News & Opinion

Swing change starts at mental re-wiring

I hate playing badly. Hate it with a passion. Who doesn't, right? But this past year probably was the worst year of golf I've ever suffered through. I was the ’62 Mets. I won't bore you with the details, but I developed a case of the driver yips, set a personal record for lost balls and penalty strokes and never felt so lost doing the thing I most love to do. It got to the point where I felt like I was wasting time, and who has time for that?

As I played nine frustrating holes in the last hours of sunlight on Dec. 31, I decided that enough was enough. I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. But what to do? I've long ago lowered my expectations and accepted that I no longer devote the time to practice and play that is necessary to shoot the scores I used to post when I played small-time college golf at Colgate. But the way I was playing sucked the joy out of the experience. I knew I needed to do something – something drastic – in 2019. I considered switching to left-handed. After all, I am ambidextrous and favor the left side with a few exceptions. But that would mean buying a new set of clubs, and if I don't have time to fix my game as a righty, I certainly can't commit to starting from scratch.

My biggest problem always has been a tendency to come from the inside, get stuck, and then flip my hands. I fight the hook, but in 2018 I developed a two-way miss that left me not knowing where to aim and hitting those once-every-three-year shots as often as three times a round. A swing change seemed more logical. I'd like to think I have another 40-plus years of tee times ahead of me, so investing the time now would be a down payment on future enjoyment. Should I take a series of lessons and beat a thousand balls? Before I jumped head-first into something as daunting as remaking my swing, I decided to talk to a pair of World Golf Hall of Famers who had done so with great success.

Tom Kite is one of the all-time range rats. In 1989, he changed his swing after he blew the U.S. Open at Oak Hill. Kite was leading through three rounds and built a four-stroke lead early on Sunday before disaster struck.

"I made a terrible shot when I was totally committed," he told me of blocking driver to the right on the fifth hole, leading to a triple bogey en route to 78.

Having never won a major, he decided to make a swing change despite winning three times and leading the PGA Tour in earnings in 1989. Other than Tiger Woods after lapping the field at the 1997 Masters, who does that? He made the swing change in late 1989 in order to eliminate a reverse C and rid himself of that untimely block.

Kite said it took 5-6 months of hard work to ingrain his new technique, and then he needed to see whether it would stand up under pressure. But he said it was worth it.

"If you're not getting better, you know what direction it's going," Kite said. "The years after I made my swing change, 1991-93, were three of my best years, and I was 40 years old."

The swing change held up under pressure. Kite won the 1992 U.S. Open for his career-defining victory.

Nick Faldo is another pro who went from good to great after committing to a swing upheaval after his swing broke down under the pressure of Sunday at a major championship. Faldo said he and instructor David Leadbetter began the process in May 1985.

"It took a long time to master the hold-off fade," Faldo said. "It didn't really click unto April 1987. I went to Hattiesburg and shot four 67s and finished second. Lead was at Grenelefe [in Haines City, Fla.] in those days. I'd hit at least 1,500 [practice balls]. I hit five of the big buckets – not the little ones, the big ones. It actually hurt to take a practice swing. By 3 in the afternoon, I couldn't close my hands."

Faldo had me reconsidering going down this path. Who has that type of time? But then I happened upon Leadbetter at the PGA Merchandise Show in January and got an impromptu lesson.

"I'll tell you how to do it without hitting a thousand balls," he said.

I leaned in for his words of wisdom.

"Time is precious these days. The less time you have to play, the less time you have to practice. People don't have time," he said, and I nodded in agreement, glad that he had noticed. "I'm developing a series of biomechanic drills, if you will, where people can literally spend 10-15 minutes a day at home creating the right movement patterns."

Sounds like the golf equivalent of eight-minute abs. Tell me more, David.

"Take a lesson for 30 minutes and you get a tip or two, and it is a Band-Aid. You're not really developing or building on anything," he said. "I'm working hard on developing a program called You Fix It, an online program. We give you the knowledge, the tools for improvement, and you work at it in a mirror, your simulator, wherever, to develop the feel that you want. That's all it is: learning the right movement patterns so you don't have to think when you play.

"You can have the best information in the world, and you can still get out on the course and suffer paralysis by analysis," he said. "If you have a series of drills and exercises that can actually break the mold ... you almost have to re-wire your systems, shall we say."

That's what I need, I thought, a re-wiring. His quick-fix adjustment consisted of changing my posture so that I stood taller, leaned slightly forward and adopted what felt like an exaggerated outside-in takeaway. If I started tomorrow doing 10-15 minutes as Leadbetter prescribed, how long until I would notice a difference?

"You'd see a difference in a month," he said. "Absolutely. It's worth doing. You can develop better technique at any age."

It was about this time that one of my media brethren stepped in to tell me I'd been monopolizing Leadbetter's time. "Adam, this guy is like $1,500 an hour, and you've taken an hour of his time," he said. "Do you have a check?"

"Send me an invoice," I said, between taking cuts with an 8-iron at the simulator. "I've got to spend the next 10-15 minutes working on my new swing."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak