What happens when a player has 'rust'? We asked top teachers how they scrape it off

PGA Championship - Round One

Warren Little

The Tiger Woods of 2019 doesn't prepare for majors the same way the 2000 edition did, mostly out of necessity. Back surgeries and lots of competitive mileage mean he's more likely to take a month off between starts—like he did leading up to the PGA Championship—than he is to play the week before.

The trick becomes managing the balance between physical and mental freshness and competitive sharpness. We asked a collection of top teachers how they shepherd players on that path. The common thread in their answers? Simplifying the things you work on leading in.

"If you're doing anything swing-related, it has to be at least a week before the tournament or even earlier," says top Alabama teacher Tony Ruggiero, who helped Lucas Glover come out of injury break. "My preference is to simplify what the player is thinking and trying to do before they even get there, and once you get to the tournament go with one thought or drill that gets them hitting the shape they want."

Despite the obvious physical and technical advantages tour players have over us civilians, they still get thrown off by as little as a week away from hitting balls, says top Colorado teacher Nick Clearwater, who is GolfTEC's VP of instruction. "A player can come back after some time away and do pretty well hitting drivers off a tee, but the feel of hitting shots off the ground with middle and long irons is elusive," he says. "That can get chaotic after taking some time off. But that comes back within a day or two of dedicated practice."

Once the feel for solid contact comes back, Clearwater spends his time much like Ruggiero—narrowing the challenges and simplifying the solutions. "Working with Dean Wilson, for example, when he would come off a break, his tendency was to hit shots fat," Clearwater says. "So the start of the process was to give him one thing he could practice to get around that particular issue. You're trying to provide a thread the player can take with them to the first tee that fixes their biggest worry."

Ruggiero says most of the prep for veteran players is getting the feel for how the course is going to play come Thursday—and a majority of the variables there related to what short game shots are going to be available. "We're doing a lot of up-and-down games to simulate the scrambling you're going to be doing during the tournament. But you're doing it in bursts so the player isn't getting worn out. That's obviously what Tiger did this week—he listened to his body because he knows Bethpage is a physically taxing walk."

Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher John Dunigan says the two points of emphasis he makes with his tour students after a break are "calibrating" the swing by hitting intentional shot shapes and crushing it at the short-game area. "As much as you can dial in something like iron play, hitting copious amounts of wedges and other little shots around the green is what is going to make a player feel like they have a safety net," says Dunigan, who is based at White Manor Country Club outside Philadelphia. "And those touch shots are the ones that go first when you haven't played. Once they've done a lot of that work, then it's on to the putting green and working hard on speed control."

All three teachers said veteran players like Woods have gained the hard-earned knowledge about preparation that comes from experience. "Guys like Tiger and Phil understand that there's an opportunity cost for all the ball-hitting you do," Clearwater says. "It can make you sharper, but it takes energy and can beat you up. That opportunity cost is obviously different when you get into your 40s than it is when you're 25, but the more experienced players also understand much better than the young guys that the goal is to keep everything as consistent as possible. If you make your preparation dramatically different, you're subconsciously ramping up pressure on yourself because you're establishing that a big tournament is different and more important. I think that's part of why Brooks Koepka is proving to be so good. Whether he has played recently or not—and whether or not it's a major—he seems to treat every tournament the same."