10 tips ... that will improve your golf game

Five local professionals and PGA-certified instructors tell you how to become a better player

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Not every player gets to practice before every round with his teacher hovering behind him, watching his swing, checking for malfunctions, making sure everything is working just right. Just those on the PGA Tour.

And not every player has the luxury of going for a lesson or visiting an instructor on a periodic basis, usually because the cost can be prohibitive.

So, how do you become a better player? What is it that you need to know to improve your game and lower your scores, which is the desire of every player who has ever teed a ball, hoisted a club and tried like heck to make the ball go high, straight and, yes, especially long?

Well, short of having a certified PGA teaching professional on your payroll, or taking one to the golf course every time you play, the Post-Gazette has asked five local professionals and PGA-certified instructors to provide a list of the top 10 tips a player should know and work on to become a better player.

Consider it the PG's version of Harvey Penick's "Little Red Book," a compilation of teachings, lessons and musings designed to help players understand the work, preparation and execution that is required to lower scores and make golf a more enjoyable game. Or just less frustrating.

The participating professionals are John Aber, head professional at Allegheny Country Club; Eric Johnson, director of instruction at Oakmont Country Club; Kevin Shields, teaching professional at Rolling Hills CC; Sean Parees, teaching professional at Quicksilver GC and Robert Morris University Island Sports Center; and Jim Cichra, director of instruction at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center.

The tips are designed for players of all skill level, but primarily are geared toward the average player. And, with the average score in this country over 100, there are plenty of players in search of lessons to improve their game.

The tips are not listed in order of importance. Also, keep in mind there are other tips that could be more useful to a player's specific need. Still, these lessons represent a compilation of suggestions players should heed if they want to become a better player and shoot lower scores.




1. Identify your weakness

Eric Johnson, who formerly worked with former European Ryder Cup member Per Ulrik Johansson, said the first thing a player has to do to get better is figure out where his game is weakest.

"When I worked with Johansson, the first thing that I did before every lesson was to look at his tour statistics," Johnson said. "That gave us a clear path on what we were going to work on during his lesson. Unfortunately, you do not have PGA Tour statistics to look up."

This is what Johnson suggests:

Keep simple statistics of your own -- fairways hit, greens in regulation, short game up and downs and total putts. From this, you can determine your weaknesses. The best solution that I have found for keeping statistics is shotbyshot.com, which helps you electronically track your rounds and gives you a handicap for each part of your game. This can provide a much more in depth look at your statistics and give you an idea what you need to work.

The more information you have, the easier it is to solve a problem.






2. Develop a pre-shot routine

One of the biggest reasons for hitting bad shots is poor alignment, Sean Parees said.

"If your body is aiming one direction and you're swinging at a target in another direction, you have to make some sort of compensation," Parees said. "That means it is very difficult to swing the club properly."

Parees said the best way to avoid that is to develop a pre-shot routine that will accomplish two things: Proper alignment and proper ball position.

• Here's what to do:

Get behind the ball with your feet together and set your clubface down so it is facing an intermediate target. Then, as you look at your real target, take a small step with your left foot and slightly larger step with your right foot. This will ensure the ball is in the proper position in the left half of your stance, between the left heel and the center.

To practice this, take two clubs and, placing them on the ground, use one to represent the target line and the other to represent your body alignment. Place a third club perpendicular to your body alignment to represent your ball position. This will help you aim correctly.




3. Clubface Control

The single biggest thing that separates average players from good players, good players from great players, and great players from Tour-caliber players is clubface control, said Kevin Shields.

"Lesser players either open the clubface too much on the backswing or keep it the same amount of open for too long in the downswing," Shields said. "That requiries the player to frantically try to "flip" the club square at the ball."

• Here's what to do, according to Shields:

Assume a standard grip and try to "twist" your bottom, or right, hand so it faces away from you in the backswing, and keep it facing away the whole swing, as if you are wiping your palm across a table in the impact area.

Many people don't realize that what is considered by modern instruction to be "square" at the top is actually 90 degrees open. The clubface needs that much rotation to be square at the ball.

Some of that rotation comes from turning your body, but most comes from your hands and arms. Learn to turn the face toward the ball sooner in the downswing.






4.Rotate your torso

Players need to understand that the torso is the engine for the golf swing, Parees said. Too many players try to generate speed and power by swinging their arms and wrists, not rotating their torso.

"While the arms do swing up and down and the wrists hinge and set, these motions are secondary to torso rotation," Parees said. "That is what creates the majority of speed in the swing."

• Here's what to do:

Parees: To make a correct backswing, establish your spine angle/address posture and rotate your core by turning your torso away from your target. To do so, attempt to position your left shoulder as close to being over your right leg than your left. And maintain the same spine angle/address posture throughout the backswing.

As you start the downswing, pretty much do the reverse of what you did on the backswing. Rotate your torso toward your target until your right shoulder is closer to being over your left leg than your right. Again, maintain the same spine angle/posture throughout the forward swing."

To practice this, set up in your normal address position and place a club across your shoulders, holding it in place with your hands. Rotate your core away from your target until the club points at the ball on the ground. Now rotate your core toward your target until the other end of the club points at the same spot on the ground. This will allow you to feel the proper rotation of your core while maintaining the same spine angle.

"I feel safe in saying that all really good players perform this motion during their swings," Parees said.




5. Take a full swing at half speed

John Aber, a former collegiate star at North Carolina who played with Davis Love III, said he has never forgotten a tip given to him by his former teacher, Jim Ferree. And, to this day, it is one he gives to all his students.

"I even think about this tip to improve my own game," Aber said.

The tip: Hit practice balls taking a full swing, but at half speed.

Aber said it's the best way to really feel your swing, feel the club head, and to make sure your swing is in sequence.

• Here's what to do:

You can do this with a wedge, 7-iron, or even a driver, Aber said. Make sure you finish in a nice balanced position when doing this drill. It is all about feeling your swing and building good habits. Once you can feel the clubhead and the proper sequence of your swing, then you can speed up, but just through the hitting area.




6. Power

Every player -- beginner, weekend player or competitor -- is always searching for more power and greater distance. Technology can help solve the problem with drivers designed to create more distance, but the player needs to know how to use the club to maximize its design techniques.

To do so, Shields said golfers have to realize that the club shaft must properly stress, or bend, at certain times in the swing for speed and power.

• Here's what he suggests to get more power:

To get the shaft to bend, your body must lead the sequence both ways -- in the backswing and during the downswing. Try starting your swing by using your body to pull the grip end of the club, not using your hands to move the clubhead.

Then begin your downswing by settling on your front foot, again using your body to pull the handle. Remember, body leads back and through. That will help bend the shaft and generate more power.




7. Spend more time putting

During his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a month ago, Tiger Woods made a remarkable 58 of 58 putts from 6 feet or less.

Johnson uses this statistic to tell students: Do not spend all your time just hitting balls at the range.

Practice putting.

"Spend the majority of your time practicing putting from 6 feet and in," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, all of us will probably never hit a drive like Tiger Woods, but that does not mean we cannot putt as well as he does. Most of us do not have the body and flexibility that Tiger does, but you don't have to have Tiger's physique to be a great putter."

Most players hit balls for an hour and hit a couple of putts before you rush off to the first tee. It should be the complete opposite.




8. Develop a routine for putting

Aber said he learned a long time ago that good players have a consistent routine for putting. It doesn't matter what the routine is, as long as the players consistently uses the same routine.

• Here is Aber's routine: After he has determined the line, he takes a practice stroke while looking at the hole, puts his putter behind the ball, takes one more look at the hole, and strokes the ball.

"This is my routine," Aber said. "You can come up with your own routine, but make sure you do it every time you hit a putt. This is very important and no different than a great free throw shooter. Tiger Woods has the same routine on every putt just as Michael Jordan had the same routine on every free throw.

"Michael Jordan went through the same routine on a free throw in the first quarter as he did on a free throw to win the game. Tiger Woods goes through his routine whether it is the first putt of the day or a putt to get him into a playoff on the last hole of the U.S. Open. A solid putting routine can make you a better and more consistent putter. Develop your routine today."






9. Chipping

This is an area that is largely ignored and can really pay off in much lower scores. Especially because most average players usually miss the green in regulation.

Jim Cichra said you should learn how to hit two types of chip shots -- how to stop the ball and how to make the ball run.

• Here's what to do, he said:

Set up with your weight on your front side (the left side for right handers), with a narrow, slightly open stance. Your hands should be slightly forward of the ball with the ball in the center of your stance.

Make an even swing with the distance on your backswing closely matching the distance on your follow-through, and make sure you maintain an even tempo. Your length of swing will then determine the distance of the shot. And learn two clubs at first to gauge the reaction of the ball when you use them. A sand wedge and a 7-iron is a good start.

Use the sand wedge when you need to stop the ball. Use the 7-iron when a running shot is called for. Always aim for a spot on the green where you need to land your ball to get it close. Therefore, you will need to know the reaction of the ball when it hits, whether it bites or runs.

Also, consider whether the green is hard or soft, fast or slow, uphill or downhill. All of these factors will determine where you should land your ball.




10. Practice wisely, not aimlessly

A lot of players go to the driving range and hit balls, but not many go with a plan and not many really pay attention to what they are doing.

Parees said there are many facets to improving a golf game and just going to the range and hitting a bunch of drivers or a bunch of 5-irons isn't going to necessarily make it a better practice session.

• Here's what to do:

First, warm up for 10 to 15 minutes, beginning with stretching exercises, and then start hitting balls with a wedge, using a smooth, slow swing. Work your way up to longer clubs until you finally get to the driver. Do not hit every club in the bag and do not fall in love with one club.

Second, spend 10 to 15 working on a specific position or movement you need to improve. This is how you ingrain that movement in your swing. Begin with a short-iron and hit four balls doing a drill that will improve this area. Then hit four more balls with the same club taking a full swing. Repeat this eight-ball step with using a hybrid, fairway metal, then driver.

Third, spend 10 minutes simulating different shots on the golf course by changing clubs every two swings and changing your target every swing. Don't just hit at the same spot all the time

Finally, work on your short game for 20 to 30 minutes. Pitch shots to various targets from 15 yards to just short of your maximum wedge distance; chip shots from 1 to 50 feet; hit short and long bunker shots; practice putting by using a circle drill in which you place six to eight balls in a circle around the cup, between, 3 and 5 feet away. Work your way around the circle, trying to make as many possible without any three putts.

With a more focused plan when you practice, your game is bound to improve.





Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com .


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