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Why practicing golf is pointless for many golfers

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Most golfers think of practice as hitting balls on the range, and for the majority of golfers that’s their only practice. Any practice is better than no practice, of course, but when most golfers practice they’re not actually improving their golf swings. They’re repeating their old swings over and over, trying to make compensations so that their swings become more functional.

Unfortunately, that kind of practice is quite different from what golf practice should be. A better kind of practice has golfers repeating a new move in their golf swing that addresses their core swing fault so they don’t have to make so many compensations. And if they do that, their results will not only be better, but much more consistent.

In the attached video, I have included a few examples of golfers finding ways to try the hit the golf ball by fitting the club in into their existing swing.

I have always said that golfers are the most ingenious people I know. They will do whatever it takes to put the club on the ball. Whatever it takes usually includes a series of compensations for a core fault. This vicious cycle usually starts with a poor grip or posture, which in turn affects the club face and leads to a series of compensating moves. So instead of trying to correct the core problem, golfers practice ways of compensating. Go to any driving range and see this process up close and personal.

Have you ever gone to the range to hit, say, 100 balls, and somewhere in the middle of the bucket you started striping it?  Ball after ball comes off the middle of the face and flies at the intended target at a good trajectory. Then you leave, and go the course or the range the next day and you can’t hit it in the ocean from the beach?

There’s a good reason why. If golfers hit enough balls, they can start to time their compensations perfectly.

The swing fault called over the top is a classic example. The club is swung well outside the target line, and then on the downswing it is pulled back in just in time to at least hit the ball. The shot may be pulled or sliced, but at least it’s hit in the air, and if the (right-handed) golfer aims far enough left, he or she can play it.

Then, out of nowhere, comes the shank! “Where did that come from?” they say. “I’ve never done that!”

Well, the shank may be a less frequent result of the over-the-top move, but it is clearly in that family of shots. It can happen when the club is still well outside the ball and not pulled inside. This cycle all started with an over-the-top move that may have been the result of a grip that was too weak or a club face that was open at the top.

The lesson here is that in order for practice to really help, golfers need to know the root cause of their bad shots. If they know that, they are on their way to making progress. Until then, most golf practice is nothing more than enjoying the fresh air, sunshine and getting some exercise, perhaps. It’s not helping most golfers’ games like they think it is.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Alex

    Feb 11, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I hit a few balls (30) 3/4 times a week. That’s the longest span I can concentrate and work on 1 thing in my swing. I care about my swing.

    I have a friend who plays awful golf and is always complaining but has never taken a lesson for a few years. You tell him something and he hits the range on his own trying to change his swing. The final result, you can imagine: he always gets back to his old superhacker swing.

    Useless practice is the most common thing you see at the club practice tee.

    • stephenf

      Mar 10, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      Exactly.

      Always tough to know how to respond to a friend who’s always talking about how hard the game is, getting mad about his bad shots or bad scores, etc., but won’t make any actual changes.

      I had a friend years ago, a guy who had some potential — 80-84 on an average day, but lots of length, and could shoot 76-78 sometimes. Good short putter. Just way over the top with a shoulder-dominated downswing. We got him to slow down that wrenching-twisting over-the-top action, and pretty soon he was hitting it a little from the inside, and hitting it better than he’d ever hit it. He went out two or three times to play after that and was just elated at how he was hitting it. I went about three weeks without seeing him, then saw him at the range again, and he was right back to his old habits. “What the hell, man?” I asked him. He says, “Yeah, I know. But it just wasn’t comfortable.” Love the guy, but I just wanted to pull my hair out. I’ve run across that kind of thing more often than I care to think about. What’s wrong, inefficient, ineffective, etc., is “comfortable,” so they prefer comfort and continuing in what they’re doing rather than making any changes for the long term. Maybe some people, like your friend, actually kind of like the cycle of “try, get aggravated, let off steam, have a beer and talk about how hard the game is” more than they’d like to be uncomfortable during a period of actual improvement.

  2. M-Herd4

    Feb 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Geez, the article title alone makes an average Joe hack like myself and I’m sure many others feel like trying to improve is a waste of time. I understand where you’re coming from, I really do, but a large percentage of amateur golfers don’t have the time, money, or access to instructors like yourself. If we did I’m sure we’d be constantly improving. So, for now, I’ll keep working at this great game to the best of my ability and enjoy the times on the range when I’m feeling the flow. Here’s hoping for the best (fingers crossed)!

  3. Paul

    Feb 9, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    So true that it’s not about just taking lessons. It’s about taking lessons from an instructor who is the right person for you. I had dabbled in taking lessons in the past. I was a decent player, 8 handicap and self taught. Grew up playing hockey, football and baseball so I had a good base to draw from. As we all know though, golf is a different animal in that what happens one day doesn’t happen the next.

    I’ve seen 5 different instructors and all of them were the same in that they wanted to to teach me their method. One instructor told me there was nothing he could do for me that my swing was that good (not true). Two others tried teaching me right out of the Ben Hogan manual even giving me photo copies of a portion of his book. Obviously in all cases I never went back to these people. I continued to try and self diagnose and fix with expected results (i.e. Still inconsistent).

    In 2014 I had a round where I shot 108 that included 10 balls OB and I didn’t ever want to have a round like that ever again. So I started researching other teaching pros in the area and asking people for suggestions. Long story short I stumbled on an instructor who finally did not want to build me from the ground up but to tweak what I already have. I gave him my standard speech that I want to be more consistent, no more rounds in the 100’s and know I can play the game fairly well at times but when I’m bad, I’m really bad.

    Before he even asked me for a dime we spoke for maybe two hours over a few week period and I knew his philosophy fit well with mine. I kept an open mind and said I would gladly pay for a package of 8 lessons and do whatever he wanted but feel as though I don’t need to start from scratch. He completely agreed and what we wound up fixing is my shoulders at address (I was too open), take away (not pulling inside) and tempo. None of the “technical” items I thought were the problem all along. The results were amazing and my handicap dropped from an 8 to a 4 with multiple rounds between lost balls. My worst round was an 86 and the 70s were a common occurrence. That’s realistically the best I can do with a set of young twins and a full time job as the rest of the strokes are short game.

    I played sports and some at a high level my whole life. I always had coaches for these sports and it made no sense that I never had a golf coach. I desperately wanted one but it just is not easy to find one. I highly recommend if you play twice a week to keep searching until you find the right coach. You should know what type of coach you want if you’ve played other sports. Keep going until you find one because your enjoyment of the game goes up 10x when you do. The initial cost may be a little high but once you get to a certain point it can be just maintenance from that point forward.

    • John

      Feb 10, 2016 at 11:55 am

      You hit the nail on the head! Sounds like I wrote the story although I haven’t found the guy/girl instructor yet.

    • Dennis Clark

      Feb 10, 2016 at 10:27 pm

      wow…you shot 108 in 2014 and now you’re a 4 cap…thats amazing! keep up the good work!

      • Steve

        Feb 11, 2016 at 10:23 pm

        10 shots OB, to me that means 10 times on the tee hitting 3. Thats like spotting 20

  4. Par tee

    Feb 8, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Launch monitors must have really helped Jack, Arnie, and Bobby Jones!!! If you need a monitor to tell you what your eyes can tell you, especially when you use range balls, go ahead!!! This article is spot on, most golfers don’t even take or want to take lessons. This has nothing to do with instructors, I’m in my 50’s and have never been or taken a lesson with a launch monitor. My instructor is and always has been my dad!

  5. Joew2328

    Feb 8, 2016 at 10:31 am

    So what do you do when you start striping shot after shot in the middle of your practice session? How do you know if you’re correctly implementing the move you’re trying to make, or just compensating for your faults?

    • Philip

      Feb 8, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Start changing up club selection, skipping a few clubs. Take an additional pause between shots and move to different areas on the grass. At least that is what I do when I start striping shots. What I should really do though if I have a round to play is immediately stop hitting balls on the range and go to the putting green until I tee off, instead of what I did in the past, which is to continue to hit balls until I lose whatever was clicking and then end up bringing a messed up swing and thoughts to the tee as I usually can’t reconnect my swing.

    • Dennis Clark

      Feb 8, 2016 at 5:22 pm

      As I said in the article, you DON’T…video, launch monitor numbers are the ONLY way. The phenomenon you’re describing is very common. And it does not always help give proper feedback, that’s the problem. The ball can lie to us. Find a good pair of eyes and keep them on your efforts. If you’re serious about improvement, which it sounds like you are.

      • RG

        Feb 10, 2016 at 2:09 am

        The ball can lie to us has been a mantra of mine for years, so thank you Dennis for some positive reinforcement. I know in my game the way I corrected mechanical issues is without the ball, because of this phenomena. If your honest with yourself, you know whether you’ve made a good swing or not.

    • JP K

      Feb 10, 2016 at 11:38 pm

      you have to move from mechanical to target. start by aiming at a target and lay down a rod (at your heels) and see where you are aiming. Get good at alignment which is easy on mat but not on the course. Then, try to fade and draw at targets (success is not slicing right of the target or hooking left of the target). this will help you forget about mechanics and focuses on execution. Then, play your round.

  6. SOS

    Feb 8, 2016 at 7:44 am

    Took lessons for years. From supposed top teachers. Very limited success. Been using a launch monitor lately and its been a god send. I’ve gotten to know my swing and the basic numbers it produces. I also know by the numbers what is my good swing and can equate it to things I’m doing. Just looking at a video is about half of what is necessary. Don’t see many teachers using launch monitors along with the video’s. Why not. The numbers don’t lie. What I’ve found is that if I don’t slow down coil properly my numbers will be down and conversely. I’m not paying big money if it doesn’t produce results and just looking at a video will not tell you this. Same thing with the instruction. How many teachers keep track of their students progress as a gauge for them as teachers as well as progress for their students. They don’t even know how far their clients hit their clubs nor their dispersion! I’m not saying that instruction is a fraud especially for the money paid. I’m saying its unprofessional. Until you teachers wake up to this fact there will be limited progress. I also don’t want to hear their out. Which is “You didn’t listen to me”.

    • Dennis Clark

      Feb 8, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      If you hear “you didn’t listen to me” or “you have to get worse before you get better”, find another instructor. I work with both LMs and video. Of course. I also charge a lot of money for the 35 years I have invested in my craft.

      • Blair

        Feb 10, 2016 at 12:23 pm

        A great coach is worth all the money and then some!

  7. Ver

    Feb 7, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    What’s more pointless is telling people who have no sports or athletic ability, the kind of people with whom you grew up in high school who used to be the geek who never did any sports or any kind of physical activity, who’ve spent more of their life indoors than outdoors sitting on their butts, that they can and should pick up this fun game called golf because it’s good for their health and they can have some camaraderie with new playing partners and friends and opponents and that it’s the game for a lifetime.
    Because those are the people you see struggle year after year whether they have spent millions of dollars in lessons or not, because they just don’t have any athletic ability at all.
    And if this article is an attempt to convince some of those people who may read this article to get out more on the golf course so that courses make more money that they desperately need right now as the number of players have decreased over the years instead of having them spend money on range balls, you are very much mistaken about the game of golf altogether.

    • Double Mocha Man

      Feb 9, 2016 at 9:38 am

      Good point about athleticism. My theory is that anyone with a 5 handicap or better grew up playing sports, naturally improving their hand/eye coordination, their full-body coordination. Ask a 5 handicapper to fling a football, sling a frisbee, shoot a 3 pointer, field a grounder or throw a pitch and they can do it… and look good doing it.

      • Dennis Clark

        Feb 9, 2016 at 5:55 pm

        And to think a 5 cap gets 5-6 a side from a tour pro, 🙂

    • JP K

      Feb 10, 2016 at 11:49 pm

      i know plenty of crap golfers who have questionable swings who love to play and celebrate a par like a birdie and who have no disillusion about their skills. it’s really only the ones who have mismatched self-perception that you need to worry about. e.g. play from the wrong tees, get pissed off…i had a guy quit after nine yesterday and go back to the range but at least he knows he’s terrible. unless you are rowgr #1 no one has any business saying someone should not play, there’s always someone better than you.

  8. Tim

    Feb 7, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Topic has been discussed so much how is this a news item? Article could have been one sentence long and accomplished the same goal.

  9. Dennis Clark

    Feb 7, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    All it takes is a good look at the big picture, cause and effect. Most have no clue without proper feedback on full swing. Short game, a whole other ball game…

  10. cgasucks

    Feb 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Every range session is a learning experience full of trial and errors…the result? 2 clubs in distance gained with more accuracy…I wouldn’t have gotten those results if I never experimented and kept using my old swing…

  11. ooffa

    Feb 7, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Practice is never pointless. This article is.

    • RG

      Feb 10, 2016 at 2:18 am

      Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent, so if you practice and suck you will permanently suck. It’s always funny to me when guys that think 85 is a good round like to talk smack to a teaching pro.

  12. Troy

    Feb 7, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    So true Dennis,

    I was at the golf driving range yesterday and I saw the same golfers practicing the same old poor golf swings and looking frustrated at the results.

    There’s really no point in them keep on turning up to the range until they change something.

    Cheers

  13. farmer

    Feb 7, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Two problems; 1. assumes competent, continuing instruction, 2. assumes availability of said instruction. Get out into non-urban areas and see what you find.

    • NICODYWILL

      Feb 8, 2016 at 10:15 am

      The other issue is finding competent instruction altogether. I live in an urban area and can’t tell you how many “Instructors” are out here trying to tailor their “students” to their methods instead of vice versa. No two people are the same so why should the swings be the same? There isn’t a Yelp for teachers that i’m aware of and if you aren’t receiving the right instruction then you aren’t setting yourself up for success and only wasting money while perpetuating a broken cycle.

      • farmer

        Feb 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

        Where I live, it’s nearly 100 miles to the nearest genuine, Class A pro. He may not be a good teacher, as you say, and in my area, teaching is frequently done by assistants. Good instruction is kind of a crapshoot, apparently no matter the location.

        • Dennis Clark

          Feb 12, 2016 at 6:53 pm

          100 miles, sounds like you are pretty far out my friend! where may I ask?

  14. Dennis Clark

    Feb 7, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Spot on Steve…”Nothing changes if nothing changes”

  15. K

    Feb 7, 2016 at 11:33 am

    The last paragraph also sums up most people’s sentiment toward range time. It is fun. It relieves stress (or transfers it to something more healthy). It can also help with confidence on the course if you keep an understanding that you are not going to make a perfect shot every time, but you do have the potential to get lucky. If you practice well, expect to play well, but if you prefer to enjoy going to the range, by all means enjoy it. Set your expectations to amount of time you have available and then go have fun.

  16. Tom

    Feb 7, 2016 at 11:17 am

    The last paragraph of the article nails it.

  17. Steve

    Feb 7, 2016 at 10:58 am

    This why most golfer’s don’t improve with lessons, they get fed up with the process and go back to their flawed swing. A teacher might show them they are coming over the top, for example and show them a way to improve their clubpath. They try and try the new way and see no improvement, so they go back to the old swing. Problem is all the old swing compensations are still there and must go away to support the new swing. Which is a process most dont have time or patience to deal with

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Instruction

WATCH: What to do when you’re short sided

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Top-100 instructor Tom Stickney shows you how to avoid compounding a mistake when you’ve missed the ball on the wrong side of the green.

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Why flaring your left foot out at address could be a big mistake

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In his book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” published in 1957, Ben Hogan recommended that golfers position their right foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line, and then position their left-foot a quarter of a turn outward at a 15-degree angle (Note: He was writing for right-handed golfers). The purpose of the left-foot foot position was to assist in the “clearing of the left hip,” which Hogan believed started his downswing.

Through this Hogan instruction book and the others he wrote through the years, there four categories that defined his advice;

  1. He accurately described what was occurring in his swing.
  2. He described a phantom move that never occurred.
  3. He described something that occurred but to a lesser degree than indicated.
  4. He inaccurately described what was happening in his swing.

As evidenced by today’s modern video, Hogan did not open up his left hip immediately as he described. This piece of advice would fall into the fourth category listed above — he inaccurately described what was happening in his swing. In reality, the first move in his downswing was a 10-12 inch shift of his left hip forward toward the target before his left hip ever turned open.

SPINNING OUT

Those amateur golfers who strictly adopted his philosophy, opening the left hip immediately, ended up“spinning out” and never getting to their left foot. The spin-out was made even worse by the 15-degree angle of the left foot Hogan offered. That said, based on Hogan’s stature in the golf world, his advice regarding the positioning of the feet was treated as if it were gospel and adopted by both players and teachers. Since that time his hip action has been debated, but the positioning of the left foot has remained unquestioned — until today.

THE FLARED FOOT POSITION

The flared position of his left foot may or may not have been of assistance in helping Hogan achieve the desired outcome in his swing. That really is not the point, but rather that over a half-century there has never been a voice that argued against the flared foot position he advocated.

The rest of the golf world accepted his advice without question. In my opinion, the left foot position advocated by Hogan has harmed countless golfers who slowly saw their swings fall apart and wondered why. His well-meaning advice was a poisoned pill, and once swallowed by golfers it served to eventually erode what was left of their left side.

DEAD WRONG

The subject of this piece is not to debate Hogan’s hip action but the piece that accompanied it, the 15-degree flare of the left foot. I’m of the opinion that it is not only wrong. Because of its toxic nature, it is DEAD WRONG.  The reason has to do with the tailbone, which determines the motion of the hips in the swing. The more the left foot opens up at address, the more the tailbone angles backward. That encourages the hips to “spin out” in the downswing, which means they have turned before the player’s weight has been allowed to move forward to their left foot and left knee.

As a consequence of the hips spinning out, players move their weight backward (toward the right foot), encouraging a swing that works out-to-in across the body. You can see this swing played out on the first tee of any public golf course on a Saturday morning.

FOOT FLARE ISSUES

The problem with the 15-degree foot flare is that it promotes, if not guarantees, the following swing issues:

In the backswing, the flared left foot:

  1. Discourages a full left- hip turn;
  2. Encourages the improper motion of the left-knee outward rather than back
  3. Reduces the degree that the torso can turn because of the restrictions placed on the left hip.

In the downswing, the flared left foot: 

  1. Promotes a “spinning out” of the left hip.
  2. Does not allow for a solid post at impact.

STRAIGHT AHEAD

In working with my students, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most advantageous position for the left foot at address is straight ahead at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The reason is not only because it encourages a positive moment of the player’s weight forward in the downswing, but it also improves the player’s chances of making a sound backswing.

THE POWER OF THE LEFT HEEL

There is an inherent advantage to placing the left-foot at a 90-degree to the target-line. It is the strongest physical position against which to hit the ball, as it provides a powerful post at impact that serves to increase both power and consistency.

JACK NICKLAUS

A number of years ago, Jack Nicklaus appeared on the cover of Golf Digest. The byline suggested that in studying Jack’s footwork, they had discovered something that up to that point was unknown. The “secret” they were describing was that after lifting his left heel in the backswing, he replanted it in the downswing with his heel closer to the target line than his toe. The intimation was that this might be a secret source of power in his swing.  This was hardly a “secret,” and something that Nicklaus was probably unaware of until it was pointed out to him, but it’s a demonstration of the fact that his natural instinct was to turn his foot inward, rather than outward, on the downswing.

THE DISCUS THROWER

The discus thrower whirls around in a circle as he prepares to throw. On the final pass, he plants his left toe slightly inward, relative to his heel, because this is the most powerful position from which to cast the discus. This position allows the thrower to draw energy from the ground while at the same time providing a strong post position from which additional torque can be applied. The point is that as the discus thrower makes the final spin in preparation for the throw, he does not turn the lead foot outward. Why? Because if it were turned outward, the potential draw of energy from the ground would be compromised.

The same is true when it comes to swinging a golf club for power, and you can test the two positions for yourself. After turning the left foot into a position that is 90 degrees to the target line, you will immediately note the ease with which you can now turn away from the target in addition to the strength of your left side post at the point of impact. Conversely, when you turn your left foot out, you will feel how it restricts your backswing and does not allow for a strong post position on the downswing.

REPAIRING YOUR SWING

Do you have trouble cutting across the ball? You might look to the position of your left foot and the action of the left hip. The first step would be to place your left foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The second step would be to turn you left hip around in a half circle as if tracing the inside of a barrel. The third step would be to feel that you left your left hip remains in the same position as you scissor your weight towards your left toe, and then your right heel, allowing the club to travel on the same path. The combination of these changes will encourage the club to swing in-to-out, improving the path of your swing.

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Instruction

WATCH: Over-the-top vs. over-and-through: 1 destroys a swing, 1 can save it

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This video is about OVER-AND-THROUGH, which is very different than being over-the-top. Over-and-through is a great recovery from a backswing that is not quite in the right position. Over-the-top is flat-out a full default to the ball. See how you can bridge the gap with getting your swing to deliver better to the target!

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