How to Get from the Practice Tee to the First Tee
The most challenging transition for many golfers is expressed in this lament: "Why can't I hit it on the course the way I was hitting it on the range? It feels so frustrating!"
There is an abundance of reasons, all of which tell us a lot about our state of mind on the golf course. Let's start with purpose: what are we trying to accomplish when we hit balls on the range before a round? It usually has to do with getting comfortable with the swing, seeing how it feels that day, looking for some swing key, and so on.
Once we're on the tee, we usually have a very different purpose. It is about performance: getting a good result of the golf shot, avoiding making a mistake, and making a good impression on the people watching, especially our playing partners. With such different purposes, it's not surprising that we make different swings on the first tee than we did on the range.
Another difference is consequence. On the range if you hit a shot that doesn't go where you expect it to, there's no penalty. You rake another ball over and try again. However, you don't get to do that on the golf course. The only time you replay a shot from the same spot on the golf course is when there is a penalty involved (lost ball, out-of-bounds, etc.). Fear of making a mistake introduces tension. The possible consequence of not meeting expectations--our own or those we imagine others have of us--also creates tension that we didn't feel on the range. Tension interferes with our tempo and the freedom with which we swing.
Hitting the same club from the same spot over and over until you "get it right" doesn’t necessarily mean you've "found your swing." You may be making subtle compensations to get the ball to go where you want it to, with that club, from that spot. When you get to a different setting, especially the first tee, that special version of your swing may not work so well.
Often we don't use our complete swing routine on the practice tee. We just set up and hit, then rake another ball over and hit, rake and hit, usually without a specific target. When we get to the first tee, it's very different. Now we have a place we want to send the ball, and we need to aim and address the ball. That’s a totally different way of starting the swing.
For all of these reasons, using our swing routine at least at the end of our warm-up session, with different clubs, specific targets and good images, will give us our best chance for a successful transition to the golf course. Also, understanding the factors that make the first tee different, we can accept that our swing may not be exactly as the same as on the range, and therefore not be so frustrated by a less than perfect shot. Give yourself time to warm up to the course, no matter how well things went on the practice tee.
Willie was a tour veteran who wanted to tune up his game. As I watched him hit balls on the range, one nice drive after another, I said that those shots looked just fine. He said, "It’s easy to get into a rhythm on the range. But it's different out on the course." Later on we looked at some of his past rounds. He often struggled a bit through the early holes, then started to play better. We agreed that he was a "rhythm player," and I suggested how he might get out of his "range rhythm" and into his "course rhythm" before he got on the course.
The rhythm you develop on the range happens while you're hitting shot after shot with the same club from the same spot, often to the same target. On the course it's completely different, almost never hitting the same club twice in a row from the same spot. It takes time to switch from the practice-range rhythm to the playing rhythm.
Almost every tour pro warms up their full swing before a round in a similar way. They hit a few balls with each club, starting with wedges and working their way up from short irons to long irons to fairway woods and finally the driver. Then they hit a few partial wedge shots to finish. I asked Willie to try something different: play a few imaginary holes at the end of his warm-up.
To do this, picture the first hole (or any hole on the course). Create the imaginary boundaries of the fairway using flags on the range. After hitting a tee shot, determine how far you’d be from the green. Picture the green out on the range and play an iron for an approach of that distance. You can include a pretend par-5 and hit driver, three-wood, wedge. For a pretend par-3, tee up the ball and hit a long iron. Willie has included "playing a few holes" on the range in his warm up and goes to the first tee in playing rhythm. His scores on the first few holes of a round have improved considerably, including one round in which he birdied the first six holes.
Concluding your pre-round warm-up this way will make you feel like you've already played a few holes when you get to the first tee. You'll feel like you’re already in the rhythm of the golf course.
Copyright 2002 by Dr. Joseph Parent
From the Hardcover edition.