10 tips for attempting to conquer ‘the game of kings’

A view of the back nine at Riverside Golf Course in Menominee. Established in 1901, it is the U.P.’s oldest golf course. (Ann Dallman photo)

By Ann Dallman
Ah, golf: the game of kings and of business deals. Or as Bobby Jones once famously said, “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play the ball where it lies.”
Golf lore is filled with the antics of the legendary Titanic Thompson. Ben Hogan, a Hall of Fame golfer, called Titanic “unbeatable” due to his uncanny ability to play right- or left-handed. A known hustler, his favorite gambit was to play an opponent right-handed and lose the bet. Titanic would propose a rematch, double or nothing, and offering to play left-handed. Of course, being gifted at playing either right- or left-handed, he won the bet! Another advantage was that he could play well under pressure.
We can’t all be Titanic Thompson (or even want to be!), but what every golf player does want is to optimize his or her options, whether they’re coming from bad breaks, good shots, good breaks or bad shots. The goals are twofold: to keep one’s score (and thus one’s handicap) as low as possible and to win at the game. Easier said than done. Players, including pro Tiger Woods and NBA All-Start Michael Jordan, have found the game to be equally challenging and fascinating.
Every golfer has advice and shares it freely. Golf pros have their own tips and game plans, but the game can be pared down to ten key pieces of advice gleaned from years of play and conversing with the guys and gals on the course.
Practice. As in any sport, the timeworn adage “practice makes perfect” is true. Whether you spend that extra time on the putting green or the driving range, practice your game and be serious about it. If the weather prohibits outdoor practice, then find an indoor range. Set up an impromptu “putting green” indoors using a piece of AstroTurf or reconstruct one in your backyard.
Relax. Pay attention to your attitude. The game is a challenge mentally, but don’t overthink it. You want your muscles to perform to their maximum ability, which is more likely to happen if you’re staying relaxed. Tight muscles move slower than relaxed ones. Try using guided imagery, and imagine yourself playing at your best, tackling each situation with calm confidence. Your grip should remain firm yet relaxed.
Patience. Take your time. Your goal is to play as well as you can at your skill level. Assess the situation, and choose your club accordingly, even if it takes a moment to make your selection. Don’t rush your shot: the pros don’t, and neither should you. If other players are pushing you from behind, signal them to play through.
Make sure your right elbow hugs your body. A lot of attention is given to the fingers, wrists and shoulders, but what about the elbow? Attention to the right elbow (if you’re right handed or the left elbow if you’re a leftie) is key. Keep the elbow tucked and hugging your body during your backswing and downswing to ensure your shot is a good one.
Choke down on your club if you are having trouble with contact. First maintain a correct posture by standing up straight and extending your arms. Knees should be flexed as you bend from your waist. When you “choke down,” you will move your hands toward the bottom of the grip. One of the main reasons for “choking down” on a driver is to improve control and, thus, accuracy.
Don’t overshoot. A key part of golf is being able to judge distances and understand how far that ball will travel once you make contact with it. “The golf swing can be like a chameleon, changing sometimes from hole to hole, perhaps even shot to shot for high handicappers. The ultimate goal is to find one that repeats and hold up under pressure. Truth is, we all have swing faults that make the quest for a repeating swing difficult,” said Tiger Woods in Tiger Woods: How I Play Golf.
Know your clubs. A golf instructor told me this is the first thing she tells her students. Her advice? Get to know when to use an iron and when to use a wood. Whether wood or iron, the heads are shaped and slanted differently for a reason. The slant gives the club a different angle, and each causes a different result. Get yourself a good manual, look it up on the internet, find a video or read a book on the subject. You can also take a few lessons to find out which club or iron to use in different situations. And then experiment. Go out and practice, practice, practice until you find what works best for you.
Keep your eye on the ball. It’s important to feel your swing, and keeping your head down and your “eye on the ball” helps to do this. Do not take this as a literal instruction but more as cautionary advice to keep your head down while rotating to the right. While performing your backswing, you will be turning back and might be viewing the ball with your left eye. Again, “eye on the ball” doesn’t mean just one eye. You might switch the focus from right to left as you rotate your head. This is okay.
Golf with a better player than yourself. We learn from testing our own abilities and pushing ourselves forward in life, and so it is in golf. A friendly match can be a learning experience. Watch the other player or players. How do they line up for a tee shot? What club do they use on the fairway? On the green? What’s their stance as they putt? What observations can they offer you about your game? Ask them to tell you the one or two things that helped them the most as they sought to improve their game.
Try a yoga class. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Remember the above advice about staying relaxed? About how relaxed muscles perform better than tight ones? Yoga relies on learning proper breathing techniques and stretching. Golf is a game of physics: using your body to move the club to hit the ball, creating torque or a force powered by that turn. Proper torque creates a strong swing.
Golf is the game of champions and kings, but it’s also a game of skill for anyone up for the challenge. Remembering some of these key points—stay relaxed, practice, know your clubs, get help from others—can help improve your game. Most important, enjoy yourself, whether you are a beginner or a seasoned player. It can be daunting trying to play at one’s best while striving for improvement and enjoy it while doing so, but isn’t that where the ultimate “win” is?

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