News & Opinion

Riviera’s range yields tips for pros and observers alike

Golf’s elite players employ a variety of drills and methods to get their games tournament-ready, but they share one common trait: Smart work on the practice tee leads to top results on the course

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Pablo Picasso once said that it took him “a lifetime” to learn to paint like a child, so it should surprise no one that the buzz around the driving range at Riviera Country Club here early last week at the Genesis Invitational focused on just how well 44-year-old Tiger Woods is swinging the golf club.

TV commentators and golf writers gushed at how much his swing today resembles, in its length, rhythm and effortless application of power, the same swing that Woods used as a 16-year-old amateur at the former Los Angeles Open in 1992 when he struck his first shot in a PGA Tour event.

Alex Noren works on a proprietary drill designed to improve his forward shaft lean, downward strike on the ball and forward swing bottom.

All golfers struggling with their games can learn from one of the game’s greatest comebacks. By recalling successful swing techniques that produced good ball-striking in the past – a baseline of sorts – and then working with a skilled teacher, golfers can reintegrate those former techniques into their current game. The practice range of a PGA Tour event offers an opportunity for golfers to observe up close just how world-class golfers prepare to bring their best stuff to the first tee.

Repeat tournament goers will find many of the players on the range early in the week at the same hitting bays where they have practiced in past years. Jason Day sets himself up on the far-left corner of the range. As one who likes to draw the ball, Day finds that the location gives him the full width of the range’s “fairway” to start his shots before they draw back to the center of the practice area. Dustin Johnson, who likes to fade the ball, practices year after year in a space well toward the right side of the range, where his eyes feel comfortable working on his favored left-to-right shots.

Fans also will see a row of launch monitors positioned behind roughly 75 percent of the pros. These remarkable computers spew out each shot’s ball speed, spin rate, clubhead and clubface paths and angles into and through impact. They also tally in yards the shots’ carry through the air as well as their roll, i.e., each shot’s total distance.

If there’s one thing the pros and amateurs want these days, it is more distance. Bryson DeChambeau uses two launch monitors during each practice session: to his rear, a FlightScope, which, among other things, tracks his ball flight; and next to his ball, a GC Foresight launch monitor, which provides clubface angle and position of the strike on the clubface at impact.

Bryson DeChambeau attracts a crowd during a range session last week before the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Not only did DeChambeau have plenty of eyes from his team, but he also used an extra launch monitor.

Many quality golf instructors and top club-fitting companies use the same brands of launch monitors to help their amateur clients during lessons or club-fitting sessions. However, the low-tech types of training aids still win the day with touring pros on the range, with the simplest amongst them, the alignment rod, leading the count. Almost every pro uses these long and thin sticks to assure that they have set up to the ball correctly and to swing along the paths and lines needed to hit the shots they want. All amateurs, even beginners and recreational players, would benefit from using time-tested training tools.

There’s a lot of club adjusting on the range early in tournament week. A cadre of equipment manufacturers’ representatives roams the practice area, alert to their players’ every fitting need: regripping, reshafting and adjusting the lies and lofts on their wedges, irons and putters. All golfers can benefit from familiarizing themselves with their equipment specs.

“These Tour players adapt pretty quickly to a new driver, because they know exactly what kind of shot they want to hit,” said Todd Chew, who runs TaylorMade’s tour van.

Tour pros won’t settle on a club until it produces the desired trajectory, spin rate and distance. It’s not just the corroboration of launch-monitor data and the results that go into a pro’s final selection of a driver. Chew says that pros and amateurs alike should select a driver that feels good so they actually can go out and play golf with it.

Tour pros spend a lot of time early in the week during their practice sessions doing time-tested drills, with and without the help of training aid. Some players stop, hold and check their swing positions, or hit range balls with a towel or golf glove under one or both armpits. The drill improves their body and arm synchronization.

There’s also room in the drills for improvisation and creativity. Straight-hitting Brian Gay uses the popular Orange Whip aid, a weighted orange ball attached to an ultra-soft and flexible training shaft. Though the product’s inventors designed the trainer to improve swing rhythm through enhanced clubhead load, lag and feel, Gay swings it to stretch into a fuller pivot and a longer backswing, aiming for longer shots.

For inventiveness, few can match the drill devised by Swedish player Alex Noren. For more than two solid hours, he alternates between hitting an iron shot and executing an odd-looking, self-designed exercise, which helps him sustain his club’s lag deep into impact. It also creates a more forward low point and “swing bottom” and a downward angle of attack to ensure a solid strike on the ball.

Here’s his drill. With the golf ball in its address location, Noren starts from a halfway-down downswing position. Next, he bends and leans his body forward, while maintaining his left wrist cock and the “lag angle” between the club shaft and his left forearm. He completes the drill by carefully placing the clubhead on the ground well forward of the ball’s address location and on his target line. The clubface comes to rest pointing directly down his line of flight. The drill helps Noren repeat maximum downswing lag, a forward shaft lean at impact and a swing bottom well in front of the ball. He’s training himself to follow through well in what’s known as down the line, as did Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Lee Trevino and Canadian Moe Norman, considered by many as the best ball-strikers of all time. When Noren hits an actual shot, the action looks complete, rhythmic and smooth in a successful integration of the drill into his swing.

Fans spending a day on the range at a PGA Tour event might ask themselves, “Why do these players who hit the ball so far and straight with every swing have to practice so much?”

“Because if they don’t,” said Titleist’s legendary wedge designer Bob Vokey, “100 other guys will pass them on the money list in a second.” He is on the range to work with players on wedge fitting, and he added, “Can you imagine, working in a profession where you have to be at your 100-percent best each and every day?”

The PGA Tour has traded its old slogan “These Guys Are Good” for a new one, “Live Under Par.” But the two phrases convey the same message: practice, practice, practice.

To receive Morning Read’s newsletters, subscribe for free here.