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I’m practicing. Why am I not getting better at golf?

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We all want to improve our golf games; we want to shoot lower scores, make more birdies and win bragging rights from our friends. As a result, we practice and invest many hours in trying to improve. However, do we improve as quickly as we want to? Is there something we’ve been missing?

“The secret is in the dirt,” Ben Hogan said. And he was right. To date, not one golfer has become an elite player without investing thousands of hours in improving their golf game. And yet, there are thousands of amateur golfers who practice every week and don’t get better. What is the difference? To me, this is a very interesting question. What underpins how or why we learn? Furthermore, how can we super-charge our rate of learning? 

To super-charge our learning, we must first realize that practice itself does not make us better at golf. This is an empty promise. It is close to the truth but incorrect. Instead, practice, when done correctly, will cause changes in our body to make us more skillful over time. This is a subtle, but important difference. There is no magic type of practice that universally builds skill, however, there are a handful of factors that can speed up, slow down or even stop your progress.

Remember: “You are not aiming to hit 50 balls; you are trying to become more skillful.”

There are the two major factors that stop golfers improving. Try not to view them as switches that are on or off. Instead, view both factors as sliding scales. The more you can fine-tune each factor, the faster you will improve your golf.

1) Give your body clear and precise feedback

What is 2 + 2? Imagine if you were never given the answer to this question at school. If you weren’t, you would never know the answer. Similarly, imagine you made a golf swing and the instant you hit the golf ball it disappeared. How would you know what to do on your next attempt to hit a straighter shot?

In both cases, feedback is the missing ingredient. Feedback comes from the shot outcome, watching the ball flight and many other sensations we get during our golf swing. As soon as our body does not have clear and precise feedback our learning will stop.

When we first learn to play golf, the feedback required to improve is simple – did the ball move at all, and did it get airborne? As we progress, we then need more precise feedback to keep developing our skill.

As a 20 handicapper, we need to know if the ball finished 10 or 15 yards right of our target. When we become an elite player, the requirement for feedback becomes even more stringent. The difference between a wedge shot landing 103 or 107 yards becomes important. This type of feedback, known as knowledge of results, is focused on the result of your golf shot.

“If your body can’t tell the difference between two outcomes, you will not make any changes – learning will not occur.”

To learn, we also require another form of feedback, known as knowledge of performance. In essence, your body needs to know what it did to cause “x.” Relevant practice drills, training aids and videoing your swing are all useful ways to increase feedback on performance. The best form of feedback, however, is an internal understanding of your swing and how it causes different ball flights. This is an implicit skill all great golfers master, and a by-product of many hours of diligent practice, refinement and understanding.

Many golfers hit a brick wall in their golfing journey when their practice stops providing the precise feedback they need to keep improving. They may not have enough information about their shot outcome, or they may not understand how the golf swing causes various shots. Both will completely halt your golfing progress.

Next time you practice, think of ways you can obtain clearer feedback. You don’t need Trackman by your side (although this can be helpful), but pay attention to where your shots finish during putting and chipping practice and note these trends. Find landmarks behind your golf range to gauge the lateral error of your long shots.

If you’re working on your swing path through the point of impact, one way of obtaining feedback on your performance is to place a bottle or a second ball on the ground. To put it simply, if the bottle/ball flies, you’ll know you’ve made a bad swing. Another way, if you are trying to improve your iron striking, is to place a towel one inch behind the ball to indicate whether or not you have hit the ground before the ball. These ideas are not mind-blowing, but trust me; they will speed up your rate of learning.

2) Make your practice suitably difficult

When you first go to the gym, lifting the lightest weight you can find is fine. But how much would your fitness improve if you were still lifting that same weight 12 months later? Now think of how your golf practice has changed over the past 12 months. If you were asked, could you explain the level of difficulty of your practice?

The reason many golfers can’t answer this question is they don’t have a good measure of success when they practice. Most golfers don’t have a quantifiable way to say “that shot I just hit was or wasn’t good enough.” Even fewer golfers have a way to say “this week my practice performance was 20 percent better than last week.” If you fall into this category, try the following game the next time you practice your long game.

Structure your practice so that you have set target zones (10 yards and 20 yards wide) with points for hitting each zone (3 and 1 points respectively). Take a set amount of balls (20 balls) and see how many points you can score with a 6-iron and a driver (10 balls with each). Each week, play this game and track your progress. We’ll call this game the “WRX Range Challenge.”

Set a goal for how many points you want to achieve. This goal should be challenging, but not impossible. When you reach this goal, make your target zones smaller and repeat the process. This way you can track your progress over time. As you make the target zones smaller and smaller, your body has to continually refine your swing to make it more effective.

Summary

We all want to improve our golf. We all want to get better at a quicker rate. The two factors discussed here are obvious and yet are not addressed by many golfers when they practice. Next time you head to the range or practice ground, ensure you have clear feedback on your shot outcome and golfing technique. Make your practice measurable, suitably difficult and enjoy watching your scores progress.

If you do try out the WRX Range Challenge, let us know. Post your score and a photo: #WRXrangechallenge @GolfWRX and me @golfinsideruk on Twitter and Instagram.

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Will Shaw is a golf professional who has spent the past eight years lecturing and researching at two of England’s top universities. His previous work includes providing biomechanical analysis for some of the world's leading golfers and sports performance projects across many elite sport settings. You can view his website on golf performance using this link. You can also grab your copy of his book - The Golf Insider Performance Diary here.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. juststeve

    Jul 14, 2018 at 9:34 am

    The fastest way to improve is to buy new clubs, lots of new clubs until you find the ones that make you better. Ask any OEM.

  2. Phil D. Snuts

    Jul 13, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Best way to practice is to visualize your round. Your not gonna hit every fairway so try recovery shots. You use a driver a maximum of 18 times per round so why hit 3 wedges thin then immediately hit the next 47 balls with it? And for Christ’s sake get on grass and get off the goddamn mats and simulators. If you don’t have access to grass take up bowling. We don’t play this game in a closet off a concrete floor into a tarp so why practice that way. Your truly, Mr. D.Snuts

    P.s. get off my lawn

  3. Brad

    Jul 13, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    short game fastest way to improve… i feel many instructors make it way to complicated, its as simple as whats your ball flight doing ? learn the ball flight/club face laws and your pretty much armed to solve your miss, over due it at first and then perfect it.

  4. Regis

    Jul 13, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    I’ve played for a lot of years and I practice 3 times a week. My course has a great practice facility. Lately I only bring 2 or 3 clubs. Those are the clubs that are giving me problems. I may spend 3 sessions with just one fairway wood. I don’t make monumental improvement but on the course my comfort level, my consistency and my scores make gradual improvement

  5. joro

    Jul 13, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Just pounding balls means nothing if you are doing it wrong. Only a few have the skill to do it right, otherwise you are just perfecting mistakes. Take a lesson from a good teacher and then practice what you learned over and over. As a teacher I have seen many good lessons go away because they do not pay any attention to what they are taught and the next lesson is a repeat of the last lesson.

    And “warmups” usually consist of getting a bucket of balls and the Driver and hit as hard as they can for a few mins.

  6. RBImGuy

    Jul 13, 2018 at 3:45 am

    “There is no magic type of practice that universally builds skill”

    Actually there is

  7. steve

    Jul 12, 2018 at 11:42 pm

    You can’t “get better” holding a golf club and practicing or whatever… you must improve your physical condition in a gym first. If you want to hit 200 balls daily go ahead but be prepared to do that for several years of whacking the dirt. If you want to boost your game quickly you should look at your body and admit you are out of shape to improve by simply beating balls mindlessly. The golf swing starts kinetically from the ground up so you should strengthen your feet, legs, hips torso and shoulders first. You don’t need to muscle up, just tone your body and above all lose belly weight. Any volunteers?

    • Mmmmooooo

      Jul 13, 2018 at 1:45 am

      Craig and Kevin Stadler, Brendan De Jong, Tim Herron, Carl Petterson, Ken Duke, Laura Davies, Pat Hurst, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Andrew Beef Johnson, Shane Lowry, and I might now include Jason Dufner (heck of a belly now), and may be even Patrick Reed. These guys are all on Tour. And you’re not.
      Your point?

      • Gdb99

        Jul 13, 2018 at 7:34 am

        You listed fat people. Being in shape doesn’t mean slim.

        The people on your list are in better golf shape than me at the moment, and I’m skinny.

        • Mmmmooooo

          Jul 13, 2018 at 10:42 am

          Dude said tone your body, not slim. Them fattys are not slim.

      • steve

        Jul 13, 2018 at 4:51 pm

        Each of the pros you mention starting swinging a golf club when they were preteens and the golf swing became engrammed in their neuro-muscular system. When they matured they compensated for their weight gains. They are putting tremendous strain on their back muscles but their stout body structure handles it. You and most overweight rec golfers cannot duplicate these pros because you are simply out of shape to swing a golf club. Hit the gym and lose belly fat first.

    • Funkaholic

      Jul 13, 2018 at 11:48 am

      I am definitely more consistent when I am working out regularly.

      • O

        Jul 13, 2018 at 9:49 pm

        I’m just more consistent when I’m playing and practice regularly. Like, every day. lmao

    • ders

      Jul 14, 2018 at 8:31 pm

      This is true. Most people spend way too much time worrying about the differences between their swing and their favourite pro without noticing the massive difference in athleticism. Work on your hand eye coordination, balance and flexibility and you’ll have a better chance of pulling off a decent swing.

  8. Brian

    Jul 12, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    I was in the golf business for 7 years. Three years at a small muni and 4 at a nice CC. I only ever saw three people that knew what practicing was. Two of them were really good junior players that went on to play at Div 1 schools. The other was a + handicap that made it to the semi-finals of the US amateur.

    Everyone else just banged balls before their round. The putting green is the lonliest place ever.

    • Rico

      Jul 13, 2018 at 12:02 pm

      From your observation, what is good practicing? I would be interested in hearing your opinion of what you saw. My swing comes and goes all the time.

      • Brian

        Jul 13, 2018 at 5:38 pm

        Most people think hitting a bag of balls and putting for 30 minutes is practicing. All they have done is burn a few calories and ingrained their same faults. The ones that practiced would work tirelessly on the range 5,6,7 hours a day. Then be on the putting green for another few hours. They always had a goal, no matter how small to work on.

    • dat

      Jul 13, 2018 at 2:25 pm

      So people who are good at practicing must be top performers and everyone else just sucks? Nice hot take.

  9. Is

    Jul 12, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    Here is the K.I.S.S. answer:
    “You suck. Is why you can’t play.So Stop trying.”

  10. Jamie

    Jul 12, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    If you’re at TopGolf, you’re not practicing. If you have no feasible plan, you’re not practicing. It really is that simple. WRX has done a great service providing links to Meandmygolf, Shawn Clement, and Mark Crossfield.

  11. whynotgolf

    Jul 12, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    Since I started back playing regularly again, I think I’ve improved. At my best (8 index) I played a lot more golf than I play now. My point here is you can improve your technique on the range hitting balls 3-4 days a week, but if you’re a once a week player, your ceiling is lower than a player than spends the maybe 2 days on the range but plays 2 or 3 times a week.

    Finally…it pays to keep stats and focus your practice on the weakest areas of your game.

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Opinion & Analysis

Tiger Woods completes arguably the greatest comeback story in sports history

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Sports have an uncanny way of teaching us about life. And there’s no greater life lesson than the athlete and the man who goes by Tiger Woods.

I first fell in love with golf while watching Tiger play the 1997 Masters with my father. Tiger is the reason that I, like millions of golfers throughout the world, including some of his professional contemporaries today, started playing and loving the game.

For basically his entire life, from the moment he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show at 2-years-old, until his world came infamously crashing down on Thanksgiving 2009, he was “perfect.” He was dominant, impactful, charismatic and invincible — what the world uncovered, however, was that his persona was a carefully crafted facade.

While he continued to play great golf despite injuries and surgeries through 2014, his Superman cape was tarnished, and his respect as a man was all but diminished.

From 2014 until 2017, the world watched Tiger Woods the athlete decay. He’d make minor comebacks after major back surgeries, but the letters “WD” replaced the number “1” next to Tiger’s name on leaderboards for years. And he also developed what was either the chipping yips, or an utter breakdown in his once-superior chipping technique. To all observers, aside from Tiger apologists, it seemed his golf career was likely over.

What was tragic for Tiger the athlete looked as though it’d turn into a tragedy for Tiger the man after his very public DUI in 2017 following his spine fusion surgery earlier that year. Tiger was completely vulnerable, and seemingly, completely broken. He was whatever the opposite is of his former self. Had he faded into oblivion after that, it would have been understandable, if not recommended.

But that’s not what happened. Despite every talking head in sports media saying Tiger was done (not that I didn’t agree at the time), Tiger waited for his back to heal upon doctors orders, then began his comeback to golf. It started with videos on social media of him chipping, then hitting irons, then his patented stinger.

In December of 2017, Tiger finished T9 in the 18-player field at his Hero World Challenge… a respectable finish considering what he had been through. As the season continued, he pieced together 4 consecutive rounds on many occasions, actually giving himself a few chances to win tournaments (the Valspar, Arnold Palmer, Quicken Loans and the Open come to mind). But his late-tournament confidence was clearly shaken; he was struggling to close the deal.

At the 2018 PGA Championship, Tiger had the attention of the entire sporting world when it looked that he had a serious chance to win his 15th major. But ultimately, he finished runner-up to a superior golfer that week in Brooks Koepka. All things considered, the week was a win for Tiger and his confidence… but it wasn’t a win.

The questions changed after the PGA Championship from “Can Tiger win again?” to “When will Tiger win again?”

Well, that question has been answered. Tiger Woods won the 2018 Tour Championship. Is it a major? No, it’s not. Some say the event itself is essentially just a money grab for the best 30 players of the season. But that’s the thing; the tournament hosts the best 30 players of the season all competing for big money. And you can bet it matters to the players on top of the leaderboard.

Tiger’s Tour Championship victory doesn’t mean he’s going to beat Jack’s record. Because he probably won’t. And maybe he won’t even win another major, although he’ll surely be the betting favorite at the 2019 Masters now. But, to me at least, his win marks the completion of the greatest comeback story in all of sports. And not only that, the conclusion to an important life lesson — don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

No athlete has been written off more than Tiger Woods, especially in the era of social media that gives every critic in the world a microphone. No athlete has reached a higher high, and a relatively lower low than Tiger Woods. He went through it all — a broken marriage, public shaming, legal issues, a deteriorated skill set, surgeries, injuries, and arguably most impactful of all, humanization.

Tiger Woods came back from not just a 28-3 deficit on the scoreboard (Patriots-Falcons reference), and he didn’t score eight points in 9 seconds (Reggie Miller reference, sorry Knicks fans and sorry Dad), and he didn’t get hit by a bus (Ben Hogan), but he got hit hard by the bus of life, and he now stands tall in the winner’s circle.

Maybe that’s why sports teaches us so much about life; because sports is life. Not in the way that nothing else matters except sports, but in the way that sports is played by imperfect humans. When the ball goes in the air, or onto to the tee, or the starting bell rings, nothing is certain and nothing is given. And when things are looking bad, like really really bad, it’s how you respond that truly matters. Isn’t that what life is?

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Courses

Ari’s Course Reviews: Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska

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There are so many fantastic golf courses throughout the world, and it’s all of the incredibly varied fields of play that make the game so great to me. The most random places in the world can be home to some of the best golf courses. When deciding which course to write about next, it seemed natural to write about my personal favorite course in the world., which happens to be in a very unexpected place.

If you told me I could go anywhere in the world for a round of golf tomorrow, I would be blazing a trail to the area just south of Mullen, Nebraska and playing Sand Hills Golf Club. Sand Hills opened for play on June 23, 1995 and is one of the most natural golf courses you can find anywhere in the world. There was very little dirt moved and most of the money spent building the course was spent on installing irrigation. The course is built entirely on sand, and was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Bill Coore speaks on the design here.

For a bit more background, here’s an old CBS Sunday Morning segment on Sand Hills…

The course lies in the middle of the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which makes up about one-third of the state. The area has huge, natural dunes everywhere that are much more reminiscent of Scotland or Ireland than the flat part of Nebraska along I-80 that most people associate with the state. Because of the firm, mostly fescue, sand-based fairways at Sand Hills, and the ever-present wind, the course plays like a links course though the bent grass greens rival any top country club for speed and purity. In fact, the fastest greens I have ever seen in person were at Sand Hills in late September.

The course has a tasteful amount of variety and challenge. The three par 5s are of the best sets in the world and include 1) a fantastic mid-length par 5 starting hole that is one of the best starting holes in golf, 2) a very reachable but exacting hole in the 14th, and 3) in my opinion, the best long par 5 in golf, the 613 yard 16th.

The par 4s vary from the long uphill 485-yard monster 18th, to the 7th, which at less than 300 yards still sees a lot more 5s and 6s than 3s. The par 3s are masterful starting with the 3rd playing a little over 200 yards downhill to a sprawling side hill green where you can hit driver one day and 7 iron the next. The 6th is 185 yards slightly downhill to maybe my favorite green on the course with definitely my favorite hole location in the front left of the green to a semi-blind spot in a little bowl.  The 13th is a 215-yard uphill monster that can be the hardest hole in relation to par on the course. Lastly the 17th is a 150-yard work of art to a little triangle shaped green and is definitely in the discussion for best short par 3 in the world.

Aside from a great variety in distance of the holes, the topography also presents an amazing amount of variety on the ground. Due to the random nature of the bounce of the ball, the undulating and random fairway contours, and the wind that can blow in literally any direction, the course never plays the same twice. There are just so many great holes out there that I really wouldn’t argue with any of the 18 holes being someone’s favorite. Personally, I can’t name a favorite as it seems to change every time I think about it. The routing is fantastic with both 9s returning to Ben’s Porch, which serves as the home base for the course where people eat lunch, have a post-round drink and generally enjoy one of the best views in all of golf. The course has a good amount of elevation change but is a dream to walk with very short green to tee transitions. It simply is as close to perfect as you can get in my mind.

While the focus of my reviews are on the golf course and not the amenities, I would be remiss if I did not mention the down-to-earth, welcoming people that make up the staff at Sand Hills. Any time I’ve been lucky enough to be at the club I have felt more like I was visiting family and friends than a golf club. When you combine the welcoming and friendly atmosphere of the club, some of the best food in the world and my personal favorite golf course to play anywhere in the world, you have an experience so special its hard to put into words.

Enjoy the collection of photos below from Dan Moore, and make sure to check out my other reviews in the links at the bottom of the page!

Hole No. 1

Hole No. 2

Hole No. 4

Hole No. 8

Hole No. 9

Hole No. 13

Hole No. 14

Hole No. 16

Hole No. 18

Ari’s Other Course Reviews

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep. 51): Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella on why Phil shoots guns to improve his golf game

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Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella joins host Michael Williams to talk about Phil Mickelson using shooting sports to prepare for the Ryder Cup, and the crop of golf destinations that include 5-star golf and outdoor sports facilities. Also featured are Jason Gilbertson of Winchester and Justin Jones of Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds at Reynolds Lake Oconee (GA).

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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19th Hole

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