Open Championship preview with Catriona Matthew
Aberdeen Asset Management Ambassador Catriona Matthew shares her secrets to getting the swing that won her the championship at Open Championship venue Royal Lytham & St. Annes and offers some simple advice for playing well around a tough links course. Interview by Carly Frost
This week the world's top golfers are gathered at Royal Lytham & St. Annes all hoping to make history and be the next man to get their hands on the prestigious Claret Jug. The Open Championship is taking place on one of the country's top links courses and nobody knows it better than Ladies European Tour professional Catriona Matthew. Catriona won the 2009 British Ladies Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and in doing so made the history books as the first Scottish female professional to ever win a Major Championship. Being born in North Berwick and brought up on the West Links in the town it may not sound too surprising that Catriona out-performed her peers around a tough links. But the odds were stacked against her that week at Lytham, not just because she had spent most of her career successfully competing on contrasting perfectly manicured Americanised fairways of the LPGA Tour, but also because she had only just returned to playing golf a few weeks earlier, after giving birth to her second child. Yet Catriona conquered all odds to take the prestigious title and here she shares her secrets to success around Royal Lytham & St Annes, the venue for this year's Open Championship, ahead of the world's top male professionals descending on the links. We also asked her coach Kevin Craggs, SGU National Coach, to break down the swing that helped her find the fairways and offer some simple drills that will give you all some consistency.
What is your best tip for mastering a links course?
I think that it is really important when you are playing links golf to stay very in control of your game, particularly if the wind is strong. All my work on the range prior to victory at Royal Lytham & St Annes was focused on finding great rhythm and tempo despite the conditions, so that I was ready to go out and play in high winds. The last thing you want to be doing is working on your swing technique; this work should be done weeks before a tournament begins. The swing that you have on the range is the swing that you will have to take to the course so you just have to go out there and play with it rather than trying to fix it.
What does your typical range warm up session involve?
It's all about quality of practice, not quantity for me. I only spend about 30 minutes on the range warming up. I start by hitting a few wedges and then work through my set hitting every other club, i.e. 9, 7, 5-iron, a couple of shots with my rescues and then my driver. Then I'll move onto a few specific shots I know I'm going to need on the course for that day. For instance at Lytham there was a tee shot I had to shape left-to-right, and I'm not particularly comfortable hitting a fade, so I worked on that shot. I also worked on hitting shots that travelled well through the wind that week, like punches and little knock down irons. On any given tournament week I always like to rehearse tough shots that I know I'm going to need on the course. That way when I get to the hole I am fully committed to playing the right shot. You tend to hit your bad shots through indecision- should I hit a full 7-iron or should I hit a punchy 6? I find that if you have made that decision before you go out then it is easier to execute the shot with confidence when you reach that awkward hole.
Do you still warm up if the weather conditions are really bad?
Yes but I'll adapt my warm up routine if it's bad weather, rather than spending a lot of time on the range I'll always practice my short game a lot more than anything else before I go out. Ultimately if the conditions are tough you have to be realistic and think 'I'm going to miss more greens', and it is the players who can grind out a score in tough conditions that always rise to the top. The important thing is to be flexible with your warm up and adapt it to the conditions of the day. Don't get into the habit of always doing the same thing.
Presumably shot control is key?
Absolutely, in fact more than anything else I'd encourage golfers who want to play well in links course conditions to improve their wedge play versatility. Most amateurs are competent at playing a full wedge shot but few have the ability to play a knockdown wedge or three-quarter shot, yet these shots are essential. Not just for windy conditions but for offering a wider range of distance control. There will be times when a full shot doesn't come up the right distance and it is important that you are confident at playing a half or three-quarter swing with the same commitment. There's a famous saying that I learned growing up playing links golf, I'm sure you've all heard it: "when it's breezy, swing it easy" which really does work. Just take an extra club, grip down, move the ball back a fraction in your stance and let your weight favour the left side - you'll knock a wedge into the green at half the height, which is useful even playing down wind because it can be tough to get the ball up into the air so you are better off hitting a little punch shot. You can control this shot a lot more, especially in cross winds. It's good to practice playing different shots with the same club, varying the height and just seeing the different distances it goes.
What about the skill of playing a driver into the wind?
Well again it is all about swinging easier, and with a driver even more so than a wedge, not just for balance and control but because a softer shot will take spin off and prevent the ball from climbing too high in trajectory. Remember it really doesn't matter whether you've hit driver-wedge or driver-eight-iron into a hole; it is all about finding fairways and greens.
What would be your advice for grinding out a score in tough conditions?
Don't underestimate the importance of the basics. If the conditions are brutal and I'm struggling I always go back to basics and focus on my fundamentals. The simple things such as ball position and alignment are so critical. You also need to learn how to score even if you're not hitting the ball well. There's been many occasions when I've hit it terrible on the range before teeing off in a tournament round but I've learned to totally dismiss what has happened in my warm up, get my tournament head on and just go out there and play each shot one at a time. You might be a natural drawer of the ball but in your warm up all you are hitting is a fade. The trick is to accept that this is the shot of the day and go out and play with it. Don't try to force your natural swing to come through because you'll only end up fighting a fault.
HOW TO SWING LIKE AN OPEN CHAMPION!
Catriona has been working with her coach Kevin Craggs, who is the SGU National Golf Coach for the past two and a half years. Here Kevin comments on the key moves in her swing:
"One of the main reasons Catriona is such a consistent golfer is because we have kept things very simple in her swing by focusing on her foundations and regularly checking that she has good fundamentals. The little things like having a good solid base should never be neglected. I always talk about stability in the swing, as stability is very important. Catriona controls this by having great posture at address and a consistent width of stance. Her weight distribution is also constant so that she is able to swing with great balance and poise. I've given Catriona a number of simple drills to help her with her practice. This is what I like to call supervised practice, so that even when I'm not travelling with her to a tournament, she has a number of guides with her to ensure that she is practising the right moves in the correct manner. These training aids are a useful addition to every golfer's bag. They give you a focus and plan to your practice"
One of the key things that we have worked very hard on in Catriona's swing is establishing a good spine angle at address and keeping this constant throughout her swing. I think that this is a good piece of advice for all golfers, no matter what skill level they are at, because staying balanced really simplifies the idea of swinging the club around your body. Without consistent angles the swing has to be manufactured and this often leads to poor performance with a necessity for great timing to make up for it.
"My check points at address"
There are three simple checks I constantly make when I set up to the ball:
1) My knees should not be in front of the lace line of my golf shoes.
2) The centre of my shoulders should be in front of my toes.
3) My left ear should be in line with the ball.
So it's basically the feet, the knees, the shoulder line and the head line that I make sure are correct - the constant points that give me swing consistency.
Perfect wrist set
Historically Catriona used to struggle with her takeaway, setting her wrists poorly in the backswing, which meant she had to manipulate the club onto plane in the backswing, so we have worked on this first move a lot. I have used a very simple training aid (pictured) to help Catriona learn how to set her wrists correctly in the backswing. This gives her a clear indication/visual aid that the club is set on plane correctly each time.
The inner swings the outer
I think many golfers are guilty of being too 'arm swing' dominant. What I mean by this is that they let their arm swing overtake their body swing. It's one of the swing faults that we've worked on preventing in Catriona's move, by focusing on getting her to feel the bigger muscles working in her golf swing. I call this 'the inner swinging the outer', which basically means the core (centre of my body) controls the swing, not the hands and arms. She wraps a piece of stretchy band around her legs in practice to help her keep a stable lower half so that she can focus on the swing of the upper body.
Balance and rhythm
The final fundamentals we work extremely hard on in Catriona's swing are her balance and rhythm, in particular maintaining good balance throughout the backswing, downswing and into my followthough. This really helps her with swing control.
Catriona's final tip: "Practice Intelligently"
Many ladies on Tour spend hours beating balls on the range but I have learnt that it is important to practice intelligently, which means working harder for less time but on the right things for the tournament week. When I play on the LPGA Tour in the US it's the same kind of golf week-in, week-out but over in Europe there are so many different courses we play that different shots are required every week. Which means I might have to work on high lobs around the greens one week or bump and runs the next. The important thing is to practice intelligently and productively for that event.
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