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The Secret to Practicing Like A Tour Player

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Practice until your hands bleed is advice often given to young players who aspire to a career in professional golf. Repeat, repeat, repeat so you play like a machine and mistake-free is another mantra preached by some parents and coaches. It’s well meaning advice, but it falls short.

The most common mistake I see young elite players making is looking to build a machine-like swing and then looking to engrain it through repetitive practice from dawn to dusk. Instead, what I’ve learned firsthand from tour players is that they look to build skill and confidence with their practice time.

So what’s the difference between engraining the perfect swing and building skill?

A mistake many golfers make is to get several buckets of balls, put down an alignment aid, grab a 7-iron and just work on trying to hit the ball perfect with the same flight to the same target every time. These golfers think that the more balls they hit, the more muscle memory they’re create. They believe they’ll be able to take it to the course or tournament and be able to play automatic, machine-like, mistake-free golf.

Why does this not work?

Let’s first understand that the emotional or psychological aspect of hitting a ball on the range and hitting a ball on the course in tournaments are poles apart. If you hit a poor shot on the range, you just take another ball and look to correct the swing in the next shot. On the course, you first have the physical challenge the golf architect of that course set – perhaps water down the left, trees on the right, a fairway bunker, etc — but then you have the mental challenge. You want to do well, you want to shoot a certain score, you’re thinking what other players are doing, etc. These two scenarios bear little relation to each other, and that’s why trying to engrain a machine-like swing on the range has very limited value.

So does that mean practice is for nothing? Absolutely not. Practice is where you can develop your skills. The critical point are: (1) How you practice, and (2) Under what conditions.

In a conversation 17 years ago with Michael Campbell, who went on to win the 2005 U.S. Open, he revealed a concept that he referred to as the one-third rule. In essence, it means dividing your practice into three parts.

  • In the the first part, you focus on progressing your technique.
  • In the second part, you focus on rhythm and motion.
  • In the third part, you simulate competition.

So if Michael was doing a 60-minute long game session, he may divide it into the following three parts.

Part 1: 20 minutes working on swing technique, using key drills set for him by his coach. In this part of practice, it’s fine to hit to just one target with one club and use training aids like alignment sticks.

Part 2: In this part of practice, no technical thoughts are allowed. Every shot must also be different. You may use the same club for five shots, but you must aim at five different targets. Or do Steve Bann’s nine-shot drill where you hit each of the nine ball flights on different balls. It can also mean changing clubs every shot. In essence, it’s about variability. When swinging, golfers need to be focused on the shot instead of the technique.

Part 3: In this part of practice, you put yourself under pressure by introducing a “win-lose” element. This last section creates a bridge from your practice to your play. It helps you transfer your range work to hitting good shots down the stretch. Extensive testing has shown that practicing in pressurized situations is the most effective way of inoculating yourself against the negative effects of pressure. Use your pre-shot routine just as you would on the course and have a specific practice drill that creates competition

This one-third concept relates to all aspects of the game: a putting session, short-game practice, wedge training, etc. What I have found in applying the concept for more than 15 years is that it assists players in building what I call competitive confidence, or confidence under pressure. Because they’ve been tested and challenged during practice, they are better prepared to perform when they face challenge and pressure during competition. Practice this way, and you will be able to build confidence that you can hit the key shot under pressure. That’s what tournament golf is about, being able to execute the key shot at the critical time.

This summer, Jordan Spieth won the biggest tournament in golf, the Open Championship. He had the best four days of his already star-studded career. His game was far from machine-like, but he possessed competitive confidence and skill. That enabled him to get the ball in the hole over 72 holes in fewer strokes than any of the other 155 competitors, which is the essence of tournament golf and the skill we need to build in our practice time.

The video below highlights some competitive practice drills you can try in your next practice session.

Interested in building a Tour Tough Game? I’ve developed a system called the Tour Player Practice System that gives players an easy to use A-to-Z Practice System. Sign up for some free training videos at www.tourplayerpracticesystem.com.

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Jonathan Wallett has been a coach on the European Tour since 2011. He's also the National Coach for the Hong Kong Golf Team. His academy specializes in assisting elite juniors, elite amateurs, and touring professionals in reducing their scores. Interested in learning to perform your best on tournament day? Jonathan has developed a system called the "Tour Player Tournament System," which helps players understand the keys to play their best on tournament day. Sign up for some free coaching videos at elitegolfplayer.com

27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Stephen Finley

    Jan 18, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    This is smarter than a lot of people are going to realize, especially for players who have reached a fairly decent level of skill. What you want is to have a good feel for the swinging motion and how variations affect ball flight, a good feel for where the sweet spot is, etc., not a “grooved” swing. You want an _adaptable_ motion that gives you the right balance between control and freedom (or freedom within a useful structure). I agree totally that this is something better players tend to know, or at least did in previous generations. People have really gotten off track in an effort to play “perfect-looking swing” instead of golf.

  2. ken

    Dec 26, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Before recreational rounds, I rarely go to the range. I chip and putt.
    Pre tournament rounds, I grab a couple mid irons, my wedges and metals, depending upon the length and type of the design of the course.
    I take about 15 minutes to loosen up. Then I “play” random holes of the course for about 20 to 30 mins. When its hot, I cut back on my range time.

  3. Sam

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    You can’t practice like a tour pro, til you are one. Does Lebron James practice like he did in high school? UH NO! Why doesn’t everyone just who wants to make it to the NBA just take on Kobe Bryant’s routine? Cause he aint Kobe!

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:49 pm

      Yes, but you can experience what the pros feeel if you buy their clubs and buy their shoes and buy their uniforms so you can even look like you’re on their team.
      99.99% of humanity are non-athletic dross and can only fantacize and delude and shout and scream and holler while watching their heroes on the playing field. Deplorables all !!!!

      • DD

        Jan 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

        “non-athletic dross”. Speak for yourself, hoser. Don’t project your failings on the rest of us.

    • Kurt

      Jan 28, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Agree, and add to it VERY few of us can even practice other then putt, chip and hit drivers off mats…the difference between public golfers and Country Club golfers is as far apart as amateur and pro golfers.

  4. Sam

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    You can’t practice like a tour pro, til you are one. Does Lebron Jamespractice like he did in high school? UH NO! Why doesn’t everyone just who wants to make it to the NBA just take on Kobe Bryant’s routine? Cause he aint Kobe!

  5. Joe Perez

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    My practice session is quite simple: spend 100% of the time trying to hit the golf ball before contacting the AstroTurf. ^_^

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:51 pm

      Keep on trying but don’t injure yourself on AstroTurf… gouge out the ground and frighten the earthworms… 🙂

    • Kurt

      Jan 28, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      The good thing is you can stripe the 3 wood of the AstroTurf…and you can hit an iron straight while hitting the AstroTruf before the ball…great practice…

  6. Ron

    Dec 26, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Good article. These 3 sessions are surely for the more advanced player, but I think even the weekend warrior trying to break 100 can benefit from the overall theme, which is structured practice. Like purposely trying to hit the ball higher than normal, to simulate when you banana slice it into the next fairway over, and have to hit it over the trees to get back on your own hole. Or practicing a few punch shots that you’ll inevitably need when you duck hook your ball into the pine straw off the first tee. You don’t need to practice shaping your ball 9 different ways, but emulating real scenarios you’ll encounter will benefit ANY golfer.

  7. Stephen Finley

    Dec 26, 2017 at 2:06 am

    People are nitpicking the “thirds” and the nature of each of those, but the basic fact that practice for a good player with the objective of “grooving” a swing has been shown to be mostly an empty exercise, except for broad principles like balance, tempo, path through the ball, plane and angle of approach, and release. “Grooving” every nuance off a level lie with infinitely more balls to hit if you’re off is just not the way to get better, especially once you reach a certain level. Adaptability, feel, and a firm, accurate idea of the very few things in the swing that actually matter are what allow you to compete better.

  8. Shad Goldston

    Dec 25, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    BTW, the Masters, NOT the open, is the biggest tournament in golf.

    • Patrick

      Dec 26, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      Lame comment. The Masters field is by far the weakest and smallest field. Yes, you get to play the same perfectly manicured venue every year. Those Open courses are always at the mercy of the weather. Notice that’s there are many repeat winners at Augusta. Makes sense providing you have a decent memory.
      Finally, the Masters is the first major of the season. To a European player certainly the Open is the number one major. To an American, the U.S. Open is the pinnacle. I’d rate the Masters third best among golf’s 4 majors.
      The Masters certainly has the esthetic trophy.

  9. Mark

    Dec 25, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Nice article. After reading the comments I can understand how this doesn’t apply to everyone but it hit home for me and I’ll incorporate more of this into my practice. Thanks!

  10. Tommy

    Dec 25, 2017 at 11:14 am

    That’s great for single digit players but most are just trying to get the feel of simple solid contact most of the time. Working the ball….really? 90% of players hit the ground before the ball….how you going to “work” it doing that?

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      Buy a set of PXGs… they’re guaranteed to be the bestest of the best… ask Paige 8)

  11. Square

    Dec 25, 2017 at 6:08 am

    I’m not being silly here…for me at age 48 my pie chart is divided into 20 minutes to get loose, 20 minutes on the technical, and 20 minutes on the win lose element as defined in the article. I’m just not going to give part 2 of the article much time.

    • Rich Douglas

      Dec 25, 2017 at 9:25 am

      But it’s the most important part. Read Garrity and Novosel.

      If your tempo is like a drunk monkey falling from a tree then your mechanics and gamesmanship are irrelevant. You wont’ be able to use the swing mechanics you’re desperately trying to implement and, when faced with real targets and hazards, you won’t be able to put a reliable swing onto the ball.

      I already use this method, but I vary the proportions depending on my needs. If I’m warming up before a match, and if my time is limited, I’ll spend almost all of it on #2, rhythm. If I’m hitting a large bucket just to practice, I’ll split it up. But if I need to spend more time on one phase–like yesterday–I’ll do that. (I spent almost all my time testing out two backswing lengths, chose one, then worked on tempo. No simulating game play.) But work them all into your practice over time. And for goodness sakes, don’t stand there pounding driver after driver!

    • ronny

      Dec 25, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      According to PGA statistics, 90+% of all 50 million golfers worldwide cannot break 100 and within the Rules of Golf.
      A ‘golfer’ is defined as somebody who owns a set of golf clubs and plays once a year, probably at the company golf tournament.
      For most of these ‘golfers’ golf is 90% social and 10% game, and they have no intention of learning how to swing a golf club. IOW, no commitment.
      I suspect that these golf ‘deplorables’ are not fit physically nor mentally to play decent golf, but they will buy the latest and best clubs in the futile hope of improving. Most of the WITB types fall into this category too. It’s both pitiful and pathetic.

  12. ronny

    Dec 24, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Our’s is not to wonder why…. our’s is to do and fly …. kaboom!!!
    Notice that the 1/3 pie chart is all about the physical part of the golf swing and nothing much about the intellectual study of the golf swing?
    With so much scientific stuff available one must wonder why the physical is so all-consuming? Just leave the thinking to the coach?
    If you want to swing like a robot surely you must be scientifically primed to think your way through a golf swing.
    Forget the physical conditioning, the golf-specific training, the performance testing…. just whack away with your new driver that is dialed in for a high draw.

  13. DoubleMochaMan

    Dec 24, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    I have one, only one, golf range observation: If you kill it on the range before your round you will hit it like crap on the course. And if you stink it up on the range you will pure most of your shots on the course.

    • ronny

      Dec 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      Practice? Practice? Practice?!!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGDBR2L5kzI

    • Rich Douglas

      Dec 25, 2017 at 9:29 am

      A common emotion for people who are less aware about the swing, physics, and their own mechanics. It seems almost random. I guess it is to them.

      Early on, I used to come to the course wondering what my swing would do. That’s because if it was good or bad was almost accidental. No more. Now I note what’s happening and either adjust the swing or–more likely–adjust my expectations from it during play. That way, I “dance with the girl I brung” and play the round with the swing I have.

      Awareness and knowledge.

      • ronny

        Dec 25, 2017 at 1:36 pm

        They also claim to be ‘feel’ golfers when in reality they are emotional ‘feelings’ golfers…. and they satisfy their feelings with ball impact sensation and results, and nothing much more. They don’t know their swing, plain and simple.

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Instruction

How-to Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

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Lucas Wald How To Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

This is the first installment in our How To Series — follow this plan to master the movements of the hips on the backswing!


Watch the series introduction here

This new series is all about helping you improve your golf swing quickly. We’re going to break the swing down into its component parts and give you specific practice direction — master these key elements of the swing and you’ll see improvement fast!

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How “long arms” at the top of the backswing can help you hit the ball farther

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One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to make a big shoulder turn with extended arms at the top. It’s the swing of a younger golfer! However, every one of us can add width at the top so we can hit it farther, but few know how to actually do so. In this article, I will use MySwing 3D Motion Analysis to help you understand how beneficial long arms are at the top.

As you examine the swing of this particular player, you will notice that the lead arm is “soft” and the hands are close to this player’s head at the top. This is the classic narrow armswing to the top that most older players employ. And as we all know this position leaves yardage in the bag!

Now let’s look at the data so we can see what is actually happening…

At the top you can see that the shoulders have turned 100 degrees which is more than enough, but the arms look jammed and narrow at the top. Why?

The answer lies within the actions of the rear arm, the lead arm is only REACTING to the over-bending of the rear elbow. As you can see at the top the rear elbow is bent 60 degrees. In a perfect world, when the rear elbow is at 90 degrees (a right angle) or more, the lead arm will be mostly straight — depending on how you’re built.

Something to note…in this position the hands are just past the chest and the shoulders have turned almost 90 degrees. However, when this player finished his backswing, he added 30 more degrees of rear elbow bend and only 11 more degrees of shoulder turn! What this means is that for the last quarter of the backswing, all this player did is allow the hands to basically collapse to the top of the backswing. This move is less than efficient and will cause major issues in your downswing sequencing, as well as, your transitional action.

As stated when your trail elbow stays at 90 degrees or wider in route to the top, you will have a much straighter lead arm.

One last thing to note when comparing these two players is that this player two had a shorter backswing length but a BIGGER shoulder turn with WIDER arms at the top, giving this player a short compact motion that resembles Adam Scott — which seems to work for he and Butch!

Therefore, the thing to remember is that if your lead arm is soft at the top and your arms look crowded at the top, then you must fix the over-bending of the rear elbow on the backswing. And if you have wider arms you will have a more solid “package” to become a ballstriking machine!

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Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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