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John Updike: My innermost swing thoughts

Golfer Teeing Off on Golf Course with Mountain and Overcast Sky in Italy.

Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.

In late 1983, John Updike agreed to write an instruction story for Golf Digest. Yes, that John Updike—the acclaimed American novelist, short-story writer and book critic who lived in Beverly Farms, Mass., and played mediocre golf out of Myopia Hunt Club. Dwayne Netland had been the features editor at the time the assignment was made, but he since moved over to become the travel editor, and I inherited Mr. Updike. It was clear in the typewritten exchanges I’ve kept that the legendary author didn’t take to editing, especially by a 27-year-old hacker like me. “If you want to provide another proof, I’ll be happy to look at it; otherwise, I’ll trust you to follow the revised text,” he wrote on Dec. 4, 1983. Updike also stated that he wanted the title to be “Swing Thoughts” because “the whole piece keeps circling around the theme.” In the same letter, he noted that he’d mentioned nothing about putting: “Perhaps ‘Putting Thoughts’ would be a good sequel to these meditations, if you ever want one.”

I replied on Dec. 8 that we wanted the sequel, but in the meantime asked if he’d entertain the notion of another idea: meeting the No. 1 player at the time, Tom Watson, and writing about his impressions of him. A graduate of Stanford with a degree in psychology, Watson might not have been an intellectual match for Updike, but he could be a stimulating subject.

On Dec. 12, Updike wrote back: “As to the Watson: sorry, no. I do not feel free enough of my other commitments to undertake a real journalistic assignment like that. I don’t doubt Watson is as intelligent and winning as you say; indeed, he already comes over as such. But I don’t see myself as the kind of golf writer who will seek him out, as so many others have done already, and told us about it so ably.”

We then published Updike’s first instruction essay, and I followed up with a reminder about the sequel. On May 21, 1984, he sent me a postcard that said: “My trouble thus far has been that I seem to have no putting thoughts when I stand over the ball, and the results show it.” But the putting thoughts must have quickly materialized, because on May 25, I received a five-page manuscript and a note admonishing me: “Here are those putting thoughts you asked about; hope you can use them. If you can, the piece should be titled, ‘Putting Thoughts’; I was not entirely pleased to see that you titled my last piece “My Innermost Swing Thoughts,” and ran the title in type much smaller than that for my name. Well, it’s your magazine, of course.”

Perhaps with a bit of remorse, he added: “And one I read with pleasure every month. Send me a proof if this goes through.” We did, and many assignments followed before he died at 76 in 2009. The two pieces presented here as a pair were published in February 1984 and February 1985, the latter under the title, “Putting Thoughts.” —Jerry Tarde


• • •

Hit it with the back of your left hand was the first swing thought I ever heard, brusquely but not unlovingly put to me by the aunt-in-law who had moments before placed a golf club in my virgin grip. I was in my early 20s, having spent my youth in a cloistered precinct of the middle class where golf was a rumored something, like champagne breakfasts and divorce, that the rich did. Not only had I never held a golf club before, I had never thought about the back of my left hand before. I thought hard about it and took a murderous divot out of my aunt-in-law’s lawn.

Well, there was clearly great charm and worth in a sport so quaintly perverse in its basic instructions. I read Tommy Armour, who told me to hit the ball with the right hand. I read Ben Hogan, who told me to push off with the right foot. I read Arnold Palmer, who said to think of my feet and head as the three apexes of an immovable triangle; your feet should feel like bricks, was one of his tips, with no indication of how your head should feel. Jack Nicklaus put great store in a little rightward cock of his head at takeaway, so his left eyeball and the golf ball were inexorably aligned. Gary Player liked to think of a core of metal passing up through the middle of his body; he twisted around it like a barbecued chicken on an upright spit. Hale Irwin has lately said he thinks of his hands and the club handle riding down an imaginary flume of water. Sam Snead thinks of waltz time, or of spanking the ball on its backside; his arms, he says, feel like ropes as he swings. Lee Trevino on television recently said to accelerate the back of the left hand through the ball toward the target—which puts me back where I began 20 bedeviled years ago.

I write, plainly, as a poor golfer, who came to the game late, with too loose-jointed a build, and frazzled eye-hand connections. But there are millions like me, shanking and topping away in a happy fog—“golf,” after all, is just “flog” spelled backward—so my thoughts on swing thoughts might bring a little light into the outer darkness surrounding the televised championships where phlegmatic blond boys drill 5-irons 200 yards dead to the pin.

The basic duffer’s flaw is anxiety, which leads him to hit from the top, too fast and with too much right hand (in the case of a right-handed golfer). He is afraid of letting go of the earth, so he keeps his weight on the right leg and his knees prudently locked. He is afraid of the result, so he looks up, lifting his head that fatal microsecond too soon and hitting the ball as if with the flyswatter or hoe. Any swing thought that restrains these anxious tendencies is a good one; a thought that has always worked for me, though for whole summers I have forgotten to think it, is Begin the downswing as slowly as possible. This serves to keep the head set over the ball and discourages that right elbow from leaping out from the side to give the swing a counterproductive extra push. It also affords the weight shift time to occur and delays the uncocking of the wrists. Any number of inner advisements serve the same end: beginning the downswing as if pulling on a rope, imagining that the club is falling from the top, beginning with a tug or a slide of the left hip toward the target. Anything to keep those anxious hands from jumping down at the ball.

The right elbow is anxiety’s henchman, and the thoughts meant to keep it close to the body are legion; Don’t chicken-wing it, an old playing partner used to say to me. The trouble is, because there really is time for only two thoughts in the course of a two-second golf swing, we don’t want to waste one of them on a negativity and a basically trivial section of the anatomy. In general I have had poor long-term luck with swing thoughts involving odd bits of the body, such as Put your weight on your right heel, then your left foot; or, pass your left shoulder under your chin, then your right. These things should happen, but thinking about them leaves the arms and hands free to do too much mischief, and emphasizes our anxious sensation of being a rickety assembly of parts, any one of which might go awry.

This same old friend also would say, Throw your hands toward the hole, which, reckless as it sounds, does get the hands in front of the moving clubhead and does, if the grip isn’t twisting, send the ball toward the hole. Once the swing is commenced, a second thought must keep it going, for only a full swing through the ball produces a sweet result. A Gestalt approach translates the unnatural complications of the golf swing into some instinctive motion. We all can throw a club without thinking, with the proper weight shift. One sparkling afternoon I was hitting string-straight boomers, imagining that I was throwing the driver down through the ball toward the hole. The next day that I tried it, though, I kept hitting a foot behind the tee.

For a time I had success forgetting my body entirely and just concentrating on the image of the clubface striking the ball; picturing the face of a wedge nicely brings your hands and weight forward and usually averts a skull. But such a fine focus has a way of creating constraint in a situation already fraught with constraints; the ideal swing thought liberates the golfing body from its trepidations into a certain relaxed largeness of free motion. Turn your back was a simple directive that, when I remembered it, at least packed some torque into the top of the swing. You are a rubber man, I used to say to myself—not a man of rubber bands but of something hardish yet springy, like a rubber tire. Or, transcending anatomy entirely, I would think of the course as a succession not of narrow fairways and perilously rimmed greens but of generous depressions, great receptive areas that I only had to hit broadly “in the direction of” to obtain success.

The difficulty is, all swing thoughts decay, like radium. What burned up the course on Wednesday has turned to lead on Sunday. Yet it does not do to have a blank mind: The terrible hugeness of the course will rush into the vacuum, and the ball will spray like a thing berserk. A swing thought is the golfer’s equivalent of the rock climber’s Don’t look down. With it, we reduce the huge circumambient room for error to a manageable somatic circumference. The score, the stakes, the beer in the clubhouse should all be ousted by some swing thought—which is a swing thought in itself.

Putting Thoughts


Having ventured, some months ago, to confide to the golf-mad (and tip-saturated) readers of this publication the many conflicting “swing thoughts” that have helped this poor duffer steer his erratic course from tee to green, I feel obliged to make a clean breast of it and now share my putting thoughts.

Putting: Is there any department of this convoluted game more apparently straightforward, or one wherein the experienced golfer more ingeniously defeats himself? Put a putter into the hands of a 6-year-old child or an 80-year-old crone, and neither will have much trouble sinking those little four-footers that, when I strike them, persistently slide by on the high side, or take the break six inches late, or stop short of the cup by one feeble turn of the ball.

“Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” is how Hamlet described the native hue of resolution. This sickliness broods over many a deviant lag and three-putt green. An eight-inch putt can be missed, if we think hard enough about it, and a single twitch of anxiety can skitter a 20-foot downhiller 20 feet past the hole on the other side. “You’re still away,” one’s opponent says deadpan, in lieu of laughing aloud. No significant strength is involved, so putting is *all* thought, all confidence and self-reassurance. Putting is child’s play—which might be why adults do so badly at it.

My first putting thought was imparted to me by the same kindly aunt who told me of the full swing, “Hit it with the back of your left hand.” Her putting instructions were more complex: “For every foot of the putt,” she said, “take your putter back an inch; then swing it like a pendulum.” And, in truth, though the mathematics of this are too tidy to be trustworthy, the notion of the pendulum has stayed with me ever since. Nothing is uglier, on the green, than the wristy putter, who crouches low and stabs and pokes like a man giving a mole a rap on its nose. He might be deadly from three feet in, but his distance touch is erratic, because he is at the mercy of his jumpy minor muscles.

How does one, for starters, lag the long putt up to within the fabled bushel basket, the 18-inch radius of the cup? Some days it can’t be done; on others, it seems as easy as tossing quarters into a tollbooth bucket. Pacing the distance off, taking note of the slant of the green, of the day’s dew point and prevailing winds all will do no good unless these unconscious observations can be fed into the subconscious mechanism that determines, at the mindless moment of truth, how hard the ball is struck. On days of high Zen, there seems no trick to it, as if the cup, wherever it is, is nestled in a soft hollow that brings every putt to a convenient rest. On other days, that old clumsy devil Conscious Effort has to do all the work. My only thoughts here are, Try to imagine the line, and stroke the ball before the image fades, and Imagine that the cup indeed lies in a receptive little swale, and coast the ball up to it. Don’t stare and plumb bob forever, but don’t hurry, either; wait that extra half-second until that projected putt becomes, somehow, real in the mind.

The shorter the putt, the greater the dishonor in missing it. Hence, the more constrained and tense the stroke. The closer we get, too, the harder it becomes to see the break, and an ambiguity develops between trying to ram the putt straight in and trying to cozy it in on a curving line. Foolishly enough, we often decide to ram it in and then hit it cozily, or vice versa. Within six feet, I think, we tend to over-read the break, so a little ramming is not a bad thing. I once had some success forgetting the shape of the hole and trying instead to strike a phantom target on the front—not the back—edge of the cup. When I try to picture the back of the cup, I feel somehow gloomy, and doomed, and far from home.

Indecision and second thoughts are the putting man’s enemies; clear visualization is his best friend. A putt we can’t picture is almost never going to drop. But what a Cubist picture we are trying to paint, in three dimensions that shift axis every time we move our heads! If only we had frog’s eyes and could see the ball and the hole at once. Bending our gaze to the ball, we forget where the hole just was; it jiggles around in the memory like a star twinkling through smog, while the green seems to sway like the deck of a rolling ship. Should we look at the back of the ball and think of driving a tack into it, as Walter J. Travis advised, or should we mark out a line on a blade of grass an inch or two in front of the ball and roll the stroke through that point, as I believe Nicklaus has suggested? The former thought produces an infallibly crisp hit, but in a variable direction, and the latter gives excellent aim to a sometimes foozled stroke.

I once played with a man who firmed up his putterhead behind the ball and then hit while looking at the hole; it worked quite well for him but thoroughly spooked the rest of us. He kept staring right through you, zombie-style. I get somewhat the same shivers when, watching a seniors tournament on television, I see Sam Snead stoop into his “side-winder” stance or Gay Brewer manipulate that bizarre putter with the shaft on the far side of the ball. Putting is the sick man of golf, as we can see from the extremity of some of the applied remedies.

Well, then, what are my putting thoughts? Often, I confess, I have none, just a kind of blank dismay as my eyes circle like flies in an empty hotel room. But when I do manage in my vast unease to think, I think:

  1. Relax. It’s just a game. Hold the putter lightly, so it can impart momentum and direction out of its own gentle swing.
  1. Having determined the line through visualization, hit the ball as if it’s a straight putt. Subconsciously trying to build break into the stroke sicklies o’er the native hue, etc.
  1. Try to feel the clubhead moving close to the turf, and the ball huffing this same surface in its gravity-bound flight. A certain Earth-mysticism, or Erdschluss, translates into a nice tactility and necessary boldness.
  1. Challenge yourself with the notion that this putt should be made. It becomes easy for perennial bogey shooters to think of an automatic two-putt even from modest distances; and such defeatist thinking breeds, from farther out, those dreadful three-putts.
  1. All else failing, pretend that you have already been conceded the putt, or that this is your second try. Ever notice how easy it is to sink the putt on the second, carefree attempt? Well, put that first try behind you in your mind, and rap this one in. Your grandmother can do it; why not you?