Nobody does ceremony quite like the Brits, whether its royal weddings, sovereign handovers or in this case a valediction. The school in question is St Paul’s Girls, that temple to girl power in the idyllic setting of leafy Brook Green, and the occasion was my daughter’s graduation. It was a balmy summer afternoon, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 played softly in the background as we entered the hallowed hall, its lyrical playfulness capturing the joyfulness of the occasion while recognizing the school’s storied musical history. I should have been in awe of the accomplishments of these awesome young women. I should have been inspired by young Lucy Webster, a cerebral palsy victim who, in a poignant moment, rolled up in her wheelchair to claim her place in this group of overachievers. Dvorak’s ethereal Song to the Moon, performed by a talented schoolgirl soprano, should have moved me to tears. More than anything, I should have been overwhelmed with emotion as my little girl, who started here 7 years ago, stepped forward a confident young lady. Of course I felt all of these things but mostly I was in another world, troubled by the most stomach churning, bone chilling and humiliating affliction any man can experience. I had the yips.
For the uninitiated, the “yips” is a golfer’s curse, a movement disorder and complete loss of fine motor skills that causes one to freeze over and bungle that most basic of stokes, a putt of under 3 feet. The technical term is focal dystonia, and the condition apparently results from “biochemical changes in the brain as a result of ageing”. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have concluded that 40% of golfers will experience the condition at some point. The original Iceman Ben Hogan, the king of cool himself, missed a 2 foot putt (he didn’t touch the hole) on the 18th at the Masters that would have given him his first green jacket. The Hawk campaigned, unsuccessfully of course, that a putt under 3 feet should not count as a full stroke. More recently, Scott Hoch lost a Masters playoff to Nick Faldo after missing an 18′ putt. Tiger Woods likes to tell himself “my mother could make this” every time he stands over a short putt. For me the simple tactic of focusing exclusively on a target-a blade of grass, for example-had usually done the trick. It seems incredibly mindless and straightforward-until it isn’t, and then it becomes the bane of your existence. Ask Bernhard Langer.
In my case the trigger event was a recent trip to St Andrews, more specifically the 18th hole at the spectacular Kingsbarns Golf Links in a match that pitted my partner and I against a former British Amateur winner and his professional partner. Armed with my shiny new Miura blades-the golfing equivalent of the Hattori Hanzo samurai sword wielded so memorably by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill-I had been solid in my ball striking, but shaky on my putting all day. With sickening inevitability, events conspired to leave me with a straightforward putt of no more than 3 feet to halve the match on the closing hole. My mother could make this putt, my daughter could pat it in one handed, even my dog could kick this in, but wtf??? I froze over the ball, my hands would not move, and after backing off twice I managed a pathetic jerky decelerating motion that advanced the ball 2″11.9′ where it hung on the precipice for what seemed like an eternity, before a timely gust of wind pushed it over the edge. Hands were shaken, backs were slapped, even a few high fives exchanged but everyone in the group knew it. The result notwithstanding, I had choked. It happened again, twice the same day, on one occasion a 3-putt from under 2 feet. I’d had enough. My trusty Scotty Cameron, a work of art made by a master craftsman, was relegated to the already overflowing closet. Enter the Tank.
The Tank is Callaway’s response to the USGA’s recent ban on the so called “belly putters” ie putters that are anchored to the golfer’s stomach, thereby taking the hands completely out of play and reducing the putting stroke to a rotation of the upper torso. Aussie Adam Scott, with his superbly athletic golf swing and bevy of blonde babes, went from being one of the worst short putters on tour to a Major Championship winner, as did the dashing young American pro Keegan Bradley. The ageing Ernie Els overcame his putting woes to win the Open Championship using this wondrous tool. But the governing bodies of golf decided enough was enough; overcoming the yips was very much part of the game, and the use of a club that relied on anything other than an unassisted swinging motion of the arms was deemed illegal. The multibillion dollar golf industry responded with a superb innovation; rather than a putter that needed to be anchored to the body, they served up a “counterbalanced” putter with a massively weighted head, but with a heavy counter weight at the grip end of the club i.e. an anchor. Hallelujah, young Justin Rose wins the US Open using a counterbalanced ‘Spider Blade’ putter, and Ernie Els is back in the winner’s circle with a 40” Odyssey Tank #7!!! When I came across a 38” Tank #7 (they are on back order, selling like hot cakes apparently) in the Wentworth pro shop, it was in my bag faster than you can say “General Patton”. Bring it on, I was back in business!
My putting woes came in the wake of my experiments with “swing planes”, inspired by the very talented Ash Mathur, who carries his driver 300 yards with remarkable consistency and crunches his irons with radar like accuracy. He attributes his transformation to the “one plane swing”, an arcane piece of swing theory that suggests that by keeping the shoulders and club moving on a single plane, a golfer can release aggressively without fear of hitting the ball off line. Hogan was the original exponent of this type of flattish swing, while Tom Watson was probably the finest “two planer” in the game’s history. My swing is more like three planes, and worse its three different planes every time I play. Persuaded by Ash’s evangelical commitment (“buddy its better than sex when you nail it”), I embarked on a mission to transform my game. When initial results were discouraging, I figured my equipment needed to be re-configured to groove that new move. Enter the Matrix HD5 5Q3 shaft, shiny candy red with a matte black G25 head at the business end. It exuded sex and power; for the price it should offer both. After 7 lessons, at least as many erratic rounds and countless practice swings in my study, I had nothing but aching elbows and a cracked crystal doorknob to show for my efforts. This odyssey culminated in a visit to Wisley’s new high tech “Performance Center” which recorded my swing and spat out statistics with a heartbreaking insensitivity – clubhead speed down 4mph, early release, adding 3*loft at impact, swing path 5*offline… “Have you tried bridge” might have been a good postscript. As with most swing experiments, the plain truth is that lack of talent, strength, and now old age get in the way. Besides, I reminded myself that apart from athletic ability the very gifted Ash has extraordinary powers of visualization. He once compared the late season 18th fairway on Wentworth’s West course to a “menopausal woman offering herself to her lover”. Clearly, this is a man who functions on an altogether different plane.
These then are the manic machinations that consume the obsessive golfing mind. To my friends and my family, next time you wonder why I’m not really listening, now you know. Back to my upright multiple plane swing and armed with a 38” Tank #7, I look forward to tomorrow’s round (in steamy Singapore) with great anticipation. Turns out I brought along a white cap gifted to me by my good friend Nikesh and signed by the legendary Bobby Clampett, with a simple handwritten message. “To Alok. KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid”. I’ll try and remember it. I might even stop to smell the flowers.