Prior to Wednesday morning’s Sanford International Pro-Am, the amateurs were hitting shots on one side of the Minnehaha Country Club practice area and the professionals were down at the other end.
There was a border area set up between the two groups but there was no need for it from spectators’ perspective. Shot and swing quality provided plenty enough evidence to make the distinction.
The PGA Tour Champions‘ return to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, this week represents another chance to see some of the best golfers in the world hit the golf ball. What separates this sport from others is that you’d never see pro football players, for instance, practicing what they do for a living right next to local citizens trying to do the same thing.
There remain undeniable differences, however, in how they go about their business. What do pros do to stay sharp in the days leading up to a tournament? And what can amateur players with a much more casual attitude toward the game take from that?
Preparation comes in many forms
Esteban Toledo, a 57-year-old four-time winner on the Champions Tour, begins his day with stretching. Lots of it. At 7 a.m. he’s stretching. He’s at the golf course by 8 a.m. and practicing putting. A lot of times that will take up more than two hours.
“Most of the amateurs don’t believe that,” he said. “But that’s what we do. Between chipping, putting and hitting balls, it’s probably about five hours for most of us. Maybe Bernhard Langer practices a little longer — he’s a little crazy about golf. And I’m not quite as crazy. But it’s a routine that every player goes through.”
Toledo goes back to his hotel at about 5:30 p.m. and stretches again, maybe a half hour. Then he turns on the television and relaxes.
“I like to watch the TV,” he said. “And when the commercials come on, it’s another five minutes of stretching.”
Kirk Triplett is a seven-time winner on the Champions Tour with more than $1.1 million in prize money this season. Like many others on the tour, how he practices depends on how he’s playing. There’s nothing like a scoreboard for providing accurate feedback.
Working on weaknesses
“I’m always drawing on what I’ve done in the past,” he said. “It’s a constant give-and-take. I work on the things I’m struggling with. So this morning I spent some time with my wedges and my driving. My driving is moving too much from left to right.”
The short game is a constant, however, though it is tailored weekly to the course the pros are playing.
“The main difference from course to course is the speed of the greens,” Triplett said. “There’s the texture of the greens, what the rough is like, what the chipping is going to be like. That to me is the big adaptation every week. We need to get a feel for how the shots around the green are going to play.”
Triplett spent some time Wednesday morning hitting shots at a towel he’d placed on the side of a hill. These were not long shots — perhaps less than 100 yards — and the golf balls were hitting the ground within a few feet of the towel nearly every single time.
How, after so many years in this sport, after so much time on the range, does one go about making all this practice time worthwhile?
“I used to tell my kids that at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, when you’re in school, I like going to prepare,” Triplett said. “I like a nice three-hour practice session on the back of the range at TPC Scottsdale. The phone stays in the car and I only answer it if my wife calls or if there’s something else that’s important. That’s my time. That’s what I love to do.”
Not every player uses practice time in exactly the same way. On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, Tim Petrovic was hitting golf balls with a bat. Mark Brooks, a seven-time winner on the regular tour with a 1996 win in the PGA Championship, meanwhile, pays attention to trajectory and moving the ball from side-to-side this time of year. He saves the heavy lifting of swing mechanics for the offseason.
“I can’t speak for everyone else but for me, if I got the swing I’m spending less time practicing,” he said. “If something is wrong, maybe I’m out here more. Maybe I’m hitting 500 or 1,000 balls. If I’m hitting it well, maybe it’s a hundred.”
The people who will be watching them play this weekend at Minnehaha Country Club do not often hit 100 golf balls a day, let alone 500 or 1,000, but in varying degrees there is usually a desire to become a better golfer. On the one hand, that’s never going to be easy. But on the other, there’s no reason to make it more complicated than it needs to be.
“You’ll see someone practicing hitting 4-iron shots from divots and trying to get that shot close to the hole and you know that’s not where you make your money,” Triplett said. “You make your money by keeping it in play, by being good from 100 yards. And you make your money by not missing short putts. Those are the places where you waste shots. There can be strategy and technique involved but mostly it’s just a little bit of execution practice and they are things everybody can get better at.”