Practically every avid golfer shares a common origin story. At some point, we picked up a club and waved it, mostly in vain, at a little, dimpled ball. Eventually, mostly by accident, we made solid contact. The sensation, plus the triumphant flight of the ball, flipped a switch in us, so here we are, years later, perpetually looking to produce that feeling with greater and greater regularity.
Luckily, there’s a massive industry-within-the-industry dedicated to helping golfers get better results out of every shot. But lessons alone are not enough, and practically no one has the resources to hire someone to observe their every single practice session. A crucial part of improvement at golf is the solitary act of practice.
The truth is, practice in golf is more complicated than other sports. You want to run farther? Run. You want to make more free throws? Go to the nearest basketball court and hoist them until you’re making more than you used to. You want to get better at golf? You need a plan, otherwise the driving range can potentially betray you.
If you’re serious about getting better at golf, you need to realize that there are four distinct types of practice, and that a proper mix of them will yield the results you’re looking for. That’s the premise of GolfPass’ newest series, Breaking Down Your Practice Routine, hosted by rising-star instructor Devan Bonebrake.
Bonebrake’s new series breaks out full-swing, short-game and putting practice by these four practice types, providing a template that any golfer can take to the range and even out onto the course.
Motor pattern acquisition
The most basic level of golf practice is the one where you are seeking to develop the physical technique of hitting a golf ball in the manner intended. Say you’re trying to eliminate a slice once and for all – this means you need to re-program your body to deliver the club to the ball in a way that produces a reliably straight shot.
This type of practice may not necessarily involve actually hitting balls. In fact, you may be best off without a club. What's most important is ingraining the patterns of motion that correspond to proper swing technique.
If you watch golf on TV, you’ve likely noticed that several players make certain rehearsal motions during their practice routines before hitting a shot. This is an attempt to integrate proper motion patterns, which helps keep golfers from developing bad habits when practicing on their own. When it comes to this type of practice, "skill acquisition needs to be the goal over ball flight, distance or contact," Bonebrake says.
This is the type of practice the vast majority of golfers employ, often to the exclusion of all others, which can hinder progress. If you’ve gone to the driving range and beat a medium bucket of 7 irons at the same target, trying to groove a “stock” shot, you’ve engaged in block practice.
The repetitive nature of block practice is useful for honing and solidifying a skill you’ve worked to develop. Muscle memory is crucial to playing consistently high-level golf because it turns the act of hitting a golf ball from a thousand constantly monitored movements into a more singular “natural” movement.
"Blocked practice can get a bad rap, but it’s absolutely the cornerstone to improvement," Bonebrake says. "Without a constant and successful motion, it will be undoubtedly impossible to repeat in a random setting."
Bonebrake likens block practice for golfers to free-throw shooting for basketball players, saying "anyone can make 20 free throws in a row after shooting 50." But when confronted with all sorts of different situations on the golf course, the question becomes, "Can you hit the shot, when it matters, when there are no do-overs?"
As the name suggests, random practice is meant to upset the order of blocked practice. Instead of trying to hit 10 "normal" 7 irons in a row, mix in some fades and draws and play around with trajectory. Challenge yourself to hit a high slice 7 iron, then rope the lowest hook you can manage. Alternate clubs from one shot to the next, too: a high-slice driver followed by a bullet-hook wedge. Going to extremes on the range can help you manufacture shot-saving escapes on the course.
If blocked practice is a way to build “stock” shots, random practice adds a layer of adaptability that will allow a golfer to adjust on the fly when factors like weather and hole design dictate.
Whether it’s for your local city or county tournament, a friendly match with buddies or a solo tussle with Old Man Par, there are constant opportunities to compete on the course. Mimicking the sort of pressure you may face on the course by simulating it on the range will make it easier to face tough moments when they count. Game-like training: "It makes you aware of your success and failures as well as what it truly takes to be the best," Bonebrake says.
If you have a practice buddy, there are myriad ways to compete during a range session, and chipping and putting matches are a no-brainer, too.
Put it all together
Most golfers view “practice” too narrowly, opting for block practice over the other types. This is repetitive and often aimless. It’s no wonder that many golfers find it hard to be motivated to practice when their idea of it is mundane and results come slowly, if at all. By mixing these different types of practice together, you will engage more different facets of your game and be more likely to come out the other end more polished than ever.
If you can have what Bonebrake calls a "patient progression" through these four types of practice, you will start to see the results you have been looking for in your own game.