A Lesson Learned: Manage Your Game

Mike Bender Zach Johnson
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Top instructor Mike Bender served as caddy for his student Zach Johnson during the John Deere Classic.
Mike Bender, PGA

Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | 9:59 a.m.

Golf Instructors get a unique perspective on the game, one that we enjoy immensely. Watching a student succeed, whether it's a beginner getting a ball in the air for the first time or a Tour player winning at the game's highest level, it's one of the most gratifying and exciting feelings you can have professionally.

But good teachers never stop being students either - in that we can always learn more that will help us teach or instruct in better ways.

So when I was offered the chance to caddie for my student Zach Johnson this week at the John Deere Classic, I knew it would be a great opportunity to gain some invaluable insight as to how he thinks and goes about his work. As part of Zach's professional team we both felt that by my caddying, we might be able to learn something that could help him to improve in the future. I knew that it would be physically difficult carrying a 50 pound bag up and down hills in 90 degree heat but I felt up to the challenge. Of course, it could not have turned out any better with Zach winning the event. As an instructor it is not very often that we get to go on the course for 18 holes with our students let alone a whole week. Thus, I was able to see first hand some of the things that Zach's full time caddy, Damon Green, has been talking about regarding Zach's game, things I'll be able to reference in our future sessions, so it was an invaluable experience in many ways.

But for the purposes of this week's "A Lesson Learned", I want to discuss one of Zach's greatest strengths, his ability to manage his game. The players on Tour, the best golfers in the world, know their game and play to their strengths to the most precise details. Amateur golfers, by and large, do neither particularly well.

For example, Tour players know their yardages for each club and play for those shots. It's no accident that Tour players stick their wedge shots so close so often; they are usually hitting them from their most comfortable distance. In contrast, how many times are you left with 40-50 yards left on a par 5? Is that a comfortable yardage for you or are you guessing on how hard to hit it?

Even more, most amateur players have a misconception as to what their true yardages are. If you're best 7-iron flies 160 yards, the 7-iron is probably not the club for you when facing a 160 yard carry. I'd say that the overwhelming number of amateur approach shots end up short - not because of poor swings, but because the golfer overestimates how far they hit each club.

Finally, as Zach and I prepared for the tournament, I saw how Zach would take his yardage book and shade out certain areas around the green or as places to avoid - depending on the location of the pin. In other words, he could miss his shot and still be ok as long as he didn't put himself in a position that brought a big number into play. It's not just the talent and the practice that makes the Tour players so good - it's the ability to think their way around the course. How often do you hit two pretty good shots and still end up with a bogey or worse because you are left in difficult positions?

I encourage you to remember these three items as you move forward in your golf life.
1.) Know your true yardages and play to them
2.) Consider your average distance with a specific club as your yardage, not your best strike.
3.) Don't just hit and hope, have a plan to get around the course and avoid areas that could lead to doubles, triples or worse.

It was a memorable week and I'm honored to have taken part. Spending time with these guys always makes me appreciate the dedication and skills of the golfers as well as making me a better teacher of the game. Not everyone can get an inside look at how these players prepare, play and think their way around. But we can all benefit from watching them perform at such an incredible level.

Mike Bender is the Director of Instruction at Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary, Fla. Bender was the 2009 PGA National Teacher of the Year as well as having been awarded a host of other top teacher awards and accolades. You can learn more about Mike at his website //www.mikebender.com/index.php.

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