Master of Impact

While watching the recent Saturday afternoon television coverage of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championships, NBC Golf Analyst Johnny Miller referred to Bubba Watson as a “master of impact.” Rather high praise indeed for this two-time PGA Tour winner. And just the night before, Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel suggested that Tiger Wood’s problems on the course can be summed up best with, “he’s playing golf swing rather than golf shots.”

So, I ask:

1)    What specifically constitutes a master of impact?

2)    What is the difference between playing golf vs. playing golf swing?

Can we say as the European swing guru John Jacobs has suggested that golf is what the ball does? If so, then we might be able to answer the above two questions with one simple nugget of truth: getting your golf ball to fly the way you want to is the rare talent of a master playing the game the way it was intended.

A “master of impact” senses and trusts what his feel tells him he needs to do to get the ball to fly a certain way. One who plays golf shots rather than attempting perfect golf swings decides what he wants his ball to do and embraces function over form in executing the desired shots. It’s hard to argue that Tiger Woods’ best playing days included many amazing “master moments.”

A master of impact, playing the game the way it was intended, displays at least two things:

1)    A consistent “ball first and then the ground” contact, and

2)    A club path direction and club face angle at impact to achieve desired ball flight.

Suggestion for the developing player

Average golfers would do well to embrace a “first things first” perspective in their pursuit of mastering impact. Until one can strike the golf ball first and then the ground in front of it (missing the big green ball behind the little white one), little else matters. This is why none other than Bobby Clampett recommends that one start with putts, chips, and pitches before proceeding to full swings. Why? Because if the big green ball keeps getting in the way on little swings, there is little hope of a positive outcome on longer swings.

It’s a crawl, walk, run approach to golf swing progress. In this case, slow is fast and little is big. Once the club/ball contact is ideal (divot falling 1 to 4 inches in front of the ball), then attention can be appropriately placed on club path direction and clubface control.

Thoughts for the proficient player

Can anyone possibly imagine that Bubba Watson or Tiger Woods can’t achieve a forward swing bottom? I think not. As to ball flight control, Bubba is Mr. Curvature and Tiger is enamored with being Mr. Straight.  Ironically, Lee Trevino said the straight shot is beyond even celestial ability to pull off consistently.

So what do we make of these alternative paths to getting the golf ball in the hole faster? On the one hand, we have the straight and narrow that few can find, and on the other, we have the Beatles long and winding road.

In working with accomplished players, Bob Toski takes the player on the course with three balls. He asks the player to hit one ball with the intention of a straight flight; one ball with a right to left flight and one ball with a left to right flight. This exercise is conducted over 9 holes of play. Toski isn’t so concerned with which flight the player prefers as he is with helping the player become more aware of why one flight or another is more repeatable and/or more difficult for that particular player. It’s a target-based, “feel” oriented approach that frees the player of an over-reliance on swing mechanics.

Rudy Duran used a similar approach years ago with a young Tiger Woods. Duran said this in the April 2011 issue of Golf Digest, “Tiger was immersed in the target, and his focus was so intense that an efficient swing evolved out of his concentration to make the ball do what he wanted it to.” Duran continues, “Tiger’s swing was a tool, like a chisel for a sculptor. But first he had the vision, and the tool carried that out. He didn’t think about where his elbow was pointing when he used the chisel. He thought about the image he was seeing.”

The April issue of Golf Digest reports that Tiger’s goal working with Sean Foley is to, “get the ball in the fairway with a lower flight with the driver, tighten the dispersion of misses, and work the ball less.”

Interesting isn’t it? Curve the ball less. Tighten the dispersion of misses. So where does Tiger’s overall awareness go in order to accomplish this goal? A stronger grip, a steadier head, keeping his arms closer to his body, a steeper backswing shoulder turn etc. Sounds like Tiger’s chisel is in danger of losing effectiveness as the image of the target blurs. Is Tiger guilty of embracing form over function?

One is left to wonder what is so wrong with the proficient player curving the golf ball especially when it is done on purpose. Are we to conclude that a “hands and arm” motion resulting in purposely curved golf shots isn’t as reliable as a biomechanically optimized body motion that promises straight shots? Can we say Rocky vs. Ivan Drago?

Maybe the man marching to Mr. Nicklaus’ record and beyond would do himself a favor by embracing the fun and freedom of his early golf education – getting his golf ball to curve on purpose rather than by accident. If he does, we might just hear Johnny Miller anoint a new “master of impact” or shall we say master of the chisel.

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