The Balance Between Practicing and Playing Competitive golfers have to balance many factors when it comes to their golf careers, whether they are full-time professional players, up-and-comers, nationally-ranked or state-ranked amateurs, or those serious about playing in the city championship or winning the weekly Nassau at their home club.  Time spent on the course vs. leisure activities, time spent in the gym vs. rest, and eating healthy vs. the occasional splurge are all parts of the balancing act that these players face. No less part of the equation is the time spent practicing vs. the time spent playing. You will hear advocates on both sides of the debate touting why it’s better to play more or to practice more. Back in the 1990s, there is the case of one Division I college golf team in Florida that spent the vast majority of its time practicing. The team went out to play only a couple of times a week, with the coach preferring the players to work on their swings through extensive practice sessions. The team experienced little success. A coaching change occurred, and the new coach emphasized playing over practicing. Since then, the team has experienced greater success and has produced some PGA Tour players. Clearly, the prior coach put too much emphasis on practicing at the expense of playing. And yet, it’s possible for a player to neglect needed practice sessions. How do golf coaches handle the balancing act of practicing vs. playing? For a possible answer, we can turn to a golf legend, the late Billy Casper. Casper noted that when he was getting good at the game, he spent about 20-30 minutes practicing before playing 27or 36 holes a day. He ended up with 51 Tour wins and is one of the greatest players of all time. Then there is the legend of Ben Hogan. All serious golfers know that Hogan practiced tirelessly in order to build a repeating swing under pressure, but how much did he play? Information on this is virtually nonexistent, so it’s difficult to say, but Hogan has been on record that he enjoyed practicing as much, if not more so, than playing. Casper and Hogan represent two different approaches. Which one is right? It depends on the individual. Casper believed that the modern-day obsession with obtaining perfect swing mechanics comes at the expense of learning to play the game to the best of one’s abilities. And although Hogan emphasized practice, he almost certainly played the game every day. It has been said that golf is the only sport where practice doesn’t take place on the same field of battle as other sports. Football players practice on a football field; basketball players practice on a basketball court; golfers practice on a driving range. So it is different in that respect. But practice can also be done on the course. Many singles play two or three balls if they’re not keeping score. Getting back to the question of if it’s better to practice or play more, the answer lies in the individual. Players who are more artistic and who don’t think too much about swing mechanics are probably better served playing as much as they can. Bubba Watson, never one too concerned with swing mechanics, spent a lot of time playing prior to making the Tour at Stonebrook Golf Course in Pace, Florida, just outside Pensacola. Watson was a regular in the daily money games that were held at the course, only practicing for 30-60 minutes and then teeing it up for his daily 18 holes. Players who also feel like they have a handle on their swings should spend more time on the course as opposed to practicing. Tour player Bryce Molder has been quoted as saying once he got on Tour, he started practicing more but it didn’t work out for him. Since he felt in command of his swing, he improved after reducing his practice time in favor of playing. Tom Kite, on the other hand, was more Hogan like in his approach, always concerned with mechanics and honing his swing. So it can be inferred that those who are more analytical would probably benefit from spending more time on the range, although it’s possible to engage in some creative artistry there, too.  Do you remember that hooked wedge Watson hit at the 2012 Masters to beat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff?  That wasn’t the first time he hit one like that. Watson spent some of his practice time hitting hooked and sliced wedges on the practice range at Stonebrook, creating different shots. Players who are struggling with their swings also need to up their time spent at the range. A golfer who isn’t comfortable with their swing will not perform well while playing. One thing that is important though, is that even mechanically-minded golfers need to spend time on the course, because the rhythm of playing is completely different than the rhythm of practicing. As that one college team in Florida found out, eschewing the course in favor of disproportionate time spent on the range doesn’t work. Competitors must find the time to play in order to compete at their best, and the balance between playing and practicing must be dealt with on a fluid basis, not a static one.
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