Recreation & Destinations

10 Tips for Mastering Your Next Tee-Off

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Whether you’re a seasoned player or new to the game, prepare for the golf season with these tips from our region’s pros.

Woman golf player hitting ball.

The golf season is underway, and perhaps you’ve already hit the links.

But have you noticed the slice you straightened out last season is back with a vengeance? Are you having a problem lining up your putts?

Or, are you new to the game and have no idea what you’re doing?

Golf professionals from around the Chicago area have pitched in to provide tips for golfers of all abilities, using their decades of experience to address some of the issues they see time and again.

Common ailments include rushed shots, incorrect alignment, inconsistent stretching and pre-shot habits, and, believe it or not, glass-half-empty attitudes.

Becoming a better player takes time and mental toughness. Bring your golf game up to par (or under) with these 10 professional tips.

Take a Few Lessons

Getting in a few lessons before heading out to that first tee may be one of the best things a new player can do, says Duncan Geddes, PGA professional and director of golf at Aldeen Golf Club in Rockford.

“Especially for new players, I would suggest getting with a PGA professional and getting some instruction right out of the gate,” says Geddes. “A lot of times, it can help you avoid some bad habits.”

Even seasoned golfers could do with a few pointers, and the pros are happy to help. Do yourself a favor and identify the areas of your game that need improvement before walking into a lesson.

“You need to know what you want help on, where you’re losing the strokes,” Geddes says. “In most cases, for most players, it’s chipping, pitching, putting or bunker shots. Those are the areas where the fewest number of people practice, because it’s not as fun as driving, but it’s where people struggle the most.”

Remember, too, that there’s no reason to feel self-conscious about your abilities.

“People come out for a lesson, they hit a bad shot and they’re embarrassed,” Geddes says. “I say to them, ‘I’ve seen it all, so don’t worry about it.’ That helps put them at ease sometimes.”

Create a Personal Par

Ron Skubisz, golf course manager and PGA pro at Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles, has been a golf pro for 32 years. He’s seen many a golfer become frustrated to the point of quitting.

“Especially when you first start out, golf is not fun,” he says. “So, have the attitude that it can be fun with your friends. Learn to laugh at yourself a little bit.”

Instead of worrying about the official par on the course, create your own personal par, he says. Be realistic about what you should shoot at each hole, add up those numbers and aim to hit that personal par your next time out.
The goal is to think in terms of success, not failure.

“Say the golf course par is 72,” he says. “If you shoot 100, that’s not exactly encouraging.”

But if you shoot 100 on your own par, you’re doing well for yourself.
“That doesn’t mean don’t aspire to do better, but be realistic about where you’re at,” he adds. “And measure your consistency.”

Athletes… Relax and Remember to Breathe

Many athletes who have played other sports for years before turning to golf may find the game incredibly frustrating, and there’s a simple reason for that, Geddes says.

“Golf is a different kind of game, in that it’s an action game – it’s not a reaction game,” he says. “In most sports, you’re reacting to a puck that’s moving or a ball that’s moving. Golf is not a reaction sport, so sometimes the natural athleticism that comes out in other sports doesn’t come out in golf.

“Look at an NBA player or college basketball player,” he adds. “They can make the most amazing plays and split players as they’re driving down the lane for a shot. And then they miss a free throw. Why is that? Sometimes it’s easier to do things subconsciously and not think about it. That’s why golf is so frustrating for many athletes. Golf gives you way too much time to think.”

If you head into a round understanding that you won’t be perfect, you’ll have a much more relaxed attitude, which is what you need to play the game, Geddes says.

Bryan Brotchie is the member head golf professional at Geneva National Resort in Lake Geneva, and he has a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. He believes one of the best ways to settle your nerves before a big shot is to work on your breathing

“Jitters usually come in golf because you’re thinking a lot and you have a lot of down time,” Brotchie says.

Ironically, the extra time often leads players to get anxious and rush their shots. What you really need to do is relax your mind and your body.

“What kills golfers when they play is doing things quickly,” Brotchie says. “Simple breathing techniques – full, deep breaths and full exhales – tend to calm that down.”

Brotchie also believes in creating a routine of simple stretching techniques, especially for the lower back and hips, because the back is the area that tends to get hurt the most.

“People throw their bag on the cart and then go play and get hurt,” he says. “As my military dad used to say, ‘Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.’”

Arrive Early

Andy Gramer of PrairieView Golf Club in Byron has been guilty of one of the most common fouls of the game. The head golf professional has, on occasion, shown up on time for a round. But in golf, if you’re not early, you’re late.

“Golf is supposed to be a relaxing sport,” Gramer says. “But from the first minute they get to the golf course, 90 percent of people are rushing.”

Your game actually starts when you pull into the parking lot.

Instead of hustling into the pro shop and arriving at your first tee nearly out of breath, give yourself 15 to 20 minutes to warm up before your tee time, and you’ll see a better score on the course, Gramer says.

“If you’ve got time to go to the putting green and roll 5 minutes’ worth of putts, you’ll have a better feel for the greens. It will slow you down,” he says. “Golf is one of those things where you can’t be in a hurry.”

Create a Pre-Shot Routine

Similar to rushing a shot, overthinking a shot can get golfers into trouble, says Brian Smith, director of golf and general manager at Chalet Hills Golf Club in Oakwood Hills.

Having confidence in your swing comes through practice and dedication. Smith, who has been in the industry for 40 years, believes it’s also important to maintain a pre-shot routine.

“Your body and your head need consistency,” Smith says. “And doing the same thing every time, every shot, lets your muscles and your mind know, ‘OK, it’s time to swing and hit the ball.’”

Come up with a pre-shot routine that is comfortable for you, he says. Some golf professionals address the ball and give a few waggles of the club to loosen things up.

“What that’s doing is kind of relaxing you and loosening your muscles,” Smith says. “If you do that every time, even at practice, it’s telling your mind and your muscles, ‘OK, you’re on waggle No. 2, it’s time to swing.’ It doesn’t give your body the chance to think about the water that’s right in front of you or the tree that’s to your right.”

Check your wind and weather conditions, line up your shot, go through your pre-shot routine and pull the trigger, he says.

Start With Your Short Clubs

Every spring, Mike Lehman sees people pull out their big driver and wail away at the driving range.

Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for developing an ineffective swing, says the head golf pro at Bowes Creek Country Club in Elgin.

“In order for your body to work most effectively, you need to keep it in the relaxed position,” he says.

What you should do, especially when you’re just starting out the season, is start with a good warm-up routine with your short clubs to develop rhythm and timing.

Once you have a good tempo, you can graduate to a larger club at the driving range – but remember to keep your hands relaxed and utilize the rhythm you created with your short clubs.

“The key to a powerful swing is getting a connection to the golf club, and those hands need to be relaxed to get a responsive club face and get a responsive golf shot,” Lehman says.

Get Teed Off… Properly

How do you set up for the perfect tee shot?

Gramer recommends going through a three-point checklist: ball position, stance and weight.

Play the ball forward in your stance, off the inside of your left heel if you’re a right-hander, he says. Your feet should be a little wider than shoulder-width apart, slightly wider than how you would stand with your irons. And start with about 60 percent of your weight on your right foot, if you’re right-handed.

Once you’re set up, keep in mind that the swing you’ll take with your driver is different than the swings you’ll take with other clubs in your bag.

“Most people try to set up their driver the same as their iron, which is where they get into trouble,” Gramer says. “They think it’s the same swing, but it’s not.”

A driver swing is more of a sweeping motion, where you connect with the ball on the upswing. With your iron, you should have a descending blow, hitting down on the ball.

“A driver is harder to hit because it has less loft, which in turn puts more side spin on the ball, which amplifies your bad shot,” Gramer says. “A driver is probably the hardest club for most people to hit.”

Don’t Look at the Ball

Reagan Davis grew up in southern Louisiana surrounded by golf professionals, including Lionel Hebert, winner of the PGA Championship in 1957.

Davis has been director of golf at Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in Galena, Ill., since 2013, but he’s a seasoned PGA professional who taught lessons for almost 25 years.

The seasoned pro learned and shared thousands of tips from Hebert – who hailed from Davis’ hometown – but the best piece of advice gleaned from his mentor concerned alignment.

“A lot of golfers will look down at the ball on the ground to line up, when actually you should be looking at the target,” Davis says.

There are only four things you can line up for a shot: your shoulders, feet, hips and club face, he says. It does no good to try to draw lines on the ground or use the ball as a static marker.

Instead, understand that your eyes are hotwired to your brain, so by looking ahead at your target, your eyes will automatically line you up properly.
Davis remains loyal to this simple trick.

“It’s such a rookie mistake,” he says. “Don’t look at the ball; look at where you’re going. Out of all the years I’ve taught, 98 percent of people were looking at the ball to line up.”

Don’t Read Golf Magazines

Dozens of golf magazines, blogs and shows have saturated the market, so it’s easy to find advice about the game. But beware what you read.

Geddes doesn’t think you should throw away your subscription to Golf Digest, but he does want you to realize that not every tip you see will help your game.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t read the instruction in golf magazines,’” Geddes says. “It’s not usually bad advice; you just don’t know if that applies to you.”

He likens the advice provided in a golf magazine to that found in a giant medical book.

If you have a headache and try to figure out what is causing your head pains, you may read that gallstones cause headaches and believe you have a serious ailment.

In reality, you might have drunk too much the night before.

“That’s the way golf instruction is sometimes,” Geddes says. “‘I have a slice – ooooh, here’s information on how to cure my slice.’ If you try to use that as a cure or fix, it might make it worse. Let a good PGA professional work with you, personally, to find out what will help you improve.”

Encourage Your Kids to Play… but be Nice

The youngest golfer Skubisz ever taught was 7 years old, and he thinks that’s a good age to start to learn the game.

But rather than waiting for your child to hit a specific age, instead wait until he or she has the attention span needed to get through a few rounds. And make sure your child really wants to learn to play, or you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

Early on, you’ll want to establish solid fundamentals and good habits, so signing up your youngster for lessons is a good idea. Just make sure to attend the lessons so you can maintain consistent instruction, Skubisz says.

And when you play the course with your child, show some restraint.

“If a parent hits the ball 200 yards and their kid hits it 50 yards, maybe the parent should use a wedge instead of a driver so they hit it 50 yards, too,” he says. “If your child hits it farther than you did, that’s a sense of accomplishment; that’s fun. The kids can kind of sense they’re catching up to the parent. It can’t be fun if you get outhit by 150 yards a shot.”

But Above All, Just Do It

No matter your struggles, remember this: golf is a game, and games should be enjoyed.

“I think the single most important piece of advice is just have fun,” says Skubisz. “Golfers have a tendency to watch the tour players play and say, ‘I should shoot this or shoot that,’ and they put themselves in a world that is unattainable. Just have fun.”

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