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Read up, takes notes, and watch those scores start to drop.
Golf can be a difficult game. Even with swing tips available wherever you turn or tap, it’s easy to get lost in the woods— on and off the course. “Play Smart,” a GOLF franchise launched online in 2020, is your path through the clutter to data that, well, makes the game a heckuva lot easier.
On these pages, we present the best of the “Play Smart” series. The goal: Raise your golf IQ so that you can score better without having to make wholesale changes to your swing. Class is in session.
The difference between the lowest handicaps and the rest of us isn’t the quantity of good shots. It’s what happens after the bad ones.
Jon Sherman, in his recently published book, The Four Foundations of Golf ($25; amazon.com), outlines one of the clearest statistical truths in golf: It’s not about making more birdies. It’s about making fewer double bogeys (or worse).
As you see in the table above, a 14-handicap cards about 1.5 fewer birdies than a 2-handicap, per round. Nice, but here’s the rub: He posts more than twice the amount of double bogeys. A 20-handicap? He’s making two times fewer birdies than a 2, and five times more double bogeys!
It’s not the sexiest headline, but if you want to lower your scores, stop trying to make more birdies. Instead, play safer and win the war against those back-breaking doubles.
There’s a phrase among elite coaches that comes from deep in the world of physics: Force precedes motion. It’s one of the most fundamental laws of nature, and it affects how your full swing looks and, more importantly, performs. To use an example, think about how you move a heavy shopping cart down a grocer’s aisle. First, you push, but then, a few moments later, the cart starts rolling by itself. “To get your cart–er, club—to emulate this is to create a big stretch on your backswing and then allow your muscles to contract forcefully as you start down,” says GOLF Top 100 Teacher Chris Como. “Stretching your arms wide away from you on the backswing sets up a ‘rubber-band effect’ in your muscles, which allows them to contract forcefully and send the club whipping through impact with extra speed.” If you fail to feel this stretch, you’re leaving yards on the table.
If you’re a golfer who swings under 90 mph (most rec golfers), and you’re look- ing for more distance and control off the tee, one of the easiest ways to achieve this is by switching to a lighter club. A lighter driver creates the potential to swing faster with the same input, similar to how reducing the weight of a sports car increases top speed and improves handling. Keep in mind, however, that a lighter driver doesn’t just mean a lighter shaft—it also includes the clubhead and the grip. When the entire total weight is reduced, the club stays in better balance. A great example of this are the drivers from XXIO, which are engineered from head to grip using premium materials to reduce total weight through the club. The use of lightweight and strong materials creates a distinct advantage and can help you get the most off the tee.
Our eyes are designed to look straight ahead and level. That inconvenient fact is what makes aim- ing so difficult. Looking at a target in the distance while standing in your ad- dress posture tilts your eyes and can often make you feel like you’re aiming too far left. It’s called the “Parallax Effect,” and, whether you realize it or not, it can create frus- trating compensations.
To combat this, GOLF Top 100 Teacher Eric Alpenfels and his research partner, Dr. Bob Christina, conducted a study that found that golfers hit the ball straighter and farther when they use an intermediate target: a spot about two feet in front of the ball and directly in line with their intended destination. Hall of Famers, such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, have used this method, and you can practice it on the range by placing an alignment stick in front of your ball in line with your target. The gist: Aim close, not far.
The more loft on your club, the more it’s going to spin the ball. It’s why your pitching wedge stops on a green, say, a lot faster than your 6- or 7-iron. True, too much spin with a driver can rob you of distance, but optimizing spin through your entire set—specifically, your irons and wedges—helps with distance gapping and trajectory control, two of the most important elements in determining your ability to hold greens.
Spin, as the data from PING (above) shows, is best used in moderation. A little extra spin can help you hit the ball straighter off the tee or land softer on the green, but too much of it can send the ball ballooning into the air. Less spin can help you hit the ball lower and enjoy more roll, but if you have too little spin, your ball will struggle to get airborne. The key is getting control over it, which starts with a good clubfitting.
Changing tee height has a direct impact on the launch and spin of the ball off your driver and can be used to help you get more distance off the tee with a simple adjustment. A higher tee creates the opportunity to hit the ball longer because it encourages a positive angle of attack and impact higher on the driverface. These factors increase launch angle and reduce spin, which, in turn, help optimize launch conditions for more distance. Under testing conditions using a robot swinging at 95 mph with GOLF research partner Golf Laboratories, we found that nailing the proper tee height can deliver up to 25 more yards of carry distance because of where contact is made on the face.
Low strikes (below center) averaged 219 yards of carry com- pared to 244 yards when struck above the middle. That’s huge. So, if you’re struggling to keep up with your buddies off the tee, experiment with teeing the ball higher. You could pick up serious yards. And, remember, it’s easier to carry trouble than trying to work your way around it.
Gravity is one of the few ever-present forces that affects every- thing you do on the course—especially on the greens. Gravity exerts its greatest effects when the ball is moving at its slowest, like when you’re putting. It’s a fact that you can use to your advantage. For example, thanks to a recent TrackMan study, a putt entering the hole at 0.01 mph uses 100 per- cent of the hole’s size, meaning it’ll catch the lip and almost certainly fall into the cup. But as the ball rolls faster, the less likely that’ll happen: A putt that’s traveling fast enough to end one and a half feet past the hole makes the effective size of the cup about 25 percent smaller. A putt that travels fast enough to end about five feet past the hole makes the effective size of the hole 63 percent smaller! We’re sure you’ve experienced the horror: a good putt that catches the lip and, rather than dropping in, slingshots around the hole. Ugh!
An emerging body of research, both in golf and beyond, has focused on practicing. What’s the most effective way of getting better faster? Studies show one is better than the other.
Generally speaking, there are two different forms of practice: block practice, which is when you practice one thing over and over again; and random practice, when you never do the same thing back-to-back.
“The research on this is very clear: Random practice always beats block practice,” he says. “Think about it like practicing math by asking you the same math problem over and over again. There’s this illusion of working when really you’re reciting from memory.”
Dr. Greg Rose, one of the co- founders of the Titleist Performance Institute, explains that any form of practice will help, but as for how golfers can randomize their practice? It’s hitting different shots with different clubs and never the same one twice in a row.
So, you’re standing on the tee of a tight hole, wondering what to do. Should you play it safe? Or hit driver and hope for the best? DECADE Golf founder Scott Fawcett dived deep into the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data to find the answer. He says that to solve that problem, golfers need to answer two questions:
Are there less than 65 yards between penalty hazards (like water, out of bounds or heavy trees)?
Does the fairway pinch to 40 yards wide (or less) to the spot where your driver would land?
If you answered “yes” to either of these, then you should play it safe. Club down to whatever will leave you short of both of those areas. If you answered “no” to either—or can carry your driver over the hazards—then pull the big stick and, in Fawcett’s words, “Send it!”
When it comes to hitting the ball far, more muscle mass certainly helps. But you can only get so far with brute strength. In order to maximize how efficiently you transfer your body’s strength into your swing, pros are using a concept that’s known as “over- speed-underspeed training.”
It’s the bedrock behind The Stack—the training aid designed by Dr. Sasho MacKenzie and PING’s Marty Jertson that gave 2022 U.S. Open champ Matt Fitzpatrick his speed boost.
Overspeed training is when you swing some- thing lighter than the weight of your driver, so your swing speed gets faster than usual. Underspeed is the opposite: Swinging a heavier club slower than you’re capable of. Overspeed trains your muscles to be explosive; underspeed trains strength. Fact: You need to train both to hit booming drives.
Take one deep breath. Or maybe lots of little ones. An intriguing point of interest among pro golfers is learning how they use their breathing to play better golf. Nick Bolhuis, who works with Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, among others, the vice president of performance programs at Neuropeak Pro, explains:
“Golfers perform their best in an optimal zone,” he says. “Sometimes that means taking slower, deeper breaths. Other times it means quicker, shallower breaths.” It’s all about finding the sweet spot that helps you focus at your peak. Shorter breaths, generally, will help speed up your heart rate, which will help you focus during those mid-round lulls.
When you’re nervous, taking bigger breaths will slow your heart rate down. That’s what you see in the chart above of Justin Thomas’ heart rate, as measured by Whoop, in the closing holes of his 2021 Players Championship victory. A few deep breaths helped steady his increasing heart rate into the “optimal” range (04:09:25) at an important moment.
One of the keys to happier golf is to be realistic with your own expectations. It’ll help you improve, too, because you get a clearer sense of both the strengths and weaknesses of your own game. Unfortunately, too many golfers have expectations that are wildly out of whack with the reality of their game. A great way to work on this is to keep track of the basic stats from your own game as you play. And, in the meantime, allow a handful of stats from pro and scratch golfers, gathered by statistician Lou Stagner of Arccos Golf, to provide some hard truths. Do you know that from 150 yards, a scratch golfer hits the green only about 60 percent of the time? It’s essentially a coin flip.
Yes, it’s important to “load” on the backswing and shift your weight forward on the down- swing. But 3D motion- capture systems reveal both happen earlier than you might expect.
GOLF Top 100 Teach- er Shaun Webb and coaching partner Mike Granato, cofounders of Athletic Motion Golf, have used the GEARS system to demonstrate that pro golfers have fully loaded and shifted their weight to their trail foot halfway through their backswing, but by the time they reach the top of their swing, weight is already beginning to shift toward their front foot.
“By the top of the backswing, pros reverse this move off the ball and shift back to just slightly forward of where they started at address,” Webb says. “That’s how you should complete your backswing: by shifting slightly toward the target.”
Now that you’ve come to appreciate the importance of the loft- and-spin relationship, allow us to introduce you to the Optimal Launch Conditions chart. This
is what good clubfitters consult as they’re helping dial-in your driver specs. Everyone’s ideal loft and spin numbers are slightly different, depending on their ball speed and angle of attack. The closer you can get to matching these numbers with your gamer, the less distance you’ll
be sacrificing. You can rest assured that you’re maximizing your distance, based on the speed you currently have.
For decades, conventional golf wisdom has bemoaned the terrors of the “two-way miss.” Lou Stagner, the data lead over at Arccos Golf, is here to tell you it’s not so bad—and he has an army of statistics to prove it. Stagner puts forward Dustin Johnson as a prime example (below). Lauded as one of the statistically best drivers of his generation, DJ’s drives have missed left 2,203 times and errored 2,238 times to the right, almost an exact 50-50 split. It’s a trend that holds all the way down through the Tour. While it is true that it’s beneficial for players to have a preferred shot shape (DJ’s, for instance, is a slight left-to-right fade), the statistics simply don’t bear out that players use it to eliminate one side of the course. “As a player, you’re better off trying to narrow your biggest left miss and your biggest right miss,” says PGA Tour coach Shauheen Nakhjavani.
As human beings, we’re hardwired with an innate instinct to balance ourselves in order to avoid falling over—and, potentially, hurting ourselves. It’s what helps us take our first steps, but, sometimes, it can throw your swing out of whack.
For the average male, your head encompasses about 8 percent of total body weight; your trunk about 55 percent, your arms about 12 percent and your legs make up the rest. If you’re not in a balanced setup position to start, your body will attempt to balance itself during the swing—and it won’t be pretty. That’s why GOLF Top 100 Teachers like the middle of a golfer’s foot, kneecaps and armpits to form a straight line with each other when viewed from down the line. That’s the position of optimal balance at setup because it “stacks” your heavy body parts in one line. The official term is “joint centration.”
“Getting your joints stacked on top of each other is key,” says GOLF Top 100 Teacher Jon Tillery, who works with Kevin Kisner and Rickie Fowler, among others. “Ideally, you want your hips, torso and head all stacked in one straight line.”
Where your clubface points at impact has the greatest influence on what direction the ball will start its flight pattern. For a right-handed golfer, an open clubface (relative to the target) will result in the ball starting right of the target, and if the face is closed, the ball will start left of the target. According to TrackMan, around 80 percent of the ball’s starting direction is dictated by where the clubface is pointed at impact, with the remaining percentage caused by the direction the club is traveling (club path) and the resulting friction. Golf, just like any racket sport (Ping-Pong, tennis, etc.), relies on the same impact physics principles to dictate how the ball will fly through the air. The only difference is that your clubs are “rackets” with extra loft and create more of a glancing blow. Configuring the clubface with club path at impact will help you create a more consistent ball- flight shot after shot.
At the 2019 GOLF Top 100 Teachers’ Summit, Hall of Fame instructor Mike Adams, Top 100 Teacher Terry Rowles and researchers Dr. Sasho MacKenzie and Dr. Phil Cheetham showcased a detailed study on how your grip affects your swing.
It turns out, how you place your trail hand (right hand for right-handed golfers, left hand for lefties) plays a huge role in how you square the clubface.
Placing your right hand in a “stronger” position— more on the side of the club—tends to result in a more passive orientation, with a slower clubface rate of closure. The opposite is true if your trail hand is more on top of the club, in a “weaker” position. There’s no right or wrong way: Different golfers will do better or worse depending on what hold they’re predisposed to. (You can learn more about this right here).
In the game of blackjack, luck is introduced via a deck of cards. In craps, it’s dice. In golf, we deal with luck in terms of shot patterns. Think of your shot pattern like the spray of a shotgun blast: Some pellets may end closer to where you were aiming, but others may veer off slightly, and you never know which one ends where you want.
This fact is what makes golf so hard—and great— and, at times, so mentally taxing. It’s also why one of the foundational truths of my DECADE course management system is telling my players not to plan for a certain shot, instead to plan around the dispersion pattern. Finding yours can be as easy as hitting 25 balls with one club on the driving range using a launch monitor.
Throw out your five worst shots—about 20 percent—and that’s your shot pattern.
Your target selection must take into consider- ation roughly 80 percent of your shot pattern. Why only 80 percent? Because you can’t let outlier shots impact your overall decision. Outliers destroy averages.
Your shot pattern is how you should plot your way around any course. Instead of chasing proximity by trying to hit your approach shot inside of eight feet, choose a target that results in the most amount of shots inside your dispersion pattern so they end up safe. Let the randomness of your shot pattern (in relation to the hole) create the occasional shortish birdie putt.
The image above illustrates the shot pattern of a PGA Tour winner on the driving range and how it looks laid over the 15th hole at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, home of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship. In order to make sure the most approach shots end up safe, his ideal target to a front left pin is aiming past the flag and to its right.
Magically, some of this player’s shots would have found their way close to the hole due to some amount of good luck. Conversely, some would have finished on the other side of the green, out of bad luck. You can’t account for luck in golf, but you may be stunned at how many PGA Tour players aim away from a hole, like you should on this one. That’s what playing the percentages looks like, and how you can use them to stack the deck in your favor. — By Scott Fawcett, Founder of DECADE GOLF
Dr. Matthias Grabenhorst, who has spent his life researching the subject of human reaction, published a study last year that showed humans tend to react best to events a few seconds into the future. Instantaneous reactions are often clumsy, but a little head start can go a long way.
GOLF Top 100 Teacher Eric Alpenfels of the Pinehurst Resort and his research partner, Dr. Bob Christina of UNC Greensboro, wanted to see if that held true for golf. They took a group of 32 golfers and found that those who counted backward from four (as in “four, three, two, one”) before hitting shots performed the best in terms of accuracy. Those who decided on their own when to hit their shot often stood over the ball for a lot longer and fared much worse.
We’ve all heard that to hit a solid shot you need to “compress the ball,” and the best way to quantify this is by understanding spin loft. Spin loft, as defined by TrackMan, is the measured angle between the loft delivered by the club at impact and the angle of attack into the ball—the larger the number, the more the ball will spin.
When hitting driver, it’s optimal to generate the lowest spin loft number as possible because that’s what fuels distance. The trick? Swinging into the ball with a positive angle of attack.
For shorter shots with scoring clubs, however, a higher spin-loft value is key—it’s what gives you increased spin and shot-stopping power into the greens. Shorter scoring clubs, including wedges, have more loft on them so they naturally create a high spin loft, meaning that there’s no need to steepen your angle of attack.
You’ve done your smart preparation, but some- how things still aren’t going according to plan. Don’t worry, it happens. Golf is a game of misses, after all. Stay calm. Here’s what to do next.
Try variable training
“It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do when you’re struggling to hit the sweet spot is try to hit misses,” says GOLF Top 100 Teacher Mark Durland. “The next time you’re struggling, try intentionally to hit shanks or shots off the toe. This kind of ‘vari- able training’ will help your brain get a better sense of the clubface when it’s time to hit the center.”
You may simply be running out of energy if you’re play- ing poorly. Sugar and carbs will spike your energy the fastest but fade fast. Higher-protein snacks will last longer. Drinking water throughout is essential. Weight Watcher’s former head of nutrition Jaclyn London says golfers should choose a blend of every- thing but try to stick to a 2-to-1 protein-to-carbs ratio, with up to 10 glasses of water per day.
Time your tempo
If you’re playing in the wind, one of the first things to go is your tempo. First brought to light in their pioneering book Tour Tempo, John Novosel Sr. and Jr. say good rhythm can come at different speeds, “but the ratio should always stay 3:1, meaning your back- swing should be three times slower than your down- swing.” If it’s not, your tempo is out of sync.
Don’t be a hero
As Tour statistician Mark Broadie writes in his book Every Shot Counts, PGA Tour players average 3.8 shots to hole out from 100 yards when they’re in the trees. Hitting a 60-yard recovery shot vs. pitching out directly sideways gains you only about 0.2 of a stroke, from 2.8 shots to 2.6 at best. At worst, you’ll hit a disaster shot and make a big number. Play stress-free and get the ball back in play
There are lots of numbers that come into a pro golfer’s orbit whenever they set their sights on the green. But there’s one above all else that reigns supreme: It’s the yardage to the front of the green, which pros call the “cover number.”
“The [cover] is a number players know they absolutely need to hit their shot,” says GOLF Top 100 Teacher Boyd Summerhays, who teaches Tony Finau. “It’s really important.”
Pros pay special attention to their cover numbers, not just because it lets them know the minimum distance required to hit the green. When paired with the distance to the back edge, it illustrates how big the zone their aiming for is.
“They want to know how big that gap is,” Summerhays says. “It builds a margin for error into their shots and is all part of playing to dispersion patterns.”
Obviously, we all want to make every putt. But, if you were to miss, is it better to over-read putts or under-read them? Mark Sweeney, the inventor of the groundbreaking green-reading system Aimpoint, found that it is better to air on the side of over-reading putts.
Why? Simple, really: The effect of gravity on the ball means that putts rolling downhill keep rolling and take longer to lose their speed. As you see in the left-to-right breaking putt example below, a putt that’s been over-read by 12 inches will trickle down to about six inches above the hole. A putt of the same speed that’s been under-read by 12 inches will take more of the slope, however, and keep rolling all the way out to 36 inches. That’s the difference between a tap-in and a nervy three-footer. When in doubt, aim high.
If you’re sitting at a desk all day, you’ve probably got tight hip flexors. That will limit your ability to rotate during your golf swing, which will cost you power—and could even lead to lower- back pain. GOLFTEC’s 3D motion-capture system, Optimotion, found that pro golfers turn their hips 50 degrees away from the target on the backswing and rotate them almost 40 degrees toward the target by impact. To increase your hip turn on either side of the ball, GOLFTEC’s resident GOLF Top 100 Teacher Nick Clearwater has found one method works almost instantly and easily: flaring your feet.
“Turning your toes out 20 degrees—maybe even more—effectively makes you more flexible,” Clearwater says. “It creates greater range of motion in your hips, which produces a distance boost in short order.”
At the 2012 World Scientific Congress of Golf, researcher Dr. Joan Vickers revealed the fascinating results from an eye-tracking study performed on a group of golfers. She found that highly skilled, lower-handicap players tend to keep their eyes fixed on one portion of the ball. Higher handicaps tend to move their eyes to multiple points. It may not solve all your problems, but keeping your eyes focused on one tight spot is a quick upgrade you can make to your game.
Look closely. One way you’ll see pros doing this is by using the logo on their ball. Many use the line off the tee.
Tiger Woods, most notably, places the Bridgestone logo on his ball toward the back (as in closer to the clubface) as he tees it up. It acts as a bull’s- eye he can focus on—and hit—on every tee shot.
GOLF Top 100 Teacher Andrew Rice and PING have studied the effects of temperature on ballflight. A 10-degree change in temperature will add (or subtract) about two yards.
Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.
An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
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