VIDEO: At your breaking point?

In learning a game that can be filled with frustration, the best advice may be contained in a cliché: Practice really does make perfect.

Or, as Kiln Creek Golf and Country Club head professional Jamie Connors puts it, "Perfect practice makes perfect."

And it's the perfect time of year to start putting your new skills to the test.

Gary Anderson, teaching professional at the Hamptons Golf Course, said this is the time of year when his requests for lessons spikes. People are charged up after the winter, "and they want to start fresh," he said.

Before you head off to the nearest green, here are five major ways you can improve your game.

GRIP (See video at dailypress.com/grip)

The grip is the first contact a golfer makes with his club, like a handshake. And it's an important introduction.

"Your grip is the only relationship you have with a golf club," said Connors, who is also a former ESPN golf school instructor.

Often, that relationship starts on rocky ground. People try to hold the club with their fingers, instead of the palm of their hand.

Greg Overton, head professional at Newport News Golf Club at Deer Run, demonstrated this by holding a ruler up to a golf club, noting that both form a straight line. He then wrapped his hand around the ruler, his palm parallel to its surface.

"That's now called square, which means you're aiming properly," he said. The grip will feel unnatural at first, and will appear to actually be angled when the club is turned to address the ball, he said. He encourages his students to practice a parallel grip often, even in front of the television.

"The hands have to be on (the club) properly, because once you move your hands away from your peripheral vision, you have to feel them," Overton said. "You use sight and feel to learn this game, and uneducated hands will lead to a fruitless search."

Once you've mastered how to hold a club, you also have to know how to let it go. Anderson said holding onto a club too long leaves golfers with their hands pointing too far skyward and the clubface too open.

He cited Sergio Garcia's tactic of keeping his left knuckles down on his downswing.

"That would put the clubface square," he said. "Keep rotating, like you're hitchhiking with your left thumb."

SWING (See video at dailypress.com/driving)

Attached to the hands, naturally, are the arms. This is the next and maybe the most important step in the wheel analogy Overton uses to explain golf concepts.

"The spokes are the arms, and the bicycle wheel has spokes that are connected to the center, and the bicycle wheel moves in a very nice, circular fashion," Overton said. "Break some of the spokes, and the bicycle wheel wobbles."

Anderson said too many people make a "casting" motion, like in fishing, at the top of their swing, breaking their wrists and swinging them outward instead of completing a smooth, powerful arc.

"Learning how to swing a golf club is simple. It's not easy," Overton said. "And most people don't want to do things that are difficult. So they'll accommodate themselves."

Anderson also sees golfers fail to transfer their weight properly on downswings.

"They leave their weight on the right side or the left side," he said. As a result, "the club doesn't hit the ball on a descending blow. You're gonna hit it fat, hit short of the ball, take up some dirt."

Problems with swings also occur when a golfer is too focused on hitting the ball as far as they can, resulting in hooks or slices.

"Too many times, people view golf as boxing," Connors said. "Golf should be more like dancing."

STANCE (See video at dailypress.com/badhabits)

Dancing, of course, requires balance. Along with the proper grip, a good swing requires a proper stance.

"We tighten our arms and our chest, and bad balance produces bad golf shots," Connors said. "Good balance produces good golf shots. If you have good balance, your body's in control of your arms. If you have bad balance, your arms are in control of your body."

This is the hub in Overton's wheel.

"It's a steady center, not a rock-still center," he said. "There's a lot of bad statements in golf, like keep your head still. That just totally eliminates rhythm and athleticism."

Connors also cringes when he hears students tell him they're concentrating on keeping their heads still. He calls up video on his computer of Annika Sorenstam and Woods, pointing out the easily detectable motion of their heads as they swing.

"You can't move with your head down," Connors said. "Your head should move in your backswing. I haven't seen a good player in the world yet whose head doesn't move."

Another mistake players make is trying to swing in a straight line.

"There's no straight line in a circle," Overton said. "So the golf club should appear to be moving in an ellipse from the perspective of the player. It moves in an ellipse or a curve, and then it moves behind the player. I see too many swings going vertical like a Ferris wheel. That leads to immediate broken wheels. The arms separate from the torso, and then the hands get into uncomfortable and uncommon positions."

And then there's the issue of aim. Right-handed golfers often line up over the ball with their right shoulders angled toward the flag.

"That creates a position that makes them have to come over the top (in their swing)," Anderson said. Proper alignment, he said, would be with feet, hips and shoulders left of the target, and the clubhead aiming at flag.

SHORT GAME/PUTTING (See video at dailypress.com/putting)

(See video at dailypress.com/bunkers)

Ironically, the part of the game that accounts for more than half of a golfer's strokes is the one he typically spends the least amount of time addressing.

Chips, putts and bunker shots don't possess the pizzazz of a big, booming drive. But they're just as important to a low score.

"A person who's gonna practice is gonna usually hit their driver most," Anderson said. "They never practice their short game. Most pros will tell you about 65 percent of all your strokes are from 100 yards in."

Those include bunker shots, where misconceptions mingle with sand. People either bury their clubs in the sand, or strike only the ball and watch it skitter across the green, Anderson said.

"You've got to make sure you hit the sand two, two and a half inches behind the ball and keep the club moving past the ball," he said. " .... You want to swing a little more like a V- or U-shaped backswing, come down and take the sand."

Perhaps the most visible, and pressure-packed, element of the short game is putting. This, too, requires a proper grip. Regardless of the style - claw, reverse, what have you - the intent must be the same.

"We're not trying to create much force and we're not levering the golf club" at the bottom of the wheel, Overton said. Connors said the putter should swing like a pendulum in an unbroken triangle with the arms.

"Aim would be your most important thing," he said, advising golfers to pick an intermediate target between the ball and the hole and take practice strokes looking at the cup, not the ball or the club.

"What the best putters in the world do now (is) get their putter up to speed and remain constant through impact, not accelerating," Connors said. "The swing should be like a pendulum on a clock."

Anderson advised envisioning throwing a bucket of water onto the green. Whichever way the water would roll, that's the way your putt will break, he said.

MENTAL APPROACH

Improving your golf game also requires a clear head - and an open mind.

When the majority of people stand over a golf ball, far too many thoughts are bouncing around their brains, Anderson said.

"They don't think about where they're hitting," Anderson said. "They think about how to hit the ball, so you get too mechanical. ... You've got too many things cluttering your head. Just think about, take a club and swing it at the target. That will help you be more aggressive through the shot."

People can also get too attached to one habit, or to one club. Just because you hit the best shot of your life with a 7-iron from 150 yards, Anderson said, doesn't mean that you should automatically reach for a 7-iron for your next approach shot.

"Now that's their common shot to every green and they always come up short," he said. "Take enough club, because on most golf courses, most of the trouble is in the front of the green."

If what you're doing isn't working, you have to be willing to change it.

"Each step of the way, (golfers) have errors, and usually a student has compensations for those errors if they've been playing," said Overton, who said breaking bad habits can take three to four weeks. "So if you correct an error, you have to correct the compensation also."

It also helps, Overton said, to understand golf as a bigger picture, not fragmented pieces of a puzzle.

"I had a person not too long ago wanting a lesson to fix his irons," Overton said. "That's a lack of concept, because ... the golf swing is the same, whether it's a driver or an iron. The geometry and the physics don't change."

But if one's game is to improve, everything else has to be open to it.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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