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June 1, 2015

Practice Makes Perfect Sense for Your Business

10 ways to help golfers get more out of practice sessions, and increase the value of your facility

BY: TONY L. STARKS

Practice is often undervalued as a tool for getting golfers to spend more time, and money, at your facility. According to a 2014 consumer study done by the McMahon Group, many golfers are opting for more concise golf experiences such as practicing or lessons rather than full four-hour rounds. With this emerging trend, now is the time for instructors and golf facility operators to start turning practice time into dollars and cents. But how?

It starts with helping your golfers get more out of their practice sessions by delivering effective, fun and memorable experiences. These type of experiences build loyalty and drive traffic – they keep golfers coming back regularly, participating in your special promotions and supporting other facets of your business such as food & beverage. In this month’s cover story we’re providing you with 10 proven strategies to help golfers get more out of practice sessions.

Provide Opportunities to Practice Course-Like Conditions

Ben Hogan’s practice habits were renowned. He once said: “I never hit a shot on course that I haven’t practiced.” Your students should have a similar mentality. Encourage them to practice shots from the rough, sidehill lies (if available), 80-yard bunker shots and all the obstacles they’ll face on course. Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, recently built two short game areas that allow members to practice various shots from upwards of 120 yards. However, you don’t have to build a new complex to accomplish this. At Lake Herner Country Club in Oklahoma City, PGA Head Professional Shannon Friday converted an open lot near the clubhouse into additional practice space by mowing two practice greens and allowing golfers to hit to them from surrounding areas (from as far as 80 yards). Golfers can drop their balls in the rough, on uneven lies or under a tree to try to reach these greens.

Measurable Results

PGA Professional Ben Pellicani is a pupil of Mike Bender, having spent three years working with the 2009 PGA Teacher of the Year at the Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary, Florida. Now an assistant golf coach at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee and a teaching professional at Family Golf Center just outside the Music City, Pellicani implements much of what he learned from Bender at his facility. “One thing we do that I learned from my time with Mike is something I call the ‘Zone Challenge,’” says Pellicani. “We place two poles 20 feet apart on the range at 7-iron distance and we ask our golfers to land it in the zone. We have signs placed all around the range explaining the poles and instructing golfers to hit seven out of 10 shots in the zone.” They also have a 20-yard wide driver zone used the same way. Signs are also posted explaining the driver zone challenge. “It gives people a way to quantify performance.”

Offer Time Slots for Supervised Practice Sessions

Hitting bays are packed at Big Sticks Golf Academy during the winter. The indoor training and practice facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts, is prime space for practicing when there’s snow on the ground. To attract more golfers during the summer, they began hosting scheduled “Supervised Practice” sessions. Offered four nights per week between 4:30-8:00 p.m., the sessions allow individuals or groups to utilize all the facility’s practice amenities in a casual setting and receive tips from PGA Professionals for $20. “In developing this program we have seen an immense gathering of loyal clientele,” says Big Sticks’ PGA Assistant Professional Aaron Ungvarsky. “A third of all students who signed up for Supervised Practice opted for private lessons. We had an 80-percent retention rate and an additional 40-50 percent of Supervised Practice students brought a companion with them on their returning visit.”

Fitness is a Key Part of Practice

Results from the 2015 GRAA Teaching Survey revealed that more than 40 percent of teachers incorporate fitness into their lessons. In addition, there are a ton of simple exercises your students can do right on the range to prepare their body to practice or play. “Everyone chuckled when Tiger said his glutes weren’t firing (at Torrey Pines), but he was actually right,” says PGA Professional Dave Phillips, co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute and a Golf DigestTop 50 Instructor. “The glutes are the king muscle in the golf swing. They stabilize you, they’re the anchor of the swing. If they’re not firing then the core’s not engaged. It creates instability.” Here are several simple exercises you can recommend your students do on the range prior to practicing to engage this important area of the body:

  • 10-15 lunges
  • High steps or walking a staircase 3-4 times
  • Walking briskly across the range a few times
  • Getting up and down out of a chair, or anything that mimics the squat motion

Family Practice Programs

Troon Golf, which manages more than 120 facilities across the United States, has seen great success with the Troon Family Golf initiative. The core elements are instruction and introduction to the game, with kids receiving complimentary lessons with a paying parent. However, practice has become a larger component, especially for parents whose kids are on the fence about golf. Participating facilities provide the kids with a set of junior clubs to practice with – this saves parents from having to make an initial investment in golf equipment. But should the junior develop a real interest in the game, they’ll likely return to the facility when they decide to purchase clubs. “Getting the proper fit equipment can sometimes be a challenge for a parent looking to introduce golf to their kids. Providing the right equipment for juniors is one of the big reasons for this program’s success,” says Kris Strauss, Troon’s VP of sales and marketing. “The reality of it is that families have a multitude of entertainment and recreational options. Programs like this make it easy for mom and dad to get out to learn and practice the game with their kids.”

Arrange Targets to Recreate a Playing Experience

The practice range at UNC Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home of the Tar Heels golf team, is designed to emulate on-course play. The target greens are positioned so that golfers can visualize shot shapes. In addition, bunker placements around the greens give golfers the on-course feel. “Our players are encouraged to imagine they’re playing an actual hole while hitting each shot,” says Andrew Sapp, the men’s golf coach at UNC. If you don’t have a similar infrastructure, you can create the same effect by placing moveable targets on the range and periodically rearranging them so golfers can hit different shot shapes.

Provide Access to Training Aids

Training aids are a great substitute when you are not around to watch your students swing. They can be used to reinforce your instruction, even in your absence. That’s why Michael Shure, the director of golf at RedTail Golf Club in Sorrento, Florida, set up a program to give his students, and all golfers at the facility for that matter, access to training aids. “We have a bag full of training aids in the storage room that students can check out after consulting with my teaching staff. It’s almost like library books,” says Shure. “We have them consult with us first to make sure they being used properly and the aid is actually the right fit for the changes that particular golfer needs to make.”

Multi-Sided Range Usage Allows Practice in Different Wind Conditions

Multi-sided ranges serve a purpose other than separating the teaching area from general range usage. Golfers can change sides to practice hitting shots in various wind conditions. Orange County National Golf Center in Winter Garden, Florida, is lucky enough to have the largest full-circle range in the country, so golfers can literally get a 360-degree practice session. “Golfers can practice in any type of wind direction on our range, although sometimes we restrict certain areas for maintenance or special events,” says Roger Masterson, the facility’s PGA director of instruction. “But the same effect can be done at any double-sided range, you just have to educate golfers on the importance of practicing into the wind or downwind, even side winds. Also, be sure they know the option is available.”

Range Games

Range games are a great way for players to test themselves after practice. It adds a level of competition that closer resembles actual play. Here are several games you could suggest to your students or even play alongside them:

  1. VISION 54 iPhone App – This iPhone application from renowned instructors Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson has a popular “shake” function that works great as a range game. Your student simply starts the app, shakes their phone and then it gives them a random shot to attempt. It’s perfect for practicing in pairs, as your students can challenge one another to see who best executes the required shot.
  2. b.MPEI (Minimal Percent Error Index)– This is a game that PGA Professional Cameron McCormick has used for years with his star pupil Jordan Spieth. Have the student hit five wedge shots over a range of distances (perhaps 40-110 yards) hit in random sequence. Afterwards, evaluate the average proximity to the hole. Then repeat, and try to beat the previous results.
  3. c. Balloon Blast – Last summer an assistant professional at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania had the idea to fill colorful balloons with helium and hang them above the practice range as targets. The balloons were floated at 75, 100, 125 and 150 yards, with the heights of each set to match the apex of trajectory for different irons. “We did it just for fun, but I can see how there could be all kinds of applications for games and competition,” says Scott Nye, Merion’s PGA head professional.
  4. d.HORSE–This is played the same way as the basketball game we are all familiar with. With a playing partner, call out different shots to different targets on the range. More advanced players can include trajectory and shot shape (such as high fade or low draw). The player who executes the shot worst gets a letter. “It’s been a popular game at our range because we have so many different targets,” says PGA Professional Susan Roll, owner of the Carlsbad (California) Golf Center.

The Three Forms of Practice

There are three widely accepted forms of golf practice. Educating your students on what these forms are and the benefits of each can help them see better results.

a. Block Practice –This is what you see at the range everyday. Golfers hitting balls one right after the other with no particular purpose. This is quantity practice but not always quality practice. However, block practice is great when your students are trying to master a new swing position and need to get the reps in.

b. Random Practice–With random practice, golfers are preparing for the course by hitting different clubs shot after shot. Random practice is extremely effective at creating good on-course habits. Encourage your students on their next range visit to imagine playing each hole of their home course. This type of practice should include a strong focus on the preshot routine.

c. Variable Practice – In this method, your students take a particular skill and vary the way they practice it. For instance, if they’re practicing 20-30 yard pitch shots, have them vary how the shot is played – working on changing the trajectory of each pitch shot. They should start with the standard pitch and then vary it by hitting the ball lower and higher.