7 Ways to Play the Round of Your Life
Forty years ago I came from six shots back on Sunday to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. My final-round 63 was not only the lowest score relative to par in major history at the time (8-under), it's still the lowest final round ever shot to win a major. Many consider it the greatest round ever, and I wouldn't object — the ball went exactly where I wanted it to go on almost every swing. Here are the seven keys that helped me make history and that I relied on during the prime of my career. If you copy just a few of them, you'll find the magic hidden in your game — just like I did.
1. FOR LONGER DRIVES
I hit 13 out of 14 narrow fairways at Oakmont. Pacing my tee swing was the key.
To say I drove the ball great during the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open is an understatement. The only fairway I missed was on the par-5 12th, where the ball barely trickled into the right rough (I still made birdie). A lot has been made about the voice in my head that told me to open my stance just minutes before teeing off, but there's more to my driving success that week than that. I was really into using a light grip pressure at the time and making an extra-slow backswing. I mean really slow, then pausing at the top as soon as I felt my left shoulder hit my chin. I never rushed my transition, which a lot of amateurs do. Think about it: If you use 30 percent of your energy at the top, you'll only have 70 percent left for impact. My goal in swinging the club back slowly and pausing at the top was simply to save the energy in my swing for the strike, where I'd snap my left leg straight and sort of mush the clubface into the back of the ball. It worked. The zero-roll, 280-yard drive I hit on No. 18, complete with a noticeable pause at the top, was the longest one hit on that hole all day.
2. TO CONTROL DISTANCE
Hold Your Head Steady
I hit 10 approaches to within 15 feet that day, and six inside 10 feet. How? I caught my irons flush!
By far the best part of my game was ballstriking. I'd wear out the sweet spots on my irons. One of my secrets was to set my head even with the ball at setup and keep it there until the momentum of my through-swing pulled me up into the finish. I felt like my head was the hub around which everything moved — like planets around the sun. This is important, because when you move your head forward when you swing, you increase the likelihood of catching the ball on the heel (or near the toe, if you move your head to the right). Either way, you're going to miss the sweet spot, and your shots will travel a lot shorter than you expect.
3. FOR EXTRA ACCURACY
'Connect' Your Right Elbow to Your Right Hip
I hit every green on Sunday, and every shot was a "9" or "10" on my rating scale.
I'm big on impact. I studied it, and I watched and copied the guys who got impact right every time. By "right" I mean the clubface pointing at the target an inch before slamming into the ball, and for five more inches past impact, with the shaft leaning slightly toward the target. By the time the '73 Open rolled around, I felt I'd nailed it. My key was to get my right elbow on my right hip once I reached the halfway point of my downswing, and kind of glue the two together until I reached the same position in my through-swing. Syncing my right hip and elbow like this added power and helped stabilize the club for impact. It also reminded me to keep turning my lower body through impact.
If you're a slicer, I'll bet that your right elbow flies away from your right hip on your downswing. Practice this move in slow motion until you can re-create the same feel at full speed. This move, in my opinion, is non-negotiable.
4. TO KNOCK IT STIFF
Take a (Slight) Dip
I aimed away from the pin only three times on my way to 63. My iron swing was so on that even danger pins were green-light situations.
When I joined the PGA Tour in 1969, my father advised me to watch the best players hitting every shot and learn from them. I borrowed Gary Player's sand technique. I mimicked a few of Jack Nicklaus's putting moves. For the full swing, I looked to Lee Trevino, with whom I was paired in his very first tournament as a professional. Lee sort of "bowed down" to the ball when hitting an iron, and he absolutely flushed it. I made it my mission to copy this move. The way you do it is to keep your shoulders nice and level during your backswing, then drop everything down toward the ground as you swing into impact. I used to picture a weight sitting on the back of my neck and feel it forcing me to dip — ?not a lot, just an inch or so. It's a good face-squaring move and lets you swing down the line longer after impact. More important, if you're dipping down, then you're not rising up, which is probably the biggest amateur mistake I see. The moment you lift up is the moment the club shoots across the line and slices the ball off to the right. It's also the moment when the clubhead races past the shaft, which explains why amateurs have difficulty leaning the shaft forward at impact like the pros do.
5. FOR ULTIMATE CONTROL
Clear and Extend
I was 13 strokes better on Sunday than on Saturday. I felt like I couldn't be stopped.
I tore a muscle in my neck early that week lifting a suitcase, and the pain kept me from making one of my "must-have" moves, which was to extend my arms and the club down the target line while clearing my hips to the left. By Sunday, the pain had subsided, and stepping on the first tee I knew I could go back to my old swing.
Clearing and extending help you do a number of good things. The clearing part gives you power — your hips are the gas pedal for your swing. The extending part keeps the clubface square longer, which is good for accuracy. Combined, clearing and extending help you stay in posture. To be honest, they're two more moves that I borrowed from Trevino, who "chased" the ball down the line better and longer than anyone. Eventually, the rotational force of your swing will pull everything around to the left, but if your goal is to hit the ball straight, you must clear and extend. For extra proof, check out Ben Hogan's swing. He did the exact same thing.
6. TO BANISH 3-PUTTS
Putt Like a Piston
I needed only 29 putts to shoot my 63. Nine went in for birdie, and I only three-putted once.
Putting was never my strong suit, and the greens at Oakmont — in addition to those at Augusta National and Oakland Hills — are by far the toughest I ever faced. Yet I had one of my best putting days ever that Sunday. Leaving 17 of my 18 approach shots below the hole didn't hurt — I had 17 uphill putts, which are the easiest to make. Even so, my stroke was on fire.
Back then, I putted like I hit full shots: I'd make a slow backstroke, pause, and then accelerate through impact. Some guys putt "one, two." I was more like "one, two, pause, hit." While I don't recommend everyone copy my tempo, it's a good idea to copy how I made my stroke. I set up like Jack Nicklaus, by bending over more so my eyes were in a good spot and setting my right forearm almost perpendicular to the shaft. I knew I was in the right setup when I could see wrinkles form on the back of my right wrist. Then I'd use my right elbow as a battering ram, pushing the putter straight at the target. To me, this is the most reliable way to start the ball on line, especially when you're under serious pressure.
7. TO TAKE IT CRAZY LOW
Play with Aggression
I made four straight birdies to start my round and got within two shots of the leaders — before they even teed off! And I never let up.
The first hole at Oakmont Country Club is without a doubt the most difficult opening tee shot in the world. It's straight, but there's only a ribbon of fairway, with gnarly fescue and deep bunkers on both sides. The long approach shot on No. 1, to a green sloping away from you, is arguably the toughest shot in golf — period. Still, I piped my drive dead straight and hit a 5-iron that barely moved three inches off-line to three feet from the cup. That first hole gave me confidence, and when I followed that birdie with three more in a row, I was off and running and didn't let up. I was hitting the ball straight, so I didn't think about curving it. I stuck with what was working. As the old saying goes, "I went with the swing the day gave me." It gave me a great one.
The lesson here for everyday players is to welcome success. When you're playing well, don't hold back. Be aggressive. Go for pins. Try to get it close. Lay up off the tee only if you have to. So often golf is about managing mis-hits and bad swing thoughts, or struggling to shoot your index. Well, when the time comes and you're firing on all cylinders, take full advantage. Go low. Because you never know when it will happen again.