01 Your ball flight will tell you when.
You don't change your swing because of what your buddies are saying, you don't do it so you can swing like your favorite pro, and you certainly don't make a change out of boredom -- you'd be surprised how many golfers do. Ball flight is really all that matters.
Nick Watney, who got his first PGA Tour win in 2007, used to have a tough time fading the ball. He had trouble driving on holes that doglegged to the right and hitting iron shots to back-right pins. Nick had a vision of what a fading ball flight should look like, and when the ball wasn't responding to the things he tried, that's when he came to me. We worked on weakening his strong left-hand grip, and the main point of reference was how the ball was reacting. So not only did his ball flight tell him a swing change was necessary, it was also the biggest factor in monitoring his progress.
02 Don't go it alone.
There's a saying among teachers: "Feel and real are never the same thing." Meaning, what you think you're doing with your swing and what you're actually doing are a lot different. You've got to see a PGA pro to help you make an accurate diagnosis and identify the right change for you. And don't limit yourself to one or two lessons. You need the pro's eyes to check your positions, because you can't see yourself swinging -- and you can't videotape every subtle change. I don't know of a single modern tour player who has made a big swing change by himself, so for the average player to go it alone will probably do more harm than good.
03 It's about commitment.
After Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997, he insisted on overhauling his entire swing to try to become more consistent and versatile. I warned Tiger that he might be in for a very rough time if he did that, and I even suggested that we make one small swing change at a time. But Tiger wanted to do it all at once. The process took patience on Tiger's part, because he didn't see immediate results and didn't have a very good year by Tiger standards in 1998. It took trust that it was the right decision and unbelievable amounts of hard work to make it come together. But mostly it took commitment, a vow to stick with the program come hell, high water or worst of all, high scores. And it paid off: Tiger had a huge year in 1999. It's rare to see that level of commitment, especially among recreational players. But if you don't have at least some of that, you're pretty much wasting your time.
04 A swing tip is not a swing change.
A band-aid fix that gets you through the day, or even through a few weeks, is not a swing change. I've got nothing against tips, but you can't expect them to hold up. They help the outcomes but not the cause. It's like giving Novocain to an aching tooth -- when it wears off, you're going to be in more pain than ever until you get the tooth fixed.
A swing change that addresses the root cause of a problem is more complicated than a quick fix. It'll have a positive influence on other aspects of your swing. For example, if you're taking the club back too far inside and then coming over the top, the change I might give you -- starting the club to the outside so you can more easily direct it to the inside on the downswing -- will have the added benefit of making your swing arc wider and longer. Not only have you gotten rid of the slice, you've increased your clubhead speed.
05 If it feels good, you're not doing it right.
Because a swing change involves either a totally different motion or a wholesale change in your grip or setup, there's no way it should feel comfortable. In 1992 I began helping Greg Norman make some changes (widening his stance, flattening his swing, modifying his release and a few others). In the years that followed, Greg had periods when he played the game as well as anybody ever has. But the changes never really became second nature to him, and he began moving away from them. I think that hurt him. At the 1996 Masters, he blew a six-shot lead in the final round, noting his swing didn't feel right.
Regardless of how Greg's swing changes felt, you don't get a six-shot lead at the Masters with lousy technique. It goes to show that you have to play through the uncomfortable parts and expect it to feel awkward. In fact, when the lesson with your instructor is over and you find yourself getting the hang of a swing change a day later, you'd better schedule another lesson, because I'll bet you're not doing it right. It's very easy for your old swing to sneak up and take hold again.
06 Rehearse the change in slow motion.
The hardest change for the average golfer to make is to stop coming over the top and slicing. Learning an inside-out swing path when you've swung outside-in your whole life is tough because the shape of the swing you want is the dead opposite. The best way to make a radical change like that is to take slow-motion swings, sometimes exaggerating the movement. Then you repeat it over and over.
When Tiger and I worked on his swing in '97, he didn't want to do drills, which for many players are useful. But he was a fanatic about repetition, and I have video of him making lots of practice swings in slow motion. For a swing change to work, you have to ingrain the feel of it. You can't do that by hitting balls, because the golf swing lasts only a couple of seconds.
07 Good rhythm is a boost.
Although a swing change involves addressing some mechanical feature of your technique, don't forget the importance of rhythm and balance. For the change to work, your swing has to happen in the correct sequence. If you snatch the club away too quickly or start the downswing with a sudden lunge, you won't give the change an opportunity to work. Regardless of your tempo -- you might have a naturally fast swing or a slow one -- you have to have good rhythm and balance, or you'll cut your potential short.
08 Put the change to the test.
In late 2007, I suggested to Fred Couples that he make a major change in his takeaway with the driver, making it lower and wider. For a feel player like Fred, any technical change is going to seem pretty drastic, and it's going to be hard to trust. But Fred took the change right onto the course in 2008, and even though he didn't have a great year, his willingness to use the change in competition will make the long-term payoff come sooner.
Obviously, it's easy to work on your swing on the practice tee, but having the courage to try to post a number with it is another matter. A lot of amateurs get into the habit of using their old swing on the course and their new swing on the range, hoping that the change will work its way into their game. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way. Take your swing change onto the course as much as you can, and the sooner the better. It might be torture for a while, but that's how you learn to trust it under pressure.
09 Don't forget the short game.
There's a tendency to get so absorbed in the full swing that the other parts of your game suffer. When Phil Mickelson worked hard to improve his full swing last year, he didn't devote a commensurate amount of time to his short game, putting especially. His putting suffered and his scores didn't reflect all that good work he'd done with his long game. The point of a swing change ultimately is to lower your scores, but if you let the other aspects of your game go, you'll never improve as much as you could. I'd rather your swing change take a little extra time than to have you not work on the rest of your game.
10 Keep your eyes on the prize.
I've always looked at a swing change as curing the cancer in a swing. It's about identifying one thing -- it's usually a major fault -- and devoting all my attention there. By taking care of that one problem, all kinds of related ills gradually disappear. It can be hard to see the payoff right away, and after making the change you might even regress for a while. But have faith, because when the new move starts to take effect, you'll see a lasting difference. Ben Hogan said that the best part of golf is improving, and he was absolutely right. A good swing change will make the game more fun than you thought possible.