It's funny the way you learn things. More than 10 years after I first picked up a golf club, I'm just now learning how to hit the ball. The pros call it "ball-striking." They talk about it all the time.
When you take golf lessons, or when a friend shows you how to play, no one ever shows you the clubhead up close and holds it next to the ball and says, "Now, hit this part of the ball with this part of the club face." Instead, the teacher shows you how to grip the club, how to "address" the ball (how to stand up while hitting), how to take the club back and keep the left arm straight, how to swing "from the inside," oh, the whole arcane mystery of the golf swing, of which there seems to be more at every turn.
The premise, as golf iconoclast A.J. Bonar says in his video instruction series, "The Truth About Golf" (www.ajgolf.com), is that a perfect swing will produce a perfect hit on the ball. Which of course it doesn't all the time. A.J. then proceeds to demonstrate hitting the golf ball perfectly while standing on one leg or the other, off balance, simulating an injured right or left arm, etc. (I bought the A.J. videos used for half price, and would not discourage anybody from looking at them; I learned a lot, even if I do not yet hit the ball perfectly.)
And A.J. does tell his viewers where to hit the ball: on the equator, on the fifth groove up from the bottom of the clubface. Got that? In John Feinstein's A Good Walk Spoiled, he describes how professional golfers have a worn smooth spot about the size of a dime on the faces of their irons, at just about that spot. That's where they hit the ball.
ANYONE WHO HAS EVER SPENT TIME trying to hit a golf ball finds this sort of precision nearly unbelievable. But we all know what it feels like when we do hit a ball on that spot. It leaps off the club at impact. It feels wonderful. It flies.
Consistent contact lets you do everything important to good golf: hit the ball in the direction you want, for the distance you want, at the trajectory you want. Pros who saw him practice still speak in awed tones of Ben Hogan's ball striking, of the sound the club made when it hit the ball. Autodidact Hogan "dug it out of the dirt," as he said of his technique. And he probably began the trend of thought that equated a perfect swing with perfect ball contact, with his groundbreaking book Five Lessons in the Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Indeed, he was the first golfer ever to practice in a systematic way.
Good ball-striking wins. Bart Bryant won the season-ending Tour Championship, a big-money tournament limited to the top 30 money winners of the past year. Through the 72-hole event, Bryant put 45 out of 56 tee shots on par-4 or par-5 fairways, and hit 58 of 72 greens "in regulation" (one shot for a par-3, two shots for a par-4, three shots for a par-5).
Those two statistics, driving accuracy and greens in regulation, or g.i.r., make up what is less formally known as "ball striking" on the stat-heavy PGA Tour. For the past year, the Tour leaders in those categories were Jeff Hart, with a 76 percent mark in driving accuracy, and Sergio Garcia, with a g.i.r. of 71.8 percent.
Beat the averages like Bryant did, and if you can putt a lick, as the old-timers say, you can make a mighty comfortable living.
ONE BUGGY FLORIDA NIGHT my wife and I went looking for a place to practice our golf games. We found the funkiest looking driving range I've ever seen just off several miles of boulevard construction work in West Palm Beach, a shack, a vending machine for the ancient golf balls, and chewed up tiny astroturf mats aimed out at an expanse of lumpy untended ground. Out there, in the steamy darkness, feeble lights illuminated distance signs: 100, 150, 200, 250, and, half-lost in the buggy mist, 300 yards.
As we lofted our modest practice short irons out toward the 100-yard sign, a beat-up pickup parked. A skinny young man in jeans and his daughter of about eight got out. Dad hefted a big golf bag out of the truck bed for himself and a small bag for his girl. They set themselves up and began to swing, and the man and I struck up an easy conversation, as you will on a practice range, about irons and how they were made and what the benefits were of various kinds of them.
"I got these Hogans," he said (whack!), "a few years back for about $150. Pretty good deal."
I told him about the set of Powerbilts I had found for the same money in an old repair shop, and how I had bought them mainly as practice clubs. Forged irons, favored highly in the pro ranks over the cast clubs most amateurs play (for the bigger club faces and perimeter weighting for easier hitting), are supposed to give you more feel.
"I guess they do," (whack!). "Especially the long clubs." Barely warmed up, he pulled a 2-iron, a club scarcely lofted at all, and very hard to hit because of that, and dragged a ball over to address position with the club head.
Then he drew the club back and hit it, standing there as he did a scant six feet from me. The dead old range ball took off like a rocket, high, with a gentle hook to it, and fell to earth in the dim distance near the 250 sign.
"Always hook my irons a little," he said. "I guess I could fade it if I tried."
He powered another 2-iron Atlas missile into the sky, and this one fell gently to the right at the end of its flight, still out near the 250 mark. He hit several more. I wanted to melt into the molten impact of iron on ball, to learn, to feel how it was done.
But it is still a mystery to me, that gift. A young man on a driving range in Florida had it. There was no brag in him. It made me want to ask things like, "Who are you?" Maybe some pro slumming it? I don't think so.
So we practiced side by side, and I said, "Beautiful."
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