my feet together that when I finally separated them, I had the sensation of, "OK, what do I do with the rest of my body?" But at least I understood that controlling the arms is how you control the direction of the ball.
A NATURAL REPELLENT
Where I grew up playing, in coastal Georgia, there are a lot of gnats. We'd often hit balls with gnats gnawing away at our legs. It was awful. My father's way of dealing with the pests was to take some lit cigars, the cheapest and most malodorous he could find, and prop them up around us. The air may have smelled like a fraternity poker game after that, but at least we weren't getting eaten alive.
THE LEFT ARM
How important is the left arm in the swing? Consider these words from my father's notes, words that are probably in the notes of every instructor the game has ever had: "As much as possible, make the club an extension of the left arm."
OUR FAVORITE DRILL
My father said it was critical to make practice fun, and the most fun we had was practicing the height of our pitch shots. Dad would park a golf cart near the edge of a practice green and have me hit balls over the roof, under the roof, over the back rack, past the front wheel, anything we could think of. It's very important to learn to hit pitches different heights because the height of a pitch shot will determine how much the shot rolls. A 25-yard pitch shot over a greenside bunker to a tight flagstick is a much different shot than a 70-yard pitch shot over fiat, firm fairway to a flagstick 25 yards back from the front edge of the green. I think I know where my father got this idea: When Mark and I were kids, we used to hit pitch shots into garbage cans in the backyard. My father stole this drill from his sons!
Copyright © 1997 by Davis Love III and Michael Bamberger