Instruction

Tiger's 5 Secret Keys to Score Low (and how you can get them)

Photo: Angus Murray

Tiger Woods has won twice as many professional events and nearly five times as many majors as the next closest active player on Tour. While he doesn't dominate in every area of the game, he consistently plays above his peers in five key on-course situations, which we identified after comparing Tiger against the field in every performance category monitored by the PGA Tour's ShotLink from the start of the 2002 season to Tiger's final round at the 2008 U.S. Open. Four of Tiger's five key strengths — the areas in which he's statistically light years ahead of the field — have nothing to do with power, proving you don't need to swing at 125 mph or drop 4-iron shots like they're landing on a pile of laundry to score like the No. 1 player in the world. All you need is his strategy and smarts — the stuff anyone can work on — and a few new options in your short game. Here's how to get them.

Tiger Key 1: He hits the green even when his tee shots miss
Tiger Key 2: He knocks it extra-stiff from short range
Tiger Key 3: He controls the damage when he misses greens
Tiger Key 4: He has a wider 'make range' when he putts
Tiger Key 5: He dominates the easy holes

TIGER KEY 1

He hits the green even when his tee shots miss
You don't need a better swing, you need a better game plan

Tiger ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to hitting the fairway, but has led the Tour in greens hit in regulation five times. That doesn't compute, until you consider that Tiger is 16% more likely to hit the green following a bad drive than the average Tour player.

Tiger understands that missing the fairway isn't always a mistake, especially if you think about the hole you're playing and look for good "miss" spots, which Tiger locates better than anyone. How many times have you seen Woods spray it during the Masters and still have a shot into the green? That isn't luck; that's planning. Tiger only hits driver when he knows he can get away with it if he makes a mistake. If he doesn't think he can get away with it, he'll drop to a higher club. At the 2006 British Open, Tiger didn't hit driver once during the last two rounds. He won by two strokes and tied the record for the lowest score at the Open Championship.

Tiger plays a lot of practice rounds with Jason Gore — they've been friendly since their junior days in Southern California. There aren't many golfers who drive the ball better than Jason (he led the Tour in Total Driving in 2008 and leads in 2009), but even that can't top Woods.

"If he misses the fairway, he still has a shot at birdie," says Gore. "If he hits the fairway, he almost always makes birdie. That's what it feels like to play against Tiger. He never puts himself in jail."

BEAT THAT!

Tiger is twice as likely to make birdie from the rough than the average Tour pro.

'I've seen him do it!'

"Tiger's swing plane has flattened over the years, but when he hits from the rough with the ball played back in his stance he's forced to make a steeper swing. The steeper plane moves the club out in front of him so there's less chance of it getting stuck like it does when he hits his driver. He's actually more accurate with this swing than with the one he uses from the tee box. Plus, he's just stronger than anyone else out there." — Top 100 Teacher and PGA Tour instructor Brian Mogg

How to hit the green from rough like Tiger

A lot of people point to Tiger's superhuman strength to explain his ability to hit greens from the rough, but there's more to it than that. This is good news for you, because it's unlikely that you'll ever reach his level of power and control.

The key to hitting greens from off the fairway like Tiger does is to think like Tiger, and to plan your strategy from the tee box, not from your second shot.

STEP 1

Stand on the tee and get a good sense of the hole. What you're looking for here are good miss spots.

STEP 2

If it's a dogleg left and there are trees on the left, move your target from the center of the fairway to the point between the center of the fairway and the right rough (opposite if the dogleg is reversed). If you miss left, you're still in the fairway and have a good shot into the green. If you miss right you're in the rough, but still have an open shot (what you wouldn't have if you aimed for the center of the fairway and missed left).

STEP 3

Don't assume you need an extra club or two to reach the green because there's grass behind the ball. For any club other than a wedge, you'll generate the same distance as if you were hitting from the fairway, but the ball will carry less and roll more. This means you have to change your aim (so the ball doesn't roll into trouble) and forget about flying the shot all the way to the pin. Tiger hits greens from the rough because he makes the safest play that gets him on the putting surface.

TIGER KEY 2

He knocks it extra-stiff from short range
Copy his ability to vary trajectory to leave shorter putts and attack any pin

There are a lot of guys on Tour who are longer than Tiger (28 players ranked ahead of him in Driving Distance when he shut down his season after the 2008 U.S. Open) and there's even more who are more accurate (Tiger finished his 2008 season ranked No. 154 in Driving Accuracy). But when Tiger finds the fairway and leaves himself with a short approach, he's in a class by himself, knocking the ball 4.5 feet closer to the hole from 100 to 125 yards than the average Tour player.

Four and a half feet might not seem like much, but it positions Tiger just inches outside the range where Tour players tend to make a lot of putts (and at a range where Tiger excels). The likelihood of a Tour player sinking a putt 4.5 feet outside the spot Tiger hits his short approaches drops nearly 10 percentage points. That's why you see such a disparity in the scores relative to par between Tiger and the field from 100 to 125 yards. Since 2002, Tiger has gained nearly a stroke on the field every five times both he and the field hit from short range.

This is your easiest chance to score like Tiger. Short shots don't require muscle, and the greens you're playing are much easier to hold and stop shots close to the pin than the ones on Tour. The secret is to control that first bounce when you hit a short iron or wedge into the green, because the ball never stops dead in its tracks. It's either going to jump forward and sit, jump and spin back, or jump and roll. Tiger wasn't very good at this when he first arrived on Tour, often spinning the ball too much (and sometimes off the green after it hit close to the pin). Now he's amazing at controlling height, distance and spin. If one of his short-iron shots doesn't spin, it only means that he didn't want it to.

BEAT THAT!

27.9% How much closer to the hole Tiger stops approach shots from 100 to 125 yards than the field.

'I've seen him do it!'

"Tiger is the best at controlling trajectory and distance, and always hitting the ball pin high with the correct spin. Sometimes that means no spin, and controlling how the ball reacts on the green by adding height to the shot or taking it off. Tiger can get to any flag because he's able to hit short irons and wedges so many different ways. He's got a dozen ways to get to the flag; most guys out here only have two or three." — PGA Tour player Bart Bryant, runner-up to Tiger at the 2008 Bay Hill Invitational

How to spin it, roll it and shape the ball close to any pin

For most players, any decision on what club to hit from around 100 yards starts and ends with sand wedge. That's not the Tiger way. He may often hit sand wedge from that distance, but only if the situation calls for it. If the pin is back, for example, he's more likely to hit a longer club lower and short of the hole and let the ball run up to the flag. For any given short shot, Tiger has five basic ways to get the ball close. Each of these plays gives him the best chance to knock the ball close without risking hitting into trouble.

You don't need all five of Tiger's short shots to get close to most pins, just a high shot (so the ball won't run past the hole) and a low shot (always the highest-percentage play).

TO HIT THE BALL HIGH...

Make your normal swing without trying to lift the ball into the air (i.e., hanging back on your right foot through impact). Your wedges have enough loft to get the job done. To ensure that you get the height you need, swing to a full finish with your hands high above your left shoulder.

TO HIT THE BALL LOW...

Swing a longer club easier — this is the simplest way to lower trajectory and knock off backspin (the spin that causes the ball to rise). Also, choke up on the handle, play the ball back in your stance and chop off your follow-through when your hands reach shoulder height.

TIGER KEY 3

He controls the damage when he misses greens
You don't need birdies to post a good score, just fewer bogeys and doubles

Tiger isn't truly superhuman; he still misses greens just like you do. Unlike you, however — and unlike the collective field at a Tour event — he walks away with par or better when his approach shot misses the green almost two-thirds of the time. Since 2002, Tiger has made bogey or worse on 960 holes, or approximately eight times a tournament. That's seven bogeys fewer per event than the Tour average.

Tiger's knack for keeping big numbers off his scorecard allows him to stay within striking distance of the top of the leaderboard, even when his full swing is off. Tiger understands that you don't need to play your best to win. You just can't play your worst. He shares this trait with Jack Nicklaus, who always felt that if he just hung around and didn't beat himself he'd have a chance come Sunday afternoon, especially during a major.

Tiger's game is a double-edged sword: he hits more greens and has more birdie opportunities, and he gets up and down more often when he errs on his approach. Obviously, Tiger doesn't plan on missing greens, but he does plan on where to leave a bad approach in case he does. If there's a theme to Tiger's game, this is it. Everything helps the next thing. If you're smart about where you miss your tee shot, then your second shot is easier. If you're smart about where you miss your second shot, then you'll have an easier chip than the guy who short-sides himself. Tiger scrambles better not because his technique is better (his competition includes scores of world-class escape artists), but because he thinks about the best place to leave a bad approach. He's always thinking. He plays like a poker ace — he's always at least several moves ahead of the field.

BEAT THAT!

10.5' The distance in inches Tiger chips the ball closer to the hole than the field on the shot following a missed attempt at a green in regulation.

'I've seen him do it!'

"The best long shot I ever saw Tiger hit was at No. 15 at Pebble Beach when he holed out for eagle from around 125 yards. That was during his legendary win at the 2000 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, when he came back from seven down with seven to play to win the tournament. The best short-game shot was an up-and-down from a nasty lie behind the 14th green at the Memorial when he won there in 1999. What made that up-and-down remarkable was that he flubbed the first chip and then nailed the second one. Tiger's work ethic and physical strength in his arms and hands give him the physical tools to be good in the short game, but it's his imagination that allows him to excel." — Peter Kostis, CBS Sports analyst and Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher

How to scramble and keep big numbers at bay like Tiger

Regardless of how good your short game is, every green complex houses trouble spots from which making par is impossible. If you know where these trouble spots are and plan your approach to the green so that if you do miss you won't land in them, you won't be saddled with an automatic bogey. It's the same strategy you use when you're looking for good miss spots from the tee box.

Three things to consider when looking where not to miss on your approach:

1) If the pin is up, hit the club that will land you in the center of the green. If your shot flies too far, you'll leave yourself plenty of room to chip the ball and run it up close. Pars are scarce when you're chipping with little room between you and the pin.

2) If the green slopes from back to front, err on missing short over missing long. Downhill chips are more difficult to control than uphill chips. (Reverse this strategy if the green slopes from front to back.)

3) Hit the club that will easily carry any trouble in front of the green, even if you mis-hit the shot. You'd rather have a long putt or chip than a tricky explosion shot from the sand.

Like any expert chipper, Tiger accelerates through the ball. That means keeping your hands and clubhead moving through the impact area. The worst thing you can do when trying to play a recovery shot is to slow down. That's when bad things happen. Most golfers decelerate because they lack confidence — they're afraid of what they might do wrong. If you accelerate, the only thing you have to worry about is what you might do right.

TIGER KEY 4

He has a wider 'make range' when he putts
Some putts are easier than others, so start landing your shots in those spots

Tiger's stats are eye-popping at the least — a testament to one of the most dominant performances ever seen in sport. The most impressive, however, is one that doesn't show up in standard ballstriking and performance analyses. Since 1996 and over a span of 212 events, Tiger has officially failed to make it to weekend play just four times. He never misses a cut. Never. He went 142 tournaments in a row before getting bounced after the first two rounds, and that was just five weeks removed from the emotional passing of his father.

Of course, Tiger wasn't knocking down the leaderboard in all of those events, but he was competitive — an important lesson for any golfer. And one of the areas where you can always turn a bad round into a decent scoring round is in your putting. Of the dozens of putting stats tracked by ShotLink, the most interesting is Average Distance of Putts Made. It computes the total distance of all putts made on all holes and divides it by the number of rounds played. Players with a higher ADPM tend to make more putts from longer distances. Tiger's ADPM is a solid six feet longer than the average Tour pro's — he makes putts outside the range where the majority of professionals miss. Six feet over the course of a round may not seem impressive, but when you apply this distance over the course of hundreds of tournaments, Tiger's numbers — and his ability to stay in the game — add up.

BEAT THAT!

2,691 The number of putts out of 2,700 that Tiger has holed from three feet since 2002. The same principles that make him solid at longer distances also make him deadly from short range.

How to make more putts the Tiger way

When you're planning your approach to the green or your recovery shot from the greenside rough or a bunker, don't always go for the close leave. The Tiger way is to leave the ball on the correct section of the green. Some putts are easier than others.

Uphill putts are easier than downhill putts (so it's a good idea to leave your approach shots below the hole).

Right-to-left putts are easier than straight ones, and both of those are easier than a left-to-right putt (so it's a good idea to leave your shots on the right side of the pin if the green slopes from back to front and the left side of the pin if the green slopes from front to back).

Straight putts have to be hit perfectly to go in. On right-to-left putts, you can play too much break and still find the bottom of the cup if you hit the putt soft (and play too little break and drain it if you hit the putt hard).

The worst combination is downhill and left-to-right — human beings don't make those.

TIGER KEY 5

He dominates the easy holes
Find a favorite yardage to pile up the birdies and easy pars

Tiger gets to play most courses as par 70s — he can always get to at least two par-5 greens in two on any course he plays, but not because he drives the ball so far. His real secret in attacking par-5 greens, which he goes after at a much higher clip than the average Tour pro, is his ability to hit long irons so high and land them so soft — "It isn't fair," says Tour player Jason Gore. Since 2002, Tiger's average approach from outside 200 yards has landed 20% closer than the average attempt by the field.

Successfully hitting long irons and fairway woods into par-5 greens is a Tiger strength-based specialty you won't be able to copy. Keep in mind that Tiger doesn't dominate with eagles — he dominates with easy birdies. You can, too, but with just one less putt. It's not even necessary to look at par 5s as birdie holes. Even for average hitters, it's not birdies that really make your score, it's your lack of bogeys. The worst thing you can do to your card is bogey a par 5.

BEAT THAT!

0.25 Tiger gains almost a quarter of a stroke on the field every time he plays a par 5.

'I've seen him do it!'

"One of the best shots I've seen up close was hit by Tiger on the 200-yard, par-3 third hole at Torrey Pines South, in the final round of the 2008 Buick Invitational. Guys were seeing their long-irons balloon into the wind and drift into the TV tower right of the green. Other balls landed short. When Tiger reached the tee, he slightly hooded his 4-iron so that he could make his ball bore through the elements, almost as if he wanted to impart topspin and right-to-left spin to counter what was happening to everyone else's shots. He took an aggressive cut, caught it flush, and the ball ripped through the wind and covered the flag. It ended up 20 feet behind the hole. He missed his birdie putt by a millimeter, but still gained on the field." — Golf Magazine Senior Writer Cameron Morfit

How to make at least 6 easy pars every round

PLAY TO YOUR FAVORITE YARDAGE

On the par 5s and two short par 4s (where your tee shot is the same as your second shot on a par 5), hit the club that gets you to your favorite yardage from the green. Don't have one? Get one by hitting ten balls each with your sand wedge, pitching wedge and your 9-iron (grab your 8-iron just in case) and simply look at the results. The distance at which you produced the tightest grouping is the distance you should lay up to on par 5s and drive to on short par 4s.

STAY AWAY FROM TRICKY DISTANCES

Most golfers assume that the closer you are to the green, the easier the shot. Not true. One of the scariest shots for a Tour professional is the 50-yard wedge. They hit this shot only inches closer to the hole than they do from 100 yards.

TAKE A CALCULATED RISK

The best way to decide between going for it and playing a solid layup is to grade your short game. If you can get to the greenside bunkers with no other major penalties around the green, and you have confidence in your sand game, OK — give it your best shot. But if you can only get to 50 yards, forget it.

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