BALL GROUND, Ga. – One shot stands out from Heath Slocum’s most successful year on the PGA Tour: the 20-foot par putt that he made Aug. 30 on the final hole of The Barclays for a one-shot victory over four players, including Tiger Woods.
It was the culmination of fixes made by Slocum and instructor Mark Blackburn.
The pair had made substantial changes to Slocum’s swing during their four years together, but decided earlier this year to put more focus on Slocum’s putting, which had been neglected because of the full-swing focus.
The two were working on keeping Slocum from adding loft to the putter during his stroke. At this year’s St. Jude Classic, Slocum used a putter with 7 degrees of loft, about twice the standard, to keep his right hand from being too active during the stroke. He tied for 10th.
Slocum hadn’t posted a top 10 in the 10 weeks before The Barclays, but there had been positive signs, starting at the Wyndham Championship, the week before the Barclays.
“His caddie (D.J. Nelson) said whatever you guys are doing, (his putting) is coming back,” Blackburn said. “Scoring isn’t always a barometer of how someone is playing. You can be very, very close and the score doesn’t reflect it, then all of a sudden it clicks.”
Slocum, Blackburn and Nelson all attended college in Mobile, Ala., before playing the NGA Hooters Tour together. Slocum and Nelson were teammates at South Alabama, and Blackburn attended the University of Mobile before transferring to Southern Mississippi. Blackburn and Nelson were best man at each other’s weddings. Slocum and Blackburn reconnected at Nelson’s wedding, then began working together in spring 2005.
Slocum’s old swing had too many moving parts, bad habits resulting from his flexibility and a lack of strength in his core, lumbar spine and hips – muscles that stabilize the body throughout the swing. In addition to swing changes, Slocum has strengthened those areas.
“I was just looking for more consistency,” he said. “I had played very well at times. At times, I didn’t play very well. For the past (few) years, that’s something we’ve been working towards.”
Slocum always has strived to reach a new level. Not heavily recruited out of high school, he developed into a three-time All-American at South Alabama. He played mini-tours before being stricken with colitis in 1997, an affliction that left him out of the game for 18 months. In his first year back on the Nationwide Tour (2001), he earned a three-win promotion to the PGA Tour, where he has been since.
“I knew if I was going to get on Tour, I was going to be kind of the working man,” Slocum said. “I went through every level. It was a lot of hard work.”
The teacher: Mark Blackburn
Title: Founder/director of instruction, Mark Blackburn Golf Academy
Where: Gunter’s Landing Club, Guntersville, Ala./ The Ledges, Huntsville, Ala.
Notable students: Brent Delahoussaye, Robert Karlsson, Spike McRoy, Garrett Osborn, Boo Weekley
The student: Heath Slocum
Height/weight: 5 feet, 8 inches; 150 pounds
Accomplishments: Three PGA Tour victories (2004 Chrysler Classic of Tucson, ’05 Southern Farm Bureau Classic, ’09 The Barclays). . . . T-9 at 2008 U.S. Open is best finish in a major. . . . Has earned at least $1 million six years in a row. . . . Represented U.S. at ’07 World Cup. . . . Earned three-victory promotion on Nationwide Tour in 2001. . . . Three-time All-American at South Alabama.
In the bag: Ping G15 driver (9 degree) with Aldila RIP 70X shaft; Ping i15 3-wood (15.5 degree) with Aldila VS Proto 70X; Adams Idea Pro hybrid (18 degree) with Aldila VS Proto 95X; Ping i15 irons (3-PW) with Ping Z-Z65 shafts with Cushin insert; Ping Tour wedge (54 degree); Cleveland Golf 588 wedge (58 degree); Ping Redwood Anser putter (34 inches); Titleist Pro V1x ball.
Change of address
Blackburn made several changes to Slocum’s address – some of which go against conventional teaching – to offset Slocum’s hypermobility and flexibility.
Many teachers have players flare the left foot toward the target to allow them to clear their hips on the downswing. Slocum turned his left toe in, so that it was perpendicular to the target line.
“Because he’s so flexible, he didn’t need the extra hip rotation that turning the foot out facilitates,” Blackburn said. “(Turning the foot out) had a tendency to make him slide during downswing and not post correctly into the lead leg.”
Many players arch their lower back at address. Slocum was one of these players, but Blackburn got his lower back into a more “neutral position.”
The arched back often would cause Slocum to turn his shoulders too flat and start backward bending toward the target at the top of the backswing, Blackburn said.
Also, Blackburn had Slocum turn his knees out at address, a move that engages the glutes, muscles that help stabilize the lower torso during the swing. Slocum has worked on strengthening his glutes since teaming with Blackburn.
“(Stronger) glutes reduced his hips thrusting toward the ball, which was a big problem,” Blackburn said. “That caused the club to get too shallow; then he’d swing too in-to-out and have to flip (his hands) at the ball.”
The right takeaway
Changes in Slocum’s grip and takeaway sequence have helped him feel more “on top” of the ball at impact, instead of falling back, then rotating his hands excessively at impact.
Blackburn turned Slocum’s right hand slightly to the left, and got his right forefinger to run down the side of the shaft. This helps Slocum feel more “connected” to the club’s sweet spot, he said.
Also, instead of a one-piece takeaway, Blackburn wants Slocum to feel like he is starting the club back with his hands and right forearm.
“Before, his right hand tended to get underneath (the club), and the hips would turn flat and he’d roll the club,” Blackburn said.
“That would cause him to straighten his right leg, and turn his shoulders too flat, which would cause an inside-to-out downswing.
Now he’s on plane, instead of under the plane in the downswing. That’s all controlled by the hands and right forearm taking the club back first, with the shoulders and hips following in that order.”
Slocum said he can feel the difference in his takeaway in his shoulder turn.
“My left shoulder feels like it works down at the start of the swing,” Slocum said. “It rotates less and doesn’t go out as much.”
Don’t bump the shaft
Besides turning Slocum’s left foot in, Blackburn has him perform a drill to keep from sliding through the ball. Blackburn places a shaft just off Slocum’s left side and has him hit balls without bumping into the shaft.
Slocum said he felt like he was “backing out of the shot” and “less powerful” when he first did this drill.
Slocum was only 5 feet, 6 inches tall when he graduated from high school. “I felt like the more things I had going toward it, the more powerful it felt.” But Blackburn said Slocum is more powerful when he turns his hips correctly instead of sliding.
“If you watch someone throw a hammer or a discus, or if I asked someone to throw a golf club, their hips are going left while their hands go right,” Blackburn said. The same is true for the golf swing, though players must have strength in the muscles from the core, lumbar spine and down through the lower body to stay stable through impact, Blackburn said. Otherwise, the hips thrust toward the golf ball in the downswing.
Slocum also said his hip turn feels steeper during the drill. Slocum’s hips turned flatly when he would slide through the ball.
Slocum’s “steep” hip turn actually is a powerful move that allows him to use the ground for leverage.
“Heath weighs 150 pounds. At the start of the downswing, he’s putting more than double his body weight in pounds of force into the ground,” Blackburn said. “At impact, it should be zero. All that energy is going out of the ground and into the ball.”
Taking his medicine
A simple game of catch has helped Slocum improve his backswing and release.
Because Slocum is so flexible, he had a tendency to overturn in the backswing, which would cause him to backward bend or lean toward the target. As a result, he’d fall back to the right during the downswing, his head would dip, his club would get too inside and he’d have to flip at the ball, causing an inconsistent draw.
For one drill, Slocum makes a backswing while holding a medicine ball. He stops his swing and releases the ball when his arms get just short of the top of his backswing.
“The point of the release is so that he comes to a stopping point and doesn’t continue swinging,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn also has Slocum release a medicine ball at impact to help keep Slocum’s arms from swinging too far from the right. Blackburn stands down Slocum’s target line so Slocum’s arms must work on the proper plane to deliver the ball to Blackburn. When the drill is done correctly, Slocum said he feels like he is more “on top of” the ball at impact.
If Slocum’s arms swing too far to the right, one of his common faults, the ball would be thrown to the right.
Putting: Speed and loft
Slocum’s 20-foot par putt on the final hole at The Barclays was one of the memorable shots of the year. Proper speed was important. Slocum performs a simple drill to work on his speed.
Starting 3 feet from the fringe, Slocum will hit putts toward the fringe, trying to roll the ball as close to the fringe as possible.
In 3-foot increments, he will move back to 30 feet.
“If you’re working on speed, but putting toward a hole, you’re thinking, ‘OK, I’m getting it close to the hole,’ ” Blackburn said. “We don’t want the ball going close to the hole. We want his focus to be getting the ball in the hole.”
Slocum’s speed was inconsistent because he used to “hit” putts with his right hand and add loft to the putter at impact. At this year’s St. Jude Classic and U.S. Open, Slocum used a putter with 7 degrees of loft (about twice as much as a standard putter) because it forced him to keep his hands ahead of the putter head.
He no longer uses the putter during tournaments, but occasionally practices with it.