(This article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Golf Canada Magazine)
SET YOUR TEMPO WITH A BALANCED WARM-UP
Tour players spend a lot of time working on their games. While you may not be able to devote as much time to your game, you can still learn from their practice routines.
Before a round, the majority of amateurs hit a bucket of balls, and then take a few putts or chips. This routine might make the most sense for exercises, but if you want to score well, you need to prioritize your practice. Half of your total practice time should be devoted to short game, with half of that on putting. With the remaining fifty per cent, start with short irons and work up to the driver, hitting every other club and spending the same time on each. You'll develop good tempo and a more consistent, all-around game.
LINE UP SHOTS WITH YOUR HEELS
To practice your alignment at the range, lay a club on the ground along your heels. The club should run parallel to the target line. Change targets and repeat the exercise. It's imperative that the club be placed on the ground flush against your heels, and not your toes. Because feet tend to flare out, the heel line is the best indicator of where you're currently aimed.
GET YOUR DOWNSWING DOWN TO A TEE
Even with the best fundamentals, it's easy to get quick with the start of the downswing when trying to squeeze an extra couple of yards out of a drive, or when you're feeling the pressure of a tough approach to a tight pin. This usually leads to the body lunging forward on the downswing, resulting in a loss of distance and direction - commonly referred to as "coming over the top".
Next time you're on the range, try this swing thought: After your full shoulder turn, keep your back to the target as long as possible during your downswing. Feel your arms leading the swing as they fall at a speed close to a gravity drop. You'll begin to feel your downswing path coming from the inside with a shallow angle of approach into the ball. To engrain that feeling, place a tee into the grip end of your club. At the top, begin the downswing by pointing the tee at the ball. This will help establish proper downswing path.
DON'T GET OVER-AMBITIOUS IN FAIRWAY BUNKERS
Start by being realistic when assessing your lie. Conditions may call for you to blast out to the fairway, but remember that the goal is to get the ball back into play with a single stroke. After a carefully analyzing the situation (lie of the ball and the height of the bunker lip), select an appropriate club and address the ball with a slightly wider stance than normal. Lean into your lead leg while digging your feet into the sand, but make sure you choke down on the club slightly to compensate. Play the ball in the normal position for the club you have selected. With a smooth tempo and minimal lower body movement, take your normal swing, but try to pick the ball directly off the sand. To strike the ball before the sand, focus your eyes on the front of the ball, instead of behind it.
GET A BETTER GRIP
The grip is your only contact with the golf club and should be treated with the utmost importance. Constant exposure to the elements, such as sunlight, heat, perspiration, dirt and oils from sprays cause the grips to harden and become slippery. Grips typically last about 20 rounds before they need to be replaced, but you can prolong their life by washing them regularly with water and a mild detergent. Next time you play, assess your grips and see if you're sacrificing strokes by neglecting them.
PERFECT THIS SHOT: THE BUMP AND RUN
This type of shot is perfect for situations with tight lies, firm ground, steep slope, or for when you're looking to get the ball rolling early on the green. Play this shot by selecting an iron based on the carry versus roll ratio. Set the ball position back in your stance, shift your weight toward your front foot, and create a shaft lean by moving your hands in front of the ball in line with your front thigh to deloft the club. When you swing the club, you want to maintain the shaft lean throughout the shot while rotating your chest toward the target as your hands make it through the impact position. Don't forget to factor in the contours between you and the hole.
PERFECT THIS SHOT: THE LOB
The lob shot is a high soft shot used for when you need to go over an obstacle, carry a hazard, or access a tight-cut pin. There are two key components for hitting a lob: first, you need to hit the bottom of the ball, and second, the higher the loft, the higher the shot. Setup up with an open stance, and then open the clubface 45 degrees by allowing the back of the club to lie flat on the ground. It's important to take a few practice swings to determine where your swing bottoms out so you can gauge where you'll make contact with the ball. The backswing requires you to take the club outside and up with your arms, then swing down across the ball along your stance line. You'll have better contact and consistency if you maintain the open clubface past impact and focus on the lowest dimple on the back of the ball to make sure you stay down during the shot.
PUTT BETTER: BREAK DOWN THE BREAK
The majority of amateur golfers miss putts on the 'low' side, which is caused by not reading enough break, or sometimes the golfer does not get it started on the intended path. Contours (uphill, downhill or side hill), grain of the green (against vs. down), wind and any other unique attribute (position of mountain/escarpment or lake) should all be considered when you're reading greens.
A drill to help improve is to pick a putt that is 15 to 20 feet in length. After determining the break, pick a target that is six inches in front of the ball and focus on rolling putts over that mark. This ensures that you'll get the ball started on your intended line, while increasing your chances of holing putts. To make the drill harder, you can place two tees a hole's width apart on your line six inches ahead of your first mark. This allows you to determine the pace you are most comfortable with. Remember to practice this drill with putts breaking in both directions.
PUTT BETTER: TRY THESE SHORT-PUTTING DRILLS
THE "COMPASS" DRILL - Set up balls three feet away from north, south, east, and west of the hole. Putt from each location. If you miss a putt, set up again and continue until you can make all four putts consecutively.
THE LADDER DRILL - Add an additional two balls 18 and 36 inches away from an original three-foot position. Start at the three-foot putt at one position, and then move down the "ladder" when a putt is holed. Continue this until you make it through each position. If you miss a putt, start over and continue to practice the drill until you can sink every putt without missing.