124th U.S. Open

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8 things I learned from pros at the 2024 PGA Championship

The best players allow themselves some 'creative destruction.' Here's what that means
May 20, 2024

Ask Viktor Hovland about his early college golf experience, and there’s a good chance he’ll tell you this story.

"I was really struggling.” he says, recounting his sophomore year of college. "I was hitting just really low slices off the tee, I couldn't really hit a 3-wood off the deck. I couldn't get it airborne … it was such a frustrating way to play golf because I would watch my peers and they would just hit these high draws off of the ground onto the green on par 5s."

That offseason Hovland got to work, made some swing changes, and won the U.S. Amateur a few months later.

It’s an incredible, inspiring story. It's also a story that only gets more interesting when you round it out with a bit of context.

This transformation happened while Hovland was playing at Oklahoma State, arguably the most successful golf program of all time. You don’t land on the OSU roster unless you’re some sort of protege, and indeed, Hovland was: He finished in the top 10 of the British Amateur, second at the European Amateur, and second in the stroke-play portion of the U.S. Amateur as a junior golfer. He made all-freshman the year before, and defeated future U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark in the NCAA Championships. Hovland played in three of four tournaments that fall semester when he was hitting “low slices.” He shot in the 60s three times in eight rounds, and never higher than 72.

What Hovland describes as low slices were the towering, power fades of your dreams. To any rational observer, a young Hovland had all the tools to be a successful tour player, and was simply lacking a few reps. But in Hovland’s mind, that was wrong. In his mind, that fall, he couldn't hit a 3-wood off the ground.

The thing is, Viktor Hovland doesn’t become Viktor Hovland if he didn’t believe there was a better version of himself out there.

The media, and golf fans more generally, aren’t always good at accepting a player like that—one who goes searching looking for golf’s cheat code. Why would you mess with what works? Because messing with what works is the very thing that makes it all work.

"Where does confidence come from? It comes from results. And to play better and get the results I want, I have to make some technical changes,” Hovland said last week at the 2024 PGA Championship. “Now, it's just a matter of how technical those changes need to be. But if you're hitting it poorly, you're not just going to figure it out by doing the same stuff. You have to change some stuff."

Improving at golf, regardless of your ability level, means knowing how you can focus at your best; how you stay motivated; how you feel confidence.

For players like Hovland, Bryson DeChambeau and even Tiger Woods, learning about the technical intricacies of the golf swing focuses them; searching for better versions of themselves motivates them; understanding how it all works gives them their unwavering confidence.

Players like this need some license for creative distruction. Sometimes, you need to let them take apart the computer to see what inside, so they can teach themselves to put it back together, better than ever.

1. Tilt back and towards the sky

When it comes to the technical Xs and Os, Hovland loves him some body tilts, and for good reason: They’re a really important part of his golf swing.

You’ll often see him rehearsing pulling his body up towards the sky, and tilting back away from his target, on the downswing. When he doesn’t do this—when he turns, without tilting—his tendency is to smother the shot with his body. He doesn’t match up his closed clubface, so his fade starts going lower, and more left.

It’s what makes tilting his body upwards really important for Hovland, and it’s a move amateurs tend to be really bad at (as you can read about here).

Hovland was on the range rehearsing both the wrong and the right moves this week…

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Anyway, this is what Hovland says was happening last season. The apex of Hovland’s drives have been getting progressively lower since he got settled on tour: From an above average 111 feet in the 2019-20 season (the swing he says he was happiest with), to 103’, to now a sub-100 foot, below-average apex.

What reuniting with Golf Digest Top 50 Teacher Joe Mayo has helped with, Hovland says, is finding a new feel for that old thing. Clearly, the early results are exciting.

2. Drip in the changes, every day

Progress in golf requires constant change. Continued tweaks, and routine maintenance. Trying to freeze your golf swing in a moment in time simply isn’t possible.

"I realized I was leaving Scottsdale with this perfect golf game and then I was going to, let's say Augusta, on Monday and I was trying to find it all over again,” Max Homa says. “I felt like that was a better way to spend my time and get better instead of trying to hold on a perfect golf swing for an extra seven days.”

The better question isn’t whether to change. It’s how to change it. The 2024 PGA Championship winner Xander Schauffele is a great case study of this. His swing has changed pretty significantly since late last year. His goal is to get the club more around him, and less laid off at the top—but that’s not his only goal. His goal is also to keep playing well, so over the past few months, he’s been leaking in the changes.

“He’s really good at giving me little drips of information,” Schauffele says of his coach, Golf Digest No. 2-ranked teacher Chris Como.

Every day Schauffele shows up at the range, he’s trying to get his golf swing a little better. A process that leaves him never fully comfortable, and never fully uncomfortable. Even on the days when he lifts a trophy at the end of it.

3. Your feels aren’t your reals

A final thought on swing thoughts, before we move on: You may have an idea of what you want your golf swing to look like, but understand that in order to get there, you probably have to feel some extreme version of it. If most pros on the range are any indication, you don’t want your practice swing to look anything like your actual swing.

Overcook what you want to do on the range to get a feel, and use that feel when you’re on the golf course. Your swing will revert back, but that extreme feel will remain, and it may land your golf swing in exactly the spot you want it.

4. Find a way to use the line

My first day on site at Valhalla Golf Club I walked over to the practice putting green, where I saw three different pros practicing the same drill. They were hitting a big-swinging putt, about 12 feet long. They placed a tee where they wanted to aim, and the line on the ball pointed directly at the tee.

They missed more than they made, but that’s by design. The goal of the drill is to get used to rolling the ball end-over-end on a difficult, sloping putt. It’s a drill to improve both players’ green reading, and to avoid compensating on unsual putts.

“We must’ve re-read this putt five different,” Golf Digest Top 50 coach Jason Baile said while his player Lucas Glover cranked away. “It ain’t easy.”

Each of the top three finishers at PGA Championship used the line on their golf ball on the greens. Rory McIlroy doesn’t use it on the green, but does with his driver. It seems like most players use the line to some degree. Whether it’s on the course or for a few minutes during practice, get that thing rolling end-over-end, and you’ll be better for it.

5. Listen to the sound of the golf ball

This was a small, but interesting, slice into the mind of Tiger Woods. Asked about what he liked about Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy's games, here's what he said:

“When you're on the range and watching them hit golf balls or listening, more so listening to them hit golf balls, there's a different sound to it because they just don't miss the middle of the face.”

It’s funny how Tiger focuses on the sound, above all else. Crispy, compressed, ball-first contact. Before every iron shot, make it sound good. That’s the goal.

6. Is your speed control good?

It’s interesting how Brooks Koepka is a golf nerd without really realizing that he’s a golf nerd. He’s sort of casually drops all these little game-improvement tidbits in his press conference, making him a sneaky great interview.

Here's one that stood out this week:

“There's trends in golf, and everyone starts using a mallet and it's a little bit more forgiveness. I noticed that the dispersion pattern is a little tighter, and that's kind of the big thing with me.”

Dispersion pattern on putts! How many golfers out there are thinking about their dispersion patterns on putts? Not that many, but it’s a good thing to think about for the rest of us. Speed control is king on the greens. Pros think about it a lot. Forget, for a moment, how many putts you make, or miss. Instead, ask yourself if your putts are rolling the right speed.

7. Safe can be stupid

Schauffele's second shot on the 72nd hole was an aggresive play. It was also the right play. I wrote about it here, because it was an informative moment for the rest of us. Lots of golfers tend to conflate the safest possible play with the smartest possible play, when it really doesn’t work like that.

Just ask coach Sean Foley. I was chatting with him and his player, An Byeong-hun, when Golf Digest No.3-ranked teacher, unleashed a cracker of a quote.

“Course management is sometimes a synonym for chicken sh*t-itis,” he said. “Safe can mean stupid…sending it is often the smartest thing you can do.

8. Let the world in

Finally, how can we not mention Scottie Scheffler? We don’t need to recount it all, but sitting in the media center as the madness unfolded, I couldn’t quite believe it when the World No. 1 walked back on property to play golf just a few hours after being arrested for what appears to be a bizarre misunderstanding.

Lots of pros talked about Scheffler needing to compartmentalize the moment. To put what happened to one side, and bury himself in golf.

There’s no doubt Scheffler found a sense of relief and normalcy in playing golf. Yet it didn’t occur to me until a chat with Matt Cuccaro, a sports psychologist who works with multiple tour and high-ranking amateur players, that Scottie wasn’t really compartmentalizing in any sense of the word.

“Compartmentalizing is actually very defensive action,” he said. “[Scheffler] wasn't trying to shove his emotions in a box and act like it never happened. He was present in the moment and embracing things around him that could help."

Pros may think they’re compartmentalizing, but whether they realize it or not, the best ones are more like walking sponges. Drawing in every piece of energy they can, and trying to use it to their advantege.

Justin Thomas spoke to it after playing with Xander during his opening-round, 9-under 62.

"Sometimes the group momentum is just so bad, you feel like you can't get anything going,” he said. “When someone plays like that because you can almost feed off of them, especially when you get crowds this big and energetic."

Xander spoke to it himself, too. Nervously facing the prospect of letting another win slip over the finish line, the soon-to-be-crowned champion wasn’t trying to compartmentalize anything.

“Someone me like has pretty much tried everything, to be completely honest, that hasn't won in two years. You try not to look at the leaderboards until the back nine, you try not to look at them early, you try not to look at them at all. Today I looked at them. I looked at them all day. I really wanted to feel everything. I wanted to address everything that I was feeling in the moment.”

Look around you, even when you may not want to. Be present. Observe. You may just find exactly what you’re looking for.