The Local Knowlege

Instruction

20 Top teachers fixed a lot more than slices this week in Memphis

Buttoning up a couple cartloads of swings always makes for a good day, but 20 of the best teachers in the world made even more of an impact at a Memphis charity event this week. 

Top teacher Rob Akins brings in 19 of his instructor friends every year in advance of the FedEx St. Jude Classic tour stop to participate in the Gurus of Golf -- a unique benefit for the Le Bonheur Children's Hospital.


Instead of running a traditional pro-am where everybody goes out and plays for a score with a celebrity partner, Akins pairs 20 amateur foursomes with their own swing guru for the day. The group gets a nine-hole playing lesson in the morning, private instruction in the middle of the day, and then a nine-hole playing lesson to finish out in the afternoon. This year's roster was a virtual who's-who of the Golf Digest 50 Best Teachers list -- Chuck Cook, Mike Bender, Mike Adams, Stan Utley, Randy Smith, Jack Lumpkin, Brian Mogg, Mike Shannon, Todd Sones and Charlie King all supervised groups at Spring Creek Ranch, as did Tom Stickney, Scott Davenport, Mark Wood, Kathy Hart Wood, Kip Puterbaugh, John Elliott, Don Sargent, Tom Ness and Mark Hackett.   

Each amateur foursome paid $10,000 for unlimited access to their guru -- as well as access to all the other instructional firepower on hand. During the lunch break, players actively cross-pollinated, moving from Utley's short game clinic at the practice green to Cook and Adams' stations at the range. 

Out on the course, Smith and the other teachers mixed concrete swing tips with strategy advice and volumes of stories about tour life behind the scenes. Smith made quick work of his team, tuning up turns and fixing grips early in the day and seeing immediate results. His only concern? "I get a little nervous when a guy tells me he has his member-guest coming up next week," he said. "That's not usually the best time to be making a bunch of changes."

The combination of entry fees and proceeds from a charity auction the night before at Lexus of Memphis raised more than $250,000 for Le Bonheur's childrens programs -- a resounding success by any measure. But for the teachers, it is Akins' homespun hospitality -- and the legendary closing barbecue he always cooks -- that has made them block off space and give their time. "It's a great cause, but we do it for Rob," says Utley, one of many of the instructors who has been coming since the event started in 2009. "It's one of the highlights of the year."

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Instruction

How are you supposed to hit golf's true breakfast ball?

TPC Sawgrass is best known in TV land for its island 17th green, but from a player's-eye view, the plentiful bunkers and waste areas dish out far more potential punishment. 

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As the Tour's self-run flagship event, the Players almost always has ideal course conditions. But weather has a way of intervening. Mix tour-quality sand with some rain--like the forecast calls for on Friday--and you have the potential for some "fried egg" lies in those bunkers.

In perfect conditions, a ball will rest mostly on top of the sand in the bunker. But when the sand is too soft and fluffy or damp from steady rain, the ball can hit and stay in its own crater. That fried egg situation makes for a much dicier shot. Players can't hit shots as high or with as much spin from that lie--which makes Sawgrass' notoriously hard and fast greens even more of a factor. 

With help from Blair O'Neal and Golf's Sexiest Shots, here's how you can copy what the tour players do when faced with golf's true breakfast ball. 


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Instruction

How Babe Ruth helped popularize one of golf's most common practice drills

In addition to being a celebrity golf pioneer -- oh, and probably the greatest baseball player ever -- Babe Ruth is indirectly responsible for a lot of good golf swings.

Related: Babe Ruth's history as a celebrity golfer

Have you ever seen a golfer tuck a glove or something under their arm during practice and hit balls? Probably. In fact, there's a good chance you've tried it yourself on the range. Here's the King of Practice, Vijay Singh, doing it:

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We're not sure if Ruth invented the drill, but he certainly played a large role in it spreading through the golf community. You see, Ruth played on the Yankees alongside a player named Sam Byrd. During that time Ruth taught Byrd the trick, using a handkerchief, in order to keep his left or front arm (for Ruth, it would have been his right arm since he played golf lefty) connected to his body throughout the swing.

Byrd retired after a mediocre seven years in baseball, often serving as Ruth's pinch-runner, and then had a solid career on what would become the PGA Tour. He won six events and finished third at the 1941 Masters and runner-up to Byron Nelson at the 1945 PGA Championship.

Related: Pictures of PGA Tour wives and girlfriends

In 1960, Byrd hired a 17-year-old Jimmy Ballard to work at his par-3 course and driving range in Birmingham, Ala. Byrd passed on the Babe's philosophy about achieving connectivity through the drill (players like Tiger Woods also practice with a glove tucked under their right or back arm) and Ballard, in turn, passed it on to many of his students as he became an acclaimed instructor to major champions like Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton and Sandy Lyle. For more on this and on Jimmy Ballard's often overlooked career, check out James Dodson's 2010 feature.

And the next time you're at the range, give the drill a try. Hey, if it was good enough for the Sultan of Swat. . .

(h/t Brandel Chamblee)

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Instruction

So did Tiger Woods find a short game miracle or what?

When Tiger Woods disappeared from the PGA Tour after the Farmers Insurance Open in February because his game was "uncompetitive," a potentially fatal case of the chipping yips was the most obvious diagnosis. 

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The reports coming from Florida and Tiger's practice rounds -- and then from Augusta the week before the tournament -- weren't hugely more comforting. He was getting better, but still hitting some squirrelly shots. 

But at Augusta, with the golf world holding its collective breath, he not only chipped well but his short game actually saved him over the course of a choppy ball-striking week. He wasn't perfect -- he thinned one chip and bladed another out of the bunker -- but it was a world of improvement over the last time we saw him. 


So does that mean he's fixed, or were the yips just dormant for a week? 

Top 50 teacher Kevin Weeks says Woods' technique is dramatically different now than it was at the beginning of 2015 -- to the point that he could well have bypassed any yips issue by creating a new mental pattern. Making a dramatic technical change -- and putting new wedges with more bounce into play -- was a critically important decision. Had he decided to try to grind it out with his old technique, he would probably still be in layaway in Jupiter, Fla. 

Weeks made the video below to illustrate the main technical differences between his old and new chipping motions — namely, different body motion and maintaining the true loft on the club through impact with less forward shaft lean.


"He looks like a different guy," says Weeks, who is the director of instruction at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill., and is a short-game teacher to a half dozen PGA Tour players. "His shoulders used to be very steep, and he didn't have much wrist hinge. His swing was V-shaped, and he had to push his hands forward to try to create a longer flat spot at the bottom of the swing. But when the hands are forward like that, it exposes the leading edge of the club to the ground. If you hit the ground too early, you're going to dig in and chunk it."

Now, Woods is using a much "flatter" short-game swing. His shoulders are working more horizontally, and he's turning his body much more. The butt of the club stays pointed at the center of his body throughout the swing, which keeps the true loft on the club and the bounce exposed to the ground. "Now, he can make contact with no manipulation of his hands. His strikes at Augusta were really clean, with no divot, which means he was really using the bounce."

Other teachers, like Hank Haney, were impressed with the improvements, but say the jury is still out on whether the yips are gone -- or just on vacation. "Tiger had a great short game. He still does have a great short game -- when he doesn't yip it," Haney said in the April Golf Digest. "Even if he has days where it looks like it's improving, it doesn't mean the yips are gone. They might go into remission, but they're still there."

It'll be hard to truly know until the end of the spring, when Woods finally tees it up again, most likely at the Players. 

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How He Hit That

How He Hit That: Jordan Spieth's Short Game Conviction

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For virtually every minute of Jordan Spieth's four-day championship romp at Augusta National, he looked vasty more mature than his 21 years. 

But nowhere might that have been more true than around the green, where Spieth's confident, nerveless chipping and pitching saved him the few times he missed in inconvenient places. 

On his last hole Saturday, Spieth hit his approach shot over the green and had a tricky downhill pitch over a bunker and across a tier. He clipped it perfectly and left himself a miraculous 10-footer, which he made to preserve his four-shot cushion over Justin Rose and right himself after a double on 17. 

"If you watch Jordan's pre-shot routine on short game shots, it doesn't look much different than any other tour player's, but where he excels is committing to the shot he wants to hit," says top short game teacher Brandon Stooksbury. "He makes a few practice swings, sets the club down and pulls the trigger. He doesn't give himself even a second of time to let doubt enter his mind or the motion."

Indecision and doubt are especially harmful in short game because the size and speed of the shot give the player plenty of time to override the motion in an effort to "control" the shot. "If you don't feel comfortable with the shot, the most likely scenario is that you're going to get your hands too active or you're going to decelerate through the ball," says Stooksbury, who is based at Idle Hour Golf & Country Club in Macon, Georgia. "That rarely works in the player's favor. Next time you play, take a page from Spieth's book and commit to picking the shot you want to hit, seeing it in your mind and hitting it without worrying where it might end up." 

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How He Hit That

How He Hit That: Jordan Spieth's Unconventional Grip Takes Hold of the Masters

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There's nothing remotely cookie-cutter about Jordan Spieth's swing, but his performance through three rounds has been right out of the Putting a Tournament Away textbook.

Spieth's grip is one of the more interesting ones on tour--a derivative of the standard overlapping grip 98 percent of PGA Tour players use and the interlock used by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. 

Instead of resting the little finger of his right hand on top of his left index finger or linking his pinkie and index fingers, Spieth lets that left index finger ride on top of the right hand and slightly interlock with his right pinkie. With that finger position--and an overall weak grip in general--Spieth doesn't have any trouble hitting draws or fades on command. 

"He's making the case for the one millionth time that there's no one 'right' way to swing the club," says top Pennsylvania teacher John Dunigan, who works with Sean O'Hair. "You need to hold the club in a way that gives you a sense for the club face and gives you repeatability. Jordan's grip does that."

By overlapping his left index finger, Spieth probably gets even more feel in his right hand. "You can think of it like a tennis racket," says Dunigan, who is the director of coaching at White Manor Country Club in Malvern, outside Philadelphia. "You have a great feel for what the face of the racket is doing because the handle is in your palm. The reverse overlap gives him that extra feel and control in his right palm."

A great way to increase your sense of clubface control is to practice with a split grip. Take your normal grip, then slide your right hand down so that it's completely separate from your left. "Start by hitting shots with that right hand perpendicular to the target line--so the palm is facing the target," says Dunigan. "Then experiment by adjusting your palm a little to the right and a little to the left. You're learning the secret of golf--which is the ability to say to yourself, I predict that when I do this, the ball will go there."
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Instruction

Spieth's instructor since age 12 knew he had something special

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Jordan Spieth has been coached by Cameron McCormick since age 12. McCormick is a sandy-haired Australian whose post is the Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas. His most famous student is President George Walker Bush, but there’s no question who’s his brightest.

The first lesson young Jordan had with McCormick took place not on the range, but in the pro’s small office. McCormick is a voracious reader of scholarly texts on subjects like motor control and skill acquisition, and he likes to begin every relationship with a conversation. He asked the boy what he wanted to do.

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“I’ll never forget how he looked me straight in the eye and told me he wanted to win the Masters,” McCormick said. “He didn’t look especially strong, his build was average for his age. He’d had some recent really low rounds but his tournament scoring average wasn’t remarkable. But the dead seriousness with which he told me that was like nothing I’d ever heard from someone his age."


McCormick next asked Jordan to rate the elements of his game. The boy said his ball-striking was best. He loved how he hit the ball.

Rather than help the boy hit it better by fixing some obvious idiosyncrasies (namely a weak grip and a broken left elbow at the top of the backswing that persist to this day) McCormick focused on nurturing that confidence. No sense breaking down for the boy how hard this game could really be.
  
McCormick gets excited when he talks about “mirror neurons.” Brain science is of course complicated, but essentially, mirror neurons are the parts of the brain that fire as we watch someone perform a physical movement. Scientists have discovered that a significant percentage of these neurons fire in the same sequence when we perform the action ourselves. In our neural pathways, we’re always mirroring others. This has amazing significance. It helps explain why amputees feel relief from an itch in a phantom limb by watching another person scratch his leg. It helps explain why baseball players are more likely to get a hit if they’ve watched the batter before them get a hit. It suggests a level of human interconnectedness difficult to imagine, that we are almost like one mind separated by our skin. It also suggests we learn by watching in a way much deeper than ever thought.
 
So what does this have to do with a 21-year-old carrying the 36-hole lead into the 79th Masters? Well, he’s not dominating the Masters because he swings a club better or hits the ball farther than everybody else. Jordan’s special strength is his mind. And the training started when he was very young.

While some coaches instruct students to focus by blocking out distractions and playing “in their own bubble,” McCormick has always encouraged Jordan to look around. 

“We’ve always spoken about the principle of association since he was young and playing in bigger stage events,” McCormick said. This means paying attention to the good shots of others to increase the likelihood you’ll hit a good shot. “We’ve also worked on building an ‘imagery reel’ of his past successes to draw back on to amplify his confidence.” Again, the idea is the act of remembering a good shot can actually trigger your motor skills to fire the same way.
 
Jordan Spieth is a cumulative 19 under par in six career competitive rounds at Augusta, a course where the common wisdom favors veterans. Why no long learning curve for the Texan? Here’s what Spieth had to say:
  
“I don’t know. Seems like there’s been quite a few guys that have had success at a young age here. I think Seve won it when he was 23, Tiger at 21. And obviously, I’m not comparing myself to those guys in any way.”
  
His brain is trained for the media center, too.
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How He Hit That

How He Hit That: Tiger's wild tee shots really are coming from his glutes

As much as Tiger Woods is probably relieved that his basic short game shots haven't completely let him down this week, he has to be concerned about his continued problems with the longest clubs in his bag. 

His driving accuracy numbers this week look good on the surface--10 of 14 on Thursday and a similar result Friday--but the driver misses have been almost off the charts, which has caused him to gear down to 3-wood often and give up precious yardage. Woods' driver miss on No. 9 Thursday was nearly 60 yards off line and into the first fairway, to a spot nobody could remember seeing another player play from. 

The instructor-pundit-player chatter on Twitter has been about Woods' head dropping significantly on the downswing with longer clubs being the biggest obstacle to hitting good shots: 

Top New York instructor Michael Jacobs says complete analysis of Woods' body movements reveals that the true problem is farther down below. 

"The head is the easiest thing to see, but Tiger's head is just responding to what's happening with his pelvis in the downswing," says Jacobs, the 2012 PGA Met Section Teacher of the Year. "In the downswing, he has a tremendous amount of pelvis tilt and drop. His hips are opening and his pelvis is tilting, and as a result, his head is dropping. If all he does is try to keep his head stable, he isn't going to be addressing what is really going on."

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To see how the pelvis (and the rest of the body) should move on the downswing, Tiger can look in a familiar place--and it isn't even the VHS vault of his own historical swing he's been dipping into with Chris Como.

 "Tiger's niece, Cheyenne, has a great swing," says Jacobs, who is based at X Golf School in Manorville, Long Island. "She'd be a good model for anybody to copy. Look at how her pelvis tilts slightly, but nothing like the amount Tiger's does. As a result, her head isn't bouncing around." 

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Deactivated glutes are bad, but so is an overactive pelvis. Insert your favorite "between a rock and a hard place" joke here. 

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How He Hit That

How He Hit That: Jordan Spieth's back-nine tree escape

It didn't take until the 14th hole to know it was Jordan Spieth's day, but his approach shot there certainly confirmed it. 

Stuck with an obstructed view of the green after pushing his tee shot into the right rough, Spieth carved his approach around the offending tree trunk and sent it curving straight at the flag. It skipped onto the putting surface and bonked the flagstick, leaving him a three feet for one of the nine birdies he would make on his way to a 64. 

"I had a good 7-iron in there...hard shot, with the ball below my feet" said Spieth, who missed the course (and major championship) record by a shot. "I couldn't see what happened with it. I guess it hit the pin--I was lucky it landed so soft." 

Luck didn't have much to do with it, says top California teacher Jerome Andrews. 

"The way Jordan sets up for a normal shot makes hitting an intentional fade pretty simple," says Andrews, the ESPN Swing Coach. "He has his eyes right of the ball, which helps his weight stay back longer and promotes a fade. He also has a weak grip, and the way his right elbow comes through naturally also helps him fade it. It's no wonder he hit it close."

If you don't have Spieth's raw talent, you can make a few adjustments to your setup to go around an obstacle. "Set your shoulders, hips, knees and feet on the line you want the ball to start, and aim the clubface where you want the ball to end up," says Andrews, who is based at Altadena Golf Course. "The more you want the ball to curve, the more club--and more clubhead speed--you need to use." 


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Instruction

Which Tiger Woods will be hitting chip shots come Thursday?

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Tiger Woods' decision to to put his game on display the Masters was a statement all by itself.

Casually dropping a couple of bags of balls at the chipping area in his first public appearance at Augusta National? That was an even bigger one. His chipping looked smooth and confident in the practice area, and during his abbreviated practice rounds Monday and Tuesday. 

Woods says he's ready to compete again--and if his short game truly lets him, it'll be a storyline out of a made-for-TV movie. 

How likely is it that we'll see him in his familiar Sunday red playing deep into the afternoon?

Not very. 

As Hank Haney said in this piece I helped write in the current issue of Golf Digest, Woods has a terrific short game--when he doesn't have the yips. In the neutral, no-consequences setting of the practice area or in a practice round, when players drop a bunch of balls on every hole, it's possible to get into a short game rhythm that masks issue temporarily. 

But the truth comes out in competition. 

"When you go back to the course to play, the stakes are so different, and so are the surroundings," says Haney. "He's not in that rhythm of hitting practice shot after practice shot...In a tournament round, you might go 30 or 45 minutes between chips, and when it comes time to hit one, you get one chance."

And if he hits one sketchy shot, only one thing will be on everybody's mind--including Tiger's. What is going to happen on the next one? 

Leaving aside the short game issue, there's also the matter of being tournament ready in the traditional sense. Woods has played six full tournament rounds since last year's PGA, and none since withdrawing from the Waste Management Open two months ago. Even if his short game was perfect, Woods' preparation hitting balls at home in Florida isn't the same as doing it at Bay Hill or Doral, in the heat of competition. 

The reps aren't there, as Woods would say. 

So what will we see when the real tournament starts Thursday?

Watch what kinds of short game shots Woods plays when the scores count. If he's using some of the same 4-iron bumper chips he tried in Scottsdale, he's playing in "limp" mode, and it isn't likely to be pretty. 

If he's somehow managed to find something that lets him use a full array of shots around the green, it would be amazing to see.  

Winning that 15th major would truly be a story for the ages. 

In the real world? A round or two under par and a respectable showing that includes the weekend would be a huge, dramatic moral victory for a guy who desperately needs one, and a shot of adrenaline for a sport that needs one, too. 

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