Bender preaches aim importance at teaching summit

Mike Bender during a 2008 short game lesson at Timacuan Golf Club.

Mike Bender during a 2008 short game lesson at Timacuan Golf Club.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Mike Bender says you don’t know how to practice.

Yes, you.

Here at the PGA Teaching & Coaching Summit, Bender explains his practice principles to an audience of 400. He talks frequently about Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd, his star students, but he is careful to stress that his theories apply to all golfers.

Bender, the 2009 National Teacher of the Year, has a message for you, whether you are good or bad, straight or crooked: Before you practice anything else, learn to aim properly.

Right-handed golfers tend to aim to the right, and left-handed golfers tend to aim to the left.

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To see exactly where you are aiming, try this drill: Place one golf club on the ground near the ball, along your intended flight line, then place another club behind the heels of your feet.

The path between the two clubs points downrange like a highway. Stand behind the ball and see where the path aims. You may be surprised.

“As teachers, we have to teach them (students) to aim on the golf course,” said Bender, indicating his desire to create a course-like environment in his practice sessions.

To simulate real golf – as opposed to slam-bam-hit ’em as fast you can – Bender uses a series of drills and props. These props include flags, Styrofoam sticks, pointers, cones and various targets. He establishes a variety of practice stations, or hitting areas, and he instructs his students to hit to zones. More than that, he teaches golfers to “get used to seeing the zones” on the golf course.

A zone is an area where a golfer wants the ball to go. Rather than aim at, say, a tree behind the green, golfers pursuing a Bender zone would aim at a specified area left or right of the flagstick. The size of this zone would depend on the length and difficulty of the shot.

A typical practice session with Bender would include 10 shots each with 9-iron, 7-iron, 5-iron, hybrid and driver. Each of these 50 shots would be evaluated and awarded a certain number of points. He encourages golfers to establish their own target zones and point values.

And it’s not just about where the ball ends up: Bender believes golfers should look exactly where they want the ball to start. This should become ingrained as part of the pre-shot routine.

“Focus on the red square” is a favorite Bender phrase, indicating an area that is visualized by the golfer. This is where the ball should fly. He uses a “start line” to help students see where the ball should be going as it leaves the clubface.

Elementary stuff, perhaps. The kind of fun and games we might have pursued as kids.

In its own way, though, it is brilliant. Golfers don’t pay enough attention to practice. They are forever saying, “I hit it great on the range and terrible on the course.”

Bender’s philosophy is the practice area can be a rehearsal for the course. He does not believe in random practicing. He is a man with a method.

In the world according to Bender, practice doesn’t make perfect. It just makes all of us better golfers.

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