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Golf IQ

10 things I learned from tour players in 2023

December 22, 2023
BEL OMBRE, MAURITIUS - DECEMBER 15: Garrick Porteous of England practices on the range on Day Two of the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open 2024 at Heritage La Reserve Golf Club on December 15, 2023 in Bel Ombre, Mauritius. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

In a year marked by division in the golf world, one longer-standing (and admittedly lower-stakes) divide I've never understood is that between range rats and golfers who hate the driving range. How can you hate the driving range? For me, it's always been a place of refuge. A place to go and think, figure things out, reboot and sometimes even a place to panic in peace.

It's canvassing the driving range of pro events where I get to observe the best at the game, and maybe even find something to tinker with the next time I'm back on some fresh turf, a new bucket of balls and in the mood to figure it out.

1. Find a bread-and-butter drill

Amateur golfers will often flail from one thing to another; they'll try this drill one day, then that training aid the next. There's never a shortage of professional golfers doing strange and interesting things on the driving range, but usually it's the same strange and interesting thing.

Players will often start their practice session with a go-to drill, which they use to combat a specific problem in their swing. Maybe it's chipping balls one-handed like John Daly, or swinging around a yoga block like Tommy Fleetwood, or using a putting mat training aid like countless players do. Something, basically, that can serve as a sync-up before going on their way.

It's something you should think about adopting as well. Like drinking your coffee in the morning before going to work. That's what progress looks like in golf: Not big revolutionary breakthroughs, but small, repeated, consistent efforts.

2. Beware the on-course speed drop off

Your topline speed—meaning, the fastest you're possibly able to swing a club while hitting a golf ball—takes a while to get to. Upwards of 100 balls trying to swing as fast as you can and not caring about where the ball goes. And there's value in doing speed-training sessions like that. It builds strength and muscle coordination, among other things. But it's not going to solve everything.

"It doesn't mean anything if you can't transfer it on the golf course," Padraig Harrington says. "If it doesn't transfer over, it's meaningless."

The frustrating fact of the matter is that golf swings change once they land on the course. They get shorter, and more handsy. You start thinking about where not to hit your drive, and you're not as loose as when you're rifling ball after ball.

Transferring those speeds to the course seems to be an increasing priority on tour, and something the rest of us should keep in mind, too. One study found that 80 percent of amateur golfers make a smaller backswing turn once they get on the golf course, and their clubhead speeds drop accordingly.

So if you're frustrated at being unable to replicate your range speeds on the course, it's probably because you're slowing down without you even realizing.

3. Bulk up your upper body

As players prioritizing speed is fully baking itself into the game, I can't help but wonder if we're entering the meatball era of professional golf, where practically every golfer is built like a baseball player.

This isn't exactly new, mind you. Jack Nicklaus was a tremendous athlete in his day. Tiger Woods and David Duval hit the weights hard and bulked up in the early 2000s, as did Rory McIlroy when he arrived on tour, then Brooks Koepka after that, and then, notably, Bryson DeChambeau.

But even the more recent players were each greeted with a hearty dose of skepticism about the true benefits of gaining muscle-mass through strength training. That seems to have all but evaporated these days.

Throwing heavy weight around and getting really strong is simply really good for golfers. And it's interesting how Woods has once again landed on that as a solution in his own game: He's bulked up his upper body even more over the past year, which means his speed has not dimished despite his various injuries causing changes to his swing.

"It's not that something like bench-pressing is good for golfers, it's that having a strong upper body is good for golfers," says tour trainer Mike Carroll. "Getting good and strong is just really good for golfers, and it helps us stay healthy as we get older."

4. One-dimensional drives, multidimensional irons

Granted, most golfers are just happy to make contact consistently and don't think much beyond that. But believe it or not, the way tour players approach their ball-striking can be a helpful mindset for the rest of us.

There are exceptions, but most players seem to settle on a two-pronged strategy:

Off the tee they embrace a safe, fairly curvy, left-to-right shot shape off the tee. Something they can swing really hard at and know how it's going to move but not move too much.

Into greens, however, you'll find most mixing around shot shapes. High and low, left and right.

"In pro golf, you have to draw it and fade it into slopes to access different pins," Andy Ogletree explains. "You need to go super low to win these events, which means you need to have some tap-in birdies throughout the week. Shaping the ball to different pins and working it up against the winds … it’s the artistic side of the game I've gotten really obsessed with."

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Aitor Alcalde/LIV Golf

No, average golfers are not going to rope draws into side slopes and release the ball down towards the pin. But the general strategy is one the rest of us can, and should, adopt:

  • There are worse strategies than swinging hard, and embracing a one-dimensional shot with a bit of curve (like a big fade) off the tee. Remember that you don't need to be perfect off the tee; you just need to be in play.
  • Try to embrace some level of creativity into greens. That doesn't mean getting too fancy, but that may mean taking two extra clubs and swinging smoothly. Or putting the ball slightly back in your stance and trying to roll something up to the green.

5. Tour pros have fast backswings

A few months ago I visited golf biomechanist Dr. Young-Hoo Kwon, who is a bit of a tour player-whisperer for players looking for extra speed. Dr. Kwon has been one of those on the forefront of golf biomechanics for years, but one of his key principles is making a fast backswing.

It goes against conventional wisdom, but it makes sense: Trying to rip the club away on the takeaway makes it impossible to get lazy. It almost automatically forces you to use your arms, legs and core. Your body starts organizing itself in a far more efficient way. As Rose Zhang put it, there's less room for slack in your swing.

And despite the old "low and slow" mantra that has been propagated for years, the more you look for fast backswings on tour, the more you realize that almost every player has one.

6. Beware the iron shot comfort zone

One of the turnarounds in Viktor Hovland's game this season was not leaving himself short-sided as much. It's a common mistake for every level of golfer, and was a particular issue for Hovland given his inconsistent short game. But what's interesting is that the short-sided mistake, for pros and the rest of us, doesn't quite come where we would expect.

Let's say you hit a left-to-right fade on most shots. When the pin is on the left side of the green, that is not a shot that generally suits your eye, so you're probably looking to play it safe and set for anything on the putting green. Instead, the trouble comes when you like the look of the shot at hand.

Let's take the same fader's approach into the green, but this time the pin is over on the right side of the green. Suddenly, you can see your ball sliding close to it. That's when golfers tend to get too comfortable and leave themselves short-sided because of it. Even pros.

You may like the shot in front of you, but it shouldn't distract you from the ultimate goal: avoid the short-side miss.

7. Spin Loft

Another of Hovland's breakthroughs this season came around the green, thanks to an embracing of a concept called spin loft. Spin loft, basically, is a combination of how much you hit down on the golf ball, and how much loft the golf club effectively has at impact.

Hovland's coach, Golf Digest Top 50 Teacher Joe Mayo, has been an evangelist of the metric for a number of years, and its recent popularization provides some useful benefits for the rest of our games:

  • If your full-swing shots balloon high and weakly into the air, your spin loft is likely too severe. In short, you need to try to hit more up on the ball.
  • If your chips land on the green and run through without any grab, your spin loft is probably too low. You may need to hit more down on the ball.

8. Slope is a science

The idea that putting is an art that can never be perfected is one of those magical, mystical things that I guess is sort of true. But increasingly that idea has been running into a rather inconvenient fact that so much of putting is a literal science.

Green reading is in some ways the best example. Calculating how something will move along a slope is a literal, somewhat simple, mathematical equation to solve. You just need the weight of the object, the degree of the slope and the smoothness of the surface.

Yes, in practical terms, there are judgement calls involved. But more and more golfers are leaning into the quantifiable side of the game, and taking the guesswork out of it. You should too.

9. The battle against inflammation

One topic I kept hearing coaches and players talk about, beyond swing mechanics, in 2023 is how they've become acutely conscious of things they can, and should, be doing to avoid inflammation in their body.

Probably the most common two are taking lots of ice baths, and interestingly, taking a dose of tart cherry. The two became mainstays of Jon Rahm's routine throughout the season, and underlines the reality of the modern golfer and the wear-and-tear of a season that never ends takes its toll.

10. Fail 40 percent of the time

At the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I was talking with Josh Gregory, who coaches a ton of players across lots of tours. Gregory is a teacher who focuses more on performance than mechanics, aiming to help players think smarter and practice more effectively. During our chat he said something interesting that has stuck with me. When he sets up a drill, or game, for tour players, it should be hard enough that they are failing at it about 40 percent of the time. Gregory says it nees to be hard enough so you're focusing intensely on doing it right, but not so hard that you're failing constantly and getting beat down because of it.

These are the kind of margins tour players operate within. Are you?