Cover Story
October 13, 2015

Tony Finau: The Fastest Way To Get Better

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If you drive and putt well, you're going to have a pretty easy day. Not to discount the importance of iron play or chipping, but starting and finishing holes well is how you write a lot of small numbers on your scorecard. I also think these skills are related because they're the simplest shots: The tee box and the green are the only places you get ball in hand. Plus, your goals are straightforward—any part of the fairway or cup will do.

More than other aspects of the game, becoming a good driver and putter is about learning to be automatic. With approach shots there's a lot to think about. You're factoring multiple yardages and guessing how the lie might affect impact. Chipping and bunker shots allow even more room for creativity and club selection. But on drives and putts you train your mind and body to do the same thing over and over without thinking too much. Here's my approach for the tee and the green, with nothing in between.

DRIVE IT LIKE A KID

I'm fortunate to be built as I am (6-foot-4, 200 pounds). A good drive for me carries 320 yards. I don't lift weights. I do a lot of stretching to stay supple and pride myself on being able to smoothly dial back my distance when a hole demands it. I also hit a 3-wood and 18-degree driving iron a fair amount. My driving iron goes about 260.

Must be nice, you're probably thinking. Well, I know what it's like to be short, too.

The first hole at the course where my brother and I grew up, a par-3 called Jordan River in Salt Lake City, was 162 yards. There was a hump halfway to the green. For the longest time, I couldn't get my tee shot over that hump. The first time I cleared it—with a hybrid, because Dad hadn't bought Gipper and me drivers yet—I was 8 years old. The ball disappeared, went like 90 yards total, and I thought, I'm a man now.

I tell you this story because remembering how it feels to be a kid is a great trick for any golfer to get loose over the ball. I love how tension-free kids are when they waggle. It's like they're all coordination and no muscle. And when you're young, you don't think about things like head position or shoulder alignment. Fairways look a mile wide, so you pretty much whip the driver as fast as you can without falling over.

On the PGA Tour, it doesn't take much of a spray to miss a fairway, especially when you're looking as far down them as I do. That's when I try to pretend I'm a kid again. I just see a target, like the crest of a hill, and go for it. I'm not used to hitting every fairway, so I don't panic when I miss one.

I also played a lot of basketball growing up. Often I've heard teachers say the correct golf stance feels like you're guarding someone on defense. That's a good tip, but you have to understand how to guard. You don't lock your knees and get tight and antsy. You constantly stay moving, fluid and relaxed, almost like you're dancing.

Boyd Summerhays, my coach, says that a tight mind leads to a tight body. The reverse is also true. That's why my other key to staying loose is to always set the club first. Only when the clubface is looking at the target do I then bring my feet in and square my hips and shoulders. I see too many amateurs take their stance before they get the club into position. So they stand still that much longer before hitting the shot, and that gives them too much time to freeze up.

Though it might disappoint some spectators at the range, before a round I rarely hit more than 10 drivers. Partly, I'm conserving energy, but more importantly, I'm visualizing certain holes on the course and giving myself one chance to hit each tee shot. Hopefully I hit them well and can call on those positive feelings later on.

Of course, when I played Jordan River last year, I didn't need more than pitching wedge on any of the holes. But I still had to make some putts.

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PUTT LIKE A BIG MAN

Because of my length, I've always felt underrated as a putter. That's OK: Better to have a reputation for something than nothing. In high school basketball I was the big man hanging underneath the hoop, and I think all the time there helped me develop touch and craftiness.

If I could summarize my approach to putting in one word, it would be "speed." I believe that on an ideal putt the ball trickles in on its last rotation. That's why I always read the maximum amount of break. A lot of guys out here talk about ramming putts into the back of the cup. They'll tell you perfect speed is when you give it enough that the ball would roll 18 to 24 inches past. I think that's too much. Psychologically, you might feel better knowing you gave it a healthy chance, but at that pace you're going to lip out a lot. If the ball's rolling 10 inches or fewer by the cup, you catch any piece of it, low side or high side, and the ball can fall in. It's the same principle in basketball: Soft-handed layups tend to find the net even if they bounce around the rim a bit first.

My putting trigger is a forward press. Others raise the putter or even tap their toes.

When I arrive to the practice green, I always drop two balls and putt to the nearest hole. I don't care what the length is or if I make either; I'm only trying to tune in the speed. If you always start at a predetermined distance, like three or four feet, your stroke can be rigid because you'll be trying too hard to putt the ball straight from the outset. If you focus only on the speed, you'll find it easier to hit it straight.

I've talked to other right-handed tour players who say they try to slightly push right-to-left breaking putts and slightly pull left-to-right breaking putts. The idea being, you aim straighter—say, right edge instead of a ball out—and then roll the ball counter to the break with a little push. I don't know about you, but I think that's way too complicated.

I'd rather have a clear head, and that's why it's essential to have a trigger. I putt with a lot of forward press, pushing my hands toward the target to initiate the motion. So the moment my hands shift, that's my cue to begin the stroke and let my mind just go blank. At that point, I've either practiced enough hours to have a sound stroke, or I haven't. Last-second manipulations usually don't work out. I've seen other good putters who raise the clubhead off the ground to start or even tap their toes. Any little movement like that helps.

After you make the putt, take out your driver and enjoy the walk to the next tee. If you really smash one, you'll have that putter back in your hands before you know it.

Tony Finau ranks seventh on the PGA Tour in driving distance and second in total birdies.