When Jon Fitzgerald reached the age of 40 he embarked on an all-too common quest; to make his golf game as good as possible. His film, The Back Nine, chronicles his project. The story starts with a brief personal history of Fitzgerald, his life with his father and stepfather, and a look back at his youthful athleticism.
Like most of us, Fitzgerald has to keep a lot of plates spinning in his life. He has a wife, a job and, at the start of the film, one child. I was interested to see what Fitzgerlad’s effort at the age of 40 would look like compared to mine at nearly 50.
It was quite impressive if at the same time more than a little dismaying.
Fitzgerald started out, as do so many golfers (myself included) by seeking the help of a professional. Now, seeing a golf teacher is far from odd, but what Fitzgerald did went far beyond working with a pro. Rather than just a golf teacher, Fitzgerald started out with a visit to a Yoga/Golf guru in Arizona. She then referred him to a strength coach, who referred him to a swing coach, who referred him to a guy who uses a battery of imaging devices, including a vest with embedded sensors, that would allow Fitzgerald to have his progress monitored via the internet.
There is a part of me who envies the resources Fitzgerald employed, but there’s a bigger part of me who finds it all rather sad. Every player thinks he should be better. They think they should hit it further, straighter, and they should make more putts than they do. There’s something about the attempted blending of golf and technology that suggests to average players that they really can be better if they have all of the information they need. Of course, this is nothing new. Ben Hogan started a good deal of the madness with his now ubiquitous references to pronation and supination in his classic, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.
I can’t prove it but my guess is that Hogan, with his undeniably modest education, didn’t know what either word meant until his co-writer, Herbert Warren Wind, told Hogan what they meant. I also can’t prove that Hogan’s use of those two words caused far more confusion than they did understanding over the last few decades. But, they surely have caused a lot of confusion.
Wrapped up in nearly every technological breakthrough in golf instruction is a basic fallacy; that knowing will always make you better. Knowing begs the question of knowing what? In Fitzgerald’s case (and mine, too) the most profound if sobering knowledge is that we’ll never be all that good. We lack the basic ability to be very much better than we are. Fitzgerald’s swing at the end of the films looks pretty much like his swing at the start. He has rather a notchy backswing and can’t quite clear his hips coming through impact. I have the same problems and lots of others.
Do I seem pessimistic? Or, do I seem envious?
No matter what I am I will admit some players get better, I’ll even allow they get better because of solid instruction. But it seems to me there’s a difference between one on one instruction and the technological phalanx Fitzgerald subjected himself to. Players who get better in golf usually do it through a series of hard-won self discoveries. The purveyors of technogolf would have us believe that they know what we might never discover on our own. Fitzgerald discovers he needs orthotics since his left foot pronates (there’s that word again).
I’m glad some great players with somewhat unusual swings didn’t live in an era when the technogurus could have screwed them up. Honestly, what would these guys have done with Lee Trevino’s self-discovered practice of aiming left while swinging right? If he were young enough, he would have probably listened to them, adjusted his stance so that it looked and measured parallel to his intended line of flight. They would have also shown him that his head dropped 6″ from address to impact and they would have fixed that, too.
And, Lee Trevino would have vanished into golf’s abyss, never to be seen again.
For already accomplished players technogurus may not do too much harm, then again maybe they do. At age 35, Tiger Woods is rebuilding his swing for the third time. I am certain that each time a technoguro convinced him, arguably the best player ever to play golf, that technology proved that his swing needed a substantive change.
Of course, no swing stays the same, and even golf’s old timers sought help in formal and some not so formal ways. But, it’s my contention that one of the reasons contemporary players can fall so fast and so far is from their growing reliance on the certitude technogurus offer. Think of the declines of Chris Riley, Ty Tryon and David Gossett to name only three. Did their games really decline or were they let down by the relentless analysis of technogurus?
At UCLA’s Royce Hall there is a quote from Plato that goes something like this: Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found to be indispensable. The tools championed by the technogurus are genuinely impressive but whether they are indispensable, or even truly helpful, to players is far from certain.
I’m busy writing an golf book for women. In it, I use this phrase: You will also never master this game. You will, however, go from discovery to discovery for the rest of your life.
Golf is a solitary game of self discovery. The congregation of golf’s technogurus may honestly believe in what they do. But, that’s not really what matters here. What matters is that the elegance of self discovery remains at the heart of golf.