When it comes to player performance, the PGA Tour tracks more than 100 statistics each year. Everything from how many birdies a player makes on par 3s to how close he hits his approach shots from 250 to 275 yards out. We sifted through thousands of statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons and discovered that a handful of players made exceptional improvements in one specific part of their game. We asked them how they did it, and what average golfers like you and me can learn from their experience.
When I need to stop the bleeding, I sometimes think about a visual tip my dad gave me. My father, Don, has been my only teacher, and he used to tell me to pretend there's a catcher's mitt right behind me on my target line. My goal is to start my swing so the clubhead hits the mitt. From there, I just lift the club to complete my backswing (left).It's a great tip for amateurs who let the club get too far to the inside when they make a big backswing -- which causes them to come over the top. Or those who are scared to turn too far away from the ball. This move limits the turn and will give them the confidence to hit the next fairway and erase that mistake on the previous hole. It's so important to get off the tee on that next hole in good shape.
A lot of people try to kill the ball when they're way out in the 250-yard range, but all it takes is good rhythm and nice, solid contact. In fact, I focus on a slower, smoother swing when I'm trying to hit a par 5 in two. Another way to stay in control is to play a fade. I prefer to play one for approach shots of this length because it slows my swing down, and I can control it better. Plus, a fade flies higher and with more spin, making it easier for the ball to hold on the green. To play this shot, I open my stance a little and make sure I get through the ball with my legs and body (left). The body turn is crucial, but I don't rush the swing, and I don't swing any harder.
When I practiced from the sand during the 2007-'08 off-season, I hit shots from 10 yards out exclusively. After the 2007 season, my short-game instructor, Dave Pelz, did some research and discovered that the average distance of a sand shot on tour was 10 yards. So that's what I practiced (left). Thirty feet, nothing else, though I did create different lies for variation.When the 2008 season began, I found that if a shot was a bit shorter or longer than the 30-foot norm, I needed to make only a small adjustment to compensate. The practice strategy really paid off. At one point, I hit 28 consecutive sand shots within three feet of the hole.
When I started playing a fade, my scores came down. What I used to do before last year was try to hit it as long as I could. I pretty much would come out of my shoes swinging on an inside-to-out path. I used to hit it longer, but of my 14 tee shots per round, four would be off the map. Sometimes I didn't know where it was going, so I switched to what I call a tumbling fade.My swing thought is to try to keep the face open as long as I can. I often rehearse the impact position (left). I'm trying to catch the ball a little closer to the toe. It's still near the center of the clubface, but this produces a tumbling fade instead of one that lands and stops quickly.
I practice hitting wedge shots with my right hand only to ingrain a feeling of release (left). Essentially, I've turned my pitches into little full swings.I used to try to get lots of shaft lean at impact and take the ball in low. The feeling was to hold on instead of releasing the clubhead past the hands. But it was hard to get any kind of consistency with distance that way. My coach, Dale Lynch, and I decided to treat pitch shots more like full swings, and the right-hand-only drill forces you to release the clubhead just as you would with a 7-iron from 170 yards.I immediately noticed an improvement in my distance control. Now, if I want to hit a lower trajectory pitch, I just use a pitching wedge or 9-iron.
The key to scrambling is remembering that making a good putt is just as important as hitting a good chip, pitch or sand shot. Especially when I get it close to the hole with my wedge. When I stand over a putt, I'm determined to stay focused and finish the job.My favorite drill for keeping the putterhead square to the target during the stroke is to look at the spot where the ball was sitting, long after the ball is gone. This helps me stroke the putt and not try to steer it into the hole. My old tendency with short putts was to track the ball with my eyes into the hole, and that caused my body to move too much. But if I focus on the spot where the ball was, my stroke stays on line so much better.
To hit crisper iron shots, I started addressing the ball with the shaft leaning forward. This is similar to the position I want to be in at impact, with my hands ahead of the ball. Before the start of 2008, my coach, Mike Bender, noticed that my hands were creeping away from the target at address, and I wasn't hitting the ball as solid as I had been. Setting my hands forward really gets me into a better mind-set to compress the ball.I think that might have allowed me to hit more par-3 greens last year and gave me more birdie opportunities. With the hands closer to the target than the clubhead, you're pre-setting a better impact position.