A common question golfers ask is – Should I practice on the golf range or the golf course? The swift answer is both, but there are two more interesting questions to answer that can really speed up your golfing development:
Q1: Why are these two environments different in developing your golfing skill?
Q2: How can you make your driving range practice more effective, and how can you make your on-course practice more effective?
Let me explain why the driving range and golf course are different from a motor learning perspective.
The science of learning
To develop golfing skill we need to practice in a deliberate way. Two key factors that underpin how much skill we gain from practice are:
- The volume of practice (how many golf shots we hit).
- Specificity (how close our practice is to our performance environment).
Think about the golf course and the driving range in terms of practice volume and specificity. Straight away we can see a glaring issue with both.
Golf practice on the range
Practicing on the golf range offers us many repetitions within a short period of time: 50 – 70 shots within an hour if we are effective in how we hit balls.
However, it is quite unlike the environment that we perform in – the golf course.
On the golf range there is little consequence for a bad shot and the structure is highly dis-similar. Unless you’re having a very bad day on the golf course I wouldn’t expect you to frequently hit 10 7-irons in a row… (insert sarcastic comment from Reddit/Golf).
The golf driving range gives you great practice volume, but low specificity. It also gives you a great opportunity to test, re-test and refine your swing solutions in a stable environment.
Golf practice on the course
Practicing on the golf course, is obviously, highly specific, but think about your practice volume. If you shoot 80, you’re unlikely to hit more than 40 long shots in a round. Besides your Driver, you are unlikely to hit the same club more than 2-3 times in a 4-hour period. 2-3 repetitions with a 9-iron isn’t going to make you much better with a 9-iron.
This practice is highly specific but doesn’t have enough volume to see your golf improve.
The real problem in golf practice
So here we have our problem. If you practice on the range, you get good at hitting balls on the range, but it doesn’t transfer to the golf course, because it isn’t specific. Practice on the golf course and you just don’t execute enough repetitions to improve.
Most golfers think – “I do both of the above, so I’m fine”. In fact, neither of these setups lead to practice that will optimally transfer into golfing performance. Take a look at the image below to consider what is going on.
Golfers’ standard practices are coloured in pink. You can see that these are equally ineffective and far away from optimal.
Hence why many players go to the golf range once a week, play once a week and struggle to improve.
The solution for golf practice
I have two key points that I would like to explicitly layout before I lie and tell you there is a perfect solution to this problem:
- The practices in pink are still useful. Use them, just don’t solely rely on them.
- I haven’t come across an optimal practice structure that would sit in the top-right corner. I don’t think one exists, but we can get closer than the two pink boxes.
I have a solution, that from my past seven-year experience of tinkering, appears to be the best way of developing golfing skill and performing on the golf course.
First, let me explain two new types of golf practice. These are both coloured in green above.
Solution 1: Skills games on the golf range
I’ve written a lot about these. Check out this article for some long game skills games and have a look at this article if you are a new golfer and want a quick driving range skills game.
In essence, skills games add a small amount of consequence and practice variability into your range session. You will lose a little practice volume compared to hitting ball after ball on the range, but you will gain a good chunk of practice specificity.
Solution 2: Golf course practice with multiple balls
I’m sorry if you’re at some big fancy golf course that won’t allow this. But for the rest of you, this will be wildly useful.
Pick a quiet time, head out for 9 holes and aim to hit a few extra shots from key areas (please don’t hold up the whole world behind you). Hitting extra 3 mid-iron shots on each hole x 9 holes leads to almost 30 reps in a really specific environment.
It would take you almost a month to accumulate that during 18-hole games played once a week.
How to optimise your golf practice
If you really want to get good at golf, your should aim to combine all four of these types of golf practice.
When you make a swing change, aim for the following order of practice. Begin with step one, then progress towards steps four as you make progress:
- Blocked practice on the range
- Skills games on the range
- Multiple balls on the course
- Competitive play on the course
I know it is very simple, but this little sequence is really effective for making the most out of the golf range and the golf course for practice.
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Golf practice: Driving range vs golf course – Summary
None of this is rocket science. I’m sure you’ve all taken part in the practices I’ve laid out above. In this article, I wanted to explain them in terms of practice volume and practice specificity.
These are the two underlying variables that truly affect your rate of learning.
So next time you’re considering the driving range or the golf course. Consider how much volume and specificity you need. Hopefully, this post has given you a few ways to make the range more like the golf course (adding specificity) and the course more like the range (adding volume).
If you would like a golfing article like this one sent to your inbox each Monday, come join the golf insider weekly post. Or to keep reading, check out this article on how to use a golf journal, this piece to dive deeper into practice difficulty and finally, this link to learn more about how to practice golf in three different ways.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider
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8 thoughts on “Golf practice – The range vs the course?”
Hi Will, first thanks for all the excellent advice – it is making a difference in my game. A quick note on my experience of mats – I don’t know if I am unusual but too much time on them definitely buggers up my ball striking. I guess I just keep getting away with hitting it a bit fat on the mat and only notice when I get back to grass. I tried just limiting things to wedges and then end up with sore wrists and elbows from trying to hit a divot into solid plastic. Now limiting myself to 40 ball Hugo challenges once a week and getting something from that.
Hi Mike, thanks for the kind words. It’s tricky to say without seeing you hit balls in person. However, the common issue is hitting the mat too far behind the ball, before the club has shallowed out. This means the leading edge digs in, rather than the sole hitting the mat.
You’ll have to let me know if either of the article below help.
Other than that it can be down to really poor quality golf mats, or previous issues with tendentious. If so I feel your pain. I severed a lateral tendon in my Elbow and had a good 3 years without being able to hit golf balls. However, even I’ve managed to get back to pain-free practice.
I hope that is of some help.
I find that going to practice on the range works well if you take a score card from your last game and hit shots as the holes required. Play as you practice, practice as you play
Great article, so I’ve been to a range that has the solution, its Toptracer Range that has virtual golf. You’ll hit every club in your bag under pressure, then it also has a launch monitor to work on each club.
I found your article very interesting and useful.I, myelf experienced a similar problem. The horrible “S” problem was ruining my game, every shot above a 9 iron . Lots of advice, videos, books etc, but no change. Booked a lesson with the club Pro, and almost instant success. Couldn’t wait to get back on the course.You guessed it, total disaster.
Arranged second lesson. Same result,
“Ss” conquered. Back on the course, failure!. The club Pro arranged a further lesson, this time at a quiet time”on the course”. Thankfully, this was the answer. I was at the point of giving up the game – what a relief!.
Excellent piece, full of insights. I would like to add one more point. How much exercise is required to make the body more responsive and flexible. I would say half the time given to practice, if you hit one basket of ball in one hour, then half an hour of exercise before will do wonders.
Great post thank you. I was wondering if you had any guidance on how much time you should spend on each of the stages you suggest. I.e how long in the block practice before moving on to the skills game.
I realise there is no given timescale but just a rough idea would be great!
It is a great question and one I’ve thought about for many years. The best answer I have so far is to aim for around 70% success rate (7/10 good shots) before moving on to the next practice structure – I hope that helps.