Tips From A Noted Instructor

I was going to call him anyway, but Marshall Smith beat me to it last week. He opened his new box of books and phoned for my address. Smith is the most noted teaching professional in Oklahoma (and in my book, the world).

He's an old friend from my days covering golf at the Tulsa World. He had promised this winter when he was the featured speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Golf Expo to send me one of his books.

Instead of mailing one, I proposed a drive to Miami, Okla., for a long promised lesson. Fine, said Marshall. He would block off an hour before lunch and we'd have a bite afterwards to talk about old times.

It turned out better than that. Lunch took two hours, thanks to a visit from author Jane Leavy, doing research for the definitive book on Mickey Mantle, one of Marshall's best friends for most of his 80 years. I got my lesson and then listened as Jane peppered Marshall with questions about Mickey. (Jane previously wrote the Sandy Koufax story and that book stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for quite awhile.)

I've since devoured Marshall's book, "A Lifetime of Lessons." It's an awesome work, the best golf instruction book ever published in the personal view. I knew that in the first two minutes I saw it. I asked Marshall if he teared up when he saw the finished work. He had to be that proud. It's about 160 heavy-stock, all-color pages of the best tips from Marshall's lifetime on the lesson tee. There's stuff about some of his star pupils (Chi Chi Rodriguez, Walt Zembriski, Todd Fischer, etc.) woven throughout. There's the story about how Marshall got Hale Irwin started with a lesson and cut-off clubs at Baxter Springs, Kan., just a few minutes north of Miami.

The anecdotes from his life are almost as juicy as the tips, some of them published before in Golf Tips magazine. I especially liked the stuff about Ben Hogan and Mantle. You see golf's legendary swing machine spent a lot of time in Miami after World War II because of a relationship with the town's wealthiest resident, George Coleman. Hogan regularly asked Marshall to shag balls.

"He'd let me shag with a baseball mitt," Marshall said. "Isn't that something, shagging for Ben Hogan."

Well, yes, it is. But most everything Smith offers is something special.

Not surprisingly, Smith learned plenty about precision during his time with Hogan. More importantly, he learned he didn't know how to step off a 1-yard pace. In his book, Smith wrote:

"I'll never forget what it was like to be stationed at exactly 145 or 163 or 187 yards from Hogan and his mountain of golf balls. And when I say exactly, I mean it. If I had to take a step forward or back to catch the shot, Hogan would shake his head in disgust — not at the inaccuracy of his ball-striking, but at the inaccuracy of my paces. The thing I'll always remember is the shape of those shots. He would hit high ones that I'd play like pop flies. Then he'd hit low ones that came screaming at my mitt like extra-base line drives. He'd bend shots from right to left, then from left to right. And never did I have to move to field the ball. I can't tell you how much I learned on those hot afternoons. It's one thing to stand on the tee firing shots at a pin. It's quite another to be the pin."

My lesson was quick, but thorough. Marshall had me hit one 50-yard sand iron and told me the problems that had haunted me through 35 years of golf. Then he solved them — if I'll work on the one simple swing thought provided in the first 45 seconds of that lesson.

"You slide forward with your legs to start the downswing and that moves the upper body too fast, too far," Marshall said. "Tilt your spine back and leave your head behind the ball. Turn your hips, don't slide them."

Then, he proceeded to coach me for the rest of the lesson on what to put in my little brain to make that happen. He had me look at a spot 14 inches "behind" the ball instead of the ball. He taught me what to look for as far as ball flight to know if I had been successful or not, and then how to fix it. I'm not saying I have it down, but I'm hitting more good shots after four trips to the range than I did in my previous 35 years. The swing keys are simple: head behind the ball, right hip cocks on the backswing, legs stay quiet as the hips turn on the follow through.

"You are now swinging down and up instead of around," Marshall said toward the end of the lesson. "Those low, line-drive shots will be gone. Instead of looking for a target on the ground, you will now be hitting at a cloud, or the top of a tree. You are fixed now. Have fun."

Sure enough, we pulled out the driver, the new high-tech monster that's been drawing dust in my bag because I hit it too low. After thinking my way to the new setup with spine tilted behind the ball, right elbow to my side, I was finally ready to pull the club back.

"Not yet," Marshall said. "Turn in the toe. Trust me. You are going to get it up high."

For the first time, I doubted Marshall. No way I could get it airborne if I closed the face. Sure enough, there was the prettiest, high draw you've ever seen. It carried about 240 yards. Well, that may not sound great, but that was into a stiff Oklahoma wind of about 20 mph. I hugged Marshall. You would have to have been in my shoes and seen my low drives the last 35 years to understand.

On the way home, I called Brad Dunn, a co-worker and one of my most frequent golf partners in recent years. I had to tell someone. Five years ago, it would have been my father, my best golf buddy. I shouldn't have told Brad a thing. His response, "More shots. That's two more each side if you can hit that driver high now. And, it may be more than two. More pops for me!"

I didn't have time to do anything but turn through the pages when Marshall gave me the book before lunch. He said, "Everything we just covered is in here. It will be your reference guide."

Of course, it's more than that. There's a 10-page guide on golf etiquette at the end, including thoughts on cell phone usage on the golf course (thank you, Marshall) and the proper way to wave a group through (thank you, again).

It's all brilliant stuff and is a must in every golfer's library. I'm buying a box to give as Christmas presents. It'll be the best present I've ever given.

It's published by Triumph Books in Chicago. Marshall will tell you he owes a huge debt to David DeNunzio, the editor at Golf Tips magazine ( He cleaned up Marshall's thoughts and made it read like Marshall talks. I read it in that wonderful, slow Oklahoma twang that is Marshall Smith.

Jane, based in Washington, D.C., hugged Marshall just like I did when she left us in the parking lot of "The Cafe" just off Mickey Mantle Boulevard in Commerce last week. She probably enjoyed interviewing Marshall as much as I enjoyed his lesson. If you are going to talk to anyone about Mickey Mantle, it should be Marshall.

There were at least 50 stories that day over fried onion rings and burgers. You'll have to buy Jane's book (in a year or two) to get them all, but I couldn't resist bringing you a couple.

Marshall loved telling about how Mickey took a big bet from Lanny Wadkins just after he'd won the PGA Championship. Mantle and Wadkins were about the biggest two celebrities at Preston Trail, then the exclusive all-men's club in Dallas. Wadkins was always a little jealous that Mickey's portrait hung in the front entry way of the club and had asked why his wasn't there, too. After winning his major title, club members relented and put a Wadkins portrait there, too. Mickey wasn't keen on that, and challenged Wadkins to a money game. The bet was $100 a hole.

"Mickey set the bet and said Lanny would have to give him two drives and two putts anywhere in the round," Marshall said. "Mickey wore him out. He took $2,300 from Lanny. And, he got that picture of Lanny taken down. Eventually, they put it back up after awhile.

"Mickey was about a two handicap at Preston Trail. He could really play. He could hit it further than anyone I've ever seen. I think he said he was about a nine, but he was a two. Trust me."

I do. Completely.

So do some of the best players in the world. Marshall disappointed about two dozen Tour players last week because of Jane's trip to Oklahoma.

"I've got a bunch in the Colonial that want me to come down to Fort Worth," he said then. "I think I've gotten 19 calls from guys in the Colonial wondering if I could watch them a little bit."

That was my good fortune, too. He wouldn't have been available for my lesson, really my first ever true lesson from someone aside from my father or my uncle, the late Bill Henry, pro for years at Western Hills and Riverdale in Little Rock. Those were never formal teaching sessions, but just quick checks of my grip or stance. Uncle Bill would do most of that in the pro shop and then send me to the range "to work it out on your own."

I've known for years that I was a "slider" and didn't stay behind the ball, but I didn't know how to fix it. Gosh, if I'd known it would be this easy, I might never have taken up fly fishing.

As you can tell, I'm hooked on golf again.


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