Senden begins to validate short-game work
PALM HARBOR, Fla. - When some players talk about playing the Tour stops at Tampa, Hilton Head or Colonial, they get a little sparkle in their eye.
It's usually the guys on Tour known as “pure ballstrikers.”
The pure ballstrikers emphasize fairways and greens and tend to be unimpressed by rivals smashing 325-yard drives. Though the pure ballstrikers might be quick to dismiss length as a big part of today's game, they know enough to take advantage of such classic tracks as Waialae, Copperhead and Colonial on the schedule.
If ballstriking has become somewhat of a lost art in the modern game, the ability to move the ball still resonates with the Tour's pure ballstrikers.
For Australian John Senden, ballstriking has been a strength for many years. Senden plays a control game off the tee and adds precision from the fairways. His weakness always has been the flatstick.
So when Senden looks at Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead Course, he sees a demanding track that nonetheless fits his game.
“I like this place,” Senden said after a 5-under 66 Thursday in the first round of the Transitions Championship. “It shapes well off the tee. You've really got to work hard off the tee with shaping golf shots, because some of the holes tilt different ways. It's a fun golf course to play. I really love coming here.”
Despite being five shots off Padraig Harrington’s pace of 10-under 61, Senden is in good position after 18 holes to contend.
Senden, in his 11th full season on the PGA Tour, has only one victory - the 2006 John Deere Classic - to show for his 211 cuts made in his career.
Yet Senden never has struggled to keep his card, finishing in the top 125 every year -- including the past seven years in the top 100. Last year, he was 33rd on the money list and 13th in the FedEx Cup standings.
Senden's ballstriking has kept him in events, but when he has had chances to win, his putter has let him down.
“My ballstriking’s always been good,” Senden said. “My short game has over the years sort of let me down in ways. I feel like I’m a good putter. I need to be a great putter to win golf tournaments and be a top-10 player in the world.”
Senden recognized after seeing good shots wasted on the greens that he needed to make a change.
So at the PGA Championship last year at Atlanta Athletic Club, he worked with his short game coach, fellow Australian Ian Triggs, to improve his feel on the greens.
Senden has put a line on his ball for the past couple of years to help with alignment, and that addition has helped him read greens.
With Triggs at the PGA, they worked on hitting down on the ball instead of pushing the ball and seemingly coming out of the putt.
Senden now keeps the ball on line better and has seen positive results in his scoring.
Always seemingly in the top 25 in the statistical categories of greens in regulation and ballstriking, Senden ranks first in birdie average (4.69 per round) and eighth in scoring average (69.53) in 2012.
In comparison, his best ranking in birdie average in the five previous seasons has been 40th; in scoring average, 15th.
The difference comes down to putting.
“Instead of trying to be perfect, I’m trying to be more creative,” Senden said of his short game in general. “When I watch the best players in the world - say, the short game of Matt Kuchar or Phil Mickelson - if he’s got a shot anywhere, he’ll go up and over the top (of a tree), real creative work. And that brings an enjoyment and it brings on creativity and it brings on less trying to get the ball close to the hole rather than just stepping up there and feeling the shot and knowing that that’s it.”
If it sounds a little metaphysical, it has worked this year for Senden, who has three top-10s in 2012, including at the two WGC events.
Now, with his best opening round since a 65 in the 2011 Crowne Plaza Invitational, Senden has a chance to validate his work over the last eight months.
“I feel like when I become a quicker player on the golf course, I’m better,” Senden said. “I become a slower player, I get a little muddled up and bogged down, and that’s what I’m really trying to work on. I get up there, take less time, feel it there and hit it. That’s it.”