What you can learn about your own game from some of today's top golfers under age 30
In golf, youth isn't wasted on the young. Elastic bodies, steely nerves, and a lack of emotional scar tissue never hurt. No, you can't roll back the years, but you can learn a lot about your own game from Rory and some of the game's other top players under age 30. We talked to coaches, trainers, and the young stars themselves to glean tips to help you rev up your play.
LEXI THOMPSON: CONTROLLING IRON PLAY
Career highlights: 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic winner; 2008 U.S. Girls' Junior champion; youngest-ever qualifier for U.S. Women's Open (age 12 in 2007)
Her huge drives hog the spotlight, but teenage phenom Lexi Thompson ranked 11th in greens in regulation on the LPGA Tour in 2012. "I take the same attitude every day: Hit fairways and greens and try to drop a few putts," she says. Power notwithstanding, hyperaggressive flag-hunting isn't her bag.
Thompson's simple iron keys are especially good for the unbalanced overswinger she sees in countless pro-ams. "I want a nice, athletic posture at address that I maintain to the finish," she says. "I also take a deep breath before the takeaway to make sure I don't rip the club back. Then it's just about keeping a smooth, steady tempo throughout."
One simple iron drill she uses on the range: Pick a pin and pretend a water hazard is to one side. Like Thompson, try to keep the ball 5 to 8 yards to the "safe" side; every five balls, switch the side and/or vary the next batch of shots' shape and trajectory.
JOHN HUH: HITTING MORE FAIRWAYS
Career highlights: 2012 Mayakoba Classic winner; 2012 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year
Virtual unknown John Huh (aka Johnny Question Mark) survived all three stages of 2011 Qualifying School to reach the PGA Tour. Then he proved he belonged by winning the 2012 Mayakoba Classic and posting three other top-10s. Much credit goes to Huh's arrowlike tee balls. Read on for his how-to.
Focus on tempo. "I've always been ‘Accuracy Guy.' I never grew up trying to hit the ball too hard. I try to hit it solidly. I work a lot on my tempo. My rhythm is ‘1, 2, 3' - it's smooth, not quick like the ‘1-2' guys. Know your tempo and practice it."
Don't overswing. "I worry about not being among the longest hitters, but I need a different game management than Bubba Watson. The average guy tries to hit the ball as hard as he can. You need to manage yourself and reach back for something extra only when it makes sense."
Widen your stance. "I stand a little wider than normal, which helps me not move around so much and make consistently good contact."
Emphasize it. "I like to hit at least 20 balls with my driver before I play, about twice as many as any other club, and 50 or more on practice days. It gives me confidence. You have to like hitting the driver - it's such an important club."
LYDIA KO: STAYING FIT TO HIT SOLID
Career highlights: Ended 2012 at No. 1 - Women's World Amateur Golf Ranking; 2012 U.S. Women's Amateur champion; 2013 ISPS Handa NZ Women's Open winner
Her swing is as impressive as her precocity - no mean feat, as Lydia Ko is now the LPGA Tour's youngest-ever winner. Ko's coach, Guy Wilson of the Institute of Golf in Auckland, New Zealand, says her awesome move comes "from maximum biomechanical efficiency and finely tuned kinematic motor patterns, which her strength and conditioning program is designed to support." In plain English, she wasn't just born with it.
Dynamic stability, dynamic power, and functional mobility are the program's three key components, per Wilson. Ko knows fitness, and you can, too, with these exercises from her routine. (Remember to start with light weights and maintain good form.)
Dynamic Stability: Unilateral Loaded Squat
Why: "Lydia needs to maintain a solid base of support throughout her swing to ensure it's consistent and accurate," Wilson says. "This exercise forces her to stabilize laterally while performing a controlled, functional movement."
How: Stand to the side of a fixed pulley, with the pulley at hip height. Hold the pulley in your right hand and in your left hand hold a dumbbell curled to your chest. Take a big step to your left until the pulley weight is suspended. Squat until your thighs go past parallel (not so deep if you have knee issues). Return to start position in full hip extension. Repeat 10 times per side, for three sets.
Dynamic Power: Wood Chop
Why: "To help her develop power, Lydia performs the wood chop on a horizontal plane."
How: Stand to the side of a fixed pulley, with the pulley at shoulder height. Hold the pulley in your right hand, with your left hand over the right. Take a large step to your left until the weight is suspended. Rotate your upper body across the shoulder plane with a fixed pelvis - only the upper body rotates. Slowly return to the start position. Repeat 10 times per side, for three sets.
Functional Mobility: Trigger Pointing
Why: "Trigger-point therapy assists with muscular tension release and mobility. Lydia performs this routine pre- and post-training and anytime her workload is high."
How: Use a hard round ball such as a baseball to massage your trigger points. The key trigger points are: the anterior and posterior shoulder capsule; the quadratus lumborum, or QL (low back); glutes and hip flexors; and the IT (iliotibial) bands.
KEEGAN BRADLEY: PRACTICING YOUR WAY
Career highlights: 2011 PGA champion; 2011 HP Byron Nelson Championship and 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational winner; 2011 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year; 3-1-0 record at the 2012 Ryder Cup
Keegan Bradley was on the Hooters Tour when he began working with instructor Jim McLean in 2009. Today, Bradley's a major champion, Ryder Cup stalwart, and reigning king of the PGA Tour's All-Around stat: He's got a complete game. McLean says much of Bradley's progress owes to practicing the right way - and the "right way," he notes, varies and arises from a plan based on the golfer's preferences.
"There are players who like to play a lot and players who like to practice a lot," he says. "Keegan likes to play."
If you're a playing type, McLean recommends evening rounds where, when possible, you can hit extra drives, approaches, chips, and the like. If you're a practice type, he notes, you need to vary targets, change clubs and, once or twice every 10 shots, go through your entire preshot routine.
"Make sure you're not just pounding balls," he says. "That might give you exercise, but it won't help your score."
McLean believes the explosion of swing information available has led too many players to try bits and pieces of several different methods. To avoid a scattershot approach, the instructor stresses working on only one or two things at a time - and constantly circling back to the short game. "Keegan and I are always doing a variety of pitching and chipping mini-lessons," McLean says. "That's what can help your score."
RORY MCILROY: PUTTING WITH CONVICTION
Career highlights: Ended 2012 at No. 1 - Official World Golf Ranking; 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship winner; six PGA Tour titles
Three weeks after imploding at the 2011 Masters, Rory McIlroy met with short-game specialists Dave Stockton and his son Ron to discuss putting. The coaching duo appreciated much of what they saw. "Rory took no practice strokes, which I love," says Dave Stockton, two-time PGA champion and author of the recent Unconscious Scoring. "You don't see good pool players putting the cue beside the cue ball and making four practice strokes."
For Stockton, McIlroy was that rarest of birds - his routine was a little too quick. He suggested McIlroy walk to his ball a touch slower upon exiting his crouch. The Stocktons believe that, like most pros, most club players would benefit from McIlroy's decisiveness: Extra time over the ball mostly just tenses us up. "As you get older, the checklist on the green grows and grows," Stockton says. "When we're kids, we get up to the ball and roll it. No one has told us putting is hard, so it isn't."
A few other putting keys from the world's best player:
Set your feet while looking at the hole, not the ball. This keeps you slightly open to the hole, which Stockton recommends. Plus, "When you're throwing a dart, you don't focus on your hand, you focus on the bull's-eye," he says.
Emphasize your routine. "The routine determines whether you're going to be a good putter, not the physical stroke," Stockton says. With that in mind ...
Read putts from the low side. "Once you've figured out which way the ball is going to break, go to the low side," Stockton says. "Try not to circle the hole. The high side looks different from the low side."
NA YEON CHOI: FINDING FOCUS
Career highlights: 2012 U.S. Women's Open champion; seven LPGA titles
When Na Yeon Choi's final-round lead at the 2012 U.S. Women's Open went from 5 to 2 after an 8, she turned to her caddie to talk about ... their rental car, her next vacation, yadda yadda. She birdied the next hole and soon had her first major title.
"Na Yeon wasn't performing well under pressure when she first came to us," says Pia Nilsson, one of Choi's mental-game coaches and co-founder of Vision 54, a golf instruction company in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Her posture got slouchy between shots, and she had problems focusing because she'd worry about the future."
Nilsson refers to this unavoidable, self-blocking state as "Not 54." (Vision 54 refers to the optimal round of 18 birdies and a score of 54.) She worked with Choi to create "Na Yeon 54" - ways for the player to manage her tendencies when faltering. This meant distracting herself and focusing on walking chin-up, shoulders-up between shots. Per Nilsson, you can create your own "You 54" with these steps.
Be self-aware. We all know that our technique falls apart, but Nilsson urges figuring out how and why. She recommends taking five minutes to reflect after a round gone wrong - and asking golf buddies to weigh in. "Your usual playing partners often have great insight," she says. "They see when you get negative, or short and tight with your swing."
Cut the tension. It's the most common denominator in "Not 54." "To dial in, hit one shot with a tight upper body, one with medium tension, and one as supple as cooked spaghetti," she says. "Almost everyone makes a full shoulder turn and hits the ball much better the last way."
Create a game within the game. "Na Yeon calls these her ‘small goals,' " Nilsson says. "She tries to walk proudly between shots and commit totally to every shot." In other words, focus on a few small things within your control.
Save energy. Managing between-shot downtime is key. Choi's diverting non-golf talks with her caddie conserve mental energy. "Golf is a social thing," Nilsson says. "Chatting with our playing partners can help us both enjoy the game more and play better."
DUSTIN JOHNSON: GETTING (CLUB-)FIT TO GO LONG
Career highlights: 2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner; seven PGA Tour titles
Golf's Paul Bunyan, Dustin Johnson, uses a driver with 10.5 degrees of loft, more than many amateurs employ. While this partly owes to D.J.'s unique swing - his bowed left wrist leads to a de-lofted clubface at impact - it also demonstrates that lower-lofted drivers aren't inherently more suitable for better players and/or faster swingers.
Johnson knows the modern key to maximum distance is "high launch, low spin." His approximately 15-degree launch angle and 2,000 rpm are optimum for his 121.8 mph driver swing speed, given that premium balls now have lower spin rates, as do drivers.
The "high launch" that compensates for lower spin comes via driver loft and teeing the ball up more, says Gary Gallagher, a PGA teaching pro for 22 years, including the last 13 with TaylorMade.
"Teeing too low makes you hit down on the ball, which adds spin, as does hitting it low on the face," says Gallagher, who suggests sticking face tape on the driver before a range session to check your contact point. "The center of the clubface is the bottom of the ‘flight deck.' Anything lower and you're picking up spin rate and losing launch angle. Above the center, you now also get vertical gear effect, where loft goes up and spin rate goes down."
With the newest equipment, you want to catch the ball more on the upswing. The ideal drive now flies "through a higher window," which can take some getting used to for experienced players. To help acclimate, Gallagher counsels practice time on a launch monitor - once a black swan, now they're readily accessible.
"If you want to maximize driver distance, you need to pay attention to your [launch] numbers," Gallagher says. "Tour pros like D.J. work with them all the time."