Saturday, October 9, 2010

Weekly Golf Tip: toss the ball to improve your chipping ‘feel’

If you are like most weekend golfers, you probably need to practice a lot more than you do. Practice is a necessary evil for mastering any skill, and the more you practice the better you get. But the reality is that other than a few hurriedly hit putts before your ‘tee time’, you probably don’t get around to practicing much.

During the round, you have your share of mis-hits and duffs, but the shots that hurt the most are the flubbed chip shots when you are close to the green. It may have taken two or three decent shots to get near the green – and then everything is thrown away when you top your chip way past the pin, or hit the ground an inch behind the ball.

Most chips go awry because you either poke at the ball in a fast jerky motion, or, take a bigger backswing than necessary and then decelerate on the downswing. I know the horrible feeling. I’ve done it enough times! But I learned to cure the lack of chipping feel from a caddie, and I’ll let you in on this little secret.

The next time you have chipping problems, try this little drill. Go to the practice green. Stand just outside the green with both feet together and pointing towards a target hole on the green about 15-20 feet away. Bend forward slightly and toss golf balls with your right (or left) hand to get the balls close to the target hole.

After just a couple of tosses, you should be able to get the balls to stop within a couple of feet of the hole. Note your ball tossing motion. It is unlikely to be a fast, jerky motion. Nor will you be taking your hand back a whole lot before  tossing the ball. The natural motion will be a slow, short backswing and then a slightly accelerated follow through.

Once you get the balls to roll close enough to the hole for an easy tap-in putt, pick up your favourite chipping club – the 8 or 9 or PW – and try to recreate the smooth ball-tossing motion with a few practice swings. Then start to hit a few chips with that same smooth motion.

A few chips may get mis-hit at first, but you will gradually get the idea that around the greens you need to have a feeling of ‘calm, easy and smooth’ motion with your chipping club. Please remember that smooth doesn’t mean soft. The ball needs to be hit crisply for it to hold its line and stop near the hole with backspin.

(More on hitting crisp chip shots in a future post.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weekly Golf Tip: to hit the ball far and straight, do the ‘Vijay Singh’ weight transfer drill

Last week’s tip was about a drill for maintaining good balance during your golf swing. Good balance is very important in golf. It is the foundation on which the entire swing has to be built. But it is not sufficient just to maintain good balance at the time of address.

Good balance has to be maintained right from the address position, to the club takeaway and the back swing, and then down through the hitting zone and into the follow through. In future posts, I will try to break down the golf swing into its different components. But that may get a bit technical for the high-handicap weekend golfer who is very happy to play off a 18 or 22 handicap.

To build on the simple ‘happy toes’ drill for maintaining good balance, here is another simple drill that can be practiced at home. You can also try it out before your weekend round. I saw Vijay Singh of Fiji do this drill on TV, when he was warming up before a PGA tournament.

Every golfer must be aware of Vijay Singh’s disciplined work ethics and long hours of practice – which made him the No. 1 golfer on the PGA tour just a few years back. When asked by reporters about this drill, he said that even professional golfers need to remind themselves about the basics of the golf swing!

Even though our bread and butter may not depend on our weekend round of golf, most amateur golfers can easily learn some of the simpler routines followed by the pros. As Nicklaus once famously said: You enjoy the game a lot more if you can play well.

Without much further ado, here is the drill (for right handers; left handers can switch the ‘left’ to ‘right’ in the drill):

Take a few of your ‘normal’ practice swings with your driver (or whichever club you take a few practice swings with before your round). For the next few swings, lift your left foot completely off the ground during your back swing and start the downswing by first planting your left foot back down on the ground, before swinging through to a full finish.

If your swing basics are correct, you will be able to maintain balance and not topple over. Try it a few times to get the hang of it. You will learn the process of transferring your weight to the inside of your right foot on the back swing, and to the outside of your left foot on the follow through. (Warning: If you are in the habit of swaying to the right during your back swing, you may fall down in trying to do this drill.)

Too many weekend golfers finish their follow through with their entire weight on the right (back) foot. As if, they were playing a back-foot off-drive in cricket. No wonder, the ball some times balloons up into the sky or flies way off to the right.

Learn to transfer your weight properly, and soon you will be able to add several yards to your shots – and the ball will fly straighter.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Weekly Golf Tip : to make solid contact with the golf ball, do the ‘happy toes’ drill

There are two main reasons why many high-handicap weekend golfers remain high-handicap golfers during their entire playing careers:

  1. They read about different tips and tricks, but don’t put in the effort at the practice range; instead, they try new things during their weekend round – only to give up when the tips don’t magically change their golfing abilities.
  2. The few who do practice at the range, don’t have a clear plan of what they are trying to achieve; so they end up smashing a few balls with the different clubs in their bags – without learning anything new or unlearning any bad habits.

This week’s tip is a drill that any golfer can do at home, in front of a mirror, without even breaking a sweat. It will teach you proper balance when addressing the ball – which is the key to consistent, solid ball contact.

Here is what you do. Take any golf club, and take your usual stance at address but instead of grounding the club, let it hover a couple of inches above the ground. Now try to tap the ground with your toes – one foot at a time, while keeping both heels firmly on the ground.

Eric Jones, the former long-driving champion calls this the ‘happy toes’ drill:

If you can do the drill comfortably, without changing your address position, you are properly balanced.

If you are like most high-handicap golfers, your address position is either too far forward, or too far back. If your upper body is too far forward – which happens more often, mainly due to anxiety – you won’t be able to lift your toes off the ground. If your upper body is too far back, you will be able to tap the ground with both feet at the same time.

This weekend, try the ‘happy toes’ drill before you go out for your round. But please remember that years of bad habit won’t get cured by one drill. Keep at it, till you understand and appreciate the benefits of proper balance – regardless of your handicap.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Weekly Golf Tip: the correct mental attitude towards sand traps

If you are a typical high-handicap weekend golfer, then you probably have an incorrect mental attitude towards sand traps. Before I proceed any further, a couple of definitions may be in order:

1. High-handicap – anything above a handicap of 9 for an 18 hole golf course. (I’m sure the Captain of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club will agree with that definition; not so sure about fellow members!)

2. Correct mental attitude – every time your ball falls in a sand trap, think of it as an opportunity, and not a problem.

Like most high-handicap weekend golfers with imperfect swings and inability to hit the long irons crisply on target, I tend to hit more sand traps than greens in regulation. Every time I’d fall into one, I would curse my bad luck, grab my sand wedge (regardless of the lie or the distance to be covered) and rush into the bunker in a tearing hurry to some how get the ball out.

The result? Either a skulled shot that would go screaming over the green into much deeper trouble. Or, several swings at the ball without propelling it out of the trap, and then bending down to toss it on the green and saying ‘Your hole’ (as if there was any doubt!).

It was fellow golfer and lovable hustler Harjivan Singh - a team member when we won the Wills Trophy (now ITC Cup) back in 1984 at the Tollygunge Club - who taught me the correct mental attitude towards sand traps.

His logic was simple. For high-handicappers, the opportunities for making birdies are few and far between – particularly in a course as long as the RCGC with only one par 3 and one par 5 in each nine. There were far more opportunities in hitting greenside bunkers – specially if you aimed at them!

Harjivan would actually do that, and then try to get up and down for a ‘sandie’. He made quite a few bucks on the side every round.

The point is: if you approach a sand shot with the correct mental attitude, looking at it as an opportunity to make a ‘sandie’, there are more chances that you will come out close enough to the pin with a single swing.

Of course, it helps to know how to execute different types of bunker shots required for different lies and sand conditions. Stay tuned, and I’ll be happy to share my experiences.

(Notes: Thanks to fellow golfers who have encouraged me to write these weekly golf tips. I look forward to your feedback and suggestions. You can use the ‘comments’ link below the post, or send an email to me.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why did India perform so badly in World T-20 Cricket?

There is an old saying - Horses for courses - that applies very well to T-20, or any other form of cricket. BCCI and the Indian selectors knew well in advance that the matches will be held in the West Indies. Some pitches, like those in St Lucia, were slow and low - which helped cricketers from the sub-continent. But the ones at Barbados were fast and bouncy - putting a premium on cricketing skills.

Wonder what kind of practice routine the Indian batsmen followed. I remember about Dilip Vengsarkar practising before a Windies tour by having some one bounce a tennis ball off a concrete surface at CCI and he fended it down off his face.

Who got selected for the Indian team? Murli Vijay - with no experience on the world stage. He played and failed in three consecutive matches, two of them crucial quarter final group matches against Australia and West Indies at Barbados. The more experienced Dinesh Karthik was left to cool his heels till the inconsequential match against Sri Lanka.

The less said about Yusuf Pathan, the better. A technique-less six-hitter if the pitch is low and slow. Completely clueless on a fast and bouncy track. As for his bowling - Geoff Boycott's old mother can bowl better off-spin.

Piyush Chawla is competent at best, with a leg break that turns less than Anil Kumble's, but without Anil's control and variety. Amit Mishra had by far the better record - in runs conceded per over and wickets taken - in the recently concluded IPL-3 but was dropped for the tour. Go figure!

But the biggest fiasco of all was the choice of left-arm spinner. Ravindra Jadeja - who was banned from IPL-3 because he was trying to get a better financial deal for himself. Why was he chosen for the World T-20 without any match practice, while the best bowler in IPL-3 - Pragyan Ojha, who also happens to be a left-arm spinner - had to sit out?

Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri have publicly made a big deal about the 'young legs' theory for the shorter version of the game. They are far more knowledgeable than me as far as cricket is concerned. But what about common sense? Do they have any?

At the end of the day, sports requires skills. In cricket, the three most important ones are batting, bowling and fielding. The 'young legs' theory is great for fielding - but totally useless in batting and bowling. Just check the names of the top three batsmen in the recently concluded IPL-3. Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Sourav Ganguli.

If jumping and diving around in a cricket field are all the skills required to win a T-20 cricket match, then 11 trained chimpanzees would have sufficed. The cost to the country's reputation and BCCI's coffers would have been a lot less.

By the way, the already overpaid Indian cricketers were given individual bonuses of Rs 80 lakhs when they won the inaugural T-20 World Cup in 2007. Since they failed so miserably this time, losing all three quarter final group matches by big margins, how about fining them Rs 40 lakhs each? That may just motivate them to learn the basic skills of playing cricket.

Of all the money collected from the cricketers as penalties - half should go to the district and zonal cricket associations for teaching youngsters the basic skills of cricket.

The other half should go to Chess World Champion Vishwanathan Anand, for being a true champion and great performer over the years.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tom Watson - sports is also for the young at heart

The British Open golf championship has produced several dramatic final round melt-downs. The two that stand out from recent history are:

Frenchman Jean Van de Velde's disastrous triple bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999 to hand the title to a relatively unknown Paul Lawrie.

Dane Thomas Bjorn needlessly attacked the pin at the 16th hole at Royal St George in 2003, leaving himself stranded in a deep greenside bunker from where he failed to get out in his first two attempts. The eventual winner, American Ben Curtis, was unknown even in his home country!

Stewart Cink, this year's Open winner, is better known and definitely a more consistent player than either Lawrie or Curtis. It wasn't just Tom Watson's missed 8 footer that enabled him to win. He applied the heat on his older countryman when he courageously birdied the 72nd hole to become the leader in the clubhouse. Lee Westwood should have learned a lesson or two from that.

I still can't get over the off-the-green putt that Watson knocked 8 feet past the pin. Was it bad luck that the perfectly struck rescue approach didn't stop on the green? I think it was Nicklaus, who famously said: There is no good luck or bad luck in golf, just good shots and bad shots.

Putting from the fringe is always dicey if the ball has nestled down in the grass. Solid contact isn't possible. More often than not, the ball will jump up and roll farther than you intended. The two shot swing on the 72nd hole sealed Watson's fate.

Under pressure of defending a final round lead, adrenaline plays a negative role. Where calmness and deliberation is required, one ends up rushing and making a jerky swing. Padraig Harrington's pitch from behind the 16th green squirting into the water under pressure from Tiger's fantastic birdie at the Bridgestone Open at Akron, Ohio is the most recent example.

To be leading a Major Championship at age 59, till the final stroke on the 72nd hole, was an achievement that warmed the cockles of the heart of every elderly person who has ever played any competitive sport. Even for youngsters, it was an example of what a combination of skill and will power can achieve.

Why didn't Tom Watson win? Why couldn't he become a 'Cinderella Man'? Because that is life. Some times, dreams do come true - just look at it from Stewart Cink's perspective!

(Note: Another Tom has written an excellent piece about the tragic end to Watson's run at becoming the oldest person to ever win a Major championship. Read it here.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A sports potpourri

A travesty of cricket

When a person stands with his feet close together and makes a full swing with a 9-iron and completely misses the ball, it is called a 'whiff' or an 'air-shot' in golf, and counts as 1 stroke. A similar situation, but on a baseball diamond, is counted as a 'strike'. Three strikes, and the batter is out.

On a cricket pitch, one can go on swinging and whiffing to one's heart's content - and other than making a complete fool of oneself, it doesn't count at all! Neither should the travesty of cricket - as recently witnessed during the 20-20 World Cup in England.

Pakistan won the tournament deservedly, beating Sri Lanka in the final. The country has become a pariah because of its political adventurism that has closed the door to any home engagements in international sports. This victory should be a moral booster for the sports loving public.

Sania vs. Saina

Two young girls from the same town in India. Both participants in different forms of racket-sports. Attractive personalities. Almost identical names. One's star is ascending, the other's descending.

Sania's slam-bang 20-20 version of tennis initially bewildered opponents and allowed her a modicum of success. But a hit-or-miss style used repeatedly without any planning or thinking does not produce results in the long run. No wonder her progress is limited to the 1st or 2nd round in Grand Slam events, and an occasional doubles victory in third rung tournaments.

Saina, an intelligent and thinking player, has shunned publicity, made steady progress up the badminton rankings and has been a top 10 player for a while. Her recent victory at the Indonesian Open against the World No 3, Ling Wang of China was highly commendable. This performance should move her into the top 5 in the world badminton rankings. Hail Saina!

Lucas Glover's US Open Golf victory

At the top echelons of world sports, the margin between defeat and victory is small - often decided by who makes the least errors and not so much by who has the better skills. This was exemplified at Bethpage Black by Lucas Glover and Ricky Barnes. Barnes set the record for the lowest 36 holes total and the 2nd lowest 54 holes total and led by a shot over Glover after the 3rd round.

The final round scores? Glover shot a +3; Barnes a +6 to lose by two shots. It also confirmed my theory, that under Grand Slam final round pressure, the guy with the wonky swing will wilt! Kenny Perry's loopy swing collapsed against the smoother swing of Angel Cabrera at the Masters. Ricky Barnes' off-balance swing went haywire against the more classical swing of Glover.

Oh! The joy of scoring goals!

It was sheer joy to watch the first half of the FIFA Confederations Cup group match between Brazil and World Champions, Italy. It was fascinating, thrilling, exhilarating and exciting.

Italy was kicking the ball around in the mid-field, playing in the European style of possession and distribution. Precise passes, interchanging of positions, looking for a chink in the opposing defence.

Brazil was only interested in scoring. Everything else was only a means to that end. Once they got possession, a wave of yellow jerseys would lash upon the opposing penalty box in the blink of an eye. A feint here, a flick there and one of the players would suddenly be free and taking a shot at goal.

Twice, the woodwork came in the way. Several times, Buffon helped the World Champs avoid the blushes. But it was obvious that the question was when, not if. Two strikes by Fabiano late in the first half was followed by a desperate lunge by Dossena to save a certain third goal, only to guide the ball behind a diving Buffon. 3-0 at half-time. The World Champions were thoroughly outclassed.