Some days finding the right swing thought seems so easy.
You step to the first tee with one thought in mind for the day.
Maybe it's: "Swing easy." Or: "Stay solid on the left side." Or: "Pause at the top." Or: "Turn the center of the chest toward the target." It works great. The next day you get to the course secure in the notion that all you need to do is think that same thought and your timing will be perfect. . . . And you can't keep the ball in the same area code.
We walked through the locker room at the U.S. Open one afternoon last week searching for some expert help on this subject. Do the world's best golfers switch their swing thoughts from day to day? And how do they find the right swing thought if they haven't been playing well?
Renowned teaching professional Rick Smith was sitting at a table waiting for his prize pupil, Phil Mickelson, to get to the course. Smith, whose students also have included Lee Janzen and Vijay Singh, offered some perspective.
"You have to look back in your history as a player to determine what were some of the good shots that I hit and what were some of the keys I relied on that worked," Smith said.
"Ultimately you want good fundamentals," Smith said. "But you do need to have a core of tendencies. If you don't know your tendencies it's obviously going to be hard to diagnose the problem. People are searching all the time, and it doesn't relate to what the problems are. That's what the common golfer's problem is. They're looking for the Band-Aid rather than the ultimate solution -- what are my buzzwords that help me?"
"You have certain keys that you always go back to," said veteran tour pro Willie Wood. "If the ball's going left, you have keys you check. What are the things you typically do that make the ball go left? You ask yourself why is the clubface closed at impact?"
Pros offer standard advice about searching for the proper swing thought on the practice range before a round or during a round: Keep it simple. Go back to the handful of basic fundamentals that you typically work on. If you pay attention to your habits, you should have it narrowed down to two or three or four things that typically go wrong that cause your bad shots.
Keeping it simple is always better than trying something unorthodox you've never practiced on the range, like switching to a wide-open stance or changing your grip in mid-round.
Joe Durant, who won twice this season and ranks in the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list, has his swing keys narrowed down to three areas.
"Alignment, posture, rhythm," Durant said. "That's it for me. I'm more of a turn guy. If I can do those three things, more times than not the angles are going to fall into place. I have to go back to those three things. I don't get too analytical. I let my teacher worry about all the positions. If I'm hitting it off to the right, I could be coming under it (on his turn toward the ball) or I could be just hanging back and getting stuck on the right side. Those are the two things that cause me to hit it right. The beauty is I know what I'm doing wrong more often than not."
Durant had been struggling the three weeks before the Open. But he shot 71 in the first round at Southern Hills. Afterward he said his swing thought was connected to one of his three swing keys. "I had a real good rhythm going," he said. "I had a vision in my head that I was swinging half-speed. That was my swing thought for the day, and that was helping me out."
Wood was struggling, too, entering the Open. In his practice round he latched onto a swing thought offered to him by Justin Leonard's teacher, Randy Smith (no relation to Rick).
"I was spinning out with my lower body," Wood said. "So Randy helped me focus on trying to be more stable down there. Stable lower body -- that was my swing thought for the day."
"If it's a good swing key, it could last you for weeks and weeks," Wood said. "Sometimes it only lasts a few holes."
At the PGA Tour level, the fundamentals and the athletic ability of the pros are so good that they often can ignore their mechanics for a stretch of rounds.
When Durant won back-to-back weeks in March, he said he wasn't thinking about any of his three swing keys.
"When any of us are playing well we basically have no thoughts whatsoever," Durant said. "Basically we just line up and hit it, and it goes right where you're aiming. It's when you're not hitting it well that you start having thoughts, what was I doing before? The worse you play, a million thoughts go through your mind."
"Phil works on his spine angle and releasing the club," Smith said. "It's the same thought, really, the whole year. And his feel is really going to be on the money during a round. So he's really not keying on a swing thought."
"The greatest player who ever lived -- Jack Nicklaus -- used to play based on what he felt in his feet and what he felt in his head," Smith said. "So he took those two areas and focused on them. His swing thought would come based on what he felt in those two areas. He could feel if his head raised a bit. If his weight was moving to the front portion of his left toe, he knew right away he was sliding. He had a great sense for that."
The reason it's so hard to make the same swing thought work week after week is your body does different things week to week.
"The problem is, usually there's two things, not one, that make it work," Smith said. "For example let's say you've been in a position where the only way you could release it was to fall back and release it. Now all of a sudden your spine is solid but you don't make a change in your release. So you start blocking it. The one thing isn't matching the other like it was before."
Here's a swing thought -- or a swing feel, to be more accurate -- Smith might give to a slicer:
"Maybe visually they need to feel like they're going to hit the inside quarter of the back of the ball, with the toe rotating down. That would be a key for someone that would allow them to do things not so mechanical."
Don't think mechanics? That could be a good swing thought for some golfers.