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Smart Golf: How to Practice

Will those of you who like to play on weekends and holidays but don't have time for lessons and practice please raise your hands?

Hmmm. Quite a lot of you.

Everyone with a hand in the air, please turn to the next article. Thank you.

Okay. Now that the dilettantes have left, we can discuss two issues that plague you serious golfers. Why are many of you not improving despite the lessons you take and all the range balls you hit? And why can't you take your game from the range to the first tee?

Our guest instructor for this discussion is Roger Maltbie, winner of five PGA Tour events and currently a golf commentator for NBC Sports. Maltbie is also the author, with Ron Salsig, of Range Rats: How to Get Your Swing from the Practice Range to the Golf Course. He knows how to make your practice time this season more productive.

"It's always bothered me," Maltbie says, "how little the average golfer knows about practice. Almost nothing has reached the average player about the most important aspect of any attempt to improve—how to practice."

The problem begins with ignorance of the fact that there are two types of practice, and there are times and circumstances when each is appropriate. One category is defined by Maltbie as practicing golf; the second is practicing the golf swing.

Practicing the golf swing is what you do after taking a lesson or two and trying to make a change in your swing. In this sort of practice, the golfer must not care where the ball goes. He cares only about getting his club and his body into the positions he's trying to learn. Maltbie says it takes a minimum of twenty-one practice sessions to ingrain a new move into the swing. That's assuming that the practice schedule is a compact one. If your twenty-one sessions are spread out over several months, it might take more.

As Tiger Woods's struggle to revise his swing over most of last year illustrates, making changes can be a painful process. While it's underway, the ball is going to go sideways a lot, because any new move or position disrupts a player's normal rhythm and timing while he's trying to learn it.

That's why, Maltbie believes, the intensely competitive player has a very difficult time making improvements. He may take a lesson, but before he gets in those twenty-one practice sessions, he plays in a tournament or maybe just a cutthroat Saturday-morning Nassau. Under pressure, trying to win, he reverts to old habits that, though flawed, are more likely to get the job done in the short term. Such players "aren't patient enough to be diligent in their efforts to improve," Maltbie says. "If your master plan is to improve your swing and lower your handicap, you have to be dedicated to that. You have to sacrifice what your potential score might be in a round during the transition."

If, on the other hand, your practice aim is to polish and make the best of what you have, then Maltbie believes you need to practice not the golf swing, but to practice golf.

He learned this distinction in 1987. Under the tutelage of Peter Kostis, Maltbie was trying to make a swing change that spring, correcting an ingrained habit of hooding the club on his backswing. He had qualified for the Masters, but when he got to Augusta, his swing was a mess. He could barely keep his shots on the range. Kostis looked at what Maltbie was doing on Tuesday and shook his head. It was too close to the competition to be practicing a new move, he said. Maltbie had to assume that he'd already put in enough time and the new move would be there. For the remainder of his pre-Masters practice, Kostis advised Maltbie to think of only three things while hitting balls on the range: timing, rhythm and balance.

This is the essence of practicing golf. Maltbie took Kostis's advice, and he played so well that week that he held a one-stroke lead with nine to play on Sunday. Though he eventually finished a stroke out of the playoff that was won by Larry Mize, he had learned something very important.

When your first priority is competing or playing as well as you can, you need to restrict yourself to practicing golf. Maltbie has since supplemented Kostis's trifecta of acceptable things to work on in this type of practice—timing, rhythm and balance—with two more: alignment and ball position. But there the list ends. Failure to observe this rule is one of the reasons players don't always bring their best games to the first tee. A player might arrive at the course an hour ahead of time so he can practice before he plays. But on the range, something goes awry, and the player responds by trying to fix his mechanics. Once he's practicing new positions, tempo and rhythm go out the window. When he gets to the first tee, the player lacks his normal grace, and his play reflects it.


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