Playing by Feel

Playing golf by feel… this wonderful letter sent to me by a student, I could not resist sharing this here…

Golf is a game of feel,
However, to play it well, it is a game of “the right feel”

We need to feel the right things in the golf swing, but also we need to be able to feel the environment around us, and due to the complexities of the game, such as wind, temperature, the kind of grass, humidity, our lie, ground slope, altitude, and probably 10 other things that are slipping my mind… we need to feel this game.

We can certainly memorize a golf course, such as our home course, but we can also develop our intuition to aid us in playing different courses.

Although I am far from being totally opposed to using yardages, I would be far from giving raw yardage the absolute final say in pulling a club. It is relevant information, but I would use it to only skew my intuitive feeling rarely more than half a club.

On a flat wide open golf course with few trees or undulations, yardages could be more helpful. I have always felt much more comfortable playing a golf course that has some kind of topography or trees. Seeing a backdrop for the shape of my shot has always been a welcomed visual aid. If I haven’t played in a while, the first thing I notice is my lack of feel… not so much for my swing, but the intuitive sense of pulling the right club for the shape of the shot that is required. This is my argument for spending more time on the golf course than on the driving range. I really liked the above description of the feel muscle. I could not agree more.

That is a great story. It goes right along with the the notion that our feel muscle (aka ‘body’ / ‘inner self’ / ‘subconscious mind’ / ‘central nervous system’) is a very capable and advanced machine. Much more advanced than our brain and the external calculators and computers we have come to rely upon.

feeling vs. calculating is IMO very much like analog vs. digital sound:

Great thread! Loving it as it has already tied together three of my favorite things: 3-cushion, golf, and analog music!

Lag’s dedication to feel and classic clubs, which reminded me of my many years living and breathing vintage musical and audio equipment, was one of the reasons I knew I was in the right place and joined the program.

My problem with the phrase ‘playing by feel’ is that in reality, most golfers have zero clue what it means. But, if you can truly learn the importance of feel and how to properly do it, it’s something that can immediately improve your game and if you’re an instructor, become a much better instructor.

I always hear people at the course or on the range saying ‘I’m a feel player.’ Eventually I just had to ask what they meant by that. Every golfer I’ve asked this basically means that they play the round of golf with the golf swing that they woke up with that day. And then if they are hitting, for instance a slice, they’ll just try to turn the clubface more at impact.

Really simple stuff, that may work for the Fred Couples of the world…who are few and far between. But, this to me is not ‘playing by feel.’

I think Homer Kelley really nailed it with ‘learning feel from mechanics’ instead of learning ‘mechanics from feel.’ The ABS modules get us to understand what the mechanics and motion are like, then we can start trying to feel that and when we come up with the feel that works, we can repeat those sound mechanics and motions time and time again.

Most golf instruction will tell you to feel something and assume that will put the player in the proper mechanics/motion. Just doesn’t work that way. What feel may work for one golfer, may not work for the other.

For instance, I’m in Module 3 and sort of discovered another feel that works for me concerning the elbows. But giving somebody else that feel may fail miserably. In fact, I cannot quite articulate exactly what the feel is, but I know what it is when I do it correctly and when I do not execute it correctly.

I can certainly understand an instructor suggesting some feels to a student. But the problem is that most instructors only recommend these feels instead of getting the student to feel this stuff on their own. Once you can, it’s really powerful stuff.


Good point.

There’s a lot of this in the poker world: people who claim that they play by feel, trying to distance themselves from the math player because they either don’t like math, can’t do math, don’t think it’s cool or whatever excuse they have. I can tell you from experience that there’s few things more profitable than to be playing against a feel player having a bad day!

The best players have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the game, and THEN they add a “feel” to the mix that comes from countless hours of practice and real-world experience.


Not sure we’re talking about the same thing here.

You’re talking about a ‘swing feel’ that works for you. This is not the kind of feel that this thread is about I think. Think of feel in this way: Each time you judge a distance without a device, you develop your ‘feel’. And this also works the other way around.

IMO it speaks for itself that you need a stable base (a repeating swing) upon which to train your feel (for distances, so there’s no discussion there.

The 3-cushion player in hanisch’ story was already very well versed in the mechanical aspects of the game I’m sure, and therefore more than ready to ‘train the feel muscle’.


Sure, the feel of the swing, and also the feel of the intensity of the strike using intuition to gauge distance control.

For instance Hogan did not use yardages.

As we move on in this course, at least working ABS modules, I am going to show students how to adjust certain pressures and forces within the body to manipulate ball flight in a much more sophisticated way, simpler, and much more effective than what most have learned in the past.

In this sense, learning the ability to maneuver the ball around and shape your shots through internal pressures is more a feel way to do it, rather than by adjusting set up or other mechanical positions or by changing the grip or any number of other commonly taught methods.

However, by manipulating pressures, this is of course changing mechanics… because we are changing the mechanical aspect of how power and pressure is going to be applied in the golf swing.

I spent a lot of time studying this years ago, when I had my 10K shutter speed camera, and I would film various “feel” players who said they would just “think” draw or fade… but couldn’t really describe what it was they were doing. But there was a difference… and once you know what to look for… it’s very obvious, and even more obvious in super slow motion imaging.

When I think playing by feel, it is allowing yourself the freedom to use your gut intuition, sensory awareness and so forth to both pick the best shot shape, trajectory, and intensity of the strike (yardage) at that moment in time… based on many things (how you feel, prior tendencies, external conditions and so forth) … and then being able to feel that shot inside the body before you execute it… then to commit to the feeling within the body, then to execute that feeling with complete commitment… then simply living with the result.

The non feel player is going to base the decision on yardage, add or subtract 5 or 10 yards for each element of wind, topography, lie and so on… at the great risk of leaving something out of the equation.

The interview I did with John Henrick is very insightful about how the guys used to play without yardages at all. If you haven’t take the time to listen to the interview… make sure to do so.

How is it that Hogan, being revered as the greatest striker of all time didn’t use yardages? I have never once heard of anyone from that era saying it is too bad Hogan didn’t use yardages because he was so poor at controlling his distances?

Assuming he was the greatest, why is his technique for distance control completely ignored or brushed aside in the modern age? Because it is so unscientific? or esoteric?

Hogan gives some real insight into this in the “Shells match” when he is interviewed by Sarazen after hitting that tricky little wedge shot of the hanging lie on the par five on the back nine. I have it quoted exactly somewhere on this site… but
it really sums it up… and shows that he truly was playing golf on an entirely different level than most others do.

Distance awarness/control is a primal function of the nervous system shared by most living forms. How do animals guage distance. Yardages are standards to communicate distance as peoples feels may be very different. But thats not how the brain measures distance. How does fielder in b/ball or cricket measure distance for the throw. He automatically uses the right way as he has no time to think conciously about it.
Having said that golf clubs are artifacts and dont have as much range as a hand throw (you cant hit a wedge to 250 yards) so the standard markers at 200/150/100 are useful reminders.

I’m on the DL, so I’m having golf withdrawals :cry: and too much free time so I uploaded that scene from the Shell match… he’s says he could “feel the air in the trees.” very cool

[youtube] [/youtube]

What’s a DL parker?
By the way, that youtube video is marked as private.

Sorry, Man. It is public now. And “on the DL” means “on the disabled list.” it’s a phrase used in baseball.

Thanks Parker,

That is exactly the quote… and a good lesson there as well…

I also like Mac’s analogy for a baseball player throwing a ball… think about some of the great throws from shallow outfield into home plate, with both accuracy and precision distance control. Same thing for a quarterback firing across the center on a post hitting the receiver at full throttle. How about basketball from 3 point range… or while in motion.

In golf, we do have the “luxury” of time… and the ability to have yardage as a very relevant input to consider… however, I think it is really overrated as being the end to all discussion.

lag asked me to provide some lessons i learned from sang lee that may have analogs in golf, as sang lee was a world champion in his discipline (three-cushion billiards) and played–and advocated playing by–feel. lag also encouraged me to include these youtube links of sang lee:

[note: the videos are of two runs made by sang lee in the same game, played during an exhibition tournament in new york in 1994. i watched it live, and my good friend, a protege of sang lee’s, ira lee (no relation), was the referee.]




here’s the first lesson:

every shot is unique.

a customer playing in sang lee’s room, facing a shot remarks, “i know how to play this! sang lee showed me this shot.” overhearing these words, sang lee replies, “i couldn’t have shown you this shot, for i have never seen it before.”

this really goes to the heart of sang lee’s thoughts and teachings. every shot (i.e. position or layout of the balls) is unique. he taught that when you cultivate this attitude, you allow yourself to absorb all the nuances that make up each shot. you feel how even very slight changes in where the balls lie, deeply alter the possibilities. how the chalk deposits on the table, the dirtiness of the balls, and the humidity in the air effect the outcome. the beginner may need to abstract much of what is ultimately important away, and over simplify each position by clumping together many shots which are not the same. but if you hold onto this crutch of artificial categorization, you limit the natural ability of your brain to pick out and feel the characteristics that make every shot unique.

when sang lee played, he treated every shot like a brand new problem needing to be solved. he often played shots differently than most–or even all other–world class players. and when those other world class players saw his solution unfold, they would remark how he made the ball so much bigger (that’s billiard speak for increasing the margin for error) than the shot they would have taken. he did this better than anybody because he truly treated every shot as unique.

when you rely on gross pigeonholing of shots, and play using systems, you rob yourself of observing and absorbing just those characteristics that allow for seeing each shot as unique and as a whole. it is only then–by really feeling the shot–do all the possibilities for playing it open up in front of you.

i think it’s an understatement to say that this all applies directly to golf, and is what makes golf–like billiards–an unendingly rich game.


Just doing a little checking in here… this is great stuff, Hanisch, right up my alley as they say. It’s interesting that billiards could be seen by someone as so different on each shot since the surface is so uniform. It says a lot about his mind that he could appreciate it and see it that way. Though thinking about it, I suppose the angles are always slightly different regardless of how they look. 3 ball billiards is a hell of a lot more precise than snooker, and even more so than pool. Hitting one point on the cushion is a lot more challenging than hitting it in a pocket, whether it be snooker or pool- you always have the ball width that you’re contacting, though you have to contact it in the right spot if you have a plan for where it’s going. It’s all analogous to old gear/new gear no doubt. Billiards could be hickory, snooker could be “old gear”, and pool could be new gear? Maybe…
Some of his thoughts speak to the difficulties I’ve had in my time with a routine, they’ve always stressed me out as if they’re a forced singular shape on something that’s always changing. I suppose it depends on the mind involved, they obviously work for a lot, but not everyone. I like to feel a sense of freedom and spontaneity in every shot…
Regardless, great post… nice to see this type of stuff…

These are amazing videos that all should see… I don’t think you have to be a billiards player to appreciate the intuitive precision that is taking place there.

In many ways it is very similar to golf… a ball, a stick, even a green surface, and too much time to think about what you are going to have to do…
I think the mental side would be extremely similar.

Wonderful post, and I really appreciate it being on here for all of us to learn from.

I think this is a tough analogy for me to totally agree with. Mainly because if we take these other sporting examples I believe all of them are done why the person is looking directly at the target. Does the 3-point shooter make his shot while looking at his feet? Does the quarterback complete the pass looking at the ground? I know I cannot, and for basketball it is common defensive move to put your hand in the face of the shooter. I feel for golf this is a distinction between these actions, in that while performing the action the target is out of our direct view.

That being said, Geoff Magnum believes that as humans we do have the instinctual feel for distance in putting. The main thrust of his book is based on this. So maybe there is a point to be made that as humans we have a distinct feel for how far something is and how to get the ball there once we have a feel for the speed.

Very interesting discussion.

There certainly are those who believe we should look at the hole when we putt… I have tried it with varying results… but I think there is good logic to it…

As far as gauging distances… I do take a few practice swings before I play a shot from the fairway, very much with my eyes focused upon the target, and very much focusing only on the intensity of the strike. Certainly it would be difficult for us to look at the target while playing a 5 iron shot… and this is why I emphasize feeling the shot within the body before you play the shot…

You can get a very good sense of the intensity of the strike with your eyes fixated upon the target as much as possible, then focus on that feeling, then move into address, and execute that feeling quickly while it is still fresh in your mind.

Knudson talked about keeping your minds eye on the target even during the swing… and in this sense, I think that is very much relating to other sports such as basketball and so forth…

It would be interesting to know sang lee’s thoughts on how he would feel or fixate the final result within his mind or concentration.

i remember watching a clip of gary player talking about sand shots, and how there are so many different factors involved–the lie, slope, type of sand, moisture, lip, etc., and then all the characteristics of the green and where the pin is and so on–that he could go on and on and never exhaust all the different possibilities. i think he was expositing precisely the same ideas that sang lee was when he would exhort us to see each shot as truly unique.

when someone was practicing in sang lee’s room and was stuck on a shot and would ask him for advice, sang lee would challenge the player to come up with at least a dozen ways to play it. this would free the player from being stuck in the “what’s the right way to play it?” mentality. moreover, it would help the player to really see the shot as unique. then sang lee would move the cue ball a fraction of an inch and ask the player to do the exercise again. when doing this, you notice certain ways to play it no longer exist (due to a possible kiss, or the angle is no longer there, and so forth) and that new ways to play it suddenly appear. then, when the player would choose to play it in a particular way, sang lee would ask, exactly how are you going to shoot it? he would ask not just the overall pattern, but: how hard? how much spin? how much ball to hit? how much spin do you want to gain or lose off the ball? off the rail? do you want the spin to take on the first rail? or do you want it to slip off the first rail and take on the second? and so on. it then becomes obvious that there are not merely a dozen or so ways to play the shot, but rather hundreds and hundreds. and the only way to assimilate all of these variables is to let yourself feel what is happening. to envision the entire shot before you shoot it. i think this is exactly what lag is saying when talking about what the great ball strikers in golf are doing.

i have often read on this forum lag’s words, “the ball doesn’t lie.” it always reminds me of something very similar that sang lee would often say:

the table doesn’t lie.

players who play using diamond systems would often complain when missing a shot, muttering that it should have scored. to this sang lee would reply, “the table doesn’t lie.”

what he was getting at is this: these system players are not playing the table in front of them. rather, they are playing some mythical table in which the system they are using is perfect. forget for a moment that these systems aren’t even theoretically possible, for they are all very gross approximations involving unrealistic assumptions. sang lee was admonishing them for utterly ignoring all the characteristics of the real table that greatly influence whether you score a real point or not. feeling the table is part of the game. when the table is vacuumed and the balls are clean, shots will come off a certain way. as the game progresses and the table collects chalk deposits and the balls get dirty, the shots will come off differently. the humidity in the air is an important factor. not only does each table play differently, but each corner of each table plays differently. and all this changes minute to minute. again, the only way to assimilate all of this information–to not only see the shot you wish to take, but also to execute it appropriately–is to develop your feel and intuition, and to allow it to guide you. playing by systems is a short-cut that robs your brain to develop in this way, and so puts an artificial upper limit on your progress as a player.

lag, i just asked my friend ira about “sang lee’s thoughts on how he would feel or fixate the final result within his mind or concentration.” it reminded ira of a conversation he had with sang lee many years ago:

ira was asking him how he would make the ball so big. [this means a shot which gives a larger than normal margin for error, effectively making the ball bigger.] sang lee’s response was that to make the ball big you had to have your heart in the shot. that is to execute it with full conviction, no matter the situation. but, sang lee added, in order to get to this point in an honest way (i.e. not just by brute force) you had to feel the whole shot, in all its particulars, and envision it in your mind. you first have to develop the feel. then, in order to make the ball big, you have to have the heart to execute it. that is, shoot it just like you did in your mind, and not give up on it.

this also reminded ira of sang lee talking about post-shot routine as being at least as important as pre-shot routine. while in the chair, sang lee would try to learn from every shot he took. this was key to his ability to read the table and adjust to it as the table was constantly changing.


Great point about post-shot routine. Review is a powerful way to learn.

You reminded me about my friend’s 3-cushion table. A lot of people couldn’t believe that the slate was heated, and when they were told that it was to keep the air moisture out of the cloth, they would always give funny looks.