If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone complain that their swing is only good on the range, I probably wouldn't be writing this short guide right now. Getting a swing from the range to the course is probably one of the most difficult things for any golfer. As a competitive golfer, it took me several years to become comfortable on the course. This guide is not written to berate the average golfer who complains of this very problem. Instead, this guide is meant to provide actionable strategies for becoming a better “course player,” rather than a “range player.”
Believe it or not, the course is an entirely different monster than the range. Something about it gets our minds racing, and causes us to miss shots we couldn't even dream about missing on the range.
I think we are all familiar with this topic, so I won't waste your time explaining. Without further adieu, here are my five most helpful tips to get your game from the practice range to the golf course.
Tip #1: Have a Plan Before Hitting Your First Ball at the Range
I think we’ve all heard this one at some point, but I would like to get into detail with it. You may hear things like “play holes on the range,” or “go through your full routine on every shot,” or “never hit the same club twice.” Personally, I am not a fan of this advice, because we all need repetition at some point. If all you ever did was play imaginary holes on the range, there wouldn’t be time to work on your swing.
Instead of following this generic advice, I have come up with a practice session template that allows me to improve my swing while still being able to bring it to the course. My range sessions depend on several variables, therefore will never be exactly the same. For example, if I am working on a major swing change, I will favor repetition more than routine. Those first few sessions at the range during a major swing change are all about getting the muscle memory engrained in your swing. On the contrary, if I’m approaching a tournament, or am satisfied with my swing at the moment, I favor routine more than repetition.
To make the range more realistic, it is important to map out your practice session before hitting your first ball. I have four types of practice that I do, and depending on the current state of my game, their ratios will vary:
Repetition practice- high quantity, same club for several balls in a row, focusing on making a specific change in the swing
Maintenance practice- high quantity, switching clubs every five shots, working on fundamentals
Realistic practice- low quantity, switching clubs on every shot, going through full routine on every shot, playing many different types of shots, high awareness of target
Preparation practice- low quantity, switching clubs on every shot, going through full routine, playing shots that are required at the tournament/course that you are about to play, high awareness of target
With all four of these types of practice, you should decide what percentage of your bucket be devoted to each. Personally, I like to allocate at least 20% of my range session to either realistic, or preparation practice. If I’m hitting a smaller bucket, that percentage will increase, because it allows me to get more out of it. If you are cut short on time, and can only hit a small bucket, I recommend spending a lot of time in the realistic/preparation areas.
So you might be wondering how to implement each type of practice?
Repetition practice- During this type of practice, it is important that you are rehearsing the correct motions and positions. Whenever I am doing this sort of practice, I have a video camera (I-phone on a tripod) set up. Every 20 swings or so, I’ll get a quick video of my swing down the line and face-on to check my positions. If you don’t know what you’re looking for on the video, or what “down the line” and “face on” mean, I suggest that you find someone who does, or do a little research before trying to change anything in your swing.
Maintenance Practice- During maintenance practice, I’ll go through a quick checklist to make sure that everything is in shape. Generally, I’ll have an alignment rod on the ground, and sometimes a video camera (just to check my setup). Usually, I’ll do this practice at the beginning of a range session.
Realistic Practice- I think this is the most effective way to practice, and seems to be a common recommendation among professional golfers. Here is the routine that I use to most effectively get my game from the range to the course:
1. Hit 7 different shots using 7 different clubs, while going through your entire routine on each shot (don’t have a routine? I'll address this in my next tip) 2. Hit a full 9-iron, and mark where it lands. Now, hit an 8, 7,6, 5, 4, 3-wood, and driver to the spot where your 9-iron landed. This is extremely difficult, but great for your feel. 3. Hit 3 shots with your feet together, trying to keep it smooth, and stay in balance 4. Using a 7-iron, 4-iron, and driver, hit a low draw, low fade, high draw, and high fade, making sure to go through your routine on each, and hitting each shot with each different club. 5. Pick a course that you know well, and play an imaginary round for 9 holes, going through your routine on each shot (make imaginary O.B. lines, hazards, and targets with the contours on the range)
Preparation Practice- This type of practice may not apply for the average weekend golfer, but I wanted to include it anyways. Preparation practice involves researching the course that you are about to play in competition, and figuring out what kind of shots you will need to hit there.
Say you are about to play an old style tree lined course. Obviously, on a course like this, driving accuracy is an absolute must, as well as punch shots from the trees. When you're practicing on the range (or even course), spend the majority of your time practicing with the tee clubs such as the driver, 3-wood, and hybrid/3-iron.
Maybe you're going to be playing a links style course? You would then want to focus not so much on driving accuracy, but keeping your spin rates down. If I was going to be playing a links style course, I would practice lots of half shots, knock-down drivers and 3-woods, and lag putts.
Tip #2: Develop a Rock-Solid Routine
If there is any commonality between professional golfers, it is their refined pre-shot routines. If you ever go to a professional tour event, follow one group for a few holes, and time each of the pro’s pre-shot routine, starting when the player pulls his/her club out of the bag. Most likely, their routine will vary by only a few seconds each time. As you can see in the video below, when I say within a few seconds each time, I'm not kidding!
We must all have a solid pre-shot routine so that we have something to trust in a pressure situation on the course. But how would one develop a pre-shot routine? The plain and simple answer: practice. Stand in your basement, and go through your pre-shot routine until it is second nature. Also, as stated above, use your full routine on the range for at least 20% of your shots. If you have to think about your routine, you haven’t practiced it enough. Spend 20 focused minutes a night for five nights in a row, and it should be no problem.
There is a lot more that goes into a pre-shot routine, so in order to simplify this, I have made a quick Q&A section below:
What if my routine changes?- This is completely fine! As your golf game improves, you may want to add/delete parts of your routine to fit your current style of play. The important thing is that you have a solid routine.
Should I take practice swings?- Personally, this part of my routine doesn’t stay the same all the time. If I am going through a swing change at the moment, I might use a few practice swings to create a gentle reminder of what positions that I want to be in during the swing (during the swing I don’t think about these, though). When I feel good about my swing, I’ll get my target and go without any!
What are the most important components of a pre-shot routine?- I can’t speak for everyone, but there are a few common elements found in any good pre-shot routine. Instead of listing them out, I thought I would just go through my own routine. I feel that it gets the job done, so it might be worth sharing.
Once I have picked my club and a shot to hit, I stand behind the ball with the club loosely in my left hand. I look at the target that I have chosen and imagine the ball flying to the target with whatever trajectory and shot shape that I have previously chosen. I then walk into the ball, put my feet together, and line my club up with the target using my right hand (I’m right-handed). Once I have lined the clubface up to where I want the ball to land, I then take my stance according to whatever shot shape I’m hitting. I then take two slight waggles with the club, and finally, I swing.
I have made this routine as simple as possible. There are no components of it that are useless. The visualization is extremely important to get my shot shape locked in my mind, lining up the clubface allows me to have a good reference towards the target, and the waggles loosen me up and act a trigger for the start of my swing. When you are building your routine, just make sure you aren’t adding unnecessary parts. This only complicates things, and brings your attention away from the original purpose of a routine. Simplicity is the best option in my opinion.
What if I can’t visualize my shots well?- Most of the time, you will just have to practice this skill. Visualization is an acquired skill in most cases. The way that you visualize will vary per person. Some players like me will visualize the actual flight of the ball. Some will just visualize the ball landing at the target. Some will not visualize the shot at all, but will visualize how their body will feel to hit their desired shot. Visualization is extremely important but is definitely not a “one size fits all” type of technique.
How long should my routine be?- Although I would try to keep it under a minute, it really doesn’t matter! Some players are more deliberate than others, and will require a longer routine. Fit your routine to your personality! If you are a quick moving person, make your routine a bit quicker.
Where can I learn more about routines?- I HIGHLY recommend reading Every Shot Must Have a Purpose for this topic (link at end of post). In general, this book will help you get your game from the range to the course better than any other golf book in my opinion. Also, you can visit my Pinterest board on routines, which has several videos of professional golfer's warm up routines, pre-shot routines, putting routines, etc.
Tip #3: Experiment with different swing thoughts
A full golf swing only takes a few seconds, so trying to think about different positions isn’t all that effective. It also isn’t advisable to be thinking about the water hazard left of the fairway during your backswing.
In order to hit quality golf shots, you must find a way to make it through a swing without becoming disconnected from positive thoughts about your target. Everyone will be different with this. I will generally hum a song and think only about good tempo during my swing. This allows me to trust what I have practiced and trust the shot that I have picked. I would say this is my “go to” swing thought, but sometimes, I will use other swing thoughts.
Everyone is different, though! Some players try to avoid any thinking at all during the swing. Others, like three-time major champion Padraig Harrington will have multiple thoughts during a swing. He is known to have a golf journal so he can remember all of the swing thoughts he is working with at the moment!
If you can’t figure out anything that works for you, try counting during your swing. When you begin your backswing, say “one.” When you reach the top of your backswing, say “two.” When you make contact with the ball, say “three,” and when you reach your finish position, say “four” (hopefully you don't have to say fore again!). Counting during your swing stimulates the mind, and distracts you from negative thoughts that might hinder you from hitting a good shot. It also increases your awareness of tempo, and where the club is during the swing. I use this swing thought quite frequently when I’m struggling to get my swing from the range to the course.
I also wanted to talk about the different swing thoughts for different types of shots. Nobody ever addresses this, and when I was learning, it couldn't have frustrated me more! Obviously, in golf, there are different clubs and different shots to be hit. Although swing thoughts about tempo and counting (my favorites) work for pretty much every shot, you might have different thoughts for different shots. For example, if I was trying to hit a ball over a tree, and I had to get it up quickly, the last thing I'm going to be thinking about is tempo. I will be thinking about a high follow through, and an aggressive swing. What if I was hitting a little chip shot? I probably wouldn't be thinking much about tempo. The only thing I would be thinking about over a chip shot is to keeping my body still and hitting my landing spot. As you can see, different shots will require different swing thoughts.
If you are like me, you probably are wondering what a swing thought is defined by. The truth is, everyone defines it differently. Some golfers interpret “swing thoughts” as negative things. Others (like me) interpret them as triggers that facilitate a good golf swing.
I remember an old coach talking to me about swing thoughts, telling me that I couldn't have one during my swing. I wondered for weeks how I was ever going to clear my mind during my swing! Turns out, he was referring to all the negative thoughts that we all have at some point during a round. Once I realized this, I knew that we were speaking from separate realities, and effective communication about swing thoughts was nearly impossible!
Tip #4: Use the 8/10 Rule while on the course
If there is one thing that an average golfer could improve, it would be course management. Most high handicappers struggle to make good decisions on the course, which costs them several strokes per round. When trying to get your game from the range to the course, it is important to know your limitations. Just because you’ve hit a 160-yard draw with your 9 iron on the range doesn’t mean that you can do it on the course consistently.
If you can’t hit the shot twice in a row on the range, you surely can’t do it on the course either! While playing, I often use the 8/10 rule to make sure that I’m playing shots that I’m capable of. I ask myself: “Could I hit this shot successfully 8/10 times?” If the answer is anything but a strong yes, I pick a different shot. I would much rather make a cocky and conservative swing than a timid and aggressive swing. If I’m 260 out on a par 5 over water, I’m generally going to lay up. Although I can carry my 3-wood 260 on the range about 9/10 times, that doesn't mean I can do it over a water hazard 8/10 times on the course.
This rule requires the most discipline of the five tips that I am giving you. It is always tempting to play shots that we think we are capable of. Even if it is in practice, it is important to develop the habit of choosing shots that we are capable of. If you want to start playing riskier shots, you'd better get to the practice area to make sure you can pull them off.
I remember a tournament that I played in years ago, where I was 230 yards out on a part 5. There was water guarding the entire left side of the green, and bunkers on the right. It was the second hole of the entire tournament, and I decided to go for it. At the time, I was hitting the ball mediocre at best, and couldn't have hit that shot on the range more than 4/10 times on the range. I went ahead and played the shot, but ended up swing timidly at the ball, because my subconscious did not totally believe that I could pull the shot off. Long story short, I hit that ball in the water, was faced with a brutal fourth shot over the same water, and ended up making quad. Although I ended up getting the round back to some degree, it was over before it started, all because I didn't use the 8/10 rule.
I might also add that the 8/10 rule is extremely important at the beginning and end of the round. Obviously, it is a useful guide throughout the entire round, but the beginning and end of the round are the times where we are most likely to play shots we can't pull off. When we as golfers feel a little pressure from a crowd, our buddies, or just the thrill of playing golf, we are more likely to revert to old habits, and make timid swings. That is why you must focus on playing the shots you are most confident with at the beginning and end of rounds. At the beginning of my rounds, I like to play a low draw, because it is my go to shot. I might have to play away from a few pins initially, but this allows me to get off to a good start and gain some momentum.
Tip #5: Quit Your Complaining!
Sometimes, getting your game from the range to the course is nothing more than a mindset shift. Do you find yourself telling your playing partners how bad you are on the course? Do you often think about this to yourself? You might need to take a step back and reset your attitude. Mindset shifts are extremely difficult, but are often required to move up the ladder in whatever it is you’re doing.
The mind is a powerful thing, and if your subconscious is not in check with your desires, you will surely struggle to achieve your goals. To shift your mindset, you must actively monitor your thoughts. A great way to do this is with some sort of wristband, as seen in the famous “no complaint challenge.” Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur and investor has a post about the challenge here.
Often the words we speak directly influence our thoughts. Put something on your wrist, and every time you complain about how bad your game is on the course, put the wrist-band on your other wrist. The goal is to make it 21 days in a row without moving the band.
On top of this challenge, practice the previous four tips, and your mindset will improve dramatically. Although I have labeled this section as a “tip,” it is more of an ongoing improvement strategy. This last “tip” won't take effect for a good amount of time. Unlike most golf instructional guides, I am not going to sit here and tell you that getting a better attitude about golf is easy. Improving at anything, whether it be golf, business, painting, running, etc. takes intentional effort to get better. Your playing partners/golf buddies will continue to complain about their games, guaranteed.
Will you play along to fit in? Or will you dare to leave your comfort zone on the golf course and strive to be better? The good news is, whether you read this guide once, or read it five times and also read the supplementary resources, you will take strokes off your golf game! It is more a matter of how much you will improve your game than anything!
If you truly want to improve your game, spend time learning online, at the course, and through books. If you would like further reading material, here are five books that are most relevant to each of the “tips” that I have covered above: