Many of you reading this article might have come to golf from different sports. I believe that playing great golf takes many of the same elements of success from other sports; practicing hard, mental toughness, etc.
I also think there are many things that are unique to golf that do not translate well from other sports, such as aggressiveness. What I want to explore in this article is why golfers get tricked into thinking that their performance on the practice range should translate easily to the course, and the concept of "live action".
The most common complaint amongst all golfers is that they didn't hit the ball during their round the way they did on the range. I can't tell you how many rounds where I had an amazing warm-up session, only to find my swing in complete shambles on the golf course.
We just can't seem to understand this as golfers, but it is really no different than what would happen in other sports. You can sink all of your jump shots in a warm-up before a basketball game, and then go 0-11 during the game. I don't think you would be as disappointed as a golfer would be because maybe you could blame it on a really good defender, or maybe your teammates weren't getting you the ball in the right position on the court.
I believe that the perceived similarity of practice and live action in golf is at the heart of this confusion, and I would like to hopefully clear this up.
Practice in other sports
I grew up playing every sport imaginable. I had long stints in basketball, tennis, hockey, and baseball. Ultimately I settled on golf because…well that would take me another 20,000 words to explain.
I always loved practicing in every sport I got involved in. After school I would be shooting hoops, hitting a tennis ball against the garage, and practicing my slap shot into a net.
When you practice in every other sport other than golf, it's understood that there is a major difference between your preparation and actual game play. Shooting 15-foot jump shots is nothing like playing in an actual game with teammates, and opponents guarding you. You are trying to simulate this kind of action as well as you can by working on your technique and moves, but you know that it's really not same.
Why golf is so different
The reason why golf is so different is that the game is stationary, and you technically don't have an opponent. Hitting balls on the range is remarkably similar to playing a live round of golf, on the surface. People don't appear from the trees, and try to stop you from swinging. You are not jogging to your ball and trying to swing before the shot clock expires (although I wish there was one).
I believe because practice and on-course play are so similar, it's why so many golfers can get disappointed with themselves on the course because they can't hit it the same way that they do on the range.
The reality is that playing well in live action in golf is just as hard as any other sport. The course and our mind are our opponents, and many times they are far better defenders than we encounter in other sports.
Live action, and why it's so hard
We don't really think about this when we practice, but the pressure of only having one swing on the golf course can be crippling.
When we are on the range we hit ball after ball, and develop a rhythm. Our mind naturally forgets about the bad shots we hit, and focuses on the good ones. This is almost the opposite of what happens out on the golf course, because we tend to focus on our bad shots rather than the good ones. It's funny how that gets turned around.
If you have a 7-iron in your hand and hit about 20-30 balls, your body starts to feel the memory of the good swings, which is why practice is so helpful. However, we forget how difficult it is to bring these good swings out on the course.
When we have one singular chance to hit with the 7-iron on the course, we haven't had the benefit of hitting 10 shots prior to the one that counts. Our rhythm is gone, and we have to start from scratch each time.
It's no different than coming off the bench in a basketball game, and having to sink a three pointer from the corner. We might have knocked down a ton of those in practice, but when the ball comes our way we only have one chance.
It is difficult to articulate this, but I believe this is ultimately why the perceived similarity between practice and live action in golf can make people forget that it is no different than other sports.
A drill to help simulate real golf
I do believe there is much to be gained from hitting your pitching wedge 30 times in a row. You will begin to figure out small changes in your swing that might produce better shots. This is the type of experimentation that i believe leads to better ball striking in general.
That being said, we shouldn't be machines on the range, and keep hitting the same shot time after time. At some point the returns will be diminished, which is why there has always been a great drill out there that involves playing a simulated hole.
When I am finished working through my bag I like to play a few holes of golf on the range. I will mentally set up the hole, and envision my tee shot and continue to play out the hole as if I was on the course.
What this drill is getting you to do is switch clubs between shots. Going from a driver swing to a 6-iron swing will be different. Also, you will only have one chance to hit the shot correctly, which is what it will be like on the course.
I believe this drill is best used at the end of your practice sessions, and right before you tee off. Your last few shots on the range before your round should be the kind of shots you can expect on the first hole. Use the same club you would use as your tee shot, and try to work through the hole mentally. That way your mind can get prepared for what's to come.
I hope I helped clarify why golf is really no different than any other sport in terms of how your practice sessions can be remarkably different than real playing. Don't be so hard on yourself if you can't hit a perfect 7-iron on the course like you did on the range!