I see a lot of amateurs warm up on Wednesdays, which is pro-am day on the PGA Tour. For many of them, it's a big day and really wanting to play well is an attitude and energy I appreciate being around.
However, hitting balls in front of a gallery and alongside the pros is, I'm sure, an experience that could make a club player rush or get frazzled. Whether this is how they get ready to go at their home course, I'm not sure. From what I can see, it seems a lot of amateurs would benefit from applying some structure to their warm-ups. There's a way to get the body and mind primed to play, and then there's digging holes beating balls. Hard practice has its place, but never before a round. Basically, I have two routines—one takes a half an hour and the other is an hour and 15. The shorter one I recently filmed with Golf Digest. Cameron McCormick—my coach since I was 12—and I wore microphones, and you can watch and listen to the entire session on Golf Digest All Access. In this article, Cam and I will provide an overview of that routine. The thing about warming up properly is that it doesn't require any extra skill, only the discipline to commit to it. When you start playing better more often, you'll be glad you did.
WALK THE WEDGE
SPIETH: Before I hit ball one, I dial in a feeling for the bottom of my swing. Standing with my feet together, I lightly rock my lob wedge back and forth with the force of what would produce about a 20-yard shot. I swing until I see the sole of the wedge consistently bruising the turf. Even though I'm not making a shoulder turn or even hinging my wrists, the rhythm of this pendulum motion sets the tone for my full swing that day. With the first ball, I kick off a game we call Walk the Dog. I hit a little pitch, and wherever that ball stops, maybe 20 yards away, becomes the target landing spot for my next shot—and so on. Each ball runs a few yards farther than the previous, and this is how I gradually, yet quickly, work toward hitting full lob wedges. Not only does this game loosen the joints, it puts you in the mode of reacting to a target instead of exploring mechanical thoughts. If you start the day by, say, hitting to a flag that happens to be 50 yards away, the tendency is to get lost searching for the technique to hit that shot perfectly over and over. Before you know it, you've blown through half the bucket, your grip gets too tight, and the only shot you know how to hit is from 50 yards.
MCCORMICK: If you watch Jordan warm up, you'll see how he pops the turf with his club to give himself a slightly raised, flawless lie. You might think, Isn't that making it too easy? Well, practicing from tough lies can be good training, but the warm-up should be done in the vacuum of ideal conditions. Take a lie that allows the shot. Why do anything to disrupt the freedom of your swing on game day?
WORK THE IRONS
SPIETH: Even for my quicker warm-up, I'll work down the bag from my shortest irons to my longest, using the even numbers one day and the odds the next. I'm moving quickly, but if you watch, you'll notice that I never hit a careless ball—every shot has a purpose. Before each swing, I announce to Cam or my caddie (or just to myself) the trajectory I intend to hit, like a high fade or a low draw. If I'm struggling to achieve these flights, I'll take a break and try some wild shots. I'll slice a 6-iron as far to the right on the range as possible, and then with the next ball, I'll hit a low, running punch with hook spin over to the left side. Either shot might travel only 100 yards and look pretty ugly. It's funny because I'll do this at tournaments, and I know fans are thinking, Wow, he really doesn't have it. But what I'm doing is bracketing extremes to find the middle for the day. When you stand on the range and try to hit every shot perfect, you can get locked into playing golf swing. Better to stay loose by hitting some funky shots, so you're better prepared to actually play golf.
MCCORMICK: It almost goes without saying: Only highly skilled players should concern themselves in a warm-up with varying the trajectory and shape of shots high, low, left and right. For most of us, the goal should be to find one reliable shape to go play with. But you can still learn from Jordan's example. Don't be afraid to experiment with the feeling of a major slice or hook to learn control of the clubface and club path through impact.
‘IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE I’LL [PURPOSELY HOOK AND SLICE SHOTS ON THE RANGE], AND I KNOW FANS ARE THINKING, WOW, HE REALLY DOESN’T HAVE IT. BUT WHAT I’M DOING IS BRACKETING EXTREMES TO FIND THE MIDDLE.’ —SPIETH
TAME THE DRIVER
SPIETH: On the range, most amateurs spend way too much time hitting driver. I get it; it's the club that's the most fun to hit. But whaling away and bending over to re-tee 50 times is no way to prepare for a round. Not only is it physically taxing, it can wash away the good feel and tempo you've presumably just established with your wedges and irons. I'll often hit only four or five balls with my driver to close a warm-up session. But you might notice I start to become more deliberate. I step behind the ball and walk into the shot as I would on the course. I'm visualizing the tee shots on the opening holes, imagining the borders of the fairway and the trouble. I stretch the time between shots to better simulate the pace when I'm on the course. Hitting only a handful of drivers—but like each one really counts—gives me the confidence that I'll bring my range game to the tee.
MCCORMICK: I love this photo (above) of the top of Jordan's swing. His hip turn is unrestricted, providing ample freedom for a deep shoulder turn. One undesirable tendency Jordan monitors, and that I see from many amateurs, is the front hip buckling and causing the torso to tilt forward. A few times during the warm-up, I'll ask Jordan to rehearse a "hip check," where he pauses the swing halfway back to verify that his front hip is stable. It's especially important that we do this with the driver, because bad idiosyncrasies often surface when using the longest club. It's OK to check one or two mechanical elements in a warm-up, but no more.
‘WHAT AMAZES ME ABOUT JORDAN, AND COMPETITIVE GOLFERS IN GENERAL, IS THE COURAGE THEY DISPLAY IN TRYING THINGS THAT EXPOSE THEM AS HUMANS.’ —MCCORMICK
SPIETH: The first thing I learned from Cam was patience. For me to become a more consistent ball-striker, he believed it was necessary to make a couple significant swing changes. I remember hitting bags where only one out of every three balls got off the ground. It was frustrating because my friends were going out to play, but a lot of weeks Cam didn't want me on the course. When practice got real dreary, he'd try to keep it somewhat fun by making up games. The simple range tuneups we now enjoy are the result of a lot of work. To any golfer not willing to sacrifice the time to make swing changes, my advice is to practice your short game as much as possible.
MCCORMICK: Mapping out a program for a golfer to get better is a responsibility that doesn't sit lightly with me. At the highest level, the difference between success and failure can be a matter of millimeters, and it's my job to tease out those millimeters. What amazes me about Jordan, and competitive golfers in general, is the courage they display in trying things that expose them as humans. Whenever I take on a new student, the first order of business is always a lengthy conversation in my office. I want to know the person before I see the swing.