Category Archives: practice

Golf Isn’t Hard Work

Whenever I go to the range, which is about once every other week, there’s this guy who is always there. Always. With a big pile of balls in front of him.

I’m not sure what he’s up to. Maybe he just likes to hit golf balls. If that’s his retirement hobby (and he’s gotta be retired to be there at 10 every morning), fine with me.

But if he’s trying to improve, I don’t know how being out there all the time and hitting so many balls is going to do it.

I’ve seen what he can do. He hits the ball really well, about as well as he ever will, and as well as a recreational golfer needs to.

He knows how to swing the club. All he really needs is a reminder every so often so he doesn’t forget or start drifting.

In this month’s Golf Digest there is an article “by” Dustin Johnson on how he practices. He says he hits mostly wedge shots, then chips and putts. He’ll hit a few shots with the longer clubs, then he goes to play.

He’s keeping his swing in tune, but putting time in on what goes away fast if you let it slide–the short game. Pounding balls is not part of his practice plan.

I read once that not many pros thought all the drivers Vijay Singh used to hit did him any good at all. After a few he wasn’t adding anything.

I would say to you, if you know how your swing works*, get a small bucket of about 30 balls, hit half of them with full swings, and the rest with your wedges to different targets.

Another key point Johnson made is one my pro made to me a few years ago. You need a new perspective every so often. Staying in the same place at the range and hitting to the same target doesn’t prepare you for the course, where every shot has a different look.

Either hit to different targets, or hit to the same target but move to a new spot some distance away so the look of the shot is new. That gives you the sense of playing that should be part of your practice.

In 2014 I published my Six Fundamentals. They’re my swing keys, and I hit only enough balls to make sure I’m still doing them so I get good results.

One point in them is rather subtle, but it is that the forward swing is driven by the right side. This is from Fundamental 4, The Right Knee Moves Left. In the same issue of Golf Digest, Butch Harmon has a piece on hitting your irons. He says,

“The third piece [of being in position] is driving your right side–arm, shoulder, knee–at the target.”

Butch Harmon charges three million dollars an hour for the same advice you get here for free.

Stick with me, kid.



*Write down your own set of fundamentals, or swing keys, or whatever you want to call them, that your swing depends on so you can always refer to them when things go wrong.

Golf is Personal

Whenever you read a golf instruction book, or watch a video on YouTube, that instruction is fixed. Everyone reads, sees, and hears the same thing. But what each person needs to do to make that instruction work will be different. That’s because golf is personal.

By “personal”, I mean everyone is different in their size, strength, flexibility, conformation, and conception of athletic movement. This means everyone has to do something a little bit different to install the same bit of instruction into their swing.

I can only use myself for an example to explain what I mean.

When you take the club away, the face should rotate open to stay square to the swing path. When I bring the club back, my natural preference is for my right forearm to stay oriented toward the ball somewhat, and not rotate clockwise. I don’t try to do that, it’s just me.

The effect of this is for the clubface to close. So, I hit a lot of hooks unless…

…I begin my swing with a gentle push by the left hand. Now my left arm dominates, the right arm turns like it supposed to, and the clubface stays square.

Or when I pitch. This one absolutely drives me nuts. From out of nowhere, SHANK! It’s just a short stroke. How can you hit a hosel rocket? Well, getting back to the right hand.

If I try to control the shot with my right hand, I discovered the club pops outside a bit on takeaway. Now the swing plane is forward of its position at address. The shank is baked in and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So again, I begin the takeaway with a gentle push by the left hand, which keeps the club on plane.

Two problems, same solution, because of the same tendency.

Here’s a different one. I will see the hole to the left of where is really is when I stand up to a short putt. Needless to say, I miss to the left more than to the right.

I pointed this out during a playing lesson, and the pro noticed right away that I wasn’t standing square to the line of the putt. My feet were in place, but my hips were turned a tiny bit to the right. This had me looking around a corner to find the hole.

I don’t align my hips deliberately that way, that’s just what happens when I take my stance. So when I get into my putting stance now I always kink my hips the slightest bit counter-clockwise to get square.

These are three examples, and I could give you more if I thought about it, but you get the point.

I’m doing everything right, but by just being me I introduce tiny errors that put me off by just enough to make the difference between a good shot and a not so good one.

It will do you some good to investigate the mistakes you’re making to find out if they are errors in technique, or errors that have only your name on them.

If it’s truly the second, you can keep doing what you’re doing and build in another move to compensate, or, much easier, build in a prevention so you’re right from start to finish.

Really, I think you’re much closer to being a better golfer than you are now if you can only attend to these little details. When you figure how precise the impact geometry has to be to hit a good shot, it only takes a little detail to throw it all off. Correct the little details and you might start playing a different kind of golf.

Getting Ready For Spring

About a month ago, I posted some suggestions for your winter practice. I was following that plan at the time, but you know how my mind wanders, so I thought I would let you know what is going right now.

It’s hard to practice approach putting when it’s raining so much and the practice greens are soaked, so most of my putting practice goes on in my back room on a very short-pile carpet–perfect for the task.

I am firmly committed to the two-putter plan. That has me practicing up to ten-foot putts with my face-balanced putter, at least nightly, and whenever I’m home with nothing important to do (which is all the time when I’m home).

When I go to the the range, I bring my sand wedge and my pitching wedge. I pick out a target on the ground and try to drop a ball right on top of it. I don’t pitch to an area. I pitch to a spot. Most of the time it’s a ball lying out there somewhere.

I have been doing this for years at the range, and have developed a sense over that time of what a distance feels like and what I have to do to hit the ball there, just by looking at it. Sometimes I get the ball so close it’s scary.

Not bragging here. If you practice something often enough you get good at it.

As far as the swing goes, I am deep into a new (for me) mental approach to it.

I have written about Gabrielle Wulf’s work on the benefit of external focus (in golf, the club) rather than internal focus (the golfer) in learning, improving, and performing.

Now let’s combine that with the Ernest Jones method of “swing the clubhead.” To me, that is an early expression of external focus. By swinging the clubhead, the body will automatically do the right thing.

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it is on the right track.

I swing a Titleist 20.5° fairway wood (975J) in my back room. I take the club back slowly with a gentle push by the left hand. Slow is important because I want to feel the clubhead throughout the swing. If the start is too fast, that feel will not emerge.

The backswing is nothing more than feeling the clubhead move back and up. The forward swing is the same. I feel the clubhead move down, around, and through.

My mind is on nothing else than the clubhead moving. I mentally follow its movement back and forward again. I really have no concept of what my body is doing, because my mind is on something else, so getting stuck on technique is out the window.

I can’t think about hitting the ball, hitting it a long way, hoping I will hit a good shot, or any other irrelevant and destructive thought. It’s just, follow the clubhead.

The results I’m getting are very good. I’m hitting good shots easily.

If you want to try this, I suggest you begin with a sand wedge, because its weight makes the clubhead easy to feel throughout the swing. There is no need to bend way over when you swing it. Stand up in your driver stance and pretend your sand wedge is a short driver.

I have been through a lot with my health in the past six years. I am unable to play golf the way I used to, but that doesn’t mean I can no longer play good golf. It means I have to find a different way. I have growing confidence that this is the way.

What I’m Going to Do This Winter

Well, the rainy season has landed on western Oregon with a vengeance. It’s either too wet to play, or when it isn’t raining the courses that don’t drain well are too soggy to play–standing water covers the fairway or tee shots bury themselves in the fairway upon landing.

What’s a golfer to do? I think daily practice at home is the key. The practice I’m going to be doing isn’t about improvement, but consistency. I know what my best swing is. I know how to chip and putt. It’s just that those strokes are not automatic, therefore, inconsistent.

I want to get it right the first time, every time, instead of most times. Is that too much to ask? Not if you put in the work.

So today I’m going to do this, in the confines of my house:

1. Swing a golf club a number of times
2. “Hit” pitches and chips
3. Putt across the carpet.

These are the things I want to make automatic:
1. Handle leads the clubhead; rhythm is right and tempo is appropriate; the swing is connected–no bumps or jerks; clubface square to club path; be totally relaxed at address and do not add tension while swinging.
2. The sole of the club brushes the ground every time, at the same depth every time, on the same spot every time.
3. Align the putter face, then myself, square to the staring line; make a smooth, rhythmic stroke; keep the putter low going back and low going through.

4. In all three areas, think no technical thoughts–just feel the stroke.

All that might take maybe ten minutes a day.

It is one thing to say “I’m going to do this every day,” and another to actually do it. The way to get it done is to make a series of one-day commitments. In the morning, commit yourself to doing it today. The next day, do the same. It will also help if you practice at the same TIME every day. Adding to the commitment makes it easier to honor the commitment.

So here it is. The four basic strokes of golf. Join me in performing them today. And again tomorrow. And the next day, one day at a time until the rain has stopped and the courses have dried out.

Perhaps you live in a part of the country where you can play in sunshine and warm weather all year round. Lucky you. But I still invite you to join our daily performance. We’re doing it because we don’t have a choice. You should do it because it’s the right thing to do. Deal?

Those Extra Strokes

When you play 18 holes, you know you’re going to putt the ball into the hole 18 times. The structure of par assumes you need 36 strokes to get the ball on the green in 18 holes. That’s 54 strokes, guaranteed, every time you play.

The questions you need to answer are, what are you doing with the shots from #55 up to your average score? And which of them you can get rid of most easily?

Extra putts? Of course there are going to be some. But if there are more than 18 extra, that’s too many. An extra 14 would be nice.

Extra swings? Make good contact and hit the ball straight. This isn’t difficult if you get lessons to learn what you’re supposed to be doing. Hint: it might take more than one lesson.

Penalty strokes? Keep the ball in bounds and out of water hazards. See above.

Extra recovery shots? Hitting out of tall grass, hitting out of trees, all that’s going to happen, so learn to get out of trouble and back in play in ONE shot. Don’t get greedy.

Extra chips? One per hole. First chip gets on the green. Close to the hole is better.

Extra pitches? One per hole. The green is a HUGE target. But if you aren’t good enough yet to hit it on the fly every time, hit a pitch and run with an 8-iron. Even if you can hit it on the fly, if the pin is sitting right in front of you and there is good ground between it and you, go with the 8-iron.

Extra sand shots? The pros say this is the easiest shot in golf. It is, but it’s a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. Get a lesson and practice. Once you know how to do it, it’s the easiest shot in golf.

End-Gaining

I will be posting my next opus, Bob’s Living Golf Book, in a few weeks. Here’s an excerpt:

End-Gaining
When golfers begin thinking that the purpose of the golf swing is to hit the golf ball, they have become an end-gainer. That means trying for a result directly rather than following the best way to achieve that result.

For example, at the range you have just hit an unsatisfactory shot so you try a little tweak you think will let you hit a better shot, or at least avoid the bad one. But that doesn’t work so you try another tweak, and so on, leading yourself farther away from the desired end rather than closer. This is end-gaining.

The end-gainer keeps doing what feels right, but which is functionally wrong, instead of doing what is functionally right, but which, because of lifelong habits, feels wrong. Even though we might know intellectually what we should be doing, the familiarity of habit forces us into the same mistakes again and again in spite of ourselves, or, more to the point, because of ourselves. In all those corrections you made to hit a better shot you might have thought you were doing something different, but you were most likely repeating variations of the same mistake.

The solution to this problem is, first of all, to find out what is right. Then proceed from the beginning of a movement until just before the part that needs changing is reached. At that point, stop. Do not let a response occur that leads from there to the wrong feeling, and thus to the wrong movement. Do this many times, until the response to proceed incorrectly has disappeared. At that point you may now insert the correct movement and start teaching yourself the correct response, which has a new feeling that you must learn to be comfortable with.

The insidious habit of end-gaining is what makes golf difficult, and prevents golfers from improving. Whenever your shotmaking, whether drive or putt or in between, is not satisfactory, end-gaining is most likely the cause.

Your Golf Scoring Potential

Sometime in August I will be releasing my next golf opus, Bob’s Living Golf Book. It will be posted as a .pdf with links to illustrative videos. Until that happens, I’m going to post a few excerpts from it in this space to generate your enthusiasm. Here’s one about finding out how good you are/could be.

Play a round where you can hit a mulligan whenever you make a seriously bad shot. Pick up your first shot and play your mulligan. By doing this, you get rid of your bad shots and play a round with only the average or better ones. The score you get is an indication of your scoring potential.

You might be surprised at how low a score is within your reach. A round like this makes clear what improvements are needed to shoot a score like that for real.

If a particular mulligan isn’t much better than your first shot, you need to work on that particular shot. If your mulligans are generally much better, you need to learn to hit your second shot first. That is a matter of gaining confidence in what you do.

Note: When I say “seriously bad”, I mean it. The more honest you are with your mulligans the more information this experiment will give you.

External Focus in Golf

A few weeks ago, while cruising around the web, I found out about external vs. internal focus in learning motor skills, especially related to golf. This the basis of research being conducted at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf.

It goes right to the core of what you need to think you’re doing when you are taught something, learning it by yourself, or even practicing something you already know how to do.

The difference between internal and external focus is simple. Internal focus involves instructions for moving body parts–what you need to do. External focus, in golf, revolves around what the club needs to do. Then you do what ever you have to to get that result. (The ghost of Ernest Jones is nodding his head.)

Listen to this podcast.

Subjects who had never hit a golf ball before were taught grip, stance, and posture for a pitch shot. Then the subjects were split into two groups.

The internal focus group (IFG) was taught how their arms move, bend, and straighten at various points in the swing. The external focus group (EFG) was taught how the club swings like a pendulum. When swinging the club they were to “focus on the weight of the clubhead, the straight-line direction of the clubhead path, and the acceleration of the clubhead moving toward the bottom of the arc.”

After practicing what they were taught, all subjects hit blocks of ten golf balls each to a target 50 feet away. Outcomes were measured by how close the ball landed to the center of the target.

The results were that the (EGF) performed significantly better than (IFG). As the trials proceeded, both groups improved, but the IFG never caught up to the EFG. The EFG recorded good scores more frequently, and lower scores less frequently, than the IFG.

Remember a few months ago when I suggested that you you think of the chipping stroke as brushing the ground with the sole of the club? Little did I know that was external focus.

What does this mean for you? Everything. It means you’ll learn faster when you practice like this–working on what the club is supposed to do, not what you’re supposed to do. It means when you play, if there is a swing thought in your head (which I don’t recommend at all), it needs to be about what the club is doing and not about you.

A Few Golf Things

Not a very catchy title, is it? I couldn’t think of what else to call this post and still build in a little SEO. So no great ideas this week, just a few things I’ve been fiddling with, and a story.

1. Practice your putting stroke at home, maybe ten or so strokes a day. Not a lot, just enough to keep the feeling of how you do it from slipping away. Putt a ball to a target while doing this. I use a jar opener for a target. You can get one at a grocery store. It’s a thin sheet of rubber about five inches on a side, with a lot of raised bumps. If you trace out a circle on it using a 24-oz. can of tomatoes as your guide, you can cut out a “hole” just about 4¼” in diameter. You can also take this ersatz hole to the practice green and drop it where you want a hole to be, if the ones already cut out aren’t where you want to putt/chip to.

2. Lately I have taken to swinging a 7-iron in my living room late at night with the lights out. Don’t worry, you won’t hit the ceiling. Just make sure you’re clear of ceiling-mounted light fixtures. Swinging in the dark will improve your balance, since you don’t have the visual cues you normally use to stay in balance. It also slows down your swing so you’re actually swinging, not clobbering.

3. Once at the range my son asked me to hit a ball as hard as I could. I think I had a 6-iron or so in my hand. So I did, and it went a long way. Then, I said, “Watch this.” I put my normal swing on the ball, which doesn’t have any “hit” in, and the ball went five yards less. How much can you slow down your swing with a particular club and still get the same distance out of it? Try it.

Actually, I didn’t really hit the first ball as hard as I could. I did that another time while playing in a 4-club tournament. I was 170 yards from the green. I had a 7-iron, my 140-yard club, and a 19* hybrid, my 200-yard club, in the bag. I didn’t want to ease up on the hybrid, because you can really hit a terrible shot that way. So I had to clobber the 7. I stood beside the ball for about a minute, psyching myself to swing as hard as I could, yet still control the strike. I swung, connected, and the ball took off and landed on the green. I put the 7-iron back in the bag and promised myself I would never, ever do that again.

What to Work on During the Winter

If you live in a place where you can’t play during the winter, like I do, spend your time these next few months working on these things that will make a world of difference in your shot-making.

Grip: Whatever your grip is like, practice to make it be the same every time you pick up a club. Little changes in how you place your hands on the club make a big difference in how the clubhead meets the ball.

Ball position: For balls hit off the round, and hit off a tee, find the position that lets you hit your best shots. That position might be farther back in your stance than you think it should be.

Rhythm: The ratio of the backswing to the downswing is 3:1. Practice to make this your habit. This is the same as learning to be patient when you swing. What gets rhythm out of whack is rushing.

Impact: Your hands must get back to the ball before the clubhead does. See my video lesson for a drill that shows you what that means and shows you how to teach yourself to do it.

Putting: Yes, putting is shot-making. Practice at home to find a stroke that brings the clubhead into the ball square to the starting line and makes contact off the sweet spot of the putter’s face — every time. It will take daily practice and a lot of experimentation to figure this out. By the time you finish, you will likely have a very different stroke than you had before.

You can practice all of these things at home, except the second one, which you should be able to figure out after one trip to the driving range. Then practice at home by taking an address with the ball in that exact spot.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas.