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Players Championship: The clever heel-tee trick that is propelling this player into surprise contention

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JARED C TILTON

On paper, the 2024 Players Championship doesn't suit Matti Schmid.

Not due to lack of talent. Matti Schmid is an ultra-talented upcomer on tour, but a first-timer at the Players Championship. His game is constructed straight out of the new school of golf: He finished 10th in driving distance last season, and 95th in accuracy. A modern bomb-and-gouger in purest form.

TPC Sawgrass, by contrast, is a demanding, at times claustrophobic test of target golf. It requires equal doses of discipline, course knowledge, and strategy. Even the most elite talents in the game need some reps to learn its various pitfalls.

And yet, Schmid has vaulted into contention at the Players. A four-under round of 68 on Friday followed another four-under 68 on Thursday, and puts him surrounded by a host of seasoned major champions at the top of the leaderboard.

Off the course, Schmid says he's been working hard on his golf swing in recent weeks with the help of Golf Digest Best in State Teacher Jonathan Yarwood. They've worked on getting the swing direction more neutral, Schmid told me. He has a tendency to swing too much to the left.

On the course at TPC Sawgrass, he's paired those changes with some new tricks he's developed over his first season playing the PGA Tour.

"The hitting my driver far part has never been much of a problem," he said. "But over the past year or so, I've learned how to hit the ball a little straighter. Knowing what to do on different holes and conditions."

One of those tactics is a kind of intentional mis-hit fairway finder that he's been using frequently this week.

"I tee the ball down, and rest the ball a little off the heel at address," Schmid explains. "After I do that, I swing pretty hard. I know the ball is going to move left-to-right, but not too much."

By intentionally hitting it off the heel, Schmid is using the technology in the clubhead itself through a concept called gear effect. Without boring you too much, gear effect is when the weight of the ball causes the clubhead to twist at the moment of impact.

Gear effect is most pronounced on woods, where the club's center of gravity is further away from the ball, and plays a big role on off-center hits: When the ball impacts the clubhead on the heel, the clubface twists in a way that imparts left-to-right spin on the ball.

The opposite happens when the ball impacts the clubhead off the toe. The clubface twists and imparts right-to-left spin on the ball.

Schmid's heeled drives fly predictably left-to-right, with a little extra spin. Yes, the ball comes out a little slower—his ball speed this week is averaging in the mid 170s, compared to his 181 mph average last season—but taking a little extra heat off his drive gives him some extra control. And because Schmidt is able to pull driver on tight holes where other players are dropping down to hit 3-wood, he's coming out ahead. Through two rounds, Schmid is above average in both driving accuracy and distance and ranks inside the top third in strokes gained/off the tee overall.

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So yes, a mis-hit, but a predictable one. Sometimes, that's all you need.