How to practice smart.

We all realize that repetition of a skill will improve performance.  So practice is an essential ingredient in maintaining and improving your golf game.  In my many years in golf, I have rarely come across an individual that practices correctly.  The old mantra of hitting 500 balls a day is the key to a solid swing and better golf game.   This adage has been around for years, but it isn’t the key.  Once you have a solid foundation, then 60 balls a day done with purpose and forethought will produce better results.

When on the driving range, there are three types of hitting balls.  The first is the warm-up; second is fundamental and/or change practice; and the third is meaningful practice.

Ben Hogan, who many say was the best ball striker ever, claimed his swing secret was “found in the dirt.”  Meaning, he worked it out on the practice range.  Most believed that he practiced tirelessly and hit thousands of balls.  Right and wrong.  Yes, he loved to practice and spent a larger percentage of his time on the practice range then his contemporaries, but he didn’t hit thousands of balls.  His practice was specific and designed to produce golf shots that he would use on the golf course.  Once he was properly warmed up all shots after that had a purpose and intention.  Hogan liked to practice alone with no distractions.  He would have his shag bag of new balls and position a caddy in the field.  After every shot he would replace his club in the bag and start his routine anew.  A typical practice range shot would go something like this.  Standing behind the ball, he would determine what type of shot he wanted to hit (medium height with a slight draw), how far he wanted it to go and specific target (position his caddy and determine the club and degree of swing force from 50% to near 100%) and then visualize and internalize the feeling for that shot.  Hogan was meticulous with his grip.  Standing behind the ball, he would lift the club in his right hand perpendicular to the ground and perfectly place his left hand on the club then he would place his right hand in the correct position.  He did not change his hand position once he gripped the club in the position.  He then proceeded to address the ball and after a waggle or two, he hit the shot.  He finished in balance and watched the ball land from that position.  From this finish position he would gain all the feedback necessary to evaluate the results.  He then would place the club back in the bag and review the last shot.  Then he would be ready for the next shot.  His average time to go through the whole process would be 45 to 60 seconds.  So in an hour of practice, he would hit between 60 and 75 quality shots.

How should you practice?

Schedule a time when you can devote a specific amount of undisturbed time for concentrated practice.  Practicing small amounts each day is better the one large practice session.  Plan your Fundamental/Change practice and Meaningful practice on days that you are not going to play golf.  Hitting balls after golf is also an excellent time for improvement.

Warm up.   Warming up is just that and nothing more.  Swing the club to loosen up and find your rhythm and balance.  This is what you should do before playing a round of golf.  Then pick targets and hit different clubs and get your body and mind ready for your round of golf.  This is not the time to work on swing changes.

Fundamental/Change Practice.  All golfers need to make sure that they are performing their proper swing fundamentals.  Their swing is their “tool” that they use to play golf.  It is similar to a mechanic checking to make sure the engine is working properly.  Once all is in order, then the player can progress to Meaningful practice.  Fundamental practice tends to be technical in nature and should not be confused with how you execute your on-course swing.  At times you need to make a change in your swing that requires repetitions to learn the new sensation and feeling.  Change practice is a left-brain oriented endeavor.  Once a degree of proficiency is acquired, switch to the “trusting” mode (a right brain activity) and see the results.  Only work as long on the technical as is necessary.  If you can execute the changed swing in the trusting mode a majority of time, then you are ready do some meaningful practice.

Meaningful Practice.  This type of practice will make you a better player.  Jack Nicklaus stated, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.”  That’s a powerful statement!  To have a Meaningful practice session, first warm-up and get your body and mind ready to make fully committed swings.  Then hit some balls checking your fundamentals.  If you have an hour planned for your practice session, this portion should take no more than 10 minutes.

Now the real learning begins and discipline is important.  You don’t have to do the Ben Hogan regimented “one ball a minute” routine, but I do want you to establish a routine that mirrors your pre-shot routine on the golf course.  Start every shot with standing behind the ball, picking a target, determining the ball flight, picking a shot shape (straight, draw, or fade), visualizing and internalizing the sensations that are associated with executing this shot.  Then proceed into the hitting zone and get set, focus in on the target and hit the ball.  Hold your finish and review the results.  If the result was good, anchor that feeling.  If bad, replay it in your mind with a correct outcome.

Try not to hit more than two of the same shots in a row.  Change your aim on every shot and hit no more than six shots with one club in a row.  Jump around with club selection, shot shape and distances.  Hit varying percentages of power.  Learn to hit your clubs different distances.  Visualize shots on the course that require you to hit draws or fades and certain length shots.  Keep it interesting.  One exercise is to play the golf course on the range.  First hole; driver, 3 wood, wedge.  Second hole; 3 wood, eight iron, etc.  Take periodic breaks and reward yourself with a drink or snack as you take time to review your progress. 

The discipline that you show in your practice will soon become evident on the golf course.  Bobby Knight said that, “Everybody has a will to win.  What we need to talk about is the will to practice to win.”  Practice smart, you will enjoy your time on the range more and your golf game will be more enjoyable also.