How I Play Golf
Yearning to Learn
I love golf as much for its frankness as for those rare occasions when it rewards a wink with a smile. It is pure, honest and immune to sweet talk. Neither can it be bum-rushed. You must court it slowly and patiently. Any other strategy will ~ be met with a rebuff that for centuries has made grown men and women cry.
Golf does, however, show you moments of vulnerability. They are the reason we relish the courtship and the basis for our hope. It is that flicker of anticipation that draws us from the comfort of ambivalence to the certainty of rejection. Golf does not play favorites. Still we try.
I have been infatuated with the game since my pop first put a club in my hands when I was a toddler. I was an only child, and the club and ball became my playmates. That feeling of solitude and self-reliance enhanced the game's attraction for me and endures today. I suspect that is true of most people who have succumbed to the lure of the game. I recall from conversations with two of the greatest golfers of our time—Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—that the game had a similar appeal for them. Golf affords you supreme independence. The clich? about the game being you against the golf course is only partly true. Ultimately, it is you against yourself. It always comes down to how well you know yourself, your ability, your limitations and the confidence you have in your ability to execute under pressure that is mostly self-created. Ultimately, you must have the heart and head to play a shot and the courage to accept the consequences.
Golf is a great mirror, often revealing things about you that even you didn't know. It cannot be misled. Still we try.
Sometimes the game comes so easily you can hardly believe it. Every swing seems natural and unforced. Every shot comes off exactly as you envisioned it. That false sense of security is part of the seduction. Every golfer has experienced it. If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit never quite reaching nirvana—that feeling of invincibility. We are constantly on edge. There is no comfort zone in golf. Nor is it a game of perfection. If it were, we'd all shoot 18 and look for a more challenging sport. I shot a 61—my lowest competitive round—in the third round of the Pac-10 Championships during my sophomore year at Stanford and bogeyed the par-4 14th hole. I actually hit the ball better during the afternoon round and shot four strokes worse, including a bogey at 15. Only once do I recall feeling nearly in control of my game and that was when I shot a 13-under-par 59 at my home course in Orlando. Even then I parred both par 5s on the back nine with irons into the greens. The most we can ask of ourselves is to give it our best shot, knowing that sometimes we will fail. We are often defined by how we handle that failure.
The great Ben Hogan, a man not prone to exaggeration, claimed that in his best week of golf he only had four perfect shots. I have yet to get to that higher plane. I won 12 times around the world in 2000, including three majors, and I only remember hitting one shot I would call perfect—a 3-wood on No. 14 on the Old Course at St. Andrews in the third round of the British Open. From a tight lie I had to hit a little draw into a left-to-right wind and carry the ball about 260 yards to a green guarded by a couple of nasty pot bunkers. As with every shot I attempt, I visualized the ball's flight and how it should respond upon landing. Because it was a blind shot, I picked out a crane in the distance as my target. The ball never left that line and the shot turned out exactly as I had planned. Moments like that stay fresh in my mind, providing a positive image for future reference. Those images are critical when the game is on. They may even be the difference between success and failure.
Sometimes the game seems so difficult you wonder whether the effort is worth it. It took me a while to understand why some days you have it and others you don't. Fact is, every day your body feels a little different and golf is such a finite game that a little off can translate into a lot. One or two degrees here and there can mean from four to seven yards. That's not a whole lot but it's magnified due to the precision the game demands. We've all had one of those frustrating days. The final round of the 1996 NCAAs at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., was one I'll never forget. I struggled all week, even though I shot some great numbers. I just didn't feel comfortable with my swing. I didn't have the club in the right position, but I was getting away with it because my chipping was great and I made every putt I looked at. I was somehow able to keep the ball in play for most of the holes and let my putter do the rest. In the final round I lost it altogether. I went to the range that morning and never hit a shot. It just wasn't there. Sometimes when that happens you can actually lower your expectations, go out and shoot a great round. Not this time. I played the first three rounds with smoke and mirrors and it finally caught up with me. Fortunately, I had a nine-shot lead and the 80 didn't cost me an individual championship. I felt extremely fortunate, more like a survivor than a champion.
Success in golf is finding equilibrium, accepting the fact that it is a game of ups and downs and learning something every time you tee it up. Finding that balance is a matter of trial and error. You must discover what works best for you and work diligently to maximize your potential. The difference between golf and most other sports is that anyone of average intelligence and coordination can learn to play it well. It requires a commitment to being the best that you can be. That has always been my approach to the game, for I, too, started as a blank page. Through my first teacher, my dad, the page began to fill. I absorbed as much information about the game as I possibly could. Through experimentation I started weeding out what could and could not hurt me. More important, I began to understand what worked best for me. Pop gave me many great lessons, not only about golf but also about life. His greatest advice to me was to always be myself. I pass that along to you as the first lesson in this book, which I wrote not as a panacea but as the ultimate tribute to Mom and Pop's ideal of caring and sharing. In essence, if you care for someone you'll share with them your most treasured possessions.
In this book I will share with you a lifetime, albeit a relatively short one, of knowledge about the greatest game in the world. I believe this book will assist you in attaining the deep joy and satisfaction that comes from playing the game well. I am convinced there is no game like it. In many ways it is a microcosm of life, teaching us both the depths and heights of character. It demands integrity, promotes camaraderie, encourages good health and builds appreciation for the aesthetics. It is more than a well-struck iron or a holed putt. No, golf is not a game of perfection; it is one of reality. And keeping it real is more than a worthy goal in any endeavor.
Golf requires patience and perseverance. There are no shortcuts. Pop used to say you get out of it what you put into it. When my teacher, Butch Harmon, and I overhauled my swing during the 1998 season, Butch would sometimes have me repeat one movement for 30 minutes. I would get so tired it felt like my arms were going to fall off. But I kept at it until the move became ingrained in my muscle memory. Patience and practice pay off. So will careful attention to the techniques explained within the pages of this book—techniques I believe will work for everyone seeking to get the best out of their games. It is structured differently from other books, beginning with the green and progressing to the tee. That's how my dad taught me, from the smallest swing to the biggest. The instruction combines visual, kinesthetic, cognitive and performance ideals for practical application by players of all ages and abilities. Interspersed throughout the text are seven secrets I have used to elevate my game, from becoming physically stronger to mentally tougher. I believe they will work for you, too.
Ultimately, golf is a journey full of learning and discovering. I hope, through this book, you'll discover your game—one that is powerful yet precise, consistent yet exciting, impervious to pressure yet yielding large doses of fun. After all, that's the real reason we play the game. Sometime we forget that. I did once. I was a junior golfer playing in the Orange Bowl junior tournament in Miami. I had the lead going into the final round and made a double on the front nine. I still had the lead, but for some reason I lost all joy and flat-out quit. I took my second-place trophy and pouted. Pop sternly reprimanded me. That's the only time I ever quit on golf in my life. From that time on I realized what a privilege it is to play. And I never again lost sight of why I fell for the game in the first place.
We still try because we must...