Growing up, I played basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, football, you name it. Anything I did, the game was intuitive, and I picked it up quickly. I never got technical with those sports. I just played.
Same with golf. Early on, it was fun. I just played. Then, obviously, I got to a point where I needed some instruction . . . but I overdid it. I became a technical golfer, and that just wasn’t in my DNA. Before I started working with John Ellis, my coach and caddie, I saw a handful of other teachers. They were all good swing coaches, but I was so conscious of my swing that I was thinking about positions and such during my tournament rounds, and that didn’t produce great results. My first few seasons on tour, I felt like I should have been scoring a lot better.
I have since gotten away from thinking about my swing; it took away from my natural ability to see a shot in my mind and then create it. When John and I are out on the course, we don’t want to think about anything but the next shot. John will say, “We want this one to finish here,” and I’ll be like, “Oh, OK.” That’s it.
This change in approach really helped me make this year so successful, and it could be a valuable lesson for you, too. It’s OK to think about your swing while you’re practicing, even when you’re waiting to hit your next shot on the golf course. Go ahead and rehearse the positions and feels you want. But when you step in to hit the shot, see it in your mind, and allow your natural athleticism to help create it. If I asked you to throw a ball at a target, do you think about anything but the target? I doubt it. Remember, the golf swing is no different than any other athletic motion. It’s already in you.
Getting away from mechanics is a huge deal for me. It might as well be my mantra. That said, I do practice things on the range to make sure I’m dialed in. For example, getting my swing and shots back to neutral is something I work on all the time.
I’ve had weeks where I’m over-cutting the ball, producing a low shot that moves too much to the right. When that happens, John will say, “Let’s hit some high draws.” That’s the opposite of that low, wipey fade, and it helps get my swing and shots back to neutral.
It’s a good strategy for you, too. Here (above) I’m hitting a sweeping draw. If you’re someone who slices, producing this shot will do wonders for straightening out that banana ball. Feel like you’re swinging much more from inside the target line than you’re probably used to. Combine that with a closed clubface in relation to that path, and you’ll start seeing a shot shape you might fall in love with.
Whatever your typical shape, if you’re putting too much curve on the ball, it’s really hard to keep it in the fairway—so scale it back. If you start trying to curve the ball the other way when you practice and play, you’ll soon realize how to move your body and swing the club to create a more reliable ball flight. If your tendency is to try to steer the ball into play, which never works, this will free up your swing.
A drill I routinely do before I play will help you if you struggle to consistently hit solid shots. I grab an iron, tee up a ball and make swings in which my goal is to strike the ball (above, right) and then take a thin divot after impact. The longer the iron I’m using, the less of a divot I take. When I do this drill with the driver, taking a divot is not what I’m looking for. The goal is to instead leave the tee in the ground, clipping the ball off of it.
The point of teeing the ball is to force me to shallow my path down and through impact. If I don’t shallow out, I’ll mis-hit it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still swinging slightly down on the ball with my irons, but it’s not a steep chop. Just like a lot of amateurs I see, when I’m playing a lot, I have a tendency of getting steeper and steeper, which produces bigger and bigger cuts. When that happens, John and I will get my swing back to neutral by working on this drill for about 15 to 20 minutes before I tee off. It’s a great reminder to get my swing back.
If you typically chop down on the ball, I bet you struggle to find the center of the face. You know that great feeling when the ball shoots off the club? This drill will help you do that more often. You can even tee the ball higher than I do to really force you to make a shallower swing.
To enhance this drill, put down two alignment rods in a cross pattern. One runs parallel to your target line along your toes, helping you set up correctly. The other runs perpendicular to ensure your ball position doesn’t change from shot to shot. For me, it can creep too far forward of center. That makes it harder to get good compression.
This drill helps free up my swing so that I can easily adjust from shot to shot on the golf course. Remember, no two shots out there are the same. You have to execute various techniques and swing shapes on command. The less you have to think about doing that, the better your chance.
For this drill, John will call out a particular shot shape, and I have to hit it. The station I set up in front of me looks elaborate (photos above), and I’ll explain it in a second. Just know you can do a similar drill with just a club and ball. Use markers on the range to monitor your success.
I monitor my success by setting an alignment rod in front of me on my target line and placing three balls to the left and right of that rod. At the spot where I’ll be hitting from, I’ll scrape a line on the ground that matches the alignment rod, again establishing my target line.
John and I have a shorthand language for the shots I’m trying to produce. He’ll say, “One left, two left or three left,” meaning he wants me to create a shot shape that starts left of the rod, passes over the corresponding ball in front of me (above left) and then curves back onto my target line. Same with the balls on the right side of the rod. Those are for draws (above right). The number he calls out represents about five yards of curve, so “two right” means a draw that curves about 10 yards before coming back on target.
The point is to hold yourself accountable when you practice and reinforce confidence that your body can intuitively react to help shape shots without getting bogged down in mechanics.
I learned at a young age from a couple of great coaches that with the short game, your setup dictates 90 percent of what happens to the shot. If you get in a good setup, you’ll be able to create a consistent bottom of the swing, which is key to controlling distance on pitches and chips.
I always try to make sure that the center of my chest is a touch in front of the ball. That position on the ground below your chest represents where you want the club to bottom out to get that crisp contact you need around the greens (above). If you can make a swing where you keep it in that same spot, you’ll be able to control your short-game shots so much better. Then you’ll be able to adapt to the lie or situation to produce the shot you need. You can adjust the face open or closed to hit lobs or low spinners. You can adjust the length of swing or speed to control distance. You get the idea—swing bottom is king.
When I practice these shots, I make sure to just clip it, clip it, clip it. Get to where it feels like a mindless habit. Remember, you’re an athlete first and a golfer second. Anything that frees up your swings should be a priority!