The object of the game of golf is to get a small sphere (the ball) from point A to point B in the fewest strokes. Point A is where you tee off, and point B is where you hole out on the green. To play well, you must aim. Aiming requires presence, commitment and trust.
There’s a golf saying that if you don’t pick a target, you’re guaranteed not to hit it. Harvey Penick, the famed golf instructor from Austin, Texas, coined the phrase, “take dead aim.” I think what he was talking about, is to be very specific when you take your aim in golf. Claude Harmon (The Boss) used to say, “Aiming a golf shot is a lot like aiming a gun. If you miscalculate a little bit from where you stand, it’ll be a much bigger miscalculation 200 yards away where the ball will land. I believe aiming at a target is more complicated than simply picking a place to aim in the golf swing. Almost every professional golfer, once they arrive at the ball and survey the lie and consider the slope and the wind, will stand behind the ball and visualize how the ball will travel from where it is to where they want it to end up. Jack Nicklaus said he liked to visualize the ball taking off and the first bounce after it had hit the ground, assuming his stance to play the shot. Johnny Miller used the same routine when he played.
There’s plenty of attention paid to exactly how to aim. The Boss used to describe it like many others using a railroad track image. He’d say, “If you’re standing on the rail closest to you, your target line is the other track running beside it. In other words, your body is parallel left to where you want the ball to go. A common mistake beginning golfers make is attempting to aim their body at the target. The club face is aimed at the target, but if you aim your body at the actual target, you end up aiming right, and aiming right is not a good thing. The Boss used to say, “Aiming right encourages all the wrong things in the golf swing…whereas you can get away with aiming left, you can’t get away with aiming right.
The part of the target I’m interested in discussing is summarized by George Knudsen:
“The idea is to plant the image of the target in your mind. The more vividly you can imagine the target, the more intensely you can react to it. Target awareness takes your mind’s eye off the ball and puts it where it belongs: out there in space.”
One of the things that draws me to golf…that fascinates me about the game is how you can continue to learn and experience new things.
“Golf is….the study of a lifetime. You can exhaust yourself but never the subject.”– David R. Forgan
I had a serious stroke in 2011 that left me paralyzed, but I had a lot of good physical therapists that helped me make an amazing physical recovery. I still play golf although the game I play today has almost nothing to do with the game I played pre-stroke. Like everyone who has had a stroke, I suffered a brain injury. You just don’t realize how much your brain does that you take for granted. The brain injury that most affected my golf game is my lack of impulse control. I want to jump ahead. In rehab, the cognitive therapist, Candice, used an exercise with a deck of cards. She would deal 3 cards face up, such as Jack of clubs, Queen of hearts, 4 of diamonds. My task was to call them out in the order they were dealt, but I couldn’t do it. I would always jump to the last card and skip the middle one. How that brain injury affects my golf game is that instead of simply making my swing, I impulsively hit at the ball, which means that I often hit 3 or 4 inches behind the ball, or my body compensates and lifts up, and I contact the ball in the middle, which is called a skull (a Vince Skully). Being a teacher and knowing just a bit about the game and the swing, I’ve tried everything to solve this flaw, but nothing has worked.
Two weeks ago, I was preparing to write this essay, and warming up at the practice tee before the round, I was focused on maintaining my target connection throughout the swing. But I realized that somewhere in the backswing and in the transition to the front swing, I lost the connection. Even worse, the ball became the target. I hit a few more balls on the range where I recommitted to keeping my connection rather than thinking about how to swing. I hit a couple of beauties and went to the first tee with the commitment of playing my round with this intention. During my round, I hit my usual fat ones and some Vince Skullies as well, but I played better tee to green than I have in years, and I broke 80 (77) for the first time this summer.
Here are a few more examples of how target awareness and maintaining your connection can positively influence the outcome of the shot. Here are a few examples:
I was playing at the Duke University course with my regular Sunday morning group. It was quite chilly and had been raining a lot, so the turf was soaked. On the tenth hole, which was our first, I pulled my second shot left of the green. I had a terrible bear lie, basically the ball was sitting on mud. The ball was also way below my feet, and the pin was very close to the left side of the green. I was short-sided. I surveyed my predicament, and came to the conclusion that the shot was essentially impossible to play. But, I decided to try something. I walked back to my ball with the spot clearly in my mind. I didn’t know how I was going to swing, I just knew I was going to try to relax, and keep the spot (the target) in my mind as I played the shot. I don’t know how, but the shot I played almost went in. I’m sure there was a lot of luck involved. I hit a slightly behind the shot, so it was very lucky the ball flew the right distance. But I am convinced the mind-body connection can produce amazing results if we get out of our heads, and believe that something extraordinary can happen.
Here are a few more examples:
I have met several extraordinarily talented golfers for whom the harder the shot, the better they do. Meaning, they can play a cut shot from the woods around a tree, onto the green with better results than a five iron from the middle of the fairway to a pin right in the middle of the green. Here’s why I think that happens: when the shot requires precision, visualization is essential, and they focus their attention on the target, and allow their instincts and athleticism to play the shot. There’s far less thinking, and the shot is played escaping the mind and coming to our senses. When the ball is in the middle of the fairway, there’s lots of time to think, and during the shot, there are a lot of swing thoughts that cause the result to be far below their expectation. I think that’s why Bubba Watson plays big cut shots (left to right) or big draws (right to left) when curving the ball is not required. My friend Bruce Davidson from Scotland told me a story about his recent conversation with Seve Ballesteros, “Seve told me once that his worst pitch shots were from right in the middle of the fairway to a central pin. He always hit those further away than if he was out of position to a tight pin. He also told me that Langer was, by far, the best at the former…..I took that to mean that imagination was necessary for the ones Seve liked versus Teutonic regimentation for the ‘Langer pitch’.”
There are some holes on your home course where golfers play where the miss/error seems to be in the same place the majority of the time. This is the result of what golfers refer to as the hole or the shot “doesn’t fit my eye.” This means you find it hard to connect and commit to a target. Maybe the tee aims you to the right, and with your swing motion, this usually results in a bad miss to the left. Or maybe, there’s catastrophic trouble on the left, and you miss way to the right. If you’re anxious and afraid of where you don’t want to the ball to go, it makes it almost impossible to connect to the target of where you do want the ball to go. Standing behind the ball and looking at all the places where it would be bad for your ball to end up makes target connection very difficult. A good friend of mine, John McNeely told me there’s a hole at Pebble Beach #8, where he always plays a beautiful drive. When he arrives at a hole that doesn’t fit his eye, he looks at the shot and imagines he’s driving on #8.
I remember playing in a college tournament in Georgia when I was at WFU (I believe it was at Calloway Gardens). Our team was on the range after a practice round, and I heard shot after shot that had a special sound of really good contact. I turned around to see who it was. It was a player from the University of Alabama with blonde hair and a syrupy smooth swing named Jerry Pate. My curiosity got me, and I walked back to take a look. He was hitting 4 irons and every shot was struck perfectly solid. I watched him hit 15 or 20, and the balls finished so close together, out 185 yards away that you could have put a blanket down and covered them all. There were some spectators sitting behind him, and one of them asked, “What’re you working on?” Jerry replied, “I’ve been hitting terribly and I’m trying to work it out before the tournament starts.” The buffoon replied, “Well you’re aiming way to the left.”
Jerry said, “I’m not sure where I’m aiming, but the balls are going where I’m looking.”