I’ve discovered over the years that golfers generally fall into two categories: those who would prefer to practice and those who would rather play. There’s nothing wrong with either, and both can be equally rewarding.
Which are you, and, more importantly, which way makes you a better golfer?
Interestingly, practice is a relatively recent phenomenon as witnessed by the fact that most of the old, established clubs in Europe and many of the great old American courses have either no practice range or a very limited one. Ben Hogan might have been the first great practicer as defined by an obsession with mechanics and repetition. Modern-day practices include Vijay Singh and Sean O’Hair, who crave a perfect swing and working on small details. Rickie Fowler is the antithesis of a practicer, playing by feel and instinct.
Some golfers get worse the more they practice, and others get worse the more they play. I’ll show practicers how to improve by creating playing situations on the range, and players how to benefit by practicing on the course.
1. MISS GREENS ON PURPOSE
A consistent short game is the best stroke-saver in golf, but it usually requires a lot of practice. Because you don’t find chipping or pitching a bunch of balls every day very appealing when you play alone try intentionally missing every green with your approach shots ( above ). Miss some short or long; some into a tight lie or into heavy greenside rough; some into bunkers; and others on various slopes. Each lie will present a different challenge to saving par.
By focusing on the proper technique necessary to execute the shot, you’ll practice your short game during the round and become more consistent in these important scoring situations.
2. PUTT OUT ALL THREE BALLS
How many times have you rolled a putt well past the hole, then nonchalantly swiped at the comebacker only to pick up the missed attempt and head to the next tee? That was a missed opportunity to practice lag putting and/or those must-make putts that could decide a match. When you play by yourself, don’t take gimmes. Instead, putt out each miss, no matter how long or short. If you have a little time, putt balls from five feet, three feet, two feet ( left ). Practice the fundamentals, like your pre-putt routine, proper alignment and keeping your head still through the stroke. You’ll be more confident over the short ones when the pressure is on.
3. PLAY A TWO-MAN SCRAMBLE
Sometimes during a round you’ll make a bad swing, then drop another ball and take another shot at it. The “second guy” usually makes a better swing and always makes the do-over putt. By playing a two-ball scramble you can get that “second guy” on your team.
You play it just like an ordinary scramble except it’s you hitting two shots from the tee ( left ) to the hole and selecting the better result. If you really want to test your shotmaking, choose the worse ball. What you lose in a higher score you’ll gain in facing adversity. And you’ll discover the reason the second guy never misses is because he’s much more relaxed, placing less importance on the outcome than the execution.
BONUS TIP: ENTER A PERSONAL TOURNEY
Creativity is essential to turning an ordinary round into an extraordinary practice session. In this case, we’re talking about a 54-hole session. That’s because you’ll be competing in a three-round tournament that only you know about. Imagine that you’re the favorite (although I prefer the underdog), perhaps even the defending club champion. That should sharpen your focus on every shot. To make it really interesting and intense, set up a scenario where you’re a couple of shots down with a few holes left. Then test your ability to execute under pressure. Understanding how your body and mind react under tournament conditions is effective practice.
MAKE ME BETTER FOR THE PLAYER
Golf Digest’s online game-improvement program, Make Me Better, is ready to help you for the seventh straight year. You can keep your stats and track your game using our program scorecard. Just like the tour pros, you can decide what to focus on by analyzing your numbers. Our stats partner, shotbyshot.com, will give you a long- and short-game handicap. By splitting your game in half, you’ll quickly see where you’re losing shots on the course and discover your best opportunities to improve. Then select from our library specific articles by your favorite tour players that apply to your game. Check it all out at golfdigest.com/makemebetter.
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IF YOU ARE A PRACTICER YOU SHOULD . . .
1. REHEARSE YOUR PRE-SHOT ROUTINE
Some practicers forget one of the most important elements of playing the game: the pre-shot routine. A productive practice session includes a short list of things to work on and an organized approach to working on them. The idea is to become more consistent through repetition of correct movements.
A pre-shot routine helps you organize your swing thoughts and visualize the ball flying toward the intended target. It also enhances your focus, which keeps you from mindlessly hitting balls, getting bored and practicing ineffectively. Try rehearsing your pre-shot routine on each shot as you practice ( above ). Before long, it will become an instinctive part of your overall game.
2. GROOVE YOUR ‘OUT’ SHOT
Every golfer should have an “out” or “go-to” shot they can depend on even under the most intense pressure. For some it might be a little, tight draw; for others it might be a knockdown with an iron just to get the ball in play.
I recommend one of the safest shots in golfthe gripped-down fade. Here’s how you play it: Grip down about an inch on your driver or fairway wood ( left ). Open your stance to the target (aiming slightly left), and swing down your stance line. That should produce a five- to 10-yard fade every time. It will become one of the most reliable shots in your bag.
3. CHANGE CLUBS FREQUENTLY
The most effective practicers create game conditions. The best way to do that is by changing clubs frequently during a practice session, hitting to different targets. You might even simulate playing an actual hole, maybe a tough par 5.
Hit your drive to a target in the distance, then your advancement shot to another target, then your approach to an imaginary green.
Hit every club in your bag during the session to get a feel for the exact distance you carry each one. Vary the trajectory of your shots, flying some to the target and bouncing others into the landing area. Now you’re practicing with a purpose and increasing your chances of reproducing those shots on the course.
BONUS TIP: PRACTICE YOUR BALANCE
Trying to hit the driver as far as you can is fun for a lot of players. That’s what gives them satisfaction on the range. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the idea, however, is to improve your driving, then flailing away won’t achieve your goal.
I recommend working on your balance while you’re practicing the full swing, especially with the driver. The most effective way to work on balance is the hit-and-hold drill. Take a real lash at the ball if you want, then hold your finish for two seconds. Working on your balance will pay off in more consistent ball-striking. One in-balance swing is worth two long drives.
MAKE ME BETTER FOR THE PRACTICER
Golf Digest’s online game-improvement program, Make Me Better, is ready to help you again this year. Track your game using our program scorecard, and pinpoint where you need to practice with the help of our stats partner, shotbyshot.com. You can browse through a vast archive of Golf Digest instruction and select the tips and lessons that suit you best. Or pick your favorite Golf Digest teacher, from Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter and Jim McLean to Hank Haney, Chuck Cook and Jim Flick. Also, get a free lesson by sending in a video of your swing. A top instructor will analyze it and quickly give you feedback.