Gary Hallberg was one of those golf phenoms. He was a four-time All-American at Wake Forest, the first person to ever accomplish that. He earned his PGA Tour card without actually having to go to Q-School, a very rare accomplishment achieved by just seven players: Hallberg, Scott Verplank, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, Ryan Moore and just last year, Bud Cauley.
Coming out, he did alright until 1996 when he made just one cut in nineteen attempts and $2,544. That was before Tiger and the big purses arrived, but still. One of the things that caused this, he admits, is that he spent a career fiddling with his swing.
He shot 5-under 65 in the first round of the Charles Schwab Cup, and finished in 2nd by himself. His visit to the media center at the Desert Mountain Club’s Cochise course, produced a fascinating series of ruminations about how all of that fiddling got him there:
Hindsight, if I would have putted better I probably would have thought my swing was great. You know how we are as golfers.
I was inconsistent. I felt like I played with players, and they would play better, they hit the ball better than me. Although I did hit the ball very well most of my life growing up, and in high school, college, my rookie year, it was never a problem.
Then I got one of my first big lessons, and changed my swing, and after that I just kept changing. That’s back when Leadbetter — not Leadbetter, but Jimmy Ballad was big. These names were popping up. These great instructors. You would be on the range there, and you look over and wander over there and ask him what he thinks about my swing.
I think I played too much golf, a lot of golf. And when you get tired, your swing may tend to not be the way you would like it. Instead of just taking some time off I’d just change it so it would be fresh again. I did a lot of that.
How do you say what does a golfer do? You have high expectations. I always felt like if I wanted to win, I had to have this kind of a game instead of being content with, you know, this game I don’t think I can [win with] — although the game is good enough, and if you stuck with it, and putted well, and worked hard at it, it probably would have been plenty good to me. Win lots of tournaments.
Back then, you know, you did your own thing. There weren’t a lot of entourage around. You made your living and you went home. It was lot different. Now there is so many people.
It’s on TV, the critiquing. You can watch yourself play and see what you did. You have coaches you can travel with, help you.
I don’t know, I just always changed. Maybe I just enjoyed that. I tend to be a little bit like that. My personality is a little like that too. I get bored very easily. Maybe ADD, whatever.
I want a new toy. I want to change my swing. I want to go right‑to‑left for the next month instead of left‑to‑right. I want to hit it higher now. I’m tired of hitting it [with a lower trajectory]. Maybe I will change clubs now. Let’s [change the lie of the clubs] to 5 degrees upright instead of 1 degree flat.
I was doing things likes that all the time. It’s a miracle I was able to keep going. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been always fresh for me. It’s always been a lot of fun. The best players want it to be boring. When it’s going well, it’s boring, right? And I think that’s how you got to be, and I am trying to be more like that. Let the game be boring.
His caddy and good friend, Mike McGetrick, is also his coach:
I’ve known Mike probably for 32 or three years. I worked with him over the years, and just up until about two years ago he started caddying, I think the first year maybe 8 or 10 events and last year about the same. He helps me a lot. It really helps me to have him there watching me.
I get a tendency, like I said, to go down these roads. [He] knows what I need to do, and when I start going off, Mike will be say, Gary, where you going? What are you doing? I think I’m going flat [on the swing plane], I’m bowing [my wrist], instead of being a little cup, I’m thinking of going full boat.
Come on, you can’t be doing that. You just shot 67 yesterday. Maybe I shouldn’t. Okay, we will stick with what we’re doing.
Like I had a good round today. Played nicely, the same thing. We are going to go on the range. I’m going to want to go, hey, Mike, what do you think about this? He is going to nip it in the bud.
There is humor in it, too. You know, how do you say — a swing is, I call it a one second dance for me. I have this one second dance. I walk in, I have a little routine and then I do it. And I have to do that over and over and that’s how I make my living, you know.
So you want it to be fun and good. It’s an odd way of making a living but that’s kind of how we do it. So I am trying to get a couple of variations to do the same thing. That’s what I work on a lot.
But he is clear-eyed about the consequences of all of this:
When you fiddle you go off it a little bit, it keeps it fresh. If you keep doing the exact same thing, it gets stale. And you have something that’s pretty special and you feel it’s really good, you want to keep it fresh.
And the only way to do that is to leave it alone, or do other things and go back to it. I think there is a lot to that.
I feel — my swing is a feel. It’s a one second feeling. I go through this — this is how this is going to feel and then I go do that. I’m not responding to the target and wailing away. I have a sense of my little thing I’m going to do. I want it to be fresh, because then I can do it over and over. As soon as it starts like, jeez, how do I do that now? It gets very difficult.
But he definitely doesn’t think of himself as being mechanical, it’s all in the feel:
So you’re not thinking about swing mechanics, you are thinking about the feel of it?
The feel of it, exactly. It’s different. It’s an interpretation.
I understand. So do you play to a target or do you play to the feel?
I pick my target, I set into my target to hit the shot that I want and then it goes into total feel of what I’m going to do for my swing which is pretty much the same every time.
With the feel in mind or with the target?
No, the target is gone. In fact, I’m swinging to the ocean. Once I’m in there, if I’m going to hit a high cut, I lay that face open just a little bit, I’m a little left. I may put the ball a little bit forward and my dance is going to stay on. I’m not going back. I’ve got this feel. And once that’s set, and I go, it’s like I’m going out into the dark, you know? I’m just going right to my finish. And I look up and I find the ball. Oh, there it is, going to where I want it to go.
That’s the way, you know, got to be free and be able to swing. You can’t interrupt it. When I get too much out there, I interrupt this and it’s not as aggressive or as consistent.
We are getting deep here, guys.
[Jocularly] That’s what we are after. We don’t want trivial stuff here.
How does desert golf typically suit your game and what are you expecting for the rest of the weekend?
That’s a good question. Early this week, one of the things I mentioned to my caddy, Mike, I said, I’ve got to be real specific with my target out there where I am going. It’s a lot of sky [here in the desert]. You get in there, if you are just playing by feel, you can get lined up, you know, off a little bit. So I make sure I’m coming in [to my set-up to the ball], you know, ball, spot, I’m coming in, so when I’m set up, I know where I’m going. So that, for me, I have to be more specific with the spot kind of in front of me and where I am going to start my ball.
And all of that is how he ended up comfortably perched at No. 19 of the Top 30 on the Charles Schwab Cup points list and exempt for next year. And he did it his way.
Most of the players I have interviewed over these two years have routinized their swings to the point that all of their attention is on the target when they swing. Hallberg is very meticulous about setting up to his target, but when he swings, he’s very present to the feel of it and not the target at all; his setup takes care of that. As he says, “I’m swinging to the ocean,” and, “It’s like I’m going out into the dark, you know? I’m just [swinging] right to my finish. And I look up and I find the ball.”
And now that he’s found his swing, he’s stopped tinkering with it…for the most part…except to keep it fresh…but only as far as his coach will let him.
Gary Hallberg: a true frontiersman.