Date: May 22, 2015
Author: Paul Skinner

FEATURE: Just get the ball in the hole

What do you think would happen if your club took the flags off its greens in Saturday’s competition?

Not the holes, just the flags.

Well, after the mayhem and initial confusion, I can tell you what would happen.

You’d shoot a lower score.

I almost guarantee it.

The proof comes from statistical evidence – and from the wisdom of some of our game’s greatest players.

Jack Nicklaus once said: “I only ever hit it close if I pushed or pulled it.”

Greg Norman once said: “If I hit a great 5-iron, it goes to 25 feet.”

Essentially, two legendary golfers were aiming away from the flag, often simply to the centre of the greens.

Which goes right back to my club competition theory.

If you aimed exclusively at the middle of greens, with no other target in mind, you’d find yourself putting a lot more than you otherwise might, especially if you regularly aim at “sucker pins”.

Here’s how I know this.

As an eight-year-old I was lucky enough to meet Peter Fowler, who quickly became a mentor and the reason I pursued golf as a career.

I practised every day and in 2000 earned my Australasian Tour card – my dream achieved. Or was it?

I battled for years with limited success.

I hit more balls on the range than anyone, trying in vain to perfect my swing.

During this time I would caddie for Peter during gaps in my limited schedule, even working on the European Tour for a while.

Peter is known as one of the hardest workers on tour and for his meticulous preparation and course management skills.

One of the sport’s greatest short-game exponents, he’d consistently amaze his peers with the scores he churned out, even while playing less than his best.

In all this time watching Peter, you’d think I’d have learnt my lesson. He was trying to teach me how to play golf; I was trying to play golf swings.

Golf is a game of misses. What defines golfers is the quality of their play when things aren’t going quite right; when their so-called “perfect swing” isn’t quite perfect.

I once asked Peter to tell me of the better rounds he had through his career and without a moment’s thought, he answered: “I shot 74 in the third round of the Scandinavian Masters back in ’89. Mate, I could not have had one less!”

And this from someone who has shot a 63 to win on the European Tour!

So I finally learnt the lesson.

Even now the best golfer in the world might win three times a year, so there are going to be a lot of weeks on tour that will be a battle.

So it’s meticulous course management and preparation when things aren’t quite working that helps us to score.

Three years ago, my good friend and Victorian Institute of Sport coach Marty Joyce asked me to present a talk on course management and preparation to Golf Australia’s national squad at a training camp.

I’ve since had the privilege of working with Golf Australia as a coaching consultant and they’ve been some of the best times I have had in golf.

The kids are incredibly talented and, trust me, are truly the best this country has to offer.

And it’s incredibly fulfilling that they are now taking towards having that scoring focus, not just honing that perfect swing.

We now have access to myriad statistical data. One we study religiously is proximity to hole – essentially how close Tour players hit the ball, on average, from any given distance.

We are using this data to challenge our players to think more about clubs they’re hitting off the tee and, in particularly, approach shots.

We use terms “in position” and “out of position” and hopefully getting them to understand that top tour professionals fire away from a lot of pins.

One of the theories we pose is that if a top-10 player in the world hits a 7-iron to 25 feet (sorry, the data isn’t metric), if there is any trouble within that radius, we need to aim elsewhere.

An example of this for those who know Royal Melbourne is a pin within eight feet of the back left of the second on the East Course.

If you go just 10 feet past, you’re dead and cannot get up and down – an automatic bogey at best.

Playing into that green with a 7-iron, knowing our likely proximity to the hole is 25 feet, the pin I am playing to is short right of and taking two putts all day long.

To hit it close to that pin is a mistake — which is why I am so determined to make these kids get it!

Is this a conservative approach?

A lot of people have challenged me on this in the past few years – and the answer is simple.

No, it’s not. It’s simply playing to statistical data that cannot be argued.

Bernhard Langer used to have a “seven out of 10” rule. He would say, “I need to know I can hit this shot seven out of 10 times today, else it’s a different shot or a different club”.

Peter, when asked why his short game was so good, said “a lot of it has to do with where I am chipping and putting from”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for repeatable technique. I coach it every day.

But I think among our elite young athletes, we are starting to get the balance right between good technique and actually playing the imperfect game that is golf.

That culture is starting to shift.

To have kids the calibre of Ryan Ruffels and Lucas Herbert go to Japan spending nine hours creating their own yardage book; to start hearing them talk about “being in position” and “out of position”; to see them warming up on the range hitting all the required shots for the day; checking pin sheets and weather conditions pre-round; is really cool to me.

And I’m pretty sure it will pay off for Australian golf.

Paul Skinner is a member of GA’s high performance staff and consults to the VIS, Golf Victoria and state associations. He can be contacted at Martin Joyce Paul Skinner Golf, located at Spring Valley Golf Club.
M: 0433 122437