“There is no similarity between golf and putting;
they are two different games, one played in the air,
and the other on the ground.”
and the other on the ground.”
– Ben Hogan
For my money, Ben Hogan is the greatest golfer of all time – if you measure the man at the peak of his prowess: 1948; 1950-’53 (I give Hogan a medical exemption in 1949; more about that later). During that stretch, Hogan won eight of the 12 major championships he played in, never once finishing outside the top 10. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider the man hated putting. So much so he considered it another game entirely. “Putting is not golf,” was his attitude.
Yet, if Hogan had devoted any effort at all to “that other game” – even a tenth of what he devoted to ball-striking – it’s almost unfathomable to think about all the tournaments he might have won. Could anyone ever have beaten him?
Hogan’s answer to his inadequate putting was to simply hit the ball closer to the hole. According to legend (and as reported in James Dodson’s amazing Ben Hogan: An American Life), this suggestion came from his wife:
On one occasion about this time, after coming close but faltering yet again and bitterly wondering aloud to his bride, “Why the hell can’t I make more birdies, Val?” …
“Why, Ben,” she supposedly replied calmly, “why don’t you just hit it closer to the hole?”
Of course, it was a different game back then. Byron Nelson writes in his autobiography (appropriately titled, Byron Nelson: an Autobiography) that pros in general didn’t work much on their putting. He attributed this to the wildly inconsistent greens and putting conditions encountered on tour in his day. They were certainly much slower and bumpier than the billiard-table-smooth greens pros play on today. Putting back then involved a lot of guesswork, Nelson said, and “it just didn’t pay to spend a lot of time on putting.”
Today, however, the axiom “Drive for show and putt for dough” is alive and well. So I don’t think I’ll be able to afford neglecting “that other game” as I re-learn the game as a lefty. In fact, I intend to start there.
I’m pretty sure legendary teacher Harvey Penick would approve. In his famous Little Red Book, when talking about teaching kids the game, he advocates starting at the hole (with putting) and working your way out (with chipping, then pitching, etc.):
Golf should be learned starting at the cup and progressing back toward the tee.
I’m talking about with children. The same thing applies to adult beginners, but adults think that is too simple. An adult beginner – especially a man – thinks he’s not getting his money’s worth if you ask him to spend an hour sinking short putts. He wants to pull out his driver and smack it, which is the very last thing he will learn if he comes to me.
If a beginner tries to learn the game at the tee and move on toward the green, postponing the short game until last, this is one beginner who will be lucky ever to beat anybody.
Jim Flick, in Flick on Golf, advocates a similar approach. This is how I’m trying to teach my son Jack, now 9. When I take him to the driving range (which at this point he actually prefers to playing par-3 golf; go figure), he’s content to hit only a few dozen balls before moving to the putting green, where he happily chips and putts for as long as I let him.
I like this idea. Plus, though the thought of taking a full left-handed swing seems preposterous at this point, putting left-handed seems within the realm of the possible. So I resolve to putt, putt, putt, then putt some more until my left-handed stroke feels as natural as my right. By then, I theorize, the left-handed motion will feel natural enough to help me start chipping, then pitching, etc.
If I’m patient, it may be months before I even start thinking about taking a full left-handed swing. Oops, I just thought about it. Couldn’t help it.
Step one, of course, is to acquire a left-handed putter. Easy enough for many people, I suppose. Difficult for me, given my deeply ingrained stinginess. Buying a left-handed putter, even a cheap one, to me is a big commitment. So, one beautiful late-September Sunday evening, when I see a left-handed putter for sale at the driving range pro shop, for the low, low price of just $20, I still can’t pull the trigger.
Jack is outside on the putting green having a ball. I’m inside pacing a hole in the carpet near the bag of bargain-bin flat sticks. I take it out. I put it back. I take it out again and put it back again. I take it out and fashion a crude left-handed putting grip and stroke it back and forth a few times. I put it back again.
It’s new, with the shrink wrap still on the head. But it’s a cheapie – a “Hippo” brand Ping Anser-style knock-off. It’s only $20, I tell myself. Buy it! But 20 bucks is 20 bucks, I counter. What if I buy it and decide I don’t like it – or change my mind about left-handed golf? Twenty dollars is dinner for three at Culver’s!
Hating myself for being such a wimp, I shove the putter back in the bag and go back outside, where I sit and sulk for a while before convincing Jack it’s time to go home (not an easy task).
At home I tell Elizabeth about my dilemma and she gives me a look that says, “What, are you an idiot? Just buy it already!”
You see, my lovely wife and I have very different approaches to this type of purchase decision. While I tend to think, “I’d better not buy this, in case we don’t need it,” she thinks, “I should buy this, in case we need it.” To say more would be to risk our carefully crafted marital bliss, so I’ll leave it at that.
The next day at work I waste a good part of the morning thinking about that putter. I should go back there at lunch and buy it, I think. But it’s a 15-minute drive each way – how much gas is that? It would be silly to make a special trip like that just to buy a $20 putter. Then I have a better idea: the worldwide interweb. Within minutes I’ve identified an Odyssey Two-Ball knockoff (I’ve always liked the look of those) I can have delivered to my front door for $19.98 – two cents cheaper than the Hippo! And no sales tax or gas usage!
Three hours later, with beads of sweat forming on my brow and my hand beginning to cramp from holding it over the “submit your order” button, I send the order on its way. The quest has officially begun.
The putter is slated to arrive in about a week, the first week of October. In the meantime, I’m already crafting a strategy for learning to properly play with my new toy. One of the keys to this project is do things right this time around. That is, re-learn my golfing skills in a proper and orderly fashion, not just by slapping balls around and figuring out what seems to work. But I haven’t yet lined up an instructor, and I don’t want to wait. My hope is to spend the winter months honing my lefty skills indoors, so that by the time spring rolls around I’ll be ready to hit the course.
As it happens, the issue of Golf Digest I just received has a special 30-page putting section, so I decide to start there. And the place to start with putting, of course, is with the grip.
I’ve always been a pretty solid putter. And for as long as I can remember I’ve used what is basically a looser version of my interlocking golf grip: I hold the putter grip a little more in the palm of my left hand, and a little more the fingers of my right. It’s a bit unorthodox, but it’s comfortable and seems to work well. Almost immediately I had the thought that maybe I should just keep this same grip and putt cross-handed as a lefty. But I dismissed that idea right away. That would feel like “cheating,” I decided, as the whole idea here is to start over and learn from the ground up.
So I consulted several sources to get the low-down on a “proper” putting grip. What I discovered is that how you hold the putter isn’t really that important. Putting guru Dave Stockton puts it this way: “Grip the putter any way you like, as long as it doesn’t hinder your left [my right] hand’s role in the stroke. But make sure to grip the club in your fingers.”
After all, you see all manner of different putting grips on the PGA Tour (though the more unusual ones typically belong to golfers who have struggled on the greens). But one idea that seems to make a lot of sense, is keeping your hands as close to side-by-side as you can. This helps keep your shoulders level and would seem to keep everything more symmetrical on the backswing and follow through. You even sometimes see extra wide putter grips that allow the player to grip the putter with their hands level, one on each side of the shaft. Not for me, though – I would never want to use anything that would draw such attention to myself. And who knows what one of those extra-wide grips might set me back!
After a little bit of experimentation using my regular putter, I settle on what you might call a double-overlapping grip, with the pinky and ring finger of my left hand nestled in the gaps between the index, middle, and ring fingers of my right. It feels pretty natural, and allows me to keep my shoulders a little more level than usual.
I find it’s useless, however, as much as I try, to hit left-handed putts with my right-handed putter – a cheapo Dunlop heel-shafted mallet I paid $10 for (used) many years ago, which I love and hate to give up! So I settle in by the front door and wait for the UPS man (as played on TV by Kevin James) to come. It’s a long wait.
Finally, on October 4, 2010 (a day that will live in revelry), I found a golf-club sized box on the doorstep when I arrived home from work. My new putter was here! I half-expected to find a note of congratulations from Kevin James, who surely must understand my joy, but it was not to be.
Immediately I was taken aback by the “geometry” of the new club. I had read that putters with the shaft more in line with the center of the face were better for the straight-back and straight-through stroke I typically try to make. This is not, however, something I normally think much about; I mostly just hit it. In fact, I’m generally of the mind that putters are putters – or should be. And that far too much thought, effort, and money is put into putter choice, as evidenced by my success with my $10 flat stick. Not to mention Jim Furyk winning the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus in 2010 using a used putter he picked up in a pro shop for 39 bucks.
Putting is simple – or at least it should be. Yips, something I’ve never had a problem with, are generally caused by over-thinking. So I’ll need to be careful to not start thinking too much now.
What better way to avoid this than to start hitting some putts right away? So I grabbed Jack and headed to nearby Brown Deer Golf Course, a Milwaukee County track that was formerly home to the U.S. Bank Championship, nee the Greater Milwaukee Open (may it rest in peace).
I have fond memories of this course, even though I’ve rarely actually played it (it’s more expensive than most other public courses in the area). It’s where PGA Tour journeyman Skip Kendall, who grew up down the road in Fox Point, honed his skills as a young man. It’s also where I once witnessed – from a distance of about 10 feet – the muscular Jim Thorpe splinter his driver shaft on his downswing.
Back when I was young, carefree, and single – with vacation days to spare – I used to volunteer as a marshal at the GMO. It was awesome – though not recommended to anyone who doesn’t really, really enjoy watching golf. Our ranks were mostly comprised of genial retired guys, many of whom have been sitting in the same spot at the same hole for years (just during the tournament, I mean; not continuously).
But I was a young (by comparison) renegade, and always requested to be moved around each day. And on this particular Friday morning I was assigned to work the tee at the par-4 12th, a lonely outpost in a back corner of the course – especially at such an early hour. In the presence of perhaps a half-dozen spectators, I watched in awe as Thorpe and his huge forearms strode to the tee box and prepared to swing away.
We privileged few then watched in amazement as the graphite shaft (no doubt somewhat primitive by today's standards) on Thorpe's driver splintered on his downswing. The clubhead made glancing contact and the ball squirted about 45 degrees to the right, traveling perhaps 50 yards into a grove of trees. If there had been any kind of a crowd there, it surely would have struck someone.
While the players and caddies scratched their heads and tried to figure out what happened, I in my stylish marshal shirt and matching cap, along with a few enthusiastic fans, scurried to see where the ball ended up. As we scanned this forgotten area of the course – surely only some weekend hacker had ever hit a ball there before – one of my helpers gave a quiet shout: "Here it is!" I looked up, in horror, to see him proudly holding the ball, apparently assuming Thorpe would be entitled to some sort of equipment-malfunction do-over.
“Don't pick it up!” I whisper-yelled, prompting the perp to drop the ball immediately. Clearly, he respected my authority – or sensed and feared my rising panic.
As a deputized marshal, I was the law in those parts. I had sworn an oath (well, not really … but I vaguely recall signing some forms). Yet the last thing I ever wanted was to actually have to do something, especially if it could affect the course of play. Sure, holding up the little QUIET PLEASE sign gives one a feeling of power, but as Spider-Man says: "With great power comes great responsibility." And responsibility is something I've always shied away from (ask anyone!). Yet there I was with a situation on my hands.
So what did I do? I leapt into action – and by that I mean I kept my mouth shut. No one saw what happened, and if I had told someone, there would have been a delay. We might have had to summon a rules official, who would then have to find his way to our remote corner of the course and issue a judgment. My nightmare. Instead I assumed my well-practiced marshal stance: legs shoulder-width apart, arms raised, palms out in mock-authoritative fashion. Stand back, everyone! Marshal at work here! Everything's under control! Picture Barney Fife quieting a crowd on Main Street Mayberry – without the crowd.
After a moment, Thorpe, his forearms, and his caddy strode purposefully toward us. A bead of flop sweat rolled down my temple as I shushed the imaginary gallery, but Thorpe never even looked up. He made quick work of the matter, whacking the ball between some trees and into the fairway without much thought or fanfare. Almost as suddenly as it gathered, the storm passed.
Is there a penalty for unknowingly hitting a golf ball that a fan picked up, when the act was subsequently covered-up by a spineless marshal? If there is, Thorpe signed an incorrect scorecard that day and should be retroactively disqualified posthaste!
But I digress.
In addition to this storied history of marshal malfeasance and cover-ups, Brown Deer also has a nice big practice putting green out front, which is more or less open to the public. I say “more or less” because I’ve never actually asked; but I consider it so until I’m told otherwise. There’s also a nice chipping green with a large sand trap. A great place to practice your short game.
As Jack and I walked to the green my belly button was puckering and un-puckering in excitement (to quote the ever-quotable Hawkeye Pierce). Jack wandered off to practice his chipping (at least, I think that’s where he went; I kind of forgot about him, frankly) as I prepared to stroke my first left-handed putt. I expected those initial jabs to be awkward, and they certainly were. But what I did not anticipate was to have so much trouble lining up. In fact, this was the opposite of what I expected.
One of the key things I had discovered in my initial research was that your dominant eye has a lot to do with whether you’ll have more success as a left- or right-hander. The theory is that with your dominant eye closer to the hole, closer to the line of your shot, you get a better visual read on things. My right eye is clearly dominant, so I was looking forward to this enhanced view of life on the putting green.
This was not at all what I experienced.
I looked down at the putter, then up at the hole. Down at the putter, up at the hole. Down, up. Down, up. But there mysteriously seemed to be no relation between the two views! It was as though whatever synapses in my brain were responsible for connecting the two pictures had ceased to function. I had no idea whether I was aiming at the hole.
This was a very discouraging development, but I tried not to panic. This was, after all, my very first foray into the sinister side of golf. Perhaps my brain is just so used to processing data from the mirror image of what I was now seeing that it would just take a while to recalibrate things. Patience, please.
I decided to concentrate on shorter putts, about five feet, and think primarily about the stroke, not my alignment. I also practiced hitting putts using only my right hand, as suggested in that Golf Digest article. Repetition is going to be key, I reminded myself. Just ask Hogan, who honed his deadly ball-striking by spending countless hours “digging it out of the dirt,” as he put it – back when such a relentless practice routine was unheard of.
After a while Jack re-appeared (perhaps he was starting fires somewhere or throwing rocks at geese down by the pond) and I challenged him to a putting contest. He readily agreed – but here’s the thing about competing with Jack: He loves competition and loves making up games. I get a huge kick out of his creativity in this regard, but it tends to manifest itself in constantly changing rules. More accurately, he tends to add new rules as the game progresses.
Conveniently, the new rules always seem to be to his advantage. My attempts to explain the inherent unfairness of this, however, fell on deaf ears. So after just a few holes of competition (and my gentle but continuous objections to his ongoing regulatory manipulations), Jack decided to end the contest and return to practicing on his own. We shook hands, as good sportsmanship dictates, and went our separate ways. We kept at it until darkness made it all but impossible to continue and then went home to a delicious late dinner of macaroni and cheese. Extra juicy, just how he likes it.
Over the next few weeks, I spent most of my lunch hours on the Brown Deer practice green – the course is less than ten minutes from my house and three minutes from where I work. Fortunately, we had been experiencing a lengthy stretch of beautiful fall weather. It was bliss.
I experimented quite a bit with different techniques and different practice approaches. I had read that Jack Nicklaus is left-eye dominant, which makes him “cross-dominant”: right-handed, left-eyed. Again, this is said by some to be an advantage – and also now applies to me, as a right-eye dominant “lefty.” So I was very interested in what he has to say about alignment.
In Golf My Way, Nicklaus writes that it’s important to keep your eyes directly over the line of the putt, though not necessarily over the ball. In fact, the Golden Bear finds that he prefers to line up with eyes slightly behind the ball, which he feels gives him a better angle on alignment.
I also experimented with using an open stance, with my feet fairly close together – an approach I used with much success years ago. At some point I realized that I was having better luck getting long chip shots close to the hole than long putts – mostly an issue of distance control. I theorized that perhaps it was my stance, which was quite open for chipping. Maybe, I thought, opening my shoulders and facing more toward the hole might give me a better visual sense of the putt’s distance. So I tried using this stance on long putts and it worked like a charm. For a while I even used it on short putts.
I didn’t think about it then, but it makes sense to me now that giving my right/dominant eye a clearer view of my line is probably what helped me control my distance better.
I played around with this approach for a while left-handed, and it maybe, kinda, sorta seemed to help. But I decided to abandon it anyway, reasoning that I would rather develop a sound “conventional” stroke before resorting to any unorthodox practices.
It was also interesting to discover just how little I’m aware of my right-handed technique. Often, I would be standing over a putt and realize I had no idea where to position my hands, or the ball, or how much to tilt my shoulders, or whatever. Many times I resorted to assuming a right-handed stance in order to “remember” how I do things as a righty. Even so, what seemed natural as a righty often felt weird the other way, so I would do something different altogether.
After considerable experimentation, I settled on a set-up position that put my feet slightly farther apart than usual, the ball about two-thirds forward in my stance, my hands pressed forward, my shoulders slightly tilted, and my right eye looking straight down at the face of my putter.
I’m still not sure if it’s all technically “correct,” but it felt comfortable so I went with it.
As much as I enjoyed my noontime practice sessions, I often caught my mind wandering and my concentration lapsing as the reps piled up. I know from my nature that I would have to figure out ways to keep my practice interesting to stay productive. So I charted out a triangular three-hole course on the green. I would play it twice – once clockwise, once counter-clockwise – with three balls, which added up to 18 “holes” total. Each was a par-2, with distances of approximately 25, 30, and 35 feet, respectively.
My initial trips around this course were disastrous, accumulating 18-hole scores in the neighborhood of 9 over par. Over the course of a couple weeks, I managed to get my career best score down to -1. I celebrated by heading back to work.
As you might expect, I continued to have good days and bad days on the green. At times I got very frustrated. Other times I would let me ego get away from me a little bit and I’d start fantasizing about how good of a left-handed putter I’d already become! Occasionally, I’d think to myself, “I’ll bet I’m already a better putter than _____,” filling in the name of one of my less-proficient golfing buddies. (Don’t worry, Keith, I won’t say who!)
It’s terrible, I know. But I’m only human. Besides, the real test won’t really come until there’s a real score on the line in a real round on a real course. Which I’m not planning to have happen until spring.
One thing I would do when my stroke seemed to leave me was to “PLK,” which stands for “Putt Like a Kid.” It’s what James Dodson’s father advised him to do in Final Rounds, Dodson’s account of his and his dad’s golf trip to Scotland during the final months of his father’s life. Dodson describes his dad as one of the best putters he’s ever seen, and one of his key pieces of advice is to simply not over-think the process. Putt like you’re a carefree child, is his philosophy, and you’ll stroke the ball better and make a lot more putts.
It’s an idea that’s consistent with what Johnny Miller writes in I Call the Shots. It’s remarkable, he says, how many kids are off-the-charts awesome with the flat stick. Miller himself – a man who sometimes resorted to putting with his eyes closed later in his career – was one such “kid” who seemed to make everything as a young man. But it’s scary how many top pros seem to lose their putting strokes at some point in their careers. Miller was one. So was Palmer. And Tom Watson. Hogan – who never had a great stroke to start with – reached a point where he could barely make himself swing the putter late in his career. He would stand frozen over the ball for what seemed an eternity just waiting for – who knows what? For whatever feeling it was that gave him an ounce of confidence that he might make a simple five-footer.
It’s why you see so many belly putters and long putters and weird “claw” and cross-handed putting grips at the highest levels of professional golf. Especially on the over-50 Champions Tour (commonly known as the Senior Tour).
I’m 47. Is it bound to happen to me sooner or later? Is my putting fate sealed? I have no idea. But I do know this: The more I think about it the greater chance I’ll be afflicted. So it’s definitely a balance between trying to make sure I’m teaching myself good technique and not analyzing things so much that I’m no longer able to Putt Like a Kid. “Paralysis by analysis,” as they say.
So I made a point, every now and then, of trying not to think at all as I whacked the ball around the green. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn’t.
Dodson’s father also counseled him that he should concentrate on pulling the putter through the ball with his left hand. I was glad to read this, because it supports my proposition that perhaps your leading hand should be your dominant one. I later realized, however, that this approach is far from universally advocated. Nicklaus, for instance, writes in Golf My Way that putting is primarily a right-handed stroke.
Dave Stockton, on the other hand, writes (referring, of course, to right-handed strokes): “Lead with your left …. The left hand is the direction hand, and it’s just as important as the right.”
Confused? Don’t worry, putting, the simplest part of golf, has confused some of the world’s greatest golfers.
To help with my alignment issues, I relented and tried drawing a straight line on the ball with a marker, and used that to identify my line when placing the ball on the green. I have seen many pros, including Tiger, use this method, but it always seemed a little bit like cheating to me. Not literally, it’s quite legal – but it seems like it ought to be against the rules. Something akin to using an outside aid, like a range finder.
I mean really … what’s the difference, in principle, between pointing a line on your ball down your intended path and placing a tiny blade of grass or something a foot away to serve as a target? The latter is definitely illegal; perhaps the former ought to be. But since it isn’t, and since Tiger does it, I decided to give it a try – and immediately started making everything.
Holy smokes! I thought. This is amazing! Why doesn’t everybody do this? It works because, once you place the ball properly, all you have to do is make sure the line on your putter lines up with the line on the ball – and then make a good stroke. So simple, so effective. It doesn’t help in distance control, of course – at least not directly. But by freeing your mind of one thought – “Am I lined up properly?” – it opens up brain space to think about your distance control.
Unfortunately, the magic of this particular technique turned out to be made of W.O.O.D., which is Johnny Miller’s term for “Works Only One Day.” When I came back the next day, it was still helpful, but not as dramatically as when I first tried it. I also realized that I wasn’t helping me learn to line up my putts visually. And it’s time-consuming. Slow play is a growing problem in golf, and if everybody used this technique things would only get worse.
So I decided on a compromise: Use the technique to line up first putts, but then “eyeball” the putts following. Then I decided to scrap it altogether; it wasn’t helping me learn. Whether I ultimately decide to use it in “competition,” in whatever form that may take, remains to be seen.
One thing I find interesting about life on the practice green – aside from the increasing concentration of goose poop as the season approached its end – is how much it’s like an elevator. Or a men’s room (goose poop or no). Words are seldom exchanged. But one day, I heard a man comment – as he and two friends waited for their fourth to show up – “Is there anything more boring than practicing putting?”
In my “previous life” as a golfer I probably would have agreed with him. Warming up for a round was the only time I ever “practiced” putting. But so far, as a lefty, I’d been spending nearly every day at lunch, weather permitting, doing just that. Have I really turned over a new leaf? Time will tell. It could still turn out like vet school: a brief period of dedication followed by gradually diminishing returns. But I have a good feeling so far. As monotonous as practicing putting sometimes seems, it beats the heck out of studying biochemistry.
I did strike up a conversation on the putting green after work once – but only because he started it! Noticing that I was putting left-handed, he commented, “Hey, you’re doing that backwards!” Apparently, left-handers hear such comments more frequently than should be allowed in polite society. But it was a first for me. “Maybe that’s why it’s so hard,” I replied cheerfully.
It was only then that I noticed that he, too, was putting the wrong way ’round. Curious, and feeling a little less reserved than usual, I asked him if he was a true lefty or if he does other things right-handed. It turned out that swinging golf clubs and baseball bats are the only things he does left-handed. His father was a baseball player and a lefty, he said, and taught him to swing a bat left-handed. So when he took up golf later in life, going lefty seemed like the natural and obvious choice.
What are the odds, I thought, that the first left-handed golfer I would engage in conversation would be a natural righty? Maybe this phenomenon is more common than I realized.
Meanwhile, I started to think more about the “next step”; that is, moving from the putting green to the chipping green. In my mind, I would spend the winter chipping balls in the basement. But things were progressing nicely as October became November – and the weather continued to be remarkable. I wanted to take advantage of the chance to practice outside while I still could, so I started looking for a left-handed pitching wedge.
Again, price was an object. And pitching wedges, it turns out, are primarily sold as part of a set of irons. Gap wedges, sand wedges, lob wedges, even “approach” wedges (which I’d never heard of before), could be bought singly, but I found nothing marked PW. Eventually I found a sand-wedge at a discount website that could be mine for about $23, including shipping. So I pulled the trigger (it was getting easier) and ordered it.
The next day, browsing again on the same site, I found a cheap gap wedge (between a pitching wedge and a sand wedge), which was closer to what I really wanted, so in a bold move of reckless fiscal irresponsibility, I ordered that one, too. A week later, I was the proud owner of two new left-handed wedges.
Again, I couldn’t wait to try them out. So I grabbed Jack and headed to Brown Deer. It was cold. And windy. And I mean really windy. Trees were bending sideways. Geese were flying backwards. Houses were falling on witches. But we had a blast. Jack especially.
But the golf was hard. In anticipation of this moment, I had already been working on a new grip. Right-handed, I use an interlocking grip (with my left index finger tucked in between my righty pinky and ring finger) – if only because that’s what my dad taught me. I never saw any reason to switch. Plus, it’s the grip Jack Nicklaus uses. And if it’s good enough for the Golden Bear ….
Later I learned that an interlocking grip is actually pretty uncommon, that an overlapping grip, a.k.a. the “Vardon grip,” is considered more standard. So in retooling for my switch to lefty I decided to trust Harry Vardon. As the only six-time winner of the British Open, he must have known something.
Again, I did a bunch of reading to get the lowdown. But in the end I decided to listen to Ben Hogan (why wouldn’t I?). In his famous and highly influential book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, Hogan spends the entire first chapter, 19 pages, extolling the importance of a proper grip. “The grip is the heartbeat of the action of the golf swing,” he writes. He then goes on to describe, in great detail, a proper overlapping golf grip.
The main thing I learned – and realized I’d been doing wrong for the last 40 years – is to hold the club more in your fingers than in your palm. I’d heard the old adage (perhaps from Sam Snead?) about holding the club as you would a baby bird – just tightly enough to keep it from flying out of your hands. But this is not something I’ve been successful putting into practice. Still, I can see how a lighter, more finger-based grip could help with touch and feel.
Hogan is a stern taskmaster. One of his instructions in the book (written in all caps), is:
TO GAIN A REAL ACQUAINTANCE WITH THIS PREPARATORY GUIDE TO CORRECT GRIPPING, I WOULD SUGGEST PRACTICING IT FIVE OR 10 MINUTES A DAY FOR A WEEK UNTIL IT BEGINS TO BECOME SECOND NATURE.
OKAY! I GET IT! NOW PLEASE STOP SHOUTING AT ME!!
But seriously, I have to practice my grip!? How do you practice a grip? But I suppose that just means gripping, ungripping, and regripping the club repeatedly in order to “gain a real acquaintance with” what a proper grip feels like.
Fortunately, I already had Jack’s old whacker* at my office as a keepsake. So I took it from the shelf and kept it by my desk, all the better to gain acquaintance with my new and improved left-handed grip.
(*A “whacker” is the equivalent of a modern-day child’s 7-iron. It is approximately 24 inches long with a lightweight metal head, a yellow shaft, and a narrow black grip. It is often the first real golf club given to a child, at about the age of four or five. The name is organically derived by the child himself, apparently as the result of the father repeatedly encouraging the child to “give it a good whack” with said club.)
So I was ready when it came time to hit the practice area with my new lefty wedges. Or so I thought. Again, as with the putting, there were a few surprises. An excerpt from my journal that day:
It was fun! Definitely weird, though, hitting with the lefty SW. Had to think about everything. Tried lots of things. Experimented with position in my stance and had best luck putting it farther back than I normally would. Had to stay on top of my grip to make sure I kept it in my fingers instead of my palm. … And harder than the first day of putting, that’s for sure. Was never really quite sure what to do with my wrists. They don’t seem to want to bend and flex in a manner similar to my right-handed swing. I had best luck when I kept them very stiff and didn’t try to hit far, or when I “flipped” the ball up in the air with my wrists, which doesn’t seem very correct. I had a hard time keeping my hands ahead of the ball as I would with a normal chip. Just felt weird all around. It was fun, but it was also discouraging in a way. It’s going to be hard, that’s for sure. Jack had a ball, as usual. We played until it was almost too dark to see, and even then Jack didn’t want to quit. Afterward we saw the empty parking lot and so I let Jack [sit on my lap and steer] for a while. A nice father-son evening.
(Don’t tell Jack’s mom about the steering! She doesn’t approve of that sort of thing.)
It was nearly Halloween by then, but the nice weather (other than that cold and windy first day with the wedges) had continued. And over the next several weeks I spent every lunch hour I could at the practice area. It was nice that because it was so late in the year, I usually had it all to myself.
I worked on a variety of things. I experimented with putting the ball in different positions in my stance – and generally settled on centered as the best option. Mostly I worked on chipping from the fringe, but occasionally I would move back and take more of a half-swing. The very short, chipping stroke was starting to feel fairly natural – but it was really just a big putting stroke. When I moved back and took a bigger swing, it still felt very strange. I had very little sense of where the clubhead was during any part of the swing.
At one point, when chipping from about 25 feet, I put all eight balls within two feet of the hole. Of course, hitting the same shot over and over like that can be pretty easy. But it helped with my confidence nonetheless. And just repeating that left-handed motion so many times helps it all feel more natural, a tiny bit at a time.
In some respect I was already ahead of schedule – though I was trying very hard not to have a schedule. About a month previously I wrote in my journal, “If I can hit spring time with a bit of feel for left-handed chipping and putting I think I’ll have accomplished something.” Well, here it was barely November and I felt like I had already accomplished that much. Not to sound over-confident, but things were shaping up very nicely indeed.
I also continued to think about a coach. I knew that to help me, a veritable nobody, sell this book idea it would need to be not just any coach, but someone with a reputation.
Not long after being graciously rejected in my quest by a couple of high-profile golf coaches, I found myself at a fundraising event for a co-worker of my wife’s. We sat next to her boss, Michael, an avid golfer. Elizabeth made me tell him about my book idea (she twisted my arm), and he asked if I had gotten a professional opinion on it. “Not yet,” I replied.
“You should call Carl Unis,” he said. “Here’s his number. Tell him I said to call, he’s an old family friend. A great guy.”
Carl Unis, I soon learned, is something of a local teaching legend. He was the head professional at nearby Brynwood Country Club for 23 years – which just happens to be where my wife worked as a lifeguard in high school. She remembered him, but didn’t remember much about him. I also learned that he not only played in, but made the cut at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol (one of Jack Nicklaus’s 18 professional major triumphs).
I called him cold (which is always hard for me), explained who I was, and asked him if I could send him some information about my book idea. “You could do that,” he replied. “Or, we could get together for lunch when I get back in town.”
“That would be great!” I said, trying hard not to sound like Peter Brady when it’s time to change. You know, from the excitement.
A couple of weeks later I found myself waiting nervously in the back room of the Silver Spring house, a restaurant/bar near where I work, for “Coach Carl” to arrive. At the appointed time, in walked the man I recognized from an online video.
After exchanging the requisite pleasantries, we sat down and started chatting. A moment later the waitress approached and asked for drink orders. “I’ll have an Arnold Palmer,” Coach Carl replied.
An Arnold Palmer? How perfect is that? I thought as a slight smile crossed my lips. I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.