THE ADVICE Willie Sutton gave to his lower nature was "go after the green." Golfers ought to bank on that wisdom too, because it is on or around the green that we play our best or worst golf.
No argument exists that it is where we play the most golf. At least 60 per cent of our strokes are used either in putting or chipping. Fewer than 15 per cent are tee shots, about 12 per cent approach shots and four or five per cent sand play.
With the season still young, no time can be better spent than devoting about an hour's worth of practice a week on the greenful mysteries of putting and chipping. The wise golfer - which means the addicted one - will have spent the winter on the living room carpet, merely keeping alive his feel for the putter in his hands. Going back to nature's carpet, chlorophyl cut to 3/16ths inches by the greenskeepers, is less a journey into the unknown than a return of the native.
If you didn't putt through the winter, you are probably rusty in two or three areas.
The first is elbows. Keep them close to your body when putting. Golfers tend to concentrate on their hands when over a putt, but whatever sensitivity they may feel between the palms tends to be dissipated by dangling elbows.
You need to get the elbows out of the way rather than in the act. Concentrate on feeling them against your ribs, if that's what you need to do to tuck them in. Only a few professionals have ever elbowed their way to the top by keeping their elbows out while putting: Leo Diegel of the Hagen era and Lou Graham of this one. But nearly all other skilled putters keep the elbows close to the body.
In chipping, a decision needs to be made early in the season on which club to use, and then spend until autumn's last round using it.
The erratic way, usually the common way, compels golfers to use a 7 iron on one green, a 9 on the next, sometimes a 5 iron, another time the 6. If much of chipping means judging not only the distance but also the trajectory, then solve the problem in the beginning.
I have always been a 5 iron chipper. The ball comes off the club low. I am left to worry only about contacting the ball in the center of the clubface and then figuring the distance and break. In the days before I perceived that a good short game would be my salvation, I thought each chip shot constituted a different challenge and thus the possibility of a different club every time. But why use a 9 or 8 iron when you have nothing to hit over?
The best chippers I have known used neither 5, 9 nor any other iron. They used chippers: clubs made only for chipping.
I have been searching for some years for such a club, but have yet to find one. I had a chipper once, and used it with some elation - always my own or my partner's - when I was a boy. It was hickory shafted. But wanting to mix in with the herd-members and their steel shafts - as though golf were a team sport - I gave it away as something worthless. Now I know better.
A third and final necessity is to believe with the faith of saints that if you hang around the practice green for an hour a week you will soon become a craftsman at putting and chipping.
Half of it is feel that is outside you - of the grass, the club and the ball. The other half is the feel within - telling you that putting and chipping are the least mysterious of the golfing arts, and that familiarity does much to solve them.
The baleful risks of driving or sand blastings are not found on the greens, and we will never truly know what makes a drive go straight or a sand-shot get close. But we can learn about putting and chipping.
They demand control, beginning with the self-control that keeps us from going over to hit out a bucket of balls on the driving range. Control your urges for the big tee ball and begin to see the delights in the bigness of making little chips and even littler putts.