Can a 47-year-old underachieving mid-handicapper find long-sought golfing glory by turning things around and learning to play left-handed? The world is about to find out.

Chapter 5: Ready or Not

“[I]t really cuts me up to watch some golfer sweating over his shots on the practice tee, throwing away his energy to no constructive purpose, nine times out of 10 doing the same thing wrong he did years and years back when he first took up golf.
– Ben Hogan (in Five Lessons)

It probably didn’t help matters that I was a little beat up right from the start. For one thing, I was still recovering from a soccer coaching accident. Yes, that’s right. I hurt myself coaching soccer. More precisely, I hurt myself learning to coach soccer, at a clinic.
From an early age, Jack seemed to take quite a liking to the game those crazy Europeans call “football” for some reason. We practiced in the backyard quite a bit, and signed up for the local micro-soccer program as soon as he was old enough. After we finally got around to signing him up for a real team at age 7 (we were at least a year late -- they start so young these days!), we got an e-mail from the league saying that if they couldn’t find one more coach, the league would have to contract – so I reluctantly volunteered.

Even though I knew next to nothing about soccer when I first started, I was head coach for two years – which proved to be both much harder and much more rewarding than anticipated. It was a source of both joy and stress, the latter of which mostly resulted from insecurity. I lacked confidence that I knew what I was doing, and also worried that the parents lacked confidence in me, and that I was perhaps cheating the kids out of learning as much about soccer as they should be.
So after the first season I signed up to take a coaching refresher course. Problem is, a big part of learning to coach soccer involves actually playing it. They didn’t just show us the drills they wanted us to learn, they made us do them.
Did I mention already that my competitive streak is a little wider than it ought to be? Especially for a 47-year-old non-soccer player who doesn’t have a history of keeping himself in shape. So during one of the drills, I went after the ball a little too hard, extended my right leg a little too far, came down awkwardly, hyper-extended my knee, toppled over, and hit the ground hard.
At first I feared the worst. Years ago I had torn a knee ligament playing softball – in much the same way I had just fallen. But this time, my right hamstring took the brunt of the blow. To add insult to injury, it all happened right at the end of the drill. The whistle blew just as I fell, everyone headed back to the main area, and I suddenly found myself alone on the ground clutching my leg in pain. It was like when Bart broke his leg on The Simpsons and Milhouse said, “Hey, he’s really hurt! Let’s get out of here!”
It wasn’t long, however, before one of the instructors saw me lying there and came to my aid. In a few minutes I was resting on a bench with an ice pack strapped to my butt. It did not appear I would be missed in any way.
I’m not sure how I made it home; I probably shouldn’t have driven myself, but I did. Men are stubborn that way, you know. A visit to the doctor the next day revealed that I had suffered a bad hamstring pull, but nothing worse. A few days later, however, after the leg pain subsided, I realized I must have hit the ground pretty hard, because I seemed to have some pretty good bruising in my chest. And this, more than the hamstring, is what would linger and cause me a few problems as I began swinging a golf club every day.
It was clear already that conditioning might become a bigger factor than I realized – so I resolved to make exercise and fitness a priority in my quest. (Key word: resolved.)
Fortunately, the discomfort did not slow me down too much. So I continued to make ample use of my lunch hours and after-work time (as long as the light held out) to hit the practice area at Brown Deer.
We’d been having a beautiful stretch of fall weather: Indian Summer temperatures, bright sunshine, and of course some spectacular fall color. Autumn in southeastern Wisconsin can be quite beautiful. People like to complain about the winters we have, but I truly enjoy having four distinct seasons. Our springs can be pretty cold and wet, but our summers are generally wonderful (not as hot and humid as down in Central Illinois) and autumn even better. I even enjoy winter, as long as it snows. “If it’s going to be cold, it might as well snow!” I always say. Otherwise it’s just cold, grey, brown, and useless.
Almost every day at lunch I drove over to Brown Deer and either chipped or putted, or both. One of the challenges I’ve always had with pure practice is staying engaged, so I invented little games on the putting green to keep me focused. I picked three holes that formed a triangle with sides of about 20, 25, and 30 feet. I played three balls, playing the three holes first in one direction, then in the reverse. Three balls times six holes equals a “round” of 18 par-2 holes. I kept score in relation to par for each round, with no gimmees – everything gets holed.
By then I was starting to feel fairly confident with my putting stroke, and imagined that I might be able to finish the round in something close to even par. But it was harder than I anticipated, and I finished my first round in a whopping 9-over! Including a couple of four-putts. On my second attempt I was 9-over by the time I finished the first nine – so I quit.
Clearly, putting around just “for fun” is easier than adding the pressure of recording a score! But the game was fun, and helped me gauge how much I was improving with practice.
I also started noticing weird little things about playing left-handed. Like how awkward it felt to clean a left-handed club! Through all my years of wiping off my clubs, I never once thought about which hand did what, or how to bring the club face into contact with the damp towel. But now everything felt backwards and hard. What have I gotten myself into!?
More seriously, some weird little aches and pains started to show up. It wasn’t just my chest, which was still a little sore from that dark day on the soccer field. My right thumb was starting to hurt – and I had no idea why. But it was significant enough cause some worry. I also noticed that my back would feel sore after a long session on the putting green. Early on, my thighs even ached a little from standing in a putting position for an extended period of time. Really?
Doubts about the project began to flash in and out of my brain. Most of the time I was pretty excited about it – but not everyone I told about it seemed convinced it was a good idea. Far from it, in fact. My friend Rob, the one guy I thought would be the most supportive, regularly expressed doubts: He doubted I could learn to play golf left-handed with any level of proficiency, and he doubted the process would be interesting enough to make a good book. But he was a great sounding board and our discussions (mostly via e-mail) were and continue to be very useful in thinking things through.
“I was thinking about the whole left-handed thing,” he wrote me one day. “To me hitting right-handed feels natural, as I can control the breaking of the wrists more with my right hand. And it feels like the power is coming from the right as well, but I understand you’re saying you'd get more power from the right had if you hit left-handed? Don't you need your dominant hand to help control the swing path and break your wrists?”
“I know exactly what you're saying,” I replied. “But how do you know that it doesn't just feel natural because you’re used to it? My theory (and it's only a theory) is that guys like us [who haven’t had a lot of instruction] use our right hands more than we’re really supposed to because it’s more natural to use our right hands more. Then we become used to it and it feels right.
“But this is all an experiment,” I continued. “I’m not setting out to prove anything, I'm setting out to see if it can work. I suspect there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. It could well be that when all is said and done I conclude that nothing was really gained [by switching to lefty].”
Even Elizabeth – though she’s been extremely supportive – has expressed doubts. At dinner one night she pointed out that it could take a long time to get any good: “Just think how long it’s taken you to get where you are now – practically your whole life!”
Yes, I said, you’re right. But part of what I’m exploring here, I explained patiently, is how much of what I already “know” about golf will carry over. In that sense, I’m not completely starting over. I have a lifetime of experience that’s not going to just vanish.
That said, her comment did raise some doubt in my mind in one regard: I catch myself assuming that my good habits (along with all my touch and feel) will carry over, but my good ones won’t. But there’s no guarantee of that at all. What if the opposite happens – the good stuff stays on the right-hand side while all my bad stuff (like my temperament!) crosses over effortlessly!?
There’s only one way to find out, of course. And now I’m committed.

And despite that initial moment of disappointment – when Coach Carl nearly shattered all my dreams by telling me I did not have a perfect grip right out of the gate (I nearly cried!) – that first lesson was amazing. To say it was eye-opening would be understating the obvious. What I discovered was how little I really knew about the golf swing. I guess this didn’t come as too much of a shock – a big part of my project’s appeal, after all, is the attempt to re-learn everything the right way. Still, I was taken slightly aback by how screwed-up some of my fundamentals turned out to be. Some of the things I thought I was doing right were actually working against me.
Let’s start, as he did, with that grip.
I had gotten at least a couple of things right, thank goodness. My research revealed that as a right-hander, I was holding the club too much in the palm of my hand. I should instead be holding it more with my fingers – a revelation confirmed by Coach Carl during that first lesson. So I got that much right. And Coach showed me how to check to make sure the grip of the club is positioned snugly underneath the pad (on the pinky side) of my right hand.
“You’re pretty good with where you want this heel pad,” he told me. “And a good checkpoint for that is going to be if you can take your thumb and index finger off the club, and you can lift that club straight up [using just my three smaller fingers].”
On my left hand (and remember, this will be reversed for you right-handed readers!) he showed me how my two middle fingers provide the bulk of the gripping power. The pinky basically goes along for the ride, tucked into the gap between the middle and index fingers of my right hand. Meanwhile, my left thumb and forefinger stay relaxed on the shaft. My left thumb, in fact, should not go on the shaft at all; rather, Coach said, it should lay to the right side of the grip.
(Right-handers – are you starting to get a sense of how confusing it can be to lefties trying to “transpose” standard right-handed instruction? To simplify, I’ll start using the terms top hand, to refer to the hand nearest the body, on the end of club shaft, and low hand to refer to the hand nearer the clubhead.)
I realized that this is a very different concept from what I routinely put into practice with my right-handed (RH) swing. Historically, I’ve always gripped the club very tightly with my right thumb and forefinger … I mean, the thumb and forefinger of my low hand. I used that hand to provide power and to steer the clubhead through the ball – with lots of tension in my hands. Based solely on what I now knew was a more proper grip, it became clear that is was wrong to let my dominant hand dominate my swing so much.
But the main mistake with my new left-handed (LH) grip was with the ring finger and pinky of my low hand (my left, your right – probably). Rather than tucking the pinky into that and keeping my ring finger on the grip, I was letting both of those fingers creep up onto my top hand and “go along for the ride.” So instead of having a good hold of the club with the two middle fingers of my low hand, my thumb, index, and middle fingers were left to do the yeoman’s work of gripping the grip.
As far as the position of my hands on the club was concerned, we started with a pretty “neutral” hand position – that is, with my two palms facing each other, more or less parallel to the target line.
Got all that? Don’t worry if you don’t – we’ll come back to it!
Once we got the grip straightened out had me hit a few more soft shots, just half-swings, and then moved on to my address position. Again, he made a simple suggestion to fix a major flaw.
            “Relax your shoulders and drop your hands,” he said. “Everything is way too tense.”
            All my life I had addressed the ball in a very rigid position, with my elbows locked (or nearly so) and my arms extended away from my body. If you were to look at me from behind the target line, you would not see much of an angle between my arms and the shaft of the club. This is something I’ve always done rather instinctively – I can’t recall ever giving it much thought. It always just felt like the right thing to do.
            But not according to Coach Carl.
            “Take your normal stance, relax your arms shoulders, and just let your hands and arms drop naturally to the ground,” he instructed. “Now, see where your hands are? That’s where you should be holding the club.”
            “Really?” I said, probably with a bit of skepticism in my voice. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust his judgment – it just felt so different from what I was used to. It felt so much more … passive. How could I possibly generate any power from such a relaxed position?
But in the weeks following that first lesson I started to pay very close attention to how the pros do it. And sure enough, almost all of them let their arms drop almost vertically from their shoulders when addressing the ball. I’ve been watching golf on TV – lots of it – since I was a kid. How could I have never noticed this before?
I suppose it probably had something to do with the fact that I have never once, in all those years, seen myself swing a golf club. Maybe if I had, I would have noticed how far I extended my arms. But no more!
            From there he proceeded to talk about the importance of tempo, and how my ability to develop a proper and consistent tempo would be one of the keys to my success.
            “Think of your golf swing as a pendulum,” he said. “Think about letting the club swing through the ball; not about trying to hit at it.”
            In fact, just about everything he had me do that first lesson was geared toward reducing tension in my set-up and swing. He moved my feet a little bit closer together – into a less aggressive, more relaxed position. He also had me level my shoulders; another bad carryover from my RH swing was pushing my hands toward the target by tilting my shoulders.
            “Just relax,” he said, over and over again. “It’s all about eliminating tension.”
            By the time we were done I was so relaxed I was just about ready to fall asleep! But that would have been impossible, because my brain was absolutely buzzing with new information.
            We also spent a fair amount of time just talking – about the mental side of golf, the importance of fitness and stretching, and how golf is “a game of contradictions.” One of the most important things to remember, he said, is that “less effort equals more results; and more effort equals less results.” It sounds counterintuitive, but it goes a long way toward explaining why two of the biggest hitters in the game (from my generation) are guys who look like their putting the least amount of effort into their swings: Fred Couples and Ernie Els.
            We also talked more about the project in general. I confirmed that I was planning to play only left-handed golf, even in practice, for the duration of the project.
            “Well, that’s good,” he replied, “because it’s a totally different feel. A lot of the things you’re going to be doing are going to be foreign to your body, because your muscles aren’t used to reacting that way.”
            This reminded me of something Rob said to me early on, when he was feeling a bit skeptical about the project. It was something to the effect of, “You know, I’ve tried swinging a golf club left-handed a few times before, and it just feels completely different. I’m not at all sure you’ll be able to pull this off.”
            “Well, maybe that’s because you’ve swung a golf club right-handed what, maybe a hundred-thousand times in your life?” I replied. “And swung one left-handed maybe a dozen? Maybe that has something to do with it.”
            I scoff at Rob’s scoffing, but that’s actually very fair question he raised: Can I really teach my body something completely new at the (relatively) advanced age of 47? Is it true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
This thought reminded me of a comment from another doubter, my friend Bill from church, an older man who’s been something of a mentor to me (for life, not golf). Over lunch one day, he shared a story of a conversation he once had with a woman from China. She had no accent, he said – and the woman’s husband explained that it was because she came to the U.S. as a girl of about 10. Before you reach puberty, he said, your brain is much more adaptive and flexible, and able to learn new things much more readily. His point was, essentially: You’re way past puberty, Mike – so don’t get your hopes up!
Come on, really!? Talk about unscientific, anecdotal evidence. There are plenty of stories of golf pros who didn’t take up the game until relatively later in life. Perhaps the most successful is Larry Nelson, who didn’t swing a golf club in earnest until age 21. He was introduced to golf by an Army buddy after coming home from Vietnam in 1968, broke 100 his first time out of the gate, and was breaking 70 in less than a year. In 1973, amazingly, just five years later, he qualified for the PGA Tour, where he would claim ten victories during his career, including three majors (the PGA Championship in 1981 and ’87; and the U.S. Open in 1983). He also won 19 times on the Champions (Senior) Tour.
More recently there’s Y.E. Yang, who famously beat Tiger Woods down the stretch in the 2009 PGA Championship. He didn’t start to play golf until age 19. Yes, I know – 19 or even 21 is not the same as 47! But my goal is not to beat Tiger in a major championship, either. Breaking 90 left-handed would do nicely.
Speaking of goals, one of mine was to avoid setting one – other than to give it 109 percent (110 just feels out of reach) and see what happens. But it was difficult not to think of a target score. In October, very early in the process (before I had even ordered a wedge!), I wrote in my journal: “Somewhere in my head I think I ought to be breaking 100 by next summer. Maybe breaking 90 by fall. I don’t know what I’m basing that on, but that seems doable to me for some reason.”
Yeah, well, we’ll just see about that! Is 47 too old to start this process?
To help answer that question, I arranged to speak with Dr. Bobby Hart, a retired professor of “Motor Learning” from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UW-M), former coach, and avid golfer. She had been one of my wife’s professors while she was in school (Elizabeth has a Master’s degree in Human Kinetics from UW-M). We met for breakfast. I had French toast.
            The first thing she did was confirm that this would be harder to do as an adult. My 47-year-old brain, she explained, lacks the “neuro-plasticity” it had in my youth – which is basically the same as calling me an “old dog” and telling me not to expect to learn any new tricks any time soon. More of my dreams – dashed!
            And then there’s the whole left-handed thing. Because I’m not just an old dog learning something new. I’m learning to do something familiar using my opposite hand. So she told me about research being done with stroke victims, those who lose much of the use of one or the other side of their body. It’s called “constraint-induced therapy,” she explained. In order to help restore motor function in their “bad” arm, for instance, patients are restrained from using their “good” arms at all. This forces them to use the bad arm much more than they otherwise would be inclined to – which in turn forces the brain to start building new neuro-pathways where the old ones have been damaged.
“The results are mixed, however, because most strokes occur in older adults,” Dr. Hart explained. “But there have been some experiments done with very young stroke patients.”
In those studies, when their good hand or leg is restrained, the children “improve their skill with their affected limb quite dramatically.” But again, the key difference is that these patients – and their brains – are much younger.
“The neuro-plasticity of the child is much greater [than in an adult]. But I think that the potential for the older adult learner is that you would have to really severely restrict function in order to change, basically, the brain-wiring – which is what’s really going on.”
“So what you’re saying is … I should strap my right-hand down in order to train my left hand to work better?” I replied.
“Well, I think for you it’s what you suggested, that you may have to give up playing golf right-handed pretty completely.”
            Eureka! So I was right – at least about something: that in order to maximize my left-handed learning potential, I should stop playing golf right-handed completely. It was nice to have that idea confirmed by a real-life scientist. Maybe my brain is still a little more neuro-plastic after all! Or maybe it’s true what they say about blind squirrels and nuts.
            But it looks like my not-quite-fresh-as-a-daisy brain is going to make this challenge a little harder. But … I already know how to play golf – sort of. Won’t that make it easier for me to learn these “new” skills on the left-hand side? Or will all those bad habits I have outweigh whatever good feelings or habits I’m able to carry over?
            “I think the good habits have an advantage,” Dr. Hart replied. “There’s a loosely understood phenomenon called ‘reminiscence.’ You know your first day out in the spring, and you get up there and you hit this shot, and it’s like where did that come from? It’s beautiful, let’s have another!”
            “Yes, yes, I do know that feeling!” I said. “It happens to me all the time. In fact, I’ve often said that my first round of the year is usually one of my best. Well, maybe the first nine – or the first three holes, anyway. It tends to go downhill fast after that.”
“That’s reminiscence,” she said. “The strong good habit has been reinforced more than the many variations of that. A metaphor would be a path across the vacant lot. You take that straight shot [across the vacant lot] a lot, so you wear it down. Then you can go lots of other ways when you’re wrong, but the paths don’t get reinforced quite so many times.”
And it’s the same with the pathways in your brain – I get it! Hmm … well, that presumes I do it right more often than I do it wrong. But it seems to make sense, and it lines up with my experience. It also lines up with what I’ve read about the mental aspects of golf (which we’ll discuss more in Chapter 9), regarding the body’s tendency to do what your brain is visualizing – for better or worse.
But I keep going back to the age thing. How big a factor is that going to be?
“I think it’s pretty big,” she said. “You can look at it on a number of levels. Regarding the mental aspects: If you’re focused and disciplined and clear in your goals, there’s probably an advantage to all of your experience that will help. But the fact that you’re not as strong, you’re not as flexible, you’re not as quick, you’re not as neurally flexible in your brain … I think those things are clearly disadvantages.”
Gee, thanks, Doc! What are you going to tell me next, that my mother doesn’t love me as much as she used to? (Actually, I think that’s true. I used to think I was my mom’s favorite, but ever since I got married, I’ve had the distinct impression that I’m now second on the list!)
All-in-all it wasn’t a particularly encouraging discussion. But I wasn’t really expecting her to dispel any of the concerns I had about the challenges ahead – I was expecting her to confirm them. Which she did, quite clearly: This is not going to be easy!
But she did give me at least one nice positive thought to hang onto. She explained that when she was a tennis coach, she would sometimes experiment by teaching her beginning students backhand first.
“I’m pretty convinced that worked better,” she said. “Because that natural motion of opening, of extension [in a backhand stroke], is easier than coming across the body. But people don’t feel more comfortable that way. We’re much more comfortable with the muscles on the front of our body than the muscles on the back of our body, I believe. There are a whole lot of ‘frequent use’ kind of issues there. So people didn’t like that. But I’m pretty convinced that it was good for them [to learn backhand first].”
So there’s that – encouraging because a “backhanded” golf swing (as Bob Charles calls it) is so similar in some respects to a backhand stroke in tennis. And if Dr. Hart’s tennis students could pick it up more easily than a forehand stroke, maybe – just maybe – that means there’s hope for a broken-down old right-handed golfer to learn a backhanded golf swing.
And the French toast? Delicious.

Meanwhile, friends were still weighing in on what they thought of the book project. One of the early supporters was Mike “Scruffy” Neuses, a friend from high school, and part of the “White Lake Classic” gang we’ll talk much more about later. He wrote in an e-mail:
“I still think [the book is] a GREAT idea and I'm glad you are pursuing it.  Even if you don't make any $$$ on the book it will still be a worthwhile adventure. When I told Rob I thought it was a good idea he looked at me like I had 5 eyes. I think he was expecting me to pooh pooh the idea but I think it's a real winner. The hard part will be finishing the book. The finishing part will be the time consuming and drudgery part of the project – and you aren't known as a closer.”
Even though he put a little smiley-face icon after it, I wasn’t sure how to take the “closer” remark. I appreciated the support, of course – it meant a lot. But he had struck a small nerve. It’s true that I’ve sometimes had trouble “finishing the job.” And while it’s true that … you know, I think I’ll finish that thought later.

As lesson #2 approached, I continued to take stock of my little aches and pains. My hamstring wasn’t an issue, but my side was still a little sore, as was my right thumb. But neither seemed to be affecting anything, so I pressed on.
It was now mid-November, but the gorgeous weather was still hanging on. I continued to sneak over to Brown Deer as often as possible, but I also was starting to make more use of the Lefty Dome at the office. Finding time to practice at lunchtime was usually pretty easy; but carving out larger chunks at other times of day was already proving challenging.
I was determined to stick to my commitment of putting family ahead of the book, so when Elizabeth called the Monday after the lesson asking if I wanted to get together for lunch, I said “sure” – even though I had been planning to practice. I’ll just practice this evening instead, I thought to myself. Problem is, even after more than 10 years of marriage, Elizabeth still can’t read my thoughts.
That evening, a friend of Jack’s stayed for dinner. When it was time to take him home, I volunteered. I told Elizabeth I would drop him off and then head for the Lefty Dome. “Are you planning to take Jack?” she asked, sounding slightly irritated.
“No,” I said carefully. “Why?”
“Because I was planning to go see my Dad tonight.”
Hmm … seems as though she also thought I could read her thoughts?
Elizabeth’s dad, Bill, 82, had been in a rehab facility following a recent hospital stay, and Elizabeth liked to visit him as often as possible. I was torn. I really wanted to practice! But I also felt very guilty about potentially making things more difficult for Elizabeth to see her dad. After a few uncomfortable moments she said, “You go. I’ll take Jack along to see my dad.”
“No, that’s O.K.,” I replied. “You go. I’ll take Jack with me or stay home.”
No, you go. No, you go. Back and forth it went, two would-be martyrs in a heroic stand-off. Finally I said, “Look, how about if I take Jack’s friend home then head over to the office to hit balls. I won’t stay very long. You take Jack to see your dad, and I’ll come by in a little while. We’ll all have a visit, then I’ll take Jack home and then you can stay as long as you want.”
Perfect. That’s what we did and it worked out great. “Balance,” says Mr. Myiagi in The Karate Kid. It’s all about balance.
My 30-minute practice session that evening went pretty well. I hit mostly 9-irons into the blanket on the wall, concentrating on rhythm and smoothness. Coach Carl had told me to slowly count “one-and-two” in my head as I swing to keep a smooth and steady tempo. But I decided instead I was going to say “Er-nie Els” – because I once heard (six-time major winner) Nick Faldo say about him during a golf telecast: “It’s no wonder his tempo is so good, he’s got the perfect name for it. Instead of saying ‘one-and-two’ as he swings he can say ‘Er-nie Els’!”
It’s kind of silly, but it works. And there’s certainly no harm in putting thoughts of Ernie Els’s fluid swing into your head while you practice.
I continued to practice indoors all week, trying to be ready for Lesson #2. I really wanted to show Coach I had made progress! But it continued to be hard for me to stay focused. I realized that for me, hitting balls for more than 30 – or maybe 45 –minutes can become counter-productive. If I lose my focus, I stop thinking about what I’m doing, and then I risk ingraining bad habits instead of good ones. So I resolved to practice for shorter periods of time, but more often.
Still, I also knew that repetition – as tedious as it sometimes seemed – was very important for me at this stage. My LH swing still did not feel that natural – and it would only become natural by repeating it over and over and over again. Coach Carl once told me that he spent an entire winter in Ohio swinging a club for an hour a day in his mother’s bedroom (the only room in the house with high ceilings). Not hitting balls, mind you; just swinging a club. The following summer he won the Ohio State Amateur.
My tendency, however, was to want to hit a few good shots, think to myself, “O.K., I got it,” and then move onto something new. But at my lesson that Saturday, Coach Carl gave me some words that would help remind me going forward how important it is to keep doing things over and over.
“An amateur practices until he gets it right,” he told me, “but a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”
That’s a big difference. And clearly, my attitude in life to that point had been very “amateurish.” If I really wanted to get good at left-handed golf, I would need to adopt a more-professional approach.
Overall, that second lesson went very well. We started by revisiting a few things from the first lesson: grip, rhythm, set-up, balance, etc. He told me that one of the hardest things for a beginning golfer is just getting the ball into the air consistently, and that I’m already doing a very good job of that. A good sign. He said it’s important to let the momentum of the swing do that work, but most people try to push the ball into the air instead of letting the club lift it.
“It’s swing versus hit,” he said. “Let the weight of the club lift the ball.”
Overall, we seemed to be painting a picture of fluidity: a smooth, rhythmic motion that just happens to come in contact with a small white ball placed in its path. It’s kind of like … picture a limber Amish man swinging a scythe back and forth cutting wheat, not a muscle-bound circus roustabout pounding a tent stake with a sledge hammer.
One thing I had to “un-learn” was the idea of what’s called a “one-piece takeaway.” This is a concept taught by many professionals, but that others, including Coach Carl, don’t believe in. In a nutshell, it involves taking the club back with your shoulders, arms, and wrist staying in “one piece,” without breaking your wrists until near the top of the backswing. The wrists then remain cocked on the downswing until just before impact.
The countering viewpoint, which Coach Carl teaches, is that the takeaway should more closely mirror the downswing – that your wrists start to break (or, more correctly, rotate) as soon as you begin taking the club back.
This was not a difficult adjustment – largely, I think, because everything was new on the LH side anyway. It was a new motion, but I was doing it on a new side, so there was no bad habit to break.
Another new concept was how to properly engage my lower body in the swing – which is not something I did well as a right-hander. When you watch professionals on TV swing a golf club, they all finish in roughly the same position: with their arms and club in the air, their hips rotated so their belt buckle faces the target line, their back foot rotated with the toe on the ground, the heel lifted high, and the sole facing away from the target.
As a right-hander, my swing was all arms and swaying hips, with little to no rotation and virtually no leg- or foot-work. But Coach showed me how to push toward the target line with my back knee, so that on my follow-through the natural momentum resulting from a good rotation would cause my heel to come up naturally. If everything works together properly, the result is a nice “pose” position on the finish – “As Seen on TV.”
But the tendency I would continue to fight was to lift my heel as an afterthought. I would swing the club and then lift my heel, flexing my knee away from my body. The right way is to drive my back knee down the target line (toward my front knee), letting the natural momentum of my rotation pull my heel up off the ground. That is, that “heel up” position should happen naturally as a result of a good full turn.
Mostly we worked on tempo and rhythm. And balance. And eliminating tension – all the same stuff we worked on last week. At one point I told Coach I felt like I had about five swing thoughts in my head, fighting with each other.
He replied by saying, “OK, let’s go back to the three thoughts [that I told you earlier]. First of all is set-up. Second is our balance. Next is our motion. Once you can get the first two out of the way, all you want to think about is the club swinging.”
Relax, relax, relax. Tempo, tempo, tempo. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Easier said than done, right?!
Somewhere toward the middle of the lesson, things were going really well and I started to get excited – even a bit “giddy,” as I wrote in my journal. Trouble is, that sense of excitement tends to work against my relaxation and makes me want to swing harder. And then things fall apart.  I explained to Coach that this happens to me frequently on the course.
“You don’t have a franchise on that!” he replied.
We wrapped things up with a discussion about not “separating” my hands from the swing. What he means by that is making sure my shoulders, arms, and hands all function as a unit. “Big muscles move small muscles,” he reminded me. And when I try separate may hands by focusing on using them to hit the ball instead of swinging through it, I start having problems.
“I feel like I made good progress today!” I said.
“Oh, you did. You’re doing great,” he replied. “Outstanding.”
I grinned. It’s always nice to end on a high note.

Back at home, excitement was building for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. And by “excitement” I mean tension and drama. Elizabeth’s brother John had been staying in our spare room in the basement while he figures out some things with his wife. But on Sunday my brother, who goes by “Fritz” (he won’t acknowledge his real first name), flew in from California to stay with us a few days before we all drive down to Illinois to visit my mom, my sister, and her family for Thanksgiving.
We only have the one spare room, though there’s a futon in the basement family room and plenty of room for an extra guest for a few days (the single bathroom is the bigger concern!). But John, fearing he had overstayed his welcome already, bailed out before Fritz arrived. We’re not sure where he went, but he didn’t go home. We’re kind of worried about him and it sucks.
Meanwhile, the idea of spending a week with my brother was making me tense. It’s not that we don’t get along, but we’re very different. In nearly every conceivable way. It’s hard to find things we can talk about without arguing. As kids we fought about the stupidest things – like whether Rocky or Star Wars was the superior movie. These days, movies are about the only thing we can talk about. On Thanksgiving we discovered we can’t even talk about e-books; that is, whether they will ever completely replace paper books. Somehow, the discussion got heated, and in about three seconds built into a brief flurry of shouting – followed by an abrupt and awkward silence. It was awful. Everyone in the room, and no one knew quite what to say. It was Jack, bless his sweet little heart, who broke the tension a few moments later: “Wow, I’ve never seen that happen before!” In retrospect, it seems pretty hilarious.
The point is, it was a chaotic time at home, which didn’t leave me well prepared for lesson #3 the following weekend. As I wrote in my journal, it was “kinda ugly! Started out great but then absolutely lost it! It was weird, frustrating, discouraging.”
For one thing, I was still struggling with the idea that my hands should not control my swing. My old swing was all about my hands. But Coach Carl was teaching me that my hands should be primarily passive. That is, they should primarily be acting as a hinge as my body, shoulders, and arms do the swinging. It was a tough idea to absorb.
“But how do I aim the clubhead if not with my hands?” I wondered. With my old swing I had a strong sense of my hands guiding the clubhead through the ball, in the right direction and with the clubface at the right angle (not that it necessarily worked that well!). But with the new, LH swing, I felt I had no control at all in that regard.
But Coach explained that it’s all in the repeatability. If I line up properly, with everything positioned properly, and the clubface square to the target line, then swing through the ball with a repeatable motion, I will be able to trust that the clubface will return to the same position at impact.
It seemed foreign to me, but I had vowed to trust Coach Carl, so that’s what I was going to do.
(Upon reflection, I think this is an example of something that would not have worked if I had just tried to “fix” my RH swing. It would have been harder to trust the new idea, because there certainly would have been a period where my results suffered before they got better. And I’m not at all confident I would have had the patience to stick with it until I saw results. It would have been too frustrating to go out and play – the minute things started going south I would have reverted to old habits.)
For a while, it was working great! I started hitting some really nice shots, and I swear I heard Coach Carl chuckle once or twice in appreciation. And then it all went to pot. Information overlaod, I think was the culprit. I started thinking too much, about too many things – and probably again started to swing too hard. Suddenly I started shanking everything – hitting the ball on the heel/shaft of the clubface, sending it shooting off at a sharp angle away from me. It’s an embarrassing miss, and a tough thing to get out of once you start.
I went from grooving it to feeling totally lost in the blink of an eye. As my frustration grew, my brain went into overdrive and the tension in my swing went through the roof. The result was shank after shank after shank. I was just about ready to cry.
Finally, Coach Carl told me to shut it down. It was almost time to quit anyway, and I think sometimes it’s best just to cut your losses and try again later.
I knew this was all part of the process, that there would be “days like this.” But it felt like my first real setback. I shook Coach’s hand, packed up my clubs, put on my coat and walked out into the dreary December day with my head down and my confidence in pieces.

1 comment:

  1. Well after a long wait particularly for me as I was bit impatient about it, finally got the chapter 5. It was a good rise of the climax and the story line as well.