Charles Howell III is getting back to what works for him. Howell relied almost exclusively on a fade when he was one of the game’s hot young prospects. After developing some bad habits while trying to incorporate a draw into his arsenal, Howell is back to the reliable left-to-right ball flight.
Instructor Kevin Smeltz started helping Howell return to the fade last year. The change is paying off.
Howell finished in the top 25 in 12 of his first 20 starts in 2011, and entered the Open Championship with three consecutive top-5 finishes. He has earned more than $1.7 million this season, and entered the Open at No. 84 in the Official World Golf Ranking after starting the season 158th.
“Hindsight is 20/20, but I think a much more efficient way to play golf is from a little bit of a fade,” Howell said. “In the fade, I’m working to stabilize the face instead of letting the face roll.
“The greats played a fade, especially the guys that were best for the longest periods of time.”
Hitting the fade has helped all facets of Howell’s game. Long known for his ballstriking – he led the PGA Tour in that stat in 2001, his first full professional season – Howell is 10th on Tour in scrambling this year.
“I think a fade is a much more lower-maintenance way to play golf,” Howell said. “I like the way things are progressing. For a while, I spent so much time on the full swing that I couldn’t spend as much time on the short game as I wanted to or needed to.
We’re now to a point where we’re much more balanced.”
The main objective in Howell’s new swing? To get the club swinging more to the left after impact so the ball can start down the target line.
Howell has incredible lag in his downswing, which is visually appealing, but also necessitated changes.
Visualize the plane of the golf swing as a circle tilted at an angle. The club travels to the right as it travels down. Howell hits down on the ball at a steep angle. The plane of Howell’s old downswing looked ideal on video shot down his target line, but his club traveled too far in-to-out through the ball because of his steep, downward angle of approach.
“Because Charles hits down on the ball steeply, we had to have him swing more to the left to make the ball go straight,” Smeltz said. “We needed the club to approach the ball slightly more from the outside for the club to be traveling down the target line through impact. We had to get the club in front of Charles’ hands during the downswing. That got the club exiting more on plane and not swinging so far out to the right.”
Backswing changes: Making a fade possible
Teacher and student worked on Howell’s backswing in order to help the club swing left after impact.
To accomplish this, Howell wanted to feel like he limited his hip turn on the backswing so that his body would open more quickly on the downswing.
Howell wants his left knee to stay inside his toe line during his backswing, never traveling over the toes. This helps him maintain the flex in his right knee as he starts the downswing.
Howell sticks a tee in his belt buckle to monitor his hip turn. He wants to feel like the tee points at the ball a moment longer during his backswing. At impact, he wants it to point toward his target. Howell has more weight moving toward his left heel during the downswing.
“We tried to have less hip turn going back and have his body rotate and open up more going through,” Smeltz said. “As his body got more open (in relation to the target) at impact and on the follow-through, his hands and club followed in that same direction, exiting more around him and to the left.”
Square clubhead: Better positions
Slowing Howell’s hip and shoulder turns on the backswing improved the movement of his club on the backswing.
In Howell’s old swing, the club was closed when it reached waist-high. The club was still closed, and pointed across the line, at the top of the backswing. This caused the club to fall behind his hands on the downswing.
Howell’s club now rotates on the proper plane. The clubhead is perpendicular to the ground when the club is waist-high.
“With his belt buckle pointing at the ball a little longer, he has to rotate the clubface and rotate his arms to get the club moving back,” Smeltz said.
Belly putter: Real release
Howell creates lag with every club in his bag, even his putter. He switched to a belly putter this year to get the “pop” out of his stroke.
In Howell’s stroke with a traditional putter, he had a tendency to hold the angle in his left wrist and make impact with the hands well ahead of the putter, instead of allowing the putter to release. This caused his left shoulder to lift, the putter face to open and the ball to start right of Howell’s target.
Howell cannot create this lag with a belly putter because it is anchored to his stomach. He has to release the putter instead of “lagging and dragging” through impact.
Short game practice: Mix up the targets to stay engaged
Howell credits a new practice strategy for an improved short game.
Instead of repeatedly hitting shots to the same target, Howell creates games and competitions to stay engaged. He’ll hit just a couple of balls to one target and try to get them up-and-down or within a certain range of the hole. He used to hit 30 or 40 balls from one location to one target.
“It piques your brain to concentrate more,” Smeltz said of switching targets throughout practice. “If you hit 40 balls to the same target, you’re not really learning after the first three. If you’re putting in the hours this way, you’re not being as productive.”
Said Howell: “It’s much more efficient to use one ball because there is a little bit of pressure or heat on that shot, like the golf course.”