INSTRUCTION [by Wayne DeFrancesco]
In my 25 years as a teaching pro, I have preached at length to students and to the readers of my columns about the value of limiting goal-setting to one in particular – that of simply improving every year, and just as importantly viewing the search for that improvement as a journey to be enjoyed, not as a destination to obsess about. They are two concepts easy to understand, but hard to put into practice. Those who get these ideas and live by them (consciously or unconsciously) tend to become better players over time and are far less likely to succumb to the frustrations and disappointments inherent in golf and end up like far too many initially hopeful players who quit the game.
It has been said that golf builds character: I’m not sure about that, but I do know that it is a true test of character, and that ultimately succeeding at the game requires characteristics that enable one to succeed outside of golf in all sorts of endeavors, including work, marriage, and parenting. No one starts playing the game and is immediately great. No matter at what age we start, we are not going to be very good right away, and to reach a point where we can call ourselves “capable” or “proficient” or for the very few “great,” it is going to require a lot of improvement.
Some are lucky enough to improve just by playing and practicing. Others (most of us) need help. My dad first handed me a club when I was nine, and we whacked wiffle balls around the back yard. He only started playing in his mid-30s and was never a great player (I think his lowest handicap may have been eight), but he was committed to getting better and we always had the latest golf books around the house, including Cary Middelcoff’s book and, fortunately for me, Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons.” His instructions were simple enough: keep your head still, turn your left shoulder under your chin, keep your left arm straight, and drive your hips toward the target, all elements that any stack and tilt instructor could agree with. I was able to get out onto the course when I turned 10, and I enjoyed playing in the summers with friends at a local nine-hole course for $5, all you can play.
I played in my first tournament when I was 12, shot 92 and finished second, and when I got a hold of that trophy I was hooked for good. I played daily at our country club that summer, my parents dropping me off at the course in the morning and picking me up at night. At age 13 I began playing a full summer tournament schedule, thanks to Frank Emmet and the amazing junior program he almost single-handedly ran in the Washington, D.C., area. I enjoyed everything about the game. I liked to be at the course, I liked to play and practice, and I liked to compete. I was a good athlete, coordinated and quick, but small in stature. It was an added bonus that I could compete against, and beat, much larger fellow competitors. I’ll never forget my first tournament victory, in the 13-and-under age group in Worsham Memorial Tournament in 1970, when I faced an opponent in the finals who must have outweighed me by 50 pounds. My father dropped me off at the course, got a look at guy I had to play, and from the look on his face I knew that the last thing he expected was for me to win the match. And indeed when I was three-down with three to play it certainly looked as though he had handicapped this one correctly.
Then, a funny thing happened. I made a routine par to win 16, watched him miss the green and bogey 17 while I made a 3-footer for par, and on 18 drive into the trees while I hit the green in regulation and won a third straight hole, sending the match into extra holes. At this point the big guy had his whole family watching, and I could tell that his father was even more annoyed than he was that I was managing to hang in the match. I hit my second shot onto the green, then watched in amazement as the kid flew the ball 20 yards over the green into an impossible lie, then proceed to scream and helicopter his club down the fairway, all to the consternation of his father, who commenced with his own screaming fit, this one directed at his son, who still had yet to play his third shot. Needless to say I came away with the victory, and when dad arrived to pick me up and I told him that I had won the tournament, the smile on his face was priceless.
I recount this story because it is my first clear memory of my life as a competitive golfer. Most of what I have learned about myself and about the game has come directly from my participation in competitive events, and I consider playing tournament golf to be a must for all golfers, as I viewed the pressure involved as the only true test of a player’s technique and mental fortitude. A “tournament” can be any competition at any level: a $2 match among friends, a handicap event at the club, a section championship for club pros, or a national championship for Tour pros.
Anything that causes the player to care about his or her score and elevates the heart rate on the first tee becomes an examination of the state of the player’s game. The bottom line is that you never really know what you have until you put some pressure on it.
Fortunately for me, I always reveled in pressure situations. I certainly didn’t always perform at a high level under pressure, but I enjoyed the challenge enough so that failure never failed to encourage me to practice even more so that I might succeed the next time.
The ability to perceive failure as an inspiration to work harder in order to avoid further failure is critical to success in golf. This brings us back to the central tenet of the article, that the one true goal every player needs to have is that of improving over time.
Golf is an incredibly difficult game that will test the will of anyone trying to learn it. The process is painful, to say the least. In the beginning the technical aspects of the swing are overwhelming.
There are far too many important pieces of information to be processed in the one second that elapses between the time the clubhead moves backward to the time it contacts the ball for any beginner to be aware of. Mistakes need to be corrected. Early mistakes in the swing lead to more mistakes later in the swing. Any change in technique needs to be assessed and thought about. Staying aware of more than a couple of things during any one swing is nearly impossible for the average player, much less for a beginner.
Accordingly, it is not possible for a new player with a plethora of technique flaws to hit the ball well during a round of golf. That is not to say that a couple of shots may not come off nicely. Having a compromised technique does not preclude one from hitting a great shot; however, the chances of hitting more than one great shot in a row, or enough great shots to produce a good score, are minimal at best.
So, if we are going to fail most of the time and constantly struggle to improve our awareness of what is happening during the swing, how do we maintain our enthusiasm for playing? The answer is to try as hard as you can to focus on the long term, which, as Tiger always says, means simply that the only goal one should have is to improve, and that, just as importantly, results will correspondingly take care of themselves.
The character traits that allow for this to happen are the same ones psychologists unfailingly discuss whenever techniques for general happiness and success come up. I discuss them in the box.
Over the years I have taught every level of player from beginner to Tour professional. None is immune from the daunting challenges of the game. Even the best players fall into slumps and question their willingness to battle on.
Many beginners fail to last to the point where they are proficient enough to consider themselves “golfers.”
Hopefully, I have given a bit a fresh insight on ways to consider the game, and the qualities that you may already possess but have failed to draw upon, so that you may continue to persist in your quest to be a better player. It is, as I stated in the beginning, a matter of improving over the long term, and enjoying the journey along the way. Always remember to ask yourself the question, “Is what I am doing now going to help me be better in a year, or in five years?”
If every decision you make is based on how you are going to do today, or tomorrow, or next week, you are going to have a hard time committing to the changes you most likely need to make. If you can’t handle the prospect that you may not perform at the level you are accustomed to in the near term, you may never be able to advance beyond that level in the long term.
When you are working on new and different things, give them a chance to work and use them when you play. Fight through the poor shots and the bad scores. Become more familiar with what you are working on. Modify it. Adapt to it. Think it through and come up with you own ideas. Become enmeshed in the process of getting better. No one else is going to do it for you. www.waynedefrancesco.com