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Practice like you play! No, really!

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It’s a Sunday night at our golf course in Wisconsin. It’s August, hot and over 90 degrees at 6:00 pm, however, that doesn’t stop folks from coming out to practice. There is actually a surprising amount of people. At the end of the range are some college students hitting only driver stubbornly trying to fly the fence sitting over 300 yards away. In the middle of the range are a few seniors trying to hit the perfect shot—occasionally I see a club slam as they are unable to replicate the same swing again and again. Finally, there is a high school team closest to me constantly trying to best each other and hitting shot after shot rapid-fire with no purpose or goal.

What I’ve described above is all too common in golf practice today. We continually beat ball after ball mindlessly in search of this elusive “perfect swing,” but it is time that the story stops. I’ve found, and the research proves, that hitting ball after ball trying to find that next “thing” to hit good shots doesn’t work. Through this article I am going to explain to you how to practice effectively. I’m sorry to say that hitting off of a perfect lie and perfecting a swing isn’t the answer. I am going to share with you how to take those boring range sessions and make them into something fun, efficient, and productive that is proven to work.

It takes courage to break the status quo but, in golf and in life, it is what separates the good from the great. The status quo in golf practice is to hit balls and perfect your technique, but honestly, that is taking the easy way out. Think about it, how many times have you left the range feeling like you had a great session, only to come out the next day and play terribly? To change these results we have to practice like we play. In fact, we need to practice even harder so when we go out to play we can be easier on ourselves. Let me explain.

Please don’t mistake the word harder for agony. I probably should say practice smarter. Last season one of my college golfers came to me feeling extremely proud because he hit balls on the range for four hours “working on his swing.” Thinking he was a young Ben Hogan, he went on to say how much time and effort he put into the session. My answer to him certainly caught him by surprise as I said, “is that meant to impress me?” My point was that he was getting caught up too much in the time he spent rather than what he was accomplishing. The session had no focus as he was simply tinkering with his swing and scraping over another ball when he didn’t hit the previous one well, and that is not golf.

In golf, you have one shot that you have to execute at a specific time under pressure. There is a scorecard and inevitably expectations that we set upon ourselves. Why in golf do we hit balls on the range with no real consequence, yet expect to be able to stripe a ball down a tight fairway when we know if we hit it OB that a double bogey is surely the consequence? The reality is our practice is lacking focus and not game-like at all. Our practice needs to simulate pressure and game-like situations in order to be most effective. This will make our on-course experience feel much easier if done correctly.

An example of this practice smarter mentality would be going out and making 10 putts in a row from four feet. Those ten putts are going to be made by making your way around a hole on a slope, creating different putts that are uphill, downhill, right to left, and left to right. The important piece here is we are going to track this with a scorecard. If we miss a putt, we still have to go to ten and see how many we make; I/E 8 out of 10, but since we missed two, we’d need to do it again until we make all ten in a row. So what have we changed?

  1. We’ve put high expectations on ourselves, training under pressure.
  2. We now have one golf ball and different types of putts we are going to hit.
  3. We now have a scorecard to track results like we do on the course.

This is simulating play. This is practicing like you would play on a golf course with one golf ball, a scorecard, and added pressure. When I would do this with my students, that tenth putt would be filled with immense pressure because if they missed they knew they’d have to be there for another 30 minutes potentially. Many students and college athletes even claimed to be more nervous over those putts in practice than over any putt on the golf course and that is key to lower scores and playing your best golf! When you don’t practice under pressure, you’re not getting good under pressure.

Let’s revisit my college athlete’s story. Why was I not impressed by this time he spent working on his game? Well, he was falling into the trap like most folks visiting the driving range. It simply lacked focus and was not simulating what would inevitably be upcoming on the golf course. Again, it’s not about the time you log, but the results you get.

With me as his coach, his practices started to look like this after we changed his approach

  1. Make 10/10 from 4 feet
  2. 9 Holes Chipping: 7/9 up and down in 2
  3. On Range: 9/10 to a green 150 yards away.
  4. On Range: Hit 7/10 drivers in between a 30-yard target fairway.

In total, practice like the one mentioned above would take around 60 minutes or so to complete, and proved to be much more effective. That was an example session, as we tailored these sessions to work on areas he was struggling on during tournaments. Additionally, we changed up some scenarios to match tee shots at upcoming events, for example, making sure to keep the ball right or left of simulated trouble. So what makes this more valuable than simply “perfecting a golf swing and working on technique?”

  1. We are always training toward a target like on the golf course
  2. We are always simulating the pressures of the golf course
  3. We prove to ourselves that the results are inside of us, taking the pressure off of the actual on-course round, similar to a boxer boxing 15 rounds for a 12 round fight.

So I want you to ask yourself, how am I practicing? Cut down on the amount of time you practice and start to make it effective and efficient. Commit to using one golf ball. Set a specific target that you will accomplish at every practice, and simulate as best you can what you will be doing on the golf course. If you start to do this in your practice whether it is on the course, on the range, or on the practice green, I guarantee you will shoot lower scores.

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When Matthew began teaching in 2008 at Oakland Hills Country Club, most of his students were asking for him to fix their swing. After fixing golf swings for nearly a decade, he noticed that scores didn’t necessarily improve with the improved golf swing. He knew what his clients really wanted was to shoot lower scores! As most pros know, the key to scoring well isn’t hitting the ball further. It’s learning the REAL game of golf with one simple idea… get the ball in the hole in fewer tries than the other players. Matt started his new philosophy by taking a group of players on the golf course, observing each player’s game and developing a specific improvement plan for them while teaching them how to practice. The results were phenomenal! His players always drop shots off their game, and Matthew guarantees the results! Currently, Matthew is the PGA Head Golf Professional at Chequamegon Bay Golf Club in Ashland, WI. He is also the founder of "Great Data Golf." Born in 2016, Great Data Golf carries the vision of developing programs that make it easier to improve at the game of golf.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ben Black

    Sep 6, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    I do the 3′ 4′ 5′ 4 point putting test before I play to get my putting focus on scoring.

    I throw three balls and then pitch/chip/lob to three different pins. Amazing how much better you get and faster, rather than robo-chipping 10 balls to the same pin 15 feet away from the same lie.

  2. iutodd

    Aug 31, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    This is really it everyone. There really isn’t much else you need to know about how to practice. The following sentence is perfect and is something that a lot of golfers don’t seem to understand:

    “In golf, you have one shot that you have to execute at a specific time under pressure.”

    A twist on the authors approach to practicing is to pretend like you’re playing a round of golf. Think about 9 holes of golf: two par 5s, five par 4s, two par 3s. Nine tee shots, five par four approaches, two opportunities to either go for it or lay up. That’s 16-18 shots. If you play enough you can probably fairly accurately remember what 9 holes of golf looks like and what you “normally” play and what the target looks like. So take 18 balls and try to then execute every one of those shots and see how you do. It’s how I practice and it absolutely helps.

    I used to be secretly terrified of being in the middle of the fairway with 100 yards to the pin – because I knew this was my chance to score and the pressure was suddenly immense. Grinding away on wedges for hours isn’t really possible for me (or for most people) and it doesn’t really help with the pressure – but I CAN practice what it feels like to have that pressure. I can stand on the range and tell myself: “OK, approach to number one at Hawthorn, 105 to the pin, which is back right so the miss has to be left and a little short if anything. Short right is dead with basically no green to work with” Then I can try to hit that shot at a target I pick out on the range.

    I’m no longer afraid of basically any shot.

    Wonderful article.

  3. Tired guy

    Aug 31, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    “Practice like you play”

    So once a month?

    Just a dad with 2 young kinds that used to be a scratch golfer… sadly missing any golf time… I know these days will pass yet am envious those of you that can work on their games…. hole some extra putts for the rest of us!

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Instruction

Stickney: A dangerous trend is developing for top players

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As a teacher, I obviously have my own particular biases as it pertains to the different stroke patterns I teach to the random levels of golfers I see, however, one thing remains the same they ALL want a predictable ball flight in the end.

To me, it doesn’t matter if you swing it upright like Wolff or flatter like Kucher because they both work, as do all the swings in the middle IF they produce a consistent result under pressure. What we now understand with the advent of GEARS and Trackman is that everyone has their own individual motion and sure there are certain fundamentals that everyone great possesses but end the end we are all left to “find what works best” for us. And over time, the great players have gravitated towards the best and most desirable way that they swing the club without worrying what it looks like only what it produces.

However, I have been noticing a trend amongst the highest level of players that is disturbing…and this trend that we’ll be discussing in a second is beginning to filter down to the kids whom have ready access to launch monitors in high school and just entering into. This trend is the culprit of a two-way miss, albeit a very small one, but a two-way miss nonetheless all in efforts to try and hit the ball too straight.

First, let’s show you examples of some of the best players I have seen personally at the top amateur levels. Every one of these players shown below are proven winners and are ranked very highly nationally on the amateur and Division I college circuits.

I asked each player above what their normal ball flight was day-to-day and each replied, “mostly straight, but if I miss it then it tends to go X, but very, very slightly.” (For those Trackman users, these swings are “normalized,” which takes out the wind etc. for a touch more reality regardless of the conditions outside at the time.)

Now look in the left frame of each player’s swing, and you will see a blue line, and if you look closer, you will see that it is laying directly on top of a white line. The white line is the player’s target line—where they were trying to hit the ball. And the blue line is the PATH of the club for the particular swing shown.

What you will see is that the path of the club is basically “zeroed” out where the path and the target line are moving directly in the same direction. While this might seem like a great idea, in fact no one can play from this position because it’s impossible to zero out the path and clubface at the same time. No teacher in history has seen this consistently. We have seen very small face to path relationships but never 0 for the path, 0 for the face, 0 for the face to path, and 0 for the spin axis. We’re talking trying to manage a degree which is basically 1/6 to of a click of your second hand on your watch dial!

If you could play from a zero path and zero face, then this is what it would look like on Trackman. I have only seen 0 path and a 0 face just once in ALL the shots I have seen with Trackman, and the shot I am talking about curved way offline due to the fact that it was a longer club coupled with a faulty impact position (gear effect).

Now here is the key for people who desire a ball flight that curves as little as possible and zeroing out the path is not the answer! The key is to play with a face to path ratio that is very, very low which helps to lower the ball’s spin axis and thus the ball would curve slightly. If you have the path sitting a couple of degrees left or right of the path then you will be able to have some predictability of your curvature which will give you freedom when you don’t have our “A” swing working that day.

NOTE: Think about pro bowlers, how many do you see that roll the ball directly at the head pin?! Zero. They curve the ball to some degree for more predictability.

As we know, in order to hit the ball where we want, we need to have some consistent curvature and when the path is on top of the target-line a slight twist of the face right or left causes baby pulls or baby pushes.

The goal of ballstriking efficiency is to eliminate ONE side of the course.

Secondly, we know that the ball begins mostly in the direction of the face at impact and will curve away from the path with a centered hit. Therefore, regardless of the curvature left to right or right to left you must work in this order- PATH then the FACE then the Target (as shown below) if not then you will hit pushes and pulls, slices and hooks!

Let’s examine this player above, who moves the ball left to right. We see a path that is leftward at basically -3.0 degrees and the face is almost -2.0 degrees left of the target but only 1.0 degree RIGHT of the path thus the ball curved gently left to right. For players desiring a mostly “straight” ball without the danger of missing it both ways, then the path has to be just far enough left or right of the target line so that the face can fit between the path and the target so you can begin the ball in the correct direction before it begins to curve. This reduction in the face-to-path relationship is the forgotten fundamental of the straight ball hitters!

As you can see, this player has a path that is slightly leftward and the face is only 1 degree rightward of this causing a very low face-to-path, and from this point, he has a spin axis of 0.3 meaning the ball barely moved rightward. This is the key to hitting the ball straighter…not zeroing out the path but reducing the FACE-to-PATH relationship! This cannot be mastered with a zeroed-out path because the face won’t consistently have room to fit between your path and target line as discussed. Thus you will hit micro-pulls or micro-pushes giving you the dreaded two-way miss…all because you have the path working too much down the line!

Path, face, and target…in that order will help you reduce your face to path difference and this will help you to lower your ball’s spin axis and straighter but MORE PREDICTABLE ball flights will ensue. Anything else spells disaster for the people who desire a “straight” ball flight!

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Instruction

Clement: Stop hanging back

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Whether you are a beginner hanging back or an advanced player hanging back, there are very specific reasons for this as well as a very specific task to focus on to OBLITERATE this issue. You will CLEARLY see how this simple task will engage your machine’s hard drive And get you the action you need to hit quality golf shots; TODAY!

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Clark: On learning golf

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“A true teacher will teach how to think, not what to think”

There are several versions of the above adage, but when you teach every day, you get to see this up close and personal. In my opinion, all a teacher can do is to guide you as to what happens when you hit a golf ball. The student has to discover what works for them to achieve better results. It is that simple. The internet is loaded with “how-to” info, and some of it might actually apply to your individual issue, but do yourself a big favor: Go beat some balls and see how it goes; try this, try that, repeat steps one and two!

Let’s take turning as a classic example. If someone were to ask a teacher HOW to turn, there could be a dozen answers. What the teacher, the data, video show is simply this: You are NOT turning. Let’s try this, let’s try that, no, how about this? There are an unlimited number of ways, but the student needs to: FIRST, realize the lack or incorrectness of turn, and SECOND, find a way to do it. Any way, YOUR way. This is called participating in your learning and discovering process. When Ben Hogan said: “the secret is in the dirt,” this is precisely what he was referring to. 

I have a short section each day in my golf school dedicated to the ballistics of impact. A student needs to know exactly what happens at impact. And when you know what produces good flight, then find what you personally are doing to violate those laws. How to correct an open and/or closed clubface means nothing to a student who doesn’t know what open or closed actually is, or does. Swing path and its relationship to clubface resulting in ball flight curvature is knowledge every teacher has, but is like rocket science to the student who knows none of this. I once had a student who thought his shanks were coming off the toe! When I told him that just the opposite was happening, he immediately moved away from the ball a little and stopped shanking (there were other reasons he shanked but just that much knowledge got him off the hosel!)

In order to correct anything, anything at all, it is first necessary to discover the problem and find a way, any way to correct it. No teacher, book, TV tip, or article can do what you can do for yourself. All the teacher might do is make you aware of the problem. But in the end, just go play and try this, that and the other thing. The answer is there, believe me, the answer is in you. You have to find it!

The problem, very often, is that golfers are looking for someone to offer them a light bulb moment, a flash of “aha,” the “I’ve-got-it-now” solution. The aha moment is the only way to get sustained improvement, but it must come from you, the individual. There is no universal “light-bulb moment,” it is uniquely-yours alone to discover.  As I’ve said before, “it’s not what I cover, it’s what you discover.” Discover what? That “thing” you can grasp and go hit ball after ball until you have, at least to a functional degree, internalized it!

Good luck on your personal journey!

On a personal note, this will be my final article for GolfWRX. I have written 100-plus articles over the last 10 years or so and I have thoroughly enjoyed helping all of you who read my articles.

If you read through them on some rainy day, you’ll notice a theme: “If this, then that.” Meaning: If your golf ball is consistently doing that, try this. The articles are all archived on this site, and I am writing a book about my life on the lesson tee. It has been a labor of love as my whole career has been. There is no greater joy in my professional life than seeing the look on a golfers face and feel the joy within them when they improve. The minute that slice straightens, or that ground ball goes up in the air, is a special bond and a shared joy in the student-teacher relationship.

But I’ve said most of what I think is pertinent and anything after this would be redundant. There is now a plethora of how-to info out there, and I personally feel the reader may begin to think he/she should do this or that as opposed to thinking “I should try to discover this or that through my own personal exploration.”

If any of you wish to contact me directly regarding help with your game, you know how to do so. But do remember this: You cannot learn golf from words or pictures. My advice is to get a good teacher to look at you a few times, then go out and find the answer in the dirt. Golf is a game to played. And in that playing, in that trial-and-error process, you will find things that will help you achieve better outcomes. No one owns this game: We only to get to borrow it from time to time!  

 

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