Johnny Miller, Peter Kostis, Dave Phillips: The Golf Magazine Interview

October 3, 2014

There’s a bottomless well of ideas on how to play better golf. But that's just the problem — it's dark in a well. Swing myth and swing fact are easily confused. What's more, it's all too tempting to try to copy the best players in the world, or to blindly chase the latest swing trend. To illuminate what works and what doesn't, we sat down with three of the game's sharpest minds: Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Dave Phillips of the Titleist Performance Institute, who has analyzed more swing data than just about anyone; Peter Kostis, the revered instructor and CBS Sports golf analyst; and the ever-insightful Johnny Miller, who needs no introduction. What follows is our first-ever round table interview. It's filled with fixes for everyone, from you to Tiger Woods. Think of it as a group lesson with three esteemed teachers. Our fixers are ready for you. So sit back, learn…and go play!

Let's start with the typical player's favorite club — the driver. Should everyone aspire to a higher launch angle and get on a launch monitor?

Dave Phillips: For the average player, consistent contact is the biggest factor. To play better, get a shorter, more-lofted driver and hit it in the middle of the face.

Johnny Miller: Dave, is it true that a guy like Rory gets more benefit from the springlike effect than a Golf reader who's hitting it 230?

DP: Everybody's going to get a benefit from technology. Moving the center of gravity forward is a bigger distance boost than the trampoline effect. That really helps the power hitter get distance. But the average guy, who doesn't hit it on the face, needs the center of gravity back to minimize his dispersion on mis-hits.

Peter Kostis: What's happened on the road to the 460cc metal wood is that Tour pros feel so confident that they swing harder and harder. So their ball speed has increased a lot. But that hasn't happened for the average player, who hits it off the toe and the heel. So I agree with Dave that shorter clubs and softer shafts would help the average golfer hit it farther. Even Tiger could try it. When he was with Butch, he was using a 43-inch, steel-shafted driver. His driving problems began when he went to a 45-inch shaft.

DP: The trend is back to shorter drivers. Sergio uses a 43-inch driver.

JM: Guys like Sergio who have a down-cock, that little drop move, yes, they do better with a shorter driver. But guys who turn, who aren't doing that little Sergio move, can use a 47-inch driver and do just fine. Just let the circumference of the swing do all the work for you.

And Peter and Dave, the trend is high launch, no spin. I grew up in an era where the perfect drive was a line drive, with quite a bit more spin. I feel strongly that the manufacturers are going for a few extra yards at the cost of accuracy. Spin is not a bad thing. Guys aren't hitting fairways with the new technology. A lot of people would be better off with less loft and more spin, so they can hold it on a nice, Arnold Palmer line — just a bullet line drive.

DP: Johnny, it's a completely different era. I give Tour guys a persimmon driver and they can't get it off the ground. They start laughing, asking, "Why can't I hit this?" It's completely different mechanics for how they get the ball in the air with today's technology.

Who's the best driver of the ball?

PK: Sam Snead was phenomenal. Jack Nicklaus took the game apart. Tom Weiskopf was incredible, and then Greg Norman came along. They were the best I ever saw. But what Rory McIlroy has been doing in 2014 is better than any of them.

DP: Rory is incredible. He's changed his body a lot since he worked with us at TPI. He's always had speed and power, but now he's not afraid to use it. There are guys with that much speed, but they're hitting 3-wood off the tee. Not Rory.

Dave, from a bio-mechanical perspective, what is Rory doing so well off the tee?

DP: His sequence has always been perfect. He has the fastest hip speed and torso rotation speed we've ever tested. He uses the mass of his body exceptionally well. You actually see a little backup of his hips through impact. That's because his torso fires even harder than his hips, so his oblique muscles and abdominals grab onto the hip and pull it backward almost, slowing it down. It's exciting for golf to see him develop into the player he is.

JM: When people pick the best drivers of all time, nobody ever picks Lee Trevino. But when he played, like at Tanglewood at the '74 PGA, he missed one fairway in 72 holes. They had this nasty Bermuda rough, so he just decided to stay out of it. Maybe it's boring to see a guy hit it 260, but Doug Sanders could go three weeks without missing a fairway. Nobody talks about him, Trevino or Calvin Peete.

PK: Well, back in the day, being straight was more important because you had persimmon clubs and balata golf balls, but it's different now. Look at Rory. He's got both power and control. He was top five in fairways hit and number one in driving distance at the Bridgestone.

DP: Distance is still the big factor. On the Tour, the top of the World Golf Ranking are all big hitters, except for Furyk. It's scary to look at the numbers. Five years ago the average ball speed on Tour was 167; now it's 171. At the last NCAA Championship it was 174. Distance isn't going away. To control the game, you've got to control the agronomy. Take Merion. You can set up a course to torture these guys into hitting the right club.

Who's the best iron player ever?

PK: I want to get Johnny to answer that one first [Laughs].

DP: [Laughs] Do we have to mention Johnny?

JM: For the long irons — 2,3,4 — Weiskopf and Nicklaus were unbelievable. And then for 5-iron through the wedge, Andy Bean was really good. Scott Hoch, too. Tiger is still really good. It sounds a little braggadocio, but I haven't seen anybody hit the 5-iron through the wedge better than I did for a few years. Irons haven't really changed much since 1945, for a really good player.

DP: I would say Tiger. His greens in regulation stats are incredible over time. Of late you'd also have to look at Justin Rose and Lee Westwood.

PK: I disagree a little with Johnny about irons not really changing much. Club-heads are lighter. Shafts are lighter and stiffer too, more able to be controlled.

JM: Peter, you're gonna tell me that the shafts are stiffer than the old Dynamic extras? I want to hear that.

PK: No, they are! They're lighter and stiffer than the old Dynamic X-100s. They've changed the game. Having said that, I'd put Johnny in the top three. I think Jack was phenomenal, better with the longer irons than the shorter ones. Trevino was amazing. The modern players — including Tiger and Rory — can't shape the ball like the guys in Johnny's era.

DP: It used to be you'd be either a great driver or a great iron player, because the physics of hitting a ball off the tee and off the ground were so different, but now, with the information we have with 3D and TrackMan, players like Rory are really good at both.

Who has the best swing on Tour–the move our readers should try to emulate? Keep in mind that if the average guy tried to copy Tiger or Bubba, his arm might fall off.

DP: Well, that's the problem — most instruction is, "Here's a picture of Tiger, and here's you. Do what Tiger does." People can't physically swing like Tiger, Rory, Rickie. We have 14,000 TPI-certified instructors around the world, and they're looking at 280,000 golfers, and when you look at these guys, they can't move their hips, they can't move properly. You've got to find a player on Tour who moves like you.

JM: The prototype has to be Adam Scott.

DP: He is, Johnny, but Adam is one of the most physically gifted people I've ever seen. He's got the flexibility of a yoga instructor, and the strength to go along with it.

JM: All I'm saying is you copy it, tone it down 40 percent, and you've still got a great swing to model yourself after. It's dead on plane.

PK: I look at swings that have lasted, and two set themselves apart: Sam Snead and Tom Watson. They both got off their left heel, and they released their left knee, which allowed them hip freedom, which allowed them shoulder movement. Average golfers need to get away from keeping the left heel down, coiling and resisting with their lower body and trying to create torque and all that other stuff. They need to learn to turn back and turn through and make the swing more symmetrical and more rhythmical.

DP: I agree.

JM: I do, too. First lesson I ever had was, I had these white Levi's on, 501s, and John Geertsen, a world long-drive champion, said, "I want you to turn the left rivet to the ball going back and turn that right rivet to the ball going through, and make a nice full turn."

True or false: Tiger Woods is the greatest pressure putter ever.

PK: False. I think Jack Nicklaus was.

DP: I do, too.

JM: Tiger made more winning putts than Jack ever did, starting in junior golf, and going on to the U.S. Amateur and all those majors. Tiger has a knack for the big putt.

DP: We've seen Tiger make more because of the media coverage.

JM: I can hardly remember a 20- to 25-footer that Jack made on the last hole to win a tournament. But he didn't need to do that. He would get a shot or two ahead and bring it on home, sort of milking putts in, two-putting. Let's call it a tie.

Jack Grout recently said that if he could do it over again, he would have taught Nicklaus to putt cross-handed. Is that a better method?

PK: I don't buy it. If you grip 13 clubs with your left hand high, and the 14th with left-hand low, the flow is wrong. The best putters ever had strokes that reflected their full swing. If you try to do something different with your putter than you do with your other 13 clubs, it adds stress. When Tiger was working with Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, he had a draw release with his irons, driver and putter. Now he's working on a cut release with 13 clubs, and a draw release with his 14th club, his putter. I don't think that matches up. Ben Crenshaw? Long, flowing swing, long, flowing putting stroke. It has to match up.

DP: None of the best putters in history, none are left-hand low. There's no release to the putter that way. No, left-hand low isn't the best way. It's a way.

JM: You don't see Tiger or Phil doing it, and if it was a better method, they would've dabbled.

On the subject of Tiger, when you look at his swing over the years, was he nuts to ever leave Butch Harmon?

JM: Tiger's swing in 2000 was the ultimate in the modern game. It had width, height, speed, everything — it was close to his natural arc before he ever worked with Butch, when he was hitting it nine miles as a teenager. Butch refined it a bit. Tiger's swing when he won the Masters by 12 shots — I loved that swing. The Hank Haney swing was pretty good with the irons, but I don't think it was the greatest for driving, and I don't personally like the technique that Haney teaches, sort of taking [the club] out and around and down. I don't know enough about Sean Foley, but I don't like all that cut-shot stuff. I like to move it both ways.

PK: When Tiger won the Masters in '97, and when he won the U.S. Amateurs [in 1994, '95 and '96], his swing was across the line and shut at the top of his back-swing —

JM: Yeah, and he won everything.

PK: — but he's made a complete transformation, from across the line and shut at the top to laid off and open. Butch changed it a little. Then Haney did more of it. And Sean Foley has completed that change. I think that now, Tiger is lost. He's lost his essence, his DNA as a golfer. If you're across the line and shut at the top, you can become less so, but you can't get to laid off and open without losing your instincts. That's what's happened to Tiger, and why he's so befuddled and hits so many foul balls.

DP: Athletes who reach the pinnacle, like Tiger, try to take it to another level, and sometimes they get lost. They've got to get back to the basics that got them there.

What's the most common mistake you see weekend players make, and how would you fix it?

PK: The typical golfer is always trying to hit the perfect shot. He'll hit ten 7-irons, and the longest one goes 155, so he'll feel like every 7-iron should go 155. The Tour player is more respectful of his mis-hits.

JM: I've played with amateurs for a million years, and they just don't hit many flush shots. I asked Tom Watson one time, "Do you always hit the ball that flush?" He said he once went five years without mis-hitting one shot — no thin shots, no fat shots. I advocate the brush-brush drill. Everybody works on their body or their posture. Just brush the dang grass, taking your divot after the ball. Do that and you'll drop five shots in a week.

PK: Johnny's 100 percent right, but you can't do that if you swing too hard, swinging out of your butt.

JM: Take more club and just hit the ball flush. It's very hard to do — it takes a lot of coordination.

DP: Agreed. Most people under-club dramatically and don't know what to work on. They also want to hit the driver farther, which is fine — but they're the worst putter or chipper in the world. Work on your weaknesses.

Last question: You can make one fix to one Tour player. Go!

PK: I would lengthen Tiger's swing, get it back to parallel or beyond and have him focus on rhythm and flow — the artistry of the swing, rather than the power. He's a bit short and quick in transition, and too explosive. That's why his foul balls are so bad. I would reduce Tiger's tension level and smooth out his swing.

JM: I'd get Tiger's back-swing like it was in 2000, when he pauses up there. Like Peter said, just relax at the top, get all the muscles ready, then smoothly let it go and nail it. I want his shaft tension-free at the top, not bent like it is now.

DP: I would love to fix Padraig Harrington. He's got three majors, he's a great person, and is good for the game, but he's gotten confused trying to hit it far to keep up with these young bombers. He needs to get back to playing the game. He grew up in Ireland playing on the side of a hill in the wind and the rain. I'd stop him from tinkering and play. Just go and play.