We all want to get better at golf and we know the importance great golf practice plays in our development, but few golfers know the best way to go about this process.
In this article we’ll cover some modern ways to think about golf practice, three types of golf practice you should use, and some extra golden nuggets to accelerate your learning.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is golf practice?
- 2 Does practicing golf make you better?
- 3 How do you start practicing golf?
- 4 How to progress your golf practice?
- 5 Practicing Golf – What should you focus on?
- 6 How to practice golf
- 7 Three types of golf practice
- 8 Practicing golf – putting it all together
- 9 Summary
What is golf practice?
Many players assume golf practice is just about beating balls on the range. However, golf practice includes everything you do at home, on the range, putting green and every time you play, even in competitions! Golf practice is any activity that should contribute to your golfing development.
I often tell golfers playing on professional tours that each event is the best possible practice they can take part in if they wish to be the best in the world. Practice doesn’t get any more realistic than that!
Does practicing golf make you better?
Similar to getting stronger at the gym, doing the right things in practice will make you a better golfer. However, few golfers understand what great golf practice looks like. In this article, I hope to lay out the foundations to help you keep developing as a golfer, with simple analogies and practical advice.
When you first take up golf almost anything will help you improve. However, similar to a gym program if you continually lift the same weights, over time, your progression will slow then stop – this is what many golfers experience. Few golfers know how to update and progress their practice to keep getting better. Let’s dive into this process below, with how to start and how to progress your practice.
How do you start practicing golf?
- Head to the range and practice the basic shots: Driving, fairway woods, mid-irons and wedges. Aim to hit 10 shots in a row of each.
- Find a putting and chipping green and practice 3-foot putts, longer putts and a basic chip shot. Again, aim to hit 10 shots in a row of each.
- For each skill select a target zone (or the hole) and keep a score of #of good shots that hit your target.
- Focus on making a good strike and consistent outcomes.
- Have a practice swing before each attempt.
- Try to alternate sessions between the range and playing on the course – you need both for great practice!
This is very a basic list, but I can’t explain how important these factors are for new golfers. Check out this article if you want some more simple golf practice routines for beginners.
How to progress your golf practice?
Just like a gym program, practice needs to progress to keep it challenging and create the neural and physiological adaptations within the body to make you a more skilful golfer. There are three attributes golfers need to develop:
You can think of these areas as similar to tweaking a gym routine. How you train at the gym will look different if you decide to work on endurance compared to muscular strength.
It goes without saying that golfers need to be accurate. If you want to train to become more precise then make your target size smaller in practice.
Once you can hit a 40-yard fairway on the range 8/10 times make the fairway 30-yards, or 20-yards wide. Again, once you reach 8/10 move to a smaller target. Start by hitting chips into a 6-foot circle, then scale it down to 3-feet once you can achieve 7/10..you get the idea.
This is a critical aspect in continuing your development as a golfer. If you do nothing else, follow this step with your practice over time.
As a golfer you also need to be able to hit the same shot over and over again. Less variability in shot outcome generally results in lower scores.
This progression is similar to above, but if you want to become more consistent you’d tweak your practice so that you are aiming for 9/10 successful shots rather than 6/10. Or aiming to hole 20 putts in a row from 3-feet, rather than just 10 putts.
Keep your target size the same, but up the percentage of successful shots needed. Practicing in this way challenges your body to be more consistent with its shot outcome.
In motor learning the two sections above come under an area of research is called practice difficulty, it becomes more important to understand this concept in detail as you progress as a golfer. The link above dives deeper into the topic.
Below is a graph to help you think about your own practice. Practice difficulty runs up the y-axis – see how this is affected as we tweak target size and number of successful reps needed.
Just to throw a curveball into the mix, you also need to consider that your swing needs to be adaptable. Different lies, wind and fatigue within your body – all require subtle adaptations to get the ball to your target.
It is for this reason that drilling the same swing over and over again on the range will not transfer onto the golf course.
On the range you can add in more practice variability, hitting different shot shapes or using different clubs. But the best type of practice to train adaptability is to just go play golf on the course as much as possible.
For some extra tips on golf practice on the range vs practice on the course have a read of this article.
Summarising key practice concepts
We’ve covered a lot of ground already. So to summarise: practice will make you better, as long as you continually tweak and progress the difficulty. Secondly, it is handy to think of three attributes you need as a golfer – precision, consistency, adaptability.
Practicing Golf – What should you focus on?
Not all shots are created equal in golf. Strokes gained data has done a great job of highlighting the importance of driving and proximity to the hole in mid/long iron-play on tour. However, every player has their own individual performance profile, based on their golf game and the courses they play.
In this section, we’ll do two things, give you a simple but generic 75% good answer, then give you a process to find more detailed points within your own golf game.
A simple guide of what to practice
Here is a sound starting point. If you have 2 hours a week to improve your golf off the course and are playing once a week.
- Driving 20 balls (to target fairway)
- Fairway wood/hybrid 10 balls (to target fairway)
- 5 iron 10 balls (to target green)
- 8 iron 10 balls (to target green)
- PW iron 10 balls (to target green)
- 50 yard pitch shot 10 balls (to 6ft target)
- 30 yard pitch shot 10 balls (to 6ft target)
- 15 yard bunker shot 10 balls (to 6ft target)
- 10 yard chip shot 10 balls (to 3ft target)
- 3 foot putt 20 balls (how many can you hole)
- 6 foot putt 20 balls (how many can you hole)
- 9 foot putt 20 balls (how many can you hole)
- 20 foot putt 20 balls (how many can you hole)
More detail on what to practice
This could become an article in itself. However, I’ll try to stick to the key points.
Take a look at the list above – there are core skills you will need often when playing. Driving, mid-irons, wedges, putts inside 10-feet. Make sure you keep your core skills in good order, this will help improve your general pattern of play.
If you’re going to spend 2 hours practicing a week, please spend 5-6 minutes keeping basic playing stats. These 5 minutes are vital in informing what and how you should spend your time in practice.
You can use basic fairways and greens hit, or more detailed strokes gained data, but have some basic metrics to help you hit your goals. For example, if you want to break 80 you need to hit 9/18 greens and 2-putt them, then get up and down 3/9 and avoid more than 1 double. There are many other variations that will work, but pick one to aim for.
No plan will be perfect but play around with what will help you hit your goals. Look at the areas where you are hitting your targets and what areas you are not – that will help guide what to practice.
Strokes gained and classic golf stats tell you what to practice, the scatter plot of your misses tell you how to practice. The image below shows I didn’t hit enough greens, but importantly it tells me left and short of the green where the direction of my misses. The same concept can be applied to driving, short game and putting.
Once you have this directional information, you can improve these areas in practice and/or seek some coaching to help improve your accuracy.
Improve strengths & weaknesses
When you are trying to get better at golf it is easy to look at all the areas you feel aren’t good enough. However, the reason you’ve got to where you are is that you’ve also developed great strengths.
Working on your strengths is key in developing self-efficacy and these skills after often the ones that hold your game together. Ensure you have a simple plan to practice and improve your strengths as well as your weaknesses.
Hopefully, this section helps with what to practice. For more on this topic you can check out how to get better at golf. However, let’s move on to three types of practice you can use in each area.
How to practice golf
There is one final building block for you to consider when practising golf. This need arises because of the technical nature of the game – different types of golf practice.
We, as humans, are very bad at performing movements when we think about them. Consider how you walk, run or make a cup of coffee with little thought. However, the golf swing requires certain mechanical properties, which, at times need, to be worked on and consciously observed.
The best approach I’ve come up with is to divide your practice time between thinking technically (technical practice) and focusing on getting the ball to your target (skill development). Finally, we need to practice performing under some form of pressure (pressure practice). The following section will detail what each type of golf practice looks like.
Three types of golf practice
Use the links below if you wish to jump to a particular section.
I must note – all three types of practice will look very similar to someone watching you practice golf. What really changes is your intent and thought process for every shot you hit.
There is no such thing as a perfect golf swing, but getting closer to textbook, or your ideal positions can help you return the clubhead to the ball accurately and more consistently.
The aim of technical practice
The aim of technical practice is to change your movement pattern, not to hit 30 perfect golf shots in a row.
Long term we hope your swing changes will make you a better player, but short term your body has to work out how on earth to hit the golf ball with this new action.
Here comes the conflict – you make a great swing technically, but as a result hit a poor shot. The body decides the movement isn’t worth engraining. The following steps outline the best way to practice your technique to overcome this conflict.
Stages of great technical practice
- Make repetitions of your new swing in a mirror or window. Gain feedback on if you can execute the movements correctly. Begin with part practice, and slowly progress to whole practice. Slow-mo golf practice swings are really tough to do but very useful.
- Practice hitting shots in a net. This allows you to practice your new movement whilst having to make contact with the golf ball. However, we’ve removed the ball flight meaning your body cares less about where the ball ends up and allows you to keep engrain your swing change. It can be handy to vary the speed and length of swings you use during this type of practice.
- Block practice on the range. Hit 20 shots with a 7-iron to the 150 yard marker. Follow this with 20 pitching wedges to the 100 yard marker…you get the idea. This stable practice environment allows your body to learn to hit more accurate golf shots with your new swing changes.
- Varied practice on the range. This next step adds more variability and decision making to your golf practice. It involves mixing up your shot selection and clubs you use. You may choose five 7-irons, followed by five Drivers… Or you may keep the same club and hit different shots – low, draw/fade etc. During this type of golf practice you will make more errors, but it will help make your new movement pattern more robust and transfer on to the golf course. You can read more about the contextual interference effect and transfer of learning here.
- Practice on the course – Your aim here is to still focus on making correct movements, but you now have the most realistic of all practice environments – the golf course. What you lose on the golf course is the number of reps, so where possible, try to hit an extra few shots to refine your swing changes in play.
The five steps above make this process sound very straightforward, in reality, you’ll find you jump around a little more. During the first few weeks of making a swing change try to spend most of your time in stages 1, 2 and 3. After a few weeks spend most of your time in stages 3, 4 and 5.
The practice structure above is the best way I’ve found (to date) to embed swing changes and help transfer them onto the golf course.
The reality is that the golf ball doesn’t care about your clubface position at the top of your golf swing. Your body doesn’t care about what is deemed correct according to the PGA coaching manuals.
Golf is a game of skill and your body is great at solving problems. Skill development golf practice focuses on solving the problem of getting the ball from A to B – how doesn’t matter, as long as it works and repeats.
Developing your technique is important, but to become great at golf you need a blend of technical practice and skill development practice. Once you have your technique look pretty much there the rest of your golfing ability will come from your body self-organising how it moves.
The aim of skill development practice
Solve the problem of hitting accurate golf shots over and over again.
During technical practice, your aim is to change your movement pattern. In skill development practice you need to shift your focus to the target and shot outcome. Let your body self-organise the movements, learn feelings that work and just stay focused on hitting great golf shots.
This is a subtle change in approach, however, it is so important. Stop interfering with your body learning to play golf.
What does skill development practice look like?
Fun games – I’ve spent the past eight years building many of these games. Some focus on putting conversion rates, others focus on driving accuracy and proximity to the hole with iron shots. All these skills will help you become a better golfer.
A key reason I see so many golfers plateau whether it be at 21 or a +1 handicap is that they don’t practice in this way. They forget what the game of golf is actually about – they stop developing their golfing skill and think their problem is purely about technique and swing positions.
Great skills games have:
- A clear performance goal (optimise chipping accuracy, refine iron distance control, reduce wayward drives).
- Have a scoring system that rewards you for great shots.
- Have a set amount of shots or time to complete the task.
- Allow you to repeat week after week to track your progress.
You can even tailor the skills games to punish you for your personal poor shots. Check out the example game below. This is a simple game you can play on your golf range if you suffer from a slice or push.
Playing these skills games also improve your ‘technique’. Not at a visible level, but as you practice in this way your body will make subtle adaptations to your swing. It learns how to adapt your basic movement to hit different shots, it also will learn to make online corrections when things go wrong.
The result is more great shots and better misses.
Playing these games over and over allows these subtle adaptations to be learned with no need for conscious thought. We don’t need to interfere with our body’s brilliant ability to do this. Instead, we need to remove interference and just focus on our aim – getting the ball to our target.
Last in our trio of practices we have pressure practice. Playing great golf counts for very little if we can’t perform when need to. Everyone wants the ability to play great under pressure, yet how much time do you dedicate to practicing golf under pressure?
The aim of pressure practice
There is so much I want to cover in this section, but I’ll do my best to keep it short and sweet. To dive deeper into this topic check out this golf psychology article.
The aim is to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Pressure practice should lead to difficult decisions, negative thoughts and failure. This is a good thing, as it allows you to develop and hone skills for coping with such situations that arise when competing.
The same skills games, a different focus
Pressure practice uses the same type of skills games described above. The game could involve holing 10 putts in a row from 5-feet, hitting 3 chips in a row inside 3-feet or hitting 3 drives in a row between two targets on your golf range.
All that changes is the constraints of the task and your intent.
In pressure practice, you cannot leave until you have completed the task. Every time you fail you start again… I will note it does help you have a pre-agreed cut-off. I normally use 20 to 30 minutes with the more elite players I work with.
The point isn’t necessarily to complete the task. It is to understand what happens when you miss. You’ll find that as you get to the last 1-2 shots the doubts begin, you will fail and will have to start again. When this happens you can learn how to become a brilliant pressure player. Make a note of:
- Where do you miss? (short, long, left, right)
- What happens technically?
- Did your thought process or routine deviate?
- Were you too blasé, or too intense in your thinking?
- How could you have dealt with it better?
Your aim is to collect this data and develop personalised strategies that help you in these situations. For example, when I missed a putt under pressure I tend to experience a slight doubt about pace, I make a tentative stroke and often push the putt.
I’ve learned this over many, many hours of playing these games. Under pressure, I now know to commit to my line, I know to make a positive stroke and I know that if I’m feeling anxious I’m best aiming 1/4″ further left, just in case I make a poor stroke.
The section above highlights the hidden difference between a good putter and a great putter under pressure.
You too can build these fail-safes into your own game, by putting yourself in the situation over and over again and learning what happens.
There are two final pieces of information I can give you to help your pressure golf practice, and play well under pressure.
- Having negative thoughts is fine and normal. It is how quickly you can get back to focusing on your process that counts.
- Research with elite golfers has shown that the same coping strategy, for the same player, in the same situation is not always successful a second time. Meaning you’ll need to develop a range of tools to help you perform well under pressure – there isn’t one magic bullet.
How much should I use each type of practice?
If only I could give you one simple answer here! Let’s walk through some scenarios.
The winter is a great time to make technical changes, at this point you may be best with a 70% technical, 30% skill dev. & 0% pressure practice mix.
As the season is approaching a 70% skill dev, 20% technical & 10% pressure practice will work well to maximise your ability to score.
When you are playing lots of competitive events most of your skill development will come from these events, so it is fine to spend the 1-2 spare hours you have on drills and technical practice on the range.
These are general guidelines, hopefully, they give you a good start point.
Practicing golf – putting it all together
Every three months it is a good idea to sit down and look at how you play golf. What are your goals and what are your stats looking like. Pick 2-3 areas to focus on in practice and ensure you are still practising those key shots every golfer needs.
For each area, consider do you just need skills games, or could you benefit from some technical tweaks too? I’m biased, but I’d suggest finding a great local pro to help you make any technical changes. Pick 1-2 skills games for each area and, if needed, set aside time to work on your technique.
Finally, put this together in one or two pages (see below). Include i) Your areas of focus, KPIs in practice and play and ii) a weekly practice plan with 3-10 activities to complete. You don’t have to complete every activity each week, but regularly getting through 70% of them will really help you progress towards your golfing goals.
We’ve covered a lot. My aim is to have one epic practice resource for you to bookmark and come back to whenever you get lost. I hope it is of use – it is all the useful info I can provide currently. Feel free to leave any comments or questions you have below.
If you want even more on detailed practice planning check out this article about planning an annual training program. You can also check out the Golf Insider Performance Diary if you want a way to track your practice each week.
Finally, come sign up for the Golf Insider weekly post if you would like articles like this one sent to your inbox.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK
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