My Golf Journey
By John B Lombardo, PGA of America A1 Professional
Golf was something we did very rarely, as it was usually cost prohibitive, and we were football, basketball, track, and baseball players.
I still remember the first time I made real good solid contact in the middle of the club face, one of those times when the ball just jumps off the face and flies straight high and true with no effort. I was playing a course in Auburn with my two brothers, Mike and Lou. They must have still been in high school and living at home, since we were all together on a summer morning. It was early morning the sun was warm there was dew on the grass and very few people were on the golf course. I played with a set of my father’s old irons, some kind of very thin blades with brown steel shafts of some sort. They were the lightest clubs I ever felt in my hands. I still have them here in the house.
I could not have been more than six or seven years old when I hit this first great golf shot, or somewhere in that neighborhood age wise. We were walking down the first fairway. I remember going over to the right side probably in the rough and taking out the old 4 iron from the set. I remember setting up to the ball, taking the club back on the backswing, then letting the club head release through the hitting area. I saw the dew on the grass splatter and I can still see the divot flying straight in front of me as I looked up and saw the results of my first perfect contact. The sun was off to the left a little and brightened the flight of the ball as I watched it sail high and straight, then descend onto the green. I can still see the ball mark on the wet surface as the ball landed, and the ball as it spun backward on the short grass. I can still see it and I can still feel it. Here it is probably over 50 years later, and it is all finally starting to make a little sense to me.
It is now November 6, 2018. Yesterday I shot a 37 on the back 9 in mud, 48 degrees, and a 35 mph wind, at Dutch Hollow CC where I work. I have learned to slow down the swing moment and pay more attention to my decision making, bought some Ping G400 hybrids, and discovered a fool proof grip for putting that maximizes putting feedback.
In short my ability to play golf is starting to return.
The following essay details much of my journey through the game of golf for over 40 years
Golf and the golf journey was for those other kids from the other side of town. I was a three sport phenom for my 4 years of high school, earning 12 varsity letters; 12 varsity letters does not happen by accident.
The years of training, practice and games and summer activities, usually baseball and training for football takes its toll on a young body. Coupled with an accident that sent me to the hospital at eight or nine years old, when a bunch of guys jumped on my back and crushed me while chasing a foul ball at a pro baseball game at our local park, that left me in the hospital and with some major physical problems that would trouble me for many years down the road.
I have always had a stiff, tight back that would never loosen up no matter how much I stretched and exercised; probably left over from that crushing accident under the bleachers. I lifted weights as a very young boy, and did my share of running and stretching. I developed great strength and durability, but lost some flexibility in the process. I went on to college to play some football, and hurt a knee, the same one I hurt in high school, along with the usual ankle hurts and concussions.
Concussions happened way back then but we didn’t know they were concussions so we played through the nausea and disorientation. The final straw is my genetic predisposition to arthritis and cancer, both of which have been and continue to be part of my life. I got rid of the prostate cancer (knock on wood), but still struggle with arthritis. Throw in severely broken left wrist I hurt while working on the golf course, a right knee with no cartilage and full of arthritis, and my left arm and shoulder that was once paralyzed due to a factory accident, and you have a lifelong search for a functional golf swing.
It is very difficult to play golf and have to change your swing every three or four holes just to compete and or finish a round, because some body part gives out or refuses to work because of past injuries and the toll that every passing year has on those injuries. It is a daunting task that is sometimes very frustrating. The golf journey can sometimes be difficult and painful,
Golf, at least the way I happened to approach it, has never been easy for me. Good shots came few and far between after that first perfect shot. My strong arms and fast hands caused a terrible slice or hook, depending on how my body was moving on any given day, and my temperament (my disposition that permanently affects my behavior) often did and still does get in the way of my swing and playing of the game. I am finally beginning to realize that I have to play golf in an aggressive semi-angry seething state of mind to get myself into that comfort zone, where I can be totally focused, relaxed, and in in control of myself and game. It is only then that my scores get better and my shots get better.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Being a natural athlete with great intuition and instincts, with great adrenaline and great strength, I could master any game I chose to play in a relatively short period of time. Golf however was totally different animal. When I first took up golf on a “serious” basis in my mid 20‘s, and really started keeping score, I found my scores to be well into the 100’s.
I could it the ball a mile on occasion, but had no sense of playing the game. It was all brute force. I set a time period of 10 years to become a scratch golfer. I played money games every day (always lost), hit at least 500 balls on the range everyday as soon as enough snow melted to see grass in the winter, and as long as the course stayed open in the fall, and played at least 18 holes everyday.
I took up golf as therapy to get back the use of my left arm after my paralyzing factory accident (1975). This is where my golf journey really began.
The doctors gave me narcotics for the pain (I didn’t argue with them on this point) and told me to find an occupation I could handle with one arm. So I took up golf. I had to wear a work glove and tape my left hand to the grip of the club when I first started hitting balls. I started by taking a normal grip with the right hand, left hand taped to the club, and then just took the club back as normally as I could to execute a golf swing. The first task was to learn to make contact with the ball. When I practiced, I never took pain killers only because I wanted to be aware of what I was doing. I would be in tears on the range sometimes because of the pain of regeneration of nerve and muscle tissue. I had to learn how to move all over again if I was going to learn to play golf. The thought of being a golf professional never entered my mind. I was addicted to the game. All I wanted to do was become a scratch golfer. I had to learn to play well.
After the initial period of adjustment, and a few years of golfing with some great players on a semi-daily basis, and losing my shirt in the process, my scores gradually began to get lower. I gradually regained the use of my left arm, hand and shoulder, although I was left with a terrible pain and nausea problem (a residual effect of the original crushing injury in the roller-die rubber machine) that sometimes became disorienting and led to uncontrollable anger. When I felt this state of being coming on, I would have to shut my mouth tightly or if I could not control it, or I would leave the course, which only happened rarely. The nerves in my neck would short circuit and I would just plain “lose it”.
Becoming a scratch golfer was a tough process, which in retrospect, really did not take all that long. I was suddenly shooting in the 70’s, and had one year I played about 80 rounds with scores between 67 and 75. I played by instinct and developed, by practice and repetition, a repeating consistent golf swing, and started really enjoying myself for the first time in my life.
I did everything by instinct, by feel. All sports, all aspects of my life. It is one of my greatest strengths. I started playing in some tournaments and did fairly well. I was playing and practicing every day, and learned some pretty good habits. Then I decided it was time to make some money and registered in the PGA apprentice program. As far as my golf swing and game went, this became a whole new experience. I started working long hours in the pro shop and started teaching. My playing time was less and less and my game, based on instinct, practice and preservation, started to deteriorate. My golf journey continued
I went from being an A player in PGA Section events to shooting in the 80’s and 90’s. This was hard to swallow. When I broke my left wrist (shattered in five places), the re-learning process started all over again. Only this time it would not be so easy. I was working and did not have time to practice or play. The phrase “learn to play from memory” became part of my vocabulary. What the hell did that mean? When you are working 12 to 16 hours a day behind the counter, memory is all you have to go by. Then when you do get out to play, you are so fucking tired that you forget why you are out there. For someone who plays by intuition and instinct, it just did not happen very often. I did not realize how much a broken left wrist can hinder a golf swing. I developed a flinch with my left side (because every swing felt like a nail was being driven up into my wrist bone). The flinch became a permanent habit. The more I played the worse it hurt and the more I flinched. This gradually evolved into the dreaded “dead right off the hosel” shot. A habit that took years to overcome. I started learning about the golf swing, swing-plane, setup, spine tilt, arm swing, every technical thought or idea I could find. The only thing is these ideas do not work too well when your body cannot react to the thought process. It is frustrating as hell when you know you can do something but you cannot make your body do it, especially for someone like me who could do anything I wanted to do with a healthy body.
This wrist injury was a tough one. Really hurt my impact position. I finally got past the paralysis from the factory accident, then I had to learn the whole thing, the golf swing and golf game, all over again. The time frame is now about 1988 or 1989. It is now 2009, and it took me a good 20 years to finally understand and to learn to apply all that I have learned to a natural, instinctive, intuitive golf swing and golf game.
Somewhere along the way I was in Florida for the PGA Merchandise Show and took a lesson from Mike Peterson at PGA National, who was and is a top 100 teacher in the world. It was enlightening experience. I was told to get into a hitting bay under a roof, and hit five shots. “Don’t I get to warm up”, I asked. “Nope. You swing the way you swing, that is all we need to know” was the answer. I hit my five shots then we went into a room where Peterson told me to look at a video screen. I saw a guy swinging, and as I watched, I said to Peterson “well where is my swing?” He answered “that is you swinging.” I could not believe it, the image I had of my swing was totally different from the one that was produced in reality.
What a rude awakening. This golf journey. I spent the next many years trying to break the golf swing down into its component parts, then trying to put it back together again, time after time after time, working on a new aspect, a new idea, a new thought, starting from the beginning, incorporating the thought, then putting the whole thing back together again. It is amazing what you can learn about yourself and the golf swing when you go through this process. The only thing is, I forgot how to play golf in the process, mostly because I seldom got to play. I invested in expensive video software, cameras, monitors, computers, and launch monitors in an effort to improve myself as a player, teacher and golf professional. I still use the launch monitor and video equipment, mostly for myself, as golfers in Central New York are not very receptive to high end golf swing technology. I understand and have learned to swing in a “connected motion” that is fundamental to any modern golf swing with modern golf equipment, and that is described elsewhere on this website.
It is now November 2009 and I just finished another golf season as a PGA Professional, a badge I have learned to wear proudly because of all the work I put into learning and trying to perfect a craft and profession on this golf journey.
This November has been great weather wise and the course where I work has remained open longer than normal, so I have been playing a little more. I worked the pro shop in October (a terrible weather month) all by myself, and managed to read a few golf magazines.
One quote I remember said something like “the first time you swing a club at a golf ball is the swing you will use for the rest of your life. This is your golf journey. You can tweak it, change it, or add to it, but your first swing is the basic move that you will always use.” It started to make a lot of sense to me again. I started to remember the swing I described at the beginning of this article, the swing itself, the physical sensation, not just the scenery. After all this time I realized that I have never, at least since I started to learn to swing the golf club, I have never found a way to get from the beginning of the swing into a follow through.
My back swing and follow through always seem to get caught someplace during the swing. I have glimpsed this in bits and pieces throughout my career, here and there during rounds of golf, but could never really fully comprehend the importance of fluidity of motion in the golf swing. The funny thing is that once your shots get more consistent along your golf journey, you start to learn to score again. Once you find a basic swing motion that lets you play instead of think, you can start to expend more energy on scoring and getting the ball into the hole instead of worrying about where the ball is going.
I finally realized that a good arm swing and accompanying body motion is due to spine angle and setup position. The golf journey is a tough journey. My own natural move starts a little more bent over at address, so I can get my hips turning and arms swinging up and around and down and through the shot into follow through. And I have to get my left wrist “flatter” (actually square, something that has been really difficult since my wrist break) throughout the swing to get the club head and ball going toward the target at impact.
It sounds complicated this golf journey, but it really isn’t. It just involves two simple things that are accomplished at address so I don’t have to worry about them when I swing. But if I set up correctly I can feel these important fundamentals during each and every swing. If I don’t feel them and things fall into place, the result is usually a not so good shot. When I feel these things at a correct setup, I have a pretty good idea where the ball is going, it stays in play, and I have been able to concentrate more on my chipping and putting, on the “state of being” necessary to get the ball into the hole. Through all my years of working and not playing, I had forgotten how hard it is to play real golf, whether I am out there by myself or playing in competition, something I used to due quite naturally, by instinct.
I can get myself into that “playing zone” a little easier these days, call on the years of frustration and anger, and use them in a positive and constructive way, in the pro shop and on the golf course. I have learned in a unique way to turn so called negatives into positives. It is a huge step in my evolution.
I have tried to hit the high lights here, and will get more detailed in different sections of this site as the winter goes on. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed going through the process! The golf journey continues.