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Disregarding convention is the secret of golfing success

Ah yes, it's that time of the year again.

Plenty of coaches would have said Bubba Watson's shot from the trees at the second play-off hole was impossible. Picture: Getty Images
Plenty of coaches would have said Bubba Watson's shot from the trees at the second play-off hole was impossible. Picture: Getty Images

You sit down to watch the last few holes at the Masters on Sunday evening and, by the time you've risen from your armchair, you've formulated your plan. You're going to drag the clubs down from the attic again. You're going to shake the mouse droppings out of those old Footjoys you left in the shed. And because you're going to play the country's best courses this year, you're going to read that instruction manual your cousin gave you for Christmas, as well.

At which point, a word of caution. By all means polish those clubs and disinfect those Footjoys. And dream your dream of that roadtrip-of-a-lifetime golf holiday that starts with a bracing morning round at Dornoch and ends on a sun-dappled evening on the 18th green at St Andrews as you line up the putt that will give you your fifth birdie of the day. After all, the game is meant to be about fun. Which is why you should leave the instruction manual alone.

Or if you do succumb to temptation, then at least follow the advice of the late Peter Dobereiner, a peerless chronicler of the absurdities of the most maddening game ever invented.

"Golf instruction books can be immensely valuable to the novice," Dobereiner wrote. "Used properly, as I am wont to advise, a book is all you need to become a champion. What you do is balance it on top of your head and then swing a club as hard as you can. Once you have mastered the art of taking a full, vicious swing without dislodging the book, you can play golf."

Dobereiner went on to suggest that actually reading the thing could plant pernicious thoughts that could take 20 years to expunge. All things considered, he was probably being conservative with his estimate, for the history of golf, and especially its modern history, is populated by casualties of introspection who spent far longer looking for a cure. And still never found it.

Nobody has ever completely nailed down the reason for Sandy Lyle's sudden and dramatic decline from being the best player on the planet in the mid-to-late 1980s to being a sorry shadow of the competitor he once was. But I suspect it might have begun when his cousin sent him a book. For all I know, it might have been titled 'How to Play Golf like Sandy Lyle'.

Actually, it was probably Nick Faldo who sent him the book. The emergence of Faldo as a multiple major winner – he picked up the first of his six biggies at Muirfield in 1987 – probably did more harm to golf's natural talents than anything else. Famously, with the assistance of David Leadbetter, the game's first supercoach, Faldo had rebuilt the decent swing he had grooved as a teenager into an action that made him the dominant player of his time – and planted the idea in susceptible minds that anyone could do it.

Which may be why a succession of gifted players of that era fell off a cliff as competitors. Lyle went looking for a more mechanical swing and got lost in the woods. Seve Ballesteros disappeared, too, although it was to the desert that he headed with the so-called golf guru Mac O'Grady, a man who erred on the side of sheer wackiness in his methods, for the ceremonial burying of his swing. Ian Baker-Finch was another who was born pre-programmed to be a great player but became an exceedingly bad player in his attempt to gild his lily.

So let's raise a glass to Bubba Watson, that gloriously goofy borderline redneck who won the Masters at the second extra hole on Sunday and then promptly shed so many tears that the 10th green was in danger of becoming a water hazard. Watson's triumph was a two-fingered salute to the swing doctors, an elegant repudiation of their drab mechanism. Watson has never had a golf lesson in his life. You suspect he has never owned an instruction manual, either.

Not one that showed him how to hit the escape shot that won him his green jacket at least. What would that one be called anyway? 'The Expert Guide To Hitting A Shot From Deep Pine Straw When You're So Deep In The Woods You Might As Well Be In The Next State And You Have to Bend The Ball Through Ninety Degrees Anyway'? There are plenty of coaches who would say that such a shot is impossible; and Watson hit it precisely because he's never listened to any of them.

Tiger Woods' reaction – via Twitter – was to wonder what Watson might serve up at next year's Champions' Dinner. After finishing in a tie for 40th place, his time might have been better spent considering the lessons of Watson's easygoing approach. Time was when Woods played a similarly bold kind of game, albeit one that had been more conventionally schooled.

Now, though, Woods is like one of those lost souls of the Faldo era. He has taken to hopping between coaches in the same promiscuous way he once . . . let's not go there.

But as Hank Haney, his last- but-one coach, has just produced a memoir of his time with Woods that must rank as the most unflattering kiss-and-tell in sport history, maybe he should learn to trust his instincts again. "If someone has something special," wrote Ed Smith, the former England cricketer, "it is often the best idea to leave him well alone." The best thing Haney could do is encourage some of his colleagues in the coaching world to heed that advice as far as Woods is concerned.

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