Champions In Full Flight

From a fan’s point of view, we couldn’t have had a much better final round at The Heritage played at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

There was first, a three-hole playoff between Brandt Snedeker and Luke Donald, two champions in full flight. What was at stake was Donald’s ascendancy to the throne of World No. 1 with a victory and evidence for Snedeker that his first victory in his rookie year way back in 2007 was no fluke.

This was one of those moments where both were playing extraordinarily well and it was a shame that one of them had to lose. The playoff was marked by stellar drives, Donald maintaining his equilibrium with cameras going off in his backswing, an instinctive, seamless, fearless putting routine by Snedeker and spectacular bunker shots by Donald.

And even when it looked like Donald was out of it on the third playoff hole—his fried-egg lie in the bunker caused him to run his ball across the green and into the first cut of rough—in a do-or-die effort to keep the playoff going, his chip shot caught the right lip of the cup before it spun out and Snedeker’s par won the tournament.

A couple of things about these two, Donald first. I forget who pointed it out—probably Nick Faldo or maybe Peter Kostis—but for all the salivation about Donald’s glorious swing, there is an imperceptible flaw in it that causes him trouble. Because of the look of the swing, he is known for his ball striking. But in the Tour statistic that is most emblematic of that, Greens in Regulation, he ranks 141st on Tour.

Simplifying, the flaw is that in his downswing, instead of his hips turning through the strike, they lift through the strike. So instead of having a stable, rotating platform from which to deliver the clubhead to the ball, he has a lifting platform that requires him to compensate by timing the hit with his hands. Make no mistake, it takes a very high speed camera slowing his swing down to dawdling frames to see this.

The point is that here is one of the best looking swings in the game of golf and even it is flawed. He’s smart enough to know this—he did graduate from Northwestern—so he practices his short game incessantly. I don’t know this first hand, but he has to be, because the recovery bunker shots he hit yesterday were nothing short of spectacular.

The lesson here for us perhaps, is to realize that for as compulsively we work on our swings trying to make them perfect, they never will be. Donald has his lift, Tiger has his dip. But both are glorious swings to the naked eye. So while we labor away in the pursuit of perfection, we always have to be mindful of the number one tip Tour pros have for amateurs: work on your short game.

As to Snedeker, it wouldn’t work for me, but I love what his pre-shot putting routine says about the possibility of trusting our instincts.

As all good players do, he takes his time reading the putt. So when he arrives next to the ball, he knows the line he wants to hit it on and the speed to hold that line. He assumes his stance and then he takes four or five strokes with his putter hovering over the ball. They don’t mirror the stroke he will actually make—it actually looks like he’s just waving the putter quickly back and forth—they are merely designed to free his putting stroke up. And then, while looking at the hole, he puts the putter behind the ball, his head turns back to the ball and, in a flash, the putt is away. No agonizing looks up and down the line, no infinitesimal, micro adjustments of the putter’s alignment. Just look and go. Bam.

This technique is not for everyone—I prefer practice strokes that prepare the body for the stroke it’s actually going to make and, because it’s the essence of being able to trust your stroke, I want to be sure that that putter face is properly aligned—but the freedom it provides for Snedeker makes him look like he is in flight as he putts. It almost looks irresponsible. It makes you want to yell, “Wait! Wait!” And then the putt rolls straight at the hole at the perfect speed. So there is no “right way” to do anything in golf.

Do I have any other evidence of that? Well, yes I do. That would be Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey. Peter Kostis analyzed his swing yesterday and called Gainey a former baseball player who adapted his swing to golf.  In slow motion, it’s a swing that only a mother could love. It lunges and lurches through its arc, but bless his heart, Gainey instinctively understands how to keep the clubhead moving through the ball to the target.

I spent a lot of time following him in Phoenix and the swing, although idiosyncratic, looks much better in person. And without ShotLink stats, his ball flight and distance are indistinguishable from those with classic swings. He gets the job done, and, in one of the most heartwarming results from yesterday, he finished third in his native South Carolina and earned a tidy $388,000. This guy will win a PGA Tournament if only by sheer will. What a player.

And finally, another feel-good story. Tim “Lumpy” Herron has slowly been fading into oblivion. I have no idea why. He made just $392,000 in 2010 and dropped from $1.2 million to just $620,000 in 2009. And until yesterday, he had only made $57,000 this year. Hopefully the T4 yesterday that earned him $251,000 will get him back on his feet. He’s one of the Tour’s characters and they need him.

Snedeker, Donald, Gainey and Herron. Champions in full flight. It was a wonderful thing to watch. What a great game.

This entry was posted in Mastery, Mastery Sunday, Putting, Short Game, Trust and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.