Compete like the Pros
How to play better golf in British Open-like conditions
The pros are always prepared to play in harsh conditions—especially when competing in an event that’s notorious for unpredictable weather like The Open Championship (even though it's been benign so far this week).
We asked Golf Digest Best Young Teacher Matt Wilson from Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., for keys to playing well when the weather turns. Wilson says developing a game plan before your round on how to adapt your game as conditions change is crucial. Let’s develop that strategy for being prepared for the elements.
How to practice keeping it low in the wind—without any wind.
If you’re not used to playing in the wind, it can catch you off guard. Start hitting a few shots in your practice sessions to prepare—just in case you get some unexpected wind. And you don’t need wind to practice the shots you’ll need. Adding a knockdown shot to your arsenal is imperative. First, narrow your stance and grip down slightly, no more than a half an inch. Club selection is also key with knockdown shots, Wilson says. “I encourage my students to take one to two more clubs. This allows them to swing a little shorter while maintaining a smooth tempo.”
He adds: “if you don’t hit the ball solidly, the knockdown is a difficult shot to pull off.”
Stop trying to hit it harder.
The cliché “when it’s breezy, swing easy” exists because it’s true. Average golfers have a tendency to swing harder when teeing off into the wind, and Wilson explains why that decreases your chances of hitting a solid drive.
“Trying to add speed by swinging faster or attempting to hit the ball harder will throw off your balance and cause you to mis-hit the center of the clubface,” Wilson says. “This can create additional spin, and as a result, your mis-hit will be amplified that much more in the wind.”
Focus on swinging with good tempo and balance, Wilson says. Also consider teeing your driver lower and letting some of your distance coming from bounce and roll. Again, practice hitting that lower tee shot before trying it on the course.
How you can add creativity to your repertoire.
What’s great about links-style courses is that you have more room around the greens to get creative. When you're in close, Wilson suggests clubbing up, choking down and making a shorter swing. “The biggest thing into the wind is managing spin,” he says, “and to do that, you need less loft and less speed.” Instead of grabbing a wedge or short iron, try pitching with a 7-iron and let it roll up. This will give you more control and keep your ball under the wind. Again, if you're used to playing your short-game shots high, this will take some getting used to. To get comfortable with this technique, he says to practice hitting three or four clubs to a single yardage when you’re on the range. That will prove to you that you can hit the same shot by swinging easy with an extra club or two.
Adjust your contact to stop chunking your wedges.
Most golfers struggle to hit their wedges solidly when the ground is soft or wet and end up leaving it short. To avoid the chunky miss, Wilson says to focus on making ball-first contact. To do this, grip down with your weight slightly forward and strike it like a fairway bunker shot. When selecting your landing spot, Wilson also says to remember that “whenever there’s water, there will be no spin, and with no spin, you have to account for more roll.”
More accurate yardages start on the green.
When you watch the pros, you’ll notice that they take their time with club selection—especially when they’re battling bad weather. While you might not have a caddie to help you, this tip from Wilson will increase your accuracy on approach shots. “When figuring out yardages, you need to know how firm the ground is because that will determine how much the ball bounces,” Wilson says. His simple trick for finding this out? Locate your pitch mark on the first green and walk off the distance between it and where your ball ended up. That will give you an idea of how the ball will react the rest of the round.
Slight short-game tweaks will help you hit it closer.
“The wind can play a huge role on short-game shots because the ball is traveling so slowly,” Wilson says. An easy way to use the wind to your advantage around the green is to adjust your loft. “When you’re pitching or chipping into the wind, use less loft because the ball won’t travel as far and vice versa,” Wilson continues. It might be surprising to know that this rule also applies when you’re hitting from the bunker. “The sand will be heavier, so you need to use more clubhead speed,” Wilson explains, “using a less lofted club will allow you to get more speed behind those shots.”
Layering properly equals better golf.
When gearing up to play in colder temperatures or rainy weather, most golfers forget the importance of a thin base layer or high-quality rain gear. Wilson explains that bulky layers and a tight rain jacket can make you feel restricted and cause you to get quick with your tempo. “It might be the most overlooked part of equipment fitting,” Wilson says. To minimize the impact extra clothing has on your performance, Wilson recommends investing in better rain gear and testing it out before your round.
Give yourself extra time to prepare.
Spending extra time on the practice green when playing in tough conditions is one of the easiest ways to improve your feel and green-reading skills. Of course, nobody wants to get soaked. But it's important to understand how the ball will react on the greens you're playing. “Typically, your putts will break later than they normally would with wet greens,” he explains. When playing in windy conditions, Wilson says to practice putting in every direction possible. Try to gauge how fast or slow your putts roll when you’re with the wind or against it, and be more aware of how drastically your putts curve in both directions of a crosswind.
The more elements you get a feel for, the more prepared you’ll be when you encounter them on the course.