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Failure is crucial: Make your practice sessions more difficult



I recently attended the PGA Teaching and Coaching summit, a biennial gathering of the leaders in our industry. I enjoy interacting with and learning from other teachers and researchers in the game — the more I learn, the better I teach.

Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, a professor at several leading universities over the past 20 years, gave a particularly interesting presentation. His research into human performance and learning is enlightening and beneficial to improving at anything we do, but particularly golf, his specialty.

I will offer a capsule version of what Dr. Guadagnoli believes and invite those of you interested to read further into his work.

In practice, FAILURE IS CRUCIAL! We can benefit from practice when stress and failure are an integral part of what we’re doing. Real learning takes place under stress. This little tidbit fascinated me in particular because, as an instructor, I have witnessed it first hand for years.

When practice is too easy, we get bored — our brains fall asleep! Our training has no lasting effect if it doesn’t keep us awake. 

Dr. Guadagnoli even quantifies it to say that practice should really contain no more than a 60-to-70 percent success rates. This means that we derive more value from practice when we fail 30-to-40 percent of the time than when we’re successful a majority of the time. Failure is the key; it is when we are stimulated enough to pay attention.

How can this translate to your game? There are a number of ways I suggest my students practice to help them achieve lasting success and take it to the course:

  • Create difficult, golf course-like situations in your practice.
  • Hit balls from a variety of lies: level, unlevel, good lies, bad lies etc.
  • Work on what your game needs. If you are driving it well but can’t hit from the turf, hit a lot of irons. Practice the shots you hate the most. 
  • Practice those slippery, downhill right-to-left breaking putts (if you’re left-handed, practice left-to-right breakers).
  • If you prefer a fade, force yourself to hit some draws to a back-left pin.
  • Practice on the course. Go out to the toughest driving hole at your course and hit a bunch of tee shots.

If you fight a shank, drop a bucket of balls by the green in random lies. Resist the urge to “set them up.” Simply play them as they lie. 

The idea is to make practice difficult so you’re prepared for anything. Place yourself under the toughest conditions when practicing so that play feels easier and less stressful, no matter the situation. 

I watch members practice all day long from perfect lies, usually off the FRONT of a divot they’ve just made! You’ll almost never get this lie on a golf course, so giving yourself this lie on the range creates a false sense of improvement when working on your game. 

As I said, Dr. Guadagnoli’s theories have an empirical basis in fact based on my own teaching and observations. Mike Hebron has gone to great lengths in his work to explain that any meaningful, sustained progress is the result of self discovery. Difficult practice under more stressful conditions is yet another way of expressing this. Practice has to include failure and we must learn from the failure. 

“The secret is in the dirt,” so let’s get digging.   

If you’d like me to analyze your swing, go to my Facebook page or contact me ([email protected]) about my online swing analysis program.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at [email protected]



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  2. Jose

    Feb 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    It is not that failure is crucial, it is that failure is part of the process of learning and innovation and not to self stigmatize failure.

    The majority of successful Silicon Valley Startups’ plan A’s were failures. The gold was in applying what you learn from executing plan A and apply it to plan B.

  3. Jose

    Feb 13, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    or ADHD Golfers who are experimental learners by nature there is no stress hitting the hard shots. Anxiety comes into play when worried about the consequences of results. Mindfulness exercises can help the brain focus on the moment while ignoring broken windows, concussed alligators …etc

    • Alex

      May 24, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      So true. I have ADHD myself and I relish the most difficult shots on the course. I always get excited, develop a gameplan, and execute with much better commitment than something like a 150 yard 7 iron from the middle of the fairway. I’m so overwhelmingly a feel player because of it, that any shot based on making a stock swing feels like too much of a blank canvas for me. I’d much rather be 230 yards away from the rough having to low-slice a 3 wood around a tree. Why? It’s fun. I just wish I could take some of the skill I’ve developed with these shots and apply it to the shots that I should take care of no problem.

  4. CK

    Jan 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Great article Mr. Clark! How would you give advice to someone who can shoot level par all day long, but when he gets to a tournament he is lucky to break 80? Thank you again!

  5. Al

    Jan 29, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    My failure rate approaches 100%. I knew in my heart I should be scratch by now.

  6. mj

    Jan 28, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Dennis How about the pressure of playing in a tournament when you might not be ready. Like the first one of the year that you play and playing each shot as you would to try and improve your skills not just bunt it around laying up on par 4s no lob shots landing the ball as close to the fringe and let it roll bs Practice after the round the shots u cant hit because that is when your still focused at least I am I like the saying and the percentages change with some that 90 percent of the people dont care what you shoot and the other 10 wish you shot higher To score bette you have to challenge your tough shots or even the straight in 5 footers I hope this makes sense

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 28, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      sorta…punctuation would help me read it better. thx

  7. Brad Ingarfield

    Jan 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    I have often wondered if to be a really good player you should use unforgiving blade irons. This research might support that view.

    • Rich

      Jan 27, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      I’ve often thought the same thing but have realised, like with everything else in this game, it’s each to their own. If it helps you play better having the challenge to pure a blade every time, go for it. I’ve gone with a balance with my irons and it’s good have that bit of forgiveness on those days when I’m not quite striping it or when I make a bad swing.

  8. Mike

    Jan 27, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    “This means that we derive more value from practice when we fail 30-to-40 percent of the time than when we’re successful a majority of the time. ”

    Ummm isn’t this the definition of succeeding the majority of the time?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Just reporting the scientist in the field who researches this stuff for his life’s work…

  9. JP

    Jan 27, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Great article Dennis. Luke Donald – who is shown escaping from the sand in the picture above the article and has one of the best short games on tour – often talks about making his practice more difficult, dropping balls on to the ground or in to sand and treading on them to create challenging lies. He knows he’s unlikely to face those kind of shots on the manicured courses he plays, but having practiced for the worst, he then views most escape shots as fairly routine. It’s a great mindset.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 27, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      JP, so true! We set ourselves up to fail by improving lies on the range constantly

  10. Chris

    Jan 27, 2015 at 3:57 am

    Here’s a longer format audio interview with Dr. Guadagnoli where he discusses learning, effective practice and some other aspects of playing great golf.

  11. Rich

    Jan 26, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    More often than not, people have a hard time translating good practice into good play on the golf course. I don’t know if failing 30-40% of the time would give me a lot of confidence to play well but I’ve found if you can disconnect the “fear of failure” when actually playing, then you’ll play more like you practice. Sure, don’t just go out and hit easy shot after easy shot but creating positive images is just as important when it comes to those pressure shots. Not giving a sh&t helps too.

    • Jose

      Feb 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      It is not failure, it is simply a process of learning.

      Shawn Clement often speaks of practicing with Goldilocks.

      For example you are trying to hit a 9 iron to the 100 yard faux green at the range when it is your 145 yard club. Hit the first shot just short. Then hit the second shot just over the back of the green. With the thirds shot predict at the flag. The third time through this sequence you will be lights out. This is how the neocortex learns.

  12. RG

    Jan 26, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Great article Dennis. Along those lines often when I play a practice round I will eliminate certain clubs from my bag. No 7i forces me to hit a knockdown 6i, and so on. Challenging the mind and engaging the imagination is just as if not more important than physical technique.

  13. rgb

    Jan 26, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Oh my. This will never do. Imagine today’s urchins — having been raised coddled in the arms of early childhood education and the concept that one never fails and participation is more important than success or winning — being told that FAILURE is necessary to develop. A concept they’ve never experienced because to mention FAILURE means someone was a winner. Oh, I can hear the wails now.

  14. Alex

    Jan 26, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve played golf since I was a kid, and the items you list. are what we used to do all day long at the course. These days I do pretty much the same in short 30 ball sessions not to get bored. Sometimes I feel sort of embarassed for practicing ‘like a child’, but now I have some research backing me up LOL.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 26, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      yes; Piano, dance, golf, whatever…

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Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf



I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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What you can learn from the rearview camera angle



We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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How to stop 3-putting and start making putts



When we are 3-putting we are ‘stuck in the box’. This means that when we are standing over the putt the second before we make our stroke everything happens to ‘go downhill.’ When this happens, depending on your playing level, things can become a bit erratic on the putting surface.

When a 3 putt happens, it is typically because you failed to do something before you made your stroke. The large majority of my 3 putts happen when I am not completely SOLD on the line of my putt, aka not committed. Questioning anything over the ball will lead to 3 putts.

Here is a breakdown/checklist on how to approach the green and get your ball in the cup without hesitation.

1. It starts with the approach shot into the green and the decision of direction you make to enter the hole. Scan the entire green with your eyes on the walk-up. Left to right and right to left. Look for a few seconds before you step onto the putting surface. This helps determine the high side and the low side, or if the green is relatively flat. Don’t be picky, just look and make a decision.

2. Once you get to the ball, mark it. Take 3 steps behind your ball mark. Now you must pick a line… Left, Center, or Right of the cup. (Skip step 3 if you know the line) It should take seconds but for those that are not sure it will take longer. Understand that every putt has a statistical level of difficulty. So to increase the odds, players must avoid putting in the unsure mind, and take the time to figure out a line. I also find that people who are 3 putting are overly confident and just not committed aka too quick to putt.

3. To commit, you must find the angle of entry into the cup. Walk up to the hole and look at the cup. How is it cut? Determine if it is cut flat or on a slope angle. This will help you see the break if you are having a hard time. Then determine how much break to play. Cut the hole into 4 quarters with your eyes standing right next to it. Ask yourself, which quarter of the cup does the ball need to enter to make the putt go in the hole?

I encourage using the phrases ‘in the hole’ or ‘to the hole’ as great reinforcement and end thoughts before stroking the ball. I personally visualize a dial on the cup. When my eyes scan the edges, I see tick marks of a clock or a masterlock – I see the dial pop open right when I pick the entry quadrant/tick mark because I cracked the code.

Remember, the most important parts of the putt are: 1.) Where it starts and 2. ) Where it ends.

4. To secure the line, pick something out as the apex of the putt on the walk back to the mark. Stand square behind the ball mark and the line you have chosen.

5. To further secure the line, place your ball down and step behind it to view the line from behind the ball. Don’t pick up the ball mark until you have looked from behind. When you look, you need to scan the line from the ball to the cup with your eyes. While you are scanning, you can make adjustments to the line – left, right or center. Now, on the walk into the box, pickup the mark. This seals the deal on the line. Square your putter head to the ball, with feet together, on the intended line.

6. To make the putt, look at the apex and then the cup while taking your stance and making practice strokes to calibrate and gauge how far back and through the stroke needs to be.

7. To prove the level of commitment, step up to the ball and look down the intended line to the apex back to the cup and then back to the apex down to your ball. As soon as you look down at the ball, never look up again. Complete one entire stroke. A good visual for a putting stroke is a battery percentage and comparing your ‘complete stroke’ to the percentage of battery in the bar.

8. Look over your shoulder once your putter has completed the stroke, i.e. listen for the ball to go in and then look up!

If you find a way that works, remember it, and use it!

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