Believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of secrets to playing better golf. It mostly involves structured study, purposeful practice, and getting help when you need it. When it comes to assistance, tour pros have small armies of swing coaches, short-game gurus, psychologists, physical trainers, therapists, dieticians, and club-fitters to help them stay on the top of the leaderboard. Most of them also have an invaluable partner on the course — their caddie. You may not have (or want) an entourage, but there are plenty of knowledgeable professionals in Westchester to help you with your game.
Taking regular lessons from a PGA professional is the single best thing you can do for your game. Once you’ve learned the basics, though, it may be time to change your student/teacher relationship to player/coach. “Teaching and coaching are two different things,” says GlenArbor Golf Club Director of Golf Rob Labritz. “With a beginner, you teach them the basics of the golf swing. With a more experienced player, coaching how to play the game becomes more important.”
Labritz, by the way, is speaking as a player, not a coach. The four-time PGA Championship competitor and 2013 Met PGA Player of the Year has worked for 13 years with Tom Willson, who retired last year as head professional at Bonnie Briar Country Club. The two met in Florida. During the season, Labritz sees Willson about once a month, but frequently sends him videos of his swing for commentary.
“There is no one perfect swing,” Willson points out, “but there is a perfect swing for Rob.”
“We talk about strategies, too,” Labritz says. “We’ll work on different lies and how to get the club on the ball to make it do what we want.” Willson and Labritz have worked together enough that they can even talk about course situations over the phone and come to conclusions about what Rob needs to do. At big tournaments like the PGA Championship, Willson will often travel with him and accompany him on practice rounds.
When it comes to the player/coach relationship, Labritz says, “It’s more than the golf swing. You get to know how people think, how they feel, how their emotions act on the golf course. Once you get to that point, the trust grows.”
Trust your coach, trust your swing — your game is bound to get better.
Trump National Westchester GC caddie Tommy Accamondo discusses club selection with head pro Patrick Langan.
What would Phil be without Bones? Or Furyk without Fluff? Or Adam Scott without Steve Williams? There’s a reason these caddies are almost as well-known as their players: They’re integral to their pro’s success. If you want to get the most out of your game, hire a caddie every chance you get.
Nearly all of the private clubs in the county have active, effective caddie programs that not only give employment to hundreds of deserving guys and gals, but raise the level of play in numerous ways. That’s not the case everywhere in the country, so we should count our blessings.
What are caddies for? Sure, they’ll tote your bag and find your ball and rake the sand trap after you’ve messed it up — but they’ll also help you read your putts, choose the right club, and guide you around a course if you’ve never played it before. Their local knowledge is indispensable, whether it’s the unseen prevailing break on the greens or the fact that a given shot is uphill even though it looks flat. The caddie, who walks the course as many as 10 times every week, knows things about it you’ll never know.
Nearly all of Westchester’s caddies get started by taking an intense MGA training program held every spring for newbies to the game. They then serve an apprenticeship of sorts (depending on each club’s policies and needs), during which they work under the watchful eye of an experienced looper and the caddie master. Most clubs also enlist helpful, knowledgeable members to mentor the beginners until they’re ready to go solo. The caddies get a solid grounding in the game and how best to assist their player.
If you’ve never played with a caddie on your bag, it can be a bit confusing at first. After the introductions, the caddie will count and arrange the clubs in your bag. He may watch you hit a few on the range to get a feel for your game, but don’t be intimidated — he’s definitely seen swings worse than yours!
When you get on the course, don’t be surprised if the caddie gives you a target line, hands you a club, and heads on down the fairway before you tee off. He’s going to a place where he can make sure the coast is clear and he can see where your ball lands. Normally, the caddie will walk ahead of you so he can check your ball’s lie, the distance for the next shot, and be ready with the info you need when you arrive.
On the green, the caddie also will usually get there before you. He’ll mark and clean your ball and be ready to offer advice on the line and speed of the putt. Some players slavishly follow the caddie’s instructions; others prefer to heed their own counsel. Guess what? You’re the boss, so follow the routine that works for you. The caddie won’t mind.
After the round, the caddie will clean and again count your clubs. Now’s the time to pay him. Rates at most clubs in Westchester range from $60 to $100 per bag for 18 holes — plus a generous tip. A good practice is to ask the caddie master before the round what the members usually pay. That should be your minimum, considering how many strokes the caddie saved for you.
You may not learn how to drive the ball 300 yards, but you can pick up a host of invaluable information if you play with better golfers from time to time. With that goal in mind, I joined two other amateurs for a round with notable professional Andrew Giuliani at Westchester Hills Golf Club. Giuliani, winner of the 2009 Met Open Championship and two-time star of the Golf Channel’s Big Break, currently competes on the mini-tours and was more than helpful to us all. Here’s what we each learned during the round.
Lokesh Reddy, no handicap: “I’m new to golf, and it was fascinating watching how Andrew approached his shots. He calmly stepped up to the ball and effortlessly struck shots that made the ball just soar. I learned you have to relax and just hit the ball.”
Peter Goodman, 20 handicap: “Andrew was very accommodating and gave me pointers that seemed to help. I was jabbing my putter; Andrew explained and demonstrated how I should putt more in a pendulum, with an even bringing-back of the putter head and then pushing with the same length through the ball. It was nice hearing it and watching him do it.”
Dan Berger, 8 handicap: “Andrew’s got game, and it takes a ton of hard work and dedication to keep the dream alive. He works out, keeps physically fit, and practices all the time. He keeps looking to improve his game. He works with Old Oaks Country Club Head Pro Bobby Heins on his swing and with Darrel Kestner on his putting. While it seems glamorous being a professional golfer, you need great skill and dedication to continuously improve your game. It’s a grind, too.”
Giuliani explained how he approaches rounds with amateurs: “The main thing is to have some fun. Guys get nervous, but they need to remember that we hit bad shots, too. Sometimes it’s difficult to give advice on the golf course. That’s not the best time for the amateur to try something new or to make a correction. It’s going to feel awkward. I suggest we go to the range after the round and hit a few balls instead.”
We all know that every missed putt is a stroke lost forever, while an errant drive can be wiped from the scorecard with a good recovery shot. We also know that putting amounts to about 50 percent of our scores. So why do we spend hours on the range whopping the big stick and just minutes on the practice green wafting the flat one? Maybe it’s because we don’t know how to practice our putting — or even what a good putt looks and feels like in the first place.
Bill Smittle, head professional at Scarsdale Golf Club, went to England to study the latest putting techniques at the Harold Swash Putting School of Excellence. Though it may sound like a place Harry Potter would go to play mini-golf, it is actually the home of teachers who have sharpened the putting skills of leading European players like Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Henrik Stenson, and Martin Kaymer. Smittle returned as a certified instructor in the putting (and teaching) techniques that helped the Euros carry home the Ryder Cup in 2012.
He’s created a state-of-the-art putting studio to analyze students’ strokes using numerous high-tech tools — like Science&Motion’s PuttLab, which uses ultrasound to measure and analyze 28 different putting-stroke parameters. When I went through a session with Smittle, I found out that my aim was 2.3 degrees closed to the perfect line and my stroke was 2.2 degrees open — which sounds like it would send the ball on the correct path, but actually gave my putts some hook spin (not a good thing). Those were just a couple of the significant flaws that needed correction in my putting setup and stroke.
“We’re not trying to build a perfect stroke,” Smittle says, “but rather to give you a consistent one. Most three-putts are because the player hits the first putt the wrong distance. If you don’t strike the ball with a consistent strike, you can’t control your distance.” That consistent strike includes hitting the ball at the same place on the club face, keeping the club face square to the line, putting the right amount of top spin on the ball, swinging with the proper amount of force — you get the picture. It’s a science.