Man Versus Machine

Man Verus Machine – A Classic Tale

Rory McIlroyThe concept that pro golfer Rory McIlroy, making real time adjustments to conditions, can out compute a machine designed to hit perfect shots every time is a classic one. In 1996 Russian chess champion Garry Kasporov beat IBM’s best computer 4-2. I suppose you can track this legend of man versus machine all the way back to Trojan horse.

This is a great commercial. I know it’s a take on the PGA Tour’s These Guys are Good campaign, but it’s a nice iteration of it. Funny and competitive, a lot like two good friends on the course, talking smack and challenging one another.

1984 and 2013

The recent NSA leaks have people thinking a lot about big brother and the power of machines. Some fear the government has gone too far. Others relax are over-confident that all of these machines and surveillance tactics somehow make us safer.

But in the end man always wins over machine. Just like wooden horses didn’t take over military operations, just like computers aren’t chess champions, and just like machines aren’t running the European Tour… we don’t have anything to worry about with machines.

They are just machines. 

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Grip change

As a high school golf coach sometimes you have to help your students make major changes to their golf game in order for them to improve. 

Young, gifted, long-hitting golfers typically have a lot natural talent but have habitual bad technique. Maybe they are so flexible and have such amazing hand-eye coordination from baseball that they don’t have to take the club back at a consistent angle or keep their plant foot steady because they can instinctively make those corrections without even thinking about it at 115 miles per hour. By hitting thousands of balls on the range they have learned bad ways to hit the ball far. And their game is built on bad technique.

Those bad habits have lead to them to hit the ball a million miles in every direction. But that distance matters so much that they are far better than their peers with better technique.

The most common change you have to make is to the grip. Most typically young (right-handed) golfers have a strong right hand. (The left hand in the correct position, but the right hand is completely under the club, nearly useless on the backswing.) This allows most of their power to come from a strong left hand and the right hand whipping the club forward at the last second to generate maximum power and spin.

As a result, they make the golf team on power, raw talent, and likely a decent touch around the green. And a very good freshmen will make the JV squad or even the varsity squad on this raw talent because they can muscle their way around the golf course.

But as a coach you know that the strong right hand won’t take them consistently near par– a score which will secure them at the top level of the varsity. For 9 holes they might make it to the low 40s or the occasional 39. But to get down closer to par they are going to have to hit it straight more often and with a strong grip that will be impossible.

So, in the middle of an active season their freshmen or sophomore year, you need to start working on their grip for their junior and senior year.

It’s frustrating for the golfer because the change means they are less competitive. Their scores go from the low 40s to the high 40s or even into the 50s. (Scores they likely haven’t seen since 6th grade) They lose distance as they start swinging the club on a better plain, at a better angle, and the swing feels much less violent. The ball ends up places on the course they’ve never been before.

Frustration sets in.

And they start losing matches. Maybe falling from top of the JV squad down to the the freshmen team. Players they know they are more talented than start beating them.

It’s a test of their self-discipline.

Bobby Jones on GolfA grip or a swing change can take months of practice to master before it starts to pay off. It can take a lot longer if the golfer lets old habits sneak in to remain competitive. In front of the coach or on the range they will hold the club properly. But when they need to tee off on a par 5 they will switch the grip to try to power it down the fairway… and wild things begin to happen because they don’t feel natural in that swing anymore either.

It might seem like a little thing but if you make a dramatic grip change you have to concentrate just to hit the ball squarely. I’ve even seen players completely whiff when you first introduce the change. What used to be instinctive and feel completely natural now feels completely foreign.

As the coach you have to constantly encourage them during this change. “It will pay off. Don’t let old habits sneak in. It will feel more natural if you keep practicing it. You’ll be a better player if you stick to it.

What you learn as a coach is that the difference between being good enough to make the team and good enough to make the all-conference team isn’t just talent. It’s the ability to practice correctly, stick to making hard changes, and to be coachable through those changes in order to realize your potential.

Life is the same way

A lot of my success has come because of bad habits. But, just like a young golfer, I’ve had to learn that those bad habits have plateaus for my success. I can be successful to-a-point with the talents I have. The hard reality is that most of my long-term success hasn’t just come from bad habits or talent– it’s come from working hard to get past bad habits, and intentionally taking some steps back in order to learn the skills and techniques to go 3 steps ahead.

The same is true for you. The habits and skills you have today will only lead you to the success you know. In order to succeed further you’ll need to correct bad habits, rely less on talent and more on proven techniques. Most importantly you’ll need to remain coachable.

Just like in golf, success is a mental game. You’ll need to push through the frustration of taking a step backwards in order to take 3 steps forward.

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3 Qualities of Successful People

Photo by SearchNet Media via Flickr (Creative Commons)
I have a lifelong obsession with golf. It started in 2nd grade when my parents scraped together enough money for a starter set and a series of playing lessons at a local par 3 course. Even though neither of them were serious players– I guess they thought I’d enjoy it. And I did. A lot.

Don’t read that the wrong way. I’m not a country club kid. I’ve never belonged to a course where I got my own locker or had an account on file with the restaurant.

Instead, I grew up playing city-owned munis and family-owned courses. In middle school, my first membership to the local golf course cost my family $50. That also included an annual pool membership, ice rink membership, and anything else the Mishawaka Parks Department charged money for. I didn’t grow up playing with kids named Chip or Trevor. We were more of an Adam, Mike, and Tim kind of crowd. But golf was my obsession. All summer long, every day, I play 27, 36, or 45 holes of golf.

Here’s what I learned about success in golf that translates to life: We don’t have equal access to success

One fact that I love about golf, especially professional golf, is that anyone can become a professional in 7 days. Unlike any other professional sport on the planet I can start on Monday as a nobody and win a million dollars on Sunday. Just about anyone can enter a qualifier. And if you manage to qualify you are in the same tournament as the card carrying professionals on Thursday. And if you make the cut on Saturday, then manage to win on Sunday– they will hand you a big check and a Tour Card for the rest of the season.

Fat chance trying that in baseball, football, or basketball.

But that almost never happens. While there are several PGA Tour members who rose from poor backgrounds to earn their card on Tour I can’t name a single person who is currently on Tour who started as a Monday qualifier and turned a good 7 days into a career.

It can happen, but it is nearly impossible.

Instead, if you look at those who made it, you’ll see that their success is a combination of 3 qualities.

  1. Talent – Talent is the constant. Talent is the difference between learning skills well enough to be pretty good and being a winner. Over the years I’ve played with and coached hundreds of people. But when you walk the course with a person who has a natural talent for the game… it’s amazing. Most amazing is that these players can rarely describe to you the mechanics of what they are doing. They just try stuff and it works.
  2. Ambition/hard work – Talent isn’t enough. I’ve met plenty of talented players. Each high school team of 12-15 young men had 3-4 players with enough talent to take them to the next level. But if they aren’t single-focused enough they won’t advance in the game. An ambitious person never stops practicing. They putt in their living room. Hit wedges in their backyard. Keep a 7-iron and a bag of balls in their trunk to practice between meetings. They play 9-holes before work and chose vacations with great practice facilities.
  3. Environment/resources – This is the X factor. This is the difference between a good local golfer and a professional. They have access to amazing resources. In most cases, their family has invested in them from a very young age. They played in expensive junior tournaments. They have great equipment. They have great coaching. And it results in opportunities to get to even better tournaments, more finely tuned equipment, and the best coaching.

You can be pretty good, above average, with two out of the three. But you’ll never be excellent. There are millions of guys putting their clubs in their trunks right now who have endless talent and ambition but aren’t in the right environment with the right resources to make it to the next level. And this weekend will be full of guys who pull up their Mercedes at a country club, with access to the best environment and resources and absolutely no talent for the game.

I don’t care about golf. What does this have to do with you or me?

We each have something we were created to be amazing at. There is something in our lives that we have talent, ambition, and resources to be the best at.

Identify that thing… no matter how obscure the niche`… and you’ll find the success you know you deserve.


Hit the 7 Iron

Photo by capn madd matt via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One of the things that golf has taught me about life is that you can turn a bad day into a solid day by being disciplined.

In competitive golf, discipline and composure are the equalizers. When you are playing against someone who is either better than you or the same level as you, you are basically trying to keep up and hope that your competitor cracks under the pressure of your hanging around.

I’ve played against and beaten much better golfers than myself. I’ve even beaten better golfers than myself when I wasn’t playing particularly well.

If you’ve watched a major championship on television… you’ve seen this.

This is usually why a young gun golfer will do well for the first three days but quickly fall off on Sunday morning. The more experienced and disciplined players just kind of hang around and one by one… the less disciplined players explode under the pressure around them. The commentators say, “The field is backing up.” That’s a nice way to say it.

What do I do when things start to fall apart?

I hit the 7 iron.

For me, the 7 iron is the safest club in my bag. I know I can hit it straight every time and between 160-170 yards. So when I’m not playing well… I start to hit the 7 iron a lot. Am I pulling everything to the left or slicing everything into the trees? I just grab my 7 iron and go to work.

One of the tricks I liked to teach my high school golfers was to take the length of the hole and just divide it in half. If a hole is 360 yards… you don’t have to hit the driver. You can very comfortably hit your favorite club twice and still be on the green with a putt for birdie. (To a 15 year old who just learned how to hit 300 yard drives… it’s talking to a wall.) A par 5, 510 yards? That’s just three 7 irons to the green.

Sure, that’s not a sexy way to play golf. But it is an efficient one.

One time I was playing in a match with a player much better than me. And on that day I wasn’t playing particularly well. After 9 holes I was down big. He had shot a 39 and I was at 46. And I had chipped in a birdie on the 9th hole to get to that.

Making up 7 strokes over the last 9 holes seemed impossible. That’s too much. The match was essentially over.

As my competitor drank a Gatorade and talked on the phone I switched strategies as I put the ball on the tee of the 10th hole. I looked at my driver, twisted it around in my hands a few times, then headed back to the bag. The driver had failed me for the last time that day. I love hitting the ball far. There are fewer things in life more exhilarating than hitting a golf ball 300+ yards. But the driver had dug me into a deep hole and I had to put it away.

I pulled out the 7 iron. Taking a quick practice swing I just put the ball in play about 170 yards out. The guy I was playing with kind of laughed, hung up the phone, and pulled out his driver. Sure enough, he bombed the ball 150 yards over mine. We both parred the hole and moved to the 11th. Hole by hole, I just kind of worked my way through the course. A par here and a birdie there.

My competitor, full of confidence, gave up a couple strokes here and there, but never thought about it.

Standing on the 18th tee, a long par 5, the guy I was playing against finally did the math. He had played pretty poorly on the back 9 and I had hit this stupid 7 iron all over the golf course and played pretty well. He was 4 over on the back and I was 2 under.

That left me just one shot back with one hole to play. And he was suddenly quite interested in the match once again!

I hit my 7 iron to the top of the hill. He bombed his driver way, WAY to the bottom of the hill. He gave me a look as if to say, “Take that 7 iron boy.”

When we got to the top of the hill we both started to look down the fairway… his ball wasn’t in the fairway. It was either in the tiny strip of rough or it had gone too far, into the pond. I hit my second shot short of the pond, just and easy 160 yards to the green left. I looked at him and said, “You might want to go back and hit a provisional, just in case you are in the water.

He was furious! He dropped his bag and grabbed a ball for the walk back to the tee.

We both knew his ball had gone in the water.

Sure enough, his provisional ball sailed into the trees and bounced around before settling in the rough with a tree between his ball and the green. He had completely lost his composure.

With the lost ball and hitting from the rough, I was clearly at the advantage with my ball sitting pretty in the fairway. Faced with an impossible shot around a tree and up the hill to the green… he went for the green. He nearly pulled it off but came up short and landed in the bunker. He was going to have to hole out from the sand for a par, but it was an ugly situation. Meanwhile, I hit my 3rd shot safely into the middle of the green and needed only an easy 2-putt to secure a par.

He went first. With the slope going away from him the ball came out of the bunker hot and slid all the way to the fringe… about 75 feet from the hole.

He’d have that left for a chance to tie the match my imminent par. The pressure was getting to him. I think he was embarrassed by the whole situation. He had already bragged to people that he had easily beaten me. And now it looked like he was going to need a miracle just to tie. He couldn’t figure out how I had climbed back into the match and now… on the last hole… had a putt for birdie while he had to pray for a miracle just for a bogey to tie!

He quickly lined up and sent his hail mary towards the cup. He came up about 5 feet short. Cuss words emitted from every pour of his body.

With a victory secured, I lined up a 20 foot putt straight up the hill. I gave it a whack and… sure enough… it dropped in for a birdie. Hey, why not?

My 7 iron strategy had salvaged a victory.

The score card looked like this:

Player 1: 39 + 42 = 81
Adam: 46 + 33 = 79

I guess the life lesson in this is pretty simple, isn’t it? You don’t have to be the best at what you do to succeed. But you do need to know what you are good at and have the discipline to execute that one thing over and over again.

It doesn’t matter how many times you read the story of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise always wins.

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The Sucker Pin

17th hole at TPC Sawgrass | Photo by nsaplayer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One of the hardest skills to teach a competitive golfer is what I call The Sucker Pin Principle.

A sucker pin is a pin placement that is inviting you to take a dangerous or unnecessary risk. This takes advantage of an aggressive player.

The sucker pin principle rewards the patient golfer while punishing the aggressive. Application of this principle is what separates a talented high school golfer from an all-conference high school golfer.

For most golfers sucker pins are irrelevant because they just aren’t good enough to worry about pin placements. But for competitive golfers on every hole they are not just trying to hit the ball on the green from the fairway or the tee box on a par 3, they are trying to hit the ball to the area of the green where the pin is so that they can try to score. (e.g. birdie the hole)

Sucker pins come mostly into play on a par 3 hole. If the greenskeeper wants to make a hole more difficult, he may place the pin to a comfortable distance, say 150 yards, but place it far to the right of the green near a bunker. The safe and smart play in that situation is to play the ball to the center of the green. But the aggressive player will be tempted to play to the right and flirt with the being in a short-side bunker.

When I coached high school golf I would always say, “Play to the middle of the green, don’t fall for the sucker pin.” In practice this was fine. Players would amuse their coach. But in a match, particularly if they had bogeyed the hole before, they were tempted by the opportunity to get a stroke back. The lure of an easy birdie would be too much, they’d go for it, inevitably miss the green, and bogey another hole.

If you watch golf on TV you will see that professional golfers pick spots on the course where they can be aggressive. But they show respect to certain hole and their pin placement, go for the middle of the green, and pat their caddy on the back as they walk to the next tee box with a par.

Commentators talk about it all the time. “He picks his spots well.” or “He manages the golf course like Seve.” “Golfers are attacking this pin placement today.”

More often than not, the golfer who picks his spots to be aggressive is going to win while the golfer who is overly aggressive is going to take too many risks, pay too many penalties, is going to lose.

If you watched the final 9 holes of The Masters this year you saw a case study in this principle. Tiger Woods climbed up the leaderboard, chose a spot to be aggressive and came up short. Lee Westwood tried to be conservative all day and he was too patient. But Phil Mickelson chose to be aggressive on the 12th hole (I screamed at the TV) and he nailed it and hoisted the green jacket.

The same principle applies in life. Life is full of sucker pin opportunities. Any major transaction in life is doubly full of sucker pins. You may just have to pay a price for your aggressiveness. But if you are patient and pick your spot, you can come out ahead.

Specific areas of sucker pins:

  • Work life
  • Parenting
  • Investing money
  • New ventures
  • Love interests
  • Friendships
  • Choosing the color to paint the house

What are sucker pins you fall for all the time?