Sports

Making shots in the dark

Hal Quinn September 24 1979
Sports

Making shots in the dark

Hal Quinn September 24 1979

Making shots in the dark

Sports

Hal Quinn

Golf can't be taught, it can only be learned.— Ben Hogan

Years ago, when good golf balls cost a buck, greens fees were singledigit and George Knudson was a regular on the PGA tour, the bespectacled student of the game became interested in blind golfers. Knudson wondered if he, one of the greatest practitioners of the golf swing that the game has ever known, could hit the ball blindfolded. At first he couldn’t; after eight days he could. Knudson learned a lesson then that he shares now.

As far back as he can remember, George Knudson wanted to be a golfer. As a youngster in Winnipeg he practised with an intensity that sometimes left his hands so raw he couldn’t compete. (“Throughout my career, I’d rather practise than play.”) Lacking the physique of a natural long-ball hitter, Knudson became a technician. “From the beginning, I thought of my body as a machine, studying the moving parts, analysing what each should do to make the perfect golf swing.” While on the PGA tour (eight victories, $527,371 earned) fellow golfers would pause to watch the Knudson swing. In all the years, all the thousands of shots on practice tees and real ones, the perfect swing came once. “It was in Tokyo in 1966, a five-iron shot that I wanted to move from right to left, with the wind blowing left to right. When I put the swing on it, I knew it was perfect. It was something that I had worked towards all my life. My whole body felt like it was going to explode.

“That was the full bolt. I’ve hit one perfect shot in my life, and that’s one more than most.”

It was that search for perfection that brought Knudson to the tee a decade ago wearing a blindfold. The experience gave him the key to the golf swing and the focal point of a revolutionary approach to teaching golf which Knudson introduced this summer. The golf swing is one of the most elusive and ephemeral things in all of sport, something that

visits the average player for moments, sometimes hours, only to depart, unannounced. Knudson found the key with his eyes closed. “It’s balance. If you’re a little off, swinging with your eyes closed, you can topple over, eyes open, you mis-hit the shot.”

Knudson opened his golf school at the National Golf Club near Woodbridge, Ontario, site of the recent CPGA championship. (“I had to find something to

replace tournament golf.”) Knudson’s clinic is five consecutive days of intensive instruction—for an $800 fee. The students came from across the country-airplane mechanics, businessmen, retired people, club professionals, downhill skiers, accountants. (“You can tell the accountants. They want to control everything.”) To a man (until two weeks ago, the National was a bastion of male chauvinism), they expected but did not hear the traditional “right elbow in,” “adjust your grip,” “keep your head down.” (“That’s the stupidest thing you’ll ever hear. If you kept your head down on a golf swing, you’d break your neck.”) Instead they met Knudson, cigarette in hand, sunglasses on, out on the “field,” as he calls the practice tee, who told them to close their eyes. (“Some of them fell right back on their fannies.”) They were told about balance; that their alignment creates the flight path of the ball; that their posture is the key to consistency; that they must visualize the target. (“When I’m looking at the ball and can’t still see the target in my mind then I’m going to miss it!”) One would amaze himself by hitting a ball cleanly, putting it straight down the middle, from an awful lie in a hole—with his eyes closed—only to mishit with his eyes open. (“The golf ball is a very intimidating thing.”) The master of the swing was changing their minds about golf.

“It’s really strange, but 100 per cent of practice can be done without a ball. Anything in golf can be worked on in a dark room.” After hours of practice and digesting the mental aspect of the game, the students and mentor approached the first tee on Wednesday afternoons. (“The brain damage was incredible. Most of the time I’d have to haul them right back to the field—the pro golfers too.”)

Over his speckled and often sparkling career on the tour (twice winning consecutive tournaments), Knudson played with the finest swingers in the game—Hogan, Demaret, Burke, Venturi, Nelson—studying them, incorporating aspects of their swings into his. (“The knowledge I’ve gained in my lifetime, I try to give them in a week.”) Yet all duffers, students and pros know how fickle the swing can be. (“Some days the clubs look left-handed.”) A number of this year’s students say they’re coming back next year, hoping to make it past the first tee on Wednesday.

“All I can do is put them in a position where they can do something and say, ‘Yes, now you can do it.’ I don’t know anything about desire.” That’s something that can’t be taught, something Knudson learned long ago.'ÿ