Of course tour players spend a lot of time practicing—hours a day whether they're at a tournament or at home during an off-week. But there's nothing mindless about those sessions. Guys I work with like Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson aren't out there just beating balls without a purpose—and that should be your takeaway. Even if you don't have a lot of time to work on your game—who does?—you can get better if you improve the efficiency of your practice. I'll show you how to zero in on things that matter. If you do, you'll probably find that you're actually spending less time working on your game but shooting lower scores. How good is that? — With Matthew Rudy
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
You should definitely use some kind of golf-analysis app or stat tracker to identify the weaknesses of your game. That will immediately tell you where to devote most of your practice. Unfortunately, many players feel the most anxiety about their driver, so they spend almost the entire practice session smashing balls with that club. That's a mistake for two reasons. First, swinging away with a driver with no plan for how to make solid contact isn't going to make you better off the tee. It's mindless. Second, it doesn't help you with the other parts of the game—probably the parts where you really could use some work. What do tour players usually do instead? They begin practice by hitting soft pitch shots from a narrow stance, addressing the ball slightly back of center (below). They're looking for a consistent bottom to the swing and clean, pure contact. Start your session the same way. After you hit a few crisp pitches, move to a longer club and again start with smooth, almost slow-motion swings. By the time you work your way to the driver, your body is warm and you've made lots of good swings. If you can repeat that same controlled action when you're on the course, you'll see improvement through the whole bag.
BRING THE COURSE TO THE RANGE
The best practice areas have targets that allow you to visualize the shots you're going to hit on the course. But you can give yourself even more accuracy help with three alignment sticks. Take 10 big steps down range and stab one stick into the ground directly along your target line. Then place a stick three big steps left of the first, and another three big steps to the right. Whether you're practicing your most common shot shape or trying to make the ball curve different ways, you now have guideposts and gates for better feedback (below). If you like to hit a fade, work on starting your shots in the middle of the left gate and having them finish on or near the center line. For draws, do the opposite. The gates will help you learn how to control ball flight much better than just picking distant targets and firing away.
FIX YOUR FOOTWORK
Watching a relatively small player like Justin Thomas almost leap out of his shoes through impact—and smash the ball 325 yards—probably makes you want to crank up your lower- body action to hit it farther. The truth? Unless you're a world-class talent with 180 miles per hour of ball speed already built in, you need to get as much interaction with the ground as you can to produce more speed. That means keeping your left heel more stable. As soon as you let your weight go to your left toes in the downswing, your right heel comes up too early (below). You lose the ability to rotate properly toward the target and catch the ball in the center of the face. Bubba Watson can flush it no matter what his feet are doing. You need to give yourself better odds by keeping that left heel down as you swing through.
CHASE THE RIGHT BENCHMARKS
Thanks to launch monitors, it's easy to get diagnostic data about any swing—and a focal point seems to be how clubhead speed correlates to distance. Data like that certainly has its place in golf, but if you devote most of your attention to increasing swing speed, you're ignoring a big part of how to maximize distance off the tee. Guys like Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson swing really fast, but they also hit the ball in the center of the clubface—relentlessly. The next time you practice, forget the high-tech launch monitor and go old school. Coat the face of your driver (or any other club) with foot spray, and work on improving your contact. To hit it in the center, you'll probably have to sacrifice some effort and speed—but the result might surprise you. Hitting the sweet spot and launching the ball at the ideal angle will give you more distance—and more consistency—than those extra three or four miles per hour of clubhead speed ever did. Sweet-spot golf is pro golf.