An unforgettable experience

I wrote the following story in 2002 after a trip to the UK. Although it’s outdated slightly, the message is still relevant. It’s a little long but contains some great advice and gives an insight into my early golfing concepts.

The 2002 Open Championship (British Open) was my first visit to one of golf’s majors. It wasn’t until I exited the A1 (the main motorway heading east from Edinburgh) that I realised the enormity of the event.

Fifteen kilometres of jammed traffic!

The normally quiet country road was clogged with cars, buses and limousines. After driving through the small town of Aberlady I finally made it to Gullane. Gullane is, essentially, a golfing town. The Gullane Golf Club consists of three courses (1, 2 and 3) and is famous for the big hill that rewards the golfer with million dollar views across the links land to the Firth of Forth and beyond.

School children were playing on the small pitch-and-putt course oblivious to the fact that the world’s greatest golf tournament was being staged only a kilometre or so away. Everyone else was marching down Gullane’s narrow streets in the increasing Scottish mist with one objective. Muirfield!

After departing with 35 pounds (about A$100) for a day ticket and another 30 pounds for my only souvenir (an umbrella) I was ready to embark on an experience of a lifetime.

The first thing that strikes you at Muirfield is the length of the rough! Watching on television does not do it justice. In some spots it was six feet tall, not thin and wispy but thick, wet and impenetrable!

Looking down the course from the first tee you can see the fairway meandering to the right. The objective is simple, the same for all golfers on all courses, in all circumstances. Hit the fairway! If you miss the fairway at The Open, pray that one of the many ball spotters can do his job.

At first it seemed a little unfair to see champion golfers hacking their ball sideways from this rough, but after spending an hour wandering around the diverse holes I began to appreciate this form of golf. It was so different from the golf I have played in Australia and had seen so much of from the U.S.

Muirfield is a short course compared to most of today’s championship courses; it couldn’t be more opposite from Bethpage Black, the site of the 2002 US Open. According to one media commentator the players’ hated Bethpage – it was too long and tricked up. There seemed an overall fairness at Muirfield. Long hitters could take the risk and hit driver and have a massive advantage (short iron to green), but miss and who knows what could (and did!) happen?

Shorter hitters weren’t disadvantaged by lack of length, everyone was able to reach the greens in regulation without needing fairway woods. It appeared that course strategy and overall skill would play the biggest part rather than guys blasting the ball from the tee and then wedging it onto the green from rough or fairway.

I was joined on this day by Kendal McWade, a Golf Professional who is transforming the way golf is being taught and played throughout the U.K. I had attended his golf school a few days earlier and was happy to accept his invitation to Muirfield.

Kendal had been a conventional golf coach for some twenty years. To use his words, “I was a walking golf encyclopaedia”. He was able to recite complex swing theories and methods at will. He could diagnose any swing fault and offer his pupil a detailed recovery program. He started to change his approach when he realised he was not getting the results he was looking for.

He commented, “I was essentially telling the same thing over and over and not only was I getting bored, I was not learning anything new”. In what was a major transformation for him he started to teach non-technically, and place more emphasis on natural learning and human potential.

His golf school was totally different from anything I had experienced in my time in the game. The day started indoors around a big coffee table with everyone seated on a comfy couch. His opening remark took me by surprise. “I do not have the answers.”

Every golf coach I had known was quick to point out what was wrong with my game and quick to offer suggestions on how to fix it. Kendal’s next comment was even more provocative: “I do not have the answers but you do”. This comment turned out to be the backbone of his coaching philosophy. He now had everyone’s attention. The room was dead quiet waiting for what was to come next.

For the next ten minutes Kendal spoke about the massive learning potential of the human body and how conventional instruction tends to disrupt the learning process. He mentioned the golfing culture’s obsession with quick fixes and tips that lead golfers on a frustrating merry-go-round. He stated golf is like any other skill we perform on a daily basis like walking, talking and driving a car. This was more than a motivational speech, you actually realised that you had the talent inside you – the key was how to unleash it. The session was finished by each pupil stating what they hoped to get out of the school.

The next nine hours were spent exploring new possibilities, stepping out of comfort zones and dealing with reality not perceptions. Kendal spent time with each pupil imparting words of wisdom and making unusual requests on all facets of the game.

He never said a swing or shot was good or bad – it just was. This was a revelation! It was enjoyable to attempt different shots and swings without concerning yourself with outcomes or mistakes.

The last exercise of the program was a four hole competition that provided an opportunity to explore our limitations and put into practice what we had learned throughout the day. With enjoyment the primary goal and with no concern on performance, it was fun to ‘play’ golf. Hitting the ball without concern or worry for four holes was not enough – I felt like I could keep going and was disappointed when Kendal put a hold on proceedings.

The day ended how it started, indoors with a cup of tea and a biscuit. McWade reiterated his main points from the morning discussion and then asked each pupil if they had achieved what they had wanted to.

In my case, putting had been my nemesis for a few years and I wanted to learn to putt in away that was imaginative, creative and confident. Although I did not make an instant improvement (there is no such thing) I was thrilled with what I had learned and was sure with practice I could rejuvenate my putting game.

Note: All these years later my putting has tuned into one of my strongest assets.

Other members of the school had similar experiences. One gentleman with a lifetime slice hit his first (intentional!) hook shot and then experienced the joy of a controlled draw. Another found satisfaction in the short game after learning a concentration exercise that helped him stay relaxed. Each pupil had similar stories to tell.

The common theme with all the students was the level of enjoyment found while exploring different possibilities in an environment where there was no pressure on doing something right. It was enlightening to attempt shots you thought were impossible or just attempt something that was a little different. There were no rules, no swing models, no swing theories and most of all no promise of a quick fix.

Eduardo Romero appeared on a TV in a corner. To me, the burly Argentinean summed up the philosophy of the day. At 48 and a little overweight, he became the oldest person to win the Scottish Open when he birdied the first play-off hole. Anything is possible and you’re never too old to learn!

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The practice fairway at Muirfield is a hive of activity. There are the club manufacturers’ trailers down one side and the fitness and club repair trailer down the other. There are all sorts of people milling around the players from player managers, media people and of course the swing gurus.

The practice fairway at The Open should be a learner’s delight. Woods, Els, Norman, Faldo and Duval. All there with their coaches. You can see them going through all of the clubs. You can hear the instruction, see the tweaking, you can smell it! This should be a learner’s delight. Should be. Isn’t.

The practice fairway can be a dangerous place if you go there with the objective of learning something from one of the coaches or copying a swing or drill from one of the players. The culture of golf is well ingrained. Why? I’m not sure, but I am sure that it’s wrong.

Kendal pointed out a guy wandering from player to player, he turned out to be one of the country’s top coaches. A few years earlier he had been an up-and-coming champion of the European Tour. After winning his first tour event he had the golfing world at his feet. Sitting in the airport on his way home from his maiden victory he noticed the highlights from that day’s play. He liked what he saw until the low to the ground camera shot of his winning putt. This guy was the leading putter on tour, and the 20 footer went in for the win. But he did not like the stroke, he thought his technique was wrong and his coach agreed. He spent years trying to fix it but forgot how to play. I’m not sure if he ever fixed his stroke, but he is no longer playing golf on tour. Sadly, this once instinctive and natural golfer is now teaching other up and coming golfers the same technical approach.

I did not have time to comprehend this paradox, as another person was brought to my attention. The second man won for the second time in the mid nineties. He truly was a star. He had wealth and fame on tour, every kid’s dream. But it was not enough; safe with a two year exemption he decided to rebuild his golf game to take it to a higher level. He and his coach went to work changing his already impressive golf game. It’s hard to understand why he did it, especially when two years later he lost his card and is now working as a player manager.

Looking across the fairway I could see similar things happening. Lee Westwood won on four Continents in 1997. He has a distinctive swing but it worked well if you scanned his impressive list of victories and money earnings. For whatever reason someone suggested he alter it.

Lee is not having a good year, he has jumped from coach to coach, he has missed cuts and continually finishes toward the bottom of the field. This is not something he is used to. The more he tries to fix his swing the worse he gets. I saw him hit a handful of balls with one foot on a bucket. I can’t tell you how ridiculous it looked. The crowd was impressed. I bet half of them will attempt the same drill. Why anyone would want to change Westwood’s impressive natural game is beyond me. The culture of golf says his swing is different so it must be wrong. I say let the boy play and don’t deprive the golfing world of a natural, instinctive champion golfer. (Footnote: Westwood needed to par the 36th hole to make the cut. Standing in the middle of the last fairway, he made a few practice swings and then proceeded to carve the ball right, he hit a poor third and made bogey. Another missed cut!).

Westwood has since sacked his coaches and gone back to his old natural way. He seems to be back on track if the 2008 US Open is anything to go by.

The golfing world is full of stories like these. Ian Baker-Finch and Seve Ballesteros are the two most famous players who had it, and lost it. What would have happened to Nicklaus, Palmer and Trevino if they were told their technique was askew and they attempted to change?

Muirfield was not my first taste of The British Open, two weeks earlier I had attempted to pre-qualify at a course in England called Minchinhampton. Regional Qualifying for The Open is for amateurs with a handicap of scratch or better, for club professionals and wannabe players like me who have no tour card. I was surprised to find that even with those limitations there were about 1850 entrants spread over 16 courses throughout the U.K

Minchinhampton turned out to be a lot harder to find than to play. It’s a tiny town with a regal background and it actually boasts two courses. The first course – or I should say the easy one to find – is like Australia’s oldest course, Bothwell, found in Tasmania. As well as being the oldest it is also famous for the small wire fences that surround each green to keep the sheep out. You can imagine my surprise after travelling across the earth to play in the world’s biggest tournament to find that the course had sheep on the fairways and some of the greens had fences around them!

I was reassured by a local that Minchinhampton had a new course – built five years ago – located on the other side of town. It took another stop for directions but I finally found it. The Pro had a laugh at my expense saying I was not the first visitor to have trouble finding the course. It was lucky it was a practice round as I missed my tee time by two hours. (The organisers later erected a trail of sign posts to ensure no one else got lost)

The course turned out to be a gem. Although it was not a traditional links course, it had the same feel with high rough and few trees to contend with. It was short but demanding, and not a wire fence in sight! I played well in practice and liked the course; it seemed to suit my game, whatever that means, and I was looking forward to the game the next day.

For some time I have had different ideas to coaching and playing golf, hence my visit to Kendal’s golf school. For nearly eight years I’ve believed that golf has become too technical and complicated. I set up my own coaching business in an effort to overcome these problems; to provide solutions for golfers struggling with their game and help them learn naturally and in a fun environment. I believe that by keeping things simple and non-technical golf performance can not only improve but also be rewarding and enjoyable.

Starting golf at the age of fourteen and with no instruction, my handicap was quickly reduced to three. Golf was fun and improvement happened continually. It was not until I started to alter my technique that I experienced problems. Golf became difficult and I lost my natural game. Worse still, golf was no longer fun and was full of confusion and frustration.

By returning to my earlier mindset I rediscovered my form. The realisation that I possessed the talent to strike a little white ball was a revelation. There was no need to think and analyse every centimetre of my swing. By leaving technique alone I was able to to take my golf to a much higher standard and better yet, experience the game at a deeper and meaningful level.

I was one of 117 golfers teeing it up at Minchinhampton. With only eight spots up for grabs I needed to play well. The first group headed out at 7am, I drew an unfavourable time of 1.25pm – in the second last group. I was actually pleased with the time as it gave me time to sleep in after a week and a half of touring and a family reunion the night before.

Unlike many golfers, I try not concern myself with thoughts of “what do I need to shoot?” I noticed that the scoreboard was surrounded by golfers calculating ‘the number’. I kept to myself and prepared like it was any other game of golf.

Even keeping to myself, it’s hard not to notice what other golfers are saying and doing. I overheard an Englishman talking to his caddy, ” 77 was the worst I could have shot. If only I had some luck! “. And this from a young man as he trudged from the eighteenth “I am such a hacker! How can you have 79 around this place?”

Others yet to hit off were making last minute adjustments to their putting and swing techniques. I have always found that strange, to me it is like studying while walking into an exam. It rarely works and often causes more stress and anxiety. I rolled in a couple of two-foot putts and noticed that match number 38, my match, was on the tee.

I was feeling surprisingly calm. I think it was due to my poor preparation. I had had only one practice round and a game at Royal Dornoch in the previous three weeks. My trip to the U.K was more of a family holiday than a golfing trip. Nevertheless I had a good feeling and set a goal to enjoy the day and give it my best shot. I really had nothing to lose.

This was the first big event for this new course and many of the locals were out in force to offer their support and encouragement. I felt this was good for everyone. It was good for us up-and-coming golfers who are not accustomed to playing in front of crowds and it was good for the locals to see elite golfers playing their course for the first time. Even though in terms of world golf this was a tiny event, it had the feel of something much greater with cheers and applause echoing around the course throughout the day.

I was playing well through 9 holes. I had hit all but one green in regulation. Unfortunately I had missed three shortish putts and turned two over. Not concerning myself with score I recommitted to enjoying myself and having fun. I reached the long par 5 thirteenth in two and shaved the hole with my first attempt. Like previous putts that day I missed the birdie try and had to settle for par. The game can be so frustrating at times, to cover 545 yards in two shots and then take three more from nowhere will test anyone’s patience.

The fourteenth, a short par 4 with a big fairway bunker to carry is a fantastic hole. Any golfer can play safe from the tee and be guaranteed a par. This little gem of a hole gives the longer hitter another option. A long drive could finish on the green and reward the shot with an eagle or easy birdie. But miss the shot, even slightly, and bogey or worse is a possibility.

With nothing to lose I went for the green. I hit it well and watched the ball sail over the bunker and then disappear from sight. Walking over the hill I was full of anticipation, hoping the ball was on the green. Typical of my luck that day I missed my mark by only a metre or so. My ball was next to the green but finished in a difficult lie, tangled in some thick rough. Unable to get up and down, I made par when only a birdie would do. I finished the round with some steady but not miraculous golf and signed for a 74.

Although I was disappointed in not qualifying (72 was the number) I was pleased with my performance. I had thoroughly enjoyed the round, I had plenty of birdie chances – in all I hit 15 greens in regulation and had 37 putts. If only I had putted better. I told you putting has been letting me down!

Walking to my car, I noticed the crowd milling around the scoreboard; some golfers rueing missed chances, others relieved they had progressed to the next round, while a few others were putting and chipping, getting prepared for an imminent playoff. For me, the golf had finished for this day, but I looked forward to qualifying in the years to come.

Standing next to Muirfield’s putting green watching the world’s best, I thought back to my own putting game and the problems I’ve had. Even with my knowledge and background I am not immune to the latest fads and ideas. It’s easy to get caught up in miracle cures and marketing hype.

How hard can it be to roll a ball across nice green grass? Let me tell you it can become extremely difficult if you concern yourself with every minute detail of stroke mechanics. And this was exactly what I had done for over two years without ever realising it. I thought I was talented enough and putting simple enough to get away with some technical input. How wrong I was! Let me now say I will never be so stupid ever again.

Thinking about the culture of golf and the way most individuals play the game compared to the way I now believe it can and should be played, I could see a similar comparison to Bethpage Black and Muirfield. One form of golf appears to be contrived and artificial while the other form is natural and simple. It’s just there, waiting to be enjoyed and experience while the other form seems to get all the attention.

After 15 years of experiencing both forms of golf I know which game I will play for the rest of my days! I’m through with aiming for technical perfection and the perfect swing -I want to play golf and have some fun along the way (and the occasional good score).

My time at The British Open was a delight. To see so many golfers reach the heights of human potential was inspiring. It’s a credit to the human body and our massive learning potential that when we get it right amazing things happen. I walked away confident that I was on the correct path for golf mastery and I looked forward to applying what I had learned.

As the Scottish mist once again rolled over this beautiful golf course and we headed back to the car park, Kendal left me with a riddle,

“What does GURU mean?”

It has taken me a while but I think I’ve worked it out

Gee, you are you.

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