Let’s face it, most of the people in the United States that can afford to play golf work for a living. I happen to be one of those people. I am however, fortunate to be able to maintain a +1 handicap index while only playing once or twice a week. While one certainly needs to have some talent, the most important thing for me is quality practice, and that means prioritizing my limited practice time.
6 or 7 years ago I worked in the golf industry and played or practiced golf at least 6 days a week. I played some tournament golf as well and got down to a +2 at one point. My practice time consisted mainly of pounding 3 or 4 hundred balls a day on the back of the range, and chipping and putting for a few hours. I was a pretty consistent ball striker and my short game was sharp, but suffered with a streaky putter.
When I left the golf course job to get a “real” job, I became a weekend golfer. In order to maintain my handicap, I had to prioritize my practice time to work on the parts of my game that made the most difference in my score. Since it has been proven that up to 65% of your score is shots inside of 125 yards, (See Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible) I decided I would spend 70% of my practice time on the short game and putting.
The difference has been dramatic. During the long days of summer, I try to practice every Friday afternoon for a few hours and play every Saturday. That is about all the time I have. I spend 30 minutes or so hitting a small bucket of balls. I’ll hit mostly wedges and short irons, a few mid irons, a few long irons and the last few balls with the driver. It is important to go through your routine on every shot to get the most out of your practice. I’ll spend about an hour chipping and pitching balls around the practice green. Use 6 or fewer balls and take your time, preparing for each shot as if you were on the course. Sometimes I’ll play a game I used to play in college. Take 3 balls and chip to a hole until you make one, then take that ball out of play and chip to another hole with the 2 remaining balls until you make one again. Then take the last ball and chip to yet another hole until you make the last one. Only then can you walk away. It’s a great game to introduce a bit of pressure into your practice session. Finally, spend the last half hour or so putting. Start with some long putts for speed control, work on leaving your putts inside a few feet, and try to get it past the hole. I like to try finishing my putting practice by making 20 three footers. Again, introducing the element of pressure will make you concentrate, rather than mindlessly rolling the ball around.
While I feel my long game has declined since the time when I could hit 300 balls a day, it has not declined to much from that level. Rather than spend hours machine gunning balls, I am able to really focus on each shot and get a better quality practice in less time. I also use training aids to help focus on one thought or another. My favorite drill is to use 2 sticks aligned with my target line, sightly wider than the club head. I place a ball in the center and hit shots without touching the sticks. This drill helps me maintain a path that is going down the target line, and it has really helped my iron play.
I am able to maintain a zero handicap because I have a solid short game and I have turned my biggest weakness into a strength. I now feel confident on the greens and that also helps the rest of my game. I know I don’t have to hit the ball great because I will be able to get up and down for pars and make some longer putts every now and then. If you prioritize your practice time and focus on quality over quantity, you’ll ee your game improve also!