10 Rules

Surviving Winter Breaks, Slumps & Other Game-Changers

Jim McLean has 10 ways to help recharge your game

April 2010

1. During a layoff, focus on one method.
A seasonal layoff can be very useful. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have talked a lot about it giving them time to reflect, recharge their batteries and contemplate a game plan for the upcoming year. My advice is to focus on one type of instruction, and don't fall prey to every swing tip you see or hear. Commit to one concept. If the simple "swing the clubhead" message of Ernest Jones resonates with you, don't mix it with a complicated mechanics-based philosophy. You'll be surprised at how readily the swing you focused on and dreamed about becomes integrated into your game.

2. Learn to play with your C-game.
On the range before the final round of the 2007 WGC event at Doral, Tiger was hitting it all over the place. He was leading the tournament, but he hadn't hit the ball well the day before. There was a look of frustration on his face, but no panic. During his pre-round warm-up, Tiger hit all kinds of shots -- high fades, low punches, you name it -- presumably looking for something that would get him through the day. Suddenly he deliberately hit a sweeping 40-yard hook that turned toward one of the range flags. Then he hit another just like it, and another. That's how he played that day, hitting a huge draw on almost every shot.

Tiger didn't have his A-game, but the 73 he shot was good enough to win by two. On days when your feel isn't good or you just don't have it, find an "out" shot that will get you around. You might not shoot a great score, but you'll survive the day.


3. To regain distance, swing faster.
The late Gardner Dickinson, a terrific tour player in the 1950s and '60s who happened to have a slight build, once asked Ben Hogan what he could do to get longer off the tee. Hogan told Dickinson to stop at the range after every round and hit 30 drivers as hard as he could. He told him not to care where the shots went, but to try to hit the ball on the center of the clubface.

Hogan emphasized to Dickinson the importance of sheer swing speed. Thirty drives might be a lot for you; 15 might do. But a little violence in the swing is healthy and will help you develop more power. You'll never hit it far without ripping it.

4. Go to extremes to break bad habits.
Toward the end of 1991, Tom Kite went into a deep slump with his chipping. Tom's hands were too far forward through impact, which leaned the shaft toward the target and exposed the sharp leading edge of the clubface. Kite hit a lot of chips fat, which in turn had him pulling up to avoid hitting behind the ball. No amount of practice helped.

During the off-season, Tom eventually went to what I call the "contrarian theory," which takes the cure to an extreme. Kite didn't just stop trying to lean the shaft forward, he did the opposite: He tried to deliver the clubhead very early, so his hands were even with the ball at impact. To learn this move, he practiced chipping balls on a practice green, where hitting the ball fat meant tearing up the putting surface. Instead of hitting down on the ball, he tried to clip it cleanly off the turf. Tom got his chipping game back and had an incredible year in 1992, including a victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

5. If you're in a long slump, take a break.
If your handicap has shot up several strokes and you're confused, obsessed with mechanics, and have more tension than confidence, then you're in a true slump. Sad to say, it's time to put the clubs away for a while. Sam Snead would solve a slump by going home and fishing every day, even during the middle of the season.

When Hal Sutton went into a slump in the early '90s that took him from one of the best players in the world to almost losing his tour card, he stopped playing altogether and went to Houston to see Jackie Burke, winner of two majors, a superb teacher and the best amateur sport psychologist in golf. The game has a way of beating people up, and Jackie lifted Hal's confidence by reminding him how gifted he really was. Burke reorganized Hal's thinking about his game, and Hal came back to win a bunch of tournaments, including the Players Championship in 2000.

You might not have a Jackie Burke on call, but you can still use the time to appraise your game objectively and identify what you're doing wrong. From that reflection will come some fresh ideas for what you need to do to get back on track.

6. Been away? Expect a new reality.
In the early days of what used to be known as the Senior PGA Tour, many players who hadn't been active in their 40s came out of retirement. A few never got their games back. Others, like Billy Casper and Jim Colbert, reinvented their games and had great success. Everyday players who loved golf early in life but had to leave the game to raise a family or focus on a career tend to think they'll pick up where they left off. But it doesn't work that way. They quickly find everything has changed: equipment, courses and most of all, themselves. Physically and mentally these players aren't as strong, supple or athletic.

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