Why Are You STILL a Hacker?
by Lawrence Martin
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Step 1. Admit You're a Hacker
The difference between hackers, good amateurs and the pros.

I have never read a golf book, except my own when I edited them.
Jack Nicklaus, during an interview on The Golf Channel

The game of golf is hopelessly difficult to master. Nothing you read in a golf book or magazine is going to help you much, without concomitant practice and development of muscle memory for a decent swing. Golf is not like learning to ride a bike (you either stay up or you fall), studying to climb a mountain (you either reach the summit or you don't), scuba diving (you either breathe under water or you drown), or countless other skills that involve some motor coordination. Golf is like learning to play music.

Let's say you have zero musical background but, as an adult, decide to study piano. You passionately love music, but never took any lessons; now, as an adult you want to learn. Your spouse is supportive, but you have a regular day job and can only practice on weekends.

How good can you become? You will forever be an amateur of course, and not a very good one. You might learn to play Beethoven's Fur Elise, but most of the time you will be playing before an audience of one - yourself. (Well, two during a lesson.)

When you listen to a professional pianist play Beethoven or Mozart, do you say 'Why can't I be as good as she?' Of course not - you know why you are not as good. Unlike yourself: she started playing as a child; she has talent, recognized early and nurtured along by a supportive family. For professional musicians, talent nurtered early in life is a sine qua non.

Same thing in golf. Virtually all professional golfers started playing as children or young teens. An early start in golf is so universal among the top players that starting past puberty is almost an anomaly. In a brief bio on the internet of Miguel Angel Jimenez, a 1999 European Ryder cup team member, the author thought it interesting to note (italics added):

"Consistent Spaniard is...an ex-caddie who only took up the game when he was 15."

Imagine. Only took up the game when he was 15. How old were you when you started playing? But there's more than just starting early in life. All professional golfers have talent, nurtured along the way by their family, often, in fact, by a a golf-professional parent (which includes any golf-related job, including greens keeper). Arnold Palmer and Raymond Floyd grew up on a golf course, Davis Love III's father was a famous teaching pro, Tiger Woods' father retired from the military so he could devote time to raising a golf wunderkind. And there are many more examples.

Touring pros like these are the best of the best, but you will find the same thing with all professionals and top amateurs. They started young. They have some athletic talent. They were nurtured or encouraged by their families. And they played a lot of golf as kids and teens. A lot of golf.

So there's the secret. Start at a young age. Play a lot of golf. Hit a lot of balls. Have a supportive family. It's like the old cruelty joke: To get rich choose your parents wisely.

Start the game in middle age and you can't become a top golfer. The following table gives a broad idea of the differences between 'them' and 'us'. The later you start the game, the less chance you have of becoming a low handicapper. Similarly, the fewer balls you've hit in your lifetime, the higher your handicap. It is probable that all the top pros hit 365,000 balls by age 20. That's only 100 balls a day every day for 10 years, or 200 balls every day for 5 years (using all clubs). I would bet almost every golfer who has ever won on the PGA tour hit 365,000 balls by the time he was 20.

The difference between Pros/Top Golfers, Good Amateurs, and Hackers

Top Golfers, Pros Good Amateurs Hackers
Started playing as kid or in early teens Started playing as kid, teen, or as young adult; rarely start after 30 Started playing as adults
Has had a coach, mentor, or other dominant teacher Usually has taken some private lessons Usually has taken no or very few private lessons, and then only sporadically; group lessons common
Has natural athletic ability; very good in other sports May have natural athletic ability; good in other sports May have no natural ability; may play no other sport well
Has hit 10's of thousands of balls, spent thousands of hours in practice Has hit thousands of balls, spent hundreds of hours in practice Has hit perhaps hundreds of balls, spent a few dozen (or less) hours in practice
Plays 18 holes often; belongs to a golf club Plays 18 holes regularly; usually belongs to a golf club Plays less than 20 times a year ("weekend golfer"); if belongs to a golf club, mainly for social reasons

To be a scratch golfer (one who plays at par) you must hit over 365,000 balls by the time you are 30. That's 50 balls a day for 20 years. To have a single digit handicap you must hit over 182,500 balls by age 30. That's 25 balls a day for 20 years.

These numbers are my estimates based on observation and interviews. If the issue was ever studied formally, the actual numbers might be higher or lower, with some variation depending on the golfer's own innate ability and talent. But I have no doubt the numbers are 'in the ball park' and reflect what's really needed to become a top player. How many balls have you hit in your lifetime? If you are a hacker, probably no more than 10,000. Do you practice a lot? Then maybe you've hit 20, perhaps even 30 thousand golf balls in your lifetime.

20 to 30 thousand golf shots may sound like a large number, but if you've been playing 10 years, 30,000 only comes out to 58 golf balls a week, not enough to play 18 holes a week, or to groove any good swing during practice (and chances are most hackers have hit far fewer). Considering the numbers that top golfers have hit to get where they are, why should you be any better than you are? Golf's a hard game, and you haven't dented the surface. Where do you come off thinking you could (or should) be better than you are?

You didn't start young? You don't play a lot? They why do you think you can get good at this game? It's like music. It's not easy. The problem with us hackers is that, because we occasionally hit a great shot, we sometimes think that with just the right maneuver the shot can be repeated, and our game will soar. It will not. It's like music. We will never play like the pros or the top amateurs, ever. But we can improve in three important ways -- and thus escape hackerdom.

First, we can develop an understanding of the swing, i.e., of what it takes to hit the golf ball (including those important things before you take the club back, like stance, alignment and posture). Second, we can learn about playing the game: things like how to choose the right club for a given shot, course management, basic golf rules, and golf etiquette. Third, we can determine a true handicap, which is nothing more than an honest numerical assessment of our level of skill. If the scores that go into determining one's handicap are kept by stroke category, you can easily dtermine what parts of the game need improvement the most (e.g., the full swing, the short game, putting).

Understand that the top golfers were not "taught" to play golf the way you are most likely trying to learn. It is safe to say that no top golfer ever learned the game from books or videos. They played first, learned how to hit the ball by observation and imitation and repetition. When, by virtue of lots of ball striking and playing -- and some talent -- they became top golfers, their methods were analyzed so others could learn from them.

But note the fundamental difference between them and us: Top golfers learned first and analyzed afterwards. Paradoxically, all books and magazines and videos aimed at weekend golfers take the opposite tack: they want you to study the movements first, hoping you will then learn afterwards. Of course, this process is antithetical to the way all top golfers learned to play the game. Golf is taught opposite the way top golfers learn to play.

But what else can modern instruction offer today's struggling adults? Instructors can't very well say: "Mr. Jones, quit your day job, move to a golf course, hit 500 balls a day, copy what the good golfers around you do, play 5 times a week, then come back to me and we'll discuss your game." So instead, instructors (in all media) tell you or show you what top golfers do to hit the ball well in most situations, and assume that you will learn from this information.

I do not denigrate all the analysis. Unless you have unlimited time to learn the way the pros did (unlimited playing time with constant coaching by a pro/mentor/parent), you will do well to study the swing by reading books or viewing videos. For all good players, certain body positions and movements - of the head, neck, torso, arms, etc. - seem to accomplish the purpose of the swing most efficiently and repeatedly. Top golfers have been studied over the years and their movements and positions described and categorized into "fundamentals" of the golf swing. (About which there are numerous books -- See Golf Bibliography.)

If you peruse instructional books and videos you will quickly realize there are infinite variations to the good golf swing. Within the variations, is there enough consistency to crown a single "proper method" of swinging the club? Without doubt the answer is a resounding NO. The only thing important is that the club head contact the ball the way you want it to, generally square to the ball (more about his later). How one gets the club head square to the ball with the right amount of speed is as highly variable as are fingerprints!

Now here's the rub. Instructional books are generic. They are written for a mass audience, and therefore set forth a general set of movements for the swing. The swing is something like this for right-handed golfers:

Bring the club back straight, raising it while keeping the left arm fairly straight. At the top of the back swing the club head should point to the target. On the downswing the path should be inside a line running through the ball to the intended target line. After striking the ball, follow through with the club head remaining inside the target line. Your weight should shift from the right foot on the back swing to the left foot on the follow through. At each point of the swing there are certain desired positions for your head, your back, your elbows, hips and feet. Your grip on the club is crucial to execution. And last but not least, the ball must be properly positioned between your feet.

Hopelessly complicated. So much so, that you really cannot learn swing fundamentals from a book or video. You will need a pro or someone with a pro's experience to show you how to swing the club. Books and videos can be helpful to reinforce certain points, to give you ideas, and to solidify your concept of what you are doing, but that's as far as they go.

Here's an analogy. You show your kids how to ride a bike. It's easier than golf, certainly. You probably learned using training wheels, then without training wheels on the driveway. The goal is to push on the pedals to turn the wheels to get from point A to point B, without falling down. Now imagine if you had to teach riding a bike with the following set of rules:

With the right pedal up and the left pedal down, and while sitting on the bike seat, flex your right leg to form an acute angle, with the knee joint at approximately 35 degrees. Keep you left leg on the left pedal, extended as fully as your height will allow. Apply downward force with your right foot so the pedal descends smartly. The bike will start to move. As the nadir of the right pedal is reached with your right foot extended, your left leg will rise and flex to to 35 degrees. Repeat the process, initiating downward pressure with your left leg. During these leg cycles, keep both hands firmly on the handlebars, leaning slightly forward and with your weight in the middle axis of the bike, so as not to fall to one side or the other.

Ridiculous, isn't it? Who learns to ride a bike with those instructions? Well, something similar happens in trying to teach the golf swing. "Keep your left arm extended, head straight, etc. etc."

That's not the way to do it. First, learn what the swing is for. Then study the swing. It may be true that "The swing's the thing," as is popularly taught, but it's not anything if you don't know what it's for. First understand its purpose, then let your teacher show you how to do it and/or how to improve it.

In fairness, one can learn to ride a bike in an afternoon, whereas learning to play golf is a lifetime's work. But you get the point. The pros didn't learn to play golf by studying the swing. They learned by doing, and refined their game over the years. While doing, each future pro had a mentor or parent or someone to emulate, to guide them, it show mistakes and how to correct them. The process of learning took time, but when you start at 8, 9 or 10 what's five to ten years? Most hackers start golf too late -- way too late. They don't have the early formative years to spend on the golf course, emulating others and, through trial and error, develop the repeatable swing.

That is why, as an adult hacker, you must - repeat, must - study the game, and by that I mean both "the swing" and the short game, including putting. You must understand what the swing is for, and you must realize the importance of the short game for scoring. Once you understand these things, the correct body positions and movements can be taught/refined by your teacher, and you will gain them through practice.

How you study and practice will be discussed in other Steps of this book.

Table of Contents/ Go to Preface/ Go to Step 1/ Go to Step 2/ Go to Step 3/ Go to Step 4/ Go to Step 5/ Go to Step 6/ Go to Step 7/ Go to Step 8/ Go to Step 9/ Front Nine Quiz/ Back Nine Quiz/ Golf Bibliography/ Internet Sites Listed in Book
Lawrence Martin
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