The long and short of it

By: | Published: September 11, 2016 6:12 AM

It requires a fundamental change in approach to focus on the short game

One of my earliest golfing memories is watching Jyoti Randhawa practising at the Meerut Golf Club. I was 15 years old then and consumed by golf fever after picking up the game a year back. Randhawa asked me to hit a shot and I nervously bladed a seven-iron. Randhawa told me to keep at it and uttered a few encouraging words about my swing. Besides the embarrassment of that duffed shot, what I still remember, clear as day, are the towering ‘riser’ drives that Randhawa was striping down the first fairway. Hit with a descending blow, the ball shot off low for about 250 yards and then miraculously rose high before settling softly on the fairway. It was an unforgettable sight for a youngster who had never seen a golf ball being hit as far, as effortlessly and in so much control. Randhawa doesn’t hit that shot any more except when he’s trying to keep it under the wind. The ‘riser’, as impressive as it looks, has long been abandoned to the high ball-flight that gives added distance off the tee.

Reminiscing with my dad about that day, I realised that he has completely different memories of that interaction. “Yes, the drives were fantastic, but don’t you remember those lovely little greenside bunker shots he was hitting? They landed softly and nicely pulled back a foot or so,” he said. After he mentioned it, I plumbed the depths and found a faint recollection of the shots dad was talking about. Truth is that I had been so smitten with Randhawa’s drives that I had wasted no time pounding my own bag of balls rather than follow him to the greenside practice area.

That pre-occupation with distance off the tee continues to this day and, honestly, it’s a damning insight into why my dad, who never hits it longer than 220 yards straight down the middle, continues to thwart my efforts to get the better of him.

Another family anecdote that comes to mind is dad telling me a few years back that while he appreciates how much I love the game I should really try another sport because I don’t have the ‘temperament for it’. Needless to say, I didn’t take that very well and certainly did not heed that advice seriously. What he was trying to say in not so many words was that a needless obsession with distance or, for that matter, trying to pound the ball as hard as possible with every club in the bag is hardly the way to play golf.

Thankfully, I have company in my flawed approach to the game: most amateurs are equally skewed in their focus and their practice towards the long ball. Something not lost on equipment companies that release bigger and more forgiving drivers every year in a ploy to bait weekend golfers on a quest for bigger and more booming drives. The fact that the ten-yard greenside bunker shot, or approach, counts as much as that 250-yard drive off the tee is conveniently ignored and shoved under the carpet. Who wants to spend hours in a bunker practising shots, or little chips off the green when you can tee it up and go all ape on the ball?

And that works fine when you’re on your home club where there’s really no new strategy required and you know exactly where to hit the ball. Trouble arises on new courses where you’re required to ‘place’ the ball—off the tee, and off the fairway—while avoiding hazards that aren’t already mapped in your golfing brain. That’s when the ‘grip it and rip it’ swing falls apart and fear takes over. Your muscles get tight and the ball goes precisely where you don’t want it to go. Without a doubt, the best way to get an accurate reflection of the merits of your swing (or lack of them) is to play courses you’re unfamiliar with. That’s when it hits you: this is a game of precision.

It would be easier to subscribe to that philosophy if your golfing heroes aren’t the likes of Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson. If all you’re seeing on television is pros bombing it 300 yards and hitting wedges into 500 yard par-4s, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be motivated to work on a deft touch around the greens. Admittedly, there haven’t been too many role models who’ve taken the battle to the sluggers on the international stage. But if you are looking for touch wizards to emulate, then look at former world number one Luke Donald or, for that matter, current world number four Jordan Spieth. While Donald’s run of 40 consecutive weeks at the top of the world rankings in 2012 is the biggest testament to the power of finesse over brute strength, Spieth’s marvellous run at the majors is a striking blow for strategy and putting prowess.

But when it comes to having your cake and eating it too, there can be no better model than the world number one Jason Day. Not only does the Australian average well over 318 yards off the tee, he also possesses one of the finest short games on tour. The driver may be his ego-massaging club, but his wedges and putter are what he scores with. Perhaps the best advice for amateurs came from PGA Tour player and Major-winner Geoff Ogilvy who remarked in an interview to The New York Times that amateur golfers love the driver because “they think they’re practising to have nice scores, but they’re really only practising to have fun.”

Would you rather have a fun day with the driver and not such a great score? Or would you rather not hit any blinding drives, but walk off with a decent score? I know what the answer to that conundrum is—for me at least. But then, like my dad said, I don’t really have the right temperament for golf.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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