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Five Steps to Effective Practice

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Matt Newby is a PGA Member and Certified Personal Coach at GolfTEC in Irvine, Calif.  He has more than 10 years of experience as a teacher and other facets of the golf business. In the past he was mentored by three PGA Master Professionals and has worked with the instructors of Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Jerry Kelly and Inbee Park.

1) Know specifically what/why you are practicing. 

This first step in proper practice sounds simple but is often overlooked.  Countless times I’ve approached students and range-goers and asked them specifically what they are practicing. Nearly all the responses fall into two categories. The most common response is that the golfer is “just trying to hit the ball well.” Usually this person has no motive or goal related to their practice.  This method may work for some golfers who are trying to blow off steam for an hour, but is ineffective for those seriously trying to improve performance. The other common response I hear is from golfers who I call “tinkerers.” They are always working on something new in their swing, whether it is a tip they saw in the latest magazine or something they heard from a playing partner. Although this category is more effective when executed properly, it often lacks execution. I challenge every reader of this article to assess their own practice and determine if they fall into either category.

Effective practice involves understanding what and why you are practicing. Golfers who are “just trying to hit the ball well” often lack specific goals for practice. Without a goal or motive for our practice the only proficiency we gain is at hitting golf balls on the range. Often this does not transfer to the golf course and is why many golfers have such dissonance in their performance on the range compared to their performance on the golf course. I am also a strong believer that you must understand why you are practicing. Students who understand why they are practicing often develop a better understanding of the process of improvement as opposed to the mentality that one tip will make them the next major champion. It also gives golfers an opportunity to gauge the source of the information received. Although most tips printed in magazines are accurate, they do not always apply to the reader and can actually cause further flaws if not implemented correctly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, advice taken from an untrained playing partner could simply be incorrect information and again can add further flaws to their game. As a PGA Professional I encourage everyone who truly wants to improve to contact their local PGA Professional. A good instructor is trained to determine what and why you should practice.

2) Know how to practice a specific skill. 

How golfers practice is a mindset that needs a complete overhaul. Most golfers have a false sense of learning and the learning process. A question I ask students after every lesson is how they plan on practicing until the next lesson.  I can almost guarantee that the first time I ask this the response involves the words “driving range.” The driving range is a great place to practice for certain things such as shot shaping, distance control and alignment. But attempting to practice other things such as mechanics or specific body movements on the driving range can lead to slower improvement and regression. A great coach once told me that learning to hit a full golf shot is like learning to doing a backflip on a four-foot balance beam. If I were teaching my students to do backflips on balance beams I would have to take a much different approach than how some instructors currently teach golf. In golf, students often hear the information once and then want to try it in a full swing right away. If I were to apply this same method to gymnastics I wouldn’t have any students left due to the injuries they would sustain. My business would most likely be uninsurable as well. To learn how to backflip on a balance beam, you would first start by walking on a piece of tape on the ground, then walking on a one-foot beam, then learning to do a backflip on the ground, then one-foot beam, etc.  Due to the risk of injury in gymnastics, a gymnast cannot progress to the next step until a student has mastered the previous skill. The same risk applies to golf, although the risk in golf involves injuring your swing instead of falling on your head. This process applies especially for making mechanical swing changes. When making a swing change start by doing a drill to promote that change. Then you should progress to swinging in slow motion without a ball. You can speed up over time until you are at full swing speed. One of the nice things about this process is that the driving range isn’t necessary for the first steps. Swinging without the ball and in slow motion can often be done at home.

3) Set MEASURABLE goals for practice. 

Measurable goals are required for any effective practice. This again goes back to the “just trying to hit the ball well” category. If you find yourself in this category, ask yourself what your definition of hitting the ball well is. Without a clear and specific goal, we have no way to determine whether we have succeeded or failed. Measurable goals apply to all types of practice, whether it’s the practice you do at home, on the range or on the course. Goals also must be specific to what you are practicing.  For example, let’s say you are battling a slice.  Your specific definition of hitting it well would probably be “not slicing.” This can then be turned into a measurable goal. First you would start by creating a virtual fairway on the driving range by using two flags or markers (blue flag on left and red on right). This would serve as your measuring device. Now you have to create a goal.  In this example your goal could be to hit less than three out of 10 balls to the right of the red flag. Just by using this simple goal you now have a way to analyze your practice and determine whether or not it was effective. This same system could apply to all your practice even if you were working on mechanics at home. One key that must be stated is that a measuring device must always be created to determine success or failure. In the last example our measurement device was our virtual fairway. Creating an effective measuring device is not always as easy to re-create at home. A video camera is usually a good solution to determine if practice was effective. The video does not lie as much as we would sometimes like it to.

 

4) Create a game plan. 

Now that you have your goals established you need to create a game plan for your practice session. A game plan needs to be specific to the goals for that practice session. Based on my personal experience I feel that the game plan of most amateurs when practicing consists of hitting a bucket with whatever club they feel necessary at the time. Much of the time I also watch amateurs hit the same club at the same flag repeatedly. Hitting balls at the same flag over and over unfortunately does not follow the same rhythm as a round of golf. On the golf course, it is rare that we hit the same shot more than once, so it makes no sense to practice this way. This only leads to the dissonance that most golfers experience between the driving range and the golf course. By creating situations in your practice similar to those you would find on the golf course, the gap in performance between the range and the course will start to dissipate. If your goal is to hit eight out of 10 greens with a wedge, you might hit a driver and possibly a mid-iron before each wedge shot to recreate the rhythm of an actual round of golf. You can also play games with yourself this way to make your practice more enjoyable. For example, if your drive lands outside your virtual fairway, then make yourself hit a mid-iron before you hit your next wedge wedge. If you bomb your drive down the middle, you might go straight to the wedge and try to recreate an on-course birdie opportunity. 

5) Analyze results and compare to goals. 

This is one of the most important and easiest steps, but also the scariest step for most golfers. Analyzing results implies the possibility of failure, but also success. I think most golfers want to believe that any practice is good practice. Unfortunately that is just not true. Golfers need to understand that there can be failure during practice. Because your goals are measurable it makes the actual analysis very easy. Keep a record of how you performed based on your goals. If you were to use the three out of 10 shots in the “don’t slice” game, you would keep a tally on a notepad or scorecard of each set of 10 shots that you hit. Keeping this record will also allow you to analyze your progress over time and revise your goals based on progress. Once you understand why you fail you will be able to practice more effectively in the future.

Matt Newby is a PGA Member and Certified Personal Coach at GolfTEC in Irvine, Calif.  He has more than 10 years of experience as a teacher and other facets of the golf business. In the past he was mentored by three PGA Master Professionals and has worked with the instructors of Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Jerry Kelly and Inbee Park.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. rick rappaport

    Feb 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Bravo! What a well written and well thought out article. My practice will change from now on and it sounds like it’s going to be a lot more fun, too.

  2. Jason

    Feb 29, 2012 at 11:06 am

    I’ve have often times recreated golf round scenarios at the end of a bucket when I only have a few balls left. Never have thought about trying to do that with the whole practice although it makes since of why it is a good technique. Going to try to start getting more quality range time in this week and in the months to come so I am looking forward to trying this out next time. Thanks for the article.

  3. Jason Black

    Jan 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Great article. I had my high school golf team read this and write a paper about it.

  4. Pete

    Jan 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Excellent tips! Applying a focused quantitative goal is the way to practice smarter, not harder. Thank you much!

  5. Marvin Brush

    Jan 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Good article Matt. Looking forward in see you once I get some pain out of my left hand finger.

    Marv

  6. Mark Carlson

    Jan 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Currently on the DL while rehabbing after elbow surgery, but I will keep this in mind when I pick up the clubs again in a couple of months. Good stuff. Thanks for the post!

  7. Matt Newby

    Jan 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    If anybody has any questions or comments please feel free to contact me at mnewby@golftec.com

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A Guide (Secret) to Better Putting

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Putting is a part of the game where we can all do small things to get better. You don’t have to practice 40 hours a week or have a stroke that gets a perfect score on a SAM PuttLab. The universal answer is to simplify the approach as much as possible.

While being a world class putter is an art form, being competent at putting is probably the least physically daunting task in golf — aside from maybe driving the cart. Putting generally provides the most stress and frustration, however, as our results are almost never aligned with our exceptions, which drives us to create unnecessary roadblocks to success.

That being the case, let’s narrow this down to as few variables as possible and get ourselves holing more putts. First off, you need to have proper expectations. If you look at the PGA Tour averages for made putts, you will find that the rates of success overall are far lower than what we see on on TV on Sunday afternoon. That’s because we are seeing the best players in the world, who in a moment in time, are holing putts at a clip the average plus-handicap club champion couldn’t dream of during a near death experience on his way to walking into the light.

If you have ever seen golf balls rolled on a stimpmeter ramp (the device used to measure green speed), you have probably seen something shocking. Golf balls rolling perfectly — the perfect speed, on a perfect green, on a perfectly straight putt — sometimes miss on both sides of the hole on consecutive efforts.

This is a very important point. The farther you get from the hole, the less control you have over making the putt. That’s why actually making putts outside a few feet should not be your priority. Hitting the best putt possible is your only priority. Then be resigned that the putt will either go in or it won’t. This might seem defeatist, but it’s not; its just a perception change. If you judge yourself on whether the ball goes in or not, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you judge yourself on whether or not you hit a good putt, you will be more successful… and you’re going to make more putts.

This sounds like something you’d hear at a Tony Robbins positive thinking seminar, but it has proven successful for every one of my clients who has embraced it. So what’s the secret to hitting the best putt possible each time?

Simplify the process.

  1.  Read the green to the best of your ability.
  2.  Pick a line and do your best to set up to it.
  3.  Do your best to hit the putt solid and at the right speed.

Reading the green is something that gets better with experience and practice. Some will be better than others, so this is an intangible thing that countless books are written about. My advice is simple; DON’T OVER THINK IT. Look at the terrain and get a general sense of where low point is in relation to the hole.

The reason why perfect green reading and perfect alignment are overrated is because there is no one line to the hole. The hole is over 4-inches wide and putts break differently with changes in speed and solidness of contact. I saw a video at the Scotty Cameron Putting Studio many years ago of dozens of PGA Tour players. There was a worm’s-eye camera on a 4-5 foot putt that was basically straight on the artificial grass. Few were aimed at the middle of the hole and many weren’t even aimed at the hole at all… but I didn’t see one miss.

So have a look at the terrain and be decent at lining up in the general direction that will give a chance for a well struck putt to go in or finish close enough for a tap in. Simple. After rambling on for several paragraphs, we get to the heart of how you can improve your putting. Narrow it down to doing your best to hit a solid putt at the right speed.

The “Right Speed”

I ask people after they addressed a putt how much attention they pay to line and speed. Any answer but 100 percent speed is wrong. You’ve already read the putt and lined up. Why is line any longer a variable? Plus, have you ever missed the line on a 20-foot putt by 5 feet? Maybe once in your life on a crazy green, but you sure as heck have left it 5-feet short and long on several occasions.

Imagine I handed you a basketball and said shoot it in the basket. Or what if I told you to toss a crumpled piece of paper into the trash? Having the requisite coordination is an acquired skill, but you wouldn’t grind over innocuous details when it came to the feel of making the object go the right distance. You’d react to the object in your hand and the target for the right speed/distance.

Putting is no different, save one variable. There’s the sense and feel of how the the green interacts with the ball, and that’s a direct result of how solidly you hit the putt. If you use X amount of force and it goes 18 feet one effort and 23 feet the next, how are you ever going to acquire speed control? That is the mark of almost every poor lag putter. They don’t hit putts consistently solid, so they never acquire the skill of distance control.

Since speed is a learned reaction to the terrain/target and consistency is a direct result of how consistently solid you strike the ball, that is what we’re left with.

Learn to Hit Putts More Solid

The road to better putting is as simple as hitting your putts more solid. Put most/all of your effort into what it takes to hit more putts solid. Now for each individual, it’s less about doing what’s right. Instead, it’s about avoiding movements and alignments that make it difficult to hit the ball solid. It would take an encyclopedia to cover all of the issues that fall into this category, so I will list the most common that will cover more than 90 percent of golfers.

The most common one I see — and it is nearly universal in people who are plagued by poor lag putting — is excess hip rotation. Sometimes there’s even an actual weight shift. Think of it this way; take a backstroke and stop. Rotate your hips 20 degrees without moving anything else. The putter and the arc is now pointed left of your intended line. You have to shove it with your arms and hands not to pull it. Good luck hitting it solid while doing all of that.

I had a golf school in Baltimore and told this story. Ten of the 15 people there assured me they didn’t do that. After 8 people had putted, we were 8-for-8. No. 9 said, “There is no ******* way I am going to move my hips after watching this.”

The entire group laughed after his putt told him he was wrong. The last 6 did everything they could to avoid the fault. We went 15 for 15. Many people are unaware that this issue is so dire. If you add the people that are unaware they have this issue, we are near 100 percent of golfers. I have gotten emails from 8-10 of them telling me how much their putting improved after all they did was focus on minimizing hip rotation and just hitting the ball solid.

This issue is not just the bane of average golfers; I’ve had several mini-tour players with putting issues improve with this. We are all aware Fred Couples would have won many more majors if not for a career-long battle with his putter. Watch the next time he misses a 6-foot putt to the left. As you will see, it’s not just a problem for a high-handicappers.

The best way to judge and practice avoiding this, it putting with an alignment stick in you belt loops.  If your hips rotate too much, the stick will definitely let you know.

Other issues include the well know chest/sternum coming up too soon in an effort to see the ball go in the hole, as well as:

  • Not aligning the putter shaft properly with the lead arm
  • Grip pressure issues (too much and too little)
  • Too much tension in neck and shoulders
  • Poor rhythm
  • Long back stroke

I could go on and on and on. The main point; find out why you aren’t hitting putts solid and do whatever it takes to do so, even if it’s something crazy like a super wide-open stance (with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek). See the Jack Nicklaus picture at the top of the story.

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WATCH: How to Improve Your Golf Club Release

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Many golfers release the club way too early. The low point of the swing moves back and they hit the ground behind the ball or pick the ball clean off the top of the surface. They then dream of “lag” and the “late hit” trying to achieve this by thinking of holding on the the wrist angle too long.

In this video, I share a drill that it will improve the way you release the club.

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Alistair Davies: My 3 Best Swing Tips

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In this video, I share with you my three best swing tips. Watch the video to get on the path to lower scores straight away.

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