Updated: Sep 14, 2020
By James W.E. Glenn
The act of doing something regularly or repeatedly to increase your skill at doing it.
It’s something we all know that we need more of, whatever side of scratch our handicaps rest. Most of us, however, don’t have the luxury of playing golf for a living or playing as much as we want (or if we do, then likely not for much longer as we all start, hopefully, getting back to work). Even to just play, we have to find the time we can; time that is often buried deep into the end of the workday, or in the sacred hours of the weekend. Trying to find extra time to “practice”? That’s laughable, but deep down we know we need to. (Unless you are happy with whatever scores you are currently shooting--in which case you’re a liar because everyone wants to play better...and you know you should have made that putt on 14).
Thankfully, there’s a few ways that we can tackle the issue of not-getting-a-golf-club-in-our-hands-often-enough; if we’re smart, we can either find more ways or make better use of the existing ways to avoid our wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, and other concerned individuals who love us--all under the guise of a healthy sport. Firstly, we identify the areas of the game with the strongest impact and correlation to good scoring (spoiler: it’s not pounding a bucket of long irons, no matter how sweet that push-draw is). Then, we figure out what type of time constraints we face. Finally we build a plan to keep the time spent practicing down, but the focus and pressure up, to help these precious sessions transfer to the course and thus enjoy this beautifully frustrating and immensely rewarding game even more. Making birdies is more fun than making bogeys, and I think we can all at least agree on that, right?
What You Should Be Practicing
Practice, and practicing, serves a very specific purpose. At least, it should serve a specific purpose. For as much fun as blasting a hundred seven irons can be, it doesn’t do that much for your game. You’ll become really, really good at...well...that. Hitting seven irons on the range. Like Tin Cup without the U.S. Open appearance. Even more refined approaches, such as my misguided but previously oft-favoured method of starting with the wedges and working my way through the bag, still don’t do much for preparing to play and score. I played a midweek competition at my home club today, and I didn’t hit my seven iron on the course. Seriously, not even once. Never had the yardage. So why am I catching myself hitting hundreds of these on the range when I rarely hit that club more than a few times per round? Now, if the course I play had a bunch of 460-475 par 4’s...I’ll be hitting the seven more. But it doesn’t--I play at a shorter course with four reachable par fives, mid-long par threes, and positional par fours where a solid two iron off the tee gives me anywhere from a pitch to an eight iron. Why am I hitting the seven?!
It could be because some of us may have been told, however long ago, that the mid iron is the best club to practice with because it gives you the best “stock” swing; smack in the middle of a driver and a wedge. What if I told you, though, that if you can hit a pitching wedge well that you can probably hit your six and seven well too? At least, well enough so that the one time per round you do hit it, it does its job. That being said a seven iron is perfectly suitable for block practice (i.e. working on a mechanical change), though we should never have more than 15-20 minutes of block practice in any given session; the majority of your time should be spend practicing with your driver, hitting approach shots with a nine iron or less, and all around the greens (putting and chipping/pitching). Note, also, that we don’t just “hit balls” with the scoring clubs...we hit shots. These three areas have the most significant impact on your score--ignore for the time being that Tiger Woods was dominant from 175-225 in 2001.
We rank these, based on Strokes Gained vs Money earned on the PGA Tour, in the following order: Driving, Approach Play, and Putting. Drivers, Wedges, and Putting. This is not to say putting isn’t important, and that you shouldn’t practice it. This is to say instead that in order to have a makeable putt, you need to hit it close. In order to hit it close, you have to get off the tee well. Tiger Woods was unbeatable not because he never missed putts--he was unbeatable because he hit it closer than everyone else (and, hence, he got off the tee pretty well).
Types of Time Constraints
To start actually making the best use of what limited time most of us have to practice, and focus on the three areas discussed above most efficiently, we need to figure out what kind of time constraints we suffer from. There are two predominant forms of time constraints afflicting the average golfer: frequency and duration. If you find yourself only able to get to the course, whether to play or practice, once or maybe twice per week, then you suffer from the frequency constraint. If you can get to the course often, but only barely for 9 holes or an hour or two, then you suffer from a duration constraint. If you’re able to get to the course often and spend as much time as you want both working on your game and playing, then fear not--for you are in Elysium, and you are already dead. These types of time limitations demand different approaches in order to maximise what we get from our practice sessions, so let’s dig into it and lower those scores.
Building Your Practice Plan
Now you know what to practice, and what kind of time constraints you have (or that you’ve already died and you’re in heaven), how do you choose what to work on when you can? Let’s go over two approaches to address the need to both practice and work around our time.
Low-Frequency Practice: You can only get to the course once a week (or, good heavens, even less), but you are able to spend some quality time there. Your sessions should be longer, with a triple-focus. Here is a template for what this session might look like.
Building the Stroke: I suggest Tiger’s Gate Drill (straight putt, two tees barely wider than putter length)
Making Meaningful Putts: I love the 3-6-9 Foot Clock Drill (make three in a row from each 3 foot station, 2 from 3 at each 6 foot station, and at least 1 from each nine foot station) as it gets you putting with breaks all around the hole and brings some elements of pressure.
33 Foot Uphill/Downhill: A simple lag and pace drill, which is great for when you havent hit the best approach shot but would rather not turn your birdie into a bogey. With three balls, and a club 18 inches behind the hole, you’re finished when all three balls get to the hole without hitting the club.
6 flights: With a PW or 9, work your way through the 6 flights (High/Mid/Low Fade and Draw). Someone like Johnny Miller might try and tell you there are 9 flights, but even Hogan didn’t try to hit the ball straight so neither will we. Once you feel comfortable with each flight, whether it takes 6 shots or 60 shots, you’re done. Which one did you find easiest to hit? Voila, you found your stock shot.
Towards but not Beyond: Now with each of your flights, pick your stock shot and select a few different pins. You want to practice working the ball towards the flag without going away from it--for example, if you decide to play a fade, ideally the ball should never be moving right of the hole (unless, of course, it’s a sucker, tucked pin with trouble on the left. Sometimes we also play smart). This drill doesn’t take too long, as you will pretty quickly start to realise how far away from the pin you should aim to work it in close or that you should be playing a different shape; if this drill becomes frustrating, that's a sign you might not know what your stock shot is (so revisit the 6 flights). Or you’re stubborn.
When we get our drivers, sometimes there’s a tendency to start ripping it. Which is fine, if we have good targets. Set yourself a fairway, and be reasonable (a 35 yard gap in-between two light poles is reasonable, whereas a tree trunk is not). Your goal is to hit 10 balls, in a row, into that fairway. None of them need to be fades, or draws, or even hit solidly. You just need to hit that fairway 10 times in a row.
Low-Duration Practice: You can get to the course pretty often, but find yourself in a time crunch whenever you do go. Depending on how much time you actually do have, you should aim to pick two to three of the drills above, with at least one putting drill every time you practice, unless the practice facility or golf course doesn’t have a putting green (in which case you should invest $120 in a small indoor putting mat, and I recommend the Putt-Out system).
These drills might not seem thrilling at first, but they are great practice for the areas that make the most positive difference to your card. If you feel you need more intense pressure, or tougher challenges, then start by asking yourself to make more or hit more in a row, etc.
N.B. This article has not discussed the pre-shot routine, which is a critical part of any and all practice sessions regardless of their length and frequency, but deserves and demands its own article to adequately communicate its importance and purpose.