How to be a better golfer


Golf isn’t like religion: devotion isn’t enough. If you really want to become a better golfer then you have to spend time chipping and putting

It’s one of those milestones you can’t quite play down. The middle of your fifth decade on this planet, presents such an infallible case for instrospection that it’s futile to resist. Assuming you’re lucky enough to live till 90, then you’ve just made the turn. And the prospect of taking stock at the clubhouse before hitting the back nine appears fair and prudent, almost exciting. People in the groups ahead say the course only gets tougher from here. “You’ve tried hard but there’s no avoiding adulting now, my friend…Any epiphanies?” asks the playing partner. Instantly, your father’s words, uttered years back, ring in your ears. “If you can call someone with a slice like that, an adult.”  

I still have that slice dad. But I’ve learnt to play for it. If there’s any glimmer of wisdom then  it’s in the realisation that working hard indiscriminately is silly; rather it’s about working hard on the right things. Your swing thoughts can’t be internal; not about positions, and how to hit the ball. But rather, like Bubba Watson says, ‘out there.’ Golf, like life, is out there. Pick a line the ball should start on, and a spot for it to finish. Close the loop, and then just go ahead and do it. Don’t stymie yourself with thought and trust your instinct because that was all you knew as a teenager—how to dispatch a ball to a target. Balls were expensive and precious and ‘driving range’ is a phrase you’d never heard. Your father would glare and make you find the ruddy ball if you happened to hit it into the boondocks. There was a very real imperative to keep that ball in play. 

Yet again, golf has come to your rescue: providing an irrepressible digression to existential dilemmas. The more you think about that, the more that theory reaffirms its validity. Ben Hogan had no video analysis; he didn’t even have high-speed still cameras. And the greatest workman and experimenter the game has known, worked on his swing based on what the ball did after leaving the clubface and where it finished up, relative to where he’d hit it.  

Professional golf on the PGA Tour in the 1960s-1970s did not have the kind of money the players make now. Making the cut was often what put the gas in the car to play the next event, or the difference between sleeping in a motel or in your car. Putting the ball on a spot on the green wasn’t just important, it was critical. That would explain why most of the pro players in India who graduate from the caddy ranks almost always make it on the circuit, while a number of kids from well-off economic backgrounds don’t. A privileged background extracts its own price. You get the curse of choice; best of luck with realising your potential.  

A sign on your desk at work says, ‘Professionals can do their best work, when they don’t feel like it.’ That’s very admirable, and you like the thought. But you’ve never followed it. When you don’t feel like doing something then you do it only when you must. And the fact that you’ve acquired a reliable, even pretty, greenside bunker splash technique, must really be put down to chance and luck. If you really want to become a better golfer then you have to spend time chipping and putting. In fact, that should be all you practice. Come to think of it: if this new decade can trade some of your length off the tee for some finesse around the greens then you’ll gladly take it. When former world number one Yani Tseng spoke about only focusing on hitting the ball ‘as hard as I could’ for the first few years of playing the game, she was talking about her childhood. Golf rarely rewards the player who smashes the ball with all his, or her, might. Tell yourself that every day.  

You remember a lesson from Amandeep Johl, the PGTI (Professional Golf Tour of India) veteran, at the Siri Fort driving range in Delhi. You were disappointed when he didn’t give you an elaborate swing analysis. “You’ve become too focused on the body,” he said after watching you hit a few balls, and added, “Just go back to trying to hit the ball to a target, without a thought to how you’re doing it.” It takes a few weeks for the wisdom of that advice to seep through. ‘Golfers, quit all that thinking,” was all Sam Snead had to say about golf instruction.  

Like a number of golfers, you love yoga. You were lured into it by the promise of increased flexibility in the backswing but stayed hooked because of what it did to your overall sense of wellness. But when you really dived deep, you realised you were doing it for the wrong reasons. The asanas are but a small part of yoga, their purpose is only, as Iyengar puts it, ‘to render the body a vehicle, fit for the soul.’ If you fall in love with an element, then you might never see the whole. Stop playing golf swing. It’s the game that deserves your attention.  

The swing is set. It’s not perfect, far from it. But it’s your swing. And if you learn to trust it again, then you know you’ll be fine. In fact, it’s time to forget about the swing altogether and go hit some shots.  

Winter is almost upon us and hopefully some showers are in the offing to clear some of the grime from Delhi’s skies. There’s only one reasonable thing to do on a Sunday like this. Tee it up cowboy. And stop sniffling. 

 Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.  

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