The Ball Is the Target

By: Jeff Shelley

I was really looking to playing good golf this year. Despite my 54 years on this planet - some would say I've done time on Mars, I'm as fit as ever. I workout at the gym three times a week, and do 90-minute sessions of yoga on the other two weekdays. Golf on the weekend, always packing my clubs at my hilly home course, Sand Point in Seattle, completes what seems to be a decent physical regimen. Coming into 2004, I viewed my prospects thusly: The golf world would be my oyster - or to quote the band, World Party - "The future's so bright I gotta wear shades."

Not quite. I started off well but, after a couple of months of multiple two- and three-putt rounds, I made the mistake of asking our club's two assistant pros for a quickie putting lesson before a round. I'd always placed the ball quite far away from my body when putting. Despite looking like the second coming of Isao Aoki, it worked pretty well. Until this year. After another disappointing day hacking it around the short-cut swards, I demonstrated my putting style for Jon and John. "What are you doing!?" they exclaimed. "You can't putt like that! You've got to move your hands closer to your body and hit the ball on the middle of the putter head!"

Somewhat sheepishly, I left the pro shop and vowed to become a changed man. I dutifully employed Jon and John's 10-minute instructional the very next round, with, of course, only a couple of the re-tooled strokes on the practice green beforehand. Well, what do you know. I was smacking the ball quite solidly, and sometimes it'd even end up near or in the hole! Unfortunately, the ball was struck so well it would often roll 10 feet past the hole. During one ignominious round, I racked up almost 40 putts after missing a spate of those 10-foot come-backers.

But I was undaunted. For the first time in years, it felt like I was striking putts solidly. The pro shop guys were on to something. Sadly, I had no idea of how to consistently maintain the ideal ball-from-feet distance, nor where my hands should be to keep the putter blade flat on the ground. Some putts were hit on the screws, while others went about as far as a mosquito's wing could propel them.

I realized it just might be my Ping putter. Maybe it was time to retire Karsten's old pock-marked club. So after another exasperating nine, I decided to go to our pro shop at the turn and find a new putter. I asked Jon about the various models in the shop. Sensing my considerable angst, he asked, "Do you follow through on your putts or do you punch them?" I said I was a follow-througher. He said take the TaylorMade Rossa Mezza Monza. My savior was going to be a fancy-looking flaming-red gizmo that looked like it would not only overcome faulty technique, but magically retract the putts that were suddenly going to find the bottom of the cup. Not wanting to be stranded by the other members of my foursome, I said, "Give me that thing," and bought it on the spot.

For the next couple of rounds, things went smoothly. The Monza was a sudden bonanza, filling me with confidence and turning my golfing buddies-opponents into whiny trash-talkers. But, in too short a time, the wonders of the heel-toe-weighted fire-engine-colored putter with the plush cover dissipated, reducing me, once again, to a raving chop. I tried hard to work out the kinks with my new $150 marvel on the practice green, but to no avail. The longer putts were fine. But, my God, anything inside 3 feet was a disaster. Left, right, blasted past the hole - the spin on my short putts rivaled that of Billy Mayfair's (a comment heard more than once) but without his uncanny accuracy.

One of my final rounds with the Monza was played with a friend who's also one of our club's best players. Tom Phillips is a scratch golfer and a member of the Hudson Cup Team (the Hudson Cup is an annual competition pitting the Northwest's best professionals and amateurs against each other). When Tom talks about golf, you listen. He suggested I draw a long straight line on my ball and have it correspond to the line on the putter head. So I bought one of those cheap plastic templates and dutifully began drawing lines on all my Titleists.

Tom uses - quite artfully, I might add - one of those long putters that barely fits into your car trunk. He knew what I was going through though. He knew my problem wasn't the club's distance from my body, nor my grip or the angle of my hands. I was being vanquished by the dreaded yips. Tom knew that by telling me to focus on lining up the putter with the ball I would be using a sounder technique. But, more importantly, I wouldn't be focusing so damn hard on missing the short putts.

For the most part, Tom has been right. The psychotic jerk-stroke occasionally resurfaces. But usually, by aiming the ball and putter lines toward the hole - while separating my feet a goodly distance to lay the blade flat, the ball goes into the hole most of the time from short distances. Oddly, throughout the ordeal I never lost my senses on long putts. And the Ping is back in my bag.

Of course about the time I got the yip wildfire under control, hotspots unmercifully ignited in my regular golf swing. I suddenly had no idea where I was hitting the ball, spraying it all over the lot. Starting the year with a 9 handicap, I soon rose to my current unlucky 13. The problem continued until a couple of weeks ago when I had - and I hate the word - an epiphany.

Not unlike Tom's measured advice, I now focus on the ball, not the target.

So my mantra these days is, "The ball is the target, not the hole." If you think about it, that's not a bad way to swing a golf club. For if you can't hit the ball, you won't find the hole. My set-up now includes: getting into my stance, be pointed in the right direction, grip the club, take a final peek at where I'm going, and let it fly - never taking my eyes off the back of the ball during the entire process.

Instead of cussing up a storm as before, I now say, "Where did it go?" since I'm so intent on the ball. The new technique seems to be working for the most part. At least until another conflagration crops up.

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