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Developing a fundamentally sound practice swing is an essential part of making great golf shots.
Developing a fundamentally sound practice swing is an essential part of making great golf shots. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

Pay close attention to those practice swings

Steve Whidden, PGABy Steve Whidden, PGA,

Students ask all the time if they should take a practice swing or not. In response, I ask if they do in fact partake in this all important facet of the game. The answer usually comes back "sometimes."

That's like admitting we would "sometimes" like to hit a good shot.

I also hear from many that their practice swing is very good, but the swing they put on the ball is poor. Maybe. Let me explain.

Golf is a motor skill, which means that the way that we swing a golf club is basically formed by an image that we have in our brains. If the imagery we have is poor, than the resulting swing will typically be poor. Many argue that there is no such thing as muscle memory in golf, just motor memory. I agree.

Example: One of the biggest skills missing from golfers is the ability to hit the ball first and then take a divot. Most exclaim that this motion is just for the pros, or must take some great strength. Neither is true. We are all born with an instinct to scoop the ball into the air by releasing the club head too early in the downswing in an attempt to get the club "under" the ball.

Once the student is taught that that, in fact, is not how the ball goes up, but instead the proper motion of taking a divot in front of the ball, all the brain cares about from that point forward is to take the proper divot. The student can draw a line on the ground between their legs perpendicular to the target line and practice taking a divot at or in front of the line.

But what they really are doing is building motor memory. The brain will tell the body how to do this action over time. When the divot is behind the ball, typically subconsciously, the brain has resorted to its old reasoning; not because the golfer has physically performed poorly. As far as I know the arms and the hands that are doing the scooping do not have a brain, so something had to tell them to do it!

Back to practice swings: Take them very seriously; your brain is paying attention. The ball does not really care too much about anything else but what the golf club is doing at the moment of impact. So if taking a good divot in front of the ball is something that happens on chips, pitches, irons, hybrids and fairway woods when hit properly, then when you set up for a practice swing, set up equal to the ball (a few inches away), make a swing not thinking of how to take the divot, just on making the divot in the correct location. This may make a try or two. As soon as you see the proper divot, get right up to the ball and hit it without delay.

Basically what has just happened was your brain gave you the correct information, the body responded with how it is going to do it and you just tried to replicate that motion. That is how you play a motor skill.

Remember, you can drill on the range working on hitting in front of the line, but when it is time to play, your brain does not care about the way it happens, it just wants you to show it the correct motion and then wants to fire.

Those who have trouble taking the "perfect" practice swing and have trouble hitting the ball, upon further review, actually do not have a correct practice swing, they are actually putting the same incorrect motion on the shot and are disappointed.

So, yes, take a practice swing. Know what requirement that practice swing must have (divot in front of ball), set up to your shot, and hit the ball.

Stick with this routine and enjoy the great shots that are coming your way.

PGA Master Professional Steve Whidden is the owner of The Steve Whidden Golf Academy and director of instruction at Rosedale Golf and C.C. in Bradenton, Fla. He has been named a top 50 instructor by Golf Range Magazine (2014, 2013, 2012), a Top Instructor in America by Edwin Watts (2013), the North Florida PGA Section's Teacher of the Year (2013), the Southwest Florida Teacher of the Year (2014, 2013, 2010), and the Horton Smith Award winner (2013). He is also a featured instructor on Golf Channel's "Swing Fix" program.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Muscle memory vs motor memory

    BobDR wrote on: Jun 22, 2016

    Of course we have muscle memory in our golf swing which is way we pound the ball beautifully at the range but can't bring it to the course. Muscle memory only last a short time. I think the message here is that pounding balls is a waste of time!


  • Practice Divots

    Dan wrote on: Oct 9, 2015

    what about all the nasty extra divots this creates? is that not an issue also?


      • RE: Practice Divots

        Barry J. wrote on: Mar 14, 2016

        I had this concern too. I just take care to replace with sand/seed mix.


  • Practice Swings

    Tom Carpenter wrote on: Sep 9, 2013

    This article on taking a divot could not have come at a better time...For some unknown reason this year I started hitting shots thin I struggled all summer...I thought I was lifting my head BUT when I took my practise swing on the course I didn't want to tear up the fairway ot tee so I kept the head above the grass and developed a bad habit...I would resolve it on the range but go right back on the course..I hope this will now be resolved...Thanx


      • RE: Practice Swings

        Barry Jennejahn wrote on: Mar 14, 2016

        The past several months, I'd spent so much time on putting that I'd developed some bad habits in my irons game, as well. Working on swing plane, head position, rotation, etc... nothing stopped the inconsistent contact and ocassional destructive thin shot. Two things immediately made a huge difference. A narrower stance to help me get my weight forward. And this tip! I've tried to get away from listening to tips as they inevitably lead to a laundry list of swing thoughts that never benefit me during a round. But this simple tip made a dramatic difference as it shows your brain what you want just seconds before you hit your shot. It actually helps to eliminate the need for swing thoughts.
        In my book... BEST TIP EVER.


      • RE: Practice Swings

        andy riley wrote on: Jun 19, 2015

        I am a feel player this is something ive found myself, I googled practice swings to see if anyone else was thinking along the same lines, what you have described is exactly what I am working with, no question my iron play has improved with this method, I play off 4 and hope to go lower.great article thanks.


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