What golfer doesn’t rejoice on those rare occasions when he turns up at a course or range and finds a generous expanse of inviting green turf from which to hit?
As Arnold Palmer wrote:
“As a fellow golfer, I can wish you nothing better than a good, well-built, well-kept practice tee – with good rich grass where the ball can sit down just as it does out on the course, and with big green expanses of turf stretching out in front of you. I hope that nobody ever again builds a golf course without a first-rate practice range. I hope that all the proprietors of public driving ranges put in beautifully sodded tees.” (My Game and Yours, 1965)
Sadly, for most players, commercial realities make it highly unlikely that Arnold’s dream will be realized.
Range and course owners have an obvious interest in maximizing the availability of their facilities and the number of paying customers they can accommodate. For them grass is a precious resource which takes a great deal of time and care to grow and nurture, but can be destroyed in an instant.
The ordinary golfer is all too often greeted by a row of tatty, worn and misaligned mats, whose rubber tees have mysteriously disappeared or which lean at angles on which no ball can remain in place.
Will Hitting off Mats Hurt My Game? A Perennial Golf Debate
Even the most enthusiastic golfers must wonder whether it’s worth practicing at all on these kinds of mats.
Recent technological advances have enabled some mats to provide a much more realistic hitting experience, but even these still have some serious drawbacks.
Hitting From Mats – The Case Against
Mats Increase Your Risk of Injury
Hitting any appreciable number of golf balls, one after another, is hard physical work in itself, and the shock of impact with the ball is far tougher on the hands, wrists and shoulders than most golfers realize.
This shock is much more severe when hitting off hard ground, but tougher still when you hit off the kind of thin mats laid on concrete beds which are so often used at driving ranges.
It might not be so bad if you’re among those fortunate few golfers who naturally approach the impact area at a shallow angle and can just nip the ball cleanly off the surface.
But if you’re one of those who tend to hit sharply down and through the ball, the resulting heavy impacts can only lead to aching muscles at best, and incapacitating injuries at worst.
Tendonitis in the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders is a common result, while golfers with pre-existing injuries such as rotator cuff shoulder problems may experience severe pain after hitting from mats.
Mats May Give You Misleading Information About Your Swing
If practice is to be beneficial it must provide accurate feedback on the quality of your ball striking. One of the most common objections to hitting off mats is that it does not do this.
The ball flies further off the mats
If you’ve ever wondered during a round why you don’t seem to be getting the distance you expect from your irons, the surprising answer may be that you have been hitting the ball considerably further when practicing on mats.
Trackman, the manufacturer of radar technology for impact monitoring, conducted research in which a very high quality amateur player (+2 handicap) hit a number of 7 iron shots from both a mat and grass.
The results suggested that considerably more backspin (about 2 clubs’ worth) was imparted to the balls struck from grass as opposed to the mat
So that although a mat struck ball had a slightly lower launch speed, and higher launch angle, it nevertheless achieved about a half a club’s longer carry than the ball hit from grass.
Trackman concedes that this was a highly specific set of results which would not necessarily be replicated in other experiments. But the general conclusion that mats may tend to produce “fliers”, the sort of shots generally expected from the rough on the course, nevertheless remains well worth bearing in mind when trying to relate your driving range performance to actual playing conditions.
Remember too that if you’re considering the serious expense of being fitted for custom made clubs you will almost certainly be hitting from mats during the fitting session and you should be sure to talk to your fitter about this potential issue.
The problem of “fat” shots
To achieve proper compression of the ball and the correct flight and distance for an iron it is necessary for the clubhead to take a slightly descending path into impact, striking the ball a fraction before it cuts into the ground and takes a divot.
“Fat” or “chunked” shots, when the clubhead hits the ground before the ball, are only too obvious when hitting from grass, even if the error is very small. But when a fat shot is hit from a mat the clubhead may bounce into the ball and produce a misleadingly good ball flight.
With no apparent penalty for hitting fat, these mishits may become ingrained by frequent repetition, leading to an increased frequency of fat shots out on the course.
The problem of your clubs’ “lie angle”
“Lie angle” is an important but little understood aspect of club specification, and describes the angle between the club shaft and the ground when the sole of the club is resting flat.
If the angle is too upright for the height and swing of the golfer the clubhead will tend to strike the ground heel first resulting in a pulled shot. Conversely, too flat a lie will result in a push as the toe of the club hits the ground first.
When playing off grass these effects are accentuated and easily diagnosed through the pattern of the divots taken. But as with fat shots, the bounce of the mats will tend to disguise any mishits, and of course there are no divots to be inspected.
Mats May Groove Poor Swing Habits
Your swing path may flatten over time
The sub-conscious mind is wonderfully adept at adjusting the body’s movements to avoid discomfort, and it will lose no time in making the necessary changes to your golf swing to protect your joints and muscles against the stress of repeated impact with the mat.
This means that your angle of approach to the ball is likely to shallow over time. This is not necessarily a problem when playing the fairway woods and long irons, but it is a definite disadvantage when playing with the shorter irons.
Accuracy with these scoring clubs depends very much on achieving the correct high flight with plenty of back-spin to ensure that the ball stops quickly on landing. This can only be achieved with the sort of definite downward strike which mats discourage.
And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, a shallow clubhead path into impact makes a fat shot more rather than less likely. As noted above, the friendly bounce of the mats may let you get away with these on the range but they will prove disastrous on the course.
Mats May Damage Your Clubs
The black or green marks often left on the soles of clubs after a mat practice session are usually no more than a cosmetic annoyance. Much more serious is the potential damage to your clubs which repeated heavy impacts with concrete backed mats can cause.
Expensively customized forged irons may have their lie angles altered, and it’s also not that unusual to see club heads begin to separate from shafts, with clubs occasionally even breaking entirely.
You might get around the problem by using old clubs or buying second hand ones specifically for the range, but this is a less than ideal solution. Golf is primarily a game of feel and one of the key aims of practice is to get so familiar with your clubs that they feel like an extension of your arms.
Hitting From Mats – The Advantages
Developing the Golfing Muscles
Consistent ball striking depends above all on the muscle memory that comes from the constant repetition of the swing. So as long as you bear in mind that the ball flight you are seeing may not precisely replicate that you will achieve on the course, hitting from mats can be a good way to build your swing and keep your golfing muscles in condition.
Improving Your Driving
The problem of inaccurate feedback is largely confined to hitting irons.
Hitting your driver off the high rubber tees that usually accompany mats requires much the same set up to the ball and swing path that you will use when teeing off on the course, so this kind of practice can be very beneficial.
In fact, given that the driver, with the wedge and the putter, is one of the three most important clubs in your bag, there is a good argument for devoting most of your range time to practicing tee shots.
There is also the advantage that unlike many course practice facilities, matted driving ranges often have the space for you to hit full- blooded drives.
You Can Get Some Useful Feedback from Mats
Despite the potential fat shot problem discussed above, a good contact still feels like a good contact, and a slightly fat strike from a mat will not feel quite like a truly struck shot even though it may fly better than the equivalent shot from grass.
The problem can also be avoided simply by laying a towel or cloth just behind your ball, which makes it immediately obvious if you hit fat. This can also be a useful extra visual cue when practicing on grass, though of course you should not do it on the course.
With Mats You Will Always Be Hitting From a True Surface
As wonderful as it is to get the chance to hit from untouched grass, this can be all too rare even at facilities which theoretically offer it.
Grass practice areas at highly trafficked, popular courses face such a volume of use that it can quickly become almost impossible to find grass to hit from. Trying to balance your ball on the thin slivers of turf left between the divots produces a feeling of frustration which is unconducive to productive practice.
The range attendants will of course move the designated hitting areas to fresh turf when possible, but they will always be fighting a losing battle as the season progresses.
Mats Allow Wet Weather and Winter Practice
After a wet spell the management will be forced to put down mats or risk long lasting damage to the grass. The mats damage the wet grass anyway, but not so much as the hitting.
Many matted ranges are roofed, so providing golfers as well as grass some measure of protection against the elements.
In northern latitudes mats may be the only realistic option for any practice at all during the fall and winter months, and some ranges are heated to make this a little more palatable.
Mat Technology Has Advanced Enormously
These technologically advanced mats use artificial turf and gel designed to recreate the feeling of hitting from grass. Balls hit fat will behave just like those hit fat from grass, while the strain of impact on joints, muscles and tendons is significantly reduced. Some will also take a real tee, allowing you to vary the height at which you tee the ball, as you would on the course.
While anecdotal evidence suggests that these mats are indeed superior to the traditional sort, it should be noted that the Trackman experiment described above used the Real Feel “Country Club Elite” mat, so that they still remain imperfect in terms of feedback.
Mats Can Be Fun!
Indoor venues such as Top Golf claim to offer not only a fun alternative to bowling but also a means of improving your game. It might not be as good for your game as traditional practice, but at least you will be warm, dry, using your golfing muscles and getting some feedback about your swing.
If you want to know what it’s like to play great courses such as Pebble Beach without leaving the comfort of your home, modern simulators can offer you just this virtual reality golf experience. The downside is that a top of the range model may set you back anything up to $20,000.
Less expensive ones are available, and you may even be able to build a version of your own, but the fact remains that any kind of indoor golf will require you to hit from mats, with all the disadvantages already discussed.
Golf is above all a game of feel. And even the most advanced artificial surface cannot perfectly reproduce the feel of hitting from grass.
So if you are fortunate enough to have access to a well turfed and spacious grass practice area you should offer a daily prayer of thanks to the golfing Gods, and make as much use of it as you possibly can.
That said, some practice is always better than none so use mats if they are your only option.
The worst disadvantages can be mitigated by focusing your mat time on driving from the tees and hitting fairway woods and hybrids from the deck. Hit shorter irons sparingly, if at all. Perhaps you can develop the feel of spinning the ball from grass by working with your wedges around your home course’s chipping green.
Or maybe you can find a par 3 or short-game course close to your home. These kinds of courses can be a great way to hone your game with the scoring clubs; far better in fact, and certainly more enjoyable, than hitting endless buckets of balls from the range mats.