February 17, 2022

Practicing to Perform – Strategies for On-Course Instruction

By Stefanie Ferguson, PGA/LPGA

The way we have traditionally practiced and taught the game of golf is rather unique compared to other sports. Although the main playing field for golfers is the golf course, we have always promoted practice and instruction on the driving range, a fairly flat, controlled environment with broad target areas and endless golf balls at our side to hit over and over. So, how can we help our clients be better players and have more enjoyment when they go out on the course? I think the answer is to spend more time coaching them out on the golf course, or for facilities where that is not an option, teaching them to practice in a way that best simulates situations they will encounter when they go play.

At CommonGround Golf Course, a GRAA Top 50 Public Facility for four years running, we are fortunate to have a short course, as well as an 18-hole championship course that we can utilize with our players. We incorporate Operation 36 programming to facilitate growth of our juniors, women and beginning golfers, and use the DECADE Course Management System for tracking statistics and analyzing shot distribution patterns with our competitive and advanced players. Here are some effective processes that we’ve implemented in our on-course coaching:

  • Beginner golfers: These players aren’t going to know what to do on a full course yet, so we always start them on our short course at 25 yards from the hole. The time we spend with them is on proper aim, short swings and putting, all with the goal of scoring a Par 3 on the hole. It’s very important for players to understand realistic expectations from the beginning. So, when we are working together on their 25-yard shots, we draw a circle to show the average tour proximity from the hole, which was 9’7” in 2021. As they get more comfortable and successful, we move them back to 50 yards, then 100 yards, and so on until they reach a full tee box. Operation 36 has been a great platform for us to use with juniors and new adult golfers to help track their efforts to shoot 36 (for nine holes) from varying yardages.
  • Golfers with experience on the full course: The approach with these players is more about course management and statistical view. We like to get them out on the full course at least once or twice per month with a heavy focus on choosing specific targets that will give them the best chance to score better. We want these players to start to think about which pins are ones to go after, and when to just play to the middle of the green. They also learn how far shots actually carry in the air, how much they roll and what their tendencies are. Through statistical analysis, we can show them where they tend to miss shots (short, long, left, right), and what parts of their game are really their strengths.
  • Competitive and advanced players: Now that we have a better idea of tendencies, carry distance and strengths for these players, we can really dive deep into choosing targets that will help them center their shot pattern in a desired location to help eliminate blow up holes. After all, the difference between great players and good players is the number of big holes on their scorecard more so than the number of birdies. I use the DECADE Course Management System with our advanced players so we can discuss where we want to hit our shots based on the trouble that awaits down the fairway or near the green. DECADE is a simple approach that helps clients commit to a target and just swing knowing where their shot pattern should end up.

Unfortunately, not every course is available for on-course coaching. In this case, there are many ways to incorporate random or pressure practice on the range – here is one of my favorites:

  • Playing “a course” on the range: Have your client warm up to start, and then have them pick a fairway out of two targets on the range, run through their full routine and hit the shot. Based on where the ball lands relative to the target, they will pick a new target the size of a green and run through the shot for that target and club. Try not to let them hit the shot over again, as we want to build pressure into their practice and routine. They will go through nine or 18 holes and score themselves based on a rating that they choose, maybe how far it ended up from their target or how well they stayed committed to the shot.

There is always a time and place for blocked practice – usually when the student requires a big swing overhaul or really needs to get a good feel for something – but research is showing that random practice has a better student retention rate. So, the more we can put our clients in course-like situations, the better.

For more information about what we do at CommonGround Golf Course, log on to https://www.commongroundgc.com/learning-center.