Russell Henley came out of the gate swinging his new swing to good effect in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He looped the Par 73 Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort in Maui in 8-under 65 with no bogeys. It was a result of work that he’s been doing since the middle of last summer. That and his new attitude.
On the par 5 15th, he hooked his second shot into the forest, but he ended up making his par anyway. He calmly sunk a 12-footer to do it:
Yeah, one of my main things I’ve been trying to do since last fall and this year, what I really want to do is just keep a good attitude, keep even keel when things don’t go my way. I know I’m going to hit bad shots. That was my main thing.
I hit a bad shot there and made a bad swing but how I react to the bad shots is usually the indicator of how my round goes. Just try to keep a good attitude and go out there and hit a good next shot and give myself a good putt. Just one of those days where it fell in.
You know you’re getting closer to the Zone when you can watch a bad shot sail into the deep (fill in the blank) without swearing. Watch it with acceptance because these things happen and are a part of the game (look at all the rules that cover them). Watch it with the feel of it still in your body (with your mind more calm and clear, that’s where learning occurs).
Henley’s pursuit of a better swing began innocuously enough, as so many good things seem to do. It was in the first two rounds of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst when he noticed that his ball striking wasn’t quite keeping up with his playing companions. He soon found himself with his new coach, Scott Hamilton:
Yeah, I felt like I had been struggling a little bit. Just not quite hitting the ball — my misses weren’t very good. Anybody could hit a good shot. My misses, my bad shots were just really bad. I was just trying to make my misses better.
And I played with Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk the first two rounds at Pinehurst, and both those guys drove the ball so good. Their misses weren’t bad at all and they are obviously great chippers and putters, and they played great.
I was like, I know I can hit it a little better than I’m hitting it. I know I can hit it like them. I know they had both struggled with the driver just a little bit in the past and working with Scott, Scott had helped them. That’s why I chose Scott.
As with most material swing changes, he had to walk before he could run. (I’ve been there. It’s a combination of terror that you don’t quite know where the ball is going, coupled with the satisfaction of the many good ones and exhilaration over the possibilities.)
It took us a little bit, a little stretch where I struggled a little bit. But ever since I’ve gotten comfortable with the things we’ve been working on fundamentally, I’ve started to keep the ball in front of me more and not have as big of misses and driving the ball better.
When you’re driving it better and hitting your wedges a little bit better, keeping the ball in front of you better, I feel like I’m really, really confident and feel like I can get the ball in the hole. That’s been my biggest thing and just working with Scott, he’s helped me a lot.
Normally these Q&As stop there but somebody got curious about just what he was working on. That led to an honest conversation about how a two-time winner like him managed to get off the proper swing plane. It was fascinating:
I’m really just trying to get the club on plane and for me I was just a little bit steep and trying to shallow out my swing and basically instead of hitting so down on the ball, hitting just the top of the grass. And with everything, that makes my wedges, the contact, more consistent, makes my flight a little bit better, makes me hit it farther; a lot of good things that I like about it and that’s kind of all I’m trying to fight is just keep it shallow.
For him, that now feels like he’s picking the ball off the ground and not so much hitting down on the ball to compress it. But it’s probably somewhere in the middle; the divot is more a thin slice than an excavation:
A picker? Like picking the ball off the ground? I try to. I mean, I would rather pick it off the ground than hit straight down on it. I’ve tried hitting straight down on it and that doesn’t work, like basically fading the ball. We’ll see; if that doesn’t work for me, I’ve had more success having my miss a little bit more shallow, yes.
As with all swing changes, it didn’t come easy. But it’s gone from having to think about it to the way his swing is supposed to feel:
Well, it’s been more of a feel for me, so for me, a lot of it now is understanding what makes me shallow the — what makes me keep the club on plane. I’m not going to say shallowed out. What makes me keep the club on plane, and understanding why you need a little bit of tilt, how my body works.
So for me when I take the club back, I don’t know if it’s shoulder flexibility or what, but I always have a tendency to have a little bit of lift and be a little over the plane and that’s made me steep. So just finding ways for me to come down instead of going over the top, it’s a feel. It’s not uncomfortable; it’s not something I’m thinking about every time now, but at the start I definitely was.
Henley has always had a distinctive swing since he’s come on the scene. He talked a little bit about how that came about:
I would say I’m probably homemade. When I was in high school, I played basketball and golf, and so when golf came around, I never really went and hit many balls. I just wanted to go play with my friends. I think they redid the range a couple of years when I was in high school, or one of the years, so I just got used to go and playing golf.
Definitely probably a little bit homemade. I think it’s starting to look better and better as I’ve spent more time out here and played more pro golf and had more time to work on it, but probably a little bit homemade.
And in his mind, this is what the new swing is all about:
I think swinging the club, fundamentally, correct, on plane, good grip, ball position, keeping the body, the head still, all those little things, I think are super important. Most of the really consistent players out here do the same thing every time and they have the club on plane.
Since I started hitting the ball better, since last ‑‑ basically in the playoffs, I’ve had a second, I’ve had 12th at The Tour Championship, I had a fourth at McGladrey, and two of those I was leading after a couple days. So I’ve been playing better golf, and definitely I think the swing as it’s gotten better, has made me play more consistent.
Finally, the other interesting thing that came out of his media session was that he sometimes has a tendency to be self-conscious about his putting. With a reputation for being such a good putter, he fights the expectations of others. Thanks to his honesty, we find that our struggles with these sorts of things extend all the way up the food chain to an experienced winner on the Tour:
I think I struggle with that a lot for sure, the expectation of, oh, everybody tells me I’m a good putter. So I’ve got to make my 5‑footers or I’ve got to make a lot of my 10‑footers or this is a straight uphill putt or this is a putt a good putter makes. I think everybody fights that.
I know I fight that. I fight it at home when I know I’m not quite as focused when I’m playing with my friends and I’m making as many putts as I thought I should. I’m definitely fighting the expectation.
But the way out of these situations is always the same, sink into the zone where others’ expectations don’t even exist. They disappear into the focused details of the putt (or shot) before you:
But for me, when I get in the tournament for some reason, I get a little bit more focused on my overall process and being very patient, and I feel like that focus helps me and my expectation level, so I definitely fight that.
And so once again, thanks to Henley’s helpful candor, we find comfort in the details of how these great players do what they do so well.