As a golf instructor and PGA Tour caddy, I’ve seen my fair share of golf swings, ranging from the sweet rhythms of the best players in the world to the herky-jerky moves of the frustrated first-timer. Yet despite the huge gap in natural ability between the novice and the professional, I’ve learned it’s not uncommon for the world’s elite players to struggle with a few of the same mechanics and course-management issues that a casual 18-handicapper might face during a round. The swings of touring professionals may be more advanced, but nobody is ever really immune to the occasional swing flaw or mental mistake. We’re all human after all.
What mistakes do top players make, and how do they fix them? Let’s take a quick peek at five of the more common physical and mental mistakes I’ve seen the best and the worst golfers make, as well as a few tricks that may help you become a better player.
#1 Play To Your Strengths Even though PGA Tour players can easily work the ball in any direction, in most cases, it’s usually best to stick with whatever shot comes naturally—no matter where the pin is on the green. In this case, the pin is at the back left part of the green. If I were caddying for a player who naturally hits a draw, I’d advise him to go right at the pin. If my player hits a fade, I’d most likely advise this player to hit the middle of the green and not try and force a draw. Secondly, I’d do my best to assess the slope of the green from the tee, and since this pin doesn’t favor a fade, I’d let my player know where the best spot on the green is for him to roll in a mid-range putt for birdie.
Lesson Learned: Playing great golf isn’t about shaping shots around the golf course. It’s about shaping shots to your strength.
#2 Don’t Neglect Your Routine Guys like Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard have notorious pre-shot routines that are often scoffed at by the casual observer who doesn’t realize the pressure these players face during competition. Truth is, every great player has a systematic approach to each shot. A pre-shot routine is critical to ensure a proper setup, which, in turn, dictates how the body is positioned during the swing. Better players know that the setup begins with the clubface and works its way up through the body—not the other way around! Therefore, before you address your body to the ball, set the club square to the target, the shoulders parallel, then the feet either square with the shoulders or slightly open. Many amateurs make the mistake of setting the feet first, which leads to manipulating the clubface angle and shoulder positions.
Lesson Learned: Pre-shot routines are key if you want to be consistent. Develop a routine you’re comfortable with, and remember to set the club first before the body.5 Caddy Tips From The Tour
By Todd Murphy, Caddie for PGA Tour Player Will MacKenzie Stock Your Bag. My job is about being prepared. If I don’t have something that Will needs, whether it’s weather-related or not, then it could affect the way he plays. I check his bag daily to make sure a lot of the key items are in there.
I count his clubs (a maximum of 14, obviously), and make sure he has nine to 12 new balls every day, five or six gloves, Sharpies, two towels, a yardage finder, a yardage book, bug spray, sunscreen, two rain suits, an umbrella and a medical kit.
Don’t Be Afraid To Back Away. Because playing conditions change quickly, I don’t have any fear of stopping Will mid-swing. Heck, I’ll tackle him mid-swing if I think we don’t have the right club. A little breeze might not feel like a lot, but the difference between hitting it five feet and 10 feet is significant.
Stay Positive. There’s a lot to keeping Will pumped. I’m constantly talking to him, pulling stuff from movies. You know that movie Cinderella Man—the part where the trainer is keeping Russell Crowe’s spirits up? I’ll get right in Will’s face and say, “Is there any place you’d rather be, Willie Mac?” He’ll just look at me and say, “No way, Murph dog!” You know it’s easy to be inspired when you’re playing great, but when it’s going poorly, you’ve got to keep believing in yourself.
Know Your Yardages. The yardage book is my Bible. I’m very methodical in practice rounds, measuring how far Will’s 3-wood goes, etc. But one of the things people don’t realize is that yardage isn’t just numbers. It involves a lot of other factors like lie, weather conditions and energy. Out here on Tour, we play on firm, fast greens, so it’s important to take that into consideration, too.
Be Your Own “Johnny on the Spot.” I’m constantly Johnny on the spot. If it rains, I keep him dry; if it’s hot, I keep him cool. It’s my job to anticipate what he needs, when he needs it. That’s something everybody should do. Especially if you’ve got your bag on a cart, there’s no excuse for not being as prepared to battle the elements as you can be.
#3 Perfect Your Posture Whether you identify with Ernie Els or Jeff Sluman, Tim Herron or Tiger Woods, having proper posture is critical no matter what body or swing type you have. Good posture leads to proper weight shift and a more fluid release through the ball. Many golfers make the mistake of losing their spine angle through the impact zone. If you lose the spine angle you set at address and strike the ball with a spine that’s too upright or one that’s too flat, the gamut of bad shots can, and will, occur. To practice retaining a correct spine angle, you have to first become conscious of it. I’ve seen some players on Tour during their practice session routinely check their spine angle by addressing the ball and then lifting the club in front of them at address (as shown). Although it seems simple, lifting the club in front of you helps you focus on your body position at setup. As you hold the club in front of you, remember to keep your back straight but not too rigid, your knees flexed and your spine tilted comfortably toward the target. From this position, with your spine tilted, lower the club to the ground holding that correct angle. Do this every few swings to make sure you remember not to address the ball too upright or too flat. It will make a huge difference.
Lesson Learned: How you address the ball dictates how your entire swing unfolds. Take your time, and get used to maintaining correct posture before, during and after you hit the ball.
Equipment Tips From The Tour
Staff Report 1. Shrink Your Putter Grip. Tour professionals routinely play on fast greens, and since they rarely have to hit a putt hard, they’ll fit their club with a skinnier putter grip to promote good feel—an especially vital asset for testy five-footers.
2. Rotate Your Wedges’ Bounce. Part of playing Tour-caliber golf around the world—on varying grasses and weather conditions—is having the right tools. In most cases, Tour pros stick with the same set of clubs, but it’s not uncommon to hear of players changing wedges to better fit specific course conditions. The firmer the conditions, the more players tend to favor low “bounce” models that resist bouncing off the ground.
3. Tip Your Clubshaft. “Tipping” refers to how the shaft is cut before it’s placed in a clubhead, most often in a driver. The standard procedure when shortening a shaft is to cut the shaft from the club’s grip end to avoid significantly affecting flex. Tour pros know that for extra stiffness and a boost of added control, they need to trim their driver shaft at the tip end (where it’s inserted into the clubhead).
4. Frequency Match Your Shafts. Frequency matching synchronizes shaft flex across a range of clubs, usually a set of irons. It works like this: every shaft is put in a device that counts the number of oscillations a shaft makes per minute. The shafts are then cut and fitted until each one oscillates at the same, or desired, rate. Some players prefer more flex in long irons and less in short irons, while others prefer a steeper slope. Some even want the same flex in every club.
5. Repel Positive Ions. Managing negative ions is all the rage on Tour, so bracelets and pendants featuring technology designed to calm the central nervous system (by neutralizing positive ions emitted from computers, cell phones, etc.) have grown in popularity. They claim to help promote a clearer stream of concentration and focus. Whether they work or not, pros are wearing them to gain a competitive edge. 6. Check Your Driver’s Clubface. Tour pros usually carry drivers that are square, or even a few degrees open, to combat hooks and produce lower ball flight. Vijay Singh is rumored to use a driver that’s six degrees open, a strategy that helps him eliminate the left side of many fairways.
7. Change Your Clubshaft. If you want to be like the pros, ditch that stock shaft and opt for a premium high-performance one. The proliferation of aftermarket shafts has boomed and continues to do so, with numerous shaft options for virtually every kind of player. To sort it out, first consider getting fitted by a local clubfitter.
8. Counterbalance Your Clubs. By adding weight away from the clubhead, the club’s balance point moves more toward the middle of the shaft for a more balanced and harmonic feel. Some shafts come counterbalanced, while others can be countered with lead tape.
9. Carry A Hybrid. Yes, even the best players in the world have replaced their long irons with hybrids. Long irons are more difficult to hit today than in previous years, mainly because they tend to be lower (stronger) lofted than they need to be. In other words, your 4-iron today may be more closely identified with a 3- or even 2-iron of 20 years ago.
10. Play The Right Ball. There are many kinds of golf balls to choose from, but today’s best golfers generally play urethane-covered, three-piece models. Three-piece balls consist of three layers: a core, midlayer and cover. The combination of these three components generates low-spin drives and high-spin wedge shots.
#4 Move On! At the highest level of competitive golf, it’s usually the mental game that separates the winners from the losers. I’ll tell you this, too—there isn’t a player on the PGA Tour who isn’t trying to win every tournament he enters. Anyone who assumes some players are out there to coast from tournament to tournament is mistaken. Every guy wants to win, and it takes a winning attitude to have a chance. Also, it’s just as important to acknowledge that you’ll occasionally hit bad shots, and luck may sometimes work against you. Here’s what the pros do. Immediately after a bad shot or an unfortunate event, most players allow for a few seconds to complain, walk briskly or drop a club (okay, some mash it into the ground). Once that mini-tirade is over, they move on. It’s over and done with, and it’s now time to focus on the recovery shot that lies ahead. Harnessing frustration is never a good idea, nor is it wise to reflect too much on the mistake you just made. Often, when a caddy notices a player in mental turmoil, he’ll bring up a topic, such as family, sports, music, movies—whatever—all with the intention of getting the player to not focus on an error or on trying to force an immediate recovery. This strategy can work well for you, too.
Lesson Learned: You’ll find a calm mind is far more effective than one bogged down in anger. Winning is a positive state of mind.
#5 Shadow Putting You don’t play on the PGA Tour unless you’re a great putter. Where some Tour players tend to err isn’t so much with mechanics, but in other ways, such as keeping the eyes off the putterhead and maintaining a steady rhythm. My player, U.S. Open champ Steve Jones, uses a simple drill (that he can do anywhere) that kills these two birds with one stone. First, turn your back so it’s square with the sun so you cast your shadow in front of you on the green. While watching your shadow, make a few practice strokes until your body starts resembling a metronome or a “tic-tock” clock. This will help you to keep your eyes off the putterhead and your body during the swing, as well as aid in promoting a smoother stroke.
Lesson Learned: If you feel like your rhythm is off, take a step back and relax by emulating a metronome. Trust me, it works!
In addition to being a professional caddy for 1996 U.S. Open champ Steve Jones, Flavio Castro teaches golf to players of all abilities in Southern California.