Colorado golf pros’ tips to refine your golf game | VailDaily.com

Colorado golf pros’ tips to refine your golf game

Sebastian Foltz

While not based on any verifiable, quantitative scientific research, there's a good chance golf is the most humbling, expletive-inducing sport in the history of the world.

It may come as some consolation that even a pro golfer like Sergio Garcia can plunk two consecutive balls into the same water hazard in rapid succession, as he did last year at the PGA Tour Players Championship.

With that in mind we took some time to talk with area pros about tips to fine-tune our golf games for the season. They gave suggestions on everything from shaking off that early season rust to working on the short game and salvaging a shot in the rough.

Start off slow and easy

When starting any golf season, first and foremost: "Don't have high expectations," says Breckenridge head golf pro Erroll Miller, when pulling those clubs out for the first time.

While we're a society that teaches kids that everyone's a winner, let's be honest, the PGA Tour won't be calling, at least not most of us.

Both Miller and Mark Nickel, golf director of the Raven in Silverthorne, recommend starting the season slow.

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So don't take the driver out of the bag right away. Consider sticking to irons for the first time back at the range, specifically, a mid-range club like a 6 or 7-iron.

Nickel also recommends resisting the urge to be John Daily or Tiger Woods and go for big drives. Instead, work on short game first and build gradually. He said aim at a closer pin on the range. This helps golfers loosen up swing motion and find the rhythm of their swing, so the swing will be better when reaching for the big boys in the golf bag.

Miller also suggests not hitting too many the first time out for the season. Just like skiing, muscles need to adjust to the motion again after a long off-season.

Working on your core muscles through activities like yoga, bicycling or training with a weight ball can also be a big help, Nickel said. Core muscles are essential to a full and balanced swing.

One of the biggest things he sees on the range, especially early in the season, is "people over arm swinging," meaning they're concentrating on using their arms to try to muscle through a swing. This often results in swinging harder through the swing rather than having a smooth consistent follow-through. He urges remembering that a golf swing is a full-body motion. Golfers may have a tendency to forget about their legs and hips.

Nickel compared it to a coil. Motion starts in the legs and hips and progresses up through the shoulders to the arms. It's "what a lot of people don't think about," he said. Legs and hips stay ahead of shoulders through the swing.

Now if you, like me, find yourself topping two or three balls in a row, pay attention to your stance. Coaches often say, keep your head down on the ball. Nickel corrects that idea. It's not just the head, but rather a tendency to raise up one's whole body through the swing. It's important to keep your stance consistent through your swing. Keep "head up, spine in line," Nickel said.

Now if you're hitting a divot further than the ball on the other hand, he encourages practicing "clipping the grass" with a swing.

Finally, Nickel reminds golfers not to overthink — focus on one aspect of the swing at a time.

Miller also emphasizes three
things that can throw off a swing the quickest — balance, alignment to the ball and grip.

Early season basics behind us, next we will take a look at some of golf's finer points.

Score better with putting

Everyone wants to hit a drive 300 yards like Tiger Woods. That's probably why the driving range at any golf course is guaranteed to be more crowded than the practice green. But neglecting the short game can create a fatal flaw for any golfer.

"Putting is half the scoring of the game of golf," said Miller. And it's often a neglected skill.

First and foremost, Miller said, "practice, practice, practice." Repetition will lead to comfort and confidence.

"Distance control is the most important thing to work on when putting," Nickel said. With your first putt on a green, "you want to get close enough to two-putt," he told High Country Golf. Nickel said he believes that not properly gauging distance is a common putting mistake that can quickly add strokes to a golfer's score. If you're far away, you want to putt to get close.

Miller echoes that notion, pointing out that par on a course is determined by averaging a two-put on the greens.

Both suggest starting practice with short puts and then adding distance.

"If you can't make putts from three feet, what makes you think you can make it from 10 feet?" Miller said.

Form is also a big consideration in a player's putting game. Zak Himmelman, a golf coach at Breckenridge, reminds his students to keep their wrists straight through the entire swing. Putting is not a wrist motion. He also suggests having a silent "one, two" count. Backswing on "one" and follow-through on "two" to keep a smooth swinging motion.

Caleb Kehrwald, course general manager at The Raven, stresses keeping your head down through the swing. Not doing so is a common mistake that will throw off your putt.

To practice, Himmelman suggests putting off of a penny, then seeing whether the penny is heads or
tails up.

Drills to consider before starting your round:

Taking the time to hit the practice green before a round is critical. It's an opportunity to get a feel for the greens and gauge whether they are playing fast or slow. It's also an opportunity to get a feel for how your ball will break on the course.

Toe-to-toe putting drill: Breckenridge golf pro Himmelman said one great way to gauge how to play a green is to line up a putt on a flat surface and make a smooth swing from your back foot to your front foot. He says it will give you an accurate way to measure how far a putt will go with a given swing. You can then determine how strong you need to swing a putt with that metric in mind. It makes it easier to know whether to swing harder or softer. Then, he suggests, practice putting with a slope to see how the ball will break. Himmelman also mentioned that a softer putt will tend to break more.

Ladder Drill: Miller recommends lining up three balls at increasing distances from the pin — 6, 12 and 18 feet, for example. Then start at the closest ball and putt in order until you get to the farthest. This drill can build confidence with distance. Both Miller and Nickel recommend starting by putting close, then working farther away.

Refining the short Game

We've already mentioned how often people focus on distance shots at the driving range and neglect the putting game. The same can be said of the short-iron approach game, pitching and chipping shots. Typically there aren't nearly as many golfers working on their chipping and pitching shots at the range as there are practicing driving.

"Most people go to the range and hit full swings," Nickel said. He believes that they ignore the short game in part because it will emphasize the flaws in their swing. Conversely, practicing and perfecting partial swings and pitch shots will improve form on full swing, he said.

Kehrwald added that, "if people focus on 150 yards in, I think they'll see their scores improve dramatically,"

Tim Spring, course pro at Copper Creek, affirmed the notion. "For an amateur, the short game is a major stroke saver."

He said the best way to improve is practice.

"It's more of a feel shot. The more you practice the better you'll have a feel for it," said Spring.

All three experts encourage taking advantage of the practice green and also working with shorter irons at the range. They suggest that golfers should pick closer targets at the range to practice short game accuracy.

Miller echoed the sentiment.

"What they (golfers) should work on is landing their golf ball in a particular spot," he said. Working on shot accuracy will drastically reduce swings in a round.

Nickel believes, "The biggest mistakes are distance control." If golfers have a better feel for where they are hitting it will also cut down on strokes.

The pros all say golfers don't focus enough on accuracy and the short game.

Beyond repetition, it's about good form and balancing practice between chipping and pitching shots.

For form, remember that a chip shot has more in common with a putting swing than a full golf swing. It is a shorter-range shot that causes the ball to roll more after landing than a pitch. The swing is a much shorter motion that emphasizes keeping the wrists stiff. The lower the club angle, the more the ball will roll when it hits the green. So a chip shot with a 7 iron will create more roll than a chip shot with a 9 iron.

Pitch shots create more loft and cause the ball to roll less when it lands. The pitch swing has the same motion as a drive, but incorporates varied swing length. Pitch shots are essential from beyond 20 yards out. A good pitch shot will create much less roll when the ball lands.

The pros say that form is key. A golfer needs to be aware of their personal shot range. That's where the emphasis on practice comes in.

Roughing it

For those of us not blessed with pinpoint accuracy, playing from the fairway rough is another inevitability. While cursing might be the initial impulse, Nickel suggests taking a minute to analyze your situation. While every lie is different, he, along with Breckenridge Golf Club assistant pro Robbins Manley, offered some suggestions for handling the high grass.

Perhaps first and foremost, be grateful you're not at a PGA tour event, as you would have even tougher roughs to contend with. On a standard course, roughs are usually only about 2 1/2 inches tall.

Next, "take an evaluation of how the rough is," said Nickel. "If you're lucky, you're on top of the rough like a tee," then there is little need for adjustment.

On the other hand, "if the lie is terrible, your first goal is to get back to the fairway," said Manley.

"Take a shorter club, don't be as greedy," Nickels suggested.

The biggest problem they both see is with a golfer's swing.

"Where people go tragically wrong is trying to lift the ball and not let the club do the work," Manley said. It's one of the most common mistakes in a variety of shots, according to both Nickel and Manely. From the rough, they recommend golfers have the ball a little further back in their stance, so that the club hits on a descending angle.

"Make the club do the work," said Robbins.

Nickels reminds golfers to keep grass between the ball and the club. "Take a pretty good divot," he suggests.

Manley also points out that, generally, for the average golfer, a shot hit from the rough will tend to roll more than a shot from the fairway, because of a lack of backspin. So, "take less club and let it roll," he said

Nickel also frequently advocates a hybrid club for light rough. "Your consistency will go way up," he said.

Hitting through the rough has a tendency to close a golfer's clubface, especially with irons, leading to less accurate shots. Hybrid clubs offer a larger club head that will swing through rough more effectively, keeping the clubface straight. Their large sweet spot also creates more of a margin for error.

Hybrid clubs — a cross between a wood and an iron — have become increasingly popular over the last decade. They provide good lift, and their shorter shafts make it easier to maintain a smooth swing through the ball.

"Almost every pro has a hybrid or two in their bag," said Nickel.

But if you are deeper in the rough, Manley still suggests a short iron.

Ready for the pros?

Now that we've run through some common mistakes, go out there and enjoy the High Country. There are few places like it in the world!