Here’s a secret: The winter months are when club championships are won
In the early 1980s, I worked with David Leadbetter to make wholesale changes to my swing. In those days, such a makeover was mostly a matter of beating balls—fifteen hundred a day, until my hands were sore—and it took me two years. But now we know so much more about the biomechanics of the golf swing and how the body can be trained, and we have so many advanced ways of monitoring and analyzing swings. I’m convinced that using today’s methods I could have made those same changes in four months or less—in short, over one dedicated winter.
For a professional, that would mean moving to some warm place, retaining a great teacher, a physical trainer and maybe a psychologist, and really getting after it. For amateurs this is impractical. But my point is that the winter is plenty long enough to substantially improve your game. In fact, it’s the best time to work on your fundamentals, because, depending on where you live, you won’t be as distracted by play.
Why not make winning next year’s club championship your goal, at whatever flight level you compete in?In my judgment that’s an excellent ambition because it will give focus to your work. And here’s how I would start: Visualize winning. I mean literally closing your eyes and seeing yourself making the winning putt on the eighteenth green, shaking hands with the person you beat (you know who he or she is!) and accepting the trophy afterward. Visualizations like this are more powerful than most people think.
Then work backward to create a plan. Be very honest in assessing your game and decide what the key areas are that you need to improve. You can be as ambitious as your desires and time allow, be it undertaking a complete makeover or simply adding an extra bit of distance to your drives. But you should definitely plan to work in three areas: the physical, the mental and the technical.
Don’t underestimate the first of those areas. After age forty, unless we work at it, our bodies just crimp up; there’s no way around it. We lose flexibility, strength and balance. The main problem aging amateurs have—especially higher handicappers—is that they cannot make the full turn they need for a proper swing, and they cannot hold their finish in balance, with most of their weight on their forward side.
I highly recommend getting a physical assessment from someone knowledgeable about the biomechanics of golf. He or she will be able to pinpoint the areas where you need the most work and will suggest some simple drills and exercises. You don’t need to lose fifty pounds (if you’re that much overweight) to have a much better body for golf. You just need to increase your flexibility in certain key areas, such as the hips and hamstrings, and shore up your strength here and there. Believe me, a month or two of modest effort over the winter will make a huge difference come spring.
As for technique, everyone’s needs and commitment are different, but consider working with a pro. It’s possible to make improvements by yourself with the help of videos or by studying photographs of Tour pros’ swing sequences. But having that extra set of trained eyes can be invaluable. Tell the pro what your goals are, and he’ll help you build a plan. And don’t take just one lesson. You can do a lot of the work yourself, but give the pro a chance to monitor your progress over time. Changes in a swing are often miniscule but feel massive. It helps enormously to have someone keep you on the right track.
One of the most effective ways to institute those changes is to make practice swings in front of a mirror in your garage or basement. In many ways it’s superior to hitting balls on the practice range, because you focus more on getting into the proper positions—which always feels awkward at first—than on worrying about where the ball goes. I’ve actually found that visualizing the flight of an imaginary ball after each swing is great mental exercise. Another variation on this is to close your eyes when you swing; that fires up all the other senses and often leads to new insights.
Better players will probably benefit the most from moving through their positions in front of a mirror, because they have a more subtle understanding of the swing. But everyone, no matter their level, will gain in terms of their physical conditioning from repeatedly swinging a golf club. Sometimes I even wore gym clothes to the garage. Fifteen minutes of swinging hard can produce a right decent sweat.
I had great success with this approach during the winter of 1991–92. My specific goals were to keep my chin pointed at the ball during my backswing and to add width to my backswing. But in the course of doing that I also realized I would do well by setting my wrist cock a little earlier. I worked my tail off in my garage that winter, motivated by the desire to win the Masters in April. I didn’t, even though the pieces came together quite nicely in Augusta, but I did go on to win the British Open that year.
For golfers able to practice outdoors, even if conditions aren’t ideal, I can suggest a few other great winter projects. One would be to master wedge play. I’m amazed at how dreadful many amateurs are on shots from between seventy-five and one hundred yards. If you focus on that for a couple of months with the help of a pro, by springtime you could be scoring five strokes better.
It’s also possible to develop a touch for chipping over the winter. If you can’t practice at the range, simply practice chipping to baskets or other targets. You can do it off a mat, if necessary, or indoors into the couch, or with a Wiffle ball over the couch. I’m also a big believer in the value of carpet putting. At the very least you can work on honing a smooth, rhythmic stroke. If your carpet gives you a true roll, you can work on aim and even distance control. As a boy I spent millions of hours indoors playing "putting billiards": I would putt one ball to hit another in such a way that it would knock a third. That’s a fine way to develop dead-eye accuracy.
If you live in a climate hostile to winter play, plan a visit to a golf school or schedule a buddy trip for the middle or late winter and let it function as motivation. If you aren’t in decent physical shape for golf, a five-day school will snap your body in two; if you’re limber and reasonably strong, it can work wonders. And buddy trips can stand as a good test of the changes you’ve tried to make in the garage.
Then, when spring comes, you’ll be fit and fine-tuned and well on your way. And good luck in the club championship. If you win, send me a photograph care of Travel + Leisure Golf. I’ll write a note of congratulations on it and send it back to you.
Study Your Mirror Image
Setting up a simple practice studio in your garage or basement is a great way to help familiarize yourself with changes you make to your golf swing over the winter. Apart from a ceiling that’s high enough, all you need is a full-length mirror (you can get one at the hardware store) and some tape to create alignment marks on the floor. Facing the mirror, you can check your setup posture and hand and arm positions at various points in the backswing and throughswing. Standing side-on to the mirror lets you check your swing plane. And you’ll also be amazed by how much regularly making practice swings will improve your strength, flexibility and rhythm.
Improve Your Turn
The more movements you make while in a golf stance, the more you will enhance your technique, strength, flexibility and balance. One of the best ways to improve your turn is to drape your arms over a golf club or broomstick held behind your back. Adopt a perfect golf posture: Center your weight evenly on the balls of both feet, bend from the hips (not the waist) and flex the knees slightly. Then make easy, rhythmic turns, back and through. On the backswing, focus on keeping your back knee bent, stable and strong as you move your weight over it. Do ten sets of ten turns and you’ve had a workout. For a variation, make turns holding a medicine ball (no heavier than six to ten pounds) in your hands, at arm’s length.
Another great off-season drill is to hold a golf club by the grip with one hand and make big figure eights with the clubhead, clockwise and counterclockwise. Alternate hands to strengthen your forearms and wrists.
Hold the Finish
The biggest difference between a pro swing and an amateur swing is that the pro finishes in balance and facing the target, with most of his weight over his front foot, and the amateur does not. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get to that correct finish position after a swing and to hold it, but I’ve found that many amateurs simply don’t have the strength or the balance to do so. After a second or two, their front leg starts to quiver and they begin to topple. Practice can really help, with or without a ball. Make a swing to the proper finish position and hold that position for ten seconds, or for as long as you can. Repeat ten times and rest, then do it again. If this becomes the end goal of every swing you make, the rest of your swing cannot possibly be far off.
Chip Koehlke, U.S. Director of Instructional Programs
The curriculum at Faldo Golf Institutes is built on fundamentals. Each site offers schools, private lessons and club-fitting sessions.
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