Golf IQ

Players 2023: How to watch golf on TV like a genius

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The gift and the curse of being a golf nerd is that you can never quite turn it off. You can't watch a golf swing without keeping a curious eye on a player’s swing path. A pro sets up over a putt, and you're wondering about that bit of grain on the back end of his putt. And as he's about to chip out of that gnarly greenside rough, your mind wanders as to whether that new technique of his could help your game, too.

The Players Championship next week—with his hundreds of hours of coverage on linear TV and streaming—usually makes for some good watching for us golf nerds of the world.

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one we've come to know well through the years—and one which makes a lot of specific asks from its players. It yields a combination of unusual and elite players, and some fascinating clues everywhere in-between.

If you're watching on TV and hoping to glean a few things that could help your game with the start of the season upcoming, here's a handful of nerdy details to keep an eye out for. Maybe it'll enhance your viewing experience—taking you from golf nerd to genius—and perhaps even help your game.

Spot the grain

Different courses are played on different types of grasses, as you've no doubt heard by now. Like most southeastern courses, TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., uses a warm weather bermudagrass course. Bermudagrass grows more horizontally than other grasses, which means the grass will push the ball down grain. It also usually follows slopes. It's what why downgrain putts on bermudagrass greens are extra slippery, and putts into grain slower.

On television, the grain will make the putting green look slightly spotty. When you look at a green and it appears shiny, that means you're looking downgrain (AKA, the grain is running away from your vantage point). If you see darker spots, that means you're looking into the grain. You may not see it at first, but keep looking for it, and soon you won't be able to miss it—and be armed with knowing just how hard or easy a player will need to hit his next shot.

Apex heights

A professor of mine once gave me a fantastic piece of advice: That you should always quote numbers in context. If I told you I made a 4 without telling you what par the hole was, you wouldn't know what to think. Was it a bogey, a par or a birdie? What was the average score on the hole? Without context, the fact that you made a 4 is nothing.

I think about this every time I see the apex bug pop onto the screen during broadcasts, because it just shows you the apex in isolation without any reference points. Maybe they'll fix it one day, but in the meantime: The tour's average apex with a driver is just shy of 100 feet. Justin Thomas' average driver apex is about 104 feet. So on the shot below, for instance, shot tracer makes it obvious that JT is trying something unique with the way he's hitting this drive, but the context that JT hit this ball less than half as high as the tour average—on purpose—helps us understand how mind-blowing a drive this was.

Ball speeds

While we're at it, let's talk about ball speeds. That's the speed, in miles-per-hour, that the ball leaves your clubface at the moment of impact. The tour's average ball speed is 171 mph. The tour's leader is usually just shy of 190 mph. If you're an average golfer, your ball speed is probably around 130 mph. Maybe one day they'll start showing these numbers as a "+ or -" relative to their own averages so we can full appreciate them, but until then, just keep these numbers in mind.

Rory McIlroy hit this one 181 mph, which means it was in the upper echelon on tour and also with a 129 foot apex—which as we just learned is crazy, incredibly high.

The surprise 3-wood

Occasionally you'll notice pros pull 3-woods on the same hole where other guys are hitting drivers. Why is that?

This tends to happen on medium-length, dogleg-left par 4s. The 10th at Augusta National is a classic example, but there are a number of holes like this at TPC Sawgrass as well (10, 14 and 18 for example). Because most guys opt for fades with their driver these days, some will stay the course on a hole like this even when the hole doesn't suit their shot shape. But when a player pulls a 3-wood it's often because they're trying to hit a draw and meld the shot they're trying to hit with the one the hole is telling them to. It's a preference thing, but one that is quite revealing for the view at home trying to figure out a player’s mindset.

Bunker setups

You can also spot different players' preferences in the bunker. Traditionally, players would set up with their feet open to the target and cut across the ball by swinging along their foot line. You can see McIlroy doing that below.

It sends the ball really high and soft, but also puts more side spin on the ball. So instead, some players tweak their equipment or technique so they can stand more square to that target, as you can see with Tiger Woods.

In reality, pros will alternate approaches based on the shot, but they'll always gravitate towards a preference.

Footlines

Speaking of footlines, that's really something you should take a quick look at before every shot—at least before the important ones. You can spot clear tells for the shot a play is going to try by drawing a line from toe-to-toe (it's not always easy because of how much camera angles vary). Generally, players look for their footlines to run parallel to where their clubface is pointing.

I like looking at them because it can often tell you about the intent of the shot the player is about to hit. Based on where his feet seemed to be pointing (again, camera angles make this an inexact science), Cam Smith seemed to be aiming slightly left of the pin, presumably planning to hit his stock draw along the wind (look at the direction the flags are blowing) back towards the center.

It started to the right of that, and accidentally ended up perfect.

Dispersion patterns

Finally, a quick word on dispersion patterns—one of the trendiest words in golf thanks to DECADE Golf founder Scott Fawcett. I didn't put together a fun clip for this one because I couldn't figure out how to, but in essence, imagine yourself hitting 20, or 50, or 100 balls with the same club to the same target. Where all those golf balls ended signify your dispersion pattern. The smaller the dispersion to your pattern, the better.

It's important to know because this is how pros think their way around the golf course. Unless they really need to, they don't pick a target based on where their perfect shot would end up. They pick a target then fire a shotgun blast towards it, making sure as many of the pellets end up safe.

On the 10th hole at TPC Sawgrass during the first round last year, that meant aiming slightly past the pin, in order to avoid the bunker short. Whereas the rest of us are probably taking dead aim and missing the majority of our shots short, pros taking a club up, and letting the randomness of golf do the rest.

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