Fore! No, really, look out. I have dusted off my old golf clubs to hit the links, and it isn’t pretty.
You see, for years I have been a little intimidated by the golf course. My brother Anthony is always trying to get me out to play a round with him. It sounds like fun, spending some time away from the busy life, getting some exercise in nature, hanging out with my brother and friends.
But there is something about hitting that little white ball that keeps me from wanting to go out. When I swing, the ball doesn’t go in the direction that I want it to go, and IT IS SO FRUSTRATING!
I am afraid I might hurt someone.
But I want to be able get out and enjoy the game. I want to feel the joy of hitting a drive down the center of the fairway. I pine to be able to hit a wedge that lands near the hole and feel the rush of excitement of dropping a putt for birdie.
And, most importantly, I want to know the feeling of beating Anthony at this silly game he is always pestering me to play.
So, I needed some help learning how to hit that little white ball straight and far.
I turned to Brian Short, who is the head PGA golf pro at the Penn State Golf Courses. Brian set me up for a lesson and I think he knew right away that I was a little nervous about it. “This is going to be fun,” he said, and I tried to believe him.
Before we got started, I told Brian that I know my way around a golf course because one of my first jobs back in middle school was working as a caddie at country club in my hometown of Milwaukee. Despite working at a golf course, I never really got into the game. I even won a nice driver once at a banquet as one of the top caddies of the year, but I still can’t hit a ball straight with it after all these years.
Holding a tube of toothpaste
Brian laughed and said could help me out. First things first. I had to learn how to correctly hold the club.
We used a 7-iron, because it is the middle-length club in the bag.
“I always say that if you are going to remember one thing, remember how to hold the club properly,” Brian said. There are three different types of grips that can be used: overlapping, interlocking, and a 10-finger baseball grip.
Brian asked me how I held the club when I played before. I held the club in a rough interlocking grip. In this type of grip, a right-handed player grabs the club on top with the left hand and thumb down, forming a v-shape with the thumb and pointer finger that points toward the right shoulder. Then the right hand comes in similarly with the v-shape pointing to the right shoulder. The right pinky and left pointer finger interlock.
That was easy, but the next thing he told me I would really need to think about every time I swung the club. You see, I want to hit that ball as hard as I can, so I usually use all my strength to grip that club as tight as possible. This is all wrong.
“You want to take the club and pretend you are holding on to a new tube of toothpaste and you don’t want to squeeze any out,” Brian said.
“Even when I’m swinging?” I asked.
“Yes, even when you are swinging. Everybody wants to hit the golf ball as far as they can. So they try to grip tight. Well, what happens to all the muscles in your arm when you make a fist? They tense up. So, can you move those arms fast? No. Can you move your arms fast when they are nice and relaxed? Yes.”
It made sense in theory. Brian then moved on to teaching me how to stand to take a swing with an athletic stance, slightly bent at the knees.
“Most guys our age can relate to this; I want you to think that you are getting ready to sit into a bar stool,” he said.
“I can do that,” I said with a laugh.
Then, as I held the club in front of me in my athletic stance, he said to let my arms hang naturally and comfortably, with the club positioned directly behind the ball.
“We are not going to try to reach for it and we are not going to try to be real close to our body; we want those hands to be in a nice relaxed position,” Brian said.
It’s important to always play the ball in the middle of your stance every time when you use irons to develop consistency, he said.
OK. Now it was time to swing.
Brian had me start with a half swing, where the shaft goes back only parallel to the ground on the back swing. He had me put the toe of the golf club upwards when I reached that parallel position, which required me to twist my hand ever so slightly.
After reaching the halfway point, the shoulders twist and swing the club back down, brushing the grass with the club hitting the ball before coming back parallel with the ground on the follow through with the toe up.
Wow, a lot to remember. He had me practice it a few times without the ball and even then I struggled, at first going way past parallel and sometimes not even touching the grass with the club on the swing.
But after a few go-rounds, I think I had it and we were ready to hit a ball.
Our intrepid photographer Darren Weimert was positioned about 10 yards in front of me, slightly to the left, ready to get a good picture of that first real swing. I wasn’t sure about it, but I trusted that Darren knew what he was doing. Before I took a swing, I said, “I’m not going to hit you, man.”
Of course, it went zipping past his head, missing him and his camera by less than five feet.
After that, Darren stayed far back behind me.
Brian said he was worried that might happen, because I was not placing the toe of the club upwards when I swung, so the club face was positioned to the left, causing the ball to go to the left.
“You have a tendency to do that, I can tell already. So, what I like to say is, on that backswing, you come back like you are going to shake my hand,” said Brian. This would help open up the club.
With Darren safely behind me, I tried again. Success! The ball traveled a good 70 yards and somewhat straight.
I kept practicing and, eventually, I was feeling more confident.
‘Any contact is good’
“Look, you haven’t played in a long time, so what I tell people who are new is that any contact is good. You think that the ball is just sitting there, so I should be able to hit it. After all, it’s not baseball, it’s not moving, but it is tough to do. Any contact is good,” Brian said.
I had a tendency to come down and hit the top of the ball, and Brian noticed that I was coming out of my stance and standing up straight. So, yet another thing I was focused on. But it helped.
As I was hitting the half swing more confidently, we graduated to the three-quarter swing.
For this shot, I was to raise the club until my body formed an uppercase L on the backswing and then turn through the ball until I reached another uppercase L on the follow through.
Again, I hit the top of the ball the first couple of times. After I focused on my stance, I really started hitting that ball. Brian laughed in amazement in my progress.
“I like it, I like it a lot,” he said.
With more confidence, I started trying to crush the ball with all my might, and things started getting sloppy.
“Look, if you ever watch golf on TV, those guys that hit it a country mile, they are swinging at about 70 percent of what they can actually do and they still hit it that far; but they are swinging to keep in control,” said Brian.
I took my time and I swung again, with control. The ball left my club with a swish and a whack and traveled beautifully straight out to the range.
“Did you hear that sound?” said Brian. “That was what we want; beautiful.”
It felt pretty good. I was hitting the ball pretty far and straight. Maybe I could play this game and have fun after all.
When it was time to depart, Brian said I had made a lot of progress and he hoped I kept at it at the range or returned for another lesson.
I grabbed my old rag-tag set of clubs from the basement and set out to the range that next weekend. I took out my old prized club that I won at the caddie banquet all those years ago and teed the ball up. I thought of Brian and all the things he taught me: relaxed grip, where to stand, backswing, and follow-through. I swung away.
After a few mulligans, I found some consistency. I was using that old club to hit the ball far and straight. All I can think of now is, watch out, Anthony. I am coming for you, and when I do it is going to be fun.
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.