Perfect Practice Round
6.50am on Wednesday June 16: the final practice round at Pinehurst No. 2 before the 99th US Open. If any course in the world demands a player's undivided attention when it comes to figuring out how to negotiate a good score, this is it.
A good practice round is essential before you play a tournament of any importance. It is important that you get a feel for the course, particularly the way the greens receive a ball, and the speed at which they putt. You need to figure out where to attack, where to play safe.
The notes that you make during a practice round will save you shots when you play the course for real.
First, don't bet too much during a practice round. You're there to think about the course, not about your opponent, which you will tend to do if there is a lot of money at stake.
There are occasions when I'll get together with a few guys in a fourball and bet a little on a practice round, but it's never a big bet.
Don't lose sight of the fact that your main focus during a practice round is to soak in every bit of information that you can about the condition of the course. The secret is to play your own game and keep a clear mind so that you are fully aware of the nuances of the course and they way you apply your game to playing it.
Note the advice on the following, even if your home course is not as tough as Pinehurst, and you could find that your scores come tumbling down.
Establish your best short-game options
Depending on the nature of the course, you will quickly find out what type of recovery shots you need to practise around the green. On a links-type of course, the bump-and-run is usually a useful option. On a parkland course, you may find that you need to practise the lob shot out of longer fluffy rough taking the aerial route to the green. If a course is heavily bunkered, you obviously need to sharpen up your sand play and get used to the texture of the sand, as Greg is doing here. At Pinehurst No. 2, the difficulty is all about chipping and putting, reading the slopes and judging the pace at which the ball releases and runs to the hole. I can't imagine another course that demands so many different types of chip-and-run shots - players were using anything from a fairway wood to a wedge.
Study every green in detail
Probably the most important aspect of a practice round - and definitely the most important on the turtle-backed greens at Pinehurst - is the time you spend on and around the greens. From tee to green, Greg and I both tend to play fairly quickly. Once on the green, it's time for a little detective work: Where are the fall-off areas? Where is the safe (i.e. flat) part of the green? Which is the best side to miss the green (i.e. where are you most likely to save par with an up-and-down?). Try to be creative as to where you believe the pin positions will be during the tournament. As you gain in experience, you will realise where the most likely locations are. As long as we are not holding up players behind, we might spend several minutes noting these details and hitting a few putts to what we consider to be the likely pin positions on the green. Don't spend too much time around the hole - it won't be there tomorrow. Also, look out for any signs of grain, and make a note of any significant slopes and swales that may affect your approach shot.
Whatever it takes...
A good short-game is all about being versatile in your shot-making. Work with your most lofted wedges to get out of fluffy rough, and to carry any hazards around the green. As for the bump-and-run, this little shot can be played with just about every club in the bag -including a fairway wood.
If you're going to lay up, then lay up!
When you step on to the tee at a par-five hole, you pretty much know straight away whether or not you can even think about going for the green in two. If there's a question mark about getting up, my advice is leave it well alone and focus on where you want to play your third shot from.
There may be no point in even hitting driver off the tee; a 3-wood or long iron may set you up for a safer positional shot and actually force you to play the hole as a genuine par-five. The 610-yard 10th hole at Pinehurst is a perfect example - way out of my range. And with bunkers short and left of the green, a lay-up has to be just that: a lay-up.
The key is always to play to your strengths from a weak position. My game plan on this hole was to hit my second shot with a club that would leave me in the 90-95 yard zone, that being my most effective distance with a sand-wedge. And that's exactly how I played the hole in practice.
Teeing options - see the best line every time
A good practice round is all about preparing yourself for tournament conditions, so take control on the tee. Don't walk up to the ball and play without first taking a good look at the hole and running over your yardages (here with my caddie, Jimmy Johnson). On par-four holes, you may not need to hit driver. The ideal shot for position might be with a fairway wood or a long iron. On par-three holes, you need to establish the safe side of the green. Always think one step ahead, and give yourself the best second shot.
Working with your coach
During the practice round, I'll make mental notes on the way I'm hitting the ball, any tendencies that may be creeping into my game, and any faults I need to deal with on the range after the game. At Pinehurst, I was not happy with my ball-striking during practice. I was rushing my takeaway and mis-hitting a lot of shots.
My coach, David Leadbetter, was on hand to video a number of my swings, and that feedback helped me to get a good image of what needed fixing. The day before a big tournament, you're not going to change things dramatically, not in a technical sense, but the biggest problem with a flaw in your swing is not being aware of it. Once you know what you're doing, you can be aware of it during practice.
Think, and use a note-pad
To complement the yardage chart, a simple notebook is the best prop you can take to the golf course. Simple reminders will help you to avoid trouble and play to your strengths. I write down personal yardages, make a note of the clubs that I hit to the green from certain points on the fairway, and any other details about the course that can help me. Making notes is a good habit to get into as doing so focuses your mind on the game - and that's what good golf is all about.
Keep it in the short grass - and always be positive
No matter how I strike the ball off the tee during a practice round, I always want to play my approach shots to the green from the fairway (left). From time to time I will hit a shot from the rough, just to see how the ball comes out and reacts (right), but the majority of wayward tee shots are pulled back to the short grass. If you adopt this policy you tend to stay more positive about your game. On every par-four hole, always make sure that you practise the approach shot that you expect to face in the tournament proper.
Get a feel for the speed of the greens
When you play tournament golf you often find that the speed of the greens out on the course differs from the speed of the practice green. That's why it is so important to make the most of your practice round, in terms of getting to grips with the nature of the greens.
I like to take two or three balls and hit mid-to long-range putts from various positions on the green to where I think the pin may be placed. That gives me a good idea of the pace.
As I mentioned earlier, the key to a good practice round is to soak up as much information as you can about the course so that you can play it to the best of your ability. To score well you have to putt well, so do your homework.