Category Archives: practice

Practice Scoring, Not “Golf”

Once you have developed reasonable skills, your practice should be built around lowering your score.   By that I mean practice particular shots that will help you get the ball around the course efficiently and into the hole quickly.

You might think that the point of practice is to build skills that accomplish those two things.  But I mean the opposite.  Practice accomplishing those things then take what you practiced onto the course and use it.

I came up with this thought a few days ago when my approach into a green came up about 4 feet short and I had about a 35-foot chip. The ball was resting slightly on upslope.  The more I looked at the shot the more I liked it because I realized I practice that shot all the time.  There is no mystery in it.  All I have to do is hit the ball.  So I did and it ended up 15 inches from the hole, like I knew it would.

Another shot like this is 63-yard pitch.  There’s a flag that distance from the mats at my range, so I warm up by hitting balls at it.  Over the years I have become very good at hitting a golf ball 63 yards.

I know that if I have a pitch on the course between 60 and 65 yards the ball will end up one-putt close, not because I have a great pitching game, but because I hit this particular pitch all the time and it has become second nature to hit a ball 63 yards.

Golf has almost an infinite variety of shots that can be hit.  You can’t practice them all.  I’m suggesting that you pick a few and practice them to the extent that you know every time you step up to hit one of them something good is going to happen.

Here’s a sample list:
– 3-wood off the tee—to be used all the time or when your driver is being a bad boy.
– Advancement shot from the fairway, say of 175 yards.
– Shot into the green from 145 yards.  Once you get past the 150-yard marker, you should be thinking, “Down in three.”
– A pitch from a given distance.  Like I said above, I have 63 yards pretty well figured out.  But what if it’s 80 yards?  I’ll just take two clubs more and put the same stroke on the ball. Et voilà. Roughly 80 yards.
– A chip to a certain distance.  Same comments as for the pitch.
– A 30-foot putt.  Same comments again.
– A 3-foot putt.  Gotta sink those every time.

You can make up your own list.  The point is to get very, very good at the shots on your list.  If you have them down can’t-miss cold they will be all you need to play well.  You will never have a bad day.

Again.  There isn’t enough time to practice being good at everything.  If you try, you end up being good at nothing.  Practice shots you know you’re going to use.  When you play, put yourself in a position to hit those shots as often as you can.  That’s how to shoot low scores.

Good Golf, No Pressure

Golf is hard. Golf under pressure is harder. Instructors, even highly paid golf psychologists, tell us we have to put pressure on ourselves during practice to learn how to play with pressure.

Here’s an example you come across all the time. When you’re on the practice green, make 10 three-foot putts in a row. Miss, and you start over. Feel the pressure build after you have made 9 in a row because you can’t stop the drill until you make that 10th putt.

Except there are two problems with this drill. One is that after you make a three-foot putt on the course, your next shot is likely to be with your drive from the next tee.

The second problem is that this drill doesn’t teach you how to play under pressure. It teaches you how to create pressure by letting your past or your future define your present. That’s no way to live, and that’s no way to play good golf.

How about instead we learn how to control our mind so that pressure, which is entirely of own creation, never gets created? How about we spend as much time developing our mind as we do developing our golf skills?

How would you do that? Simple. Hit practice shots just like you would on the course. Hit this shot, then move on.

Learn to play each stroke isolated from ones that came before, and leave the ones to come for when you get to them.

Say you’re on the practice green. Drop a ball 30 feet from the hole and hit an approach putt. Go up putt out, then do something else.

Drop a ball four yards off the green and get the ball in the hole. Then do something else.

Do this over and over—in realistic shot sequences, and when a sequence is over, go through a different one.

If you’re on the practice tee, hit a club once, put it away, and hit a different club, preferably at some remove, like fairway wood, 9-iron, 5-iron, and so on.

When you practice like this, on the tee or on the green, each shot or each swing being different from the one before, and only giving yourself one chance to get it right, that’s golf you’re practicing.

All the while you will be developing the mental skill of playing the shot at hand, without worrying about how it will come out or whether you can hit it at all.

Now I’m not saying you should practice like this all the time. There’s nothing wrong with hitting 10 three-foot putts in a row to learn how to hit three-foot putts.

That comes under the heading of skill-building, and you have to do a lot of that to get good. But keep it at hitting one putt ten times.

Golf is not the sum of your skills. It’s the application of those skills. If you can learn how to play with a steady mind, I would say you can play four strokes better than your skills would otherwise suggest, because that steady mind lets your best performance emerge.

The Full Bag Drill

I’ve been doing this drill lately to build an identical swing with each club.  It pays off throughout the bag, but especially when you get to the driver.  It also takes a lot of discipline.

You’re going to go through your bag, from the most-lofted club to the least lofted (probably your driver), and hit a good shot with each club, using the same swing with each club.  You only get to hit one shot with each club.  Thirteen swings.  No do-overs.

By the same swing I mean the same movement, same rhythm, same tempo.  THE SAME.  This is the whole point of the drill.

The only thing that will change is your posture as the club shafts get longer.

This is a very difficult drill.  First of all, you want to hit 13 good shots and you only get one chance with each club. Hitting 13 good shots in a row isn’t easy.

Second, as the clubs get longer, the temptation to swing harder or to get the clubhead on the ball in a different way is great.  But you can’t do that.  Each swing has to be the same.

The reason you want to have the same swing for every club is that one swing is easier to learn, easier to rely on, and makes golf easier to play, than two or three swings do.

You will also learn to trust the design of the longer clubs to get the distance you want from them.  As clubs get longer, they have a lengthier shaft and less loft.  That alone is enough to send the ball father and farther.  You don’t have to make extra effort.

Do this drill (one time) at the driving range.  Doing this drill in your pre-round warm-up might be a good idea, too.

Grass or Mats?

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.

An Insidious Habit at the Range

I would assume without too much chance of error that every golfer wants to improve. A perpetual 104 wants to become 98. Books have been written, not on how to turn 95 into 91, but 93 into 89, though there is not much difference between the two differences. At the other end, championship golfers are always looking for a little something that will make even more championships easier to win.

So to the range we go, trying this tip or that hunch in search of the perfect shot, or at least a shot that is closer to perfection than the shots we’re currently most proud of. And therein lies the mistake.

We improved to our present point incrementally, never in great leaps. So, we should not be looking for improvement in great leaps. Rather, the best use of our practice is learning how to hit good shots within our present capability, one after another.

We don’t need to hit perfect shots. Golf, thy name is consistency, and hitting the same good shot time after time is the way to play it. This is what we should be schooling ourselves to do at the range.

I should clarify what I mean by “a good shot.” I mean one in which you make clean ball-first, ground second contact and the ball goes straight to where you were aiming it. The distance it travels is not important.

Occasionally the perfect shot does pop out, and we stop, trying to figure out how that happened so we can do that again. So now, instead of enjoying that perfect shot and getting back to business, we begin chasing it.

You might have a good idea of how you hit your string of good shots that preceded this one but you really have no idea about how the great one happened. Trying to figure it out is taking a detour down a dead-end road.

As you keep hitting the string of good shots that you are capable of and understand how to hit them, really good ones will pop out. Let them. Just keep doing what you’re doing. In making the gradual transition from one level of play to another, the really good ones will pop out more often. But you cannot force them or chase them. Let them emerge in their own time.

The best way to practice hitting one good shot after another is to hit them all with the same club, an easy club that you can control, such as your 9-iron. Use a different club if you like, but not if you hit only mostly good shots with it. You’re aiming for ALL good shots. Besides, if you can’t hit a 9-iron consistently well, why would you want to hit an 8-iron at all (or a driver, it should go without saying)?

Hint: The less hard you try to hit a good shot, the easier it to hit one.

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.

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.

Winter golf practice, 2017-18

1. This winter, go to the range twice a week. Get a small bucket. Hit half the balls with a full swing, and use the other half for pitches from 50-100 yards. It’s likely that the balls will be cold and not go as far as you expect. All that (~30 shots) should take about 15 minutes. Spend 45 minutes on the practice green hitting chips and approach putts. Practice short putts at home.

2. Get a lesson to find out how to put the ball in the fairway off the tee if this is a problem for you. If you normally hit less than ten of fourteen fairways, it’s a problem.