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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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GolfWRX is the world's largest and best online golf community. Expert editorial reviews, breaking golf tour and industry news, what to play, how to play and where to play. GolfWRX surrounds consumers throughout the buying, learning and enrichment process from original photographic and video content, to peer to peer advice and camaraderie, to technical how-tos, and more. As the largest online golf community we continue to protect the purity of our members opinions and the platform to voice them. We want to protect the interests of golfers by providing an unbiased platform to feel proud to contribute to for years to come. You can follow GolfWRX on Twitter @GolfWRX and on Facebook.

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 [email protected]

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 2)

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Golf is very much a monkey-see-monkey-do sport. If you ever go to the local range, you are sure to see golfers trying to copy the moves of their favorite player. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. While I understand the logic of trying to mimic the “secret move” of the most recent winner on tour, I always balk when the person trying to create their best impression fails to realize the physical differences between them and the best golfing athletes in the world.

Read part 1 here. 

In addition to most golfers not being at the same fitness levels as the best players in the world, they also do not have bodies that are identical to their favorite player. This single statement proves why there is not one golf swing; we all are different sizes and are going to swing the club differently due to these physical differences.

You have to understand your swing

The biggest reason I believe that golfers are better than they think is most golfers I meet do not understand what their swings should look like. Armed with video after video of their golf swing, I will always hear about the one thing that the golfer wishes they could change. However, that one thing is generally the “glue” or athleticism of the athlete on display and is also the thing that allows them to make decent contact with the ball.

We are just coming out of the “video age” of golf instruction, and while I think that recording your golf swing can be extremely helpful, I think that it is important to understand what you are looking for in your swing. As a young coach, I fell victim to trying to create “pretty swings”, but quickly learned that there is not a trophy for prettiest swing.

It comes down to form or function, and I choose function

The greatest gift I have ever received as an instructor was the recommendation to investigate Mike Adams and BioSwing Dynamics. Mike, E.A. Tischler, and Terry Rowles have done extensive research both with tour-level players as well as club golfers and have developed a way to test or screen each athlete to determine not only how their golf swing will look, but also how they will use the ground to create their maximum speed. This screen can be completed with a tape measure and takes about five minutes, and I have never seen results like I have since I began measuring.

For example, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a golf swing that tracks more to the outside during the backswing and intersects the body more towards the trail shoulder plane during the backswing. A golfer with a shorter wingspan than height will have a swing that tracks more to the inside and intersects the body closer to the trail hip plane. Also, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a more upright dynamic posture than a golfer with a shorter wingspan than height who will be more “bent over” at the address position.

Sport coats and golf swings

Have you ever bought a sport coat or suit for a special occasion? If so, pay attention to whether it is a short, regular, or long. If you buy a long, then it means that your arms are longer than your torso and you can now understand why you produce a “steeper” backswing. Also, if you stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your middle-finger tips touching the top of your kneecaps, you will have perfect dynamic posture that matches your anatomy. If it appears that you are in a taller posture, then you have your second clue that your wingspan is greater than your height.

Translation to improvement

Using this and five other screens, we can help the athletes understand a complete blueprint of their golf swing based off their anatomy. It is due to the work of Mike, E.A., and Terry that we can now matchup the player to their swing and help them play their best. The reason that I believe that most golfers are better than they think is that most golfers have most of the correct puzzle pieces already. By screening each athlete, we can make the one or two adjustments to get the player back to trusting their swing and feeling in control. More importantly, the athlete can revisit their screen sheet when things misfire and focus on what they need to do, instead of what not to do.

We are all different and all have different swings. There is no one way to swing a golf club because there is no one kind of golfer. I encourage every golfer to make their swing because it is the only one that fits.

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How golf should be learned

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With the COVID-19 pandemic, golf is more popular than ever. Beginners being introduced to the game often find that golf is very hard, much harder than other sports they have played. To simplify the golf swing and make the game easier, it needs to start with a concept.

Golf should first be learned from a horizontal position. If the ball was placed four feet above the ground on a large tee, players would naturally turn in an efficient direction with the proper sequence to strike the ball on the tee.

Take for example, a person throwing a ball towards a target. With their eyes out in front of them? having an awareness to the target, their body would naturally turn in a direction to go forward and around towards the target. In golf, we are bent over from the hips, and we are playing from the side of the golf ball, so players tend to tilt their body or over-rotate, causing an inefficient backswing.

This is why the golf swing should be looked at as a throwing motion. The trail arm folds up as the body coils around. To throw a ball further, the motion doesn’t require more body turn or a tilt of the body.

To get the feeling of this horizontal hitting position or throwing motion, start by taking your golf posture. Make sure your trail elbow is bent and tucked with your trail shoulder below your lead shoulder.

From here, simply lift your arms in front of you while you maintain the bend from your hips. Look over your lead shoulder looking at the target. Get the clubhead traveling first and swing your arms around you. Note how your body coils. Return the club back to its original position.

After a few repetitions, simply lower your arms back to the ball position, swing your arms around you like you did from the horizontal position. Allow your shoulders, chest and hips to be slightly pulled around. This is now your “throwing position” in the golf swing. From here, you are ready to make a downswing with less movement needed to make a proper strike.

Note: Another great drill to get the feel for this motion is practicing Hitting driver off your knees.

Twitter: @KKelley_golf

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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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