Strange golfer shows me a better way …

His swing was short, really short and had this funny loop to it. When I first saw it my initial reaction was to laugh. It was a golf team practise night and I thought Gary was a ring-in. How on earth could this guy, with this strange (some would say horrible) swing, be good enough to play for the golf team?

Looks can be deceiving. Gary hit the ball well and could really play. He was consistent and I was to learn on our walk around the course he played to a scratch handicap. He was the best golfer in the group and had been playing very good golf for a long time. Nobody could put a finger on why he could play so well – but no matter the situation he had this knack of being able to get the ball into the hole. It was impressive to watch and he certainly got my mind working.

It was the early 90’s and I was just starting to play some decent golf. I could hit the ball a mile and was bringing my handicap down. I was erratic, but if I got it together I was able to beat some of the older and more experienced players in my club.

But I couldn’t beat Gary. And he had a way with words…

“You don’t know how to score!”
“You keep hitting the wrong shot!”
“You’ll never be any good if you can’t use your mind better”
“I have a terrible swing but I’ll beat you every time”

He told it how it was. At the time I didn’t like Gary that much, thought he was arrogant and his words cut deep. I didn’t know how to handle his criticism and I was too dumb to listen. I also thought he was just lucky – my view at the time was you needed better technique to play the game. This guy was on a lucky streak and surely wasn’t that good because his swing was so awful.

But time after time Gary would beat me. Half the time he’d turn up drunk (he loved to party) and still beat the pants off me.

He’d hit the ball into the trees and still make par.
His mishits would somehow stay out of serious trouble and he’d keep the ball in play.
He’d miss the green in the impossible position and get the ball up and down and save par.
When he was on he made a heap of birdies and would break par with regularity.
He almost always putted well – he rarely missed those short ones and three-putting wasn’t an option for him.
He just scored well. He shot scores that nobody in our club could get near to.

One time I walked into the Clubhouse thinking I’d played well. A 71 (1 under) on a mildly difficult day had me brimming with confidence. I had played well and hadn’t wasted too many shots. Gary was sitting at the bar – he was in full flow – probably 4 or 5 beers in (Gary always played first thing in the morning).

“Whatcha shoot Strachan?”

“71”

“Not good enough today Champ. I had a 65!”

65! The guy was on drugs. Nobody could shoot 65, it wasn’t that easy. I was frustrated and wanted to know what his secret was. Gary’s playing partners said he could have had lower, he actually missed a few putts late and he was a little slow to get going (probably still hungover).

My game was more flashy. I could hit the “hero” shot and get people talking. I could hit driver off the ground and fly it 250. I was able to smash the ball from the tee. I could bend and curve the ball around obstacles. But I couldn’t truly play the game. I rarely played well when it counted and I couldn’t be trusted to win the important matched for my team. I was unreliable and prone to choking. I couldn’t play golf like Gary.

If you can’t beat them join them. I became more friendly with Gary as I got older and started to feel more comfortable around him. And I was improving, by now my game was as good as everybody else, Gary was still number one, but I was 2 or 3 in the team.

Gary took me under his wing. We played more and I learned a lot from him – especially after he had had a few beers. Gary was phenomenal with course strategy. He hardly ever hit a shot he didn’t think he could play. He played quite conservatively but had all the confidence in his ability.

For example, the 2nd hole was a drivable par 4 and everyone would try and drive the green. Everyone except for Gary. He always laid up, about 65 metres short, and would rely on a pitch and putt. This made no sense to me, surely going for the green would give you a chance for eagle…

… but an eagle wasn’t on his radar, he wanted birdies and his game plan was tailored for birdies. Here’s Gary’s reasoning;

“Cameron, I don’t hit the ball as far as you guys. Maybe I could drive the green one time out of 10. But what about the other 9 times, what’s going to happen then? I’d probably miss the ball in those deep bunkers and not be able to get up and down. When I lay it up to 65 metres (pointing to the spot) I can get the next shot close. Plus, I can always hit it here. Even into a strong wind, this spot is in reach – downwind I can hit an iron. I’m in control and I make lots of birdies on this hole.

“I watch you guys blasting your drives and I see lots of mistakes. I never bogey this hole and probably make as many birdies as I do par. You guys make the odd eagle, but how many bogeys are you making? You’re making plenty of bogeys because you’re hitting the ball into some terrible spots, plus you don’t have the short game to get it up and down”.

Gary was smart enough to stick to his guns and play golf his way. He rarely wavered and it was a part of the reason he was so consistent. He actually didn’t care what everyone else did, he was determined to play his way no matter what.

Gary’s coaching and ideas about golf were helping me. I was definitely playing better and even managed to beat him in the Club Championships. This was my biggest triumph, beating Gary over 72 holes was an accomplishment.

The light switch goes off

I had started to practise with Gary because his good play and habits rubbed off on me. I hadn’t really worked out his “secret” and still thought he was on some amazing lucky streak. Then one day, I saw something I hadn’t seen before.

We were hitting shots on the driving range. As usual, I was busting drives and long irons as far as I could. There was no stopping me, I just loved to give the ball a rip. Gary was hitting little pitch shots – it wasn’t really my scene but something caught my eye.

Gaz was pitching the ball around 40 or so metres into a small roped off section of the fairway – I think a drain had long busted and the greenskeeper had forgotten to remove the temporary barrier.

And here was Gary taking advantage of this small target. He was pitching ball after ball into the same spot. He was on the money and making it look easy.

It wasn’t. I had a go and kept going long or short. I was frustrated and had another go. Miss. Gary couldn’t miss. This short shot was deceptively tricky – you had to get the power, contact and accuracy exact, if you were off by a little, the ball would miss.

Then things got worse…

… Gary decided to move back a few metres and go again. He zeroed in on the target and hit another perfect little pitch shot. The guy really was a genius. When I had a go I felt hopeless – I had never practised golf in this way and had no feel for the shot. I was always flat out, swinging hard and hitting the ball as far as I could with each club.

Long ball striking is impressive and part of the game. But at this moment I realised how “average” I was at golf. I couldn’t pitch the ball a short distance with any sort of control. My game wasn’t up to standard and I could see the huge gulf between my game and Gary’s.

If you’re serious about your golf you need moments like this where you get slapped around. You need to be shocked into action. It’s easy to read about what’s important or being told, “you should practice your short game”, but it’s the moments where it smacks you between the eyes that has the most impact. Gary’s little display made me feel weak and inadequate but it was the jolt that I needed. I could see golf more clearly. I could feel, deep within, how (and why) Gary was such a great player and the rest of us were so ordinary.

What I learned from this golfing genius

Gary taught me that the short game is important. He did more than TELL me it was important – he actually SHOWED me in a way I couldn’t ignore. We all know that you have to chip, pitch and hit bunker shots well, but Gary demonstrated it in a way that made sense. He put me in a situation where I couldn’t hide – where my weakness was on display and there was no getting away from it.

The brilliance of the man wasn’t just in practising the short game. It was HOW he spent his time. I wasn’t stupid and completely ignorant to the short shots – it was just I never put myself in a situation where I could see things clearly. I never practised these shots properly.

I’d hit pitch shots when I warmed up, but I wouldn’t be concerned if they found a target. I’d hit the ball, look up and then drag another ball without too much care. But I wasn’t getting better – I was getting exercise.

Gaz was obsessive about using his time well. He always hit the ball to a target and was always getting feedback on each shot. He would practice like he played – each shot had an objective and he had a clear image in his mind what he wanted to do. He wasn’t just working on his game, he was improving his game.

All of this probably sounds obvious. But how many of us practice this way? And, how many of us spend our time working on the part of the game that really matters?

And this is the huge realisation that I made. It’s not just what you practice, it’s how you do it.

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2 Comments

  • Mike Divot

    Reply Reply March 14, 2014

    When you see a swing like Gary’s, you always get a barrage of comments pointing out all the things that are “wrong”. Elbows pointing here or there, bent wrists, swing “plane” (god help us), and so on.

    But how many times do you hear anyone saying all the things that are “right”? Even “ugly” swings that are reliable do a small number of things “right”. The list of “fundamentals” is way smaller than commonly thought.

    Your mate Gary had them down and was able to save his concentration for playing the game.

    Good story, and makes me want to go out and practice hitting short wedges to a target!

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply March 14, 2014

      Mike: many golfers are blind to the real genius that lies within these types of golfers. Sad. Even more sad is I think we all have our own inner golfing genius inside us, but too much thought, instruction and worry represses this natural talent.

      Gary was an amazing golfer…. I learned a lot from him that’s for sure.

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