7 tips for becoming a smarter golfer, according to Collin Morikawa
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7 tips for becoming a smarter golfer, according to Collin Morikawa

Jun 15, 2024

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Editor’s note: For many competitive golfers, school is a means to an end—a bridge from junior golf to competitive college and amateur events.

That wasn’t the case for Collin Morikawa.

His parents insisted school and golf progress together—and that transformed him into the multi-dimensional athlete he is today, one who earned a business degree from one of the top schools in the country, Cal-Berkeley. With two majors and three other PGA Tour wins already to his name, Morikawa, 26, doesn’t freewheel around courses with brute strength. He problem-solves his way through them.

“I remember that from the first time I met him,” says the PGA Tour’s Max Homa. “He was 19, but he had a better head on his shoulders than most pros.”

To use a business metaphor, Morikawa has become the CEO of his game. His mission statement: Think smarter and play better. Navigate a round in the most perceptive way possible.

“We’re all searching for something to play better,” Morikawa says. “There are technical things to consider, but everyone can play better by doing things that are simpler and smarter.”

Here, Morikawa shares seven clever ways to improve your game without countless hours of practice. You can put them in action tomorrow. —Luke Kerr-Dineen

MORIKAWA: Most golfers aim based on where they want their ball to land—they lock onto that spot. But all golfers have shot shapes they need to account for, and when I focus too much on where I want the ball to finish, my natural left-to-right shape gets too severe on its way to getting there. That causes me instinctively to start aiming more and more left without realizing it, and the result is a big, wipey fade that’s hard to control.

To fix that problem, I learned to aim where I want the ball to start, not finish. I think of the fairway as a hallway, and my start line is a window at the beginning of that hallway that I want to fire my ball through. I like this aiming technique better because it forces me to commit to my start line and shot shape. If you use it, you will rein in those really curvy drives that are tough to keep in the fairway—even when they land there.

A big difference between pros and amateurs is the emphasis of their focus— external (pros) versus internal (amateurs). When we’re taking the club back, we’re focused on the target. We’re reacting to something outside of ourselves. Everyone else is thinking about themselves—how to take the club back or how to shift weight, etc. Don’t get me wrong; pros have swing thoughts, but when we’re on the course, all that matters is creating the feels needed for the shot we’re trying to produce.

Every golfer has a pattern—a certain direction they like to see their shots move, and a common miss to go with it. My pattern is left to right. I hit fades about 80 percent of the time, and my misses are shots that start a little left of my target and fly straight instead of curving back. I know I’m better off missing it slightly off the toe of the clubface because a toe fade will travel straighter than a heel fade. The lesson: Having a pattern isn’t a bad thing; it’s not knowing your pattern and adjusting for it that can cause big problems.

I’ll often pop quiz myself to double check my accuracy. On the range, I’ll hit 20 balls with the same club to the same target and see how the balls travel and how far apart they land. For me, I’m trying to land my midirons within 10 yards of my target. I’ll give myself one point for every ball that stays in that area.

Your dispersion with the same club might be 20 yards, but that’s OK. Try my point system to help build accuracy while learning how far apart your shots do land. If you get fewer than 12 points, increase your target zone. What you’re doing is becoming more familiar with where your ball could end up in relation to your target, and hopefully you’ll account for that when making club selections and choosing where to aim.

It might sound like a bad idea to think about the places you don’t want to go before hitting a shot, but that’s exactly what I and a lot of other pros do. We’re not thinking about it while we’re over the ball, but a lot of prep work goes into a shot before we step in, including where not to miss.

Before tournament rounds, I’ll draw big Xs in my yardage book and then play away from those areas. Finding the Xs is something you should do if you want to avoid big numbers on your scorecard. Penalty areas, deep bunkers and out-of-bounds markers are some obvious ones, but here’s another you might not have thought about: According to analytics, missing on the short side of the green—the side nearest the hole—reduces your chance of getting up and down by 40 percent when compared to the opposite side. What that should tell you is that before you hit your approach shot, identify the short side, put a big X on it in your mind, and do what you can to play away from it. That’s why knowing your dispersion pattern with each club (tip No. 2) is so helpful!

RELATED: Watch Collin Morikawa's putting lesson on Golf Digest Schools

Watch Collin walk through his entire putting process, from the read to the setup to the stroke.

A lot of TV announcers think we’re firing at pins more than we actually are. We’re rarely taking dead aim, and when we do, it’s very situational. Most times we’re playing to a specific part of the green. One thing players always do is get their “cover number”— that’s the number it takes to carry some form of trouble, like a false front on the green or a bunker. Remember, that number is the absolute minimum to carry your shot to a decent spot, so be generous in your club selection to make sure it does.

You might love to beat balls on the range, but I hate it. I didn’t grow up on a range hitting ball after ball to the same target without giving the results much thought. I grew up practicing on the course, and I got a lot more out of that.

When I was a junior golfer, my coach, Rick Sessinghaus, would have me hit a shot, and after I did, he would toss another ball down and ask me to hit it to the same spot—but in a different way. That type of practice taught me how to be creative and adapt much easier to whatever scenarios I encounter during a round.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way I was working on my game was a form of random practice. There’s a lot of good research showing it’s the best way to practice and improve your skills. I still practice that way, and it’s something you should do, too—even if you don’t have access to a course like I did. After you’ve worked on your dispersion pattern (tip No. 2), spend the rest of your time trying to hit a lot of different shots on the range. It might be a 70-yard slice that you need once a year to get around a tree, or a low-trajectory shot with a lob wedge. Constantly switch clubs and give yourself new problems to solve. When you teach yourself how to work something out, you’ll remember it forever.

I’m known for my fade, but I grew up hitting a draw. It wasn’t until the summer before I went to Cal that I changed my preferred ball flight. I probably hit a thousand punch shots that summer to groove my fade. To this day, whenever my contact isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, the first thing I do is go back to hitting punch shots. I don’t always like doing it, but I know a punch iron shot solves a lot of my bad habits by forcing me to be more efficient with my body’s movements.

If you’re struggling to make crisp contact with your irons, try punching it to get things back in order. Make a full backswing, but hit down and through the ball, finishing with the shaft pointing back at your belt. Sometimes momentum will carry the shaft farther into the follow-through, and that’s OK. The key here is to stay compact with your movements.

Hitting punch shots helps prevent you from swaying going back and stopping your body rotation as you swing through—two big ball-striking mistakes. The best part is that it teaches you to bring the low point of your swing forward, which means you’re compressing the ball with a descending blow before taking a divot. Remember that feel when you go back to full-swing iron shots.

MORE: Collin Morikawa's best tips for making iron play one of your strengths

Standard advice for greenside bunker shots is to open the clubface wide, then open your stance and swing hard, cutting across the ball on an out-to-in path along your stance line. It’s the technique I learned growing up, but I find it’s too extreme for such a simple shot. I’ve abandoned it for an easier way to get it close from a bunker. I’ll share that technique in a second.

First, understand that all you need to focus on in a bunker is the low point of your swing. It needs to be in the sand under your ball, which means your club should enter the sand in the same spot every time. That’s it—pretty simple.

I’ve adopted a new-school method to get the same low point every time. Instead of setting up with my left foot open, I drop my right foot back, which aims my feet out to the right of my target. Doing so puts more weight forward, forces me to turn around my lead leg, and steepens my swing just enough to put the low point in the perfect spot without having to do anything else. I don’t have to think: I just pull my right foot back and swing—and it works!

I’ve been asked a lot why my lead wrist is bowed at impact. The truth is, I have no idea. It probably happened as a result of all the punch shots I hit. I do know that it leads to more clubface control—at least for me. When that wrist is flexed as it approaches the ball, as opposed to extended, it helps square the clubface. You don’t have to bow that wrist like I do, but a swing thought is to have the back of your lead hand pointing at the target at impact. If it is, there’s a good chance your clubface will be, too.

For a long time, the biggest problem with my putting was that I had no idea what I was doing. I’d putt well and have no idea why, and I’d putt poorly and have no idea why. I brought on putting coach Stephen Sweeney to change that, and he’s been great.

He helped me realize that my full-swing tendencies were showing up in my putting stroke. Most golfers have no idea that your driver swing can affect your putting stroke, but it can. Because I mostly hit fades with the driver, I’d set up and swing my putter similarly. My shoulders would be open, and I would swipe across the ball. It became a big issue, especially on long and mid-range putts in which the ball would start more left than I expected. (Unlike a fade off the tee, the ball doesn’t curve back on target when it’s rolling on a green.)

It’s important to understand your tendencies and make adjustments to counteract them. I use a claw grip to do that, as it helps prevent my right hand from taking over and starting my putts too far left.

The other big change I’ve made is that before taking my grip, I place my hands on either side of the shaft so the palms are facing. This helps square my shoulders and stroke. I wish I had done it sooner, but, hey, it’s never too late to learn something that moves you closer to genius golf!

MORE: How Morikawa upgraded his putting