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Practicing on a Mat

Sep 15, 2023




In many parts of the country, practicing off mats is just part of the reality of being a golfer. Few people enjoy hitting from mats, but if they are the only option in your area – well, you gotta do what you gotta do.

If the grass isn't growing in the winter months, the grass tees won't be open at the range, and artificial mats will be your only option.

The good news is this – you can still make plenty of progress on your swing even when hitting from a mat. Is hitting off of a mat the same thing as hitting a shot from the turf? No, not quite. But you are still making a swing and hitting a golf ball, and there is still a lot to learn.

With this post, we’d like to explain how hitting from a mat is different than hitting off natural grass. Also, we’ll highlight some ways that you can optimize your practice sessions to make sure you get the most possible benefit from your time on the mats.

Let's get right into it – the list below touches on some of the main differences between practicing on a grass range and hitting balls from an artificial turf mat.

Quite obviously, you aren't going to be taking divots from an artificial turf mat. That means the club head can't sink down into the ground after impact like it usually does when you are hitting from grass. So, if you swing down through the ball to hit a wedge or another short iron, for example, the club is going to bounce up off the mat after impact rather than cutting down through the grass.

While you should still be able to make your normal swing – unless you have a particularly steep downswing – there will be a different feel through the impact area. No matter what you do, hitting balls on a mat will never feel quite the same as playing from grass.

Perhaps the biggest practical difference when hitting off of mats is that you can be forgiven for some of your swings that would have produced fat shots on the course. For instance, let's imagine that you are hitting a wedge toward a target that is 100-yards away. If you hit an inch or so behind the ball while practicing on a mat, the club is likely to ‘slide’ across the mat and into the ball, producing a decent result. The ball might wind up flying all the way to the target, or at least pretty close to that 100-yard mark.

Of course, if you were to hit an inch behind the ball while playing on grass, you wouldn't get so close to the target. Depending on the conditions of the turf, you might only get 70 – 80-yards out of such a mistake.

If you are hitting a long iron shot from the mat, or a driver off the tee, you won't notice much difference as compared to practicing on grass. The biggest difference from a long iron perspective is that you have a perfect lie every time on the mat, with the ball sitting up cleanly. That isn't always the case on a real golf course, so mats don't give you the opportunity to practice from less-than-ideal lies.

One of the keys to getting value from your practice time on mats is simply to pay attention. Let's go back to the previous example of hitting a fat wedge shot on a mat. Sure, the ball might have made it most of the way out toward your target – but you could probably feel in your hands that you didn't hit it cleanly. So, don't base your evaluation of the shot on where the ball ended up, but rather on how it felt. If you know it was a fat shot, work on making corrections so you can hit the next one cleanly.

Also, range sessions on mats are a great time to work on your long game, since those clubs aren't as affected by the change. You can get plenty of driver and fairway wood work in, and you can hit some long irons, as well. That is not to say that you shouldn't hit any wedge shots but focus your efforts on the parts of the game that will look similar between mats and natural grass.

You can also work on fundamentals like aim and alignment while practicing on artificial turf. In fact, some mats even have built-in alignment lines to help you work on how your body is positioned at address. It is often the fundamentals that lead to the biggest gains in golf, so never miss an opportunity to sharpen up this part of your game.

We need to quickly mention the issue of injuries as it relates to artificial mats. Since the club is going to bounce back up off the mat when you use a downward strike through impact, you might find that hitting too many balls on mats can be tough on your joints. Specifically, you may develop pains in your lead wrist or elbow, and maybe even up into your shoulder. This is particularly true for players who swing down steeply into the ball.

If you are concerned about this issue, limit the volume of short clubs you hit from the mats. Maybe just hit a few wedge shots before moving onto other things, rather than emptying the whole bucket of practice balls with your wedge. Cutting back on how many times you swing hard down into the mat from a steep angle will hopefully help you avoid any injury issues.

Hitting off artificial mats really isn't that bad. It will never quite be the same as getting to practice on grass, but that doesn't mean you need to stay home and keep your clubs locked up. Have a plan for how you are going to approach this kind of practice session and you can still come away as a better golfer for the effort.

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Playing From Thicker, Deeper Rough

This year's hosting duties for the 2023 PGA Championship fall upon the infamous East Course at Oak Hill Country Club located in Rochester, New York. Before undergoing a series of redesigns, Oak Hill CC's East Course was originally designed by architect Donald Ross during the 1920s. A few years ago, the 18-hole championship venue located in upstate New York underwent its latest major renovation project in order to restore the layout/design to its more-original design.

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As Ross grinned down from the Heavens, the East Course completed its restoration project in 2019 and included several tradition-inspired alterations that tweaked the classic venue in a fashion that not only satisfied Ross's original vision but enhanced the course's appeal from the standpoint of championship-caliber golf.

If you tune in to this week/weekend's television coverage of the PGA Championship, you’ll notice certain alterations and nuances within the course's defining characteristics that include squared-off putting surfaces, flatter and deeper fairway/green-side bunker surfaces protected by more-pronounced grass-banks acting as lips, flatter natural contours on the greens, substantial tree-removal, and deeper/thicker rough among other changes.

Now that Oak Hill CC's East Course contains less trees than it did in previous years, the course's superintendent has the luxury of growing thicker, healthier grasses. Also, being able to grow this longer, thicker rough was necessary in order for Oak Hill CC to keep pace with the increased demands that host venues and potential host venues must satisfy in order to (potentially) host a major championship. Tree removal on any golf course, including Oak Hill CC's East Course, initially presents players with a reduced challenge from the standpoint of controlling one's golf ball.

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In neutralizing these resulting losses as it pertains to the course's overall (reduced) challenge, greenskeepers will frequently opt to lengthen/thicken the rough. I was once a junior/men's member at a 1920s Tillinghast-designed course, not unlike Oak Hill CC's East Course and Winged Foot GC's West Course, which was restored to its original design about a decade ago. Also, the physical changes brought forth by the recent renovation/restoration project at Oak Hill CC's East Course were strikingly similar to the changes that took shape during and as a result of my home course's restoration project.

Not only did both renovation projects alter its course's landscape/structure in order to better reflect its original design, hence the "restoration" namesake, but both venues transitioned to squared-off greens, more-penal fairway/greenside bunkers, flattened putting surfaces, less trees, and deeper/thicker rough. Like the restoration project at Oak Hill CC's East Course, other classic courses located in the Northeast section of the US have undergone or are undergoing architectural modifications that are or were rooted in satisfying its own unique tradition and pastime.

Given the higher premium that's being placed on the quality of today's course conditions, more clubs than ever are engaging in tree removal. If you struggle playing from thicker/deeper grasses, now is the time to start tackling that weakness as the days of being able to play shots from underneath old, large trees on thinned-out, hard-pan lies are dwindling.

When your ball comes to rest in deep rough, a golfer's first objective is to assess the lie. If it's really sitting down, you may or may not be able to reach the green-in-regulation. At courses such as Oak Hill's/Merion's East Course, the grasses in the rough are cut/designed to make playing from the rough more difficult than ever.

Oak Hill is truly a work of art. 🌳#PGAChamp

— PGA of America (@PGA) May 16, 2023

There's a difference between long rough and the more-challenging thick rough. Thick rough will often grab the hosel and shut the club face more excessively than you’re otherwise used to when your club head enters the grass. As a kid, I was taught to play more of a cut/fade out of the rough. Depending on the thickness of the rough and the quality of your lie, opting to favor a cut can help mitigate the common risks that are associated with playing from deep rough.

Out-of-the-rough, we need to find a way to limit the amount of grass that gets caught between the club face and the ball at/near impact. To achieve this, we must do what we can to ensure more of a descending blow at/around impact. In other words, more of a high-to-low delivery is paramount when the ball is sitting down in deeper rough. By favoring a fade-bias (out-to-in) setup/swing, we’re making it easier to deliver a more-descending blow without sacrificing height/distance on the resulting shot.

On the nastiest lies in the rough, our options are limited. In these situations, don't try to be a hero by attempting to reach the green with your 3 or 5 wood. A couple of decades ago, the invention of the hybrid club began replacing long irons in players’ bags. Mainly, the hybrid was designed to make playing shots from the rough easier. Still, electing to play shots from nasty lies with your 3 & 4-hybrid-clubs may not be your best course of action. On nasty lies, keep in mind that your first priority is to get the ball back in play by any means possible.

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For instance, let's consider a player's options after he hits a 250-yard drive into deep, thick rough while playing a 400-yard par 4. First, this player is best served by asking himself how far he can realistically carry his ball from his unfavorable lie in the rough.

If there isn't a forced carry to negotiate (water, bunkers, etc.) between him and the green, this reality presents itself as a favorable circumstance in terms of being able to assume more risk. The nastier the lie is, the shorter the ball is going to carry. Also, thick rough makes it more difficult to create spin on the golf ball. Often, approach shots played from out-of-the-rough fly like a "knuckleball" in baseball does.

With less spin, you have less control over the golf ball. If the aforementioned player selects a club that’ll likely advance his ball to the green as he faces that unwelcoming lie at a distance to the pin of 150 yards, he needs to factor in his further-compromised ability to produce spin/exercise control over his golf ball. With less spin, the ball will likely carry a shorter distance and roll out more than he's otherwise used to.

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When faced with ANY lie in the rough that you’re trying to advance to the green, you need to find the distance between your ball and the front of the green. Don't over-consume your thoughts on the distance between you and the pin. Too often, players will hit their ball(s) over the green due to each's failure in adequately accounting for the increased roll-out inherent to approaches played from out-of-the-rough.

Simply make sure you’re trying to fly your ball a distance that isn't too far. Also, electing to keep your ball further below the hole is often a reflection of sound course management. Most classic courses in the US were designed so that missing long or past-the-hole is more penal than missing below-the-hole is (short of it). With that in mind, older courses also contain more green complexes that slope back-to-front as opposed to front-to-back.

Now that we have a better understanding of how the ball reacts (differently) when it's hit from the rough, we need to learn how to optimize our execution of these shots. While the ball has less spin, we can mitigate these effects by engaging in a few techniques. Mainly, we need to make sure we maximize the quality of the strike.

Out of deep rough, this often requires an open setup. In order to increase our chances of lifting the ball high enough and with enough spin that it will hold the green, we can always favor a cut.

Next time you’re in deep rough, take an extra club and focus on creating speed at the bottom of your swing. Often, I’ll see amateurs hitting shots from the rough by employing a short, rushed swing. In an effort to advance the ball adequately, they’ll lose patience during the backswing/transition.

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Remember, we want a lot of speed AT the ball (impact) and not prior to impact. In order to achieve this, try employing more-aggressive practice swings with your slightly open stance/club face. Be sure to pick a spot located on the ground and allow the sole of your iron/hybrid's club head to hit that spot. As a reminder, this game is all about finding happy mediums. With respect to shots from deep rough, we don't want to chop wood in our efforts to create or optimize a descending blow.

Along with the use of your adequate weight transfer and hip/shoulder turn, we still want to create a wide arc on our backswing. Again, trying too hard to muscle the ball out of the rough will often result in a shorter, poorly-timed golf swing. Instead, open both your stance and the club face and make a controlled, aggressive swing. You cannot be afraid to hit the ground after you’ve struck the ball.

Unlike tee shots and even shots from the fairway, you need to make sure you firmly contact the ground after striking the ball in thick/deep rough. If you don't, your ball may never get airborne, let alone reach anywhere near the putting surface and/or your intended target.

In addition to your fade-biased setup, you’ll often need an extra club (or 2) when the lies are particularly unattractive. If you’re afraid of going over the green after electing to club up, you can always choke up. On any golf shot, choking up on the club's grip makes it easier to exercise control over the golf club during the swing itself.

While I don't suggest choking up a ton in thick rough, choking up a little bit will make it easier to control the swing. If you choke up too much, you are increasing the chances of striking the ball thin. Out-of-deep lies, a thin strike results in a shot that may not advance further than a few yards. If the green has a run-up area, feel free to grab one or two extra clubs and choke up as much as you feel is necessary. When you choke up on the grip, the ball is going to come out lower than it does when we don't choke up.

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If there isn't a forced carry to negotiate between you and the hole, choking up can be a wise move. If the strike is solid after you’ve elected to choke up on your iron approach from the rough, the ball will often fly lower, with less spin, and track more online.

Lastly, make sure you keep your lead wrist firm thru impact when you’re hitting from the rough. A firmer lead wrist allows you to exercise more control of the club face as it stabilizes the club head/club face when it glides thru the thick grass.

To review, try opening your club face/stance on shots from deeper rough. Also, don't be afraid to pull an extra club when the ball is sitting down. If there are bunkers/rough etc. preventing a roll-up onto the green's surface, you’ll need to find a way to lift the ball high enough where it’ll carry the trouble without over-doing it in a fashion that leaves you past the hole.

Remember, unless there's water positioned short of the green, leaving your ball below the hole will often leave you with an easier up-and-down. As long as you don't short-side yourself, leaving the ball short of the hole often leaves us with more options on our next shot. Out-of-deep-rough, make sure you’re not trying to bite off more than you can chew. Sometimes, deep-rough leaves us with very little in the form of options.

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In other words, circumstances can leave us in situations where we must try to salvage par "a different way" by electing to hit a wedge back into the fairway from your bad lie in the rough. Instead of selecting a club that's too long or doesn't have enough loft, ensure that you advance the ball successfully out of the thick rough by making sure you pull 8 or 9 iron when too many people boldly decide on a mid-to-low iron.

Electing to employ a firm lead wrist and a slightly open club face/stance is immensely helpful in one's quest to play good golf shots out of the rough. At the range, we can't practice full shots from anything other than the clean lies we have on mats and fairway-length grasses.

As such, deep rough often presents amateurs with challenges that can be very difficult to overcome initially. Instead of swinging out-of-your shoes and hitting weak, poorly-struck approaches over and over again, take an extra club and open up your stance/club face when your ball comes to rest in thicker rough.

You’ll be pleased when you strike the ball in the center of the club face and in a fashion that results in more manageable up and downs from distances of 10 yards as opposed to 50 yards or more.

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Why Golf has a pretty cool product, they call the "Bunker Mate," a small, oval-shaped piece of what appears to be a soft, plush carpet that can also double as a pretty accurate simulation of bunkers.

The company sent me one of them a few months ago, and for the past few months, I have been using it to tidy up my game in my unfinished basement. While it also is ideal for the side of practice greens at your local muni, the Why Golf Bunker Mate has given me a reason to be excited about entering bunkers and other challenging short-game scenarios on the course, even though I may do my best to avoid them.

Why Golf describes the product on its website:

"Bunker Mate is designed with a top layer custom developed by WhyGolf to mimic the feel and ball flight of sand, an internal "bounce" layer with just the right amount of resistance to digging, and a bottom rubber layer for weight, traction, and durability."

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I have to admit, I was somewhat skeptical when Why Golf sent me the sample. I was eager to try it, but I was also questioning how anything on Earth would be able to simulate the challenging nature of a bunker without actually having sand present.

It comes with the Bunker Mate and two foam balls that won't damage anything. You can skull a shot, and trust me — you will when you first give this thing a go — and it won't hurt anything, especially not your wife's brand-new lamp or your precious flatscreen TV. It would probably be best to avoid testing the latter theory, just for good measure.

What I was most impressed with was how the Bunker Mate and the foam balls were able to simulate spin. I have a relatively spinny bunker shot. In my experience, my fast swing and open club face (I usually opt for my 60-degree wedge) produce a quick, high-spin shot that will stop relatively soon based on green conditions.

There is an adjustment period with the Bunker Mate, just like any new club, lie, or scenario in most of our golf games. I will say that once you get the hang of this thing, it is pretty fun to fool around with. I even like to pick a spot on the floor or put down a mug and try to land the ball close to it and get as much spin as I can.

Has this translated to better performance on the golf course?

I will say it is tough to say this with a definitive answer in terms of hitting bunker shots. However, I did find that my overall confidence with wedges increased after I spent a few hours a week with the Bunker Mate at home. I feel like I am more comfortable giving the bounce an opportunity to do its job and am more prone to not decelerate into the ball, which usually results in presenting the leading edge and walking to the other side of the green to hit another shot.

It's $79.99 on the Why Golf website, and I believe it's definitely worth it, especially if you can take it to a simulator and let it do its job on there or if you just want something to keep you fresh during the evenings or off-season.

In my opinion, I’d give this a solid 8.5/10.

I’d like to see more foam balls included, I think it could also have some sort of grip or adhesive on the bottom that would keep it from sliding on the ground. One other thing that is tough to emulate with the Bunker Mate is a proper stance, as many pros would recommend digging your feet deep into the sand and getting low. While the Bunker Mate does require your weight to be forward to consistent ball striking, there is no way to translate an identical stance while practicing with it.

Other than that, it's a really great product.

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Whether you’re a beginner golfer or an experienced player, re-examining how to use your lead side is a worthwhile exercise. If you’re a beginner, your golf swing is a less practiced motion in comparison to an experienced player. Therefore, focusing on how you engage your lead side during the swing itself is especially valuable. Most of us play golf on the same side of the ball as our dominant hand.

As a righty, right-handed player, learning how to engage your left/lead side could produce enormous gains. John Daly practices using his lead side more than anyone in professional golf. If you’re a "feel" player like John is, you may find that working on drills that require less thought and more constant motion is best.

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We play our best golf when we’re able to stand behind the golf ball, pick our target, visualize the shot, step in, and fire. We don't want a ton of swing thoughts floating around our heads when we play. Obviously speaking, sometimes a swing thought or two keeps everything from going astray.

Practicing how to use your lead side mitigates the inefficiencies in its consequent use when we swing the club. Unless you’re a low handicapper who plays really good golf with a very weak lead hand grip, practice how to use your lead side. After all, the lead side (vs. the trail side) is the "motor" to your golf swing.

Your trail side should play a supporting cast role during the golf swing. If you want to hit the ball longer and straighter with a more efficient move, implement the following drills/practice routines into your game:

Take your trail hand off the club, and swing! Don't be surprised if you whiff, this may be the most difficult drill that exists. Just to clarify, all we’re doing in performing this drill is swinging with one hand on the club. I know we’ve been over this before, but stressing the importance of this drill over time is incredibly helpful.

In other words, you’re not going to be able to perform this drill three or four times with a couple dozen balls per session and expect to feel the difference. Grab your 8 or 9 iron and start by hitting 20-yard pitches/bump and runs. You can stand with your feet in a more narrow chipping stance or by taking your normal wider stance. Again, since this can be a very frustrating drill in the beginning, take your focus off the golf ball.

Make one-handed practice swings while focusing on where your clubhead is bottoming out. Pick a spot, any spot, on the ground and allow the clubhead of your 8 or 9 iron to feel the turf. Most times, those who struggle with this drill are unable to stay compact thru impact. In other words, their lead side breaks down, and their right or trail/dominant side does more of the work.

When we do this, we’re inevitably sacrificing stability, efficiency, and control in terms of how our body moves. When you make your one-hand swings, don't be afraid to slam the clubhead against the turf. In order to do this effectively, you’ll have to engage your body properly.

During this drill, too many people take a huge backswing and "die" at the ball. Focus on rotating behind the ball on a slower, controlled backswing. Once we’ve completed our small backswing by rotating rather than whipping the clubhead back with your hand/arm, turn your chest in the direction of your target in order to strike the golf ball.

Because we don't have our right hand on the club in order to support the club, we have to focus that much more on how our body moves in order to strike the ball. If we don't, we’re going to hit the ball with very little consistency when we do the one-handed drill. It should feel very awkward in the beginning, but over time it’ll become comfortable.

Along with the above exercise/drill, try hitting balls with your trail foot/leg "dropped" way back in relation to the golf ball. Just as you normally would on the golf course, start by addressing the golf ball with your typical setup position.

With the clubhead of your 8 or 9 iron resting on the ground behind the ball as it always is in preparation for a typical golf shot, lift your back or trail foot off the ground and place it 2/3 feet behind its original location. If done properly, your feet should be aligned miles right (for a righty) or closed to your intended target. Now, strike the golf ball with this new modified setup position.

In order to get the most out of this drill, do not strike the ball by taking a backswing and losing your balance by trying to move your trail foot back to its original position. Often, too many people will make an effort to hit the ball by moving their trail foot closer to the golf ball on the downswing.

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With this dropped-trail foot/modified setup, check where your chest/belt buckle/belly button is pointed. Ideally, our imaginary toe/feet line when we address the golf ball on a typical shot and during this drill should be perpendicular to the imaginary line drawn from our belly button through our golf ball.

Many times, I’ll witness students perform this drill with a shoulder/hip line that's open in relation to their trail leg/foot. So, if we do this drill properly, our feet/hips/shoulders should all be very closed in relation to the intended target. From there, make an on-balance golf swing without moving or "cheating" with your trail foot.

You’ll find that in order to both strike the ball in the center of the clubface and fairly online, you’ll have to pull the butt end of your golf grip down towards the ball/ground and let your arms/hands "go." Essentially, you’re learning how to involve your lead side both at the setup position and during the swing by hitting balls with this modified stance.

If your shoulders/hip line is open in relation to your feet line, you know you’re "overusing" your trail side. Drop the back foot, and swing away on balance. Just like the previous drill, don't get frustrated in the beginning. This is designed to be a difficult drill.

The "Baseball" or Happy Gilmore Drill: Like Adam Sandler in "Happy Gilmore" or a hitter in baseball, practice hitting balls by stepping in with your lead foot.

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Start with your body further behind the golf ball than you typically would, and make controlled, aggressive swings after you’ve stepped into the golf shot. In a typical golf swing, we must transfer our weight back into our lead foot/side prior to striking the golf ball in order to maximize distance and control.

If you like to "hang back" excessively via a back foot (off-balance finish), you’re not getting enough weight into your lead foot at impact. You will hit the ball with more consistency by performing the step-thru drill as if you’re Happy Gilmore (without the RUNNING start; it's just a single step).

If you’re a backfoot finisher, perform the step-through drill. Many backfoot finishers finish their golf swing in this manner due to their inability to transfer their weight properly during the backswing/downswing.

Specifically, their weight is being transferred in the opposite direction/way it otherwise would be if they were pivoting in a more optimal fashion. If you’re a backfoot finisher who also makes a backswing that's too long, chances are you’re performing a reverse pivot. In other words, your weight is more towards your lead foot at the top of the backswing and more in your trail foot at the finish.

In order to reverse this inefficiency, perform the step thru the drill. If you start well behind the golf ball and not in your typical setup position, the only way you’re hitting the ball consistently via the step-through is thru proper weight transfer. If you struggle to keep your lead arm straight/engaged during the golf swing, try the lead hand drill.

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You may be wondering: If John Daly is a master at using his lead side, then why isn't his lead arm straightened at the top of his backswing? Amazingly, Daly is able to transition the golf club by pulling the clubhead down to the ground using tremendous force and stability.

If you have a very long golf swing via a straightened lead arm or a flexed lead arm (like Daly's), there's a high probability that you’re "throwing" clubhead in transition. Unlike Daly's "dropping" of the clubhead in transition via lead arm stability/strength, you get your hands/arms/ and club/clubhead too far from your body in transition.

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This existing inefficiency in your golf swing is caused by your dominant, trail hand/side "taking over" on the downswing. When it takes over, your lead side "crunches" or loses its stability in transition.

If you watch the Golf Channel, you may have seen Raymond Floyd giving a swing lesson once or twice. Raymond attributes amateurs’ struggles to improper alignment via a closed stance. Also, he mentions how "this thing on top of our shoulders," aka our brain, is smart in how it compensates for certain backswing flaws.

Oftentimes, amateurs will set up too closed to the target, and on their downswing, they’ll return the club to the ball using an inadequate "over the top" move. In this lesson, Raymond is merely pointing out how our mind chooses to associate a good shot with an over-the-top downswing.

However, without mentioning so, Raymond is alluding to our brain's tendency to associate our dominant arm with hitting a golf ball or performing an action. When we throw the club "over the top", our dominant arm is performing the work that we incorrectly associate with hitting a good golf shot. So, we must rewire our brains in order to use our lead arm/side.

Rewiring our brains in such a fashion will not happen overnight. But, with every practice session using either 1, 2, or all 3 of the above drills, the more we will improve our golf swing in terms of its effectiveness and efficiency.

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