What Should You Practice In Golf?

We all know getting better at golf starts with practice. However, deciding how you should practice to actually lower your scores can seem overwhelming. Here we cover some basic principles that apply to golfers of all levels – 36 handicaps to scratch – you will improve if you keep these basic principles in mind.

A big thank you to ShotScope who provided their data for analysis and use in this article.

Understanding this approach

Golf is a sequence of shots, with each one dependent on the last hit. The following focuses on getting the core attributes of this sequence correct, whilst understanding that not all golf shots affect scoring equally. For more on this approach, check out what is strokes gained?

The focus of each section is obvious, but it is the detail within each section that is important if you wish to accelerate your rate of improvement.

Practice getting ball in play

The first skill to master is getting the ball in play. Note, this is not the same as always hitting the fairway. Interestingly, the percentage of fairways hit does not change that much by handicap (see below). However, not being able to advance your golf ball to the green with your next shot is very costly for all handicap levels.

Graph showing percentage of fairways hit by handicap level

This is not to suggest hitting the fairway isn’t important. On average, scratch golfers save 0.25 of a shot when they hit the fairway versus the rough, 15 and 20 handicappers save ~0.20 of a shot playing from the fairway versus the rough. Both of the data points above assume the player has the same distance into the green.

How to practice getting the ball in play?

To practice getting the ball in play head to the range and mark out a 20 or 30-yard fairway (depending on your course and driving ability). Grab 10 balls and see how many shots you can land in your target fairway with driver, or your preferred club off the tee. Repeat the game to see if you can beat your PB.

One excellent outcome of creating a smaller fairway than you are used to is that your dispersion (left and right) tends to tighten. This will result in more fairways hit, but importantly less wild shots off the tee and more shots in play!

One note

Let’s cover the obvious question before we move on. Are 0 and 25 handicappers identical off the tee? No. Better golfers hit the same amount of fairways and hit it further, so they have shorter distances into the green and their relative accuracy is in fact better (see below for average driving distance by handicap).

We’re going to leave how to hit the ball further for another article. However, the graphic below should give you an indication of if your own driving distance is below or above average for your handicap level.

Graph showing driving distance by handicap level

Approach play

Hitting more greens in regulation is a strong predictor that you’ll play better golf. The graphic below shows how this trends upwards as handicap decreases. Great news, but we all know we can’t turn on a tap to instantly hit more greens. Below we’ll look at how you can refine your practice approach to start hitting more greens.

Graph showing percentage of greens hit in regulation by handicap level

Golfers with a handicap of 15 or above tend to miss most greens short (40% or higher). Whereas, lower handicappers still struggle with distance control but struggle more with lateral error in their iron play.

If you are a higher handicapper, focus on a solid strike and correct clubbing. If you are a lower handicapper focus on clubface control through impact.

How to practice hitting more greens?

To practice hitting more greens head to the range, pick targets and focus on accuracy and distance control. Create/picture 20-yard circles (10-yard radius) around the following targets:

  • 90 yards
  • 130 yards
  • 160 yards

Hit 10 shots to each target and see how many you can get to land within each circle (score out of 30). Again, repeat this simple game and see if you can improve your PB with every range trip.

If you want to personalise this game to your style of play, make a note of the length of approach shots you most commonly have when you play around your home course. Use these distances to plan your three target distances – this small tip will really accelerate your ability to hit more greens and score on the golf course.

Short game

Practicing your chipping in the context of lower golf scores is often misunderstood. Some golfers incorrectly assume short game doesn’t matter after reading up on some PGA golf statistics.

Short game is important, particularly if you miss a lot of greens, or you attempt to hit par 5s in two and drive some short par 4s. But hitting chip shots to 12-feet rather than 20-feet will not alter your scoring – both scenarios will most likely take 2 putts to complete the hole.

How to practice your short game

To practice your short game in a way that will lower your scores, work out the shots that you frequently have when playing and often hit to 5 to 10-feet away (5-yard chip, 10-yard bunker shot…). Focus on these shots, as hitting them 2 to 3-feet closer will increase your up and down percentage and lower your scores.

Grab 10 golf balls, pick one of these shots, create a 3-feet circle. Hit all 10 shots to your target and give yourself 1 point for each ball finishing inside the circle and 3 points for any shots you hole.

Putting

Despite strokes gained highlighting the importance of driving and approach play, putting still is important. In raw terms, there is on average only 4.0 putts difference between 25 handicappers and scratch golfers. But we must also remember scratch players hit far more greens and likely have longer 1st putts, meaning the true putting ability gap is likely larger.

a graph showing putting data for all handicaps

How to practice your putting

To effectively practice your putting first focus on improving your holing out from 3-ft. This sounds simple but holing 20 putts in a row from 3-feet allows you to master your start line and strike. This skill will quickly transfer and improve your ability at other distances.

Next, work on your conversion rate from 3 to 10-feet. The 3, 6, 9-feet putting game below is a tough but excellent way to focus on this skill.

Finally, head back to 20 to 30-feet. Hit 10 putts from each and see how many you can get to stop inside a 3-foot circle.

What should you practice on top of the basics?

Above we’ve focused on what to practice based on ‘averages’. Sadly, or fortunately, none of us are average. You will have key parts of your game that are important for unlocking your best scoring. Be sure to take a look at your own stats to better understand where else to spend time.

Below are some final short considerations on top of the basics that have come from many years of coaching, giving playing lessons and trying to help golfers:

  • Hit the course for some practice too – shot dispersions and your tendencies will always be slightly different on the golf course.
  • Learn to make good contact from bad lies and when hitting recovery shots.
  • Find a stock shot with a tight dispersion, even if its ugly. A reliable dispersion pattern is a critical skill for lower golf scores.

Summary

That wraps up our analysis on what to practice in golf if you wish to shoot lower scores. The core topics are of no surprise, but the data and detail are the real nuggets that will dictate if you drop 1 shot or 5 shots over the coming months.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. You can check out this link for more golf practice content and if you would like more articles like this one emailed to you check out the Golf Insider weekly post.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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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.

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