Eye on the ball: Teaching and learning the complicated game

COURTESY PHOTO The pro, still perfecting the swing.

The pro, still perfecting the swing.

Today, while searching the house for an old golf book, I found my 1957 high school yearbook.

Once you find these things, there is a law that states: You must reminisce. Following the law, the next two hours were killed looking at page after page. The woman whose picture was next to mine in the book was looking with me.

The caption under that picture of Anne Dennis is, “Many feel the warmth of her smile.”

Almost 60 years later, those who know her would agree it’s still true today.

I couldn’t believe all those faces are now pushing 80 years old. Under my picture it said, “Golf Pro.” How prophetic is that? Obviously, way back when, I made it clear to everyone that I loved the game of golf.

I would have to say that spending a lifetime doing exactly what I wanted would meet the requirements of being one of the lucky ones.

I learned quickly that being a golf pro is much more than just teaching and playing. But now that I’m retired and still a golf professional, my life is back to just teaching and playing.

As a teenage boy, I won my share of golf tournaments. And in 1958, when I was in the United States Coast Guard, it was obvious to the powers-that-be that I was more suited for teaching golf than serving on a ship. (After all, before me they had a guy named Arnold Palmer on the base and you might say that they missed the boat in using him.)

There I was, a 19-year-old Coast Guard recruit who knew how to play good golf. It was assumed that since I could play well, I could teach well, an assumption that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was expected to talk about how different parts of my body moved. Body? I had a club, a ball and a target and all I ever thought of was moving a club through a ball in the direction of my target. Trying to perfect that was difficult, but it was my motivation for playing.

But the Coast Guard chief brass thought I had something more exciting to share. Since I was not in love with boats and water, this assignment was right up my alley. So every day I read golf books to find out how the body parts move in order to swing a club. Whatever I read the night before was the lesson for the next day. I guess as a teacher I was considered successful.

I’ve always been intrigued by the golf swing. Every once in a while I would try to teach the simple method I had used to learn, only to find out that students didn’t want to hear such basic thoughts about the highly complicated golf swing.

Through the years, I’ve found that just about every five years there’s a new sheriff in town, coming up with a new way to swing a golf club. I’m a sucker for these new theories and love to try them all. Now, many of the so-called basics of my early teaching have been changed.

Today, when teaching, I stick only to the moves that are made by every top player.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of fundamentals that have to be taught. There are essentials you should know on putting, chipping, bunkers and rough, plus other essentials such as course management and the way you think during a shot.

But through all the golf swing changes, some things have stood the test of time, which you should know and also which your local golf professional will be teaching you.

Although I loved trying all the different theories, I didn’t teach them. I always enjoyed looking for a better way to hit the ball. My golf professional friends always laughed at me for trying some of the most outrageous golf swings. I don’t know why but the new theories always made sense to me and you can be sure when the next theory comes out, I will have already tried it.

After a lifetime of studying the golf swing, this is what I learned so far: Not to blame my body for my mistakes because the body does not have a brain. It’s the brain that controls the movement of the body and you have to give it the proper command. In other words, never hit a shot without knowing exactly what you want the ball to do.

After about 10 shots in a lesson, I ask my pupils what they were aiming at! Not surprisingly, they always give me a blank stare and then make up a target. Imagine, up until that time they have been moving body parts at a ball and hoping it will go where they want.

Note to self: The ball does not know where you want it to go, it must be directed toward something. Tell me, in your everyday life, don’t you always direct your body to do what you wish? The brain not only moves the body but it moves it both efficiently and effortlessly.

Could the reason you hit bad shots be that the game is difficult? Does it seem reasonable to play a 400-yard golf hole in four strokes? And you must get the ball in a hole in the ground that is 4 inches wide. To add to your fun, sprinkled on your path are obstacles like sand bunkers and long grass with imaginative names like “fescue.” As if things aren’t difficult enough, you get 14 funny looking sticks to hit a small ball into that hole.

So after spending 60 years playing and studying golf, I ended up close to where I started. I can’t help but wonder where I would be today if my yearbook had said hedge fund manager instead of golf pro. Would I still try every new theory that hedge fund people dream up?