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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 building a tour tough game? Jonathan has developed a system called the Tour Player Practice System, which gives players an easy-to-use, A-to-Z practice system. Sign up for some free training videos at www.tourplayerpracticesystem.com

24 Comments

24 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 !!!!

  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… 🙂

  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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