You wouldn’t soon mistake me for my colleague Connor. He’s a follicly-blessed 20-something with a solid frame, no kids and a quiet Midtown Manhattan apartment. I’m a follicly-challenged 40-something with a slender frame, four kids and a manic suburban New Jersey house. But there is at least one trait we share: We’re both mid-handicap golfers desperate for more yards off the tee.
Connor’s power-sapper: He doesn’t fully turn in his swing, he sways.
“I never really understood what ‘taking a turn’ actually meant,” he told me the other day. “I thought the more I moved, the more power I would generate. Which is why I couldn’t hit a drive more than 230 yards, despite my weight and age.”
My yardage-drainer: a wicked left shoulder dip and abbreviated backswing that result in my move looking more like something you might see on a hockey rink than a golf course. My out-to-in swing path doesn’t help matters, either. Like Connor, I, too, am a 230ish guy, but not despite my weight and age — more likely because of them.
Anyway, when Connor and I learned a few months back that we’d face each other in a head-to-head driver skills challenge, it felt like a fair fight. We were starting from the same point of mediocrity.
Our contest is the first match-up in a bracket-style competition in which eight GOLF.com staff members are squaring off — with a GOLFTEC coach at our sides — to determine, through cold hard data, who can improve the most this golf season. (Round 1 features skills challenges in four different categories: driving, long game, iron play and short game.)
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Swing Evaluation for $125
The rules for our driving clash were simple:
(1) Pair up with a coach at a GOLFTEC location (Connor’s was in Englewood, N.J., and mine about 35 miles south, in Woodbridge, N.J.).
(2) Take GOLFTEC’s driver skills challenge, which measures five driver swings on a launch monitor and spits out a rating based on a combination of your distance and accuracy (or lack thereof).
(3) Try to improve on that number. Over a series of lessons and a driver fitting, we’d aim to tack on as much distance and accuracy to our swings as possible, under the tutelage of our coaches. At the end of the regimen, we’d take the driver skills challenge again. Whoever posted the highest score would advance to Round 2.
Time to get to work.
Upon his first Englewood visit, Connor shook off the winter rust with a few warm-up swipes, before taking five far more meaningful swings to set his skills challenge baseline numbers. His score: 45.2 out of 100. Yup, room for improvement!
Connor’s instructor, Nick Schiavo, wasted little time diagnosing Connor’s hip-sway issue. “He explained it in simple terms,” Connor said. “Power comes from rotating your body, not moving it back and forth. Once I got that through my head, we worked on correcting my muscle memory. Wall-sit drills were the perfect way for me to improve my posture and rotate my lower body in the backswing.”
“We then added multiple little fixes, nothing that felt too complicated; the information was digestible in a way where I could add more than one change in one lesson. My keys: Keeping my arms straight to keep my swing path consistent; hinging my wrists to generate more power and keeping my head behind the ball at impact to create a proper flight.” With reps, the sway was replaced by a turn:
Simultaneously, I was grinding away down in Woodbridge. When I posted a less-than-stellar 54.8 in my baseline driver challenge, my endlessly positive coach, Ryan Williamson, was quick to pick me up. “We can build on that,” he said. We. It felt good, for the first time in my golfing life, to have a support team in my corner.
Ryan didn’t need a Ph.D. in advanced swing mechanics to identify my shoulder-dip and swing-path issues, but he did have some advice that made an immediate impact. At address, my shoulders were too open. To fix that, Ryan told me to think about keeping my left shoulder pointed high and right, as if it felt like it was aimed at the top-right corner of the tarp into which I was hitting. From that position, I found it much easier to turn into my backswing instead of dip. Voila…
Ryan also slightly strengthened my grip — meaning I could see more of the fingers on my right hand — which helps promote more of an in-to-out swing and can help you more easily close the clubface at impact. He gave me just one swing thought: swing out to the right. It feels a bit counterintuitive but swinging “to the right” helps you attack the ball from the inside, for a much more powerful strike. By the end of that first lesson, I was already seeing significant gains. After a couple of more sessions, things were looking even better…
Our coaches upgraded not only our swings but our equipment, too. Connor and I both had aging drivers. Each was seven-plus years old, meaning we were leaving easy yards on the tee. After thorough fittings, the power of modern technology was undeniable; Connor landed in a Callaway Rouge ST Max and I in a TaylorMade Stealth Plus. Our balls speeds shot up. I showed particularly tasty gains, jumping from 132 mph to 140 mph.
With retooled swings and shiny new drivers, there was only one thing left for us to do: take the skills challenge again. Nerves jumping, adrenalin pumping, we stepped back into the thunderdome for five swings a piece. Connor’s session was a few days before mine, so he would set the bar. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. His mightiest blast of the bunch: 271. His overall rating and my mark to beat: a daunting 69.4.
Over in Woodbridge, it was my turn. I asked Ryan if he had any last-minute mental-game tips for me.
“Hit it hard,” he said.
Right, hit it hard. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
A couple of strikes were decidedly less-than pure, but those were offset by a poke that I would have never guessed I had in me: 273! Moments later, my skill rating appeared on the screen: 73. I had nipped Connor by four. Hurrah, I was on to Round 2!
Connor wasn’t despondent. Far from it. A couple of weeks later, on a South Florida getaway with his girlfriend, he snuck out for nine holes to test his new move in the wild. The number he posted was way more impressive than 73.
He signed for a cool 40.
Watch this space for more episodes of the Room for Improvement Skills Challenge. To set up your own GOLFTEC swing evaluation or club-fitting, click below.