A mid-season golf lesson: What’s the second thought?

If some is good, then more must be better.

This is my brain’s default world view, especially as applied to my golf swing. If doing a little bit of something works, then doing a lot of that same will work even better, or so I’m willing to believe.

I suffer a repeating pattern of golf swing psychosis. I attend several golf lessons in the late winter and early spring months. My golf pro, Mike Pulliam, at Man O’ War Golf, gets me pretty well dialed in, with instructions of how to ingrain the changes needed. I usually write it all down in a notebook right after the lesson.

That is the look of a man that knows he doesn’t have it, but is going to enjoy the walk anyway.

Then a little time goes by. I have a little success. I hit the ball well, maybe even posting a few good scores. That’s when the trouble starts. If some is good, more is better, remember?   Two things happen simultaneously to tank an otherwise improving golf year. I get busy, forgoing additional in-season golf lessons, and I get greedy. Greedy for lower scores. Greedy for swinging the club faster and hitting the ball further. Greedy for getting better faster.

So, instead of asking Mike for additional help, I tinker. And I push. And I strain. All in the search of, what, 10-15 more yards off of the tee? I’ll twist and contort and un-train what I’ve learned, and all of a sudden I’m a complete mess, chasing ghosts that can never be caught. That’s when I usually tuck my tail between my legs and schedule another golf lesson, desperate for a professional’s assessment and a return to near-competency.  

Two awful, golf-tragic things happened earlier this summer that set me upon an inevitable path of self-destruction. First, I cracked the face on my driver, for the second time in three or four years. There was nothing magical about that driver; I’m very satisfied with my new Titleist one wood. The problem is that I went through a custom club fitting experience to find my replacement driver, or more specifically, what I learned about myself at the fitting.  

I like this new driver just fine. Just like the PING 410G before it. And the Callaway Epic before that. #ToolsNotJewels

My fittings follow a repeatable pattern each session (see a pattern of patterns developing? Time is a flat circle). I start out nervous that someone is watching me or anxious that I’m being analyzed by the Flight Scope or Track Man device, so I push it too hard. In chasing a few extra miles per hour, I invariably waste the first 10 minutes of any fitting swinging too hard, rarely hitting the ball with the middle of the club face.  

At least this time, I made my fitting professional, Brad Bachand, PGA, laugh. After one particularly horrendous swing with near mid-swing commentary from me, he asked, “What would guess your path was on that swing?” Knowing my tendencies and what Mike usually eyeballs for me, I shoot back, half-jokingly, “About 12 degrees inside to out.” Brad responds in deadpan, “13.2.” We shared a hearty laugh.  

That number a soul-crushing statement of fact. Fortunately, the fitting turned into a semi-lesson, and I was hitting the ball “well enough” for the rest of the session to get out of there feeling good about the small fortune I’d just committed to spending on a new driver.

Yet that number has haunted me ever since. 13.2 degrees.  

The second thing that haunted me, that doomed my forward golf momentum was that I saw my golf swing on video. In an effort to chase a few more clicks and engagements through social media, I took some crude video of me hitting wedges on the range one evening. It was mortifying.  

Absolute nightmare fuel. I know exactly what shot this swing produced, and now I know why.

Never mind the 40 pounds that the video camera added, the footage of my swing was jarring. What I felt like I was doing for my golf swing had no relation to the strange contortions and wild flailing motions that delivered the golf club to the ball. Humiliating and haunting.  

Armed with those two bitter pieces of information, I’d spent the better part of the past six weeks trying to “fix” my golf swing on my on through the power of procrastination and visualization.

It didn’t work, and it was getting worse. So, before I met with Mike, I headed to the range determined to succeed with one final charge to “find it,” to fix my swing.   It didn’t work. I rubbed my fingers raw and sweated through all my clothes, no closer to the answers sought than when I arrived. What had happened, in fact, was that I’d produced a detailed inventory of what hadn’t worked, and started the process of scaling my swing back towards some first principles from earlier in the year.  Mercifully, that foundational work made Mike’s job relatively easy.  

I’d whittled my list of questions down to a few, fully resolved to accept that I’m only going to ever have a short golf swing if I was ever going to hit the ball well consistently. There is a peace in acceptance, in knowing that one really is doing the best that they can, even if that’s not very good at all.  

One of the things I couldn’t get out of my head was this: when I would shorten my swing to what felt like a 2/3 of a full swing, I hit the ball every bit as far as with my full send “big swing.”  

It would’ve been nice to have some of these questions answered before my biggest golf trip in half a decade.

“Why doesn’t a longer backswing produce a faster swing and result in the ball being hit further?” I posed to Mike. Without hesitation, he was able to explain that as I coiled my body past my personal point of mobility, I created friction and tension, which resulted in a loss of fluidity of movement. Coiling too far created inefficiencies and inconsistent compensations across my kinetic chain, which detracted far more speed and power than it added. The shorter, fluid swing would actually produce more power with less effort in my case.  

This was the missing piece. This was what I needed to hear. I’d always had anecdotal personal evidence that my shorter swing didn’t really cost me an yardage, but I’d never believed what I saw. There had to be something else. Those long drive guys are stopping before parallel. Hell, John Daly can see the head of his golf club from his left eye, and physically, he’s a human car collision, surely if some golf swing is good, more must be better? Right?  

Maybe if some is good, more isn’t better. Maybe only some is good.

Mike has a wonderful way to telling me what I need to hear in a way that I actually hear it. As a matter of fact, he’s over the past decade, he’s had to figure out how to tell me the same thing five or six different ways, at least. One quirk that I’m still processing is that he will tell me how he had to explain something to an engineer, someone trained to think in that very specific engineering mindset, and that is always what makes sense to me.  

For this particular mid-season swing lesson, he explained that for most people in a lesson, he tries to get them to work on one particular thing, one omnibus thought to try to master. Apparently, when he tries that with one of his favorite engineers, the guy will inevitably respond, “Okay. What’s the second thought?”  

I’ve been in this position all too often over the past 20 years. No more. It all ends now.

I’m a second thought guy, too. The fix that we’ve finally gotten around to is to work to make sure my trail arm elbow stays pointed at the ground and my wrists flattens. Basically to get to the position so that it feels like I could hold a pizza tray on my right hand at the top of my backswing. It’s a crazy mental image, but it’s an effective governor against over-coiling on my backswing or taking the club way across the target line, which has been a bugaboo of my literally forever (it’s taken a decade of fixes of other catastrophic failures to get to the point where this was worth worrying about). So that’s the first thought.  

The second thought, and one that is actually predicate to the first thought, is that from that shortened, more down-the-line position at the top, I swing to the left. Or, at least, what my body feels like is the left. It’s like magic. Really. If those two thoughts are executed, everything else is aligned and it delivers a powerful and true strike pretty damn close to the target.   

It has me excited about golf again for the first time in months. There’s no dread, no apprehension at the prospect of pulling driver. All because I let go.  

I let go of the hubris that allowed me to abandon the really good for a fool’s errand of seeking great. Ego has ruined more of my golf shots than lousy lies, adverse winds, or ill-fitted equipment combined, which is hilarious, because I know where to find the answers: all I had to do was ask for help. It’s simultaneously frustrating and comforting to know that the answer was right there all along.

See you on the lesson range in the middle of next summer. Or maybe not. If some is good, then maybe that’s good enough. More might be too much.

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