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10 principles of effective golf practice (for pros and beginners)

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I hate to say it, but many golfers spend a lot of time practicing and don’t get much better. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but by far the most pressing issue is the structure of their practice in the first place.

I watch a lot of golfers practice as a golf instructor, and I’d estimate that 90 percent or more of their practice is little more than physical exercise; it doesn’t help golfers improve their skills and score better. If your golf goals are to get a little sun on your face, wind in your hair, or enjoy the company of others (or even a bit of solitude), I certainly don’t want you to get the idea that you’re doing things the wrong way. Please, continue to enjoy the game the way you want to enjoy it. This game should be fun, after all.

My experience is, however, that even golfers who play strictly for fun a few times a year would like it more and have more fun if they could play better.

So here is the deal: There are ways to practice golf (or anything) that are more effective than other ways. We can all agree on that. Below is a list of my top-10 practice principles I recommend to all golfers. What these principles do in a nutshell is guarantee the time you’re spending is as efficient as possible.

You might notice that many of the principles I recommend are used a lot by the good golfers you know, but not as much by the bad ones. That’s no coincidence. Go to a professional golf event, and you’ll see all of these principles in practice.

1. Start each practice by writing down what you’re going to do. List the specifics, the games you’ll play… everything.

2. Do a full routine with tournament-like intensity on every single shot.

3. Play the ball as it lies all the time. Drop it and play it. Don’t fluff.

4. Think about what you’re going to do before you hit every shot, and assess yourself with feedback when necessary. Remember, prepare-perform-review.

5. Always do your putting and short-game practice before full-swing practice. That’s a requirement. Be disciplined with it even when you don’t feel like it.

6. Half or more of your time during golf season should be on the course playing, or on the course doing scoring games. You need to learn on the course.

7. Never hit balls on the range with balls right at your station. Put the bucket, bag or triangle a few feet behind you. Walk back and pick up one ball at a time.

8. Play practice games, preferably against others. Any games you play, keep a score. Record the score at the end of each practice.

9. Always finish a practice session with a game, and make sure you are “winning” your way off the course.

10. When you’re done with practice, write down anything important: scores you got on games, thoughts, general feelings, etc.

Want to take your practice a step further? I highly recommend linking yourself up with a coach who can guide you through these principles. He or she can also recommend new techniques and playing adjustments that can help you make even faster progress.

Getting better at golf requires time and discipline — like going to the gym, eating healthy or learning a new language or instrument. You can’t change that. What you can do is spend your time in a way that helps you get the most out of what you have. Remember, you are in control of your improvement. You want it, so get it done.

Good luck, stay disciplined and let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

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I coach golfers of all levels! I split time coaching between the Bethlehem Golf Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and at DiJulia Golf at Jericho National in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

37 Comments

37 Comments

  1. skip

    Nov 30, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    There’s also a little thing called talent.

    • Eric Cogorno

      Dec 3, 2016 at 11:05 am

      Yes there is…I think the purpose is to get as good as you can get…reach potential! Different for everyone!

  2. Clay

    Nov 29, 2016 at 7:13 am

    Mr. Peppertooth is so distinctly correct! I say “right on dear Chauncy.”????

  3. Mongoose

    Nov 28, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Zero people will do any of this…

    • mark mckeown

      Nov 29, 2016 at 9:43 am

      wrong

      • Looper

        Nov 29, 2016 at 4:41 pm

        No your wrong, so I guess everytime you practice you follow this to a tee???

        • Shortside

          Nov 30, 2016 at 9:15 pm

          I play 3 shot par 5’s at the range after loosening up. Always starting with wedges when warming up. When the par 5 phase starts it’s 1 swing each with the driver/3 wood, long iron/or hybrid, short iron/wedge.

    • Eric Cogorno

      Nov 29, 2016 at 11:06 am

      Some people go to the gym and workout hard, others don’t. Same rules apply to anything in life you want to get actual lasting results in. Can’t please everyone, no one size fits all.

      • Mongoose

        Nov 29, 2016 at 4:39 pm

        I agree, great piece but what is the average handicap nation wide…

        • Eric Cogorno

          Dec 3, 2016 at 11:06 am

          Too high buddy! I could give the perfect practice plan to 100 people and maybe only 10 will actually follow through…just like everything else in life!

  4. Bart Dickens

    Nov 28, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    I an a bit of a social golfer that enjoys a cool beer or two on the course. My instructor tells me to practice like I play. So now I bring beers to the driving range.

  5. knoofah

    Nov 28, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    I think this may be covered in your 4th point, but I believe that recording your swing at every practice session possible is an essential for improvement to happen. This is both for your own information and your coach’s. This is integral to the “Review” part of your “Preare-Perform-Review.”
    Great article, Mr Cogorno.

  6. Bob Jones

    Nov 28, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Re #5: When I practice chipping and putting, my back is always a bit sore when I’m finished from all the bending over, so I hit balls first. Also, I practice chipping with only one ball: chip it and putt it out, just like you do on the course (and no do-overs!).

  7. antonio

    Nov 28, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Very interesting article, thanks!
    What is the reason behind principle number 5 (practising putting and short game BEFORE full swing shots)

    • birdy

      Nov 28, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      i’m guessing its to make sure it gets done. easy to skip out on putting after hitting a bucket and just go home. if you putt and chip first, you’re less likely to skip out on hitting balls.

  8. Rob

    Nov 28, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Grab a buddy (preferably one who has a better short game than you) and find a practice green that has a bunker, some short grass, some long grass, lots of different slopes. Take turns picking different spots around the green and a hole to play to (even stipulate a specific club) and do this 18 times (9 if you are short on time). You can play it as a match and/or as stroke but the most important part is to put enough of something on it that you feel that “must-make” pressure – I found money or beer are the most motivating (especially when you are broke).

  9. Greg Norman's Chainsaw

    Nov 28, 2016 at 3:17 am

    Great little article. Especially the emphasis on games, short game and on course scoring practise. I see way too many people practising the same shot off a perfect lie, hitting the same chip 20 times or putting 4 balls in a row. Practise scoring and playing!

  10. M.

    Nov 27, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    Bucket away from you sounds like hard work, but productive!

  11. Gubment Cheez

    Nov 27, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Write down my feelings?

  12. Mark

    Nov 27, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    I know I am being something of a pedant but I cannot resist on this occasion.

    When practicing, here is what people are incorrectly doing. They “practice as a golf instructor”. When what they should be doing is practicing as the golfer they are.

    • KK

      Nov 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      Wth does that even mean?

      • Mark

        Nov 27, 2016 at 4:47 pm

        It means the author of the article failed to clearly express himself.

        • roastwrx

          Nov 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm

          They don’t like for someone to express their self around here…
          You’ll get blocked yo
          And have to get a new username

        • KK

          Nov 27, 2016 at 6:41 pm

          He gave a list of ten specific things to do when practicing. It doesn’t get any clearer than than. If anything, your “Don’t practice like an instructor, practice like yourself” is the most vague, useless thing I’ve ever read on GolfWRX.

    • Chauncy Peppertooth

      Nov 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Its supposed to read: “as a golf instructor, I watch a lot of golfers while they practice.”
      This article is spot on. Being aware and in control of your feelings will shave more strokes than any improvement club or swing change. Everyone knows that one golfer, the 12 handicap that can’t hit the broad side of a barn on a relaxing day with the boys, but throw some skins at him and once the pressure is on plays to a 6. We call them “gamers”. If you don’t know what I mean or have never experienced this, look up Rocco Mediate 2008 us open. My point is, you can shoot par with the ugliest swing if you have the sharpest mind. Golf is played 95% in between the ears.

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Instruction

The Wedge Guy: The easiest-to-learn golf basic

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My golf learning began with this simple fact – if you don’t have a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, it is practically impossible for your body to execute a fundamentally sound golf swing. I’m still a big believer that the golf swing is much easier to execute if you begin with the proper hold on the club.

As you might imagine, I come into contact with hundreds of golfers of all skill levels. And it is very rare to see a good player with a bad hold on the golf club. There are some exceptions, for sure, but they are very few and very far between, and they typically have beat so many balls with their poor grip that they’ve found a way to work around it.

The reality of biophysics is that the body moves only in certain ways – and the particulars of the way you hold the golf club can totally prevent a sound swing motion that allows the club to release properly through the impact zone. The wonderful thing is that anyone can learn how to put a fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, and you can practice it anywhere your hands are not otherwise engaged, like watching TV or just sitting and relaxing.

Whether you prefer an overlap, interlock or full-finger (not baseball!) grip on the club, the same fundamentals apply.  Here are the major grip faults I see most often, in the order of the frequency:

Mis-aligned hands

By this I mean that the palms of the two hands are not parallel to each other. Too many golfers have a weak left hand and strong right, or vice versa. The easiest way to learn how to hold the club with your palms aligned properly is to grip a plain wooden ruler or yardstick. It forces the hands to align properly and shows you how that feels. If you grip and re-grip a yardstick several times, then grip a club, you’ll see that the learning curve is almost immediate.

The position of the grip in the upper/left hand

I also observe many golfers who have the butt of the grip too far into the heel pad of the upper hand (the left hand for right-handed players). It’s amazing how much easier it is to release the club through the ball if even 1/4-1/2″ of the butt is beyond the left heel pad. Try this yourself to see what I mean.  Swing the club freely with just your left hand and notice the difference in its release from when you hold it at the end of the grip, versus gripping down even a half inch.

To help you really understand how this works, go to the range and hit shots with your five-iron gripped down a full inch to make the club the same length as your seven-iron. You will probably see an amazing shot shape difference, and likely not see as much distance loss as you would expect.

Too much lower (right) hand on the club

It seems like almost all golfers of 8-10 handicap or higher have the club too far into the palm of the lower hand, because that feels “good” if you are trying to control the path of the clubhead to the ball. But the golf swing is not an effort to hit at the ball – it is a swing of the club. The proper hold on the club has the grip underneath the pad at the base of the fingers. This will likely feel “weak” to you — like you cannot control the club like that. EXACTLY. You should not be trying to control the club with your lower/master hand.

Gripping too tightly

Nearly all golfers hold the club too tightly, which tenses up the forearms and prevents a proper release of the club through impact. In order for the club to move back and through properly, you must feel that the club is controlled by the last three fingers of the upper hand, and the middle two fingers of the lower hand. If you engage your thumbs and forefingers in “holding” the club, the result will almost always be a grip that is too tight. Try this for yourself. Hold the club in your upper hand only, and squeeze firmly with just the last three fingers, with the forefinger and thumb off the club entirely. You have good control, but your forearms are not tense. Then begin to squeeze down with your thumb and forefinger and observe the tensing of the entire forearm. This is the way we are made, so the key to preventing tenseness in the arms is to hold the club very lightly with the “pinchers” — the thumbs and forefingers.

So, those are what I believe are the four fundamentals of a good grip. Anyone can learn them in their home or office very quickly. There is no easier way to improve your ball striking consistency and add distance than giving more attention to the way you hold the golf club.

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Clement: Stop ripping off your swing with this drill!

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Not the dreaded headcover under the armpit drill! As if your body is defective and can’t function by itself! Have you seen how incredible the human machine is with all the incredible feats of agility all kinds of athletes are accomplishing? You think your body is so defective (the good Lord is laughing his head off at you) that it needs a headcover tucked under the armpit so you can swing like T-Rex?

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How a towel can fix your golf swing

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This is a classic drill that has been used for decades. However, the world of marketed training aids has grown so much during that time that this simple practice has been virtually forgotten. Because why teach people how to play golf using everyday items when you can create and sell a product that reinforces the same thing? Nevertheless, I am here to give you helpful advice without running to the nearest Edwin Watts or adding something to your Amazon cart.

For the “scoring clubs,” having a solid connection between the arms and body during the swing, especially through impact, is paramount to creating long-lasting consistency. And keeping that connection throughout the swing helps rotate the shoulders more to generate more power to help you hit it farther. So, how does this drill work, and what will your game benefit from it? Well, let’s get into it.

Setup

You can use this for basic chip shots up to complete swings. I use this with every club in my bag, up to a 9 or 8-iron. It’s natural to create incrementally more separation between the arms and body as you progress up the set. So doing this with a high iron or a wood is not recommended.

While you set up to hit a ball, simply tuck the towel underneath both armpits. The length of the towel will determine how tight it will be across your chest but don’t make it so loose that it gets in the way of your vision. After both sides are tucked, make some focused swings, keeping both arms firmly connected to the body during the backswing and follow through. (Note: It’s normal to lose connection on your lead arm during your finishing pose.) When you’re ready, put a ball in the way of those swings and get to work.

Get a Better Shoulder Turn

Many of us struggle to have proper shoulder rotation in our golf swing, especially during long layoffs. Making a swing that is all arms and no shoulders is a surefire way to have less control with wedges and less distance with full swings. Notice how I can get in a similar-looking position in both 60° wedge photos. However, one is weak and uncontrollable, while the other is strong and connected. One allows me to use my larger muscles to create my swing, and one doesn’t. The follow-through is another critical point where having a good connection, as well as solid shoulder rotation, is a must. This drill is great for those who tend to have a “chicken wing” form in their lead arm, which happens when it becomes separated from the body through impact.

In full swings, getting your shoulders to rotate in your golf swing is a great way to reinforce proper weight distribution. If your swing is all arms, it’s much harder to get your weight to naturally shift to the inside part of your trail foot in the backswing. Sure, you could make the mistake of “sliding” to get weight on your back foot, but that doesn’t fix the issue. You must turn into your trial leg to generate power. Additionally, look at the difference in separation between my hands and my head in the 8-iron examples. The green picture has more separation and has my hands lower. This will help me lessen my angle of attack and make it easier to hit the inside part of the golf ball, rather than the over-the-top move that the other picture produces.

Stay Better Connected in the Backswing

When you don’t keep everything in your upper body working as one, getting to a good spot at the top of your swing is very hard to do. It would take impeccable timing along with great hand-eye coordination to hit quality shots with any sort of regularity if the arms are working separately from the body.

Notice in the red pictures of both my 60-degree wedge and 8-iron how high my hands are and the fact you can clearly see my shoulder through the gap in my arms. That has happened because the right arm, just above my elbow, has become totally disconnected from my body. That separation causes me to lift my hands as well as lose some of the extension in my left arm. This has been corrected in the green pictures by using this drill to reinforce that connection. It will also make you focus on keeping the lead arm close to your body as well. Because the moment either one loses that relationship, the towel falls.

Conclusion

I have been diligent this year in finding a few drills that target some of the issues that plague my golf game; either by simply forgetting fundamental things or by coming to terms with the faults that have bitten me my whole career. I have found that having a few drills to fall back on to reinforce certain feelings helps me find my game a little easier, and the “towel drill” is most definitely one of them.

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