Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Golfweek Magazine.
(All photos by Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
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Variety is the spice of life, and Holton Freeman believes it also is the key to improvement for top golfers.
Freeman challenges Wocheng (Aden) Ye, one of the top junior golfers in the country, to be as random as possible when practicing on the range. Constantly changing targets, clubs, shot shapes and trajectories – it’s an attempt to get Ye to focus more on feel and control than simply pumping a bucket-full of 5-irons at a distant flag.
“I really do not like it when he’s hitting the same club to the same target over and over,” said Freeman, a senior instructor at the Sean Foley Performance Academy at EaglesDream, where he has taught since 2012.
Freeman tries to get Ye out of his comfort zone on the course in practice rounds, as well. Ye might play a round with only four clubs, or a round hitting two balls with Ye playing the worst of the two.
“If he can make his practice as difficult as possible, playing in tournaments feels a little less difficult,” Freeman said. “Foley has really emphasized that. … It prepares you for adversity.”
Ye, who moved from China to the Orlando area three years ago, first made a name for himself by qualifying for the Volvo China Open at 12 years old, a European Tour record. He since developed into a blue-chip recruit, verbally committing to the University of Florida at 15 years old and ranking just outside the top 250 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking, an impressive feat for someone his age.
But even the best junior golfers in the country have flaws in their games. To help Ye correct his mistakes, Freeman does what he calls “feel drills” with his star pupil rather than having Ye practice repetitive specifics. Ye will sometimes work on the feel drills in a mirror to learn the positions and motions that Freeman wants.
“When you do (regular) drills, you might hit five shots that are worth something, and then after that the brain is not challenged anymore,” Freeman said. Instead, Freeman keeps Ye’s inquisitive mind engaged by switching things up to learn what proper swing sequencing feels like from any lie and under a wide variety of conditions.
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THE STUDENT: WOCHENG (ADEN) YE
Height: 5 feet, 8 inches
Weight: 146 pounds
Hometown: Dongguan, China (now resides in Lake Mary, Fla.)
Credentials: Ranked eighth in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. … Verbally committed to the University of Florida. … Won this year’s Foley Performance Academy at EaglesDream Junior Championship, his second AJGA title. … Fifth at 2017 CB&I/Simplify Boys Championship, his best AJGA invitational finish. … Played in the European Tour’s Volvo China Open at 12 years old, a tour record.
THE COACH: HOLTON FREEMAN
School: Sean Foley Performance Academy at EaglesDream, Timacuan Golf and Country Club, Lake Mary, Fla.
Credentials: In his fifth year with EaglesDream, which has partnered with former Tiger Woods coach Sean Foley. … Coaches several junior and college golfers, including Washington sophomore Carl Yuan, UCF freshman Bobby Bai, and juniors Tommy Cao, Amy Zhang, Mimi Chen and Ethan Dong. … Played two years of college golf at Coastal Carolina, from which he graduated in 2007. … Played mini-tours for several years before turning to instruction.
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When Ye arrived in Florida, his swing included a rapid hip turn on the backswing, with the hips swaying away from the ball. His body would be completely rotated before his arms were even halfway up. On the downswing he would fling his hips forward and past the ball. His head would stay back, the club would drop into too much of an inside-out path with a tremendous amount of lag – too much and at the wrong angle – and he fought a hook.
Freeman has worked to help Ye tighten his hip rotation while focusing on his arms leading the backswing to the top, which has helped his swing sequence. Ye has tightened his hip turn dramatically, which has put him into a position to square the club with his arms on the downswing.
“We’re basically just trying to take the lag out of his swing,” Freeman said. “He played with too much lag.”
At the same time, Freeman doesn’t necessarily want Ye to slow down his hips on the downswing – a great source of Ye’s power – but to just control the rotation. Because he no longer over-rotates on the way back, he can speed through the ball with control.
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Level through the ball
Before working with Freeman, Ye’s over-rotated hips on his backswing led to a quick hip slide forward at the top of the downswing, while his head would stay back in a tilted position through impact (pictured above). His hips and shoulders would turn up and to the left dramatically.
Freeman wants Ye to swing down and through impact more on the level with what is sometimes called a trunk release or an early release, reminiscent of Annika Sorenstam or Henrik Stenson. Instead of tilting, his hips and shoulders are more parallel to the ground through impact and his hands are more in front of his body.
Ye wants his downswing to begin with a slight squat of his legs, then he simply tries to turn his body as level as possible. His head releases forward instead of hanging back – when done properly it eliminates much of his spine tilt.
Freeman goes so far in practice as to put his hand on Ye’s head during the swing. Freeman will push forward (pictured at right) on the downswing to force Ye’s head to rotate through the ball.
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To help Ye feel what a proper release should be, Freeman will step in during practice swings and hold down Ye’s club after the impact position. As Freeman pushes down, providing resistance, Ye tries to swing up. It’s quite a workout.
Among several certifications Freeman has obtained, he has studied Tathata Golf, which uses fitness and motion training to teach golf. The academy doesn’t teach Tathata, which bills itself as a martial arts approach to golf, but Freeman said this drill utilizes several components of Tathata.
“When I hold the club (pictured), his core muscles are really engaged and really pushing back hard,” Freeman said. “It helps him become a lot more stable at impact, because his core is engaged, his legs are pushing down, his shoulders are working.”
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In addition to using a computerized SAM PuttLab, which gives detailed readings of face and stroke angles, Freeman and Ye use a Vizio Mi Putting Template mat on the practice green.
The thin mat (pictured), built by a British company led by Phil Kenyon, has a line that indicates a slight arc for the backward and forward strokes. It also has smaller lines to indicate how far back the putter should go and what the face angle should be. Tees can be placed through multiple holes in the mat to correct a looping stroke, and there are other holes to create a gate drill in which the ball must roll through the tees.
“It really gives instant feedback,” Freeman said. “You can see exactly what you’re doing wrong and what you should be doing.”