Synthetic driving range mats have come a long way since their introduction. Today's high-tech mats are much more true-to-life than their predecessors, offering a reasonable facsimile of hitting off actual turf.
That said, even the best mats can't precisely replicate the action, sensation and feedback that grass provides. And many ranges still feature older models, which may be worn thin and hard.
Practicing from a mat brings several disadvantages, which vary in severity depending on the mat's quality. First and foremost, the club will bounce or slide into the ball on a fat shot, delivering a solid strike that can mask the error. Also, older mats can cause pain for those with sensitive or damaged hands, elbows and shoulders.
While it's always preferable to practice on natural turf, we don't always have a choice. Here's how to make the most of your practice sessions on the fake stuff.
- Hit your middle and long irons, hybrids and fairway woods: These clubs require more of a sweeping swing, less of a downward blow, than short irons do. If you pick the ball cleanly or make just a slightly downward swing, mats perform fine.
- Work on shots from “hardpan”: If you're stuck with old, extra-firm mats, take the opportunity to hit shots as though you've found a hard, bare lie on the course. Try nipping your wedges with compact swings, or picking the ball cleanly with longer clubs.
- Adjust to a sweeping swing with the short irons: If you're uncomfortable hitting sharply down, you'll naturally adjust to a swing that picks the ball off the mat. You're better off skipping the short irons entirely, because you'll ingrain an action that causes trouble on the course.
Hit from a stationary tee that's the wrong height: Many mats have built-in tees whose height can't be adjusted. In general, this height is too short for a driver, too long for fairway woods, hybrids and irons. Again, your best bet is to forego hitting off the tee until you can find a range with turf or mats equipped for regular tee usage.
How to Make the Most of Practice on Mats
In a perfect world, you would always be able to practice your golf swing on grass. After all, the game is played on grass, so it only makes sense to strike your practice shots from real turf as well. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and you aren't always going to be able to find real grass for your practice sessions. Driving range mats are a part of this game for better or worse, so you need to learn how to use them properly. With a good plan in mind, you can still get plenty of benefit from a practice session completed on an artificial surface.
There are a number of reasons why many golf facilities choose to feature artificial turf mats as opposed to natural grass. The biggest reason, of course, is money. It is expensive to maintain a grass tee line throughout the year. Unlike on the course, where divots are spread out over a large area, the divots on a tee line are going to be concentrated and large in volume. Consistent maintenance is necessary to present customers with a quality patch of practice turf day after day. Also, it is best to rotate through hitting areas in order to let the grass heal, meaning the business needs to have plenty of real estate available for this kind of driving range setup.
For businesses which only operate a driving range and not a golf course as well, the cost of natural grass is even more prohibitive. This kind of business can't just use the maintenance equipment from the course for their driving range – because they don't care for a course. That means the business would have to purchase a full set of golf maintenance equipment just for the tee line. In most cases, such a purchase simply does not make financial sense.
From a business perspective, opting for artificial mats is a relatively easy choice. To start with, there is no maintenance cost involved. Once the mats are purchased and dropped into place, they can be left there for a significant amount of time. Sure, they will have to be replaced eventually, but that cost will pale in comparison to the cost of caring for fairway-length grass. Also, a line of practice mats does not take up nearly as much space as a grass hitting area. Just a single strip of concrete, topped with practice mats and dividers, is all that is needed for the range to be up and running. Golfers might not like it, but the savings enjoyed through the use of an artificial mat tee line are just too good to be ignored.
In this article, we are going to provide you with some advice aimed at helping you get the most from your artificial turf practice sessions. As long as you have the right attitude going into the practice session, and as long as you know how to approach this type of practice, you should be able to improve your game even in the absence of real grass.
All of the advice below is written from the perspective of a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
Before we get into any specifics on how you can alter your practice routine to suit mats, we should first explain why hitting from mats is so different from playing on turf. These points might be obvious to the experienced golfer, but they will help the beginner gain a better understanding of the pros and cons of artificial turf. Please review the list below for a variety of points related to the difference between real grass and artificial mats.
- You can't take a divot. This point might go without saying, but you aren't going to be able to take a divot when practicing on a mat. Instead of cutting down into the turf, your club is going to bounce off the mat and head on up into the finish. For players with a steep angle of attack through the ball, this difference will be noticeable right away. You will feel significant vibration through your hands and wrists, and hitting short iron shots may even be a bit painful. Of course, if you already 'pick' the ball off the top of the ground with a relatively shallow swing path, the adjustment is not going to be too significant. You may notice that the club is bouncing slightly off the turf, but you will have a better experience than the player with a steep swing.
- You will be saved from fat shots. When you hit slightly behind the ball with an iron while playing on turf, you will pay the price. The turf will eat up most of your swing speed, and the ball will fall down well short of your target. In fact, if you hit the shot fat enough, the ball might not go anywhere at all. This is not the case when hitting off of a mat. On artificial turf, the club will skip or skid across the top of the mat, and you might come away with a decent shot in the end. When you look up, the ball will be sailing toward the target and you may think that your swing was actually okay. Don't be fooled by these false results. If you feel that you hit the shot fat, know that the results would not be pretty if playing on turf.
- You always have a perfect lie. Even the nicest grass driving range is going to have some blemishes on the surface of the turf. That is the nature of grass – it is a natural product, and it is never going to be perfect. With an artificial mat, however, the blemishes are gone. You get a perfect lie every time, so you never have to worry about dealing with the challenge of a poor lie. Unfortunately, this reality is going to leave you poorly prepared for what you will face during your next round of golf. Some practice mats attempt to offer a variety of lies by adding different lengths of artificial turf, but those efforts are typically a failure. To date, there has not been a practice mat created which is able to accurately replicate the kinds of lies you will find on the actual golf course.
- The ground is always level. An often overlooked aspect of golf is the challenge that comes along with playing from uneven ground. When the ground beneath your feet is sloped in one direction or another, you will have an addition variable to deal with as you plan your shot. That is never a problem with artificial mats. Most mats are installed on level pieces of concrete, meaning you have a flat lie swing after swing. It is true that most grass tee lines are flat as well, but many have at least some degree of slope for you to practice on if you wish. That isn't going to happen on an artificial range – the ground will be flat across the tee line.
As you can see, playing from a practice mat is quite different from hitting off of grass. You are still going to make the same swing, and you are still going to send the ball off into the distance, but these differences should not be ignored. The differences between grass and mat practice don't make it pointless to practice off of mats, but you have to know what to believe and what to ignore. In the following sections, we will offer some advice to help you plan out a smart practice session.
Areas of Focus
Some parts of your game are going to be more affected by the mats than others. For instance, when hitting down on short iron shots, you will feel a tremendous difference through the hitting area. However, when hitting long irons with a relatively flat swing, you should be able to strike your shots almost exactly as you would on the course. With this in mind, you want to create a practice plan which is going to focus most of your time on the parts of the game which translate best from the mats to the course.
The list below highlights areas of the game that are perfect for practicing on an artificial surface.
- Your driver. Included with most artificial mats will be a plastic tee, or an assortment of plastic tees which can be used for practicing your driver and other woods. This is great news, as you won't have to hit the ball directly off the mat at all when swinging your long clubs. Since the ball is teed up, there is basically no difference between turf and mats when practicing your driver swing. Feel free to work on your driving game on a range with artificial mats, knowing that your practice will translate perfectly onto the course. If the tee inside of the mat you are using is not the right height, look around the range for another option – most facilities have a variety of tee heights available so you can find one that suits your needs.
- Fairway woods off the deck. When hitting a fairway wood shot directly off the ground (rather than from a tee), you should be sweeping the ball off the turf and into the air. Even if that turf is of the plastic variety, you can still get a good workout for these important clubs. The mat shouldn't really come into play when hitting something like a three wood or five wood, as it is not recommended to take a divot anyway. One thing to watch for, however, is the quality of your contact through the hitting area. If you feel the club 'skid' along the ground before hitting the ball, you should know that the shot would likely have been hit fat if you were playing from grass. Always pay close attention to the feel of your shots – you will know when something isn't quite right.
- Long irons. As mentioned above, long irons are another category of clubs which are perfectly suitable for practice on mats. You don't want to be taking large pieces of turf out of the ground when swinging a long iron, so there won't be much adjustment necessary when a mat is resting under your ball. As was the case with fairway woods, be sure to pay attention to the feel of your shots at contact, and make corrections as necessary if you think you are hitting the mat before the ball.
- Mid-range pitch shots. Many amateur golfers struggle with pitching the ball from 30 – 50 yards. These are tricky shots, to be sure, and they are made harder by the fact that many amateurs fail to practice them regularly. Fortunately, you can practice these pitches on the driving range, even if you are playing from mats. Since you will be making a relatively small swing, you don't need to worry about the fact that you can't take a divot. You should still hit down through impact, of course, but there won't be much vibration due to the low swing speed involved.
As you can see, there is plenty you can do to work on your golf game when practicing from mats. There is, of course, one big omission from this list – your short iron game. Due to their steep angle of attack and ample swing speed, short irons are not well-suited for practice on mats. Does that mean you can't hit your short irons on an artificial driving range? Of course not. You can still hit some shots with these clubs, but don't expect great results for your effort. When you get back to natural grass, you are going to have to adjust to a new feel through impact with the short irons. Don't spend too much of your time working on this part of the bag, because your time simply won't be very well spent.
The Issue of Alignment
There is a surprising problem that you may face when practicing from mats, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the surface. Rather, the issue is related to alignment. As you should already know, alignment is extremely important in golf. If you fail to orient your body properly with the target you have in mind, the shot will be doomed to fail right from the start. Even a great swing is not going to help you out if your alignment was incorrect. Of course, if alignment is important on the course, it is automatically important on the range as well. Practicing shots with proper alignment is going to make you that much more likely to play well when you hit the links.
So how can mats contribute to an alignment problem? It's a matter of shape. Most driving range mats you encounter will be square in shape. As such, they have straight lines at the edge of the mat, and these lines are likely to influence your alignment, even if you don't notice at first. When most golfers stand on a driving range mat, they naturally align their body to match up with the positioning of the mat – even if the mat is not oriented with the target they picked out for the shot. As a result, you could find yourself making swings which are not moving in the right direction, no matter how sound your mechanics may be.
The best way to counteract this problem is simply to be aware of it. If you know that alignment can be an issue when practicing on mats, you can avoid trouble staying focused only on your body and its relationship to the target. Forget about the positioning of the mat, and instead zero in on the target you have picked out for this particular swing. Go through your pre-shot routine just as you would on the course, and place your body properly to come away with a successful shot. It might be tough to ignore the orientation of the mat at first, but after a while you won't even notice.
If you find that you are still having trouble with this issue, consider setting an extra club down on the practice mat between your feet and the ball. This club should be set parallel to your toe line, so that it is pointing right at the target. Now that you have a line on the ground which you can trust, there will be less temptation to use the edges of the mat as points of reference. After a period of time practicing with this extra guide club on the ground, you should be able to safely put it away without falling back into your old habits.
Once on the course for your next round, it is important to stay just as focused on alignment as you were on the range. Take care to position your body properly before every swing, as this skill is one of the most important in the game. Amateur golfers tend to get caught up in things like swing mechanics and club selection, but it is often the basics like alignment which are most important in the end. Position your body nicely before every shot and your ball will find its target with impressive consistency.
Before we wrap up this article on driving range mats, there are a few remaining points which need to be made. Those points are listed below.
- Look for grass on occasion. There is a good chance that at least one golf facility within your general area offers a grass tee line – especially during the summer months. Call around to see if you can find a grass tee line, and do your best to visit that location from time to time. Even if it is too far away to make your usual practice facility, try to make a special trip once in a while so you can practice on real turf. When you do get a chance to practice in such a setting, focus on your short irons as those are the clubs most harmed by the use of mats.
- Limit your swing volume. Hitting a large number of shots from an artificial mat is not a great idea. Due to the vibration that is going to come up through the shaft at impact, you may suffer a repetitive stress injury if you practice too much on mats. Focus on taking your time prior to each swing to get the most out of your practice session. Instead of trying to hit 100 balls in an hour, for example, cut that down to 50 and make each swing as good as possible.
- Ignore your distances. The distance you hit the ball on the driving range is relatively useless anyway, but it is especially useless when hitting off mats. The club will zip across the top of the mat and actually accelerate into the ball – leading to distances which you are unlikely to achieve on the course. You can work on your ball striking and your ability to hit a target, but don't draw any conclusions on your distance ability from what you see down range.
Practicing on artificial mats is not an ideal situation. However, it is possible to become a better golfer without seeking a natural grass tee line. If you are willing to pay attention to the simple tips offered throughout this article, you should be able to make the most of your time on a mat-lined driving range. Your driver won't be affected at all by this setting, and your long irons and fairway woods should fare okay as well. Sure, your short iron game really needs turf in order to get a good workout, which is why you should seek a natural range from time to time. In the end, practicing from mats is better than not practicing at all, and your swing should take a step forward thanks to your effort. Good luck!