2005: Sole’s doctrine: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy

Pawleys Island, S.C.

I loved the unpredictable Players Championship, with its wacky weather and golf ball belly flops on No. 17, and I loved the fact that Mr. Short and Straight Fred Funk won the tournament.

Funk was more than an underdog to long hitters Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. He was an undercat, meaning he was a cunning but underappreciated competitor who clawed his way to an important victory when nobody on the planet golf gave a cat’s meow for his chances.

How did Funk win? I posed this question to Mel Sole, a golf instructor who has turned accuracy into a core fundamental of his teaching philosophy.

Any student of Sole will learn one fact very quickly – seeking length without accuracy is a violation of a principle that is at the heart of Sole’s lifelong regard for the game.

“How did Funk win?” Sole repeated. “It sounds simple, I know, but he drove the ball in the fairway, and he avoided trouble. All of us should strive to do the same. The other thing about Funk is that he seems to be very good at distance control. The same swing that allows you to hit the ball straight also will allow you to be very consistent with your distance.”

Like so many individuals who learned to play golf in arduous, ever-changing conditions, Sole exhibited a Cheshire cat smile when asked about the swirling wind, high rough and frequent bogeys that haunted players at The Players Championship.

“The game was designed to be difficult,” said Sole, who first played golf at windy, linkslike Humewood Golf Club in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “If you are a genuine golfer, you learn to appreciate the challenges. It becomes fun to play in tough conditions.

“And, of course, you learn to hit the ball straight, or else you learn to accept the consequences. Golf is a better game when accuracy is rewarded.”

All of us should be alarmed about the state of the game when the PGA Tour’s leading money winners also are among its most crooked drivers. In 2004, only one of the top 10 money winners ranked in the top 100 in driving accuracy. It was a crime against the way golf was intended to be played.

Sole runs the Phil Ritson-Mel Sole Golf School at Pawleys Plantation on the South Carolina coast, and he oversees five satellite locations also used for the Ritson-Sole School.

The beauty of Sole’s approach to golf is that he never forgets about basic on-course requirements – staying in the fairway, not saying hello to the rough or its overgrown cousins, adapting to weather and course conditions, always seeking the best opportunity for par.

Sole is a modern instructor in that he relies on aggressive body rotation during the swing, but he remains an old-fashioned teacher with his unflinching emphasis on mastering fundamental shots such as the straight drive.

To achieve more Sole and fewer wayward shots, consider these tips:

“What do you teach golfers about keeping the ball down in the wind?” I asked Sole.

It was then that Sole introduced the “non-balloon swing” to my golf vocabulary. He has catchy names for many of the techniques he teaches, perhaps helping a student to remember them more easily.

“You make this swing to intentionally produce very little spin on the ball,” Sole said. “You take a shorter backswing, and you have a shorter follow-through. If you do it properly, you use your body to make the swing and take your hands out of the equation.

“You can even use this swing with a driver. The ball will fly lower, with less spin, and it won’t balloon up in the wind.

“You don’t slash at the ball. What you do is make a swing I call conservative aggressive. You are under control at all times, but you also are making a swing with conviction. That’s how Fred Funk won The Players Championship.”

Sole’s non-balloon swing is more than a punch shot, because he advocates a curtailed version of a full swing rather than a slam-bam descending blow with the clubhead.

Sole believes in firing the arms and club down the line, at the target, for as long as possible.

“It is one of my strongest beliefs,” he said. “The longer you can keep the club going down the line, the straighter you will hit the ball. Lee Trevino has always been superb at doing this.”

If a right-hander’s arms and club go left of the target, in an effort to add power or prevent a push-slice, there often is an accompanying manipulation with the hands, Sole said.

“You are asking for trouble,” he emphasized. “Flipping the hands, or steering the ball, are exactly what I try to eliminate entirely from the swing.”

Try the “waist-high drill” to improve body rotation and eliminate intrusion from the hands: Hit practice shots with various irons and woods, starting each swing with the club held in a waist-high backswing position, or slightly higher.

“The only way you can do this (make the swing) is with the body,” Sole said. “Practice this, and you can achieve tremendous distance control with your short irons. You can go all the way up to your driver with the drill.”

When playing golf, as opposed to practicing, Sole employs a tip he received from sports psychologist Cary Mumford. It is called a “clear key,” and Sole teaches it to his students as a way to “block their conscious mind from thinking mechanics.”

The clear key is a word or phrase that is repeated (internally, not out loud) when hitting the ball. Sole uses the name Geronimo. He begins saying the name to himself as he starts the swing, and he always makes contact with the ball when he has reached the “on” syllable of his third Geronimo.

“The pace of my swing never changes,” Sole explained. “I try to teach things that all golfers can repeat, whether it is the path of the club (down the line) or the pace of the swing (smoothly aggressive).”

In regard to proper body rotation through impact and into the follow-through, Sole likes the image of Nick Faldo or Ernie Els. “Faldo was the best, because he never looked like his arms were in the swing,” Sole said. “If you use your body properly, you will hit it straight, I guarantee you.”

– For more on Mel Sole, visit www.ritson-sole.com.

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