Practice Like You Want to Play

I have spent the last few weeks on the road with some of my students at Futures Tour Events in Florida. These were the first events of the season and as expected, I learned a lot about my student’s games. I always say a golfer has four games or swings: They have their practice range game; their golf course game; their golf tournament game; and lastly – their last nine holes, with a chance to win a tournament game. Ideally, we want all of those games to match. Unfortunately, even for the highest level golfer, sometimes they get progressively worst.

I would like to share Stella Lee’s experience over the last few weeks and show you a couple things that can help improve your scoring. Stella had two problems which didn’t allow her to play up to her scoring potential in the first two events – rhythm and comfort zone. On the golf course, her rhythm got much slower on short shots and she wasn’t quite ready mentally to shoot a score in the 60’s.

Let me first give you some background on Stella and what we’ve worked on the last few months. Then, we’ll tie it together — so just like Stella will hopefully do this summer — you can also play golf up to your true potential.

I first met Stella at The LPGA Qualifying Tournament last fall. We met to discuss the possibility of working with one another after she missed the cut. At the time, she was living just outside Los Angeles and was understandably frustrated with her game. After spending an hour with her, I saw a number of simple things we could incorporate that would help achieve her two main goals — more distance and accuracy. I was happy to hear later that week, based on our initial meeting, she had decided to move to Orlando to work with me this past winter. I was happy for a couple reasons. First, she is a great girl who is lot of fun to be around. And second, I thought I could help “unclutter” her mind and simplify the way she swung the golf club.

After a very good junior and college career at University of California Irvine, Stella turned pro in the 2004. She played the Futures Tour and had a reasonable first year. She made 6 of 8 cuts and had a stroke average of 73.5. But, something happened to Stella during her first season that happens to many girls when they make the transition from a junior/college golfer to that of a professional. She started to change things. She went from a very good scorer in her junior days, who relied heavily on short game, to someone obsessed with more distance. She had never been long as a kid, but neither were the courses. Now, the courses and girls were longer — and she started to feel somewhat inadequate.

Does this sound familiar? So many times we play with someone much longer, and if not careful, it makes us change things in order to compete. When in reality, we don’t compete with length. We compete with score. Granted, hitting it longer, with no loss of accuracy, is a great advantage. But very few players have it all. And,, a lot of times we’ll play with someone who’s very long while theyre having a great day – and because they make it look so easy – we feel the need to change. But, I promise you this – a lot of those long players would change positions with a short straight hitter on many a day. I for one was one of those players back in the 90’s when I competed in events. There were many times my 300 yard drives couldn’t find the golf course, when I thought how much easier life would be if I hit it 250 yards right down the middle. So, the moral is, everyone is searching a little.

Okay, back to Stella. When we did our initial talk, I asked about her short game. She said putting was her strength. First, I love when a player tells me they are a great putter. I know someone who really believes that, has chances to make the LPGA Tour. I’ve known many girls who hit it like a top 20 player in the world — but putt and chip like a 10 handicap — who now have “real jobs.” But, I also know many girls who’ve made a living on tour for years, who are very unimpressive on the driving range. Of course, do not get suckered into a putting match with these girls, or else you’ll be buying dinner. Trust me, I speak from experience. So, because of Stella’s assertion that she had a great short game, we did not spend too much time this winter working on that area of her game. Basically, we worked on swing mechanics for a couple months and then started playing golf to test her new move on the course. As we started playing, I was happy with her swing progress, but was not too thrilled with her short game. But, she, and some of my other students who also play the Futures Tour, kept assuring me that her short game was great. So, against my better judgement, I didn’t say much as it related to short game. However, I did make some comments and reminded her that 68% of all shots happen inside 100 yards. So, 68% of her practice should also be inside 100 yards.

As the first event drew closer and her swing felt more comfortable, Stella did start working on her short game more. We practiced a lot together and her stroke and chipping method were spot on. However, when we played, she wasn’t getting the most out of her game inside 100 yards. I recommended she work on a more consistent routine, as it seemed she was taking an awful long time of chips and putts. But, she wasn’t comfortable with hitting it quicker on short shots and was okay waiting until she was ready. Even if that meant standing over the ball longer on certain shots. I told her – I was okay with that on one condition – and that she was controlling the situation and not letting the situation control her. If she was waiting to get more focused – okay. But, if she was waiting because she was unsure – then not okay. I described Jack Nicklaus’ putting routine. Nicklaus was potentially the greatest pressure putter in the history of golf (at least before Tiger Woods came along) and his routine varied from stroke to stroke. Basically, Nicklaus would stand over a putt until he knew it was going in. And would not stroke it until he had that very positive feeling. So, I told Stella — if this is why you are waiting so long, then cool. She said it was and reassured me again — that her putting and chipping were the best part of her game.

Stella hit the ball beautifully during the first Futures Tour at Cleveland Heights in Lakeland, Florida. And again during the second event at LPGA International in Daytona, Florida. She averaged an amazing 13 fairways hit per round, as well as 13 greens. In the two events, she only had one penalty stroke. So, based on those hitting stats, you would assume Stella had a great two weeks. In fact, for someone who has such a great short game, with those hitting numbers, you would probably assume she won or came very close to winning both tournaments. Well, sadly, you would be wrong. Stella had a disappointing two weeks. She finished well down the pack in Lakeland and missed the cut in Daytona. Why? Simple, her short game let her down.

In my opinion, these two reasons are why Stella struggled with her short game in the first two events. And why I think she will get better and better each week if she works on this as diligently as she worked on her swing this winter.

First, her routine was awful. I know that sounds harsh – but it’s true. Here’s the thing – and we all fall victim to this – myself included. If you practice a certain way and then play differently – you will certainly struggle. And especially when there is pressure. Stella was spending the few weeks before the first event making 100 five foot putts on a chalk line every day. She got so good at this drill, she literally could do it with her eyes closed in 15 minutes. But, the one thing she didn’t take into account as she was practicing and making those 100 putts every day was rhythm. As she practiced, she would roll a ball over, look at the hole and stroke it in. It was the same tempo every time. Yet, when she got on the course in the tournament, her rhythm completely changed. Instead of looking and rolling the ball in. It was looking and waiting. Sometimes as long as five seconds just staring at the ball. So, now all that great practice she did on that line was useless really. Useless because she didn’t take the same feeling to the course. Instead of her five foot putts being an instinct – which is what we all want – it became a mental endeavor. She was thinking about it too much. Looking back at it now, we both learned something from the experience. She either needed to do one of two things. Practice on the line slower – just like she would do in the event. Or, putt in the event quicker – just like she practiced on the line. If she had done that, I believe she would have won the first event and come in the top 3 in the second. Wow – what a difference in confidence level that would have been. And all because of pacing.

Pacing is such an important fundamental. I bet you can think back to a lot of your great rounds and remember you pace. So many times I’ve asked people what they remember about their best scores. And almost always, they say the same thing. It felt like I was in slow motion they say. Or, sometimes they say it felt like they were moving much quicker and not thinking. Either way, it’s the same thing. It’s pace. Try and recreate your ideal pace as often as possible — especially recreate the pace you practice at — and you’ll find yourself scoring much better.

The second thing that stopped Stella and also stops the average golfer is comfort zone. Comfort zone is a very underrated factor to a golfer’s improvement. Think about it. How many times have you had a great front-nine followed by a lousy back-nine — only to shoot the same exact score you always shoot? Or vice versa? Sometimes we all get a little uncomfortable scoring lower than we’re used to. And for Stella, who had struggled for a couple years, it wasn’t time for her to be one of the best players on the Futures Tour. She wasn’t ready yet. She was finding ways to shoot the same exact scores she had shot the year before. In spending her entire winter focusing on a mechanical change, she lost sight of something very important for a professional golfer — score. She hadn’t quite given herself permission to be the best player yet.

I see this a lot with average golfers. They hit the ball better because of lessons or a program like Andy’s – but still don’t score that much lower. I hear it all the time – George, I’m hitting it so much better – but now I can’t chip. Or, my short game is so much better, but now I cannot hit a fairway. This is the same situation – they are not quite ready to get out of their comfort zone.

I believe you will see a great improvement in your scoring ability if you focus on these two things. First, recreate the pace you practice on the golf course. And secondly, see yourself shooting lower scores. Give yourself permission to be a lower handicap.

Good Luck!

4 Responses to “Practice Like You Want to Play”

  1. patrick farrell says:

    Andy, i feel as if this article was written with me in mind .As imentioned to you earlier i thought i was to be one of the low % of failures with your new swing method. I have eventually found what you have being trying to tell me all along with your 4 magic moves of golf. I am hitting the ball a lot longer and straighter than ever i did before but sadly have neglected the short game side of things, at which i had been fairly comfortable with, but now the edge has gone off it, hitting it furthur but not scoring any better. I will have to spend as much time with my short game as i do with my driving, but must say still enjoying this great if not frustrating game.

  2. Carl says:

    My game really started to improve when I finally got comfortable with the 4 magic moves I was hitting all of my shots much straighter, but was not making putts…finally and the end of this season I was determined to keep my head down no peeking until the putt was well on the way I also started to look at my line make two practiced stroke and just putt the ball, my putting improved 100%

  3. Mbulelo says:

    Face same challenges when on Golf course i cant just recreate the pace at practice in the driving range. Ned some confidence level to conquer courses. Some Help Please!

  4. Tony says:

    :mrgreen: sounded very like my own golf situation currently !! Will definitely be looking to get rythm into my short game & control it rather than fear the consequences of a bad shot !

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