Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Buried Treasure: Ernest Jones’ little book just might rekindle my love of golf

Clearly, the Kingston Upon Hill City Library didn’t know what it had in its possession. Otherwise, it never would have withdrawn Ernest Jones’ unassuming little blue book, Swing the Clubhead, from its collection in 1983 and put it up for sale. And for a measly 25 pence, no less.

But, let me tell you, I’m sure as heck grateful they did. It’s as if I’ve found a buried treasure.

This book fell into my hands about 18 months ago, when I placed the winning bid on it and several other old golf titles gathered in a lot at an auction in Newcastle. To be honest, it was Harry Vardon’s How to Play Golf (first published in 1912) that caught my eye and led me to make a play for the box of dusty tomes. I did, however, have a vague memory of Jones and his swing theory from an article that turned up in Golf Magazine during the 1970s – my formative years as a golfer. Can’t recall the words. But I can still envision an illustration of a penknife tied to the end of a handkerchief that accompanied the piece.

So perhaps this is a matter of a seed being planted deep in my subconscious and requiring some 40 years to germinate.

All I know is, I truly believe old Ernie was on to something. And that something just might revive my golf game precisely when – to be perfectly honest – it was practically on life support.

And this renewal, if it comes to pass, couldn’t have come at a better time. Two weeks from now, I’ll begin meeting up with many of my oldest and dearest friends as we gather at Machrihanish for our annual golf reunion. I stumbled upon this week-long fest in 2002 and have had the very good fortune to immerse myself in it anew each year since. Further, the people I met along the way have played a very direct role in leading me, and my darling wife, to our current home in the Scottish Borders. So several threads seem to be connecting here.

Inspired by Tragedy

But, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to keep the focus on Jones and his slim but significant treatise. Born near Manchester, England around the turn of the 20th century, he picked up the game as a caddie and quickly made a name for himself as a player. He became the assistant professional at Chiselhurst Golf Club at the tender age of 18 and won the Kent Cup in 1914.

Then World War I happened. Jones enlisted and, in a battle in France, was badly wounded by a grenade – losing his right leg just below the knee. Very bad news for Jones’ professional playing career. But, as it turned out, great news for all those who came to know him as a teacher of the game. Jones learned that, even with just one leg, he could still play golf – at an impressively high level. That experience led directly to his breakthroughs as a teacher, most notably of Virginia Van Wie, who won three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs from 1932-34.

In 1923, he became the head professional at the Women’s Golf and Tennis Club in Long Island, New York. His study of swing theory became the main work of his life. He died in 1965, then was inducted into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame in 1977.

By the Book

His first book on the topic – The Golf Swing, The Ernest Jones Method – was published in 1920. He followed that with Swinging into Golf in 1936. And the book that’s now my bible was produced in 1953, just five years before I was born.

Truth be told, Jones didn’t need three books to share his findings. His theory can be summed up in just three words: swing the clubhead. But we golfers are a stubborn lot. We need to be told something multiple times in a variety of ways before, at long last, it begins to sink in. At least that’s been my experience.

“Swing sounds so simple,” writes Jones. “It is – so simple that it is too difficult for hundreds of thousands of golfers to comprehend. It is so simple that it is difficult to induce my pupils to accept it. Thus, I have to be repetitious, both when I teach individual pupils and in my writing. There is no other way of assuring satisfactory results. This book will consist of constant repetition. I shall beg the indulgence of those who feel I am overdoing it.”

As such, though his book is just 115 pages long, it is rather circular and repetitive. But I’m OK with that.

The simplicity of his approach has brought a much-needed calm to my game, from the driver all the way through to the putter. Now, when I settle in over the ball, I’m not burdened with multiple swing thoughts. I merely trust that if I swing the clubhead and resist the temptation to consciously add or subtract from that motion, the laws of physics – centrifugal force – will square up the face as it strikes the ball. Obviously, dozens of minute motions must follow, one after the other in sequence, for that to happen. But it will happen, repeatedly, if I don’t think about trying to make it happen.

To quote Jones:

“The golf swing can be readily taught, and consistently performed, but only if it is conceived as one movement. That is the only way to become a good golfer. The body and all its parts should be treated as disastrous leaders but as wholly admirable followers in the action of the hands and fingers. Forget everything else. You cannot do more than one thing at a time. So don’t let your mind and actions flitter.”

My Experiences

What does this feel like? Consider the handkerchief-and-penknife illustration that I remembered from my youth. It resurfaces in this book to convey Jones’ core concept. From my experience, I’ve found that I simply need to establish a balanced and centered stance and start swinging the club into motion. Though it’s essential to feel the weight of the head in my hands, I strive to keep my hands “quiet.” By that I mean I don’t consciously tighten my grip or flex the fingers to generate motion. Instead, I maintain a light hold of the club (the old “grip the club like you would hold a live bird” metaphor) and allow the wrists to hinge and unhinge in response to the forces generated by the swinging motion – rather than being the cause of the motion.

Simply put: The swing happens, of its own accord. I don’t make it happen.

The challenge here is that, since I’m not using my muscles to – as Jones puts it – create leverage and power, it doesn't feel like anything is happening. It’s unnervingly effortless. Yet, at the bottom of the swing through impact, the clubhead moves faster than I could ever move it by forcing it. And, as Albert Einstein taught us, energy is a function of speed and mass. This natural swinging motion will propel the ball, a whole lot farther than you’d ever think, based solely on how it feels.

For me, that’s been (and continues to be) the primary hurdle. Decades of “hitting the ball” aren’t going to readily surrender to a few rounds of “swinging the clubhead.” Old habits die hard. But if I stay with this long enough, I’m convinced my old ways – which had made the game a downright struggle – will eventually surrender. Even if my scoring doesn’t improve, the time I spend on the course playing golf this way is so much more pleasurable, I can’t imagine ever going back.

And, should I be tempted to regress, I have the voice of Ernest Jones in my ears to help me stay the course.

“Good golf is easy,” he writes. “And easy golf is enjoyable golf. It is tragic that so many make of it such labour. If I can help a few of golf’s great army of labourers to become players, I shall feel highly repaid for my efforts.”

Well, the Kingston Upon Hull Library only got 25p for your wisdom. But rest assured, Ernest, that it’s worth far more than that.


Perhaps even this labourer’s very golfing soul.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kindred Spirit: A Season in Dornoch's Rubenstein endorses my links golf novel

Just when I'd begun to succumb to the general dreariness of a Scottish winter, a ray of sunshine -- in the form of an email from Lorne Rubenstein -- broke through.

Rubenstein, based in Canada, is one of my favorite golf writers. His A Season in Dornoch, which recounts a magical summer he spent in the Scottish Highlands, is one of my favorite golf books. I can say without equivocation that his work has directly inspired mine.

So imagine how deeply gratifying it was to learn that he had read my novel, Machrihanish, and that he thoroughly enjoyed it. Then, to top if off, he posted a very generous review on the website of SCOREGolf, a Canadian magazine. I mean, among other references, he compares bits of my wee story to Michael Murphy's classic novel Golf in the Kingdom and to the lyrics to the late-great Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem."

I am humbled.

Rubenstein concludes with this:

"Read Miller's novel. It will stay with you. It returned me to my favourite golf anywhere, and it's stayed with me."

Thanks, Lorne! Your little shot of adrenaline has me thinking it's high time I layered up and got back into the swing of things -- no matter how blustery the weather.

Hope to see you on the first tee amid the dunes, somewhere down the road.




Monday, December 12, 2016

A Six-Pointer! Or how one of my playing partners aced a par four...with a stroke

Enjoyed a cool but dry and relatively calm round at Goswick Golf Club on Sunday. Alas, my game was about as drab as the cloud cover. But one of my playing partners -- Keith Turnbull -- managed to brighten up the proceedings by capturing lighting in a bottle on the 304-yard (from the winter tees) 8th hole.

Simply put, he aced it! Absolutely crushed his driver, propelling his ball on a penetrating tight draw arc unmoved by a cross breeze that, after a favorable bounce and a wee bit of roll, found its way into the cup. Double-eagle. Albatross. Whatever name you prefer, it was brilliant.

Now, links golf often presents blind approach shots where you can see the ball in flight but are not entirely certain of the result until you reach the green. Think of it as an extra dose of drama free of spoiler alerts. In this instance, the drama was further heightened as the ball was nowhere to be found when we set foot on the putting surface. Keith, not wanting to jump to an unrealistic conclusion, first checked the mounds behind the green -- assuming that his scorching tee shot had simply run through. It wasn't until that search came up empty that he asked another member of our group -- George Millar -- to check the hole. Lo and behold, there it was.

Bloody hell!

We had a Stableford match going at the time. So even though George and I managed a par with a stroke for three points, it paled in comparison to Keith's net zero for six points. Not that we felt the least bit put out by that trouncing.

Keith's partner, Paul, very thoughtfully extracted his smartphone from his bag to commemorate the moment with a photo. As you can likely deduce, that's Keith in the center with the ball, George on the left with the pin and me on the right with the goofy grin.

This moment of pure golfing joy, however, wasn't completely devoid of some controversy. On the previous hole, George made a net par for two points and Paul had a net bogey for one. As such, I assumed that exchange had earned us the honor on the 8th tee -- yet Keith stepped up to hit first. I raised a mild protest. But my playing partners informed that's just not how it's done over here. And you know what happened next.

For the record, the subtleties of Stableford vs. better-ball protocol were discussed and clarified over a bottle of Famous Grouse (compliments of Keith) in the clubhouse after the round. He was, indeed, in the right. His moment will live on untainted.

Keith said he's only had one other hole-in-one in his life, on a bit of a flukey mishit shot on a par 3. This one, however, requires no asterisk. Dead solid perfect. Well done, Keith.

And perhaps it will inspire the golfing gods to allow me just one such moment. After some 40 years in the game, it doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Cheers!

Monday, December 5, 2016

To the Bookstore: Golf writer Michael Bamberger very kindly endorses my novel

Christmas arrived early at Wee Egg Mon Publishing's worldwide domination headquarters. I just received an email from esteemed golf writer Michael Bamberger letting me know that not only did he read Machrihanish -- my debut novel -- but he enjoyed it. A lot.

Bamberger is perhaps best known as a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. His work can also be found on Golf.com. And he's the author of several books, including the wonderful To The Linksland and the George Plimpton-inspired debut title The Green Road Home.

Here's what he had to say about my wee story:

"Dan Miller's Machrihanish is spirited and transporting. Bobby Jones once said that 'there is golf -- and tournament golf. And they are not at all the same thing.' Well, Miller doubles down on that insight. Reading his novel, you realize again that there is golf and there is Scottish golf, and they are not at all the same thing. I downed this book in one straight shot! Thank you for writing it, sir -- and nicely played!"

As the locals would say, I am thoroughly chuffed and even more grateful. Emails like that have a way of putting the wind back in your sails.

If you'd like to know what the fuss is all about, just click here.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Safe Zone: Looking for solace in an uncertain world? Try your local golf course.


Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States.

There are two ways to process this improbable truth: 1) throw all caution to the wind and run headlong into this new if uncertain world order; or 2) retreat into a bubble hermetically sealed off from “reality.” If the latter seems like the more appealing strategy, can you imagine a better safe zone than a golf course? It’s sure looking pretty darn good to me at the moment.

I think we can all agree that, if we were able to step back and look at the game objectively, we’d have to conclude that it’s little more than a parade of seemingly sane adults who wield odd implements in an attempt to advance a small ball against a vast landscape, producing—at least on the surface—no tangible benefit to anyone, especially the participants. It’s patently absurd.

And yet, as an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life? There’s nothing better. Even the 45th president of the most powerful country in the free world—owner of 18 golf resorts—would have to agree with that.

As I see it, humanity needs golf’s gifts of stress relief and emotional healing now more than ever. At the risk of succumbing to self-plagiarization, consider this snippet from my novel, Machrihanish:

The seven men, even those who’d lost their morning matches, were anxious to return to the course for an afternoon round. After all, they had a lot of swings to make up for. But more than that, what they truly desired was to reestablish the proper balance between their private playground amid the dunes and, well, pretty much the rest of creation.

It’s that sweet separation that makes golf so endearing and, admittedly, to addictive. It stakes out a world within the world, where—on the first tee—they hand you an unblemished scorecard and all manner of new and wonderful experiences are suddenly possible. Then, 18 holes who knows how many shots later, you circle back to where you started, with the invitation—as well as the inclination—to start all over again.

Clearly, golf isn’t about the destination. You move about a vast expanse of open land yet never actually get anywhere, geographically speaking. So by process of elimination, the game must be all about the journey. Perhaps that’s why some of its adherents—most notably those who worship at the altars of Shivas Irons and Baggar Vance—liken it to the inward path traveled by the eastern mystics. So does that mean it’s the sports world’s equivalent of Seinfeld, show about nothing? Guess again. Golf is, in equal portions, absurdly simple and unfathomably deep, not unlike that 19th century children’s rhyme we all learned in kindergarten: “Stroll, stroll, stroll your way, gently down the fairway. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily—life is but a dream.”

I don’t know a thing about your political persuasion any more than you know about mine. But I think we can all agree that the world is becoming an increasingly unstable and unpredictable place, buttressed about by primal forces and deep-seated passions that resist moderation and restraint.

Still, each of us will have a role to play—no matter how large or small—in the unfolding scenes of this drama we call human civilization. But when that task becomes just a bit more than we can bear, I have a hunch the golf course will beckon like a spa for the weary soul.

I’ll be there. I’ll bet you’ll be there, too. The current president turned to it for solace. Maybe, just maybe, so will the man who will replace him. Perhaps the golf course can emerge, quite literally, as our much needed common ground.

May the gods of golf help us all.