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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.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Kevin

    May 6, 2019 at 10:09 am

    I’ve found that replacing my range practice time with playing 9 holes (the cost is about the same for a large bucket st the range) a couple days a week is much better for improving my game. However, I still practice my pitch, chips, and putting on the practice green for a couple hours everyday.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. RBImGuy

    Jul 13, 2018 at 3:45 am

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

    Actually there is

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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.

  12. 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

A road trip to St. Andrews

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In 2017, my son Brian and his wife Lauren, proposed a family trip to Scotland. Both of them have traveled a surprising amount for a couple barely 30 years old, but for us it would be a huge trip. We couldn’t get it scheduled for 2018 but everything lined up for October, 2019, a trip that might even include playing the Old Course in St. Andrews, if we got lucky. The amazing Lauren made all the arrangements, beginning with multiple email exchanges with the staff at the Old Course, who were extremely gracious and encouraging in their communications.

Unlike most other courses, in order to play the Old Course, you have three options: One is to book a very expensive trip through a travel broker who will guarantee a tee time. This is the only way to make your arrangements in advance, but you’re paying thousands for the package, which would include at least three other days of golf. Sounds great but above our budget. Secondly, you can take a real gamble and just show up at the starter’s window the day you are hoping to play, and get in line as early as 3 a.m., put your name on the list and then wait, maybe all day, maybe hopelessly. It’s no way to budget an entire day on your vacation. The third way is to use what is called the “ballot system,” submitting your request for a tee time via email to standrews.com, 48 hours ahead and hopefully getting a spot.

Now, it’s not as grim a prospect as it may sound for planning to play golf in St. Andrews. The above only applies to getting onto the Old Course. We were able to make a tee time for the Jubilee Course, one of six other courses (Jubilee, Castle, New Course, Eden, Strathtyrum, and Balgove), all part of the St. Andrews Links complex, “The Home of Golf” as their brochure proclaims. Since we were scheduling our trip for the tail-end of the golf season, the gentleman from St. Andrews wrote that he was cautiously optimistic we would be successful using the ballot system.

This wasn’t just a golfing vacation, the five us had an outstanding time touring the west coast of Scotland, including the Oban Whisky distillery, the Harry Potter train in Glencoe, Ben Nevis—the highest peak in the UK, Fort William, and the spectacular Highlands, the town of St. Andrews, and finally the marvelous city of Edinburgh. We ended up spending one night in St. Andrews, at The Saint, a lovely four-room hotel, a 10-minute walk from the Old Course. That evening, walking down cobblestone streets, with the R&A clubhouse coming into view, was like walking in a dream.

Our day started out by driving directly to the new Links Clubhouse, which has wonderful views of the courses from the restaurant. We had lunch, and I must admit to being a bit nervous over my chicken bacon mayo sandwich. We’d parked our bags in the locker room down below, it’s just what you’d expect in terms of world-class accommodations and feel. I could just imagine the pros suiting up there as they prepare to play in The Open.

Our day of golf at the Jubilee Course was spectacular, although it got off to a rainy start, but the weather cleared by the fourth hole. Mary, Jill, and Lauren formed our gallery as we teed off, then they went for a walk around the lovely town. I parred the first hole and told Brian that made my entire trip to Scotland. I was on fire, shooting 42 on the front nine but hitting only three fairways and two greens in regulation. Brian shot 45. We’d decided on match play, and I was up by three on the 11th hole. Brian then said the fateful words, “You haven’t hit into a pot bunker all day!” Which I promptly did. My game immediately tanked while he proceeded to make a total of nine pars, shooting 42 on the back, and won the match 2 & 1. Our gallery re-appeared on the 17th hole, the sun was shining, and we were in golf heaven! We ended the day with a pint at the famous Dunvegan Pub by the R&A clubhouse.

Earlier in the day, Brian had received an email from St. Andrews, unfortunately stating that we had not been selected for the ballot to play on the Old Course the next day. He resubmitted our request for the following day with fingers crossed. We headed to our next stop, Edinburgh, looking forward to exploring this ancient yet cosmopolitan city. During our walking tour, Brian received the email notification that we’d scored an 11 a.m. tee time on the Old Course for Friday. He and I would be making a road trip back north while the ladies spent the day in Edinburgh.

It was about an hour ride back to St. Andrews but traffic was quite manageable and we arrived at 9:30, plenty of time for breakfast at the Links Clubhouse. I felt that anticipatory excitement I always have right before marshaling at a big event, like a U.S. Open, where the atmosphere of the place is nearly overwhelming. Not really nervousness, but we were about to play the Old Course! Isn’t that every golfer’s dream? To say Brian was wound up tight would be an understatement, he could barely choke down half a scone. The walk over toward the starters shack, where we would meet our caddies, with the R&A clubhouse right there at the first tee was unreal.

The clerk was so gracious, taking our 130 Scottish pounds green fee (about $160), and handing us a very nice valuables pouch complete with an amazingly detailed yardage book, tees, pencils, divot tool, and scorecard. We were then approached by our two caddies, who between them had nearly 30 years of caddying experience. I got John, whose personality was perfect for me, quiet, calm, not too chatty, yet personable. Brian’s guy, Steve was just right for him as well, right from central casting with a thick Scottish brogue. He instantly bonded with Brian to become his playing partner/coach, which was just what he needed to get over the first tee jitters.

The starter, Richard, approached us as we made our way over to the first tee, greeting us much like you see them do at the start of the Open Championship. He made our presence there seem extra special, despite the fact he’d probably done the same routine 10 thousand times. He even took our picture. We were then introduced to our two other playing partners, both former members of the course, so they didn’t need caddies to show them the way. These guys were hilarious, self-deprecating, with brogues so thick I could understand maybe one word in three, not the best golfers by any stretch, which was somehow quite reassuring and certainly less intimidating. Brian proved to be the best golfer in our foursome by far although he had a rough start, hitting his drive into the Swilcan Burn.

I was really calm on the tee, it helped that there were very few spectators as it was drizzling and maybe 50 degrees. John told me where to aim, (“at that gorse bush off in the distance”) and I was able to do exactly that. As we walked off the first tee Steve said “now you can all breathe again!” I found having a caddy to be such a wonderful added dimension to this whole experience—not just as a guide to point out where in the world I should be aiming on this alien golf layout, but also to set an expectation for me on each shot which I then tried my best to fulfill. The greens weren’t too scary as I felt used to the speeds having played Jubilee, but having John read the subtle breaks and provide aiming points was terrific.

I played bogey golf through the first 12 holes but the rain only intensified and despite John’s best effort to keep things dry, the final 6 holes were a mess. Brian was one up on our match at the turn, then went on to win decisively at 5 up, with a total for the day of 5 pars and a birdie, including par on 17, the famous Road Hole. As the day went on, we found ourselves saying over and over to each other, what a wonderful experience this was despite the conditions. Steve took the traditional picture of us on the Swilcan Bridge, on our way to finishing on 18, which Brian almost parred. He later said he had such a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, having conquered the Old Course.

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TG2: Brooks and Peter Kostis rip Patrick Reed

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Brooks Koepka and Peter Kostis both talk about Patrick Reed and his cheating allegations. Brooks was on SiriusXM and Kostis on No Laying Up don’t hold back their feelings on cheating. Kostis also has some PGA Tour beef, saying that they don’t care about the television broadcast.

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

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Watch for players lofting up at altitude at the WGC-Mexico Championship

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This week, at the PGA Tour’s WGC-Mexico Championship, we are going to watch some of the best and longest players on the planet play what will effectively be one of the shortest courses on tour.

Now, 7,341 yards is by no means a cakewalk, and there are shorter courses from a pure yardage perspective played on tour—Harbour Town, as an example, only plays at 7,099 yards from the very back. The difference is Harbour Town is played at sea level while Club de Golf Chapultepec is at over 7,500 feet of elevation, and when you factor in the altitude difference between the two courses, they play very differently—more on the math in a moment.

The altitude will also factor in how some players will be setting up their equipment and we could see some adjustments. The most obvious is lofting up the driver or fairways woods to increase carry, which is something Tiger Woods specifically mentioned last year.

The biggest misconception when talking about playing golf at altitude is that the ball doesn’t spin the same in thinner air and players “loft up” to maintain spin. Let’s get into the physics to bust this “spinning less” myth and simplify the science behind playing at altitude,

The golf ball is an inanimate object, and it has no idea it’s at altitude; the air will not have an impact on how much the ball will actually spin. Yes, increasing loft should, by almost every imaginable measure, increase spin but the air it travels through will not change the spin rate.

However, playing at altitude has an effect, Let’s break down what happens

  • Thinner air exerts less drag force (resistance/friction) on the ball. The ball moves more easily through this less dense air and won’t decelerate as quickly as it flies. But note that the faster an object moves the more drag force will occur
  • Less resistance also means that it is harder to shape shots. So you when you see Shot Tracer, the pros are going to be hitting it even straighter (this makes Tiger’s fairway bunker shot last year even more unbelievable)
  • Less force = less lift, the ball will fly lower and on a flatter trajectory

Time for some math from Steve Aoyama, a Principal Scientist at Titleist Golf Ball R&D (full piece here: The Effect of Altitude on Golf Ball Performance)

“You can calculate the distance gain you will experience (compared to sea level) by multiplying the elevation (in feet) by .00116. For example, if you’re playing in Reno, at 1 mile elevation (5,280 ft.) the increase is about 6% (5,280 x .00116 = 6.1248). If you normally drive the ball 250 yards at sea level, you will likely drive it 265 yards in Reno.”

Not every player will be making changes to their bag, and some will instead focus on the types of shots they are hitting instead. When speaking to Adam Scott earlier this week, I was able to ask if he planned on making any changes heading into Mexico the week after his win at the Genesis Invitational.

“It’s very rare for me to make club changes week-to-week beyond playing in the Open Championship and adding a longer iron. The one thing I focus on when playing at altitude is avoiding partial shots where I’m trying to reduce the spin because as spin goes down the ball doesn’t want to stay in the air. I’ve experienced partial shots with longer clubs that end up 25 yards short, and because of that I want to hit as many full shots as possible”

With Club de Golf Chapultepec sitting just over 7,800 feet above sea level, we’re looking at 9.048 or an increase of just over 9 percent. That makes this 7,341-yard course play 6,677 yards (+/- where the tees are placed).

 

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