This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of GOLF.
I know how to score. Sure, bombing-and-gouging works, but there are other ways to post good numbers—for example, getting a better read on the greens to avoid three-putting. Or developing a go-to tee shot to help you find the fairway when your driver misbehaves. Small improvements here and there add up big time! Here are five areas that I focus on, and that you should, too. You'll save a lot of strokes, and make this year your breakout year.
1: PUTT CROSS-HANDED
I switched from a conventional grip to cross-handed six years ago, and it's made a huge difference in my putting. How huge? I finished first or second in four of the seven most important putting stat categories last year and picked up a third of a stroke on the field in each round, just on the greens. Older guys on Tour tell me that if they could go back and change one thing about their game, it'd be to learn how to putt cross-handed from the beginning. It truly is the best way to roll it. Placing your left hand below your right on the handle makes it easier to set the face square to the line at address and keep it square during your stroke.
My cross-handed putting technique is a three-step process: I settle in, find a trigger, and simply keep my left wrist flat. Here's how it works.
STEP 1: Break Your Setup in Half
To set up for a cross-handed stroke, hold the putter in your right hand only, with your palm facing the target. Then place the putterhead behind the ball and aim it straight down your target line (left photo, above). Once you've aimed the putterhead properly, set your feet so your weight is evenly balanced and place your left hand on the lower part of the grip. Remember that when you place your left hand on the grip, your left shoulder will want to duck down a bit below your right shoulder—that's a move you don't want! Make sure your shoulders are level at setup. If you have someone who can check your shoulder position for you, that's great, but practicing in front of a mirror is also a good option.
STEP 2: Find a Trigger
A lot of weekend players struggle with putting because they have too much tension in their hands and arms, both at address and during the stroke. Tension can turn a technically perfect motion into a herky-jerky mess, especially on those knee-knockers. Therefore, it's critical to clear your mind of negative thoughts while also relieving the physical tension you feel at setup. A big key for me was developing a trigger—a small movement to take me from static (at address) to dynamic (swinging smoothly). All I do is hinge, or "press," the top of the grip slightly toward the target, then begin my backstroke. Find a forward press that works for you—try moving the handle forward just an inch or two. You'll feel more relaxed, make a smoother stroke and start the ball on your intended line every single time.
STEP 3: Stay Square to Hit Square
Some players think about stroke path, or how much to rotate the putterface through impact. That's confusing! Instead, keep it simple. My only focus after I start the putter away from the ball is keeping the back of my left wrist as fat as possible from start to finish. This is critical to keeping the putterhead and ball moving straight down the target line after impact. It's also how Rory Mcllroy squares his putterface, and obviously it works for him.
2: MAKE BETTER READS
Green reading is one of the toughest parts of the game. If you aren't very good at it, it's probably because you don't have a routine that gives you a 360-degree view of a given putt. Like most weekend players, you sort of "eyeball" the line without any real idea of what you're looking at. Or perhaps you read a putt one way on one hole, then use a completely different technique on the very next hole. Here's how I read greens.
Look at the putt from behind the ball.
Squat down and move your eyes from the ball to the hole, as though it were a straight putt. This initial read gives you a starting point, creating a more specific target. As you do this, split your read in half: Visualize how fast the ball must roll during the first half of the putt, and how it will slow as it nears the hole.
Walk to the opposite side of the hole on the low side of the putt.
Use the low side as a way to gauge the slope with your feet. You'll get a better sense of the overall tilt of the green—and break of the putt—than you will walking on the high side.
Look at the putt from behind the hole.
Everyday players almost never do this. They should! Your eyes will take in more information about the slope. Sometimes you'll find that your initial read was incorrect.
Return to behind the ball.
Again, walk on the low side, paying close attention to what your feet feel.
Find the "breaking point."
Now that you've seen the putt from both sides of the hole and felt the green with your feet, you'll be able to identify where the putt's break will start. This apex, or "breaking point," is your target. Burn the spot into your mind's eye!
Focus on the second half of the putt.
Finally, look at the putt from the apex to the hole. Picture how fast the ball should roll in this part of the putt in order to trickle into the hole. Remember that in general, the ball will slow down as it approaches the hole.
First, see the putt as a straight line (red) from behind the ball to get a baseline for your read.
After looking at the putt from both sides of the hole, determine the overall break (blue line) and the point where the ball begins to curve toward the hole (blue circle).
3: GROOVE A GO-TO TEE SHOT
Whether it's the last hole of your club championship or a $5 Nassau, your adrenaline pumps when the pressure's on, and that can hurt your swing. These big moments demand a "go-to" shot—a swing so easy to repeat that you can do it with your eyes closed. Having a can't-miss shot in your bag is also useful on days when you're not feeling it with your swing. In pro-ams, I've seen a lot of guys have "off" days, and instead of trying to grind out a good number, they experiment with new moves. Sadly, those rounds become an experiment in high-scoring.
If your A-game is AWOL off the tee, you can still go low—if you have a go-to shot. I love hitting a punch-cut driver, a reliable, pressure-proof tee shot. To start, pick out a target on the left edge of the fairway and align your club and body to it. Begin with the clubface, then make sure your feet, hips and shoulders are square to the target line, not open (the common mistake with this shot). Once you're set up square, make two critical moves: Position the ball a bit farther back in your stance than your normal tee-ball position, and tee the ball a little lower than normal. These two tweaks will help keep the ball down and minimize sidespin. Now swing at about 75 percent of full speed. Trust me, you don't need to kill it—all you want is a controlled motion that puts the ball in the middle of the fairway. To further increase your odds of solid contact, make your swing about three-quarters its normal length.
Finally, here's an optional move if you're a handsy player: At impact, keep your left wrist square to the target line to "hold off" the clubface's rotation. This creates cut spin, which will fade the ball to the center of the fairway.
4: MASTER THE HIGH LONG IRON
A number of times during a typical round, you'll need to take a long iron or hybrid and hit a high ball that drops softly and sharply. It's my favorite tee shot on tight fairways, when I need to place the ball between some hazards or when hitting into the green on par 5s and long par 3s. I struggled with the high long iron for years until I figured out the following foolproof method.
When you take your address position, play the ball about two inches closer to your left heel than usual; the ball should roughly align with your left armpit. Although the ball is up, don't make the mistake of setting your body "behind" the ball as much as you would with a driver. This can drop your right shoulder much lower than your left, which is the fast track to fat contact with a long iron. Instead, keep your shoulders level and feel as though your chest is over the ball, not behind it.
Why play the ball up? Well, with the ball forward of center, you automatically create a flatter swing arc and add loft to the clubface through impact. These two things help you hit the ball high with lots of shot-stopping spin. An important reminder when working on this shot: Since your setup is the same but the ball is farther up in your stance, your body will want to "bottom out" the club a few inches behind the ball. Make a strong weight shift to your front leg on your downswing, which will free the club to find the ball.
Hone this shot on the range before using it on the course. Bonus tip: To promote good contact, hit practice shots with balls teed up just a tiny bit higher than a normal lie. Then move on to regular fairway lies.
5: LEARN THE "ONE-HOP-AND-STOP" WEDGE SHOT
Some recreational players are intimidated by "tricky" half shots from 40 to 60 yards. Not you. After practicing this tip, these short shots will be as automatic as throwing darts, and you'll be knocking a lot of them to tap-in range. On these half wedges, I like to hit shots that hit the green, take a small hop, and then immediately stop. It's important to remember that these are closer to miniature full swings than long chips. Apply more speed than finesse to get the spin needed to hop and stop, but not so much spin that your ball grabs and pulls backward and farther away from the pin. Use this technique (at right) and practice with different wedges to see how much carry you get with each club.