Kate Upton, People Magazine’s Sexiest Woman on the Planet, is a new golfer who is going to be a very good golfer. When I met her at Bay Hill back in March last year, she told me her only golf experience had been playing with her family in Florida one day a year, on Christmas. She said she didn’t make much of an effort because it was, well, Christmas, and she wanted to be with her friends. So at age 21 she’s just now really taking up the game.
When we got together recently at my other home club, Latrobe Country Club, I could tell right away that she’s going to be a nice player. It was the way she took her grip: a firm hold but not with a lot of tension in her arms. The way she waggled the club was very easy and natural. And her first practice swings were aggressive, like she wanted to hit something. I think that’s important. Kate’s eyes are another thing that gave away her potential: They’re so sharp and alert. I’ve never met a really good player who didn’t have eagle eyes. They notice everything around them.
When I teach, which is something I’m doing more of these days as I’m playing less, I stress the importance of having a system. Not just a swing system, but a whole system for playing. Sure, it includes the grip, stance, posture and basic swing, but it’s more than that. A system includes learning how far you hit each club, what happens on sideslopes and downslopes, playing in the wind, hitting out of funny lies, and learning little tricks for pitching and chipping. Part of a system can be taught, but a lot of it is personal. It’s discovering what works best for you and making adjustments as you go along. That’s the fun of it, and the best way to learn. For Kate, creating a system is going to come easily because she’s an athlete and a competitor. She’ll benefit from the tips I gave her, but she’ll find more on her own.
After our lesson got underway, I realised there’s no difference between teaching Kate and any of the guys I help with their swings, because she’s strong, flexible and coordinated. The days of teaching women differently than men are over, especially with someone athletic like Kate, or my 16-year-old granddaughter. Girls can do anything the boys can do, except maybe hit the ball a mile. Golf is golf.
I don’t believe in teaching the game from the hole backwards, starting with the putter. With a beginner you present the whole set of clubs and say, “Take your pick.” One club will arouse the most curiosity, and that’s where you start. For Kate, that club was the driver, which made me smile because it’s my favorite club, too.
So that got our lesson going. And it got me a hug from Kate.
I’m a big believer in keeping the head still. It applies to every shot with every club. I explained to Kate that the swing is basically a circle, with the head in the centre. If you move that centre, everything else moves along with it, which throws all the parts out of kilter. It’s OK to swivel your head to look at the target before you swing, and after the ball is gone you can look up to see where it went. But from address to impact, your head shouldn’t move.
I promised Kate that if she got in the habit of keeping her head steady, she’d hit the ball solid – a big challenge for beginners. Keeping the head in place also is a secret to creating power, because you’ll make a better pivot and won’t have any wasted motion.
Kate’s an athlete, as I said earlier. She won five national equestrian championships before she took up modelling. She has all the strength, balance and flexibility that a beginning golfer could ask for. But even natural athletes have to learn how to make a proper turn going back. It’s important not only for power, but to create good positions during the swing that let everything happen in the right order.
My goal was to get Kate to swing the club back farther, so it was parallel with the ground. She wasn’t quite there yet. To do it, she’ll have to turn more. If she can turn her left shoulder under her chin, she’ll be where she needs to be.
One last thing: See how Kate’s left heel comes off the ground? That’s a good, natural move and a sign of her athleticism. If you allow the heel to rise, it’s easier to rotate your hips and then your shoulders. That’s how you get to parallel at the top.
Early on in our day at Latrobe I pointed across the course to the par-4 fifth hole, where, 75 years ago, a lady member I knew as Mrs Fritz would ask me to hit her tee shot over a ditch that ran across the fairway. Every time I succeeded, she gave me a nickel, which was a lot of money then for an 8-year-old.
I explained to Kate that the only way I could clear the ditch was to swing aggressively, which is revealed in a golfer’s finish. Kate is inclined to swing hard anyway, but I made sure she finished with her hands over her left shoulder, her weight left and her body facing the target. She said it felt a little awkward – I must say, my finish has often been mimicked – but I told her the faster she accelerated through impact, the less awkward it would feel.
Good golfers know how to imitate. They have a knack for noticing the best things in better players’ games and making them part of their own style. Kate is copying me pretty well here, knock-kneed stance and all. Throughout my career, I instinctively pinched my knees together because it helped me feel centred and balanced. I also liked my hands in close to my body – which Kate is also imitating well – because it gave me a feeling of compactness and control.
I encouraged Kate to crouch a bit, because being closer to the ball helps you make better contact.
Another thing I stress to all beginners is the importance of aiming the face of the putter directly down the line of play. That might sound obvious, but it’s something even good players need to check all the time. As for the stroke itself, I told Kate two things: Keep both hands going toward the target, and don’t let your head move one iota until the ball is on its way.
Kate, like any golfer, is going to find her ball in some tough places. She’ll hit her share of shots into creek beds, against tree trunks and between rocks. Competitor that she is, she’s going to be tempted to swing her way out of trouble rather than take a penalty. Having played from plenty of rough spots, I had some advice for her: If the odds of pulling off the shot are 50-50, go for it! Like me, Kate will have some spectacular failures, but she’ll also have some exhilarating successes.
Once you decide to pull the trigger on a shot, relax. If you fear the worst, tension will cause you to follow the shot that got you into trouble with an even worse one. On the technical side, take an extra club, because from bad lies the tendency is to come up short. Then, grip down for control. Finally, make an aggressive swing. Really go after it, so your swing reflects your positive attitude. The kind that’s going to make Kate one fine golfer.