What I Did Wrong Teaching Myself
Like most golfers, I took lessons as a kid, and then off and on through the years. Also like most people, a lot of learning has come from teaching myself based on what I got in those lessons. Unfortunately, my eight-year old buccaneer brain didn’t take to mechanics. I was going to hit the ball experientially. To me, that meant instinctively, with a special sense and touch. Now, as a senior citizen, I am finally aware that what I did was not instinct – it was magical thinking. Instinct is a precious commodity, especially wedded to a strong mastery of swing mechanics. I was trying to imagine, visualize, wish, will, and pretend the ball down the fairway and into the hole.
Problem number two – As I went through life, I taught myself all the same thing I was doing at eight, as if we were the same person. Naturally, I’m years older, taller, heavier, more patient, less energetically explosive than I was at that age. Name any five year period of our lives, and you can bet we’re all different people than the one who started.
Taking so long to come back around to the healthy habits of a consistent golf swing, I have learned more in the last ten years than ever before. Every year, I lose a yard or two, go to the range and figure out how to get my hips through quicker and earlier. I get the couple of yards back, sometimes more. The word mechanics once sounded so dry, so cold and so void of artistry. However, there are two men in my family who play golf brilliantly, and their swings are elegant, smooth., and reliable. They liked the study of mechanics, and their instinctive abilities have merged with all that teaching from the early years.
As a kid thrashing about in my chaotic golf world, hyped up on the natural drug of youth, I tried to play with the heart, and none of the head. Later, we learn that going with the heart alone brings all sorts of outcomes in life, and the same is true on the course. The beautiful liner down the center of the fairway on one hole, a duck hook into the river on the second – that’s how ‘heart’ golf works without mechanics.
My swing was going to be natural, and all mine. It’s fine to find one’s natural swing, and then perfect it. However, my ‘experiential’ swing resisted all outside advice. Just give me time and I’ll get it. Now, as an older player, I’m able to do some of that, but I finally got it years past my physical prime. My mistake? Trying to invent and reinvent the drawing board, instead of using the one the great golfers and coaches left for me to use.
I have finally, after all these years, sat my eight-year old self down and explained to him that I’m not going to over-read breaks anymore. We’re not on the slopes of Kilamanjaro. It’s usually a modest right, left, or straight, with some curve balls in the middle. Now, whatever my read, I trim it by ten or twenty percent. I’m still wrong once in a while, but not nearly as often.
What was my deal with hitting the highest shot I could anywhere around the green? It wasn’t shanking, topping or blading, that’s what it was. That’s a fear that needed addressing. As Merullo explains in Golfing with God, fear and physical performance is not a good combination, and one has to continually “shed the old stale version” of one’s self. The backswing is where the voices of childhood tell me what’s going to go wrong with this shot, or what could go wrong, or the good shot I might get, but only if I’m lucky. One shouldn’t have to plead for good luck on the backswing. Time to kick that kid out of our heads.
Despite being a small kid, my distance has always been acceptable, maybe even a little above average. But will someone please remind that eight-year old that he has never, and will never be Bryson DeChambeau or John Daley? It’s time to stop wrapping the backswing twice around my neck before going for the big moment.
Teaching is tough, and self-teaching is even tougher. If only I’d had the sense to teach myself at my real age of the moment, dropped the image-conscious vicarious PGA act, and learned to enjoy those cold, boring and un-artsy mechanics sessions good players tried to offer me. I might have been a pretty decent player by now.