A Lesson Learned: The Artistry of Golf

A Lesson Learned: Golf as art
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Phil Mickelson proved to be an artist of many skills in winning his first Open Championship.
Mike Malaska, PGA

Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Sunday, July 21, 2013 | 10:54 p.m.

I don't know that I can say anything about the 142nd Open Championship that hasn't already been said from a fan perspective. Anytime you come down to the final nine holes on Sunday at a major championship - and there are still a handful of players in contention to win, you know you're in for a special and dramatic ending. The fact that Phil Mickelson shot an incredible 32 on the final nine - and ended up winning going away, says so much about his talent, his heart and his place in the game. Congratulations to Phil on his first Claret Jug and his fifth major championship.

As a teacher of the game, one thing that I really enjoyed was seeing how Phil managed his way around the course. His mental strength was evident when he hit what he thought was a perfect shot on the par 3 16th, only to see his ball roll back 20 yards off the green. Rather than resign his fate to bad luck, he converted a tough up and down to save par. On the 17th, he showed his considerable golf skill when hit what he called "two of the best 3 woods of my life" to get on the green in two and make an easy two-putt birdie to widen his lead. And then the guts he showed on the final hole, hitting a six iron just past the bunker to 15 feet of the hole, which led to a final birdie and clinch his win, was all the evidence you need to know that you've watched the complete player. In fact, it was like watching a fine artist paint with many colors to complete a beautiful picture. 

As you watched Mickelson work his way around Muirfield, you may have noticed the constant deliberations he had with his caddie, 'Bones' McKay. They are not just talking about yardage and wind direction, they are talking about the type of shot Phil wants to hit. Mickelson is the rare golfer who can hit three or four types of shots to every target. He can hit the high fade, the low draw, the punch shot, spin it back, etc. Many of his conversations with Bones during the round would be his intention to "ride the wind" or "turn it over" and talking through which options provided the best chance for success. Obviously, this helps him manage his way around the course in better fashion than most. Obviously, his artistic skills have every type of color, brush and texture. But he gets the most out of each of them. 

I find this to be so critical for golfers to get the most out of their game. Not that anyone expects you to have all the shots Phil Mickelson has, but you should practice a wide variety of shots, understand what you can hit on demand and then manage your way around the course based on what you can do. It sounds simple but most amateur golfers tend to practice one type of shot, accept it as all they have, and then force that into situations where it can hurt more than help.

So what do you do?

1.) Practice a variety of shots: Most players understand when they need a chip vs. a pitch, and certainly, you should practice both. But how about the low punch with a five iron that might run out a long ways towards a downhill green? And can you play both a fade or draw with off the tee? (The more you practice learning how to curve the ball the better you will become. If you can make the ball curve right to left and left to right you can probably find straight. And more important when you lose control you can get it back.) Introducing a variety of shots to your reportoire will make practicing more interesting, more fun and help you in a variety of situations. You will probably find a number you can pull off, a few you can't, and a few you want to keep working on.

2.) Understand what you can do: Once you've practiced hitting the high draw, it becomes more than just an option when you need it on the course, it can become a scoring weapon. That back left pin is now a birdie opportunity, not a menace to your scorecard. You now have more tools to help you recover from errant tee shots, or more alternatives to get close to the hole after missing the green. Golf is not just about hitting your good shots well, it's about the ability to recover from your misses (and we all miss!)

3.) Manage your game: One of the most common mistakes by all golfers is knowing the shot that's needed is not one they can consistently pull of - and trying to do it anyways. If you don't have the high, soft fade; don't go for that back right pin. If you can't draw the ball with a driver, don't try to cut the dogleg. In time, you may develop those shots you need (keep practicing) but until you can pull off the shot seven or eight times out of ten, stick to what you know on the course. It may mean hitting away from the pin on certain greens. That's okay. Your scores will reflect smart decisions as much as your golf skill at the end of the round. I often encourage students to go out and play 9 or 18 with just 3 clubs. Most will pick a 5, 6, or 7 iron, a wedge and putter. And amazingly, they often end up shooting one of their best rounds.

There are always multiple ways to approach a hole and the old adage is, "There's no room for pictures on the scorecard." Whether you have championship skills and can decide to hit a knockdown 7 iron into the wind or are just trying to learn to hit a pitch shot over a bunker, know there is no one right way to play a hole or a round - and the more variety of shots you have, the better your chances of success.

Jack Nicklaus once told Jim Flick that "Golf is a game of emotion and adjustments. It is about reading yourself at any point in time both Physically and Mentally to pick the best shot for you to get the most out of your game". That is profound when it comes to understanding the game. Picking the shot is an art. We had a chance to witness a true artist today at Muirfield. Wishing you all the best in your artistry as well. Enjoy the game and the Journey that golf takes you on.

Mike Malaska is the PGA Director of Instruction at Superstition Mountain Golf Course and Las Sendas Golf Clubs. Malaska is the Worldwide Director of Jack Nicklaus Golf Academies and was the 2011 National PGA Teacher of the Year. Malaska is the author of the golf instruction book "I Feel Your Pain" and is a consultant for TaylorMade Adidas. He can be contacted via his website www.malaskagolf.com 

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