Why is it that some people develop into single digit handicap players while others never break 100? Is it a matter of talent or the lack of it? Or is it purely mental? Trust me, four decades of playing and teaching golf has allowed me to hear it all. Here’s what I think is a difference maker: How practice is conducted. I’m not talking about the amount of time devoted to practice or the number of balls that are smacked. I have chosen Lesson 28 from my book Mentored by the King, Arnold Palmer, entitled Practice Like a Pro because I know it will help you play better golf.
Lesson 28: Practice Like a Pro
It was a late Orlando evening in April, and we were tucked away on the back of the range, a spot reserved for Academy lessons and PGA Tour professionals who were also Bay Hill members. It had every feel of Florida about it, but from the conversation taking place, you would have imagined we were four hundred miles north in Augusta, Georgia. Arnold Palmer quite clearly had Georgia on his mind.
As the evening unfolded, he began narrating with specific detail each of his desired shots for the upcoming four-day tournament. Officials at Augusta rotate the “pin positions” (hole placements) on a daily basis. Arnie being Arnie, he had memorized all seventy-two of them and was now mentally and physically executing the perfectly struck golf shots desired for each one as part of his preparation.
There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
Composer Johann Sebastian Bach
This is a grand example of what successful people do to consistently achieve greatness. They don’t just show up, set up, and try for the best. The steps in the march toward victory begin weeks?—??if not months or years?—??in advance.
Practice, Practice, Practice
A friend once told me of a trip he took to New York City. After an overnight flight, he checked into his hotel room and planned to get some rest before an evening presentation. His sleep was fitful, thanks to the annoying strains of disjointed violin music coming from the room next door. It went on for hours. Frankly, it didn’t sound like much of anything, but having a daughter who was taking lessons, he had a soft heart and endured it.
By mid-afternoon, he was hungry and decided to leave his room for a bite to eat. Just as he left his room, the door next to his opened, and a woman in a long black dress exited. She was carrying a hard black case. Trying to be polite, my friend said, “Are you a musician?”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“You look like you’re going to a performance,” he replied.
“I am. I’m guest performing with the New York Philharmonic.”
The woman was a professional musician! Her profession might appear quite glamorous when she’s onstage, but she was an elite performer because she was willing to persist and carry out very unglamorous work behind the scenes.
Questions and Answers
Years later, back inside his Latrobe office, I decided to ask Arnie about his infamous practice routine. I described a particular practice session. “I have to say that one of my most memorable occasions with you was the week before Augusta, observing you prepare for the Masters Tournament. I recall us being on the Academy end of the practice range at Bay Hill, and your intensity and enthusiasm were so different than any other practice I had observed.
“The best was when you said to me, ‘What shot would you like to see me play?’ I thought to myself, How cool is this that I’m going to get to play Augusta National through Arnold Palmer’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. I said to you, ‘Okay, let me see your tee shot off the first hole during the final round.’ Immediately I saw you transformed with a youthful and confident enthusiasm. To hear you illustrate the nuances of the shot you were about to execute, it was almost like you were there at Augusta on the first hole on that final day. How real was that visualization practice for you?”
A serious look came across his face. “It was very real,” he replied. “I could imagine myself being there as close as my memory could recall with full color, feels, and even the smells, for that matter. My fond memories of Augusta National and especially the Masters week are so revered and emotionally powerful to me. I can remember the details of things that happened forty years ago as crystal clear, as if it all just occurred.”
I’ve been around hundreds of excellent competitive golfers and played professionally myself for many years. Yet I had never seen such loving intensity and focus with each practice ball struck. Each one struck had its importance tattooed firmly with a spirit of the King’s persistence and determination.
“When did you begin to practice like this during your playing career, and how often would you practice like this before a tournament?” I asked. “Was this unique for Augusta, or did you have this similar intensity for every event?”
“Well, let me think a moment,” he said. “I learned to plan my work from Byron Nelson. He wrote about it in his book, and as a boy I read about it and began to apply the practice of playing the course in my mind before every important round. As I became more seasoned and had played the circuit for a few years, the ability to remember certain nuances of the greens and hole layouts and certain pin placements that the Tournament would seem to select for certain days of the event became very predictable. Especially Augusta. I know where the Thursday through Sunday pins will be, and so do the other guys that have played in the event. So when I see these shots in my mind, I am confident that these are the correct shots to execute for each round of the event.”
I wondered whether it was important to remember or ponder his missed shots. “We know you have a library of great shots and moments. What about the poor shots and failures? Do you keep inventory of these as well?”
“Oh, I suppose,” he admitted, “but certainly I don’t dwell on them. Whenever I didn’t execute on the shot that I wanted, this would usually fire me up to work on that certain shot so that I knew, when I faced a similar shot again, I was ready to execute correctly and with confidence the next time around. I will also add that I never spent much time worrying or being concerned about the shots I missed. Rather I got my head wrapped around doing it right and put it to task again as soon as I could, with nothing but great expectations.”
The Power of Imagination
Arnold Palmer’s simulated Masters practice sessions introduced the importance of using memory and imagination to practice with a purpose. Many of us tend to just hit balls and think mostly about the technique of our swing. We think just hitting the ball longer and straighter will solve our problems. But the best players get better because they are creating shots that begin in the mind. They condition mental faculties that increase their confidence and improve their ability to execute certain shots during practice and transfer that talent out onto the course.
Arnold Palmer has emphasized the importance of never being too concerned over the missed shots, but working diligently in practice to build confidence that he could repeat a certain shot the next time he faced a similar challenge. I would encourage you to try this “practice like a pro” approach toward the end of your next practice session.
This approach has widespread applicability as much off the golf course as it does on it. What’s your dream? What’s your goal?
Let’s start small. Suppose your goal is to have a more harmonious home. Did you know that experts have found that the first five minutes of anything?—??especially the first five minutes coming home to your kids?—??will most often set the tone and determine the mood for the rest of the event? Have you ever thought about “practicing” in your mind how you’d like that time to go? I’m not suggesting that life should be scripted, but a little plotting and planning goes a long way. I know a man who likes to call home at the end of the day when he’s about thirty minutes away. By doing so, he’s attempting to take the temperature of the family and prepare himself mentally for what he’ll find upon his arrival. He then has time to prepare an encouraging word or comment for his kids, as opposed to being ambushed with the latest drama of the day when he walks in the door.
Maybe you’re dreaming about starting a new business. Dreams are good, but dig a little deeper. If you want to open your own travel business, it might be a good idea to visit with someone who is already doing it. Ask about their typical day, week, or month. How does it fit into your lifestyle?
Don’t just show up and expect good things to happen. Former NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird once said that when he was young, he refused to leave the court until he had perfected whatever he was working on that day. “My dream,” he said, “was to become a pro.”
As we all know, he became a pro because he practiced like a pro.
Whether your desire is to become a pro or to possess the competence to break 100 regularly, here are a few more practice suggestions learned from the pros. Begin your session with drills that help you feel core competencies. Starting practice by hitting balls without feeling the correct technique causes conditioning of the wrong technique which is a waste of time and effort and leads to much frustration. This past week I observed Billy Horschel practicing before the BMW Championship with a Swing Belt to sync up his body pivot to left arm swing. His time devoted to drilling early in the week set the tone for a winning week. My second suggestion is practice with visual feedback through either a mirror or video clip from your phone or tablet. A picture is worth a thousand words and feeling new habits must be validated with a visual awareness. And finally, practice competitively changing club and shots each and every time. This will help you prepare for playing golf shots on the course. One of my favorite short game practices short is to take one ball and a wedge with the goal of getting up and down from 9 different places around the green. Chose different lengths and lies keeping score of your under and over for the 9 holes. Practice like a Pro and you will be more confident and better prepared once you get on the course.