STRETCH & RESIST
When practicing out on the range, it's important you remember to be in a training mind-set, not necessarily a playing one. This means, in addition to working on your golf swing, you should also condition your body, too. I like to work on stretching the big muscles of my body before I even make a single swing. This helps free up any tense muscles or joints and gets me ready to start making some free-flowing golf swings.
One of my favorite stretches is simply to hold a club along the shoulders and make some practice strokes. As you do this, pull with your right hand going back and then pull with the left hand coming through. This is a great stretch of the entire body. Do it several times, then try doing it in reverse, where you start from the impact position and work your way to the top of your backswing.
Despite what you may think, playing golf while riding a cart can sometimes hurt you more than help you. If you can, walk the course. You'll loosen up and stay more flexible. But if you opt to ride, stretch as often as you can during the round to prevent stiffening up.
The next drill I like to do before I actually hit a ball is to tuck a towel under my arms and make some practice backswings. The goal is to stay connected and keep my arms in front of my chest. In doing this drill, if you do it right, the towel should stay tucked in your underarms. If it falls, keep trying until the towel stays connected to your body. The more you keep your hands in front of your chest, the stronger your rotation will be.
As you warm up for your practice session, don't always reach for the driver. Try warming up with heavier clubs like short irons and wedges first. It will help smoothen your tempo and prevent you from swinging too fast, too soon.
FOCUS ON ALIGNMENT
If you're lucky enough to watch Tour players practice, you'll see that many of them spend countless hours working on their alignment.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever had a day where you feel uncomfortable over the ball? Or you feel awkward? I'll bet in almost every case, it's a matter of bad alignment. If you're not aligned correctly, not only is it uncomfortable, but it wreaks havoc on your ability to make good, consistent golf swings. I like to use two alignment rods in my practice station, even when I'm not working on my alignment! Make sure your feet, hips, shoulders and eyes are aligned carefully. I like to hit shots with a square stance and square shoulders, making sure my feet and shoulders are aligned parallel left of the target.
SPOT-CHECK YOUR SWING PLANE
Another key element worth your time on the range is your swing plane. It's one part of your swing that's hard to check, especially midround, when you don't have a training aid nearby to check and make sure you're routing the club on the right swing plane (not that you can use a training aid while playing anyway).
To check your plane, I like to use an alignment rod, placed parallel to my clubshaft at address. The goal is to swing the club above that rod and not get trapped under the correct plane or to deviate too far above it. Since it's practice time, I like to check my positions, too. This may mean stopping midway back or midway on the downswing in order to groove an on-plane golf swing.
Notice how, in the above photos, the clubshaft closely resembles parallel in each photo. That's a good sign that I'm dialing in on the right plane for my golf swing.
TRAINING VS. TRUSTING
The difference between practicing and warming up is that, during practice, it's okay to be aware of the stroke, your body movements and so on. When you warm up, and even while you play, you need to shift to what's called a trusting mind-set, where you apply what you've worked on during your practice sessions to your actual golf game. Practicing drills will help you make positive swing changes; however, if you've had a difficult time taking it to the course, then you need to allocate more time practicing in trusting your mind-set. Practicing with trust requires you to "play" on the range as if you were on the course. This means visualizing different shots, whether they be straight drives, fades, draws and so on.
I like to encourage my students to put pressure on themselves and successfully call their shots five times in a row, that means, hitting a particular shot at a particular target five times in a row. For example, the first shot I want to hit is a drawing 5-iron. The next is a high hybrid, the third is a cut 7-iron, the fourth is a straight drive and the last is a flop shot. If I can execute all five with decent results, then, great. But if I mess one up, I have to start over with five more shots.
This type of practice helps me not only become a more creative player, but it engages the trusting mind-set, which is what you'll need to start playing better golf. It's also a fun game to play with a buddy. To do it, pick a target and a shot pattern for the shot. The target need not be a pin, but maybe a 10-yard radius from what you pick. From there, play a game of HORSE, just as you would with a basketball.
USE THE WHOLE RANGE
I remember watching Nick Faldo practice at Riviera, where he hit consecutively one fade, one straight drive and one draw with his 4-wood. He did this for 15 minutes straight. This is about practicing golf. Bubba Watson certainly has practiced shaping shots, and this led to trusting his swing when it mattered most, in a playoff to win the Masters.
When you practice, don't settle on hitting the same shot two times in a row. Out on the course, you'll likely never be forced to hit the same shot twice in a row anyway, so why practice like that? Work on hitting a variety of shots with each club, and go back occasionally to the one you struggle with. You may find you produce better results hitting some shots over other shots, meaning you know what shots you can turn to when you need a clutch shot out on the golf course.
For example, let's say you're on a hole and it's a long dogleg-right par-4. Your practice has shown that you produce better results hitting draws than you do fades, so the right play still may be to hit a draw on that right-leaning hole. The point is, always play to your strengths first, then let the hole dictate what shots you're going to hit. You don't ever want to force a shot you're not comfortable with.
Practicing a variety of shots will help you determine the shots you can count on out on the golf course.
When practicing on the range, get used to hitting shots that feel uncomfortable to you. Imagine holes that are shaped the opposite way of your natural ballflight and rehearse the steps necessary to hit the fairways and greens. The range is a blank canvas for your imagination. Use it!
DRAIN SOME SHORT ONES
If you're feeling tentative with your putting stroke, build some confidence and work on some short putts. Not only will you develop more confidence, but you also may very well develop a better putting stroke! By not being fixated on missing putts, rolling in short two-footers will help you get a better feel for a stroke that's unencumbered by negative thoughts and feelings. In fact, I've seen some of the best putting strokes from my students come from putts inside two feet because they have no fear of missing such a short, easy putt.
ROLL THROUGH THE GATE
One of the keys to being a good putter on greens that have a lot of break is knowing how to become a good spot putter. Because of the break, you're not going to aim at the home anyway, so it's important you develop confidence in hitting your putts to the apex of the break. To commit to doing that, I recommend practicing your putts to go through a gate at the apex, and again, another gate near the hole. It will take some trial and error to get it set up, but when you do, you'll learn how to better hit to a particular spot on the green that isn't the hole, but in the end, it will help you make more putts.
Practice your directional control as well as your distance control. A great drill is to stand in the middle of the putting green and try putting to the fringe. Get the ball to stop as close as you can to the edge of the longer grass. By not having a specific target to aim at, you'll enhance your feel for better distance control.
RELAX & TAKE IT TO THE FIRST HOLE
If you've spent a few hours practicing, whether it's a couple of days before you play or on the day of your round, it's important that you mentally shift from a training to a trusting mind-set.
The course is where you actively play golf; it's not where you practice making perfect swings, putting strokes and so on. No, it's where you're thinking about hitting whatever shot lies before you. You're factoring in the elements, the lie, the break and the slope. You're hitting shots you know you can make because you've practiced them and you know what to expect. Trusting your abilities is essential, especially in the heat of the moment, when you need to pull off a good shot to make a birdie or even save par.
Rick Sessinghaus, PGA, is a Top-25 Golf Instructor and founder of MZ Coach, the ultimate mental game learning site for the game of golf. For more information, visit mzcoach.com and ricksessinghaus.com.