Playing Golf vs Practicing Golf

As a Coach and Instructor, I have to get my students to make changes to their swings to get better results. Sometimes this process can get a little challenging when trying to take a “new” or “changed” golf swing to the course. This is where having a better understanding of “playing golf” vs “practicing golf” comes into play.

I love to give students swing thoughts, drills and practice routines to work on during their lessons and practice sessions. This is where it is okay to become “mechanical” and really think about your swing. It’s okay to make a conscious effort to create swing change during lessons and practice sessions. Sometimes this results in a slower clubhead speed or some disruption in the timing of the swing, but that is a short-term issue that disappears with a little practice. The goal of lessons and practice sessions is to understand what change needs to be made and make enough repetitions of the correct movement so that the swing change feels repeatable and easy to reproduce with little effort. This is why it is essential to practice multiple times after your lessons before you go straight to the golf course.

Realize that once you have practiced enough and you do go play golf, it is time to play golf. ┬áThis means you should have a totally different mindset than you did in your lesson and practice sessions. You do not want to be consciously trying to make a swing change while you are playing a round of golf. You want to warm up on the driving range, feel your swing and loosen up, and then trust your swing once you step on the first tee box. On the golf course, I tell all of my students to try and build a routine that follows the “see it, feel it, trust it” mantra that is promoted by many sports psychologists. You need to visualize your shot, feel the swing during a practice swing, and then step up to the ball and trust your swing with minimal to no swing thoughts. This mentality is completely different from the mentality a student is in 95% of the time during a lesson or practice session.

So, it is crucial to understand that you will need to develop a consistent mental and physical routine for playing golf, that will be different from how you practice and think during a lesson. I call this the practice mindset and the playing mindset. Developing these two mindsets and being able to separate them when you do play golf is a skill that takes a little bit of time to develop. So, after your next lesson, don’t go straight to the course until you have practiced enough to allow yourself to “trust” your new swing on the golf course with minimal to no swing thoughts.

Approach Shots

Recently, I was working with a student on the range and discussing what kind of shot to hit into a green with the pin tucked in a corner. I told him to imagine that there was water immediately right of our target green, and to start his shot left of the flag and fade it. He hit two balls trying to perform under the circumstance I had given him and did not hit either well. He stopped and said that he would never approach that situation the way I had described. A little confused I asked him what he would normally do. He said “well I would start it towards the water on the right and draw it into the pin.” His reasoning was because he was more comfortable with a draw. While a draw was the more comfortable shot for him, it was the wrong shot to play in that situation. Not only did we need to work on how to fade the ball properly, but I needed to make sure he understood the best way to hit approach shots to certain pin positions.

Right Pin Placement, Trouble on Right

When the pin is on the right side of the green and there is a hazard (bunker or water) on the right, you should aim to the middle of the green and try to hit a slight fade. This is the ideal way to play to a right pin placement. Here’s why: If you hit the ball straight, you are in the middle of the green and have a realistic birdie opportunity. If you hit the shot perfectly the ball will start the ball at the middle of the green with a nice fade and roll towards the hole when it hits on the green. Even if you hit a pull you will likely still be on the edge of the green. Only one shot can get you in trouble and that is if you hit the ball right.

Left Pin Placement, Trouble on Left

When the pin is on the left side of the green and trouble surrounds the left side of the green, you should start the ball at the middle of the green and draw the ball toward the pin. Once again, if you hit the ball straight you are in the center of the green with a putt for birdie. If you hit a nice draw the ball will roll towards the pin when it hits the green, leaving you a short birdie putt. Even a push shot will put you on the right side of the green. Only a shot to the left will derail your score.

Pin on the left side with trouble to the left side of green. Aim for the center of the green and hit a draw.

Pin on the left side with trouble to the left side of green. Aim for the center of the green and hit a draw.

Back Pin Placement, Trouble Beyond Green

When the pin is in the back of the green and there is trouble behind the green, play your shot to the middle of the green with a lower trajectory. By playing the shot to the middle of the green you eliminate the trouble beyond the green. For example, if you have 150 yards to a back pin placement, hit the ball 145 yards with a lower trajectory. Hitting the shot with a lower trajectory will allow the ball to roll back to the pin after it lands.

Front Pin Placement, Trouble Short of Green

When most golfers see a front pin they try to pull a club that will go that exact yardage even if there is a hazard in front of the green. Imagine you have 145 yards to a front pin placement with water in front of the green. From practice you know that your 9-iron is your 145 yard club. If you have to hit the shot perfect in order to clear the hazard, then you need to play the shot as a 150 yard shot and hit a nice 8-iron. This takes the water out of play and will still leave you a nice birdie putt.

Begin to strategically play your approach shots to pin placements and your scores will come down as a result.

Tee Box Strategy

One of the things I learned from my college golf coach was how to save shots by using the tee box properly. I distinctly remember hitting a push shot to the right of the green and my coach telling me “with the same swing your ball would be on the green had you teed the ball up on this side of the tee box.” This really hit home with me as a simple way to make sure I played my best. Since then I have payed close attention to where I wanted to tee the ball up.

As a general rule, you want to tee the ball up on the side of the tee box that trouble is on. For example, if there is water all along the left side of the fairway, tee the ball up on the left side of the tee box so you can aim away from the water. In another situation if there is no trouble on the left and out of bounds down the right side of the hole, tee the ball on the right side of the tee box and aim away from trouble. In the picture below, you would want to tee the ball on the left side of the tee box to make it easier to align down the right.

CIMG0105

Left side of the tee box and aim down the right side of the fairway.

Windy conditions

In heavy wind you can use the tee box to your advantage to stay in the fairway. If the wind is blowing hard from right to left, tee the ball up on the left side of the tee box, making it easier to align down the right side of the fairway. By doing this, you are essentially using the wind as a backboard to stay in the fairway. With a hard left to right wind, you would want to tee the ball up on the right side of the tee box.

Playing your miss

You can also use the tee box to your advantage is you have a consistent hook or slice. Golfers with a consistent hook need to tee the ball on the left side of the tee box to help align themselves down the right side of the fairway. Golfers with a consistent slice need to tee up on the right side of the tee box and align down the left side of the fairway.

Next time you play golf, pay attention to where you want to tee the ball up and you can save shots before you even swing the club.

Right Wedges For Your Game

Improving wedge play is one of the fastest ways to lower your score. Sometimes improvement can be made simply by making sure you have the right wedges. There are a few important factors to choosing the correct wedges for your game.

  1. No more than a 4-5 degree loft difference between wedges. For example, you could carry a 48, 52, 56 and 60 degree wedge.
  2. Get a low bounce wedge if you play off tighter lies or pick the ball clean. A wedge that has 4 to 7 degrees of bounce is considered low bounce.
  3. Get a high bounce wedge if you tend to take deeper divots or play in softer conditions. A wedge with 14-16 degrees of bounce is considered high bounce.
  4. Wider sole wedges will add effective bounce to the club. These wedges would be best out of fluffy sand. Narrow sole wedges are best off tight lies.

It’s always a good idea to go through a wedge fitting and make sure you have what is right for your swing. You may even find that a variety of bounce is the best wedge solution for you. For example, carry a wedge with low bounce for shots off tight lies, and a wedge with high bounce for shots off soft grass or fluffy sand. This will give you some versatility around the greens.

When looking for new wedges you can normally identify the club’s loft and bounce without much trouble. The wedge pictured below lists both the loft and bounce of the club. The number 58 represents the degrees of loft, while the number 12 represents the amount of bounce. This wedge would be a good option in the bunker or playing from soft turf conditions. Get the right wedges for your game and you will make the game much easier.

58 degree wedge with 12 degree bounce

Pre-Shot Routine

A pre-shot routine is a routine that a golfer goes through before hitting a shot. This routine should have consistent physical and mental aspects. Most amateur golfers never work on their pre-shot routine. Some have never developed a routine. At the professional level though, the pre-shot routine is performed religiously on the course and driving range.

Ritz Carlton Golf Club, Jupiter FL

Imagine what you would do when you stepped up to the tee of the par 3 pictured above. What would be your thought process? Would your thought process give you the best chance to put the ball on the green? Many golfers would step up to this hole and the first thing they would think is “how am I going to keep it out of the water?” You probably won’t be shocked to know that this should not be your first thought. No matter what the situation you should have a consistent mental and physical routine. Whether you are on the driving range or on the 11th hole at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club in Jupiter (pictured above).

A Good Routine

Your routine should be personalized and specific to what you need to hit the best shot possible. However, there are a few characteristics that you should include in your routine.

  • External focus at start of routine. Observe surroundings and get info (yardage, wind, uphill/downhill)
  • After processing the necessary info, select your target, club and shot shape.
  • Narrow focus. Visualize your shot. See the height, curve of the shot and where it lands. The more detailed the better.
  • Make a practice swing and feel how you are going to hit the shot. Your practice swing can be slow motion, half swing or full swing. Whatever gives you the best feel.
  • Step up to the ball and trust your aim and swing. Minimal to no swing thoughts once over ball.

Now once you have developed and practiced your routine, you will step up to the tee of the par 3 above and first think “what’s my yardage, where’s the wind.” Your routine will finish with you trusting your swing and hitting the green. Commit to developing a consistent mental and physical routine this year, and you will begin to play your best golf.

Chipping

A chip shot is a short shot played with a low trajectory. Most chip shots are hit within 10-15 yards of the green. Once you learn the proper club selection, setup and technique, you will be hitting chip shots with confidence.

Club Selection

Before choosing a club to chip with, consider where you want to land the ball and how much you need the ball to roll. When chipping with your more lofted clubs, like the lob wedge or sand wedge, the ball will roll only a short distance from where it lands. Your lower lofted clubs, like the 7 or 8-iron, will make the ball roll out more. If you are close to your target and only need the ball to roll a short distance, chip with a lob or sand wedge. When the hole is further away and you need the ball to roll back to the hole, chip with your 7 or 8-iron.

Setup

Setting up properly to a chip shot will help you make clean contact each time. Position your feet close together with your hands pressed forward. Your hands should be right in line with the pant crease of your lead leg (left leg for right-handed golfers). Your head should be slightly in front of the ball, putting most of your weight on the left foot. Grip down on the club to get closer to the ball. This will help with consistency. The picture to the right shows the proper setup for a chip shot.

Swing

The chip shot swing is very short, much like a putting stroke. The club should not swing above the level of your knees on the backswing or follow through. There should be no wrist action in the swing and your hands should stay ahead of the club through impact. The majority of your weight stays on your left foot throughout the shot. Turn your body a little to the target on the follow through to help keep your hands ahead of the club. If done properly, you should make a very small divot each time.

Pitch Shot

A pitch shot is a short shot played with a higher trajectory. Pitch shots are normally played with your higher lofted wedges, like the lob or sand wedge. As a result of the higher lofted club and higher trajectory, a pitch shot does not roll as much as a chip shot. You may hit a pitch shot from anywhere between 20-60 yards.

When setting up to a pitch shot you should narrow your stance just slightly. Ball position can vary based on the trajectory you want to hit the shot. Play the ball in the middle of your stance for a normal trajectory, forward (towards the left foot for right-handed golfers) in your stance for a higher trajectory and back in your stance for a lower trajectory.

Start your backswing with your shoulders and hinge your wrists based on how far you need to hit the shot. Short pitch shots should have minimal wrist hinge, while longer pitch shots can have more of a normal wrist hinge. As you swing down to the ball your weight should move to your left foot with your hips and chest turning to the target. Finish with almost all your weight on your left foot and your hips and chest facing the target.

More Consistent Swing

The most common goal I hear from golfers is “I want more consistency hitting the ball.” This is a great goal and one that will help lead to lower scores. The first step to gain consistency is learning about your swing. You need to know the good and bad about your swing. Have your swing evaluated and learn exactly what happens in your swing and why you hit certain shots. You must understand your swing first before you make any changes to it. And yes, you will have to make changes to it if you want to get different results.

Any changes made to your swing should be done in the proper sequence with a focus on addressing one thing at a time. This is the job of the coach to prioritize which areas to address first and then guide you through making those changes. As the student, you need to understand that it will take time to make certain changes in your swing. This is all part of the process. Once you have made changes to your swing and understand what is happening in your swing, it is easy to analyze shots and make self corrections on the course. This will allow you to get back on track swinging the club properly and more consistently.

Bunker shots

Bunker shots can become one of the scariest shots for amateur golfers if they don’t learn the proper technique. There a few things I notice consistently with golfers who have trouble hitting bunker shots. Poor bunker players have an improper focus, poor swing path and follow through. By improving these, you can dramatically improve your bunker game and scores.

I always ask people where they are focused on hitting the sand. The answer is almost always “2-3 inches behind the ball.” Having this as your focus can lead to hitting too far behind the ball and leaving the ball in the bunker, or bouncing the club into the ball and skulling it over the green. Put your focus instead on hitting the sand under the ball. This will allow you to focus on the ball, and by hitting the sand under the ball you are effectively hitting just slightly behind the ball.

It is also important to swing the club back on a slightly more upright path to help create a steeper angle of attack on the downswing. Doing so will help eliminate hitting too far behind the ball. Focus on swinging the club back along the path of your feet, which should be aimed slightly left of target, to create a slightly more upright path.

After you hit the sand under the ball, you need to follow through by turning your hips and chest toward the target. You should swing through with enough force to splash the sand out from under the ball and onto the green.

I have included a video to help you with the technical aspects of hitting a bunker shot.