Does Practicing Making Golfers Worse?

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

I haven’t hit a ball on my club’s driving range in two years, and during that time I’ve played the best, most consistent golf I’ve ever played. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether hitting range balls didn’t make me worse. My first few shots on the practice tee would inevitably include my best shot of the day. Then, as I worked my way through my bag, my swing would deteriorate until I was shanking my wedges, fatting my irons, and slapping weak leakers with my woods. And then I’d go play. One day, I decided to skip the warm-up.

I also stopped using the practice green, and almost immediately I became a better putter. One possible explanation: when I tee off now, I’m the only guy in the group who hasn’t missed a putt that day. I’ll watch other guys on the practice green, to get a feel for the speed, but I won’t stand there lipping six-footers.

The explanation is probably just that I’m a bad practicer. In the old days, when my swing would turn sour I would attempt a frantic intervention, by churning through two or three buckets in the hope that at some point quantity would metamorphose into quality. All I was really doing was cranking my tempo into the red zone and filling my head with negative thoughts. I was also rehearsing, and therefore ingraining, whatever problem had sent me to the range.

But even for players who practice well, hitting range balls before teeing off may be overrated—as Rory McIlroy demonstrated on the final day of the Ryder Cup this year, when he nearly missed his tee time for his singles match with Keegan Bradley. He didn’t have time to go to the range before teeing off, yet he birdied four of the first nine holes and beat Bradley two-and-one.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after not going to the driving range  before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after defeating Keegan Bradley two-and-one in their singles match, on a day when he didn’t go to the driving range before teeing off.