1. FOCUS ON THE TARGET...ALWAYS If you want to play like a pro, you have to practice like one. In the following pages, I'll show you how I practice and the things that help me fine-tune my game, so come time to compete, I don't have to worry about my swing. Instead, I can play shot-by-shot and concentrate on lowering my score.
To get started, when you practice, always do so with a target in mind for every shot. After all, why hit balls if you don't aim? Think of a target and don't forget it.
2. GET BEHIND AND SET UP When I see amateurs hit shots, I notice many don't have the right pre-shot sequence. So try this. First, take your grip behind the ball while facing the target. I like to do this so I can focus more on alignment, and not worry about my hands. I pick my target, make my grip and I don't readjust it. Once it's on there, it's on for good.
While still fixated on the target, I approach the ball from the side. This helps me see the target and align my body considerably to the left of the target (as evident by my orange stick to the side of the ball). I don't step directly into position just yet. I'm still zoned in on the target, and the club is held out in front of me. I'm ready to go.
My eyes have moved off the target, and I'm looking at the ball. I also track my eyes across the orange stick representing my target line. Then, I step into my stance from the side, not from behind or at an angle. This helps me align my body more squarely, with the clubface aiming at the target and my body situated parallel to the left.
Now I'm ready to strike. My stance is squared, I have a mental picture of the target in my mind, and my eyes stay glued to the ball throughout my swing. I may peek at the target, and if it doesn't feel right, I start all over again. Your preshot routine and alignment is critical if you want to compete out here on the PGA Tour.
3. PARALLEL STRUCTURE I see this improper stance all the time. The clubface is square to the target (that's the easy part), but the feet also are aiming at the target, a mistake made by several of my partners during pro-am events. What this stance structure does is promote a vicious over-the-top, swiping move that likely results in a snap hook or a big, bellowing slice. To fix the problem, practice your stance position correctly by aiming the clubface at the target and the body to the left of the target. (Think of the old railroad-ties analogy with the clubhead on one rail and your feet on the other.) This will help you swing more on plane and through the ball instead of down and across it. And by the way, I practice my alignment all the time, as do many of my peers. It sets up the entire golf swing.
If you look closely, you can see that the two orange sticks aren't exactly parallel. That's not a mistake! If you're going to err one way or another, have your stance slightly open as opposed to slightly closed. When you're open, your body is more prone to making a fuller turn and rotation, two things you need to make a good extension and to strike the ball consistently. Experiment with what stance works for you and practice picking your primary target, which is the line your clubhead should be on. Then, consider choosing a second target to which your body aligns. You'll soon see that better alignment is the quickest way to start hitting straighter and more repeatable golf shots.
4. SHAFT = ARM QUICK TIP! Although not allowed on the PGA Tour and at some stuffy country clubs, even the best players in the world wear shorts to keep cool in the summer. Avoiding the heat helps your practice time last longer.
The shaft ought to be an extension of your left arm. If you want better control, consider the shaft of the club as an extension of your left arm (right for southpaws) at address. Early in the backswing, you'll want to get in this aligned position anyway, so why not go ahead and start with the shaft already in the right place?
If you're trying this for the first time, you'll notice how drastically closed the clubface will look. But, in reality, it isn't; you just have to trust your eyes and know that you're in the correct position. From here, swing the club back using your arms and body and let your wrists hinge naturally at the top. I like to use a mirror to check and see my position with all my clubs since it not only helps me correct myself, it gives me a mental picture of how my stance should look.
5. BACKSWING To the untrained eye, this position doesn't look all that bad. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if some amateurs aspire to have this position at the top of their backswing. My weight has transitioned, my legs are flexed, my left arm is fairly straight, and I'm in balance. What's wrong with that? The truth behind this position is, my body has done no more than simply shift to the side, my hips have barely turned, and my shoulders have turned ever so slightly. I may, on occasion, be able to hit a few balls well from this position, but any attempt to become a consistent ballstriker are slim at best. You may not be able to tell, but if I were to hold this position any longer, I'd start to fall forward. Check your own position at the top and see if you look like I do here. If so, the solution to your problem is one page away.
My improper position is even more deceiving from behind. It looks as though I'm on track, considering I have indeed shifted my weight, and my hands are high above my body. But don't be fooled. A powerful swing has nothing to do with high hands; rather it comes from making an effective turn. Notice the drastic difference. In this photo, I've done it right. Notice how my core hasn't drifted off the ball, my hips have rotated considerably, and my shoulders are fully rotated. That's the secret! If you rotate effectively, your body weight will shift on its own. In my case, I like to flare my knees out to allow for a greater lower rotation, which in turn, makes it easier for my upper body to rotate as well. As for a mental note, I like to think of keeping my belt line as level as I can.
Notice my head position, as well. On the previous page, my head was closer to my left side. Here, it's over my right leg, demonstrating more stored energy behind the ball. Try to keep your spine tilted away from the target at the top of your swing, as opposed to toward the target, as well.
Looking at the photo, you can probably see how my right side is stored with a lot of energy. The myth has long been that you need to stack your right side at the top of your swing. What you should do is rotate around your core and let your weight shift on its own. Don't force a weight shift. It will happen automatically.
6. LOOK AT THE FRONT OF THE BALL Look in front of the ball. I hit a lot of golf balls, both in practice and competition. Admittedly, it's easy for me to fall into bad habits without actually noticing them until after the damage is done. Usually, those habits are basic fundamentals that my coach and I can iron out in a couple practice sessions, but if we don't, they can grow into bigger swing problems. In the case of how I set up over the ball, where I fixate my eyes makes a big difference in how I swing through the ball. If I focus on the back of the ball, I'm more likely to hang back and hit the ball more on an ascending plane. If I look to either side of the ball, I'll likely hit either a draw or fade. But if I look in front of the ball (the side toward the target), I'm more inclined to make a level and solid stroke into the golf ball. I also find that I decelerate less, and I make a better extension because I swing more through to the finish.
Try this technique the next time you hit balls or play. Focus ahead of the ball, and see if it impacts your swing as much as it does mine.
One of my favorite drills involves a 2x4. Although many of my peers swear by a handful of training aids, I happen to favor a simpler approach toward helping me become a better player. In this case, a simple 2x4 does the trick. I like to stand on the 2x4 with it positioned in the center of both of my feet. As I make a few swings, the 2x4 not only forces me to swing with more balance and better tempo, but also prevents me from having too little or too much lean into the ball at impact. That kind of practice does wonders for my ballstriking and helps me find the sweet spot much more often.
To try for yourself, grab a 2x4 at your local hardware store and position it as I have under my feet. As you swing, make sure you hit down and through into the ball, and allow your back foot to come off the board as you reach your finish position. Your balance will be tested, as will your rhythm and spine angle, but after a few practice sessions, you'll start seeing some serious improvements in how solid you hit your shots.
If you do swing off balance, whether it's due to bad rhythm or bad form, you'll fall off the 2x4 (as I did in the photo to the left). Stick with it, and in no time, you'll be glad you invested a couple bucks at the hardware store.
7. SWING UNDER STICK Get on plane in a hurry. As you can see, I'm a big fan of these orange sticks. What are they? Here's a secret. You can find them at your local home-improvement store. Just check the road-signs area and you can't miss them. Anyway, here you can see my instructor, Alasdair Dyer, holding a stick that represents my shaft angle at address. This drill also helps me ingrain a swing that's on plane from start to finish. In fact, this is a great tip for amateurs who struggle with coming over the top of the ball, which even touring pros sometimes develop a habit of doing from time to time. By using the orange stick as a reference to my plane at address, I can mimic it at the top of my swing, through impact and into the finish.
QUICK TIP! Notice how the ball is on the ground? Kevin was able to decrease the loft of his driver (from a 10.5 to an 8.5) by practicing shots off the turf with no tee. As he got better with the higher-lofted driver, he switched to a lower loft, all the way down until he settled on an 8.5-degee model. Why the switch? Kevin's control and distance both improved with the lower loft, and it helped him hit more piercing drives with more roll on the firm fairways found at PGA Tour events.
8. DON'T POP YOUR KNEES, LET THEM ROTATE
Flex your knees. I like to keep my knees flexed as much as I can. And I practice retaining my knee flex as often as I hit balls. At address, you can see my knees are flexed and also flared out. This helps me turn and also helps me add a lot more stability and takes pressure off my lower back. Notice how my knee is the same distance from Alasdair's hand as it was at address. Also, look how my knee has rotated away from the ball. Any locking of the knee will restrict your backswing and potentially cause you to sway or lean too much. Let your knee rotate and stay flexed. You'll love how it feels. Don't lock your forward knee either. The greatest golfer alive got away for years with having a rigid, locked left knee through impact, only to then require surgery in his early 30s. Tiger's incredible skill endures, but for most amateurs, when they lock up their leg at impact, the body locks up, too. Through the finish, I keep my knees flexed, as well. Next time you head out and hit balls, notice the wear and tear your left knee is getting. If you're locking and popping your knee, try adding some more flex. You'll be able to more effectively transfer your weight than you would with a straight left knee.
Stick with your natural swing. I've made a few adjustments to my golf swing, even some that occurred since being on the PGA Tour. But generally, I stick with what works for me, and try to make the most of it. Too often, amateurs take emulating the pros a bit too far and, in turn, neglect the good things about their swings in favor of certain moves that might not be best for their golf games. Yes, I flare my knees, and that may seem unusual, but it works for me and has helped me position myself among the game's elite players out here on Tour.
So the next time you practice, focus squarely on basic fundamentals, and let the rest of your swing develop on its own. You'll soon start to see what swing is most repeatable for you, and if your repeatable swing produces a fade, then go with it. Same goes for a draw or high or low trajectories. Stick with what works, and you'll play better.