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  • Writer's picturePaul Tolley


In my experience, I have found that there are two types of Golfers; those that practice and those that don’t! In both cases it is a matter of personal choice however, what is frustrating for me as a Coach is to hear people who don’t practice moaning about their game or complaining about lack of improvement. It is no logical to expect improvement without some effort or practice. Imagine if you had never practiced walking or writing whilst you were growing up; how good would you be at those things now? Ah, but they are different I hear you saying. However, they are not, they are all “motor skills” which the brain and body learn to do with the same process – by failing!

I can completely understand why some Golfers don’t practice and why Golfers who do practice do not improve as they wish. Typically, it is for the following reasons;

· There is no guarantee of success or improvement

· There is a lack of time, commitment and patience

· They find it boring or uninteresting

· There is no desire, goal or purpose

I would say that without doubt one of the most common statements I hear from Golfers is “Why do I hit the ball so well on the driving range and play so poorly on the course?”

In order to answer this question, we need to look at how we practice now and why this type of practice is not effective and how we should practice in order to get the best return (on the golf course) for the time and effort that we put in. If we understand the difference then we will be more likely to practice because it will be enjoyable and will also lead to better results where it matters; on the course.

It is said that “Practice makes perfect.” However, it can also be a perfect waste of time if not approached in the proper manner. So practice time can actually do more harm than good if you spend your valuable practice time perfecting both mental and physical bad habits. If you practice the wrong things or practice in the wrong way then this will be your habit!

“Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.”

Typically and unfortunately, most Golfers perception of practice is to hit a certain amount of balls on the driving range in a certain amount of time. Most Golfers will have a specific amount of time they have available to practice and a certain number of balls in mind (one or two baskets). They have a “scrape and hit” approach to practice where they just keep raking balls in front of them and hitting away, with no purpose to the shot. Practice ends when either the balls run out, their hands hurt or it gets dark.

For most Golfers it is a question of quantity (either amount of time or amount of balls) as to how they judge whether there practice is successful or not. The result of this sort of practice is to develop and reinforce sloppy habits. If there is not a purpose to each shot, all you encourage is the development of a loose swing and an unfocused mind. This habit, which you have just created, will now appear on the golf course. This will be the moment when you become frustrated and tell yourself that all that time and effort spent on the range was a complete waste of time! No wonder you think twice about going to practice again!


So why is this type of practice potential harmful to us as Gofers? Part of the reason is because you have practiced hitting balls on the range. You haven’t practiced hitting balls under real playing conditions. There are shot situations and pressures on the course which you won’t find on the driving range – unless you intentional create them. Practice needs to be much more about quality and not quantity and it needs to be about playing golf. Golf is different from other sports; if you want to practice your tennis, you go to the tennis court; if you want to practice your football, you go to the football pitch. The same applies to sports like rugby, squash, badminton, track cycling, athletics, Formula 1 racing, etc. In those sports, practice takes place in the actual sports arena. The sportsmen and women in those sports are always playing they are not practicing. In Golf, we have a separate place to practice and it is a completely different environment to the Golf course. Therefore, you must change the essence of how you practice. The good news is that this is a matter of choice and under your control.

In a study for the World Scientific Congress of Golf (2002) entitled “Why Does Traditional Training Fail to Optimize Playing Performance? “By Robert W. Christina, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and Eric Alpenfels, Pinehurst Golf Institute, North Carolina; it was concluded that:

“Essentially, we argue that traditional training does not sufficiently encourage students to learn to perform golf skills within a playing context. Consequently, if students train only in traditional ways, it is unlikely that they will learn to perform all of the golf and cognitive skills, cognitive processing and knowledge applications that they will need to optimize their play on the course. If they train only in traditional ways, it is unlikely that they will learn to perform the golf skills that are practiced in ways that are similar to the ways that will be needed and under conditions that will be experienced when they play on the course. In fact, when only traditional training is used, students practice and learn to play shots on the range in ways that are largely different than the ways in which they must play shots on the course. If we are trying to enhance the transfer of those fundamental or advanced skills from the practice range to play on the golf course then transfer training is preferred, largely because it provides an opportunity to learn to perform these skills under simulated playing conditions.”


How can this be achieved? The first concept to understand is the necessity to avoid separating practice and play. They are both golf.

The purpose of practice is to play better golf on the golf course not to hit the ball perfectly on the range. To accomplish that goal, you need to focus all your attention toward playing the golf course. When you can’t be on the course, you have to make your practice as golf/play like as possible. In this way you will always be playing golf and there is no separation between the two elements. Practicing in this way creates both physical and mental habits that will appear on the golf course.

“Practice the game before the game and practice the game in ALL of its conditions.”

Research has proven that “what you practice you get good at”. If you practice hitting 20 balls with a 7 iron from a perfect lie, you get good at that. If you practice being unfocused, you get good at that. The point is, if you want to be good at golf, you need to spend at least half your practice time playing the game. Science tells us that this type of practice is far more effective and you will receive a greater return for your time and effort. So, having made the decision to spend your valuable time practicing your golf game, you want the time spent doing so to be effective. For this to happen you must learn the two essential practice skills which will give you the best return for the amount of time you practice. Don’t worry if you cannot commit several hours per week to practice, by learning these essential skills your practice will be more effective and deliver better results on the course more quickly. This is after all the purpose of practice. The two essential practice skills you must learn are:

· Simulated Golf

· Integrate new skills

The first practice essential is about making your practice as much like real golf as possible. I call this Simulated Golf. This means don’t just stand there and mindlessly hit balls. Is that how you play golf? On the golf course every shot is different; every shot has a new challenge and purpose. So, how can you create that situation on the practice area? Well, there are many things which you can do to simulate golf on the driving range and the short game area. Your practice session of whatever duration should include the following exercises for at least 50% of the time.

When practicing and simulating golf you must do the following;

Use your full routine for every shot – This way there will be no difference between practice and play. This must include having a visual image of the shot with its trajectory, bounce, roll and end result.

Change clubs for every shot – How many times on the course do you hit 20 seven iron shots in a row?

Change target for every shot – This will train your mind to recalibrate for each shot.

Change the lie of the ball every shot – Particularly for the short game, don’t give yourself perfect conditions, it doesn’t happen on the course.

Play the golf course on the driving range – Imagine the holes of the course and hit the relevant clubs for each shot (Drive, iron, pitch or chip and putt).

Putt with one ball to several holes instead of several balls to one hole – Practice your putting the way the game is played. Anyone can putt well when they Putt three balls to the same hole.

Chip one ball and then putt – This is the most realistic way to practice the short game. Anyone can chip well when they chip 5 balls to the same pin.

Every golfer is capable of performing these tasks however what they need is the discipline, determination, commitment and patience to practice them. If you succeed in this then your practice then becomes;

· Real: you are practicing as if you were playing golf.

· Wide: you are practicing all the elements of the game.

· Deep: you are focused and paying attention to your intention.

Remember; “What you practice you get good at” so be careful what and more importantly, how you practice.

This brings us to the second essential practice skill which is to know how to integrate different skills. This means you need to practice in such a way that you can integrate the improved skill into your game (i.e. take it to the course). The integration of skills into your game requires engagement, repetition and accurate feedback.

· Firstly, we must be fully engaged in the process.

· Secondly, the skill needs to be repeated enough times for it to become your dominant habit

· Thirdly, you must have some way to measure your improvement.

To make practice beneficial, you must be completely engaged in what you are doing.

I often see players practicing whilst listening to music or chatting with the person next to them and it is clear that they cannot be fully engaged in the activity. You must pay full attention to your intention to store positive practice memories and make the process of practice effective. Furthermore, you should only practice for as long as you can be present and engaged. If you attention starts to wander, take a break or stop. Don’t practice bad habits. If you can pay attention for only 5 minutes in practice, then take a break every 5 minutes.

If you can pay attention for only 20 balls, then don’t hit 50!

Productive practice is about how present you can stay with your intention and is measured in the quality of the experience and not in the quantity of time used or the number of golf balls hit.

For any new skill to be integrated into our game and become a habit, it must be repeated sufficiently for new memories to be created and stored in our brains. Despite what is generally thought there is no such thing as “muscle memory” as muscles are not capable of storing information and all the bodies actions are controlled by the brain. Think of it this way: You always use your right foot to start with going down stairs. Now you make a “swing change” and switch to starting with your left foot. You practice this for some time and then someone yells “Fire!” Which foot do you think you will use? Of course, you will use the one with which you are most familiar. That is the “swing” that will show up under pressure. During the repetition stage of integrating a new skill the values of commitment and patience are vitally important to the process of change. The most common mistake made by golfers is the obsession of trying to fix things whilst practicing. They hit one shot to the right and they try to fix it, the next shot goes to the left and they try to fix it and so on. The player changes something almost every swing and never focuses on one thing long enough to improve.

Below are some exercises to help you improve your ability to be engaged and to provide you with the necessary feedback you need to manage your improvement.

Look at a golf ball, tee or a blade of grass for 60 seconds. How well can you keep your attention? This will train you to have better concentration for each shot.

Next time you practice or play a round of golf, decide on one thing you want to pay attention to (i.e. balance, rhythm or tension). Afterwards, check if you did it.

Play as many imaginary holes as you can in 30 minutes on the practice area. Hit the clubs in the order you would hit them on the course. Take breaks between shots.

Make 4 chip and one putts in a row. Make each chip different.

Make 10 consecutive 3 foot putts from different positions. Do your full routine.

Chip from the same position with 4 different clubs. Repeat this until you get all four shots within 2 club lengths of the hole. When finished repeat the exercise to another hole.

Set up a 5 hole course around the chipping green with the par being 10. Play as many rounds as you can in 30 minutes.

These exercises will give you the essential elements of engagement, repetition and feedback which are required to integrate new skills into your game. Commitment to them will ensure that you are simulating golf when you practice and the skills will appear under pressure where they are needed namely, the golf course. Furthermore, your practice will become effective, challenging, competitive and enjoyable.

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