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Originally published Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Golf tips | Keys to feeling at home on the range

The driving range is where golf games are built and refined. It's the first stop for someone learning the game, but it's also where the world's best players practice almost immediately after a round.

Special to The Seattle Times

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There is a derogatory name for golfers who go to the range and just flail away to see how far they can hit: "range monkeys."

The driving range is where golf games are built and refined. It's the first stop for someone learning the game, but it's also where the world's best players practice almost immediately after a round.

For the recreational golfer, there are three distinct uses for the range: to practice, to learn or change something, and to warm up before a round.

The only constant is the need to stretch before attempting full swings. Never forget that the full golf swing is every bit as much of an athletic endeavor as the swing in baseball. The way to avoid injury is to get loose. It is a near-universal recommendation that the first shots be half-swing wedges.

Hitting well on the range before a round is nice but can lead to unrealistic expectations. Hitting poorly on the range doesn't mean a bad round is upcoming.

Teaching pro Jeff Coston of Blaine learned long ago not to put much stock in how he hits the ball on the range before a round.

"One year for U.S. Qualifying at Overlake, I was terrible on the range, just spraying the ball," he said. "Then I went out and shot 67 and it was the best score of the day."

Coston said he spends much of a pre-round session on the clubs he is likely to use the most, and he spends extra time before a round hitting pitch shots from 10 to 30 yards off the green.

His warm-up also includes time on the putting green hitting 40- and 50-foot putts to gauge speed. Coston often doesn't bother hitting these toward a hole. However, before he leaves the green he makes it a point to sink a lot of 3-foot putts, "to see the ball go in the hole."

Some golfers warm up on the range by pretending they are playing the course, but the basic rule is not to try new things or fix problems on the range before a round. Play with the swing you brought.

Golfers also are well advised to include in a pre-round session any unusual shots they are likely to face, such as punching out from under trees.

Practice sessions when the range is the day's only golf destination are where progress and changes can be made.

Usually, golfers are urged to always "pick a target." However, sometimes when an instructor is introducing something, the focus is on the technique and where the ball flies is inconsequential.

One Seattle instructor, Doug McDonald, has written the book, "Home on the Range: The Complete Practice Guide for the Golf Range."

McDonald, who estimates he has taught more than 10,000 golfers, recommends making the first stops for a practice session at the putting green and chipping area.

Swing thoughts are a staple of golf, but McDonald says it is important to think about just one at a time.

"All the neuroscientists say it's hard to multitask on a high level," he said

McDonald suggests working on one thing for three shots, then switching to another.

"If you're learning to hold your follow-through for five seconds, do it three times for five seconds," he said. "Then maybe your other swing thought is relaxing your shoulders. Do that for three shots. Then alternate and emphasize holding the follow-through for three shots. Switch it. Pretty soon, you'll be doing them both."

One common mistake at ranges is not taking enough time between shots, said McDonald, who believes an 82-ball bucket should last at least 30 to 45 minutes. Mixing in practice swings can be productive.

He also recommends breaks in the session, and closely watching better golfers is part of a golf education.

McDonald details many reasons to go the range in his book, including:

• Building a dependable swing. "Hitting balls at the range without the pressures of the golf course — the sand trap ahead and the approaching group behind — contributes to a dependable swing."

• Learning how far various clubs hit the ball.

• Confidence and concentration. "The range is a great place to improve your confidence and powers of concentration," he writes. "You'll learn to train your attention on the ball and where you want it to go — the same thoughts you should have out on the course."

• Muscle memory. "At the range you have the luxury of stopping at a trouble spot anywhere in your swing, improving your position and holding this new arrangement for 5 to 60 seconds of reinforcement." (McDonald is a big proponent of taking practice swings during a session.)

• Hitting golf balls is fun.

Other range tips

Advice from a variety of sources:

• Try to get the last spot on the far end of the line of golfers because you will be less likely to wind up in a conversation and will concentrate better.

• Take any advice offered by others with a grain of salt. It may work for them but not for you.

• Fight the tendency to spend a disproportionate amount of time on clubs you hit well.

• Put balls in separate designated piles for wedges, mid-irons and driver, etc.

• For fun, play "HORSE" with a companion. One player picks a shot — say a 150-yard marker — and the person whose ball lands farthest from the target gets a letter, like in the basketball version.

Practice can be both fun and productive. As Coston puts it, the route to improvement is to "practice like you play, play like you practice."

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