Developing a Pre-Shot Routine – Five Important Elements

Have You Thought About Developing a Deliberate Pre-Shot Routine?


Several years ago now Andy North had a tricky little 4 foot or so putt to win the US Open. He had been working to get the same routine every time with his short game, but particularly his putting and he was exceptional from inside 6 feet.  But this putt was for the US Open Championship, and he backed off several times. The announcers were convinced he was buckling under the pressure. He stepped up the third or fourth time and nailed the putt dead center! He knew he was out of his routine the first several times and he had the discipline to start it over until he got it right! For every golfer like North I suspect there are many more whose first reaction to the above question is allergic (e.g., I don’t need no stink’n routine). 

Yet how often do you hear an expert commentator Like Johnny Miller make a remark about an extra waggle or taking extra time in a key situation when a professional golfer gets out of routine. The correlation of these observations with bad shots in pressure situations is near one for one. Does the very thought of this topic bother you in some unknown way or do you have a pre-shot routine you follow every time? How tight is your routine and is it focused on results or prevent defense? Even those who have a negative reaction to the thought of routine on principle have a routine if they play golf whether they acknowledge it or not. I believe the pre-shot routine is one of two basic fundamentals of golf that separates better golfers from their lesser achieving peers. Developing a more deliberate approach to your routine can’t but help your golf game in a number of ways, most of them having to do with the process of getting ready to swing and preparing the way so you can focus on hitting the shot you envisioned. 

Having a process to follow can help in pressure situations by occupying your time and thoughts with the elements necessary to swing.  Having a set routine builds confidence, as well. The second fundamental element separating levels of golfers is golf course management, a topic of a different article.  This article is focused on the golf swing. I have a separate article in the works for putting


What is a Pre-Shot Routine?


Everyone has a pre-shot routine, from the most free spirited of golfers to the most robotic or deliberate. Those who avoid all manner of dogmatic routine in their golf game have one as well, their aversion to routine notwithstanding. Everything you do prior to hitting the golf ball is part of your routine. If you simply compute yardage, grab a club and swing, that’s it! Similarly, if you have 24 steps that you complete in 37 seconds plus or minus from the time you step out of the cart, then ditto. 

I want to say upfront that I have always had somewhat of a negative reaction to the notion that I should systemize this part of my game, so I have not been so dogmatic in my approach to the point where I have worked out steps and the timing. But the more time I spent these past years working to eliminate the causes of bad shots, the more I swung to the other side of this discussion (e.g., to a more systematic approach). Noted golf sports psychologist Bob Rotella and a number of others have advocated triggers or keys or focus elements for years. The way this trigger or key or cue works is to develop an action or step that kicks in the process, the invoking of which is the start for your pre-shot routine. An example would be touching the club or tugging your shirt or adjusting your pants. One pro keyed off pulling the club out of the bag and if there was a disruption while over the ball, he would put the club back in the bag! That’s not for me. 


Elements of Pre-Shot Routines And Some Name Dropping In Support Of The Concept!


One of the more famous advocates of a consistent, repeating routine was Ben Hogan. That should be no surprise to anyone, but long before Hogan became a household name and his secret became famous, he improved the results he achieved with his self described lousy swing through a deliberate pre-shot routine and a disciplined golf course management approach. The way he did it was by deliberately going about the way he took his stance and set the club behind the ball, while tuning his waggle to the shot at hand and pre-staging or rehearsing his release prior to the swing. The elements he incorporated are instructive to dissect; however, he likely started his routine the night before when he plotted his strategy for the course. Such a comprehensive approach is not for everyone, but he was a feel player who did not simply get a yardage and pull a club. Much of his routine consisted of a lot of time behind the ball visualizing a shot, including flight, trajectory and all the other elements that can be controlled to some degree. In the 1948 Reading Open, there was one hole with a blind approach over a hill to the green. Hogan irritated officials and his fellow players by walking to the top of the hill to see where the pin was, every day. In the final round he hit the ball in the cup for an eagle on this hole, shot 64, and won the tournament. He likely had difficulty getting through his routine without being able to visualize the pin location. 

All top golfers have somewhat deliberative routines, including Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. I like Jack Nicklaus’ approach where he picks a spot to align to in front of the ball and then he systematically goes about aligning through that spot to the target. Videos show him tracking from target, to spot, to the ball several times, and then he cocks his head back and swings. Picking the spot to align to is accomplished once he has computed the yardage to the target in consideration of the elements (wind, elevation, etc.) and the distance to the target, the shot shape desired, and the club required. He stands behind the ball and picks a discoloration or divot about three to five feet in front of the ball (the distance must be worked out but in general you don’t want something so far that it requires an awkward head movement or for it to cause an unnatural pause on the return from the target to the ball). Nicklaus steps in, aligns the club to the spot, aligns his feet and body line to the club face, and then begins his spot checking that triggers his swing. Hogan aligned his clubface behind the ball to the target line with his feet together, stepped out to set his feet, shuffled his feet while waggling along the plane line he intended to swing the club back upon, pressed his right leg a bit and fired. Greg Norman has been described as one of the most consistent, long, straight drivers of the golf ball of all time. He modeled his process after Jack Nicklaus and was very deliberate in going about it the same time after time. 


My Routine And The Elements Important To Me.


The better you play the more you will find value in adopting a systematic approach to your routine. The degree to which you commit to the process is something you have to be comfortable with and it is an individual thing. I don’t want to know how long my routine takes, as I would find it distracting and not beneficial to think about the elapsed time. My routine has developed slowly over a number of years by enforcing order on what had previously been a somewhat haphazard approach. I always picked out an intermediate spot or alignment aid along the target line because of my experience with Duckpin bowling years ago. After I commit to the shot I’m hitting and pick out the right club, I stand behind the ball and pick out the starting line of the shot. I pick an intermediate spot, discoloration or divot along that line and I focus on that spot as I approach the ball. On par 3s, I tee the ball after I pick out this spot, although it is generally closer to the ball. The trigger to signal I’m done with the planning is a slight “twirl” or scoop motion of the golf club with my right hand on the club; I’ve always done it from behind the ball and it reminds me to keep my hands light and tells me it is time to go. It is not really a deliberate action (but it is). I step around the ball from the left, eyeing my spot, and I put the club behind the ball aligned to my spot as I set my hands on the club and take a partial waggle to my spot with my right foot close to the final position. 

Once my hands are set and I have shuffled my feet into the right position, I look at the target again and take my full waggle along the intended backswing path while shuffling my arms, partially cocking my wrist open and then supinating it back to the ball using the inside left arm muscles. I then look at the target, walk my eyes back through my intermediate point to the ball, somewhat tighten my right toe to knee line (close to a press) and then swing. If it’s a particularly unusual or difficult shot, I waggle enough times to ensure I have the correct feel of the swing I am trying to recreate or produce. I am not dogmatic about the number of waggles, as I am more concerned about the feel of the process than I am the timing or doing it the exact same way every time. Much like Mike Weir, Anthony Kim or Chris Demarco, I like to move the club back far enough on the waggle so I feel like I am at the base of the track or to feel like I am on the verge of the turn, anotherwords, at a point where all I need to do is turn my shoulders back from the stopping point. I don’t take practice swings very often and the ones I do take are fairly haphazard with a loosened grip, the main intention of which is simply loosening the muscles and awakening all the parts to get ready to go, particularly the legs and lower body. I do quicken the speed of this effort on a drive or a longer shot, in fact, the exception to a practice swing is with the long irons (1-3). I swing behind the ball or to the side in those cases. 


The Elements oOf Your Pre-Shot Routine: Making It Work For You.


Your reaction to what you’ve just read is a key indicator of how you should go about building your own routine. I want to state again that I disregarded for years all the recommendations to adopt a more systematic approach to the pre-shot routine. As recently as last summer, after 40 some odd years of golfing, I adjusted my routine to ensure that I addressed the issue of getting on the right path or plane in the backswing. I made that adjustment after I tracked down a recurring error that was causing me to get stuck in the downswing. As an aside, Bob Toski has been quoted as saying you can’t get stuck in the backswing. But if you normally swing through the ball at 105 miles per hour and you do something in your backswing that causes you to slow down through impact, that is what I’m talking about, regardless of what you call it. For me it was a combination of weight too far forward and too upright a swing path. 


The elements you should consider making part of your routine are:

(1) distance calculation

(2) shot and club selection

(3) alignment process

(4) waggle

(5) trigger 

Regarding element 1, I like to do all the calculations while I am approaching the ball and then confirm it as I am behind the ball. I like to have a number in mind before I settle on a club. The number I arrive at is an adjusted number consisting of the distance to the pin or my target with adjustments for elevation, wind, atmospherics (if applicable, like humidity or altitude) and my norms. When I select a shot type and club or element 2, I decide whether I am coming in high or low, draw or fade or other aspects, as part of the selection process. Much of this depends on the type of flag, whether I am going at it or not, and where I am at in the round score wise. I also consider how I am hitting the ball that day. From the standpoint of alignment or element 3, I think Jack Nicklaus has the perfect approach to this process and I recommend adopting it. 

The major change I made to my game when I went from a double to a single digit handicap 17 years ago was the waggle. I never gave much thought to the waggle up to that point, but the more I read Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the more I began to pay attention to Element number 4. The waggle is as close as you can get to cheating in golf. These days I work on a knockdown swing on the practice tee to get my timing down and to gauge how I am swinging the club that day. I gradually lengthen it over time to my full swing. The waggle gets me about 60% of the way to the 0900 or knockdown swing, so it provides a critical link from a standing start to the partial and the full swing. As Hogan said, do not groove your waggle, but do get in the habit of attempting to create the feel of the swing you are trying to make. The waggle is your mini rehearsal, not just some slap hazard movement of the hands.   

I like to keep moving once I am over the ball, even if it is just wiggling my toes. I think a static position induces tension and makes it hard to start. So the last element or trigger may be as simple as a function of the next thing you do when you complete your waggle. I tense the right toe and knee line a bit, as I mentioned, and then I swing. It is barely noticeable and not belabored (on a scale of 1 to 10 I tense to about a 6). Whether you adopt each of the elements, add some of your own or prefer to keep it light hearted and unrestricted is again, a matter of personal choice and temperament. I like and recommend the idea of handling the first two elements outside of what you consider your normal routine. But I also like the thought process that says you should use a key to focus your concentration to the task at hand and the best way to do that is when you start into the shot calculation or element 1 piece of the process. With the distraction of carts and playing partners and scenery and the like, a mnemonic or device that keys you to focus every time is worthwhile to think about, such as “Back to golf” or “Shot time”. 




The best golfers in the world have pre-shot routines that you can set your watch by. A pre-shot routine can improve your shot results and your golf score by focusing your attention on the aspects you should consider before deciding on a shot. Depending on your temperament, you should work through some of the elements listed and consider linking them together in a process that you can develop into a pre-shot routine.  You need to be comfortable with it so it is not a distraction.  The elements to consider include:

(1) distance calculation

(2) shot and club selection

(3) alignment process

(4) waggle

(5) trigger

Some would say these are fairly inclusive, others will find more to add to the list. It is not helpful to have too much to think about (at least for me). These elements, when combined into a process that leads to hitting the ball, can go a long way to taking your mind off that pressure filled shot needed to break your personal record or to break 80 for the first time. Finally, watch video of the golfers on television or watch better players at your course. The odds are, the better the golfer, the more you will see a recurring and repeating process in the manner in which they go about hitting the ball. Pre-shot routine!


Good Golfing! Mark Choiniere

Source by Mark Choiniere

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