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Man vs machine - who would win on the links?

Updated: Aug 25, 2017

By Alex Nicolson PGA, Premium Golf Founder

A friend of mine once suggested that it would be good fun to set up a golf contest between the top golfers in the world and robots. NASA engineers (presumably with nothing better to do) would put their heads together and create machines whose capability for computation and precise repetition would surely kick human ass. It would be compelling TV (Ricky Fowler facing off R2D2? Fantastic). I for one will be glued ...if I am still alive when it’s possible.

Good swings are often referred to as robotic, metronomic or machine-like, and so it sounds logical that a machine could do a better job than a mere human. However I recently heard a report about the club testing robot used at a top manufacturer’s R&D facility. The robot was hitting 150 yard 7 irons off a perfect lie, in still conditions, with temperature controlled, brand new balls. What do you think the dispersion was between the shortest and longest shot? A few feet, 2-3 yards? In fact the deviation was a whopping 11 yards. R2D2 is not as good as I thought. The reason is that the robot was unable to sense, and react to, the bending and twisting forces in the shaft that occur during a swing. All human golfers, on the other hand, have the potential for this invaluable ability hard-wired into them.

And that’s the controlled environment of the range. If we took a robot to the course, with humps, hollows, half shots, heavy rough and gusts of wind, the golfer’s advantage would only increase.

Discussing the robot analogy with golfers reveals cultural misconceptions about improvement. What we perceive as weaknesses in ourselves are actually potential strengths. In fact there are a collection of widely held beliefs and behaviours which I believe contribute to why the average handicap hasn’t changed in 30 years, in spite of huge advances in swing and ball flight analysis technology.

Popular notions about the sources of consistency, what constitutes good technique or good practice, and (seemingly) inescapable ingrained swing faults, miss the point in two big ways:

1. The nature of the game

Watch a normal driving range scene where golfers attempt to make the same swing with the same club to the same target off a perfectly flat lie, sheltered from all the elements. We seek and enjoy predictability, but the moment we step on a golf course, the game is anything but predictable. The lie, the slope, the wind, the bounces, your opponents cough. It’s a bun fight out there. Things seldom go to plan, and rarely will do. The nature of the game thus demands versatility, adaptability, problem solving, resilience to adversity. But few golfers accept this, let alone prepare accordingly.

2. The human genius

The irony is that, irrespective of golfing handicap, the human brain and body has evolved to be brilliant at all these things, but this capacity is rarely acknowledged, used or trained. Our advanced ability to adapt and learn is what sets us apart from every other species on the planet, so why are so many golfers stuck with a slice all their lives, or taking the same number of putts around their home course that they did 10 years ago? We can put a man on the moon but we can’t solve this?

Our search for solutions to better golf inevitably starts “out there”. Someone else’s swing. A guru’s new method, a playing partners tip that worked for them.

The reality is that you already have the tools required to learn and improve at the game. Good coaching should therefore facilitate learning by making you aware of these assets by challenging them. Your body will come up with the answers. After all look at the hardware and software it has at its disposal.

Our tool-kit

Our musculoskeletal system permits a range of movement that enables us to perform a task in a variety of ways. Golfers might bemoan their flying right elbow or dancing left knee but our physical adaptability is a blessing when we are faced with anything less than a perfect lie or want to change a slice to a draw. It might feel like we’re trapped into repeating the same fault, but the body (even with stiff backs and gammy knees) offers many different ways to get the job done.

The sub-conscious brain can process two millions pieces of information a second. Golfers who learn to limit mental interference discover that their on-board computer can solve a lot of problems (like the shot you’re hitting) on its own.

The senses feed our brain a live stream of data about our environment and our body. If we learn to be selective about what we pay attention to using our conscious mind’s ability to concentrate, this data is invaluable, from planning shots to refining our swing.

Motor patterns - even from a young age the brain has learnt a set of motor patterns for hitting, throwing, creating power, controlling a tool. No beginner golfer is really starting from scratch - their body already possesses a host of solutions for the problems golf is about to throw at them.

With the right approach, even established golfers with “ingrained faults” can tap into and refine these motor patterns in order to develop a more effective swing they can access more easily and trust. The alternative - to attempt the painstaking process of adopting a completely alien movement or technique - has a low success rate and always leaves you wondering “Am I doing it right?”.

The capacity for awareness and correction - in the right environment, all our systems can work together, simultaneously attempting, sensing and correcting, to find ever more efficient and effective ways of striking the ball or controlling direction. Whenever you’ve made your fastest improvement in the game, this process would have been whirring away in the background (whether you were conscious of it or not).

Remembering how to learn

The reality is that although most golfers berate their natural abilities and seek a bolt-on quick fix, it’s actually incredibly difficult to out-engineer what you’ve already got. The problem is that somewhere along the way we lost sight of the way we learnt other non-golfing physical skills. Skills that were learnt by experience rather than theory.

More enjoyment, satisfaction, learning and improvement await. The trick is to tap into your innate capacity to learn and to develop a swing you can trust, a swing that gets the job done. The purpose of this series of articles is both to show you how skill is really formed and to make the process of practice and learning as enjoyable as the improvements it brings. This way we can keep the robots in their place for a few decades to come.

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