Why tour pros and college athletes are using human targets to practice

Two weeks ago, on the Tuesday before the ANA Inspiration, I spotted Bronte Law on the range, striping wedges at a very peculiar target: her caddie, Jeff Brighton. I instantly did a double take and paused to see how close the 80th-ranked player in the world would come to knocking out her looper for the week. But ball after ball, the shots floated gracefully through the air, landing softly at Brighton’s feet.

Law and her caddie started employing this strange and potentially dangerous practice method to dial in her wedge distances. Different climates and turfs greatly impact her carry yardages, and Law and Brighton decided that the “normalize” feature on TrackMan doesn’t always account for the exact discrepancies between locations.

“When I get new wedges, I want to know exactly how far I can hit it maxing out with the fresh grooves,” Law says. “It’s very helpful to know when I’m out on the course and have a tight front pin with a carry.”

Here's video of the drill:

The sort of drill Law was employing at the ANA—the “human target” drill—has a long history, but it also comes in a variety of forms. Though Law aims to land the ball at her caddie’s feet, Annika Sorenstam has spoken about practicing 30- to 100-yard shots by hitting to her caddie who catches her balls with a baseball mitt. The drill forces the player to focus on distance and line accuracy. If a shot is offline or under shot, the “target” must move their feet to catch the ball, alerting the player of the extent of their misses.

Before the days of distance measuring devices and modern driving ranges, pros in the 1950s and 60s would hit to their caddies, who would stand in the middle of the practice area shagging balls. An old story alleges that Ben Hogan once knocked out his caddie with a 1-iron in hand. Though caddies didn’t serve as targets back then, per say, the practice seems to reflect the drill we see being popularized by elite players today.

Tour pros aren’t the only ones hitting balls at humans for practice. A version of the drill has made its way into the realm of college golf. My Division III college golf team, Pomona-Pitzer, uses a similar practice regimen, invented by the former head coach of the University of Southern California golf teams Chris Zambri.

When Zambri started at USC, he wanted to find a way to utilize campus facilities and avoid the LA traffic on route to the course, so in 2006, he decided to bring his team to the baseball field. Lacking real targets, Zambri began to mess around with the idea of having his players hit at him.

According to Zambri, it’s essential to know how far you fly each club to play at an elite level. His goal for the unusual new practice method was to assess and improve his players’ awareness of their wedge and iron distances. Eventually, the drill turned into a sort of “test.”

“The coach is moving around to different yardages, and it’s 20 shots in a row,” Zambri described. “You try to basically hit the coach at his feet, and then the coach paces to wherever the ball actually lands and that [number of paces] is your score for that shot. We call the test a ‘Random 20.’ ”

The test started to become even more useful to the USC men’s and women’s programs when Zambri began keeping track of each players’ “scores” on the test. The collection of data allowed the team to find a reference point for the standard of excellence in distance accuracy. Over time, the drill became the perfect way for Zambri to help his players break down their games and identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Zambri has now designed a variety of different tests, some that focus on carry yardages and others that emphasize direction. His tests will soon be added to Scott Fawcett’s app DECADE, a program that combines shot-distribution patterns and PGA Tour scoring statistics to optimize target selection. Will Zalatoris, who finished runner-up in his Masters debut last week, credits Fawcett as shaping his course-management strategy.

The human target drill clearly serves a distinct purpose for professional and high-level competitive players. But if you decide to try it at home, think about providing your target with a helmet.