Practice That Pays by Wally Armstrong

"Those who strive to teach must never cease to learn" - Bill Strausbaugh

At the end of every golf clinic, I open it up to question-and-answer time. Invariably, I get asked this question: "Hey, Wally, when you were on tour, how many practice balls did you hit each day?"

People probably ask me this question because they hear how Vijay Singh, one of today's top pros, spends hour after hour on the practice tee—before and after his round. "Really, I didn't hit that many balls," I say, "maybe 100 or 125 at the most. But you know what? It's not how many balls you hit that's important, it's the quality of the shots you hit. Hitting 500 practice balls isn't going to make you a great player. Rather, it's the type of effort and concentration that you put into your practice session that really pays off."

Here's an example of what I mean. When I was on the PGA Tour, I would begin my day on the driving range by simulating particular shots that I expected to make on the course that day. One particular session on the California coast paid great dividends. I was playing in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am back in the days when the event was held on the Monterey peninsula south of San Francisco. One of the courses used for the tournament was Cypress Point at Pebble Beach, a course with one of the most famous—and photographed—par-3 holes in the world. The 16th hole is a monster, playing 220 yards from the blue tips toward a small green overlooking the swelling Pacific Ocean. The 16th often makes or break a round, and a par is a good result.

I knew the 16th was a tough hole made even more difficult during the Crosby Pro-Am because of the celebrities playing in the tournament. My playing partner that year was "Dirty Harry" himself, Clint Eastwood, so I knew a huge gallery would be following us. I was also aware that because of the many celebrity hackers in the field, the 16th tee would get backed up; in previous years, I counted four or five foursomes waiting their turn. I also considered the capricious weather. In February, as part of the "Crosby Clambake," wet storms roared through the Monterey peninsula, and it was a rare day when the prevailing westerlies weren't blowing a gale. Plus, you couldn't help but hear the barking sea lions, or, on rare occasions, view spouting whales on their southward journey to Baja California.

Finally, I knew that playing the 16th at Cypress Point involved intense concentration and a steady swing. When you stand on the elevated tee and look down to the coastside green, you have to know exactly what you're going to do with the ball. There can't be any guessing involved.

Those thoughts were banging around my head as I approached the practice tee before the start of my round. I figured I would be hitting a 3-wood or a 1-iron into a stiff wind that day on 16, so I practiced about 20 or 30 3-woods and 1-irons, going through a step-by-step procedure that included visualizing the hole in my mind. Then I hit some shots to several different flags on the driving range, firming up in my mind the setup and swing that I was going to use when I arrived at the 16th tee that afternoon. After hitting several good shots at one of the practice flags, I felt ready.

When our foursome arrived at the 16th tee that afternoon, I felt confident that what I had practiced on the driving range had prepared me well for my all-important tee shot. I went through my usual pre-shot routine and mentally reviewed where I wanted the ball to go. I launched my 3-wood into a swirling wind and watched it land on the green and bounce up to within a foot of the pin—one of the best shots of my career. The gallery roared its approval, and within minutes, I tapped in my "gimme" birdie putt.

As I tipped my hat to the crowd, I knew that birdie effort had started on the practice tee that morning. This type of practice can pay off for you as well, and not for just playing one particular shot on a very difficult hole. The next time you practice before a round, go over in your mind how you want to play several different holes on the course. After you are warmed up, start out by hitting a driver to a certain part of the driving range. Then hit an iron to a flag, then play a few chip shots. Mix up your practice, but always keep hitting to a certain place. The body loves a goal, which is why this is the kind of training pays off in big dividends.

Tips for Effective Practice

Let's review our practice plan:

  1. Be sure to adequately warm up by swinging two golf clubs and by stretching a club across your back.
  2. Practice time is rarely beneficial if you are physically tired or lack concentration.
  3. When you're working with drills or with the training ads, don't be overly concerned about where the balls goes. Simply work on the new swing feelings.
  4. Quality time is much more important than quantity time. Beginners should always use a tee for better control and contact.
  5. Practice with a purpose. Work on one or two full-swing areas, and then practice your short game. Keep a note card handy to jot down areas of your game that are going well or going poorly.
  6. Practice to known distances. Ask if the yardage markers are accurate. Sometimes they aren't.
  7. Make lots of practice swings with your eyes closed to feel the correct position. Do this with the teaching aids and drills as well.
  8. A good tip is to play five shots with the training aid or drill, then play five shots with the club on a normal shot, transferring the feeling.
  9. In short game practice, find a companion and have some friendly competition.
  10. If you have time, practice after playing a round. Work on areas that need strengthening