Learn Like A Pro, Play Like A Pro!

Apply lasting improvements to your golf game

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No matter how advanced the best players in the world become, each and every player does something, somehow, someway to make himself or herself better. No two players may practice the same way, or work on the same things, but nary will you find a player who doesn't strive to take his or her game to the next level.

That said, ask yourself a question. When was the last time you strived to make yourself a better player? What have you done recently to start seeing real improvements? If you're like many, you've probably adopted the "hit and hope" method, where instead of practicing and fixing the way you think and how you physically swing the club, you instead repeat the same mistakes and hope for better results.

Well, let's put an end to that method once and for all. Let's look at two ways you can get better. The first is mental, the second is physical, and both combine to help you stop wasting time on the "hit and hope" method and actually apply some lasting improvements to your golf game, just like the pros do.

LEARN TO COIL, NOT TO TWIST

One of the most misunderstood concepts I've seen with my students has to do with how to coil the body on the backswing. Often, when I ask my students for a more powerful coil, I see them twist their body away from the target with little to no torque built up in their body. The top photos show what that looks like, and even though I've made a huge coil, I have little power because I didn't do anything to leverage my upper body against my lower body.

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Check out my lower body here. I've turned so much that my right knee buckled. Despite the effort this position takes to achieve, it's not a good one.

To develop a better coil, I want you to turn your upper body twice as far as your hips on the backswing, and keep your knees facing the golf ball (yes, the left one should bend) to ensure you aren't overtwisting the lower body. Finally, keep your spine leaning toward the ball. Don't get upright.

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This is more like it! My upper body has turned against my lower body, which has only turned about half as far as my shoulders. This is how the pros do it. Keep that back leg rigid!

CHOOSE WISELY

Don't assume every tee shot on a par-4 or par-5 requires a driver down the middle of the fairway. Tour players look at all of their options before executing a tee shot.

Today's fairway woods hit the ball a mile. Don't always assume driver is the right play, even on long holes. Always go with what feels right, not necessarily what the scorecard insinuates you should use off the tee.
Today's fairway woods hit the ball a mile. Don't always assume driver is the right play, even on long holes. Always go with what feels right, not necessarily what the scorecard insinuates you should use off the tee.

It's important to realize you have options to help you put yourself in the best position to play to your strengths. It's not a long-drive contest out there! Weigh your options and no matter what, play to your strengths, not whether you can hit it as far as possible. However, don't get me wrong, sometimes a big drive is the right play. Just don't force it. In golf, there are no rules on what club you have to use for any shot. Go with the one you're most confident with–always.

TRUST YOUR DECISIONS

Once you decide your course of action, trust it! The worst thing you can do to a good swing before it happens is to fill your mind with doubt, tension and lack of assertiveness.

Once you pick your target and the club you're going to use, put your golf bag out of your peripheral view. The club in your hand is the only club you have at this moment, and you must trust your ability to produce good results with it. Remember, you chose this club for a reason, so stick with the plan and commit to it!

What's going on in my head at this point? Not much! I have a picture of the shot I want to hit and all I'm concentrating on is getting to a full finish. I've already committed to my swing shape and targetline, and I've made my club selection. No need to steer the ball, just let it go, trust my decisions, and swing!
What's going on in my head at this point? Not much! I have a picture of the shot I want to hit and all I'm concentrating on is getting to a full finish. I've already committed to my swing shape and targetline, and I've made my club selection. No need to steer the ball, just let it go, trust my decisions, and swing!

When you start second-guessing yourself, you're not only going to limit your mental toughness, your mind will start wreaking havoc on your body's ability to swing freely.

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From the top of your golf swing, try not to get fixated on getting the clubhead back to the ball. If anything, ignore it and allow the club to vertically drop behind you as you begin the downswing. If you do that, you should look like this.
f you're fixated on the clubhead at the top of your swing, you'll likely swing from over the top as you see here, which, by the way, rarely produces good results!
f you're fixated on the clubhead at the top of your swing, you'll likely swing from over the top as you see here, which, by the way, rarely produces good results!

VERTICAL DROP

One position i see with virtually all tour players is this one. No matter how they take the club back on the backswing, I'd bet anyone five bucks they look as I do in the upper-left photo about one-quarter of the way into the downswing. Tour players instinctively allow the club to drop behind them as they initiate the downswing. The upper-right photo is the classic over-the-top move. Here, the upper body and lower body are overrotating, forcing the clubhead away from the body. When you're too preoccupied with moving the clubhead down at the top of the swing, this is what likely happens. Instead, let the club drop vertically at the start of the downswing!

BREATHE!

Nothing replaces solid mechanics when it comes to hitting the ball a long way. But you still need to be in the correct state to allow for the swing mechanics to flow just right. Tight muscles are slow muscles, and most golfers try to increase swingspeed by tensing up, not by getting their muscles relaxed to be able to generate more clubhead speed. Hey, we're all guilty of approaching a big drive like a wrestler and flexing our muscles, gripping the club tighter and so on. But, in reality, getting your muscles too involved actually can slow your swing down, not speed it up. You have to stay relaxed and supple!

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A great way to do that is to take a slow, deep breath before every shot. This will reduce muscle tension, not to mention help calm your mind when you start getting nervous or tense over a shot. Deep breathing increases your oxygen flow to the brain and to the muscles, signaling them that it's okay to relax.

Come time to execute a shot, take one last deep breath, then let it go and make a golf swing. Do this not just before you hit a drive, but any shot (or putt!) you face on the golf course. Tour players use deep breaths a lot–watch for them on the next TV broadcast, and pay attention to their preshot routines. A deep breath is employed by dozens of the best players in the world.

COMPRESS DON'T CONTORT!

The golf swing shouldn't hurt. If it did, Tour players wouldn't last very long. Take, for instance, how the body works through impact. The last thing you should do, especially with an iron, is attempt to square the clubface with your shoulders. Through the hitting area, Tour players use their forearms to square the clubface, with the back of the left hand rotating the clubface toward the target at impact. Using your forearms instead of your shoulders to square the face allows your head to remain stable and your eyes to see the clubface hit the ball. When you try and use the shoulders to square the face, you not only lose power and control, you end up placing a lot of stress on the back, shoulders and arms, which could lead to some injuries over time.

At impact, because I'm allowing my forearms to control the rotation of the clubface, I actually can see the ball leave the face at impact.
At impact, because I'm allowing my forearms to control the rotation of the clubface, I actually can see the ball leave the face at impact.
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When you contort and attempt to square the clubface with your shoulders, you'll have a hard time producing good results.

The key is to trust that the clubhead will lift the ball on its own, and the forearms are what square the clubface, not the shoulders.

EVERY SHOT IS A TROUBLE SHOT

We've all done it. You hit a bad shot, only to face another from under a tree that requires you to thread the needle, so to speak, and hit a miraculous shot. Better yet, many of us pull that shot off more than we expect.

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Why do most play trouble shots so well? I think it's because when faced with trouble like this, our focus sharpens considerably. The options for the shot are minimal and we're very limited on what type of shots we can hit and still produce good results. The trouble you may have with tree limbs, bunkers and rough makes creating a clear picture very easy in our minds. Golfers need to take this same level of visualization to regular shots from the fairway. Some golfers get lazy and just go through the motions and hit poor shots when they should learn to visualize a more limited set of options and focus more on hitting specific types of shots.

Try that the next time you play, and envision every shot you play as a trouble shot. You'll sharpen your focus considerably.

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HIGH HANDS DON'T WORK

At impact, there isn't much you can change, but there are some things you can do to help get yourself into a better impact position. A person's hand position at impact, how high or low they are, will directly correlate to their ability to hit the center of the clubface. The higher the hands, the more off-center their impact point. The closer the hands return to the original plane of the shaft, the more centered your contact will be on the clubface. Notice in the "Yes!" photo how my hands are relatively the same at impact as they were at address. That's what you want!

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If you start your round expecting to never hit a bad shot, I have news for you, you're going to be very disappointed. Bad shots and unlucky breaks are going to happen, sometimes more often than you expect. Be ready for them when they come, allow yourself to vent, but move on and forget about them. You have more golf left to play.

STAY IN THE NOW

I don't wish for Tour Players to make mistakes, but I'm sure paying attention to when they hit a poor shot. Last December, Zach Johnson did the unimaginable; he shanked an iron into the water on the final hole of the Tiger Woods World Challenge. It was his second shot on the par-4, hitting the ball well right and into the water in front of the green. Now, the average player would panic and only think about not doing that shot again.

Johnson, on the other hand, refocused on what he wanted and hit a fantastic approach shot that skipped about a foot past the hole and rolled back in. The ability to bounce back from poor shots is a skill and requires golfers to focus on what they want their next shot to do, not be distracted by what could go wrong.

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DON'T SWAY—SWING + TURN

Tour players limit as much movement as they can when hitting shots around the greens. Last I checked, I've never seen a player sway, slide or drift away from the ball, yet so often I see students of mine make slow, mini-golf swings instead of firm, crisp chip swings.

Set up with a totally different stance–feet open, heels close together–and make a swing more with the rotation of your core than with a sway or slide of the legs, body and arms. The hands should be fairly docile, the wrists should stay quiet. Any excess motion will make it difficult to hit consistent shots. And when it comes to chipping, controlling your ballflight and distance is the most important variable. You must know what swing length will produce what type of shot, and if you slide, sway or move too far off the golf ball, you'll lose all sense of consistency, and controlling your distance will be darn near impossible.

Always hit your pitch and chip shots with two targets in mind. Why? Because around the green is where the golf course has the most undulations and slopes. Most fairways are generally flat, but around the green, if you're paying attention, you'll miss out on some critical breaks that can greatly affect how your ball rolls once it hits the ground.
Always hit your pitch and chip shots with two targets in mind. Why? Because around the green is where the golf course has the most undulations and slopes. Most fairways are generally flat, but around the green, if you're paying attention, you'll miss out on some critical breaks that can greatly affect how your ball rolls once it hits the ground.

HIT YOUR MARKS

When it comes to pitch shots, the average player is often thinking about "getting it close" with no true plan to achieve that goal. Pitch shots definitely require proper technique; however, being clear about the shot before you execute it is crucial.

There are two targets on a pitch shot: the end goal, which is the hole; and the intermediate target, where you plan on landing the ball, which then will get you to the hole. Most golfers skip Target #2 and just hope to get it close. Having a clear intermediate target will help you clarify the trajectory you plan on hitting the shot and any break the ball may take on the green. Visualizing a clear picture of a successful shot will help your confidence and commitment, giving you a better opportunity to get up and down.

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USE YOUR PUTTER GRIP, NOT A FULL-SWING GRIP

Putting is a different stroke altogether, and your grip should be different, too. I want you to move from a power mind-set to a finesse mind-set, and changing from a full-swing grip to a putting grip can help with that. I like a putting grip more in the palms, and the hands overlapping more, which stabilizes my wrists. But as Rick will tell you, there's no one right way to do it. Just go with what feels best and keep the hands quiet through the stroke. The key, again, is to adopt a grip style that removes you from hitting the ball with power and instead helps you hone in on rolling the ball with finesse.

CHOOSE THE STYLE THAT WORKS FOR YOU!
CHOOSE THE STYLE THAT WORKS FOR YOU!

BE AN INDIVIDUAL

Throughout golf history, there have been many different putting styles that have had success on the professional tours. Putting requires both distance control and proper direction, and being confident with your style will lead to making more putts.

The simplified goal is to roll the ball with a square clubface with the proper amount of energy. Your clubface at impact is the most important element to proper direction. Your hands have the biggest effect on the clubface, so make sure you pick a grip that makes it easy to return the face to square at impact. Next, your distance control is affected by the length of your motion and the speed of your stroke. Some players prefer to let the arms move the putter back and forth, while other players feel the shoulders rock the putter. Your stroke will be affected by your posture, too. Some like to be tall over the ball, while others are more bent over.

The most important thing is to feel comfortable with your putting style so you can repeat the same stroke as often as possible. A repetitious stroke is a good stroke, even if you tend to push, cut or even pull your putts. If you repeat your stroke, you'll know what to expect, and in the end, make more putts!

Rick Sessinghaus, PGA, is the founder of MZ Coach, an online mental game learning center for continuing mental game success. Visit mzcoach.com.

Zach Allen, PGA, is an award-winning instructor based at DeBell Golf Club in Burbank, California. Visit zachallengolf.com.

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