Take this paragraph, which is a kind of guide to putting. It is a rather long one. It tells you how to putt a short putt–a putt that is just a few feet away from the hole. It tells you how to make the right stroke–a stroke in which your club head hits the ball at an angle that will give you the desired distance for that particular putt. It tells you how to know when it’s time to take your eye off the ball and look at the hole (which you should do only at the moment when your putt is about to fall), and it tells you how to keep track of where your putt is going (by comparing its distance to where it started).
There are seven sentences in all. Seven sentences, with no more than four words in any sentence. And yet those seven sentences contain all the information you need if you want to play golf well–if, that is, you want to get the ball onto the green and into the hole within 30 feet of where it starts, or within 45 feet of where it touches down after bouncing once or twice on its way there.
That may sound like an exaggeration. But I’m not making it up: there are seven sentences in this paragraph,
No matter how good your putting, however fast your hands, or how many practice rounds you’ve gone through, there is always a chance you’ll miss the hole. But if you’re lucky enough to sink a putt that gives you a stroke, and then the next one, and then another one and another one and another one, it’s hard to believe that in the end you won’t be able to sink every putt. It seems as if each new putt is bigger than all the others.
Then comes the miracle: after lots of misses, you finally sink every last putt. If you want to understand what happened, read this essay.
“There are two kinds of people in the world,” said Seneca. “Those who divide their attention between reading and going mad; those who plunge into reading.” He wasn’t talking about books on how to putt; he was talking about books that tell how books were written.
If you want to putt well, start by learning to putt. Learn to recognize the basic elements of putting: which way the ball is going to go, where it is going to stop, and how much trajectory you have left.
Then learn about these basic elements in more detail. Learn about the conditions under which the ball will travel straight or veer off course. Learn about how you can influence those conditions by manipulating your stance, your grip and your alignment. Once you understand how these factors affect the flight of a putt, then experiment with them. Try putting from different positions, with different grips and different alignments. Try putting from many kinds of greens: some with a false front and others with a natural slope that runs away from the hole; some that are fast and some that are slow. Try putting into all sorts of weird-shaped holes and holes without traps or hazards.
Trying to explain golf to a beginner is like explaining how to putt. It’s not obvious. Like putting, you can’t just take a few lessons and then expect to ace every hole. To become a good golfer, you need to practice many hours, get feedback from people who know more than you do, and keep trying until at last you get it right. If a beginner never gets better than a 9 on the driving range, for example, he should consider going back to square one and taking another lesson with someone who knows what he’s doing.
In golf’s case, however, the only way back is even further back: to the earliest days of golf. The game originated in Scotland in the Middle Ages. It was called “links” golf. It still uses that name; on links golf courses you have to hit your ball onto the links (a grass-covered area between the fairways) rather than into the fairway or any other part of the course itself. You also have to use a wooden club instead of a metal one because metal clubs are dangerous if they strike something; so today all golf clubs are made out of wood, even though they look like metal clubs.
Accordingly, links golfers were among the first in history
The analogy with golf is useful only if you understand the game. The aim of a good golfer is to putt the ball in the hole. But that’s not the only thing he has to do well: he also has to keep it within bounds, and make it the right depth. And he has to do that while making a smooth stroke so that he doesn’t lose control of his club and send it flying off in a direction that will take it out of bounds or make him miss the target.
So a good golfer has to be good at putting and at keeping it in bounds. And he does this by learning how to apply some standard principles. He can’t forget about any one part of what he needs to do; if one of his parts goes wrong, he’ll probably make his whole stroke go out of bounds.
E. H. Sheppard, the inventor of the golf-ball retriever, once said that “Golf is a game for men who are smarter than women.”
Sheppard was smart enough to know that while golf might look like a lady’s game, in fact it had been designed with men in mind. He also knew that anyone who had ever played golf would agree that it was full of tricks and traps.
The first trick is how to hold the club. Most people hold it high and out in front of them, with their wrists bent back as far as they can go. That’s because most people are right-handed, and if you are right-handed you need your hand firmly in front of your body to swing the club.
But if you try to swing with your right hand straight out in front of you, your wrists will bend back even farther than that–so far that the club will hit the ground before you’ve swung it very far at all. It sounds like a good idea to play some experimental games with this arrangement, but in practice it doesn’t work very well: after about ten minutes or so you start getting tired and sore wrists from holding the club out there so straight.
It’s not surprising that the new golf course at Seneca is called The Golf Club. It was designed by David McLay Kidd, a well-known golf course architect who has been called “the father of modern golf course architecture,” and its construction is the latest development in a long history of golf course building at Seneca Lake.
The first golf courses were built in Scotland in the late 18th century. Before then, golf was mainly played in English country clubs, where members mostly played for social reasons and shots were traditionally hit from an elevated tee. In 1764, the first links course was opened in St Andrews, Scotland, and it soon became clear that the links-style of play, with its emphasis on making accurate short shots rather than long ones, was far more popular than the game played at English country clubs, where balls tended to be hit from tee to green.
The next step was obvious: build links courses near London. In 1867, St Andrews held a competition for a design for an 18-hole course on land owned by Robert Taylor and his brother-in-law Sir Harry Vardon. The winners were Sir Horace Player and Willie Park Sr., who had spent much of their careers designing courses at other prestigious courses around England; they