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Golf : Instruction Can Complicate Simple Game

Tom Barber says it’s mind-boggling, the volume of words devoted to instruction in golf magazines--often making the backswing as complicated a procedure as the Manhattan Project.

“As long as they have all of those periodicals, we’ll never be out of work,” Barber said, laughing.

Barber is the teaching professional at Griffith Park. He says that no other sport is more analyzed, dissected, or theorized than golf.

Any high handicap golfer, or low for that matter, has been told countless times to keep the head down, straighten the left arm, turn his back on the ball, initiate the downswing with a lateral movement of the hips, and follow through, along with other advice on how to strike a stationary ball.

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Barber says he tries to simplify the game for the average golfer. So do Eddie Merrins, the pro at the Bel-Air Country Club and UCLA’s golf coach, and Ed Coleman, a teaching pro at Rancho Park.

“We tend to complicate a simple game,” Merrins said. “The game of golf in its simplest sense is to move the ball from Point A to Point B around a predetermined course.

“Instructors tend to be too complicated, expounding at length on the simple act of swinging a club and striking a ball. Yet, the very good teacher, like the very good player, does just the opposite. He works at simplifying the game.”

Coleman has been teaching for 40 years, the last 25 as a full-time instructor at Rancho.

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“The golf tips that you read are an honest approach, inasmuch as someone believes they’ll work,” Coleman said. “But I also think it complicates the game for a lot of people. I keep it simplified.”

All of the advice, however well meaning, often tends to confuse, or bewilder the hacker, who is just trying to cut a few strokes off his game.

“Have you ever gotten to the 15th tee without having hit a decent shot all day and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to forget everything and just hit the ball?’ ” Barber asked. “So, without a care in the world, you hit the ball right down the middle.”

Merrins says that the average golfer, who avidly reads magazines or instructional books, is looking for that one clue that will make him a better player instantly.

“Dick Davies was an average, good player in this area. However, he won the British Amateur in 1962,” Merrins said. “He expressed it best when he said: ‘The thing that keeps us all going is the quest.’ In his case, he was questing to win something big.

“For someone else it might be the quest to break 90, or 80, or to eliminate the duck hook that plagues us. So the man who reads a certain periodical is looking for something, presto, to turn the light on for him.

“It’s called the Band-Aid approach. And that’s the way most instruction is, instead of a soup to nuts thing.”

Golf instruction is often contradictory, such as the notion of tucking the right elbow close to the body, or letting it fly freely for the right-handed golfer.

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“If it’s said that only one way is the right way, it would be wrong,” Coleman said.

Said Barber: “I agree with Wayne Dyer, an eminent psychologist, who said: ‘This is my way. What is your way? The way does not exist.”

The swing is, of course, the thing, and it can vary in tempo and style and still be effective, according to the pros.

Coleman says that a repetitive swing is the key.

“The swing is a thing of feel, and you have to learn it from someone who knows how to do it,” he said. “The worst little athletic types can get very good if they apply themselves because the swing is a repetitive thing that doesn’t take the athletic coordination that you need for baseball or basketball.

“The way to think of it is that you have to find a way to repeat the same swing, over and over again.”

Said Merrins: “Let’s say that we arrive at a simply stated swing that all of us can believe in. Within the concept of that swing there is still an allowance for many variables, meaning you can vary the strength and timing of it.

“You can also vary the tempo and you can vary the strength factor. You don’t have to apply full strength to every shot.

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“So the trick is to apply the right degree of strength, or force to account for the distance you have in mind. But all of this is done in the concept of the simple swing that we would like to arrive at.”

Barber notes that there can be a wide variance of swings, some of which certainly wouldn’t be illustrated in instruction manuals.

“If you tell me there is one way to hit a golf ball, I’d say you’re full of baloney,” he said. “Look at Chi Chi Rodriguez, Arnold Palmer, Doug Sanders, Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Miller Barber and my father, Jerry Barber.

“Those are world champion golfers who have personally developed swings.”

Barber said that when he talks to groups he refers, with tongue in cheek, to what he calls the “big five” functions in the golf swing: head down, straight left arm, feet the width of your shoulders, right elbow close, and posture likened to sitting on a high bar stool.

“Then, I say, ‘Who is that guy?’ ” Barber said. “I’ve been watching golf tournaments for 25 years on TV and I’m still looking for him.”

Barber and Merrins were asked to identify, in their opinion, the most common fault of the average golfer.

Said Barber: “Most golfers can get the greatest amount of improvement by taking the shackles off and allowing the normal bodily functions to take over. And most people focus on where the ball is instead of where they want it to go. If you throw a ball against a wall, are you looking at the ball, or the wall?”

Said Merrins: “I think it’s probably the tendency to hit the ball on the upswing, meaning the face of the club, or the leading edge, moves upward through the ball as though the player is trying to help the ball into the air.

“That’s mainly because we don’t have the true cause and effect relationship in our mind. The ball rises into the air as it does because of the backward spin imparted to it, which, in turn, comes from a descending stroke of the club head. In trying to hit upward, a golfer is creating a topspin effect, causing the ball to go lower than the club intended.”

Golf Notes

Rancho Park’s nine-hole course is open again to the public after having been closed for more than two months for the installation of a new irrigation system. . . . Gemma Reyne, a sophomore from Spain, is the most improved player on the USC women’s golf team. She didn’t even make the traveling squad at times last year, but has been among the top 10 finishers in the last three tournaments. She is the protege of LPGA player Marta Figueras-Dotti, a former USC All-American from Spain.

The Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department’s junior golf tournament is scheduled March 20-21 at Griffith Park. . . . Tom Watson was perplexed when a fan approached him recently and said: “I’ve been following you on golf courses all over the country for 40 years.” Watson is 39.

The Bill Kilmer Invitational, a charity tournament for the physically handicapped at Citrus College, is scheduled April 3 at the Glendora Country Club. . . . Come fly with me: The amateur prize for making a hole-in-one at the recent Vintage seniors tournament in Indian Wells was a helicopter. No one won it. . . . Desert Dunes in Palm Springs is now open to the public. It’s an 18-hole, par-72 course and the first ever designed in the area by architect Robert Trent Jones Jr.


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