By Koo Hwangbo
For Bryan Zell, a distinguished golfer who earned PGA Class A membership and received the Acushnet PGA Apprentice Scholarship Award in 2003, playing golf in Northern Virginia is nothing new. He grew up playing golf during his years at Fairfax High School and George Mason University and at Country Club of Fairfax. Now, he’s Westfields Golf Club’s PGA director of instruction, and even after 17 years in the position, he says there’s still nothing more rewarding than seeing his students improve their skills and have fun with the game he grew up with.
Zell spoke to us about common mistakes he sees his students make in their short game and course management and offered tips to counteract them.
The Short Game
1. Control putting distance: Controlling distance is one of the most important aspects of the short game. “Some key points in improving distance control would be more center face contact,” Zell says. “A very stable base, no movement in the lower body and no movement in the head throughout the stroke are very helpful in gaining center [face] contact.”
2. Maintain consistent stroke tempo: Every golfer’s stroke tempo is different based on the person’s play style, but keeping it consistent is essential. “When I work with students, I use a metronome to help with controlling the tempo and making sure it stays consistent,” Zell says. “It’s key that whatever rhythm you use, you stay consistent to that rhythm because great short game players in general have good rhythm and tempo to all their motions.”
If you can achieve a consistent tempo in all of your strokes, Zell says it will then be easier to change the distance by adjusting your stroke back and through as opposed to just hitting the ball harder.
3. Be visual: Visualization is key to short game success. Many players get fixated on the ball and look down at their stroke as they’re preparing to roll their putts. Zell, however, recommends golfers look where they’re putting either on rehearsal strokes or during their routine. “If you’re throwing a ball to somebody, you’re basically going to look forward and throw it,” says Zell. “In golf, a lot of people don’t really look at the hole because they’re so focused on their mechanics that they haven’t given their bod[ies] an opportunity to know what they’re trying to do.”
Players should look at the line of the putt, the hole and the details of the putt to create a better stroke.
Play the percentage shot
It’s important for golfers to not be overly ambitious and to be aware of the limitations in their own game. Zell recommends playing the game more conservatively with percentage shots—shots that are successful eight or nine times out of 10.
“Players take a shot that [they] could only hit maybe one out of 10 times, so generally, they’re going to come up with bad results by playing shots that aren’t suited for their skill level,” Zell says. “Knowing how to play the percentage shot is really key.”
Players who don’t go for the best percentage shot often dig themselves into a deeper hole.
“I think there are certain times where players find themselves in difficult situations, the snowball effect occurs, and they compound mistakes by making more mistakes by taking shots they won’t pull off on a consistent basis,” Zell says. “Trying to get back into play and hitting a recovery shot that’s too difficult for any skill-level player isn’t the best course of action.”
Make a plan
Zell has also found that students don’t see the larger picture when going up to swing.
“Always make sure you have a plan for what you’re trying to do on the hole itself and make sure when you step up that you’re not just focused on the swing but where you want to play the ball,” says Zell. “A lot of people just get up to a tee, take a driver and swing away, and there are a lot of holes where you don’t need to do that.”
The best shot to make in golf isn’t necessarily the one that puts the ball closer to the hole. Zell emphasizes making the intelligent play rather than the difficult one.
“If the play calls for a 3-wood instead of a driver, hit the 3-wood and put [the ball] in the place where it has to be,” Zell says. “A driver might put you in a little closer position, but then you’re in a difficult position to hit a good shot into the green.”
Bryan Zell has been at Westfields Golf Club for 17 years and their director of instruction for the past seven years. Zell runs a personal 13-hour or 26-hour golf instruction program designed to make a lasting improvement in your golf game.