01 Jun 2021 | Feature stories |

Golf is a simple game

by Contributor

Peter Thomson 1958 Open image
Peter Thomson with the claret jug after his fourth Open win at Royal Lytham, 1958. Photo: Getty

By Peter Thomson

Anybody who can walk can play golf. This is one of the chief contentions I make of the game which has been my livelihood for the past 15 years, which has been good to me and which I still deeply cherish as a game notwithstanding that it is my life.

I offer another contention: The last thing to worry about in golf is your score. This may sound odd from a man in whom the score, the lowest possible score, would seem to be the most important thing in life. But, do you see, this is where golf as a game, as a recreation, has to be considered.

A sport in not a form of income tax, a necessary but highly distasteful part of life. Sport is for pleasure, for amusement, for exercise, for fun. Golf is my sport as much as it is my business. For you it is, I hope, a sport. And that is why I say that the last thing to worry about in this sport is your score.

You know, the great fight in golf is not with the course, or the conditions, or your clubs. It is with yourself. This is the battle that is never won. I would say, very seriously, that if you want to play the game with the maximum pleasure and if you want to play it well, the first thing to do is to get to know yourself.

Some years ago, I took up a study of yoga. I would not attest that anybody who wants to play golf, or who is already a player, and wants to improve on it, should follow me in this.

Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experience for me to inquire into, and practise, the exercises, especially the breathing exercises, which are recommended. Their value is that they clear the mind and improve your conception of rhythm. Rhythm is the basis of golf. There is a great deal of talk these days about the importance of practice. I know golfers who go out to the practice ground for hour after hour, day after day, slog away at their strokes; and we are told that our only possible hope of perfection is to imitate their example.

Now practice isn’t at all what these people claim. There is no such thing as perfection in golf. If there were, every shot we made at every green would go straight into the hole. This doesn’t happen – more’s the pity, I sometimes thing during a championship – and this brings us back to the value and importance of practice in the development of our golf.

There are, in my experience, two stages or stages of practice. The first is rhythm. I go out to the practice ground with the idea, first of all, of getting the right muscles to do the right things in developing my swing. You may be the strongest man in the world, or have hands which can tear a telephone book in two, but neither ability is going to be an asset in golf unless you can learn to utilise the effective muscles of golf in a rhythmical and harmonious way. It gets down to doing what comes easily and naturally.

At the second hole, you have a No. 5 iron to the green. This, you say to yourself, will be easy. But then you look again. The ball is on a bit of a slope, the kind of slope you don’t very much like. It is lying very bate. Nothing about the situation is entirely to your liking. You make the shot. The ball doesn’t fly at the pin like a rocket. It flies this way or that, into a bunker or just over it. Insteady of having an easy three, you are struggling for a four, or even a five or six.

Now you have found that that practice has gone for nothing.

Which brings me to the three factors which are most disturbing to the concentration which is so essential to better golf at all levels. These factors are fear, irritation and tension induced by taking too long over shots. The element of fear is involved in every stroke of the game. Let this be an elementary example: You are playing at a green with a medium iron. There is out-of-bounds on the right, a great, deep bunker on the left. You look at these obstacles and whether you like it or not, an element of fear comes into your mind. I might play that shot with the element reduced to one percent – but never doubt it, I have fear in my mind, too.

You, on the other hand, not having the chance to play much golf, may 50 percent, or even more, of fear.

Now, the only sensible thing to do is to recognise the existence of these obstacles and to compromise over them. Have you the accuracy to forget about them? If you haven’t, or you are not quite sure that you have, there is only one sensible thing to do and that is to skirt trouble. Play a shorter iron, take two to reach the green instead of one. There is always the chance that the second shot will put you close enough for the putt to go down; even if it doesn’t, you have still spared yourself the agony and trouble which, as your mind fails you, an ill-equipped medium-iron shot would have landed you in.

This is a standard sort of experience for everyone who plays golf. You have to make a foot putt and, somehow, you don’t like foot putts. Your mind tells you that you are going to miss the hole on the left. There is only one thing to do. Compromise – and take the chance of aiming more to the right than you would normally do.

Irritation comes in every sort of way in golf. You become angry with yourself about a shot. You feel a little sour about your opponent, especially if he or she makes a couple of lucky strokes and start to look like beating you. So much in the game conspires to irritate you. Here again, it is a matter of taking stock. Round about the tournament trail, at every golf club I ever visit, I see players, good ones and bad ones, going about their game with a solemn and serious look. Their brows are knitted, they are silent, they give the appearance of being very deeply worried.

People say to me: These are the keen boys, these are the ones who must get on, these are the ones who really take their golf seriously. I say: ‘Bosh!’ The knitted brow is not a sign of special concentration: it is an indication of anxiety. Beware not of the man with the knitted brow. The good concentrators, who are the people to fear in golf, are not worried men. They are the people with the cheerful eye and the calm smile. They are the ones with assurance and confidence. They are the hard ones to beat.

Taking too long over shots is as good a way as I know of missing them. You can’t help but develop tension – of mind, or body, or hands, or all three at once. A good appreciation of what is needed about a shot, a good think about your own rhythmical approach to the playing of the stroke and then it’s get on with it. That’s my advice, for all grades of golfers.

What can I say about the making of the swing? There are three aspects which are of the greatest possible importance. They are tension, balance and posture. Balance speaks for itself. It is the basis of all sport. Posture is not so easily understood because we can’t see ourselves standing at the ball … Tension is a matter for the hands and these are all-important.

You see some golfers even on television who have bad swings. This is because of tension in their hands, more simply because of the excessively tight grasp they make of the club. Two of the greatest swingers, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, have what I would call feather-light grips. That is why, or a good deal why, they have been such fabulous and consistent performers.

You will notice that when they finish a shot, their grips are as light as can be, without any tension.

To play golf intelligently means that you have got to do a great deal of thinking about it in relation to yourself. There is a great tendency in the game to perpetrate errors and to perpetuate them, not least on the practice ground, thorough not attempting to think out the causes. The longer your handicap as a player, the more you’ve got to think of avoiding trouble. But don’t run away with the idea that thinking about the game is necessary only for the poorer players.

I said earlier on that the last thing to think about in golf was your score. This would suggest that I advocate a careless attitude to the game. On the contrary, I well know how everyone with a real interest in the game wants to improve it and play as well as possible. There are many limiting factors – physique, time, family or other responsibilities – and these should be recognised by people who don’t seem to make progress. But I am quite sure that progress lies not in thinking about your score, but in thinking about the fundamentals of the game – your game.

You must play the game with strategy, taking account of your physical qualifications, not seeking trouble, playing with a shrewd understanding of difficulties … I often see men – and women – taking on shots I wouldn’t dream of attempting. It may be conceit, or ignorance, or a combination of both, but really, it is a matter of their not thinking about the game. Or not thinking about their own potentialities and abilities in the game.

This is my last point: Golf, you know, is a simple game. If I were starting people off, whatever their ages – and you can start playing at any age because if you can walk, you can play golf – I wouldn’t dream of giving them a driver, and telling them to swing it. Putting is half the game, sometimes more. So it is to the putting green the learner should go.

Getting the foot-long putt into the hole is no great trouble to anybody. So you try that until you can do it every time. Then go back to a yard, working away until this, too, is simple. Then it’s to the edge of the green. Gradually, you find yourself working back from the hole, all the way, but always step by step, to the driver. All of these shots are merely the extension, by means of a longer club and a long swing, of that first simple one-foot putt.

This is the thing for your mind to tune into – that golf, in spite of all the talk about it, is a simple game, a great game, an intriguing, delightful sport of which you can never tire. It is a challenging game, a game in which perfection is impossible. Golf is a game which anybody who can walk can play to the limit of his or her capabilities if he or she is prepared to accept the need or rather the vital importance of the fundamentals. They are all, let me tell you, simple things because golf is a simple game. Published in ‘The Thomson Five’ by Tony Walker, Melbourne University Publishing, 2016. Republished here with MUP approval.

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