Let the Real You Tee it up!

Very early on in our golfing development we start to construct an image of the type of golfer we think we are, or think we should be. It reflects itself in the way we strategise on course, the way we learn, the way we practice, even the way we interact with other golfers.

Sometimes we get it right, particularly in the case of the great champions. They are very true to their essential personalities. Two polar examples might be Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus. Jack was a methodical, risk adverse golfer, he cultivated a high soft landing fade which helped him eliminate one side of the golf course, hit a lot of greens  and focused on being the best lag putter he could be. His aim was to never “beat himself” with a bad decision or really bad miss. Essentially he wanted to outlast the other guys and beat them with relentlessly mistake free play. His style required patience and an ability to control his excitement level.  It worked for him, he had a Germanic disciplined mind, an analytical intellect and otherworldly reserves of patience. He was often accused of being tediously slow, but he swore that anytime he tried to play any differently his subconscious would rear up and beat him around the ears. 

Seve on the other hand always looked, from the first hole, like he was trying to deliver a fatal matadors sword thrust to the golf course and his opponents, every shot had “do or die” written all over it. When he won, he won in dramatic fashion. Witness his first British Open victory at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s in 1979 when he made birdie from an area reserved as a car park to the right of the sixteenth green and at St Andrews in 1984 when he repeatedly pumped the air after willing in a final birdie. When he lost it was equally dramatic, like dumping his second shot into the pond in front of the fifteenth green in the last round of the 1986 Masters.

On that occasion he lost to none other than Nicklaus who was staging a very out of character final round charge. Which brings us to another key element of finding, and being true, to the real you on the course. That day, for Nicklaus, when the putts started rolling in one after another and he became the aggressor instead of defender, I don’t think he questioned it for an instant. Instead he embraced the “new him” and rolled with it on to victory.

Yet how many times have you watched a fellow golfer, swinging freely and putting ferociously, play the first nine well below their handicap, only to totally change their tack and start prodding their tee shots and dollying their putts. How many times have we done it ourselves? Often we accept our bad play with equanimity telling ourselves we’re being “realistic”, but are actually less accepting of our good play feeling it’s “not the real us”.

It’s worth doing a bit of self analysis if you want to meet the true golfing you. When I was learning this game, it was the late seventies and I was greatly influenced by the aforementioned Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus. Not having been naturally gifted at other sports, and not realising that just by dumb luck I had stumbled across a sport I could actually excel at, I was convinced I had to learn to play golf with the same studious intensity my idol exhibited. For many years as soon as I hit the links I became this dour humourless grinder obsessed by technique. My modus operandi bore no relation to the rest of my life where I exhibited a mild attention deficit disorder coated with a sort of happy go lucky lunacy.

The giveaway was two things. Firstly, anytime I’d play a casual round on my own I’d saunter along happily humming to myself in a relaxed manner. I wouldn’t feel like I was concentrating, certainly not with anywhere near the same intensity I would in a competition round, but I usually hit the ball well and shot low numbers. Secondly as I got less and less time to play golf I would tell myself I was going out, “just to have fun” and over a period of time, with less practice and less serious focus my scores got better not worse. End result is I’ve realised late in my golfing life I’m much more of a Fred Couples than a Jack Nicklaus.

Trying, unsuccessfully, to adopt the persona of the days leading player is I think one of the best ways to ensure failure on the links. How many, otherwise genial fellows do you think there were trudging around stony faced and silent in the fifties when Ben Hogan was numero uno? Or trying to swing themselves off their feet and go for everything when John Daly was winning majors? Or doing ten swing drills and positional checks before every shot like Nick Faldo when he was world number one?

But even the greats can get themselves into trouble trying to be, and play like, someone their not.  Speaking of Ballesteros earlier reminds me of a story he tells in Natural Golf, his very aptly named book, and shows I think how the temptation to “bottle” good form can de-rail even the best. Seve recalls how, after a particularly good stretch of form,  his swing was functioning so perfectly he thought if he measured every aspect of his set-up like, ball position, width of stance, distance from the ball, etc, recorded it and replicated it, he would be able to hold his game at this state of perfection indefinitely. It was the case of an automatic trying to turn himself into an automaton, and it didn’t work.  Seve said that within two weeks he couldn’t hit a shot anywhere near his target although all his parameters were precisely what he had measured. He hadn’t , of course,  accounted for the minute changes in the body and mind that occur from day to day and force change upon us. He never tired that exercise again.

So, in summary, and in the strongest possible terms, I extol you to think carefully about who you are, and the way you do things away from the golf course and then determine to bring that person with you next time you venture out on the links.  


Recognise  your type and surrender to it

“Grinders” as the name suggests just keep going, for them it’s not about enjoying it, it’s about being the last man standing. Best grinding performance of all time? Tiger at the 2008 US Open, he won a US Open playing on one leg. Other grinders include:

  • Vijay Singh
  • Jack Nicklaus
  • Ray Floyd
  • David Graham
  • Lee Westwood

“Naturals” look like they were born with a club in their hands. My favourite is Bubba Watson. He hits it so hard he can be falling over half way down and still catch it out of the screws. Other standout naturals are:

  • Rory McIlroy
  • John Daly
  • Seve Ballesteros
  • Phil Mickleson
  • Peter Thompson

“Technicians” are the mechanics of golf. Take it apart, put it back together, refine it then tweak it some more. Best technician performance of all time? Nick Faldo’s obsessive but effective swing  re-build under David Leadbetter.

  • Ben Hogan
  • Luke Donald
  • Ernie Els
  • Adam Scott
  • Steve Elkington

“Entertainers” are at one with the gallery, they’re there to swashbuckle, have driving contests, charge from behind, wear eye catching attire, throw hat’s in the air and crack jokes—serious  golf’s a side issue that intrudes on their fun.

  • Lee Trevino
  • Greg Norman
  • Arnold Palmer
  • Ian Poulter
  • Darren Clarke