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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

Wedge Guy: The top 7 short game mistakes

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I’ve written hundreds of articles as “The Wedge Guy” and I’ve made it my life’s work to closely observe golfers and their short games. So, I thought I’d compile what I see into a list of what I believe are the most common mistakes golfers make around the greens that prevents them from optimizing their scoring. So here goes, not in any particular order:

  1. Tempo. Maybe the most common error I see is a tempo that is too quick and “jabby”. That probably comes from the misunderstood and overdone advice “accelerate through the ball.” I like to compare playing a golf hole to painting a room, and your short shots are your “trim brushes”. They determine how the finished work turns out, and a slower and more deliberate stroke delivers more precision as you get closer to the green and hole.
  2. Set Up/Posture. To hit good chips and pitches, you need to “get down”. Bend your knees a bit more and grip down on the club – it puts you closer to your work for better precision. Too many golfers I see stand up too tall and grip the club to the end.
  3. Grip Pressure. A very light grip on the club is essential to good touch and a proper release through the impact zone. Trust me, you cannot hold a golf club too lightly – your body won’t let you. Concentrate on your forearms; if you can feel any tenseness in the muscles in your forearms, you are holding on too tightly.
  4. Hand position. Watch the tour players hit short shots on TV. Their arms are hanging naturally so that their hands are very close to their upper thighs at address and through impact, but the club is not tilted up on its toe. Copy that and your short game will improve dramatically.
  5. Lack of Body/Core Rotation. When you are hitting short shots, the hands and arms have stay in front of the torso throughout the swing. If you don’t rotate your chest and shoulders back and through, you won’t develop good consistency in distance or contact.
  6. Club selection. Every pitch or chip is different, so don’t try to hit them all with the same club. I see two major errors here. Some golfers always grab the sand wedge when they miss a green. If you have lots of green to work with and don’t need that loft, a PW, 9-iron or even less will give you much better results. The other error is seen in those golfers who are “afraid” of their wedge and are trying to hit tough recoveries with 8- and 9-irons. That doesn’t work either. Go to your practice green and see what happens with different clubs, then take that knowledge to the course.
  7. Clubhead/grip relationship. This error falls into two categories. One is those golfers who forward press so much that they dramatically change the loft of the club. At address and impact the grip should be slightly ahead of the clubhead. I like to focus on the hands, rather than the club, and just think of my left hand leading my right through impact. Which brings me to the other error – allowing the clubhead to pass the hands through impact. If you let the clubhead do that, good shots just cannot happen. And that is caused by you trying to “hit” up on the ball, rather than swinging the entire club through impact.

So, there are my top 7. Obviously, there are others, but if you eliminate those, your short game will get better in a hurry.

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The Wedge Guy: Short game tempo

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One of my favorite things to do is observe golfers closely, watching how they go about things from well before the shot to the execution of the swing or stroke. Guess the golf course has become kind of like going to the lab, in a way.

One thing I notice much too often is how “quick” most golfers are around the greens. It starts with grabbing a club or two from the cart and quickly getting to their ball. Then a few short jabs at a practice swing and usually a less-than-stellar result at a recovery.

Why?

If you are going to spend a morning or afternoon on the course, why hurry around the greens? I tend to be a fast player and despise five-hour rounds, but don’t fault anyone for taking a few seconds extra to get “right” with their recovery shot. You can still play “ready golf” and not short yourself in the close attention to execution. But let me get back to the specific topic.

Maybe it’s aggravated by this rush, but most golfers I observe have a short game tempo that is too quick. Chips, pitches and recoveries are precision swings at less than full power, so they require a tempo that is slower than you might think to accommodate that precision. They are outside the “norm” of a golf swing, so give yourself several practice swings to get a feel for the tempo and power that needs to be applied to the shot at hand.

I also think this quick tempo is a result of the old adage “accelerate through the ball.” We’ve all had that pounded into our brains since we started playing, but my contention is that it is darn hard not to accelerate . . . it’s a natural order of the swing. But to mentally focus on that idea tends to produce a short, choppy swing, with no rhythm or precision. So, here’s a practice drill for you.

  1. Go to your practice range, the local ball field, schoolyard or anywhere you can safely hit golf balls 20-30 yards or less.
  2. Pick a target only 30-50 feet away and hit your normal pitch, observing the trajectory.
  3. Then try to hit each successive ball no further, but using a longer, more flowing, fluid swing motion than the one before. That means you’ll make the downswing slower and slower each time, as you are moving the club further and further back each time.

My bet is that somewhere in there you will find a swing length and tempo where that short pitch shot becomes much easier to hit, with better loft and spin, than your normal method.

The key to this is to move the club with the back and through rotation of your body core, not just your arms and hands. This allows you to control tempo and applied power with the big muscles, for more consistency.

Try this and share with all of us if it doesn’t open your eyes to a different way of short game success.

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The Wedge Guy: The core cause of bad shots

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You are cruising through a round of golf, hitting it pretty good and then you somehow just hit an absolutely terrible shot? This isn’t a problem unique to recreational golfers trying to break 80, 90, or 100 — even the best tour professionals occasionally hit a shot that is just amazingly horrible, given their advanced skill levels.

It happens to all of us — some more frequently than others — but I’m convinced the cause is the same. I call it “getting sloppy.”

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, there was a USGA advertising campaign a while back feature Arnold Palmer, with the slogan “Swing Your Swing.” There’s a lot of truth to that advice, as we all have a swing that has — either frequently or occasionally – produced outstanding golf shots. While there is no substitute for solid mechanics and technique, I’ve always believed that if you have ever hit a truly nice golf shot, then your swing has the capacity to repeat that result more frequently than you experience.

The big question is: “Why can’t I do that more often?”

And the answer is: Because you don’t approach every shot with the same care and caution that you exhibit when your best shots are executed.

To strike a golf ball perfectly, the moon and stars have to be aligned, regardless of what your swing looks like. Your set-up position must be right. Your posture and alignment have to be spot-on. Ball position has to be precisely perfect. To get those things correct takes focused attention to each detail. But the good news is that doing so only takes a few seconds of your time before each shot.

But I know from my own experience, the big “disrupter” is not having your mind right before you begin your swing. And that affects all of these pre-shot fundamentals as well as the physical execution of your swing.
Did you begin your pre-shot approach with a vivid picture of the shot you are trying to hit? Is your mind cleared from what might have happened on the last shot or the last hole? Are you free from the stress of this crazy game, where previous bad shots cause us to tighten up and not have our mind free and ready for the next shot? All those things affect your ability to get things right before you start your swing . . . and get in the way of “swinging your swing.”

So, now that I’ve outlined the problem, what’s the solution?

Let me offer you some ideas that you might incorporate into your own routine for every shot, so that you can get more positive results from whatever golf swing skills you might have.

Clear your mind. Whatever has happened in the round of golf to this point is history. Forget it. This next shot is all that matters. So, clear that history of prior shots and sharpen your focus to the shot at hand.

Be precise in your fundamentals. Set-up, posture, alignment and ball position are crucial to delivering your best swing. Pay special attention to all of these basics for EVERY shot you hit, from drives to putts.

Take Dead Aim. That was maybe the most repeated and sage advice from Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book”. And it may be the most valuable advice ever. Poor alignment and aim sets the stage for bad shots, as “your swing” cannot be executed if you are pointed incorrectly.

See it, feel it, trust it. Another piece of great advice from the book and movie, “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days In Utopia”, by Dr. David Cook. Your body has to have a clear picture of the shot you want to execute in order to produce the sequence of movements to do that.

Check your grip pressure and GO. The stress of golf too often causes us to grip the club too tightly. And that is a swing killer. Right before you begin your swing, focus your mind on your grip pressure to make sure it isn’t tighter than your normal pressure.

It’s highly advisable to make these five steps central to your pre-shot routine, but especially so if you get into a bad stretch of shots. You can change things when that happens, but it just takes a little work to get back to the basics.

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