Bender: How to Train Like a Champion Golfer

November is “Think Like a Champion” month on Golf Channel, and who better to speak about how to train like a champion than Golf Channel Academy lead coach Mike Bender, swing coach to two-time major winner Zach Johnson.

Bender appeared on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive  earlier this week, and we asked him how Johnson would prepare differently for a major, specifically on practice days leading up to the tournament. Bender typically spends the early part of the week working with Johnson before heading back to his academy in Lake Mary, Fla., right before the start of the tournament.

“It’s situational, what we practice on the range before a tournament,” said Bender, the 2009 PGA National Teacher of the Year and coach to several PGA and LPGA Tour winners. “At John Deere [a tournament Johnson won in 2012 and has finished runner-up in three times], we’re hitting a lot of shorter irons and wedges on Tuesday.  There’s not too many long holes out there so you’re going to have a lot of wedges in. That’s why he and [Steve] Stricker are up there contending nearly every year. On the longer courses, he’s going to be hitting longer clubs into the greens so we’ll hit more hybrids and mid-irons [on practice days].”

For Johnson to contend at the U.S. Open, he has to be driving the ball exceptionally well, says Bender, which means they’ll work a lot with his driver early in the week. “And because you don’t hit all of the fairways in a U.S. Open you’re going to miss more greens, so your short game and especially your chipping has to be at a premium as well,” said Bender.

Sometimes, you just have to react to how the player is hitting the ball at the moment and find a quick solution to whatever is ailing him, as was the case with Johnson prior to his first major triumph at The Masters in 2007.

“We’re out at Augusta National on Tuesday and Zach is not hitting the ball very well and he’s getting frustrated,” recalls Bender. “So we walk off the course and we go to the range and I say, ‘Zach, here’s what I want you to do: You’re going to tee up drivers and I want you to make a full swing all the way back and through and try and land the ball 200-210 yards.’ ”

At the time, the high screen fence protecting traffic on Washington Road from the golfers at the opposite end of the driving range was only 50-feet high, and about 260 yards from the teeing grounds. It has since been raised and moved farther away from the tees to keep players like Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson from hitting it over the net.

“Zach is hitting these drivers and making these full swings and the balls are landing about 30, 40 yards short of the net. …at least!” recalls Bender. “I can hear the fans in the back saying, ‘Look at that guy, he can’t even get it to the net.’ I started laughing, but I wasn’t saying anything to Zach. Anyhow, he kept doing that and basically what happened is he started to get his rhythm and tempo back. And I think it’s part of the reason why he had such a great tournament.

“I’ll never forget it,” continued Bender. “I’m back home in Orlando on Sunday watching the tournament, and his tempo was the same with a wedge as it was his driver. It was as if every club was exactly the same. I’ve never seen him in that kind of zone.”

Johnson’s wedge play was particularly hot. On the four par 5s at Augusta National, he made 11 birdies for the week, just laying up versus going for the greens in two.

“Because the course was playing so long and difficult and because of how cold it was, nobody could go for the par 5s,” said Bender. “The long hitters could go for them but the balls were flying over the green. It was a harder up-and-down then if you laid up and had a nice wedge distance in. We had a strategy—if the pin were over on the left, we’d lay up on the right so we’d have a backboard. The way those par 5s are, there’s always slopes and things [on the green] that you can aim into if you’re at the right location, which will help funnel the ball down to the hole. We had a whole strategy about how we wanted to play and where we wanted to lay up.”

Johnson’s 289 total (+1) tied for the highest winning score ever at The Masters. He wound up finishing two shots ahead of runners-up Retief Goosen, Rory Sabbatini and four-time champion Tiger Woods.