For the past week I have been on the main island in Hawaii near Kona. I came here to watch the Champions Tour Tournament – the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai Golf Club on an invitation from a good friend who was paired to play in the pro-am tournament with defending Champion Tom Watson.
In the two days rubbing shoulders with Tom, Freddie Couples, Bernhard Langer and 43 of the best golfers in the world including enjoying Curtis Strange hit balls and perform a personal clinic for 10 of us, as well as walking with Tom Watson for and entire practice round, I learned dozens of lessons. I want to share with you my day and in doing so, help you learn as much as I did in such a short time.
Whenever there is a tournament, I love going to the driving range. On this occasion, there are very few people in the gallery which made it much easier to see and talk to the players as they hit balls. I watched dozens of players including Mark O’Meara, Tom Kite, Jay Haas, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson, Dennis Watson, Jeff Sluman, Bernhard Langer, David Frost, Hale Irwin and almost every player in the tournament warm up for their rounds.
The reason I mentioned all of these players is that first, all of these players are so different when it comes to ball-striking. I have to say none of them impressed me much. After all, I practiced and played with Moe Norman – how could I be too impressed? But what I will say is that all of these players were extremely adequate AND, they only missed the ball in one direction.
Watching and listening to Tom (Watson) as he warmed up he was talking about how he hadn’t been playing much. His balls were trailing left a bit as he kept saying “I have some left in my shots right now”. He was hitting light hooks. But he never hit a ball right. All of his shots were either good, really good or slightly left. When he played the round, he hit a few shots left and only one missed the fairway. He scored 7 under. Tom taught me lesson number 1:
You don’t have to be a perfect ball striker but you must be consistent and have a great short game.
By the way, Tom had about 25 putts in his round and got it up and down 95 percent of the time.
During a clinic with Curtis Strange I asked him about how he developed his game. “I was eaten up with golf when I was a kid – I still am”, he said. It was clear that Curtis loves golf. His passion for the game even made me love it more. He talked about how the Golf Channel is so confusing and that you must stick with something and stop “searching”. Practice what works and work hard. “The game hasn’t changed since Sam Snead. Why are there so many inventions when the game is the same” – he said. When I asked him about Moe Norman, he gave Moe great credit for being such a great ball-striker. He said the same for Lee Trevino. “Who would have thought that this (showing Trevino’s move) would have been so great. He (Trevino) had Nicklaus’s number – and he knew it too”, Strange said. The main lesson from Curtis Strange – lesson number 2:
Find something, stick to it and work hard.
While watching the players hit balls on the range, it was clear that there were two types of players – those searching for their swings, those warming up for their rounds. Tom Watson was warming up, Jay Haas and Nick Price were searching. Jeff Sluman’s caddy, an Oklahoma football fan, walked up to me and pointed out Dennis Watson, “There’s the best swing out here, hits it pure on the range but gets to the golf course and it goes sideways (gesturing with his arms pointing left and right)”. Dennis was a searcher. I can definitely relate to both types of players. I have been both a searcher and a warmer-upper. Guess which one will most likely win the tournament. Which is lesson 3:
If you are working on your swing, you can not score your best.
This is the difference between Fred Couples (warmer-upper) and Jay Haas (Searcher). Fred is warming up to make birdies, Jay is hitting balls with swing thoughts. Birdies, not swing thoughts, wins tournaments.
What I also found different between the searchers and warmer-uppers was that the Searchers were always messing with their equipment. Berhard Langer (a warmer-upper) had clubs that looked like he had been playing with them since childhood. His long irons were Ben Hogan blades from the 80’s, mid irons were older Adams Irons (sponsor) and his wedges were old Titleist Vokey’s with tons of lead tape. Langer was truly a player and he taught me a valuable lesson number 4:
Find equipment you like and stick with it. Get stuff that fits you well and learn to love it.
One of the main things that impressed me about Langer was that his wedges were heavy. I always believe in heavy wedges, especially the lob and sand wedge as they allow for more feel of the club in short swings. Furthermore, heavy wedges help increase the weight due to the fact that during the short game shots, you are often choking up on the club which reduces swing weight.
Within minutes of being on the range, Tom Kite displayed the importance of great practice. The first thing he did was set down an alignment trainer toward his target as he starting hitting wedges. Tom is knows as a practicer and a swing technician. His practice regiment proved it. Not only did he have an alignment aid, he also hit at leas half of his practice warm up shots with his wedges showing how important hitting wedges is for the scoring game. This was lesson number 5 and 6:
Practice correctly and hit tons of wedges.
The Champions Tour Players are great golfers – some of the best in the world. So many amateur golfers spend their time watching how far good players hit the ball when, as Curtis Strange said, STOP trying to hit it so hard and just hit it solid and straight. I agree with him. I wasn’t impressed by the distance these guys hit the ball. I was impressed by how consistent they hit the ball and by how good they could score. Learn how to learn from the best players. Watch the little things hey do an stop being impressed by the things you can’t do and start doing the things that they do that you can.