Sooner or later, you may be unable to avoid playing the game. Bluffing becomes more challenging, but is still possible. It is never a bad preliminary bluff to feign injury, limping to the first tee and extending your left hand for the opposite number to shake, with an apologetic mention of your arthritic right wrist, which has never fully recovered from the time you saved your neighbour’s dog from drowning. ‘It’s nothing, honestly. Sure to loosen up in an hour or two. Don’t mention it.’ Your opponent may be consumed with pity for your misfortune; or his spirits may soar at the prospect of inevitable victory. Either way, his game will suffer.
The theory behind golf, as any golfer will tell you, is quite simple. Starting with the club head near the ball, slowly bring it back behind your head and swing it down on the same path. Club head hits ball and sends it away straight, true, and singing a happy tune that inspires you to quote the great American golfer Arnold Palmer: ‘What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.’
A successful outcome merely requires you to make sure that your feet are correctly placed in relation to the ball; your grip neither too strong nor too weak; your arms, wrists, elbows, hips and knees braced, cocked, and bent in the prescribed angular manner so as to resemble an irregular tetrahedron rotating and counter-rotating simultaneously on a fixed axis; your body coiling and uncoiling like a wound spring, smoothly yet powerfully with wrist snap but without snatching or jerking the club as it comes to the ball in an even, accelerating arc, and after the strike, continues over your left shoulder in what is called the follow-through or finish. Remain perfectly balanced throughout, with your eye fixed on the ball, head down and unmoving, and your job is done.
A five-year course in pirouettes and pointe work at the Royal Ballet School under the personal supervision of Darcey Bussell may not be enough to achieve this with any guaranteed consistency, but should get you started on the right track. If we were to select a single hurdle, it would be this: the untrained person is not naturally adept at keeping his head still while all the rest of him is in violent movement.
Most of us can manage, at best, one thing at a time, which is why concert pianists and prima ballerinas are relatively thin on the ground – certainly not numerous enough to populate the world’s golf courses and urban driving ranges. The golf shot requires you to do and not do at least eight things in the space of a second, with several (or more) people watching, all earnestly willing you to make a hash of it, apart from your playing partner who is no less earnest in his desire for you to succeed and has told you twice to watch out for the trees on the right. This is equally off-putting.
There are various ways to tackle the difficulty of perfecting the swing. Try them all, ideally one at a time.
The natural swing strategy
Forget everything technical you have been taught about the golf swing. Empty your mind, relax, and play your natural game. Imagine you are splitting a log, swatting a fly, hitting a nail or a computer with a hammer; or performing any other simple task that involves a swing and which you can manage without prior study of an instruction manual. (If you can’t think of any, golf may not be for you). You will hit the ball every time, but may have to dig it out of the ground afterwards.
The alternative sport strategy
If you are having trouble with golf, think of a ball game you are good at, and play that. How about cricket? Take guard (middle and leg, or middle stump, it doesn’t matter much) five yards behind the ball and when the starter calls out your name, dance down the wicket like Botham in his pomp and knock the bowler back over his head for a straight six. If tennis is your game, your tee shot will be a deftly executed half-volley lob from the baseline, flat-footing your opponent who is crowding the net 150 yards away. Sport may not be your thing, of course. Do not let this put you off golf.
Many successful players are not remotely athletic. Think of Colin Montgomerie. If you are one of those people who can only relax when tidying the house, imagine the ball is an alien clump of dog hair, or a rejected Brussels sprout, to be expelled from the kitchen with extreme prejudice and a stiff broom. ‘Sweep it away,’ you might hear the venerable BBC golf commentator Peter Alliss say. The advice is sound.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every golfer has two swings: his practice swing, a flowing movement of seamless grace, poise and athletic beauty; and his actual swing, an ugly heave. To put it another way, the golf swing is much easier without the complication of a ball. It is, as the Rules of Golf often say, ‘a question of fact’ that if there is no ball, the club will not be able to smash into the ground six inches behind it, or sail through the air six inches above it. In order to succeed, you merely have to convince yourself that the ball is an illusion. Any good bluffer should be able to manage this.
Golf tries one’s patience like no other sport. After a few misses, the most phlegmatic golfer loses his cool, slashes wildly with his club, and the ball, which has stubbornly refused to move hitherto, disappears. Whether it sails through the clubhouse window, over a railway line or into a pond is immaterial. There is a lesson here, and it is all about summoning your latent fury, channelling it, and releasing it. You can imagine that you have already missed the ball three times before you address it.
Alternatively, think of a typical morning away from the golf course. You have an online banking transfer and a couple of phone calls to make – to cancel your mobile phone contract and change your electricity supplier – before driving round the M25 to check in for a Ryanair flight at Stansted.
Never despair. There is probably someone who is worse at golf than you are. If you can find such a person to play with – as an opponent, not a partner – golf will become much easier and more enjoyable.
This requires a few lessons from a qualified instructor or brave parent but is quite easy, and as long as you remember not to cross your hands on the wheel, and to stay on the left in two-way traffic, you should reach the golf club in good time for your game. By contrast, hitting a golf ball off the tee with a wooden club (or ‘metal’) is problematic in the extreme, and playing the fairway wood is an ambitious manoeuvre best left to the expert golfer. The driver is the longest club in the bag, and the longer it stays in the bag, the better. Most golfers carry a 3-wood and a 5-wood, and these are more user-friendly weapons, especially when the ball is nicely teed up in the heavy rough after successful identification. Male golfers should not be caught dead with woods beyond a 5-wood.
Every golfer likes to have half a dozen irons in the fire, and at least as many in the bag. The standard panoply is seven: irons 3 to 9, plus a pitching wedge which counts as an iron and a sand wedge which doesn’t. Any more irons than that – a number 2 or a gap wedge – and you are showing off.
The iron shot would be straightforward but for the awkward fact that every club is a different length, requiring a different stance and a different swing. No one can explain this, but the best solution is to choose one iron, somewhere in the middle of the range – between 5 and 7, which suggests 6 as a popular choice – and stick to it. Chopping and changing is asking for trouble. Make sure irons 3 and 4 have some soil on them before you set out, and your opponent will imagine you are in the habit of using them. This marks you out as someone who plays a bit.
Golfing mortals separate naturally into two groups: group one is reasonably good at getting to the green but can’t putt. Group two encounters all sorts of trouble on the way to the green but feels blithely confident about putting, once there.
Group two golfers never understand why group one golfers get so agitated over the simple matter of hitting the ball in the hole from close range. But the point is this: if you have got on to a green in two, three or four shots, the desire to complete in only one or, at most, two more is intense. This induces a state of nervous anxiety, with all sorts of twitches and, almost inevitably, failure.
Group two golfers, rarely on the green in fewer than six shots, are under no such pressure. After their travails in the rough, the woods, ponds, bunkers and other hazards, the green is a safe haven, and on reaching it, they feel positively light-hearted. If called on to putt, they dispatch the ball with one deft and carefree stroke, and in this way often halve and may even win the hole.
So it is the better golfer who gets in a tangle with his putting, adopting and constantly revising strange crouches, contortions and peculiarities of grip, stance and club design. Some grip the putter a foot from its base; others hold it vertical, or screw an extension onto the handle (in the manner of a snooker player) to jam in the folds of their belly in a futile bid to stop it from wobbling during the putting stroke, a job that might otherwise be entrusted to a corset. Right-handed golfers putt left-handed, one-handed, backhanded or with their hands crossed over. All these tactics work brilliantly, until a short putt is missed. Then doubt creeps back in. The ‘yips’ or ‘twitch’, when it sets in, is an awful to behold for all but the twitcher’s adversary. Back goes the putter head, smoothly enough; but as it returns to the perpendicular, a sudden jerk twists it to one side. Consumed by the idea that he is going to miss, he does. It would be cruel to mention the names of Doug Sanders and Bernhard Langer in connection with crucial tiddlers missed before a TV audience of millions, so we won’t. It would also be wrong, and an insult to the patron saint of shaky putters, Leo Diegel (1899–1951), an American professional who missed so often from close range that he devised a stiff-wristed, elbows-out style that became known as ‘Diegeling’. ‘How they gonna fit him in the box?’, Walter Hagen asked at Diegel’s funeral.
Bluffers tempted to follow Diegel’s example should know that Diegeling was no help on the 72nd hole of the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1933. Faced with a putt for victory and two for a play-off place, Diegel left his first putt virtually on the lip of the hole and crouched over the ball in his familiar style – elbows splayed, forearms parallel to the ground – only to miss the final tap-in ‘by the widest possible margin’ as renowned golf correspondent Bernard Darwin reported.
The example of Leo Diegel is only an extreme illustration of what every golfer knows. In the right hands, no putt is too short to miss. So there would be no excuse in golf for that abomination, the conceded putt or ‘gimme’, were it not an invaluable tactical weapon.
The accomplished bluffer establishes a psychological advantage by conceding putts of extravagant length in the opening stages of an encounter. The idea is to pressurise the opposition into extending reciprocal generosity, and lower his competitive guard. The sting comes at the death, when the opponent picks up his ball from its spot close to the hole and prepares to shake hands, congratulating himself on a narrow win.
‘I’m rather afraid the victory may have to be mine,’ you say, ‘on account of your not having completed the final hole. I always feel it would be wrong to deprive a man of the satisfaction of holing out for a win, don’t you? Such a pity there had to be a loser today, and that it had to be you.’
Why not putt this is your pocket? The Bluffer’s Guide to Golf.