A few months back, Beth Piskora of the New York Post asked me what was the best advice I had that I ignored. I told her that 35 years ago, when I was 30, a golf pro told me to “swing easy.” Every time I play, I try to remember that, and when I do, I can play better golf, but most of the time, I have to tell me partners to keep an eye on me, to tell me when I am getting “quick.” I don’t mind playing with golfers who give me tips, although most often they do not work for me. Here are some of the best tips that have worked for me. When I get them all together, I can still play in the 80's.
1. Jim Biondi, 81, has a 17 handicap, but shoots his age three or four times a year. He swings easy and hits the sweet spot more often than not, with drives at times over 220 yards. I play with him at the Port Jervis, New York, Country Club, where he has been the senior champ eight of the last 12 years. The best tip he has given me is how to make myself slow down my swing. He suggested that on my backswing, I take care to move the clubhead back over the first 18 inches very deliberately. If you begin your swing slowly, it can’t be quickened fast enough to go out of control. Clubhead speed on impact is important, but hitting the sweet spot is even more so. With what looks like an effortless swing, Jim routinely drives the ball 225 yards.
2. Just when I was about to give up the game two years ago, Father Mark Olinowski, a Catholic priest with a 3 handicap, invited me to play nine holes with him at Springbrook CC in Morristown, NJ, where we were both members (and he twice club champ). He is a great student of the game, loves to teach little kids to golf, and is generous with his golf tips. He watched me take a few practice swings on the first tee, watched me hit an enormous slice into the woods, and told me to take my stance, point my right knee at the ball, and take my swing without letting the knee move away from the ball. I hit it straight down the middle 220 yards. He said my problem was that I was swaying, and that it meant it was like trying to hit a golf board from a surf board. I told him it was a great concept, that it meant golf was a game of knees. He said: “Why do you think I spend so much time on mine.”
3. At another time, Father Mark found that on my backswing, my left arm would stop when it ran into my chin. He said I could not complete my backswing that way, that I had to keep my chin up so my left shoulder could come under my chin, as a signal that my backswing was complete. When I watch the pros now, I note their left shoulder invariably tucks under their chin that way. Watch Tiger and you’ll see.
4. About ten years ago, I went to a five-day golf school in Florida, one of many around the country founded by John Jacobs, a British pro with a knack for teaching. John has since passed away but his schools are still going strong and really do produce better golfers. One of the first things they teach is the acronym “GASP,” which helps you set up. Grip-Aim-Stance-Posture. You really do need a teaching pro check your grip. No tips here. Same with Stance and Posture. But “Aim” is one idea drilled into me by Jacobs that makes perfect sense. The easiest way to improve your score, he said, was to be aimed in the right direction, something hackers are very casual about. Sometimes I get sloppy myself, but usually do stand behind the ball facing the target area, then pick out a leaf or a patch of grass that is on a dead line with ball and target. When I take my stance, the club face has to be at right angles to that line, with my shoulders also on the line. When you get close to green for pitching and chipping, you might prefer to open your stance, but your shoulders still have to be on the dead line between ball and target. Remember GASP.
5. I’d learned in my first lessons 35 years ago, when I took up the game, that your right elbow should not “fly” up on your backswing. Every time it does, it would be at a slightly different angle, which would cause loss of control and errors similar to those Father Mark saw when he saw me “hitting off a surf board.” As a result of this early lesson, I never developed a problem of “flying elbow” on my drives and fairway shots and always played a bit better when my swing was grooved so I did not have to consciously remember that my elbow should not leave my side. It actually does a little bit, of course; it can’t be perfectly pinned to your side. But just watch the hackers on the driving range and you will see most elbows flying way out, with disastrous results. In his little golf books, the late Harvey Pennock, one of the greatest of teaching pros, makes a big deal about this absolute necessity. I recommend the books, which have no pictures, only concepts.
6. It has only been in the last ten years that I’ve felt comfortable hitting out of greenside sand traps. Shelby Futch, who was Jacobs’ assistant pro at the school I attended in Florida and is still a principle at the schools, gave me 80% of that confidence, having me open my stance a bit on the sand shots while keeping my shoulders on the line to the pin. It was a stranger who saw me flub a shot way back then who told me my elbow was flying on the shot!! I realized I’d never transferred the advice for driving and fairway shots to the little shots around the green. On my next practice in sand, I kept my elbow firm to my right side, which meant I had to step a little closer to the ball. All I had to do then is hit the sand in the right spot, but my sand shots improved so much I no longer worried about laying up to avoid them. My pitches and chips improved too.
7. I’ve had dozens of tips on my putting over the years. Few of them work because putting is such an individual thing, as you will note on the PGA tour where the best players have so many different styles and putters, long and short. The one tip that has worked best for me and for all other golfers I see who are competent in their putting is to address the ball with your hands slightly ahead of it. It forces you to swing the putter head on the chosen line instead of pushing it.
8. Your putting will also improve if you study the putt before whacking away. How often I get casual and sloppy, hitting a 30-footer 10 feet past the hole, only to realize when I get to the ball that I had been coming down hill slightly. If I had taken a look from that direction first, I would have taken enough off the swing to get close for a two-putt.
9. If you have not taken lessons from a pro, that’s my best tip. If you are thinking of taking up the game, lessons are a must, at least five half-hour sessions over five weeks, with practice in-between. If you go out on your own, willing to put up with the frustration of playing badly, you may build deep flaws into your swing that will take ten half-hour lessons to remove.
10. Learn golf etiquette. Golf began in Scotland as a game for gentlemen and ladies. There are little books of etiquette the pro can provide for you, but it also helps when you begin actually going out on a course to tell the seasoned players you are new to the game and would like them to tell you when you are going something wrong. You are not supposed to drive your golf cart on the green, for example. The kind of bad language you might hear at other sporting events is frowned upon at golf clubs. I taught myself to say “Rats and Bats,” when I flub a shot. I had to do something, as my earliest regular golf partner was my boss, Bill Giles, the editor of the National Observer, who would bring his two young sons to make the foursome. I’d learned “Rats and Bats” by watching Sesame Street with my youngsters.