2005: Bring course within range
Thursday, August 18, 2011
So, you’ve left your perfectly tuned swing at the practice range and can’t find it on the golf course. Happens to everyone. There’s a way out of this common problem, however.
There’s a reason why that wonderful pre-round warm-up session abandons us as we make our way to the first tee. The same can be said for yesterday’s two-hour session hitting perfect fairway woods; now, as we stand over a 200-yard approach shot over water, confidence has dissolved in a sea of vertigo.
All of the best swing coaching in the world is wasted unless we account for some basic structural differences between the practice range and the golf course. Once we understand these, we can adjust our practice regimens accordingly, and also revise our approach when playing actual shots on the course.
Basically, the platforms differ. On the range, you’re hitting all of your shots from a level lie, and most of the time your shots land on level ground. On the course, you hit only 18 shots from a flat plane. For scratch golfers, that means 25 percent of the total strokes you take, and no more than 50 percent of all full swings. For average golfers, the numbers are much smaller: only 15-20 percent of all shots and only about 25-30 percent of full swings originate from a level stance. In other words, on the range you practice your swing from a level stance, then play most of your golf on an incline or uneven position. Under those conditions, the more you practice the more uncomfortable you’ll feel when you actually get onto the course.
There’s an even bigger gap when it comes to the quality and texture of landing areas. A range is wide open with few targets and no sense of penalty or trouble for having slightly missed a landing zone. By contrast, a golf course is nothing but a series of slopes, hazards and trouble areas for a shot varying only a few feet from the intended target.
Few people bother to target a specific area when they practice. Even when they line up at a flag in an open field, the vast horizontal perspective by which they are engulfed offers little sense of what it means to come up short, long or adrift.
Having identified these differences between “range experience” and “course experience,” the solution lies in closing the structural gap. In other words, practice like you’re on a course and play as if you’re on a range.
Most people poke a golf ball from a nearby pile of pellets, reassume their stance from the same basic position, and then use the same club repeatedly to develop muscle memory. If they set up for a target, they don’t vary it until changing clubs.
Wrong. To get a better golf course experience, readjust your stance each time, pick a different target and experiment with uneven stances so you are playing shots with more verisimilitude. Change clubs often, as well.
There’s a welcome design innovation that has seen a new generation of practice ranges with multiple targets and well-defined, even bunkered landing areas. Use these. Play shots. Imagine playing actual golf holes. Target very tight areas, such as just carrying a greenside bunker or playing shots over trees if they happen to be in the middle of the practice ground. And take careful note of how far astray each shot you hit ends up. Making note of this will reduce the feeling that most people have – namely that they are practicing exceptionally well.
One reason people don’t reproduce their “A” game on the practice tee when they get onto the golf course is because they misinterpret how well (or badly) they’ve been playing on the range.
Play golf with some of the protective cushion afforded by a range. When teeing up, seek a level lie. Surprisingly, that’s not as easy as it should be to find, especially along the extreme left or right sides of the launch pad. When on the fairway or in the rough, feel the ground and adjust your stance according to the gradients, all the while keeping in mind that a truly level lie – measured along one axis between your feet and along a perpendicular axis between you and the ball – is the exception rather than the rule.
When lining up and targeting a shot, give yourself some cushion – like the one you enjoy when practicing. The practice range is vast in width and depth. Why not build some of that comfort zone into your shots by taking cognizance of more receptive areas instead of playing all-or-nothing shots with no margin of error.
Of course this requires some imagination and judgment, as well as some rudimentary understanding of course design.
If trying to carry a target, give yourself some cushion and favor the longer side. If you’re flirting with a lateral hazard, remember to give yourself a little room wide and thereby expand the target. The small increase in playing width this affords can take a lot of pressure off a golf swing. One reason golfers swing freely on the range is that there’s no fear of penalty. Why not give yourself this small margin of comfort when you play?