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The Secret to Practicing Like A Tour Player

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Practice until your hands bleed is advice often given to young players who aspire to a career in professional golf. Repeat, repeat, repeat so you play like a machine and mistake-free is another mantra preached by some parents and coaches. It’s well meaning advice, but it falls short.

The most common mistake I see young elite players making is looking to build a machine-like swing and then looking to engrain it through repetitive practice from dawn to dusk. Instead, what I’ve learned firsthand from tour players is that they look to build skill and confidence with their practice time.

So what’s the difference between engraining the perfect swing and building skill?

A mistake many golfers make is to get several buckets of balls, put down an alignment aid, grab a 7-iron and just work on trying to hit the ball perfect with the same flight to the same target every time. These golfers think that the more balls they hit, the more muscle memory they’re create. They believe they’ll be able to take it to the course or tournament and be able to play automatic, machine-like, mistake-free golf.

Why does this not work?

Let’s first understand that the emotional or psychological aspect of hitting a ball on the range and hitting a ball on the course in tournaments are poles apart. If you hit a poor shot on the range, you just take another ball and look to correct the swing in the next shot. On the course, you first have the physical challenge the golf architect of that course set – perhaps water down the left, trees on the right, a fairway bunker, etc — but then you have the mental challenge. You want to do well, you want to shoot a certain score, you’re thinking what other players are doing, etc. These two scenarios bear little relation to each other, and that’s why trying to engrain a machine-like swing on the range has very limited value.

So does that mean practice is for nothing? Absolutely not. Practice is where you can develop your skills. The critical point are: (1) How you practice, and (2) Under what conditions.

In a conversation 17 years ago with Michael Campbell, who went on to win the 2005 U.S. Open, he revealed a concept that he referred to as the one-third rule. In essence, it means dividing your practice into three parts.

  • In the the first part, you focus on progressing your technique.
  • In the second part, you focus on rhythm and motion.
  • In the third part, you simulate competition.

So if Michael was doing a 60-minute long game session, he may divide it into the following three parts.

Part 1: 20 minutes working on swing technique, using key drills set for him by his coach. In this part of practice, it’s fine to hit to just one target with one club and use training aids like alignment sticks.

Part 2: In this part of practice, no technical thoughts are allowed. Every shot must also be different. You may use the same club for five shots, but you must aim at five different targets. Or do Steve Bann’s nine-shot drill where you hit each of the nine ball flights on different balls. It can also mean changing clubs every shot. In essence, it’s about variability. When swinging, golfers need to be focused on the shot instead of the technique.

Part 3: In this part of practice, you put yourself under pressure by introducing a “win-lose” element. This last section creates a bridge from your practice to your play. It helps you transfer your range work to hitting good shots down the stretch. Extensive testing has shown that practicing in pressurized situations is the most effective way of inoculating yourself against the negative effects of pressure. Use your pre-shot routine just as you would on the course and have a specific practice drill that creates competition

This one-third concept relates to all aspects of the game: a putting session, short-game practice, wedge training, etc. What I have found in applying the concept for more than 15 years is that it assists players in building what I call competitive confidence, or confidence under pressure. Because they’ve been tested and challenged during practice, they are better prepared to perform when they face challenge and pressure during competition. Practice this way, and you will be able to build confidence that you can hit the key shot under pressure. That’s what tournament golf is about, being able to execute the key shot at the critical time.

This summer, Jordan Spieth won the biggest tournament in golf, the Open Championship. He had the best four days of his already star-studded career. His game was far from machine-like, but he possessed competitive confidence and skill. That enabled him to get the ball in the hole over 72 holes in fewer strokes than any of the other 155 competitors, which is the essence of tournament golf and the skill we need to build in our practice time.

The video below highlights some competitive practice drills you can try in your next practice session.

Interested in building a Tour Tough Game? I’ve developed a system called the Tour Player Practice System that gives players an easy to use A-to-Z Practice System. Sign up for some free training videos at www.tourplayerpracticesystem.com.

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Jonathan Wallett has been a coach on the European Tour since 2011. He's also the National Coach for the Hong Kong Golf Team. His academy specializes in assisting elite juniors, elite amateurs, and touring professionals in reducing their scores. Interested in learning to perform your best on tournament day? Jonathan has developed a system called the "Tour Player Tournament System," which helps players understand the keys to play their best on tournament day. Sign up for some free coaching videos at elitegolfplayer.com

27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Stephen Finley

    Jan 18, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    This is smarter than a lot of people are going to realize, especially for players who have reached a fairly decent level of skill. What you want is to have a good feel for the swinging motion and how variations affect ball flight, a good feel for where the sweet spot is, etc., not a “grooved” swing. You want an _adaptable_ motion that gives you the right balance between control and freedom (or freedom within a useful structure). I agree totally that this is something better players tend to know, or at least did in previous generations. People have really gotten off track in an effort to play “perfect-looking swing” instead of golf.

  2. ken

    Dec 26, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Before recreational rounds, I rarely go to the range. I chip and putt.
    Pre tournament rounds, I grab a couple mid irons, my wedges and metals, depending upon the length and type of the design of the course.
    I take about 15 minutes to loosen up. Then I “play” random holes of the course for about 20 to 30 mins. When its hot, I cut back on my range time.

  3. Sam

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    You can’t practice like a tour pro, til you are one. Does Lebron James practice like he did in high school? UH NO! Why doesn’t everyone just who wants to make it to the NBA just take on Kobe Bryant’s routine? Cause he aint Kobe!

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:49 pm

      Yes, but you can experience what the pros feeel if you buy their clubs and buy their shoes and buy their uniforms so you can even look like you’re on their team.
      99.99% of humanity are non-athletic dross and can only fantacize and delude and shout and scream and holler while watching their heroes on the playing field. Deplorables all !!!!

      • DD

        Jan 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

        “non-athletic dross”. Speak for yourself, hoser. Don’t project your failings on the rest of us.

    • Kurt

      Jan 28, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Agree, and add to it VERY few of us can even practice other then putt, chip and hit drivers off mats…the difference between public golfers and Country Club golfers is as far apart as amateur and pro golfers.

  4. Sam

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    You can’t practice like a tour pro, til you are one. Does Lebron Jamespractice like he did in high school? UH NO! Why doesn’t everyone just who wants to make it to the NBA just take on Kobe Bryant’s routine? Cause he aint Kobe!

  5. Joe Perez

    Dec 26, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    My practice session is quite simple: spend 100% of the time trying to hit the golf ball before contacting the AstroTurf. ^_^

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:51 pm

      Keep on trying but don’t injure yourself on AstroTurf… gouge out the ground and frighten the earthworms… 🙂

    • Kurt

      Jan 28, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      The good thing is you can stripe the 3 wood of the AstroTurf…and you can hit an iron straight while hitting the AstroTruf before the ball…great practice…

  6. Ron

    Dec 26, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Good article. These 3 sessions are surely for the more advanced player, but I think even the weekend warrior trying to break 100 can benefit from the overall theme, which is structured practice. Like purposely trying to hit the ball higher than normal, to simulate when you banana slice it into the next fairway over, and have to hit it over the trees to get back on your own hole. Or practicing a few punch shots that you’ll inevitably need when you duck hook your ball into the pine straw off the first tee. You don’t need to practice shaping your ball 9 different ways, but emulating real scenarios you’ll encounter will benefit ANY golfer.

  7. Stephen Finley

    Dec 26, 2017 at 2:06 am

    People are nitpicking the “thirds” and the nature of each of those, but the basic fact that practice for a good player with the objective of “grooving” a swing has been shown to be mostly an empty exercise, except for broad principles like balance, tempo, path through the ball, plane and angle of approach, and release. “Grooving” every nuance off a level lie with infinitely more balls to hit if you’re off is just not the way to get better, especially once you reach a certain level. Adaptability, feel, and a firm, accurate idea of the very few things in the swing that actually matter are what allow you to compete better.

  8. Shad Goldston

    Dec 25, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    BTW, the Masters, NOT the open, is the biggest tournament in golf.

    • Patrick

      Dec 26, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      Lame comment. The Masters field is by far the weakest and smallest field. Yes, you get to play the same perfectly manicured venue every year. Those Open courses are always at the mercy of the weather. Notice that’s there are many repeat winners at Augusta. Makes sense providing you have a decent memory.
      Finally, the Masters is the first major of the season. To a European player certainly the Open is the number one major. To an American, the U.S. Open is the pinnacle. I’d rate the Masters third best among golf’s 4 majors.
      The Masters certainly has the esthetic trophy.

  9. Mark

    Dec 25, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Nice article. After reading the comments I can understand how this doesn’t apply to everyone but it hit home for me and I’ll incorporate more of this into my practice. Thanks!

  10. Tommy

    Dec 25, 2017 at 11:14 am

    That’s great for single digit players but most are just trying to get the feel of simple solid contact most of the time. Working the ball….really? 90% of players hit the ground before the ball….how you going to “work” it doing that?

    • ronny

      Dec 26, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      Buy a set of PXGs… they’re guaranteed to be the bestest of the best… ask Paige 8)

  11. Square

    Dec 25, 2017 at 6:08 am

    I’m not being silly here…for me at age 48 my pie chart is divided into 20 minutes to get loose, 20 minutes on the technical, and 20 minutes on the win lose element as defined in the article. I’m just not going to give part 2 of the article much time.

    • Rich Douglas

      Dec 25, 2017 at 9:25 am

      But it’s the most important part. Read Garrity and Novosel.

      If your tempo is like a drunk monkey falling from a tree then your mechanics and gamesmanship are irrelevant. You wont’ be able to use the swing mechanics you’re desperately trying to implement and, when faced with real targets and hazards, you won’t be able to put a reliable swing onto the ball.

      I already use this method, but I vary the proportions depending on my needs. If I’m warming up before a match, and if my time is limited, I’ll spend almost all of it on #2, rhythm. If I’m hitting a large bucket just to practice, I’ll split it up. But if I need to spend more time on one phase–like yesterday–I’ll do that. (I spent almost all my time testing out two backswing lengths, chose one, then worked on tempo. No simulating game play.) But work them all into your practice over time. And for goodness sakes, don’t stand there pounding driver after driver!

    • ronny

      Dec 25, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      According to PGA statistics, 90+% of all 50 million golfers worldwide cannot break 100 and within the Rules of Golf.
      A ‘golfer’ is defined as somebody who owns a set of golf clubs and plays once a year, probably at the company golf tournament.
      For most of these ‘golfers’ golf is 90% social and 10% game, and they have no intention of learning how to swing a golf club. IOW, no commitment.
      I suspect that these golf ‘deplorables’ are not fit physically nor mentally to play decent golf, but they will buy the latest and best clubs in the futile hope of improving. Most of the WITB types fall into this category too. It’s both pitiful and pathetic.

  12. ronny

    Dec 24, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Our’s is not to wonder why…. our’s is to do and fly …. kaboom!!!
    Notice that the 1/3 pie chart is all about the physical part of the golf swing and nothing much about the intellectual study of the golf swing?
    With so much scientific stuff available one must wonder why the physical is so all-consuming? Just leave the thinking to the coach?
    If you want to swing like a robot surely you must be scientifically primed to think your way through a golf swing.
    Forget the physical conditioning, the golf-specific training, the performance testing…. just whack away with your new driver that is dialed in for a high draw.

  13. DoubleMochaMan

    Dec 24, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    I have one, only one, golf range observation: If you kill it on the range before your round you will hit it like crap on the course. And if you stink it up on the range you will pure most of your shots on the course.

    • ronny

      Dec 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      Practice? Practice? Practice?!!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGDBR2L5kzI

    • Rich Douglas

      Dec 25, 2017 at 9:29 am

      A common emotion for people who are less aware about the swing, physics, and their own mechanics. It seems almost random. I guess it is to them.

      Early on, I used to come to the course wondering what my swing would do. That’s because if it was good or bad was almost accidental. No more. Now I note what’s happening and either adjust the swing or–more likely–adjust my expectations from it during play. That way, I “dance with the girl I brung” and play the round with the swing I have.

      Awareness and knowledge.

      • ronny

        Dec 25, 2017 at 1:36 pm

        They also claim to be ‘feel’ golfers when in reality they are emotional ‘feelings’ golfers…. and they satisfy their feelings with ball impact sensation and results, and nothing much more. They don’t know their swing, plain and simple.

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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Walters: Try this practice hack for better bunker shots

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Your ability to hit better bunker shots is dramatically reduced if you have no facility to practice these shots. With so few facilities (especially in the UK) having a practice bunker it’s no wonder I see so many golfers struggle with this skill.

Yet the biggest issue they all seem to have is the inability to get the club to enter the sand (hit the ground) in a consistent spot. So here is a hack to use at the range to improve your bunker shots.

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Golf Blueprint: A plan for productive practice sessions

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Practice range at the Dormie Club. Photo credit: Scott Arden

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You’ve gotten lessons.  Several of them.  You’ve been custom fitted for everything in your bag.  You even bought another half a dozen driver shafts last year looking for an extra couple of yards.  And yet, you’re still…stuck.  Either your handicap hasn’t moved at all in years or you keep bouncing back and forth between the same two numbers.  You’ve had all the swing fixes and all the technological advances you could realistically hope to achieve, yet no appreciable result has been achieved in lowering your score.  What gives?

Sample Golf Blueprint practice plan for a client.

One could argue that no one scientifically disassembled and then systematically reassembled the game of golf quite like the great Ben Hogan.  His penchant for doing so created a mystique which is still the stuff of legend even today.  A great many people have tried to decipher his secret over the years and the inevitable conclusion is always a somewhat anticlimactic, “The secret’s in the dirt.”  Mr. Hogan’s ball striking prowess was carved one divot at a time from countless hours on the practice range.  In an interview with golf journalist George Peper in 1987, Mr. Hogan once said:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is— it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Let me guess.  You’ve tried that before, right?  You’ve hit buckets and buckets of range rocks trying to groove the perfect 7-iron swing and still to no avail, right?  Read that last sentence again closely and you might discover the problem.  There’s a difference between mindful practice and mindless practice.  Mindful practice, like Mr. Hogan undoubtedly employed, is structured, focused, and intentional.  It has specific targets and goals in mind and progresses in a systematic fashion until those goals are met.

This is exactly what Nico Darras and Kevin Moore had in mind when they started Golf Blueprint.  In truth, though, the journey actually started when Nico was a client of Kevin’s Squares2Circles project.  Nico is actually a former DI baseball player who suffered a career-ending injury and took up golf at 22 years old.  In a short time, he was approaching scratch and then getting into some mini tour events.  Kevin, as mentioned in the Squares2Circles piece, is a mathematics education professor and accomplished golfer who has played in several USGA events.  Their conversations quickly changed from refining course strategy to making targeted improvements in Nico’s game.  By analyzing the greatest weaknesses in Nico’s game and designing specific practice sessions (which they call “blueprints”) around them, Nico started reaching his goals.

The transition from client to partners was equal parts swift and organic, as they quickly realized they were on to something.  Nico and Kevin used their experiences to develop an algorithm which, when combined with the client’s feedback, establishes a player profile within Golf Blueprint’s system.  Clients get a plan with weekly, monthly, and long-term goals including all of the specific blueprints that target the areas of their game where they need it most.  Not to mention, clients get direct access to Nico and Kevin through Golf Blueprint.

Nico Darras, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

While this is approaching shades of Mr. Hogan’s practice method above, there is one key distinction here.  Kevin and Nico aren’t recommending practicing for hours at a time.  Far from it.  In Nico’s words:

“We recommend 3 days a week.  You can do more or less, for sure, but we’ve found that 3 days a week is within the realm of possibility for most of our clients.  Practice sessions are roughly 45-70 minutes each, but again, all of this depends on the client and what resources they have at their disposal.  Each blueprint card is roughly 10 minutes each, so you can choose which cards to do if you only have limited time to practice.  Nothing is worse than cranking 7 irons at the range for hours.  We want to make these engaging and rewarding.”

Kevin Moore, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

So far, Golf Blueprint has been working for a wide range of golfers – from tour pros to the No Laying Up crew to amateurs alike.  Kevin shares some key data in that regard:

“When we went into this, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Were we going to be an elite player product?  Were we going to be an amateur player product?  We didn’t know, honestly.  So far, what’s exciting is that we’ve had success with a huge range of players.  Probably 20-25% of our players (roughly speaking) are in that 7-11 handicap range.  That’s probably the center of the bell curve, if you will, right around that high-single-digit handicap range.  We have a huge range though, scratch handicap and tour players all the way to 20 handicaps.  It runs the full gamut.  What’s been so rewarding is that the handicap dropping has been significantly more than we anticipated.  The average handicap drop for our clients was about 2.7 in just 3 months’ time.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant drop in a short amount of time from only changing how you practice.  Maybe that Hogan guy was on to something.  I think these guys might be too.  To learn more about Golf Blueprint and get involved, visit their website. @Golf_Blueprint is their handle for both Twitter and Instagram.

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