In his exclusive Today's Golfer column, award-winning comedian, BBC Radio 5Live host and Bad Golfer John Robins explains why practising less could actually improve your golf.
For many golfers, winter is a time where more balls are hit on the driving range than on the course.
Bad weather and new year’s resolutions combine to convince us that this year it’ll be different. This January we will fix that slice, we will have that bunker lesson, and by the time the clocks go forward our game is going to be in perfect shape to hit the course. Practice, practice, practice!
Sometimes I wonder if secretly, we golfers would actually prefer to stand on tee boxes, swearing, rather than putting some hard graft into getting better. I know I’d rather play in my weekly Stableford than do Phil Mickelson’s clock putting drill (A HUNDRED PUTTS IN A ROW? Seriously?!). But I come with a message of hope.
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That’s right Bad golfers, you could drastically improve your game by practising less! Let me tell you a story…
After golf came back halfway through the first lockdown I headed to my local driving range, my usual sigh replaced by an overwhelming excitement to hit balls again.
Delighted to secure a left-handed bay without having to kick out one of you cheeky right-handed interlopers (that’s right, out you get!) I set up with a basket of 100 balls and seven-iron.
As is often the way when you’re a leftie I was facing the guy next to me who’d arrived at the same time. It can be a bit uncomfortable staring directly at your neighbour when your swing is at its rustiest. We exchanged a bit of chat about it being good to be back and set to work hitting balls. What unfolded changed the way I practised forever
The first thing I noticed was his breathing. I’m not averse to the odd whispered self-admonishment after a shank on the range, but this was more than the usual level of harrumphing. In fact, he was actually getting out of breath.
Still, I kept my head down and did a few warm-up stretches. But I couldn’t help but notice just how many balls he was getting through. I decided to take a step back, to line up my mat and assess the flags on the range (this is a lie, I wanted to see what on earth was going on).
The man next to me can’t have been more than 25, fit, in the prime of life, but his practice session was rapidly descending into something resembling an army boot camp. For about two minutes I watched him pick up balls, swing like hell, swear at himself, reload and go again. He started to get quite angry
“Come on! You can hit this club!” he shouted as a ball slammed into the bay wall.
“For Pete’s Sake! Hit it straight!” came the growl as a ball pinged off the gravel in front of the mat.
“Jeez! You could do this in March!” preceded a slam of his driver into the mat.
This chap was totally self-destructing, clearly expecting immediate perfection but doing absolutely everything to make even a half-decent shot impossible. It was quite something to behold… and I saw a lot of my own mistakes in him. Right before my eyes this guy was actually getting worse at golf.
I felt so sorry for him. I was so close to saying something but was conscious that I might end up on the end of his 101st swing of the morning.
By the time he had finished his basket of a hundred, I had hit 23 balls. He was out-hitting me by more than four to one. After he had left, thoroughly dejected and lower in confidence than when he arrived, I took stock of what I’d seen and tried to analyse the mistakes he’d made that I was often guilty of myself.
The challenge we all face on the range is how to make it as much like a round of golf as possible. Unless we’re working on a specific drill, or part of our swing, hitting dozens of balls with the same club doesn’t prepare you for anything, and it leaves the other 90 per cent of shots you need sorely neglected. Whatever we’re doing we need an aim for each session.
My self-lacerating bay neighbour didn’t aim a single shot nor pick a single target in the ten or so minutes he spent whacking, huffing and swearing. For all he knew, half of his shots might have been bang on line, he just didn’t know where the line was!
He also never stepped off the mat. Not once. As soon as he saw the ball not doing what he wanted he picked up another, not even waiting to see where his previous attempt had landed or taking a second to use the information that ball was giving him. He was learning nothing (other than the fastest way to make yourself angry).
And can you guess how many different clubs he used during this breathless self-annihilation? One. And the club? Yep, driver. One hundred shots with a driver, arguably the most difficult club in the bag. Perhaps he was new to the game and thought there was a different range for iron and wedge shots. Or, perhaps, he was like so many amateur golfers, kidding himself that aimlessly bashing a ton of balls with a club he only hits 13 or 14 times in a round will lead to his lowest-ever score.
But the most destructive thing he did (and which we all do), was expect too much of himself. This was the first day back after lockdown. There’s no chance he’d hit a ball in anger in eight weeks and because he topped that first ball he thought it was all a waste of time. The angrier he got, the less care he took, the more tense his swing became and the worse the result.
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So, with my remaining 77 balls I devised a practice plan… I would do entirely the opposite of everything he had done.
Rule No.1: 100 balls is too many. I would be better taking time with 50 or even 30 because the temptation is to rattle through shots when you’ve got such a full basket
Rule No.2: This is amazingly hard to do, but I would have to step off the mat after every shot. Try it. It’s SO HARD! But it really helps in working out what’s going wrong or right and gives you a moment to reset. It also instils a commitment to a pre-shot routine which will really help consistency on the course. It’s not like you stand in the same spot, hitting the same shot when you’re playing.
Rule No.3: Every shot must have a purpose (jots down an idea for a best-selling golf book) and the ultimate goal should be to make the driving range as much like a hole on the course as possible. I pick a flag on the left, that’s out of bounds on the first hole, pick a flag on the right, that’s the trees. Anywhere in the middle is fine. Once I’ve hit a drive on that imaginary fairway I pick a flag as the hole and hit an iron, then pick a close flag and hit a wedge.
And finally, Rule No.4: This is something I’ve heard pros recommend, which I really like. As soon as I’ve hit a perfect shot with a club, I take a mental picture of that ball and put the club back in the bag for the rest of the session. I want to leave thinking every club is in good shape.
So, there you have it. My golf practice masterplan. We’re not professionals and we can’t spend hours on our game every day, or even every week. But a disciplined and focused half-an-hour spent with 30 balls might be all you need. Better practise means less practise.
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WITB: Bad Golf's John Robins
Click the club names to read reviews and tests of John's clubs
Driver: Cobra King Speedzone Xtreme Loft: 10.5º set to 11.5º. Shaft: Tensei blue 65 reg
Hybrid: Cobra King Speedzone Loft: 2H. Shaft: Recoil reg
Irons: Cobra King Speedzone Lofts: 5-GW. Shafts: Recoil reg
Wedges: Cobra King MIM Lofts: 52º, 58º. Shafts: STD wedge shaft
Putter: Odyssey O-Works 2.0 R-Line
Golf ball: Bridgestone E6
John Robins is an award-winning stand-up comedian and radio host. Listen to his BBC Radio 5Live show every Friday from 1pm or download the podcast here and watch his comedy special 'The Darkness of Robins' on Netflix here. You can also follow John on Twitter and Instagram.