10 Pro Tips for Mastering Your Golf Game

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

Woman golf player hitting ball.
The golf season is well underway and you’ve no doubt had time to work on your game.
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?
Here, golf professionals from around the region provide tips for golfers of all abilities, using their decades of experience to address some of the issues they see time and time 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.
If nothing else, remember the acronym PGA, says Jeff Hartman, golf professional at Park Hills Golf Course in Freeport. And no, he doesn’t mean the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. Rather, he’s describing three fundamentals needed to get the ball up in the air and straight down to the hole: posture, grip and alignment.
Keep your head down, weight forward, and maintain a loose grip – not a death grip – on the club handle.
“I can’t tell you how that alone – we haven’t even swung the golf club – has corrected half of the swings I see,” Hartman says.

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.”

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 minutes to warm up before your tee time, and you’ll see a better score, 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.”

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.”

Know the Color of Your Tee

Whenever you drive the ball, try not to look up too soon.
“Here’s the cure for that: before you look for the ball after the tee shot, you’ve always got to see the tee,” says Hartman, of Freeport’s Park Hills course. “That’s why they make different colored tees. If I tee up with a bright orange tee, I’m going to look for that orange tee before I look for that white ball.”
If you don’t see the tee, that means your head followed your shoulder, and you likely sliced the ball.
Keeping your head down and seeing the tee will help you hit the ball straighter because you’ll make a more solid connection with the ball, Hartman says.

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.’”

Practice … and Play with the Range Ball

Consistent practice helps to keep the jitters down.
“You know why you get the jitters? Because you’re unsure of what the outcome is going to be,” says Hartman. “This is why the pros hit literally hundreds of golf balls every day – so when they get down to a Sunday afternoon, last hole, it’s just another range ball.”
Muscle memory comes through practice, he says. It’s like tying your shoes – you no longer have to think, “make a loop, wind it around, pull tight” – because you’ve tied your laces thousands of times before.
Similarly, hitting range balls time and again will help to develop the muscle memory needed to calmly drive the ball over the water and onto the green of a Par 3 hole.
In fact, Hartman suggests it’s not a bad idea to play a round with a range ball. If you put the ball down and see the red stripe, you’ll relax and take a smooth swing, just like you would while practicing.

Practice Putting

If you spend a half-hour on the driving range, however, you must spend an equal amount of time on the practice green, Hartman says.
On an 18-hole, par 72 course, a perfect round – an even par – would require 36 shots and 36 putts, a perfect 50/50 balance of long and short hits.
Too often, Hartman sees golfers hit a bucket of range balls and leave without practicing on the green, even though chipping and putting are the two areas where you can lower your score the fastest.
“I’ve played against people who hit it on the green every single time, but they can’t putt,” he says. “A good putter is a hard guy to beat.”

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.”