R&A Swing Zone: Or how could something that’s free be worth all the world to me?

R&A Swing Zone: Or how could something that’s free be worth all the world to me?

In these incredibly unsettling times, it’s comforting to know there are still some things we can count on. Take, for example, the aphorism that you only get what you pay for. It’s certainly always held true for me.

Until now, that is.

That’s because during the Open Championship played last month at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, I took advantage of free tuition (UK-speak for lessons) being offered to spectators by club professionals who manned hitting nets on the grounds. They call it the “R&A Swing Zone” and, apparently, it’s been a long-standing tradition. But it was all new to me. Or, perhaps, this was the first time I noticed and decided to give it a whirl.

If you’ve been a regular reader of these posts then you’ve probably deduced that I am hell bent on trying to figure out this insidious game on my own. That was true when I first picked up a club as a boy growing up in semi-rural Ohio. And it was more or less still true when I made the drive from the Scottish Borders to Southport to meet up with a friend and take in the Tuesday practice day at the Open. Call me a masochist. Label me a stubborn fool. But for me, sorting out my swing through trial and error – what Ben Hogan used to refer to as “digging it out of the dirt” – is one of core reasons I’m so passionate about the game.

It’s just that, lately, the painful trial and seemingly endless errors had begun to take their toll. As I’ve documented, it had reached the point lately where – rather than look forward to my next round with sweet anticipation – I braced myself for the coming dread. The playing of the game had lost much of its joy. Which, in turn, pushed the writing about it even further down the priority list. Exhibit A: The meager output of posts on this blog.

Nothing to Lose

I was a desperate man when I came across the free lessons while walking through the spectator village at Birkdale. In the past, I likely would have passed by such come-ons, as if they were carnival hucksters determined to pry money out of my pocket for a chance to test my skill in a game that was fixed in their favor. At 4 p.m. GMT on Tuesday, July 19, however, my heart and mind were open to what these so-called experts were selling.

Except, of course, they were giving it away. Which meant I had nothing to lose, monetarily or in any further degradation of my game. So even if their cures were no more effective than snake oil, why the heck shouldn’t I give them a try? I’d already hit rock bottom…with a thud.

So I took my place in the queue and, when it was my turn, stepped up and introduced myself to the pro. He said his name was Alan (after-the-fact Googling revealed his surname is Bradshaw, he’s the teaching pro at Bootle Golf Club in Liverpool and he’s on Twitter) and, rather impertinently, asked me to divulge my handicap. “Uh, 13,” I practically mumbled. And then, quickly, “But I used to be single digit.”

Nae bother, he said. Then he invited me to hit a few balls. After the third swing, he very politely asked me to stop – putting both of us out of our misery.

“Do you have a hard time getting through the ball?” he asked.

 “Why, yes. That’s exactly what I’ve been struggling with,” I replied.

“Take the club back, hold it at the top and I’ll show you why,” said Alan. Then he pointed to my right elbow. “See how close it is to your body. It should be up here,” as he swung a club back into its proper position. “You try it.”

So I did. And it felt weird. It felt wrong. It felt like it was anatomically impossible for me to get the club face back to the ball. But, given that I was just hitting into a net, I let my body unwind. And, much to my surprise, I hit the ball. Hard. And followed through. All the way to the finish.

“Whoa! What was that?” I exclaimed.

“A full release,” said Alan. “I’ll give you a drill so you can practice it and get the feeling.”

A Man Possessed

And so he did. In the three weeks since, I’ve been becoming increasingly familiar with this new motion. At my local practice range. On the course, of course. And wherever and whenever I have a bit of space and time to take a stance and swing my hands (sans club), preferably in front of a mirror or simply a pane of reflective glass. I am a man possessed.

Meanwhile, my ball-striking has taken a dramatic turn for the better. When my putter heats up, so does my scoring. Case in point: I piled up 40 Stableford points during a round this week.

But far more than that, I’m falling back in love with the game…again. I’m champing at the bit to play. And, the fact that I’m spending this time at my laptop’s keyboard, I’m once again feeling inspired to write about what I’m thinking, feeling and experiencing as I make my way around the authentic links courses of Scotland.

Not a bad return for absolutely zero monetary investment. Though, hopefully, this episode did cost me one thing: my pigheaded determination to figure all of this out entirely on my own.

So thank you, Alan, for showing me the way. I sense that you’ve given me my game back. If not my life. For me, the two are one in the same.

And that, dear reader, is one thing that will never change.

Renaissance Man: The stars align, allowing me to play one of Scotland’s most exclusive golf clubs

Renaissance Man: The stars align, allowing me to play one of Scotland’s most exclusive golf clubs

Identity Crisis: Or how the way we play defines who we are

Identity Crisis: Or how the way we play defines who we are