Golf has been a huge part of my life since the age of 10, and I am sure it will remain a fierce passion for me for as long as I am able to swing a club. It’s a game that has the ability to consume an individual, whether they be a tournament professional (as I was), beginner, weekend player, or newly retired looking for something to fill their days. It provides moments of enormous pleasure (such as the first time you get the thing in the air, or holing that dreaded 6 footer to clinch the win) but can equally reduce grown men to act like tantrum ridden toddlers. The quest to improve is one that can never really be completed (see Tiger Woods’ several swing changes) and yet it is the search for ‘perfection’ or ‘the secret’ that allows people to enjoy the game for a lifetime. There is always a new challenge or question posed whenever you pick up your clubs.
Does this remind you of anyone you play golf with?
During my tournament career I progressed from a ‘rookie’ on the developmental PGA Europro Tour right the way through to having a full European Tour card. I travelled all over the world playing golf in countries as diverse as Swaziland, Kazakhstan and Guatemala, right through to some of the ‘dream’ destinations that the tour now reaches such as Leopard Creek in South Africa or Crans-Sur-Sierre in Switzerland. I experienced the pressure and adrenaline rush of winning events that literally changed my life and earned me thousands of pounds and also the dejection and dark days of suffering injury and feeling a career slipping away. Everything you might feel in a Saturday medal is something that a tournament professional goes through and then some.
That feeling you have when you get paired with the club champion is how I felt being paired with Darren Clarke at Sun City 6 months after I turned professional. When a scratch player knocks it past you off the tee, think about how it feels to see Nicolas Colsaerts sail one 50 yards past your Sunday best. That first time you get your name on the club wall was me winning my first European Challenge Tour event in Egypt in 2004: whilst I always thought it possible, I never really knew if it would happen until it did. Suffering with a sore back and seeing your handicap creep back up into double figures is how it felt when I physically couldn’t swing the club as I wanted to and subsequently fell back through the ranks of professional golf, never quite being able to recapture my best form even when the pain had disappeared.
Back home with the trophy after my first European Challenge Tour win in Egypt 2004
(Hair gel was on offer in Duty Free……)
Whether you are a beginner, 18 handicap, scratch team member or professional, the game throws up the same challenges, frustrations, thrills and spills and it is this that fascinates me now I am coaching the game. We all seem to reach a level that at some point plateaus, despite our best efforts and for some this is ok, for others it can be a constant cause of frustration that often results in a backward spiral. For me I had 5 years of progression as a professional which was mirrored by 5 years of regression and frustration that ultimately led me to move on and seek a new role within golf. Now, a few years removed from this it is clear to me that I had strayed from the formula that had allowed me to reach a life-long goal of playing on the European Tour, exceeding the accomplishments of some of my peers who may or may not have been more ‘talented’. I became similar to many who play golf and started to focus purely on results to feed my ego, judging myself according to how I played rather than going out to improve each and every day and being proud of that, as I had done previously.
A question I often ask people is why they play the game? It is amazing how many can’t answer. Surely the root of the answer must be for enjoyment. Nobody ever picked up a club for the very first time with the sole intention of challenging Tiger or Rory. Similarly, I am pretty confident that no-one started with the goal of playing a sport that would lead them to want to wrap their clubs around a tree in an uncontrolled rage!
It’s not just amateurs who let the game get to them!
That enjoyment will be derived slightly differently for all of us. Some just enjoy the social interaction golf allows, others simply the feeling of hitting the ball sweetly. Personally, golf allowed me to satisfy my competitive instincts and by playing good golf I was able to get that rush of adrenaline that every professional sportsperson craves. This was what fuelled my desire to practice. To this day I am a terrible ‘social golfer’, it doesn’t get my juices going and I subsequently struggle to perform anywhere near my potential. For many, the pressure of competition terrifies them and may stop them wanting to play, yet they still turn out in the monthly medal to collect the dreaded ‘point 1’ increase on their handicap. Again, ask yourself the question “why do I play?” and your approach to how, when, where, what attitude and with whom you play should be governed by the answer.
Even those who enjoy the 19th hole more than the previous 18, might find that first sip of their favourite beverage tastes a little sweeter when they have played well though (not to mention those priceless “bragging rights”). However the thought of having to spend countless hours, hitting endless buckets of balls in order to improve is a huge turn off for most people, particularly when there is no guarantee that it will lead to success. Caddies famously refer to the practice ground at tour events as “misery hill”, usually full of guys struggling to make the cut, who wear the blisters on their fingers as if they were badges of honour. I believe anyone can improve their golf, however most don’t because they go about it the wrong way. By taking a step back from your game and honestly assessing your capabilities it should be fairly simple to figure out what skills you need to improve in order to achieve your own unique goals.
I often get told “my short game is fine” by people playing off an 18 handicap, to which my question is normally “could you beat me in a chipping competition?”. Of course the answer is no, so if this player really wants to improve their scoring then they are missing a huge opportunity to progress by neglecting a very important part of the game. Equally, it is astonishing how many golfers will happily ‘beat’ balls without ever establishing a target, how can you possibly assess what you are doing if you have nothing to measure it by? It clearly makes no sense, however common sense and clear structured thinking often go out the window as soon as the clubs come out.
Everyone knows that if they really want to lose weight then the answer is to eat a sensible diet and exercise more, and yet that advert for the latest weight loss fad is still a huge temptation for most. Similarly, the vast majority of golfers spend their golfing lives searching for the elusive ‘secret’ that will forever transform their ball striking. They switch from one swing thought to the next and try every well-meaning tip that they receive from their mates or read in the most recent golf magazine. The real secret is that there isn’t one, or at least not a magical instant fix, despite what some may promise. Those who really improve at the game almost always do it by figuring out what they need to get better at and then steadily chipping away at it, usually in the simplest way they can. There can be huge satisfaction in seeing small daily improvements and this approach can lead to dramatic gains over a period of weeks and months. Graham Walker, who coached me to both of my European Challenge Tour wins, used to refer me to Olympic swimmers who would train over a 4 year cycle to try and improve by fractions of a second. They were literally trying to improve by the width of a finger nail at a time and it is this realistic approach that is key to actually reaching your potential.
There is a myriad of information available to golfers now and some of the technology can be simply mind blowing, however handicaps have changed very little in the past 20 years. Coaches now have access to video, launch monitors, force plates, 3D motion analysis and numerous statistical platforms with which to either help or bamboozle their students, never mind the infinite number of tips that are available from the internet. Golf ‘nuts’ could now literally spend days stuck in a ‘YouTube vortex’ searching for that one magical revelation that will give them that extra 20 yards, or eliminate their slice forever (the reality is this approach typically results in more confusion than improvement though).
Exactly which tip is the ‘the secret’……?
The technology available, should however enable improvement. It has both confirmed and corrected information that great coaches of the past had to rely on instinct for and if used correctly can unquestionably aid a player’s game. The real skill is in identifying what you need to extrapolate from the information to really influence the improvement you want to see. Whether it is a video or a detailed report from a bio-mechanist, a player should remember that it is only feedback from that moment in time, it is never the answer for the rest of your days and if you are seeking perfection then I am afraid you are perhaps playing the wrong game. Identify your strengths and use them, isolate your weaknesses and seek to improve them (or find an on course strategy that negates them), however keep in mind that your golf game will always be evolving. Get involved in the process of getting better each time you pick up a golf club and enjoy it. There will be good days and bad days and that in itself is one of the tests that golf throws up: are you able to stay on an even keel when the chips are down or will you revert back to the endless search for ‘the secret’?
Renowned Tour coach Pete Cowen used to tell me as a junior that the “road to success was always under construction” and as I look back at my career there is no question in my mind that my most successful periods coincided with this kind of attitude. My goal in practice was that I was going to be better at the end of the day than the beginning, even if it was just 0.001%. When on the golf course I would be satisfied if I had simply given my best, irrespective of my score and I took pride in trying to string together good rounds rather than trying to win tournaments from the very first hole (‘competitive instinct’ will always kick in down the stretch but sometimes it needs to be tempered). Now, as a coach my goal is to help separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ for my players so that they can see a clear path for improvement and ultimately enjoy their golf more for their own personal reasons. It is important that they recognise there is a process involved though, and embracing this is really ‘the secret’ to golf. Just like the change in lifestyle which is needed for successful weight loss, most golfers would see a marked improvement in their performance if they changed their approach to this great game rather than constantly plunging their hands into a lucky dip of swing thoughts.
Gareth Davies is the Head Teaching Professional at Abbeydale Golf Club in Sheffield. He is a former European Tour player and has competed all over the world, during which time he has worked with some of the best coaches in the game. He has been recognised both regionally and nationally whilst he completed his PGA training.