Graeme McDowell: How to take control of the tee box
Editor's Note: This article appears in the May issue of Golf Magazine.
In the months leading up to the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, I worked very hard on my short game, and I think that's what helped me win my first major. Nowadays, I'm focusing more on my driving -- I've got to keep up with the new standards. Whereas in the past you could win on Tour by being either very long or very accurate off the tee, today you have to be both.
It's still early in the year, but I'm having an excellent driving season. My driving-distance average has remained consistent, and I'm slightly more accurate now (although I've always been a pretty straight driver). Of course, I'm lucky -- my job allows me to practice almost every day. Since you probably don't have that luxury, you have to be smart about what you're doing if you want to improve your performance off the tee. The trick, as I see it, is to focus on contact first. Forget about speed for the time being and work on finding a way to catch the ball in the center of the clubface. What you'll find is that when you make contact on the sweet spot as opposed to near the heel or toe (or too high or too low on the clubface), you'll not only drive it straighter, you'll also hit it farther, because that's where maximum energy transfer takes place. It's a double-whammy: working on control actually increases your yardage without you having to swing harder.
Now I'll show you what I do to ensure centered contact on every swing, and I'll also demonstrate a few easy ways to amp up your swing speed for the times you need to really lay into one. Copy my moves and you'll be in a better position to attack the green on every hole you play.
1. CHANGE YOUR TEE HEIGHT
The images below may look like carbon copies, but in the left photo I've teed the ball much lower than most guys do. Teeing the ball lower is my way of making sure I hit the fairway at all costs. I don't change anything in my setup -- just the tee height -- and I make the same swing I always do. The lower tee height encourages me to hit down on the ball more, which automatically creates extra backspin, even with a low-lofted club like the driver. When it comes to accuracy, backspin is your friend, because more backspin means less sidespin. This is why it's easier to hit your 3-wood straight than it is your driver. It's an easy trick that really works.
If the width of the fairway allows me to risk a bigger swing, I'll tee the ball at the more common height. I'll even move it forward in my stance a bit. This makes it easier to hit slightly up on the ball, which is the only way to max out your distance. Catching the ball after the clubhead reaches the low spot in its swing arc produces less backspin and more dynamic loft, the two components of optimal launch.
2. CONNECT YOUR BODY AND ARMS
On every tee box I decide if I'm going to play for position or for distance, depending on the obstacles I see. Once I make up my mind, I stick to my plan. Although my average swing speed is around 113 mph, I can swing faster than that, and certainly much slower. My goal on tight holes is to go after the ball at 85 percent of my maximum speed. That's the pace that typically allows me to strike the ball without producing a lot of curve. When I need to shift to a higher gear, I do everything the same, only faster. Regardless of how fast or slow I swing the club, I never deviate from my core swing keys. The most important of these is syncing the movement of my body and arms.
You can't drive it straight if the motor of your swing (your body) isn't on the same page as what's actually holding on to the club (your hands and arms). I like to feel that the upper part of my left arm is tight against the left side of my chest from address until I hinge the club up in my through-swing. (When you see players practicing with a towel tucked under their biceps, this is what they're working on.) This connection ensures that your hands and arms won't race ahead or lag behind the turning action of your body. When I'm driving it well, it's like my body is doing all the work and my arms are simply along for the ride.
3. ADD SPEED AT THE BOTTOM
I can tell when an amateur is trying to hit for distance by how fast his or her arms move at the start of the downswing. If they're moving fast, I know the ball is going either left or, more commonly, right, and probably not very far. Speed only counts at impact, so save it up during your downswing instead of using it all up at the top. I guarantee that if you swing hard from the top, you won't have much left when you strike the ball.
When I'm in my power mindset, I actually try to make a smoother transition than I do in my control swing, because even though I'm trying to swing faster, I still have to drop the club into the slot and get the shaft on plane for the correct inside delivery. Only when I feel that this has happened will I step on the gas, and when I do, I move my body faster, not my arms. Like they do in my control swing, my arms follow -- not lead -- the action in my speed swing. Once I'm in the slot, I simply rotate faster, getting my hips to face the target sooner and pushing off the ground with my feet a little harder. It really helps if you focus on your core muscles and feel as if they're pulling everything through impact. This will help you remain in your posture, too, which is critical for striking the ball in the center of the clubface.
4. MAKE A PLAN FOR POWER OR CONTROL
Every hole presents its own set of unique challenges. Some invite you to swing for the fences, while others make you think twice about even pulling driver out of the bag. Whereas Tour players take their pre-shot routines very seriously, especially on the tee box, most amateurs wait until it's their turn to hit before assessing the situation in front of them. That doesn't allow you enough time to consider both safe and aggressive routes to the fairway. My advice is to start planning your attack while the other members of your foursome are teeing off. If you have the honors, make sure you're the first to arrive at the box so you can properly map out your strategy. As you look down the fairway, process what you see as follows:
1. Where is the trouble?
Look for obvious danger spots, like the O.B. on your right or the water left. If you're a skilled player, it's best to curve the ball away from the trouble. If you can't shape shots at will, simply play away from the greatest danger. If, for example, there's water on the left, tee the ball on the left side of the tee box and aim toward the right center of the fairway.
2. How much carry do you need?
The last place an amateur should miss off the tee is a fairway bunker. Even pros don't have an easy time making par from fairway sand. If there's a bunker looming in the distance, make sure you can clear the back edge of it with even just an okay driver swing. Use your yardage book. If the distance needed to carry the hazard is more than you can handle, then find out how far it is to the front edge and use one less club than that yardage, even if it results in a much longer approach into the green. Avoid fairway bunkers at all costs.
3. Where's the target?
Once you spot the trouble and decide on the club and shot that will help you best avoid it, visualize the shot in your mind's eye. Draw the path from start to finish. If you're not very good at this, then focus only on where you want the ball to land. Be very specific. Picking out the “tree on the left” as your line won't get the job done. Picking out the “third limb from the bottom of the tree on the left” will. Burn the target into your brain, and keep it there until you completely finish your swing.
5.FIND YOUR BALANCE
It's the rare pro who swings at full throttle on every tee box. Most guys out here prefer to use a control swing. Not only does it help us make centered contact more consistently, it's nice to know that we can always swing faster if we need to. As I said at the beginning of this article, learning to strike the ball with a square clubface makes you longer and more accurate at the same time. It's the true secret to taking control of your tee shots. So here's your assignment: The next time you visit the range, empty a bucket of balls while swinging at only 80 percent of your max capacity.
Since it's unlikely you know what 80 percent of your max capacity is, just go at the ball a bit slower. Even a slight decrease in swing speed will produce a noticeable difference. Use less arm turn and more body turn, and remember to keep the upper part of your left arm connected to your chest. If, after a while, you still don't feel like you're catching the ball on the center of the clubface, swing even slower. You'll know you've found your ideal pace when the ball squishes against the clubface. You'll also know you've dialed-in your ideal pace when the ball travels farther than you'd expect it to with the speed you're using. Keep practicing this swing, then add speed until you have the best of both worlds: centered contact at your max speed capacity.