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Practice like a Tour pro
by Ian Poulter

There is no secret to what it takes to hone a good short game: practice. But it has to be effective practice. To make a real difference in this department, you need a purpose, and you need to be able to measure improvement and success.

When I go out to work here on the tour player's range at Lake Nona, I literally take with me a whole bag of tricks. I've got the lot. From a humble chalk line that I use on the practice putting green to alignment aids and the trusty Bushnell laser range finder. I've even got a Trackman system if I want to get into some serious analysis.


String it out: you can pick up a builder's chalk line from any DIY store - I guarantee it'll be the best investment you'll make when it comes to improving your putting.

The key to cementing good fundamentals is that you don't leave to chance details of the set-up, ball position, alignment, or our yardages. We have the tools to make sure we get these right - and so should you. The real beauty of the following drills is that they are simple. So let's get started on the putting green (oh, and you're gonna love the latest gadget that's become the 'must-have toy among all of us on tour!).

Work the line, and improve your 'visual' to the hole

OK, so here we are on the practice green and let's get started on the drills I work on week-in and week-out. First up, the chalk line. I look for a straight putt of six feet or so, peg one end of the builder's chalk line with a tee and then pull out the string all the way to the hole. Once it's tight, you simply give it a 'ping', and there's a distinct blue line on the green - dead straight into the hole.

These builder's chalk lines may cost you a fiver in B&Q, and it's the best money you will spend when it comes to working on your putting. Because as soon as you begin hitting putts from this distance - the money putts you cannot afford to miss - you will be made 100% aware of the line into the hole, and you can use that to (1) monitor the path of your stroke, and (2) to study the roll of the ball on its way to the hole.

As is pretty much the norm on tour, I always mark my ball with a line and I'm careful to aim that line along the chalk line as I put the ball down. That helps you to see the putter-face is square to the line of the putt. Now, depending on how comfortable I am feeling on the greens on any particular week, I may stand and hit six-foot putts for half an hour or I might stand there for two hours. But as long as I have that chalk line I know I'm repeating good habits. If I'm looking for sheer repetition of the stroke, I'll pull in one ball after another and fill the cup; periodically, I'll make a point of going through the whole routine, looking at the putt from behind the ball and then going through my pre-putt routine before hitting it. That way you condition your habits for the golf course.

The thing is, it's always nice to know that your eye line and general alignment is good, so that when you are out there over a six footer you trust your technique. You feel comfortable. Some people like to 'spot putt', picking out two or three spots on the line to the hole and rolling the ball over them. I have always liked to see a line. Practising in this way, with the chalk, imprints that blue line in your mind's eye. When you get out on the course it's like you still see it - and react to it.

Back to basics: Having that chalk line as a source of reference, you can make sure that your feet, knees, hips and shoulders are parallel to the line. As you then make your stroke, the chalk further helps you to monitor the path of the putter-head as you work it back and through - ideally, it moves fractionally inside-to-square-to inside on a perfectly neutral path.

My grip is the standard reverse-overlap style, with both thumbs running down the shaft, forefinger on the left hand resting over the fingers on the right. This gives me a nice snug, secure hold, which encourages the two hands to work as one unit through the stroke.

Alignment - the eyes have it...
Eye-line mirror gives invaluable feedback

With the chalk line extending into the hole on a straight six footer, aim the mirror precisely to create the ultimate putting studio. Both the mirror and the chalk line will help you to get your feet, hips & shoulders square at the set-up.

Whenever I feel my putting stroke is a little off, I always go back to the basics of alignment, and the Eye-Line mirror is a vital piece of gear that enables you to check your eye-line is where you want it at the set-up. Again, this is hugely important, as you can easily creep out of position and distort your perspective of a putt. Get your eye-line twisted and the likelihood is that your head and shoulders fall out of position, too, and obviously that affects the whole mechanic of your putting stroke.

I often use the Eye-Line mirror in conjunction with the chalk, as that really does give you all the feedback you need to go to work on your technique. I want my eye line to be just inside the ball-to target line. [If I get my eyes directly over the ball I feel like my upper body is too far forward and I feel a little unstable.] Here, on this close up view (main image, left), you can see that my eyes are just inside the ball-to-target line, corresponding with the red line on the mirror. That's perfect. The important thing is that my eyes are parallel to the line in which I intend to strike the ball - as indeed yours should be.

The String (right): Again, very simple, but very effective. The string I have pegged out here is from short-game guru Dave Pelz's range, though you could easily make up your own. Some prefer it to the chalk line on straight putts, but I actually find it is best for working on breaking putts, as it teaches you to see and to trust the break. Here I have set it up on a right-to-left putt that moves all of three cups.

The key is to use the string to highlight the line on which you need to start the ball towards the 'apex' of the putt - i.e. the point you identify as where it will take the break and move towards the hole. Once you have that, you can fine-tune the pace.

On fast greens you really do have to convince yourself of the amount of break that needs to be factored in, and the string helps you in that respect. It also helps you to keep the path of your stroke running true back and through.

So it's a good exercise to build your visual skills. Putting, of course, is all about line and pace. I always try to hit a breaking putt like this at a speed that will see the ball finish 18 inches past the hole should I miss. (That's another Pelz tip, by the way.)

Simplify Sand Play
How to play the basic 'out'

I guess if you asked a dozen tour players what they work on in the sand you might get a dozen different answers, because we all have our own little preferences for playing different shots. But I try to keep my technique simple: it all revolves around the open clubface and the length and speed of my swing to vary distance.

Assuming you are in dry sand with a good lie, you have to open the clubface to utilise the 'bounce' on the sole of the club. That's the heavy flange that characterises the sand iron. The more you open it up, the more the club wants to bounce and glide through the sand.

My preference has always been to crank open the face of the sand iron. Having 'pre-set' that angle before completing my grip, I then work on varying the length and speed of my swing to play shots of varying spin and distance. Obviously the less sand you take, the more spin you get (the more the sand acts like sandpaper and grabs the ball), but it's amore risky the shot, as you're hitting closer to the ball itself.

The golden rule when you go out to work on your sand skills is that you must always accelerate the club through impact. I think in terms of a clock face, so a 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock swing (as pictured here) would be fairly regular. I can lengthen it a little for a longer shot, or cut it back for a close one. But I'll always make sure I accelerate through the sand. That's key.

Need to land the ball just a foot or so onto the green? A really soft one? I Would open the face to the max- 70 degrees or more -while the backswing might be a tad shorter than it is here. But I wouldn't be quite so aggressive through the ball. Yes, you always have to accelerate - that's a given - but the motion through the ball is something you can experiment with. With a clubface opened to 70 degrees or so, you can accelerate but with an almost lazy, flop shot motion that will see the ball come up fairly steeply and stop very quickly on the green.

Basic Wedge Play
Vary target distance to 'see it, hit it, feel it'

Versatility - that's what distinguishes a great wedge player .Watch Phil Mickelson, one of the best in the business .Whatever the yardage, from100 yards and in he knows to the inch the club and the swing that he is going to make to land the ball on a dime by the flag stick. But it's not rocket science. Phil knows how far he hits his wedges (all five of them!) because he lasers distance on the range and dials the numbers in. And that's exactly what I do - and it's what you have to do if you are serious about knocking shots off your score.

This area of the game is so vital to the construction of your round. And the lesson here is actually more to do with smart course strategy than it is the details of how to hit a wedge shot. If I know I cannot reach a par five in two (and even if the yardage is do-able it's often just not worth the risk), I will calculate the lay up to my favourite wedge pitching distance - i.e. 90 yards. Depending on the wind, this could be a 54- or a 58-degree wedge, and I would expect to knock it to within 10 feet. This has to be the strategy you adopt. The smart play.

On a short par four I will often look to leave myself the same distance for the approach shot (i.e. I don't just blast with the driver regardless. Sometimes it might be a 3-wood. Sometimes an iron). And if I get into trouble off the tee, and there's a significant risk involved in trying to get near the green, then I'll lay up to this favourite distance and hope to save par with an up-and-down. The more you practice, the more this is the reality.

This area at Lake Nona is perfect as I can work between six different pins and use a range finder to get accurate yardages. I know exactly what the distance is. So I can look at the shot and say, 'Yeah, that's a full sand iron shot', or 'that's a full lob shot'. For the in-between's I'll work on adjusting how far down the shaft I grip it, the length of my backswing and the way I place the clubface behind the ball. To take some distance off a shot, you simply open the face a little (right); as I do so, I also decrease swing speed, which gives you a (progressively) higher, softer, and floatier shot with a hint of left-to-right spin.

These are all variables you need to work on to influence the flight and distance of your wedge shots.

Finally, the T-Square that you see here in these insets (right) is another very simple but ingenious gadget that I can't do without on the range. Search the web and you'll find one. Placing it on the ground confirms not only that you work around a consistent stance and alignment, but also a consistent ball position. So many swing problems arise from a gradual departure from what are the fundamentals of good technique - this type of approach helps you eliminate that.


A smart course strategy demands that you know exactly how you hit your scoring clubs. i.e. your wedges. Use a laser range finder to establish your landing distances and dial in those numbers out on the course.

 

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