Realistic golf practice

Golf practice off the golf course is often unrealistic – it doesn’t match what we are trying to do on the golf course. For this reason our skill transfers poorly to the golf course. I doubt there is a single golfer reading this who hasn’t experienced the frustration of great in practice…terrible on the golf course…back to the drawing board.

Golf is one of the few sports where we practice in a different environment (golf range, chipping & putting green) to where we play (the golf course). The main advantage of this approach is practice volume – within an hours practice we can get 40 – 80 reps of a specific skill (putting, wedge play or driving), whereas within an hour on the golf course we’re unlikely to hit more than 25 shots and more than 2 drivers, 3 iron shots, 5 putts…

Practice volume (how many reps you make) is a critical factor in how good you become. However this is only true if your practice matches the demands of performing on the golf course.

In this article we’ll look at the key differences between practice and play, and then discuss how you can make your practice more realistic and results easier to transfer onto the golf course.

Golf practice lacks decision making

Every time you approach a new shot on the golf course, your brain has to go into overdrive – the lie, ball above / below your feet, wind, your ideal target, club selection, how the ball will land and roll. Every shot you hit is different, and requires a new solution, and a slightly different golf swing from your stock movement (check out the perfect golf swing article for more in this).

Beating balls on the range or hitting putt after putt from the same spot negates this decision making. Meaning, after the first attempt in practice your decision making is not challenged and does not developed. Poor planning is one reason golfers struggle to take their practice skill onto the golf course.

The solution

Once you have mastered your skill in blocked practice, add in some practice variability. This can be done on the practice ground, or by hitting multiple balls on the golf course (if you are lucky enough to get out there when it is quiet). The link above gives you more details. Or click on this next link for more info on how to choose between practice on the golf course or golf range.

Golf practice lacks consequence

Consider your reaction to hitting a huge block on the golf range versus on the 2nd hole of a medal as you see you ball fly out of bounds. We all care far more about our performance on the golf course than we do in practice.

Now, this is normal, however it means our practice never resembles our play. On the golf course we have slightly heightened arousal, you feel a little more alert, maybe a little less relaxed. Our mind works slightly differently and our body feels slightly different. This is all obvious, but few golfers ever try to do anything to account for it.

The solution

Once you have refined your craft in practice, add in some practice with consequence. This can be a little bet with a friend on the chipping or putting green. If you’re by yourself set a target that you need to complete before you leave. Five putts in a row from 6-feet, three drives in a row through a 20-yard gap are both simple but effective strategies.

Realistic practice – Side note

Please don’t attempt to make all of your practice fit in with the above, that approach is just as bad as having none of the above in place. I would suggest 20 – 30% of your practice should have more variability and consequence if you are serious about improving.

The effect of realistic golf practice

The effect of doing this type of practice – your practice performance will get worse.

You will make more and more mistakes, you’ll hit shots in practice, that you never hit in practice usually, you will become frustrated and that is a good thing. This gives you a chance to battle with the same demons and issues you’ll face in on the golf course. It is then up to you to work out how to deal with them.

The most important point of all of the above is this:

Your aim is not to perfect how you hit golf shots in practice, your aim is to improve your performance on the golf course

These two parts of golf are closely associated, as we often see great players hitting great shots in practice. However, making errors in practice is actually essential for improving performance. Golfers aim to perfect their practice performance, but the science suggests that practice without any errors is practice that leads to limited learning.

Golf Insider geek: There is some evidence to suggest errorless learning can be useful for beginners (i.e. just hitting 1-foot putts – with the aim they don’t miss). However, even for beginners the results are mixed. When you get better at golf you need your practice to be optimally challenging in order for your body to make adaptations and learn. No errors in practice means your body has no reason to adapt and learn.

Realistic golf practice summary

I’ll say it one more time, the aim of golf practice is not to hit perfect shot, after perfect shot in practice – it is to prepare you to play great when it counts. This article gives two key reasons that limit golfers’ ability to transfer practice performance onto the golf course. They are not magic bullets, but they really to help bridge the gap.

As you get better and better at golf you will make less notable errors in practice, and this is the time to up your practice difficulty. Still keep this same balance of realistic practice and sheer practice volume, but all of your golf practice should become more difficult.

If you would like more practice ideas and a way to track your practice performance, grab a copy of the Golf Insider Performance Diary. If you would like an article like this one emailed to you each week, come join the golf insider weekly post.

Back to golf practice home.

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

2 thoughts on “Realistic golf practice”

  1. Dear Will, You stitch together the points nicely to give a good picture. Now my thoughts are in order…It is this- improving one’s game requires practice and the ability to covert practice into a good game assuming results are good in practice. For that, one needs to play daily for 15 days with a group of say 3 more players. Hit one bucket of 54 balls everyday before the round and complete the round of 18 holes. Should produce great improvement for the whole group.


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