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Who is Matt Killen, Tiger Woods’ new putting coach?

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It was over two years ago when I met Matt Killen at an airport in Toronto. I was just obnoxious enough to chase him down and introduce myself. I’m happy I did, he’s a great human being and has been a fun person to chat with Over the past couple of years. I have always been a big fan of his work and amazed that a young man could have so much success in what had always appeared to be an older man’s field. Today it was announced that Matt is now working with Tiger Woods on certain aspects of his game…..for any teacher that’s the pinnacle. The running narrative is if Tiger trusts your opinion, you must be on to something.

Here is an article I wrote for GolfWRX in September of 2016 on who Matt is and what makes him so special.

This week, the golfing world will descend upon Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, for the 41st playing of the Ryder Cup. The media will keep busy in deep analysis on who will win, the role of the captain’s picks and other speculation. What’s rarely discussed, however, are the people who work behind the scenes to get the world’s best golfers firing on all cylinders to represent their countries: the swing coaches.

In the Ryder Cup’s storied past, the names of those who roamed the ranges read like a who’s who of golf tutelage: Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter, Pete Cowen and Phil Rodgers, to name a few. If you tune into the coverage this week, you might see a new “kid” on the block roaming the range, but the truth is he’s been on the scene for almost 10 years. And this upcoming Ryder Cup is not his first go around.

Matt Killen is on his second tour of duty, and the previous time he was at the Ryder Cup the U.S. won. Killen’s current stable includes young guns Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers, Bud Cauley and 2016 Ryder Cup captain’s pick J.B. Holmes, who Killen has worked with for more than 10 years. That’s almost as long as the void in U.S. victories in the Ryder Cup (sorry to bring that up). The interesting part is Killen, whose home base is The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida, turned 31 years old on Monday (let the math settle in). Yes, he’s been working with some of the best players in the world since before he could legally drink a beer.

During the 2008 Ryder Cup — a victorious endeavor for the U.S. — Killen was a busy man, as he had three different players in the event: fellow Kentucky natives J.B. Holmes and Kenny Perry, as well as Chad Campbell. Killen was also working with team captain Paul Azinger at the time — and Killen was only 22 years old! Most teachers and swing coaches don’t begin working with Tour players until well into their 30s, and many times much later. How does this happen, and what makes Killen the guy (read: kid) who Tour players trust with their careers?

On my way home from Toronto during the Canadian Open, I ran into Killen, whose story is every bit as compelling as the players he coaches. It was a random encounter at the Toronto airport, but I was compelled to introduce myself being hugely interested in his story. He’s a soft-spoken, Southern native with an overwhelming sense of confidence when he discusses golf mechanics. After a bit of small talk, we dug into his swing philosophies. I found myself dumbfounded with the ease in which he was able to explain body mechanics and clubface dynamics. That’s what the great teachers seemingly all have in common; their knowledge of the swing is ridiculously rich, but their ability to deliver the message simply and tailor it to the learning styles of each student is what breeds success.

Although the attention on our golfing prodigies always seems to focus on the players, being a swing coach to those players at such a young age is far more unlikely than winning on the PGA Tour. Young teachers are at a disadvantage based on experience and time. So how can a strong, trusting relationship be built with someone so young? After all, information in regards to the golf swing, especially at that level, always just seems a bit more reliable coming from the mouth of say a 40- or 50-year-old guy who has made the rounds in golf academies, and/or was a successful player in his own right.

Killen was just a skinny teenager who had the courage to speak up when his best friend’s father, Kenny Perry, was looking for something or someone to light the fire. With the burning passion of youth, Matt was the kid for the job. Most teenagers would have shied away from an intimidating situation like that. The saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” never seemed more appropriate.

What’s Killen’s first point of focus when working with a top player?

“What’s gonna make them the most money?” Killen said.

A pretty honest answer if you ask me, especially for a 31-year-old. Killen first determines what a golfer is physically capable of doing and then establishes what’s possible, but the science and analysis behind Killen’s philosophy is anything but simple. He is well versed in body mechanics and the physics of impact, particularly gear effect, which he said is one of the main things his top players need to understand to remedy their misses.

“Most of these guys not only own their golf swings but also have a path and club face relationship that creates a predictable pattern with the ball flight they want,” Killen said. “With modern equipment, especially the driver, understanding how gear effect can confuse certain misses is vital to a player’s working knowledge.”

I dug a little deeper with Killen. What I found was that he’s not trying to construct analytical golfing machines. Like his pursuit for the truth behind what makes a golf ball fly a certain way, he asks that his players take on the responsibility of knowing exactly who they are as players, and accepting what they can and can’t do. Once that awareness and trust is built, the success can follow.

“You always want all your players to have the comfort level to play any shot that is required, and most of the guys out there can under all conditions,” Killen said. “What I work on with my guys is to take ownership of their swing and to understand shot for shot how and why the ball is flying a certain way so they can address it quickly and focus on shooting the scores they need to win.”

I was curious; does J.B. Holmes’ plan differ this week at the Ryder Cup than it would at a typical PGA Tour event? Not really, Killen said.

“Working with J.B. this week, I will be focusing on establishing a predictable pattern,” he said. “After we walk the course and look at all the shots required, we will focus on on any particular shot he isn’t 100 percent comfortable with. Our preparation will be process focused and when he tees it up his focus will be the shot at hand and staying athletic. J.B. is a pure feel player, but he is also a student that searches for understanding of his golf swing and is able to discern the information quickly while being able to react as an athlete once he’s between the ropes.”

Under Ryder Cup pressure, especially the past few years, the players who have thrived were the those who fell back on their natural instincts and played the shots that felt right to them. At the end of the day, that’s all Killen is trying to get his players to understand and execute. At the top level, it’s often the golfer who is most comfortable in his own skin that will prevail, and the only pathway to that is to take full ownership of your motion.

What I also found compelling about Killen and his staff is that each of his Tour players, regardless of physical stature, is within the top 30 in driving distance. That includes Bud Cauley, who is currently averaging 300.1 yards off the tee while standing at only 5-feet, 7-inches and 155 pounds.

Looking at the big picture, Killen is only one teacher working with one of the 24 players this week. But for me, and maybe for many of you after reading this article, it really runs deeper than that. Golf has become a sport that has attracted some of the most unique young talents in the sports world. And prodigies of the educational variety, although not as flashy as a 345-yard drives or green jackets, are just as impressive. Matt Killen will be on PGA Tour ranges for a long time — not because he has a new swing philosophy or the flashiest stable of players. It’s because like the men he teaches, it’s all he’s cared about his entire life. It’s a selfless pursuit, and not exactly the most glamorous path. Most young golfers wanted to play like Tiger when they were 12, but Killen just wanted to know how he played like he did.

Here’s to a great Ryder Cup, and when you see great shots made down the stretch, remember there’s a swing coach watching who had something to do them.

 

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Johnny Wunder is the Director of Original Content, Instagram Manager and Host of “The Gear Dive” Podcast for GolfWRX.com. He was born in Seattle, Wash., and grew up playing at Rainier G&CC. John is also a partner with The Traveling Picture Show Company having most recently produced JOSIE with Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner. In 1997 Johnny had the rare opportunity of being a clubhouse attendant for the Anaheim Angels. He now resides in Toronto, On with his wife and two sons.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. smashdn

    Mar 15, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    I’ve known Matt for a long time. He was actually one of my first friends when my family moved here. While he has obviously gone and done his own thing since high school I still count him as a friend. As down to earth a dude as you can meet that will make time to talk with you about golf despite the level of guys he coaches.

  2. CrashTestDummy

    Mar 14, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Tiger’s putting mechanics look spot on. He looks like he is hitting his putts where he wants. I think his putting issues are more about misreading putts or just a mental issue than mechanics just like Jordan Spieth. Spieth’s mechanics haven’t changed since he was a phenomenal putter it is just a mental issue that he needs to overcome. However, a coach can just give them that confidence and reaffirm that they are doing the right things which can change their entire mental state and belief. That could be the edge to turn the tides.

  3. Jon

    Mar 14, 2019 at 8:59 am

    I am not a professional putting coach by any stretch of the imagination, nor a guru, but can explain “things” quite well and am patient (so I am told!). I have worked with a PGA pro on his putting. The guy could putt serious lights out and really just wanted to understand more about the things that he could not explain or see for himself. He basically did not want to go to the “names” because he had concluded they were a rip-off and they always “upsell” and try to get you to introduce them to people you know. He says I improved his putting by helping him understand a bit more what was going on. I say it looked almost exactly the same to me but it is all in the mind with these guys and if you can find something that clicks, and they try it, you are a guru. It’s just a confidence building thing with them. they haven’t got to where they are by luck.

  4. joro

    Mar 13, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    So the question is does the Coach make the player, or does the player make the coach. Face it, all these guys were really good before the Coach, why know do they need one and several of them found a Coach and haven’t been heard from since.

    • Tim

      Mar 21, 2019 at 10:59 am

      I think Tiger tried to prove that point by moving around to different coaches, feeling they may have been getting too much credit for his success.

      Where would Pelz and Stockton be without Mickelson? Good teachers and working sure, but they built their brand off of Phil. Phil still gets streaky with the putter and his short game helped Pelz more than Pelz helped him.

  5. Milton Taylor

    Mar 13, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    Perhaps the greatest clutch putter of all times needs a putting coach… Good grief, He just can’t help himself. He has to have a coach.

  6. Ben Murphy

    Mar 13, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Why does any professional golfer, much less Tiger Woods, need a “putting” trainer?
    Putting is about the easiest part of golf! You’re really messed up if you can’t putt
    anymore.

  7. Jack Nash

    Mar 13, 2019 at 8:27 am

    Nobody heard of Matt until, of course, he stands behind Tiger. The guy’s a phenom nobody heard about “until”.

  8. Ralph

    Mar 12, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    how can u get a lesson with this guy?

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Opinion & Analysis

Squares2Circles: Course strategy refined by a Ph.D.

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What do you get when you combine Division I-level golf talent, a Ph.D. in Mathematics, a passion for understanding how people process analytical information, and a knowledge of the psychology behind it? In short, you get Kevin Moore, but the long version of the story is much more interesting.

Kevin Moore attended the University of Akron on a golf scholarship from 2001-2005. Upon completing his tenure with the team, he found himself burned out on the game and promptly hung up his sticks. For a decade.

After completing his BS and MS degrees at the University of Akron, Kevin then went to Arizona State to pursue his Ph.D. Ultimately what drew him to the desert was the opportunity to research the psychology behind how people process analytical information. In his own words:

“My research in mathematics education is actually in the realm of student cognition (how students think and learn). From that, I’ve gained a deep understanding of developmental psychology in the mathematical world and also a general understanding of psychology as a whole; how our brains work, how we make decisions, and how we respond to results.”

In 2015, Kevin started to miss the game he loved. Now a professor of mathematics education at the University of Georgia, he dusted off his clubs and set a goal to play in USGA events. That’s when it all started to come together.

“I wanted to play some interesting courses for my satellite qualifiers and I wasn’t able to play practice rounds to be able to check them out in advance. So I modified a math program to let me do all the strategic planning ahead of time. I worked my way around the golf course, plotting out exactly how I wanted to hit  shot, and minimizing my expected score for each hole. I bundled that up into a report that I could study to prepare for the rounds.

“I’m not long enough to overpower a golf course, so I needed to find a way to make sure I was putting myself in the best positions possible to minimize my score. There might be a pin position on a certain green where purposely hitting an 8-iron to 25 feet is the best strategy for me. I’ll let the rest of the field take on that pin and make a mistake even if they’re only hitting wedge. I know that playing intelligently aggressive to the right spot is going to allow me to pick up fractions of strokes here and there.”

His plan worked, too. Kevin made it to the USGA Mid-Amateur at Charlotte Country Club in September of 2018 using this preparation method for his events just three years after taking a decade off of golf. In case you missed the implied sentiment, that’s extremely impressive. When Kevin showed his reports to some friends that played on the Web.com Tour and the Mackenzie Tour, they were so impressed they asked him to think about generating them for other people. The first group he approached was the coaching staff at the University of Georgia, who promptly enlisted his services to assist their team with course strategy in the spring of 2019. That’s when Squares2Circles really started to get some traction.

At that point, UGA hadn’t had a team win in over two seasons. They also hadn’t had an individual winner in over one season and had missed out on Nationals the previous two seasons. In the spring of 2019, they had three team wins (including winning Regionals to advance to Nationals) and two individual wins (including Davis Thompson’s win at Regionals). Obviously, the credit ultimately belongs to the players on the team, but suffice it to say it appears as though Kevin’s involvement with the team was decidedly useful.

“One of the things we really focused in on was par 3 scoring. They finished 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in the field as a team in their spring tournaments. Then at the SEC’s they struggled a bit and finished 6th in the field. At Regionals, they turned it around and finished 1st in the field with a score of +6 across 60 scores (186 total on 60 par 3’s, an average of 3.10).”

Sample Squares2Circles layout for the 18th hole at Muirfield Village. Advanced data redacted.

Kevin is available outside of his work with UGA and has been employed by other D-I teams (including his alma mater of Akron), Mackenzie Tour players, Web.com Tour players, and competitive juniors as well. Using his modified math program, he can generate generic course guides based on assumed shot dispersions, but having more specific Trackman data for the individual allows him to take things to a new level. This allows him to show the player exactly what their options are with their exact carry numbers and shot dispersions.

“Everything I do is ultimately based off of strokes gained data. I don’t reinvent the wheel there and I don’t use any real new statistics (at least not yet), but I see my role as interpreting that data. Let’s say a certain player is an average of -2.1 on strokes gained approach over the last 10 rounds. That says something about his game, but it doesn’t say if it’s strategy or execution. And it doesn’t help you come up with a practice plan either. I love to help players go deeper than just the raw data to help them understand why they’re seeing what they’re seeing. That’s where the good stuff is. Not just the data, but the story the data tells and the psychology behind it. How do we get ourselves in the right mindset to play golf and think through a round and commit to what we’re doing?”

“Even if you’re able to play practice rounds, this level of preparation turns those practice rounds into more of an experiment than a game plan session. You go into your practice round already knowing the golf course and already having a plan of attack. This allows you to use that practice round to test that game plan before the competition starts. You may decide to tweak a few things during your practice round based on course conditions or an elevation change here and there, but for the most part it’s like you’ve gained a free practice round. It allows you to be more comfortable and just let it fly a lot earlier.”

Kevin is in the process of building his website, but follow @squares2circles on Twitter for more information and insight.

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The Gear Dive: Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf Innovation on Cobra Connect, new ways to evaluate good play, and the future of golf improvement.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Mondays Off: U.S. Open wrap-up | Steve plays against the new assistant pro

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Would Woodland have won the U.S. Open if he had to hit driver on the 18th hole? Knudson doesn’t think so. Steve loved the U.S. Open, but he didn’t really love the commentator crew. Also, Steve tees it up with the new second assistant pro at the club, how did he do?

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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