Golfers who play like professionals spend a lot of time on the range, but they also spend a lot of time on the green. It is at the green that professionals get close to perfect shots.
Golf is an unusual game because it is the only ball sport in which the players don’t have all of the tools they need. They need both a club and a ball, so they can’t take anything else with them. And they need to be able to stand up and hit balls, so they don’t have enough space to bring them with them.
Because it’s hard for golfers to move around without hitting golf balls, they have to pay attention to what happens on their own turf. That’s why professional golfers are more likely than amateurs to practice on the green. They can practice shots from any position on the green, so that when they actually play at an event, everything will look familiar.
I started this blog because I wanted to try to explain how professional golfers play professional golf. It is not that hard to understand, but it is hard to do while trying to play the game. So this blog is a record of what I learn (and sometimes fail to learn).
It’s only been in the past few years that I realized that most golfers are not very good at explaining what they do. This has a lot to do with the fact that we’re all trying to convert “knowledge” into “skill,” and we don’t have much experience doing it. The attempt is also discouraged by the culture of the sport: golf is supposed to be something you can’t explain, so you shouldn’t try.
I’m still learning about how things work, so please feel free to suggest improvements in my approach.
Golf is not a game that lends itself to analysis. The ball is not round, and it doesn’t roll, and it’s not easy to see. You can’t say “If I hit it this way it will go this far” or “If I hit it this way it will go that far.”
So we have to make do with what we can see and with our judgment of the physics of the swing. Nobody knows exactly how the golf ball behaves, but we can use the physics of other things to guess, and so we can come up with ways of hitting the golf ball that work well in our experience.
Part of what makes the professional golfer good is his ability to recognize these ways, and to combine them in different ways on different holes, and then to choose which combination will be best for each particular shot he faces. He does this with knowledge of the physics that apply only to him; he’s doing something that no one else can do.
But what if you don’t want to be like a pro? It would help if you knew how pros think about hitting a golf ball. Which is not as hard as it sounds. The pro probably has a swing like millions of others: his arm comes up straight out from his shoulder,
A typical golf course has about five hundred yards of fairway. Most of us never play more than half a mile, so we don’t get to see the whole course in one shot. And we never play a ball that is the same distance from the pin as it would be if we were playing on our home course, so we can’t judge how it will fly when it leaves our hand.
So what are we supposed to do on a five hundred yard hole? We can’t hit the ball where it is and still make par; that’s impossible. So we’re doomed to take a two-stroke penalty for every club in our bag that isn’t dead straight at eight or nine feet. That’s a lot of strokes, especially if you don’t know about the rules.
To make it worse, there is no such thing as a “perfect” golf shot: no matter how well you think your shots are lined up, the wind is always going to affect the outcome in some subtle way that you will never be able to see until after you’ve finished playing.
There’s a rich tradition of techniques for learning golf
Golf is a game with no set rules. You can play it however you want to, and there are only two basic moves: forward and back. Most golfers fall into one of two categories:
The “chuck it out” player has the skill to hit the ball over the trees, but lacks the courage to go after the green. He stands on the tee box, looks around nervously, and decides which distance is appropriate for him. The “gimme” player has a good swing but no imagination. He plays every hole as if he were playing in his backyard. He hits his ball way into the woods, shanks his drive into a pond, and needs to be carried off by paramedics.
Golf is not a game of perfect shots. It’s a game of where to hit the ball. The only way to achieve the highest degree of consistency in hitting the ball is to understand how a golf ball behaves when it is hit, and then to develop a method that works for your own body type, your skill level, and where you are playing.
This requires an understanding of physics. Golf players should know the properties of a golf ball and the forces involved in hitting it. They should also know how to compensate for those properties so that they can hit the ball with maximum accuracy (or at least as high as they can).
Golf’s physics are not as complicated as physics in science fiction movies; there is no force field around the golf ball or time travel involved. But they are still complex enough that golfers need to understand them if they want to play well.