I've been working off a theory for awhile now, and I've talked with a lot of people about it. I've charted how much time the average PGA Tour player spends doing things, I've talked with coaches and instructors at all levels. I've talked with good and in some cases great players.
Nothing yet has dissuaded me from thinking what I'm about to tell you. If anything, it's firmed up my belief. I'm still leaving the door open to the possibility that what I'm about to say still needs to be tweaked, but I think at worst it's pretty close.
What am I talking about? Try this on for size:
Unless you have a glaring weakness or a facet of your game which far outshines the others, you should spend 65% of your time practicing the full swing, 20% of your time practicing the short game, and 15% of your time practicing putting.
By "full swing" I mean every shot that uses full swing mechanics. This includes all shots over about 100 yards as well as some of the 1/2 and 3/4 that employ full-swing mechanics. By "short game" I mean everything else inside of about 100 yards that isn't putting. And by putting I mean putting. Duh.
Now, people who have argued against me on this will talk about how "60% of your shots are from within 100 yards of the green." That's great and all, but if you remove short putts from the equation the number drops significantly. Still, the number is around 40% for "short game + putting" and 40% for the full swing, so why have I said 65/20/15?
Because working back from the putting green to the tee, putting is simple. It's a relatively easy motion that does not take a lot of time to master. The mechanics are simpler, the requirements simpler, and the ceiling is more severe. If you're making half of your six footers (on bumpier, slower greens than those seen on the PGA Tour), that's all you need to play golf on the PGA Tour, so time spent practicing 20 footers (which are made about 14% on the PGA Tour, so you should expect to make about one in ten) is time better spent doing something else.
Moving back farther from the green, a good bit more time can be spent trying not to leave yourself a 20-footer for par, and working on the short game. I say you should practice your short game 2.5 times as much as your putting. Learn a few basic shots - a pitch, a chip, a bunker shot (which is just a variation of the pitch for many), and maybe a specialty shot or three (a bladed wedge from the fringe, a high flop, and a low checking shot). Variations of those will cover virtually every other shot you can imagine, and if you practice a few shots here and there from some odd lies, you'll do just fine.
Of course, you'll do even better if you're not having to use your short game for very much - better still to hit the green in regulation. There's a reason they say "two things don't last very long: dogs who chase cars and golfers who putt for pars." That takes us out to full swing range, and statistics show that the long game - driving the ball in play and hitting greens (particularly from longer distances) is absolutely crucial to playing good golf. There's a reason there's a formula out there that approximates your score by taking 95 - (2 x GIR). Hitting greens is the single biggest correlation to scoring well, and the only way to hit greens is to have a full swing that works - twice on average. The full swing is also orders of magnitude more complex and difficult to master than a putting stroke or a pitching motion.
Now, before everyone gets bent out of shape, note that I'm talking about time spent practicing each of these things, so the numbers aren't quite as slanted as you might think just by looking at "65/20/15." For example, because putting is so simple and because the balls are typically within 20 feet of you, you can hit perhaps four putts per minute. On the short game, because you have to round up some golf balls from farther distances, and take a few more practice strokes to feel the ground, you have to clean your club, etc. you can hit perhaps two balls per minute. On the driving range, I'll often hit balls as slowly as one every four to five minutes, but let's say you're not quite as deliberate or don't use quite as many practice motions as I do, and call it 0.75 balls per minute.
Multiplying the balls per minute by the time spent, we get numbers that look like this:
Putting: 15 minutes * 3 balls/minute = 45 balls
Short Game: 20 minutes * 2 balls/minute = 40 balls
Full Swing: 65 minutes * 0.75 balls/minute = 48.75 balls
So really, this works out to spending almost an equal amount of time on each of the three sections of the game, with slightly less spent on putting (and, really, this still makes sense because the putting stroke is relatively simple).
Note, too, that I'm talking about good practice. I'm not talking about whacking some balls on the green towards some holes and calling it "practice." I'm talking about working on the skills of putting (starting the ball on-line, controlling the distance the ball rolls, and reading greens properly). I'm talking about working on the skills of a good short game with drills - landing balls on targets, taking the same club and varying the height of some shots, one-handed pitching drills, etc. I'm talking about working on drills with the full swing, deliberate, good practice, and not just stepping up and smacking ball after ball during the full swing 65% of your practice time.
Now, when I talk about this someone will invariably say something like "I practice my short game religiously and my full swing stinks and I still shoot 82 most days!" They'll remember the one round they made everything or chipped close or in a few times and how it "saved" a bad round. To the first guy, consider how good he'd be if he could marry that short game with a long game that didn't lean on it so much. To the second guy, you remember that round because it's an anomaly, and because you hit the ball badly enough that you needed miracle short game shots just to shoot around your typical score!
The stats and studies don't lie. I get that a six-foot putt that you miss counts the same as a drive you put into the right rough. But the odds state very plainly that a six-foot putt is not nearly as damaging to your score as a miss green, and a missed green is not nearly as damaging to your score as a missed tee shot.
Them's the facts. I haven't shared them with you here, but they're out there, and I encourage you to look them up. Boiled down, they back my theory of the best way to divvy up your practice time:
- Spend 15% of your practice time working on putting skills.
- Spend 20% of your practice time working on short game skills.
- Spend 65% of your practice time working on the full swing skills.
What's nifty is that you can do a surprising amount of all of this work at home, in your back yard, on your living room carpet, or with a mirror or wiffle balls.
And when you practice, make it dedicated, good practice. Don't just aimlessly whack balls, whether you're on the putting green, the short game area, or on the practice range with a driver in your hands.
2014-04-08: Renamed 65/20/15 (it was 65/25/10). Changes outlined in post #471.