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9 things I learned from players at the 2023 U.S. Open

June 20, 2023
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 18: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his shot on the 15th tee box during the final round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club (North Course) on June 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — U.S. Open week started with Johnny Miller explaining how he taught himself to swing a golf club. It ended with Wyndham Clark explaining how he taught himself to swing a golf club.

It’s funny how things like that work. Though, perhaps, it shouldn’t have been too surprising. It was a minimalist week all around at Los Angeles Country Club. There were fewer fans. Smaller grandstands. Less rough. Lower scores. In many ways, it makes Clark and his understated approach to the golf swing the perfect champion for the place.

Clark has one of those golf swings which makes the rest of us wonder how he could ever hit a bad shot. A big backswing turn, and uninterrupted body turn on the downswing, a follow through which wraps the club loosely around is next.

Like the sultry swing of Nelly Korda, Clark is the child of a professional tennis player. You can always tell the best athletes by the smoothness in the movement in the connection between body and club. Like Korda, there's no buffering in Clark’s move. It’s automatic.

Except golf swings don’t work that way. Hitting a golf ball straight is like sending thread through the eye of a needle. No matter how good you get, it never becomes easy. The only way to move the golf ball exactly the way you want is to not touch it at all.

Clark’s swing looked good, but his shots didn’t. He had no idea where his ball was going, or why. The more explanations from experts he heard, the more confused he got. It sent him down a delightfully simplistic path.

“Now, when I'm in practice, I'm always trying to get back to neutral. If one day it's really cutty I'll hitting huge draws on the range. Then some days it gets kind of too draw-heavy I’ll hit huge cuts and get it back to neutral,” he says. “I felt like I've kept my swing in those parameters to where regardless I can play good golf if I'm hitting a little draw or a little cut.”

Clark was backing into a method with some good science behind it.

The human brain works on feedback, and it uses that feedback to set up boundaries to stay within. Just as driving between the lines only makes sense when there are actual lines on the road, your brain only knows what to do when it knows what not to do.

Take note. The next time you’re on the range, try hitting a duck hook. Then try hitting a wipey slice. Then try hitting one straight. Yes, you’re good enough to try. And I bet you’ll like the results.

1. Speed is fun, but boring is best

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Ross Kinnaird

There aren’t many players other pros will stop and watch, but watching amateur Gordon Sargent hitting balls on the range earlier this week, pros couldn’t resist taking a lot. Sargent is a lean six foot with a mean 125 mph clubhead speed. When he completes the formality of turning pro, he’ll instantly become one of the longest players on tour.

Gordon has the kind of whipping speed that his fellow U.S. Open contenders would spend a not-so-small fortune to have themselves. But of course, you always want what you can’t have. They may envy his speed, but after his final round I asked Sargent: What does he envy about their games?

“They limit their mistakes really well,” he said. “They don't really hit it out of position too often, and if they do, they just get it back into position. The leaders aren't making doubles out there, and that was the key. Consistency; limiting the mistakes is what I envy in their games and what I'm trying to get better at.”

2. The safest play isn’t always the smartest

Speaking of getting back into position; throughout the tournament, I found myself thinking about the difference between playing safe, and playing smart. There’s a decent amount of overlap between the two, but the safest possible play isn’t always the smartest one.

Rory's second shot on the 14th hole struck me as a more-safe-than-smart moment, but the sixth hole was another flash point for this idea. The players who went for it had a lower scoring average, more birdies on average and fewer bogeys than those who didn’t. Yet more players laid up than went for it. Tony Finau was one of those players who laid up all four days on the sixth. How come?

“They kind of just give you the fairway on that hole,” he said.

Laying up is certainly a more predictable way of playing that whole, and there’s a certain comfort in that. Going for it is messier. You don’t know what chip you’re going to have, or from what angle, or what the lie is going to be. But it’s worth it. Go for the sixth green all four days, and you’ve made up almost a stroke over the rest of the field.

Yet it was the lure of safe predictability that lured many players away from making the statistically correct call on the sixth hole last week. It’s a trap we all fall into from time to time. Even those playing in the U.S. Open.

3. Work on your body, not just your swing

The U.S. Open was the first time I ever got to watch super-bomber Wilco Nienabar hit golf balls. It was an impressive sight. Golf shots sound different when pros hit them. And his shots sound different from his fellow pros.

After launching a few drives over the next at the back of the range—some 330 yards away—I asked Nienabar how his speed came to be.

“I spent the winters in South Africa playing every other sport,” he said. “Rugby, football, cricket. Then when I came back and played golf in the summertime, I could move better.”

Playing other sports is better advice for junior golfers than adults. Golf is my way of playing sports. But I think there’s a lesson to learn from Nienabar nonetheless: That amateur golfers sometimes think the only way to get better is to tinker with your swing. But often it’s getting your body more flexible, strong, and generally more mobile that will pay greater dividends. Better yet, it’s some of the easiest stuff to work on.

4. Pros are so good from the fairway

The way pros picked apart Los Angeles Country Club was a hit for the width and angles crowd—that’s the idea that a golf course can be both wide and difficult for pros, because wider fairways allow players to pursue different but equal strategies.

There’s truth there, of course, but at least part of where we saw this idea fall apart at the U.S. Open was the unintended side effect of handing players wide, relatively defenseless fairways.

Wyndham Clark was not pursuing an angle when he sliced his drive on his 72nd hole, but found the fairway anyway. It’s just one example, but a high profile one which illustrates how the wide fairways last week screwed up the good-shot, bad-shot feedback loop. Clark hit a bad shot into a good lie. And good fairway lies are all pros need to attack greens.

“Yes, but only when the greens are this soft,” Keith Mitchell, who was a fan of LACC, said in response to that.

But keeping the greens on that razor’s edge is the problem. They may be the perfect amount of crispy at the start of the week, but spiral out of control after a few hours of sunshine. It all works at the Open Championship because of its laissez-faire attitude. The character of that year’s Open is whatever Mother Nature dictates.

Like it or not, the majority of golf fans want the U.S. Open to operate with a heavier hand, which means giving every inch of it some teeth.

5. Speed control on the greens is more important than you think

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Richard Heathcote

I can feel myself getting a little long winded, so I'm going to buzz through the rest of these. Plus, I’m writing this article from an airplane, and that airplane is about to land. A true test of writing-on-deadline if there’s ever been one.

On the 13th hole on Saturday, Rory McIlroy had a long birdie putt from the front of the green to the back. As soon as he hit it, he didn’t like it.

“Hit it!” he said forcefully in frustration, as he marked his ball about six feet away. He missed the next putt.

After his final round, McIlroy pinpointed his speed control on the greens as the primary issue. If there’s one area of the game where the rest of us don’t think about enough, it’s speed control.

Three putts come from bad speed control. Usually on the first putt. Missed short putts come from bad speed control. Usually from powering it through the break. Making putts is hard, but dialing in your speed control will make life on the greens so much easier.

6. The pivot powers your swing

A quick note on Ryan Gerard, who popped into the early U.S. Open lead for a moment on Thursday, and made the cut on Friday. He's got an unusual swing. Sort of a mix between Zach Johnson and Jon Rahm.

It's the kind of swing that many coaches would've changed the moment they saw it. And honestly, for good reason. Most golfers would hit hooks from here. But Gerard learned not what he should do, but what he could do. The club may be flat, shut, and short at the top of his swing, but if he made a full turn on the backswing, and an aggressive turn on the downswing, he'd deliver the club square.

"I hit just a little fade," he says.

The way you turn—your pivot, as coaches call it—is the engine of every golf swing. It's what makes quirky moves work. If something's off in your swing, look at the way you turn, both back and through. Just like the engine in your car, that’s often where the issue lies.

7. Dialing-in spin is a control key

Shrouded underneath the Bryson DeChambeau’s whole ‘my driver sucks’ controversy was actually a pretty fascinating situation:

Pros calibrate their equipment to have less backspin means more distance. DeChambeau likes hitting draws because they have less backspin and therefore even more distance. Toe hits reduce backspin.

When he hit the ball on the screws with his driver, life was great. When DeChambeau missed the ball slightly on the toe, his ball would come off with so little spin that he hit shots that would effectively divebomb out of the air, down into the ground.

But last week, DeChambeau revealed a change of heart. He’s been adding more backspin via his equipment (he’s still hitting draws). He knows it’s costing him some distance, but he’s come to appreciate the control.

"I would be the longest in the field, but I have 3,000 [RPMs] of spin to try and control it better," DeChambeau says. "That's the main reason I have it this week. When it gets so firm and fast, you need it to help you keep something in the fairway.”

What can the rest of us learn from all this?

Well, if you’re a slicer with a big high-right miss, you probably have too much spin. If you hit hooks, and your misses dive low and to the right, you may have the DeChambeau problem of too little spin. Go talk to a club fitter to get it sorted.

8. Hovland’s chipping is sneaky amazing

Speaking of spin and improving stuff, shout out to Viktor Hovland, who finished inside the top 10 in strokes gained/around the green. Hovland is a low spin guy because he hits so far up on the ball with his driver. Great for distance and general ball striking, but a quality that needed some massaging around the greens.

Earlier this week, I spotted Hovland hitting some nasty flop shots from the fringe of LACC’s practice green. A cool shot, but an intentional one: Hovland’s been working with Golf Digest Best in State Teacher Joe Mayo on bringing his angle of attack down and the low point of his short game swing more forward. Oversimplified, he’s trying to hit more down on the ball. That gives him more spin. His chipping looks legitimately good.

9. Jon Rahm has a feeling

I love when pros talk about the stuff they’re feeling and working on in their golf swings. But how do you describe a feeling? Don’t ask Jon Rahm, because he’s not sure either.

“Yesterday I went to the range in the afternoon and found a very comfortable feel that I felt like I could replicate often,” he said. “It’s a feel that helps me turn better, I don’t know how to explain it.”

Glad it worked, John. If you need me, I’ll be thinking of what it was.