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Smart Golf: How to Practice

A fan of the PGA Tour might object at this point, saying, "I sit behind the practice range at tournaments and I see players working on their mechanics with people like Butch Harmon until a few minutes before they tee off. It doesn't seem to hurt their games."

That's a misperception, says Maltbie: "When you see a teacher working with a player in those circumstances, most of the time all he's doing is offering the player positive feedback. He's saying, 'Yes, you've made the change. Yes, your swing looks good. Have faith in it. Trust it.' He's not revamping the player's golf swing five minutes before he tees off."

The principle applies as well to the world's top-ranked player, Vijay Singh, who can often be seen working long hours with an array of practice aids before a competition begins. Singh's not getting feedback from a teacher, Maltbie says. He's getting it from his gizmos—the club lying on the ground by his feet, the shaft stuck in the ground to guide his backswing and keep him on plane. "Vijay's practice regimen is uniquely his own," Maltbie says. "For instance, he swings a weighted club. If I did that, I'd have no chance on the first five swings I took with a regular club, because it would feel like a feather. But for Vijay that's no problem at all."

When Singh practices with a club on the ground, parallel to his target line and the line between his feet, "he's doing a couple of things," Maltbie says. "He's working on his alignment, making sure he's aimed where he thinks he is. And he's working on ball position. It's always a good idea to check them. Vijay is so diligent that he doesn't allow either to get away from what they should be."

Maltbie recommends that every player do the same when he's engaged in practicing golf. He calls this "building a practice station." The simplest station is the club lying on the ground. It should be parallel to the lines between the feet, the knees and the shoulders, as well as the target line. A variation adds a length of wood or a second club to the array a few inches on the opposite side of the ball from the player, also parallel to the target line. This helps keep the player's swing on plane and prevents an outside-to-in move. A third variation involves setting up another club perpendicular to the first one, just inside the left foot (for right-handed players). This checks ball position. For a driver, tee the ball just inside the perpendicular club and move it back a little, toward your right foot, for each shorter club.

Building a station can be useful in both kinds of practice. But there are a few drills and routines Maltbie uses that are strictly for practicing golf. They're intended to polish the three things Kostis told him to work on just prior to the 1987 Masters—rhythm, balance and timing.

First, after every practice drive, hit a practice wedge. Maltbie believes that hitting one driver after another damages tempo. The driver is the longest club in the bag, with the highest swing speed. If a player hits a lot of them in succession, he's likely to raise, unconsciously, the speed of his entire swing. That's one reason why a player who finishes his warm-ups with ten drivers doesn't always bring his best game to the first tee. His tempo has gotten quick. The antidote: Hit a wedge after every drive. The slower pace of the wedge swing will help you keep your best tempo.

Second, hit some balls with your feet together. Maltbie feels this drill, a staple of many teaching pros, has several benefits. It reinforces the habit of turning the body on the backswing around a stable axis, and also discourages swaying or sliding away from the ball. That helps balance.

Third, hit some shots with a right-hand claw grip. Hold the club with your left hand normally (if you're right-handed). Place the right hand as you normally would, but then put the right index finger on the same side of the shaft as the thumb, so the shaft lies between the right index and middle fingers. This way, it's impossible to exert pressure with the right hand."The thumb and forefinger are the trigger for the right hand, and one of the cardinal sins in golf is snatching the club away quickly from the ball with the right hand and separating your arm swing from the rotation of the body," Maltbie explains. With the claw grip, your body and arms are more likely to get in synch—which is critical to good timing.

Got that?Good. You're ready to take full advantage of the practice time you put in. You may now turn the page to the next article and rejoin the dilettantes. Don't reveal what you've learned; it wouldn't help them. But feel free to raise the stakes the next time you're matched against them.

Roger Maltbie
Range Rats: How to Get Your Swing from the Practice Range to the Golf Course ($20, Woodford Publishing), at amazon.com


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