The difference between golf and most other stick-and-ball sports is the ground.
In baseball your contact can be off by an inch but that only makes the difference between a single and a home run.
If you’re playing tennis you can be off by two inches still get the ball back over the net.
But in golf if you’re a half inch off, even a quarter of an inch off, you can hit the ground before you hit the ball your shot is ruined.
The ground is what makes golf hard.
But there is ground and there is ground. What kind of ground do you want to hit the ball off of when you practice?
There are two choices at the driving range, grass tees or mats. Both have advantages, both have disadvantages, and both have their advocates and detractors.
Grass is the real thing. That’s what you’re going to be hitting the ball off of when you play, so it does make sense to practice hitting off the same surface.
Not to mention, you don’t always have a perfect lie in the fairway, so hitting off grass gives you the opportunity to learn how to hit off less than ideal lies.
The disadvantage of grass is that the tees are normally so chewed up that it’s difficult to find an ideal lie and you certainly want one most of the time.
A useful exercise on the grass tee is to take ten balls, give them a toss, had hit them off whatever lie they have come to rest. But you don’t want to make that standard practice.
Mats, on the other hand, always give you an ideal lie. I’ll admit if the mat is old and worn you only get to practice hitting off hard pan, but most ranges keep their mats in good repair and replace them when they no longer useful.
The main beef about mats is that you can hit fat and get away with it. And that’s true. You can hit inch behind the wall and still get a decent shot out of it.
But that just means you have to be honest with yourself. You know what fat contact feels like. If you feel it, it’s up to you to admit to yourself that was not a serviceable swing.
But when you hit the ball just right, when you get that solid, ball first ground second contact that pinches the ball between the ground in the club face, you know it in a way you never would on the grass tees.
That much better feedback for the good shot is a huge argument in favor of hitting off mats.
There is another advantage of mats that you might not think of depending on where you live.
I was responding on a golf forum once to a person who said he hits off grass all the time and wondered why anyone would ever hit off a mat.
I replied that if you hit off the grass during winter in the rainy Pacific Northwest, after about three shots all you would have would be soggy mess. He was from Southern California and hadn’t thought of that.
A minor argument but one that nonetheless applies to golfers who don’t buy new clubs every few years is the grit the golf club digs up when hitting off grass will eventually wear down the grooves on the clubface.
That’s why professionals get new wedges about three times a year. Their wedges get used so often the clubface just wears out.
But for me, it comes down to this: good contact is everything in golf, and mats are the best teacher.