Q&A: Advice For Beginners From Mike Wydra
As a beginning golfer that is addicted beyond obsession with this wonderful sport, the search for nuggets of knowledge and insight into how to become a better player has been a passion of mine.
I was extremely fortunate that early in my struggles, I became a student of Coach Mike Wydra, UCSD head golf coach and one of a select few inductees to the Golf Coach Association Hall of Fame.
I recently sat down with him to pick his prodigious golf brain on just HOW a beginning golfer should approach learning the game, something I feel that has been somewhat neglected in existing literature.
Neil Crutchfield: First thing I wanted to ask you, what should beginning golfers be most aware of?
Mike Wydra: Golf is a technique-oriented game and people who have good hand-eye coordination don’t always excel at it. Probably the worst student I ever had was an Olympic decathlete who was a fantastic athlete but who wasn’t a good listener. He wanted to do what he felt was correct and he wasn’t interested in the technique — he thought he could conquer it like he’d conquered everything else, and so he became really quite a bad player as a result. So once you understand that there is a very specific technique, that there is something that you need to do and you need to learn it and you’re enamored with that, that’s a big deal.
NC: It sounds like you have to be really open to being wrong for a long time before you get it right.
MW: It’s a very frustrating sport — if you can’t take a little failure, golf’s not for you. I think that’s why you see so many people in the game who are of high character. They’ve gone through that. They understand that they have to persevere and you’ll come out the other side a better golfer and maybe even a better person because of it.
NC: Along these lines, what mindset should a beginning gofer adopt when striking out to learn the game? What kind of expectations?
MW: I think they key to that is where you are in your life. Your age, your body size and type, your flexibility, your coordination those kinds of things. How quick, fast and strong are you? If your talent set is limited there’s certainly lots of things you can still do to be very good at it, you shouldn’t sell yourself short. It depends upon more than anything else on your goals, what you want to do, and how often you’re willing to practice to get it done.
Your expectations — I’m borrowing this from Hogan’s book — that anyone of average body type, size and intelligence and who goes about it seriously I think should have no problem breaking 80 within a relatively short time. I would say between a year and two is very reasonable.
NC: What are common pitfalls that most beginning golfers encounter?
MW: Adults when they take the game up and they don’t want to embarrass themselves on the first tee. What happens to them then is that they get good enough at their long game quickly enough so that they could play if they had a short game, but actually they have just waited to embarrass themselves until they get to the green! It’s almost more frustrating to be right there and you can’t close the deal. So, all aspects of your game need to rise simultaneously.
NC: So you think there should be about a 50/50 split in practice between irons/woods and short game?
MW: I would say that the better you get the more time you spend within 50 yards of the green and certainly if you’re interested in scoring that’s a big, big part of what you need to do. You should get 50 yards away and say, “Oh boy, now I’m going to show everybody.” And most people get close to the green and say, “Oh no I hope I don’t mess it up.”
NC: Please don’t skull it!
MW: Exactly! So what I tell most people is that when you’re at the range you should hit half of your balls with your most lofted wedge and your driver and then the other half of the balls you should hit with all of your other clubs combined. And putting is another thing unto itself. The driver and the shortest wedge, those are the things you’ll need the most.
NC: At what point in a golfer’s learning process should they begin taking lessons? Getting fitted for a set of clubs?
MW: Well, it depends. Obviously there’s the monetary thing. But if you begin by playing poorly, if you just do what’s natural and you go out there and see how good you are before you get lessons, basically what happens is that you develop bad habits and then when the instructor gets you, the process is both getting the bad stuff out and the good stuff in at the same time which slows things down.
Club fitting — when you first get started you’re going to be very hard on your golf clubs. Your first set of clubs, it’s not that important to have really good clubs. A good piece of advice: It’s better to get a high-quality brand of club that’s used rather than something that’s shiny and new but maybe low quality.
NC: What should a beginning golfer look for in an instructor when looking for lessons?
MW: I think almost universally the best combination is someone who can play and someone who can teach. If you can find an instructor who you’ve checked out their resume and you know that they have played at a high level and they’ve taught at a high level, so you look at do they have successful students who have won tournaments? That’s the best possible combo.
NC: What are the most important principles to developing a solid, repeatable swing?
MW: All of the best players in the world have certain things in common. So if you see a Jim Furyk and you see a Rory McIlroy and you see the two swings and you think “Oh my god nothing could be more different than those two swings!” I would say that if you looked at them from halfway down in the downswing to halfway through the follow-through they look almost exactly the same. So if you look at videos and sequence photos and you see that one person’s doing one thing and that another person’s doing another thing, well then that’s style. But if you see them and everyone’s doing the same thing, that’s fundamental.
NC: What you say your top three to five most important fundamentals are?
MW: Grip, absolutely. There’s an old saying that occasionally you’ll see someone who’s a pretty good player who has a bad grip but you’ll never see someone who has a good grip that isn’t a good player.
If I go out to dinner with someone that says they’re a golfer I say “Show me your grip” — I can tell them normally within a shot or two what their index is just by looking at it. They always seem shocked by that but really it tells a lot about what is going on –- nearly everybody puts their hands on the club either poorly or improperly and they’re making it harder for themselves.
Second –- everyone is a scooping bastard. I mean, if you’ve ever taken a shoveful of dirt and thrown it over your shoulder or flipped a burger on a grill your hand-eye coordination is telling you that ball that you just topped you need to get under the next one better — and that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to do.
And that speaks to the flat left wrist. If you’re going to be ahead of it the only way that you can square the club up with a good grip is to change your wrist as you go through –- to supinate your wrist. If we went to Torrey Pines today and we saw high-speed photos of everyone hitting the ball off the first tee, we might not see a perfect one all day. But if you went to the final round of a PGA Tour event and took high-speed photos you wouldn’t see one all day long that wasn’t absolutely perfect.
NC: How can beginning golfers learn how to learn in between lessons when our coach isn’t around?
MW: Basically, you have to be a good observer. The tendency is to have an emotional reaction to every shot you hit. You cannot be mad, you cannot be sad, you cannot be glad about anything. But to first say, “What did the club do the ball to make the ball do that?” and then to understand the physics of impact and secondly say, “What did my body do to make the club do what it just did?” If you just jump from the shot right back to your swing it can be very confusing to the beginning player. So you have to really stop and say, “Woah, what just happened there? I sliced it that much, the club was that open? OK now, what could I have done that could have made the club be that open?”
So be a good observer, understand the physics of impact and then once you know the cause and effect relationships you can make big, very valid adjustments quickly and easily.
NC: What parting advice would you like to give to my fellow newbie golfers?
MW: A little knowledge is dangerous. You should try to learn everything you can about the game, really become a student of the game so you’ll enjoy every practice session you have, you’ll get better every time you go out, and you’ll continue to learn and continue to improve really for your entire life. That’s the thing -– if you don’t know why you hit a bad shot, you’ll continue to hit the bad shots. So if you’re not interested in knowing as much as you can about the game, we’ll just have another beer, buy the newest driver that’s out there…
NC: Flirt with the cart girl…
MW: That whole kinda thing. A lot of people say, “Ahh I’m just out for the exercise.” What a load of bull that is. Everybody would give almost anything to get better but they’re afraid to take their ego and put it on the backburner. So if you really want to approach the game properly get some quality instruction and enjoy the process of getting better, and you’ll be a golfer for life.
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The Wedge Guy: 5 indisputable rules of bunker play
Let’s try to cover the basics of sand play – the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers – and see if we can make all of this more clear.
First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver – excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.
All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play. I’ve always challenged the old adage, “bunker shots are easy; you don’t even have to hit the ball.” I challenge that because bunker shots are the ONLY ones where you don’t actually try to hit the ball, so that makes them lie outside your norm.
Let’s start with a look at the sand wedge; they all have a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force will affect the shot. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.
The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.
So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”:
- Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
- Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
- The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
- On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
- Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).
So, there you go – the five undisputable rules of bunker play.
As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game – just send it in. I need your input to keep writing about things you want to know.
The Wedge Guy: Making the short ones
One of the most frustrating things in golf has to be missing short putts. I’m talking about putts under six feet for the most part here, but particularly those inside of four. You hit a great approach to set up a short birdie…and then miss it. Or you make a great pitch or chip to save par — or even bogey — and it doesn’t go in.
When we face any short putt, several things happen to get in the way of our success. First, because we feel like we “have” to make this, we naturally tense up, which mostly manifests in a firmer hold on the putter, maybe even the proverbial “death grip” (appropriately named). That firmer hold is generally concentrated in the thumbs and forefingers, which then tightens up the forearms, shoulders and everything else. So the first tip is:
- Lighten up. When you take your grip on the putter, focus on how tight you are holding it, and relax. Feel like you are holding the putter in the fingers, with your thumbs only resting lightly as possible on the top of the putter. To see the difference, try this: while you are sitting there, clench your thumb and forefinger together and move your hand around by flexing your wrist – feel the tension in your forearm? Now, relax your thumb and forefinger completely and squeeze only your last three fingers in your hand and move it around again. See how much more you are able to move? Actually, that little tip applies to all your shots, but particularly the short putts. A light grip, with the only pressure in the last three fingers, sets up a smooth stroke and good touch.
The second thing that happens when we have a short putt is we often allow negative thoughts to creep in… “Don’t miss this”…“What if I miss it?”…“I have to make this”…all those put undue pressure on us and make it that much harder to make a good stroke.
So, the second tip is:
- Chill out. Just allow yourself a break here. You have hit a great shot to get it this close, so allow yourself to believe that you are going to make this. Relax, shake out the nerves, and think only positive thoughts while you are waiting your turn to putt. And you know what? If you do miss it, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just one shot. So chill out and have fun…and make more short putts.
Finally, we often tend to get so focused on “just make a good stroke” that we get all wrapped up in mechanical thoughts. Forget those. Focus your vision intently and completely on the target. Most short putts are pretty darn straight, or maybe just on or outside the high side. My favorite thought on these putts comes from a favorite movie, The Patriot.
- Aim small, miss small. Early in the movie, Gibson’s character took his two very young sons and several rifles and went to rescue his older son. He coached them to “Remember what I told you?” and the son replied “Yes sir. Aim small, miss small.” That’s great advice on short putts. Instead of focusing your eyes on the hole, pick a specific spec of dirt or grass in the back edge, or inside one lip or the other – on whatever line you want the putt to start. Don’t just look at the hole…focus intently on that very specific spot. That intensifies your visual acuity and allows your natural eye-hand coordination to work at its very best.
So, there you have the three keys to making more short putts:
- Lighten up
- Chill out
- Aim small, miss small
I hope this helps all of you make more of them.
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Jul 25, 2013 at 6:11 am
Man I wish I could’ve been breaking 80 after a year and a half
Jul 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm
Awesome read. He gives lessons at the range that’s only 5 minutes away from me! Small world. I’ve witnessed him giving lessons to junior players and has a very calm vibe about him. Very nice guy from what I observed.
Jul 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm
I’m there pretty much every day – and yeah he’s a cool dude. If you take lessons tell him you saw this article. 🙂
Jul 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm
whats the best way to get your wife to play good golf?
always leave room for optimism by putting it off another year.
Jul 20, 2013 at 6:59 am
would be interested in hearing/seeing his explanation for a proper grip. thanks.
Jul 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm
well, you have the vardon, interlocking, baseball, furyk grip, and they can be strong, weak or neutral. everything else is “bad”. oh, and if you’re not jim furyk, the furyk grip is bad. 🙂
Jul 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm
Near as I can tell it’s pretty much what Hogan espouses in his book, if you have a copy handy.
Jul 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm
Way to represent SD