I’m not against practice. Far from it. At some point, you have to work to get better at golf, just like anything else. All great players either played a lot of golf or hit a ton of balls early on.However, it is a fact that many great players practice much less than you might expect. Jack Nicklaus, Craig Stadler, John Daly, Scott Hoch, Jeff Maggert, Mark Calcavecchia, Laura Davies, Liselotte Neumann, Helen Alfredsson, Nancy Lopez-none of them hits a lot of balls on the range. Often after a good round, Johnny Miller would intentionally not practice before the next round, because he didn’t want to lose his good swing on the range.
Then there’s my old college roommate and friend Bruce Lietzke-a legendary nonpracticer. Every year he would come out on tour and be a leader in driving, greens hit and money made-and he almost gets physically ill at the thought of hitting a practice ball.
As I see it, there are high-maintenance swings and low-maintenance swings. High-maintenance swingers need constant work and huge chunks of time on the practice tee; Nick Faldo, Tom Kite and Vijay Singh have high-maintenance swings. Low-maintenance swingers like Fred Couples and Ben Crenshaw do better hitting very few practice balls. Lietzke has what I call a “no-maintenance” swing.
Whatever kind of swing you have, you probably don’t have the time or money to hit hundreds of range balls a week. That’s OK. The point is, you may not need to. By practicing more efficiently and applying the following principles to your game, you can shoot lower scores without a lot of grinding on the range.
1. Forget perfection
The perfect swing is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. Try to develop a repeating swing, but don’t demand perfection. Some players are always tinkering with their swings, changing their stance one day, their ball position the next. They read all the instruction books trying to learn what they think is a pro-type swing, and they hit a million range balls. Then they go on the course and their friend, who maybe has a not-so-pretty little slice swing, kills them. Once you have a swing that works, stick with it-even if it’s not perfect.
2. Stay with one system
With all the books, magazines, videos, TV shows and Web sites out there, you can get bits and pieces of information from hundreds of teachers, each with a different concept of how to swing. It’s easy to get confused. Instead, ask yourself two simple questions: (1) What swing method or teacher will I follow? and (2) What is my most common swing fault? Learn one method, then focus on one or two swing keys for when things go wrong. Period.
3. Practice swings in the mirror-and wherever else you can
Instead of beating balls at the range, take practice swings (without a ball) everywhere. Leave old clubs lying in strategic places: in the backyard, in your office, at the gym, around your house. That way you’re more likely to pick up a club and take a few swings. (You might need short practice clubs indoors.) Make continuous swings, back and forth. Better still, swing in front of a mirror, checking that your weight is moving with your swing-to your back foot on the backswing and your front foot on the forward swing. Does your swing look good? That may be all you need to know-you don’t want to overthink mechanics.
4. Have a one-shot mentality
If you play one shot well-whether that’s a low draw or a high fade-make that the anchor of your game. David Duval, Bruce Lietzke, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino rely on the fade most of the time. Tom Lehman, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer hit draws. Whatever your natural ball flight, you can use it to your advantage, because you can always eliminate one side of the golf course. That means you can always avoid trouble. You can always start a reliable fade down the left side of the fairway, for example; whether it goes straight, fades slightly or fades a lot, you’re still in the fair-way. A draw works similarly from the right side. Having one shot shape you can rely on also gives you confidence-a huge advantage on the course.
5. Practice smart, not long
Keep your practices short and focused. I learned this from four great coaches in other sports: John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Pat Riley and Bill Walsh. When you do go to the practice range, focus on just a few basics, such as accelerating through impact, contacting the ball on the descent (except with the driver), putting your right elbow in the slot by your side on the downswing, moving your weight to your front foot through impact and finishing in balance. Limit the number of balls you hit on the range. Do your work in focused stints, then leave.
6. Work on your rhythm
Good swings are as much a matter of rhythm as mechanics. To get a good rhythm, you don’t have to hit hundreds of balls on the range. Instead, do what Fred Couples does, and what Sam Snead and the great U.S. Open champion Betty Jameson used to do: Simply hit 15 or 20 easy 7-irons or wedges before a round, hitting the ball only half your usual distance or so. This is neither physically nor psychologically taxing, and will help you feel relaxed. Take that same easy rhythm to the first tee with you. (Note: This is also great training for longer sessions at the range: Hit 30 minutes of easy 7-irons and go home.)
7. Focus on center contact
Practicing easy swings will also help you achieve center contact. On the course, an easy swing with center contact will go farther and straighter than a hard swing off-center. You can lose up to seven yards for every quarter inch you miss the center of the club. An easy way to see where you’re hitting the ball on the clubface is to cover the face with a white spray powder like Desenex, then hit. The ball will leave a clear mark, and the powder is easy to wipe off.
8. Measure and check ball, hand and stance positions
Bruce Lietzke is meticulous about this. He always checks how far forward in his stance, and how far away, the ball is. When you’re playing well, get a piece of construction paper and set up to the ball. Get a friend
to draw lines around your feet and the ball. (You could even paint the lines on your garage floor.) When your game goes off, you can then go back and see where your ideal ball position is and how open or closed your stance should be. Likewise, measure how far your hands are from your thighs at address when you’re playing well. A consistent setup is a simple key to low scoring.
9. Don’t try 100 percent
Low-maintenance players like Fred Couples and Bruce Lietzke all have one thing in common: They don’t think of every shot as the end of the world. They have a casual attitude toward the game. Any sport psychologist will tell you that trying too hard prevents peak performance. Everybody misses shots-badly. David Duval is so unfazed by bad shots, it’s almost like he doesn’t care- which is great! One shot is not life or death.
10. Play more than you practice
I go to junior tournaments these days and see kids with beautiful swings hitting hundreds of balls on the range. Then they go on the course and can’t score. That’s because they practice too much and play too little. When I was at the University of Houston, Coach Dave Williams, whose teams won 16 NCAA championships, couldn’t have cared less about our golf swings. All he cared about was who had the lowest score. He didn’t care whether you got it by hitting beautiful long irons, chipping in five times or making every putt.
Remember: You learn to play on the course. That’s where you learn your strengths and weaknesses, how far you hit each club, when you can go for the flag and so on. In other words, that’s where you develop a game plan.
11. Play games on the course
Again, you learn to score by being on the course and playing, not by hitting hundreds of balls on the range.
If you can play late in the evening when the course isn’t crowded, hit two balls-a kind of best-ball competition against yourself. If you’re walking, you won’t want to hit one ball 100 yards left and the other 100 yards right, so this will encourage you to be more consistent. Or play two balls on each shot, and then play from where the worse shot lands-that will tell you how inconsistent you are. Or play from where the better ball lands-that will tell you how good you can be. Or miss every green on purpose-that will force you to work on your short game.
All this will make the game more fun and your swing less mechanical, and will teach you how to score.
12. Find a solid, strong position at the top
To me, the backswing is a chance to almost place the club at the top.
Don’t worry too much about the me-chanics of how you get there. Just get your hands over your right shoulder, your thumbs under the shaft, and keep your left wrist flat.
The backswing takes about four-fifths of a second, whereas the downswing takes only one-fifth of a second, so you have plenty of time on the backswing to get the club in a good position. Once you’re in a strong position at the top, you should . . .
13 . . . Let it go!
The most powerful words in golf are “Let it go!” Too many players tighten up their grip and try to steer the club into the ball on the downswing. In one- fifth of a second, you don’t have time to make adjustments on the downswing. Instead, to be consistent, you should just let the hit happen. Jackie Burke compared it to a child on a swing: You pull him back, but then you just let go.
14. Stick with equipment that works for you
Don’t keep changing your equipment, hoping for a quick fix. Here’s what you need to find: a driver that fits you (especially one that will keep your ball in the fairway, even if you hit it a little shorter), irons-especially wedges-you can hit consistent distances, and a putter you like. Ignore equipment fads.
15. Keep your preshot routine short
Most low-maintenance players like Fred Couples and Craig Stadler have a simple, quick preshot routine. Don’t take a lot of time over the ball once you get in the address position. Don’t run through a long list of pre-swing mental checks before you swing. Simply set up to the ball, look once or twice at the target, and go. As you get ready to swing, be “target aware”-don’t focus on the mechanics of the swing itself. Standing over the ball too long just builds tension and is a recipe for a bad swing.
16. Do it your way
If you take away players’ natural rhythm and style, they’ll have trouble. Uniqueness defines great players. If you have a quirk in your swing-an unusual stance or takeaway, for example-it doesn’t mean you can’t hit good golf shots. Look at Lee Trevino or Jim Furyk. If you didn’t know who they were, you would see their swings and say there was no way they could compete, but they’re great ball-strikers. Don’t try to duplicate other players. Let your personal swing evolve.
17. Shorten your backswing
You don’t have to have a long backswing to hit the ball far, and most people would be more consistent with a compact, three-quarter type of swing. Overswinging equals offline shots.
Bruce Lietzke, Tiger Woods-even Jack Nicklaus with his irons-are good examples of players who don’t reach parallel at the top. That said, if a longer swing suits your rhythm, as it does for Fred Couples, don’t change it.
18. Don’t be too quick to switch to a draw
Many players try to switch to a draw to hit the ball farther, and I always encourage beginners to learn a draw at first, because it helps them avoid some common beginner errors. But, again, many great ball-strikers-Couples, David Duval and Colin Montgomerie, for example-play a fade. A fade takes the hands out of the swing, so it’s consistent, and the ball lands softly, for distance control. For these reasons, if you hit a consistent fade (not a slice), you can really attack a golf course.
19. Keep the tension out of your hands
Tension kills the golf swing. On a scale of 1 (loosest) to 10 (tightest)- which is the scale we use at my golf schools-keep your grip pressure at 5 or below.
20. Have one simple transition key
The transition from the backswing to the downswing is where most swings go wrong-usually because a player hurries it. One good transition key is “Slow from the top.” Another is to think of your right hand as being “tied” to your right knee. As the knee moves forward, the hand begins to come down.
21. Focus on successes, not mistakes
After he plays a round, Bruce Lietzke thinks about all the things he did well, not his problems. Too many players rush off to the range after a round to “fix” their problems. Instead, they’re just as likely to reinforce swing errors. Lietzke’s advice: Go home after your round, wait till the next morning and see if the problem does not go away on its own. Usually it does.
22. Finish in balance
If you can finish your swing in balance, the rest of your swing is probably OK. A good drill is to swing with your eyes closed and hold a “majestic” pose for at least two or three seconds at the end. If you can do that, you’ve got good balance. Swinging with your eyes closed is also good because it lets you be more aware of what your body is doing, rather than focusing you solely on the ball.
23. Keep it simple
High-maintenance players tend to obsess on the small details. Low-maintenance players keep their focus on broad, simple concepts, such as “Stay in balance,” “Keep your tempo” and “Try only shots you’re capable of playing.” Sure, there are times you may need to work on mechanics-but mechanics don’t need to be a lifetime’s obsession.
Remember: Golf is an art, not a science, and it’s best learned on the course, not on the range.