One of the wonderful aspects of golf is that we always have a goal, and are always trying to improve. If you’re a 20 handicap, you want to be a 15; a 15, you aspire to be a 12; a 12, you want to be a single digit handicap, and so on. Given this basic fact and the intensity with which we experience the game, it’s somewhat surprising to witness the utterly haphazard way in which many amateur players approach the game and their attempts to play better.
Many amateur players don’t warm up properly, employ poor course management, are aggressive when they should be conservative (and chicken out when they should be aggressive,) and put far too much emphasis on equipment than study and instruction.
It needn’t be that way. Every player – whether a 22 or a 12 or a 5 – can improve.
What follows are 15 tips and methods that have been proven by teaching professionals, amateur players, and yes, PGA Tour Pros – and which can dramatically improve your game IF you’re willing to invest a little time, effort and thought in your game…
- Warm up by first chipping & pitching the ball. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a couple of PGA Tour events and one LPGA event, and have watched a number of pros warm up on the range – including Tiger, Ernie Els, Mickelson, Annika, and others. I’ve never seen a Tour Pro walk up to the range, pull his (or her) driver out of the bag and begin banging away. Every pro I’ve watched has begun with a short iron – a wedge, 9 iron, or 8 iron – and started his warmup with quarter or half swings – essentially pitching the ball with short swings. There’s an old adage to the effect that if you can’t pitch the ball, you won’t be able to hit it with a full swing. When you go to the range, follow the pros’ approach and slowly warm up, taking half swings. Concentrate on making good contact, feeling the clubhead rotate through impact and the follow-through. Develop an easy rhythm and don’t force your swing. Be smooth and fluid, concentrating NOT on how far the ball goes, but on making solid contact. When you’ve hit 8 or 10 good pitches, begin lengthening your backswing, gradually working up to a full swing. When you’ve hit several solid short irons, move up to a 7 iron – starting with a couple of half swings, then full swings. Move through your bag in this manner, eventually working your way up to full swings with a long iron and your woods. You have 3 goals in your pre-round warmup at the range: warm up your muscles; get into a smooth, unhurried rhythm; make solid contact with the ball. Having done that, head off to the first tee (or better yet, the practice green) with confidence.
- Practice the important stuff. Let’s say you’re a 15 handicap, and your average score is 85. Furthermore, let’s assume you average 30 putts per round and hit 8 greens in regulation. As a result, you’re chipping or pitching the ball onto 10 greens, as you missed them. 30 putts divided by 85 strokes equals 36%. 10 chips/pitches divided by 85 strokes equals 12%. Adding the two, 48% of your game is around or on the green. Taking the point a bit further, let’s assume you hit a short iron (8, 9, PW, SW, LW) onto 10 greens from the fairway. 10 divided by 85 equals 12%. What does this analysis tell you? ~60% your game is (guessing at your yardage) 140 yards and in. If you want to score better, the answer is fairly obvious: develop your short iron skills, learn how to chip effectively, and practice putting. It may be fun to go to the range and hit your driver 40 times, banging away till you have blisters, but in an average round the most you’re going to hit your driver is 14 times. And frankly, if you’re a 15, it should be fewer than that. You ought to be hitting a fairway wood or utility club off the tee on shorter par 4’s… so maybe you hit your driver 10 times or so in a round. Compare that to how often you use your putter or your wedges; put your time into practicing with those clubs and it’ll reward you very quickly. Practice with your wedges and short irons on the range, and on the course. Practice putting at least once a week – spend 15-20 minutes rolling the ball, doing speed drills and shorter putts (more on this later.)
- Develop a solid pre-shot routine. The next time you watch a PGA or LPGA tournament on TV, pay special attention to the pre-shot routine of one or two players. I’ll bet you a sleeve of Pro V-1’s that each goes through the exact same routine on each shot, and it doesn’t vary by more than a second or two from shot to shot. Watch Jim Furyk putt – he starts his routine, addresses the ball, – and then backs off – every time. It may look goofy, but it’s his routine. If you haven’t already, you need to develop your pre-shot routine, and you need to follow it on every shot (your routine on putts will differ a bit, but the principle is exactly the same.) Over time your routine will become your comfort zone, your refuge – it’ll settle you down, help you block out distractions and get you into that necessary mental groove before executing each shot.
- Play away from the big number. A week or two ago I was playing with an older member of our club who’s a low 20’s handicap. We were on a par 5 and he lay 3, about 150 yards from the pin; as I watched, he pulled a 3 wood from his bag. On his best day he can perhaps hit that club 160 yards – without a lot of control over direction. This particular green is guarded by 2 large greenside bunkers, and the rough around the green is thick and tough – it’s very difficult to chip and pitch out of. I stopped him (he appreciates any help I can offer; otherwise I wouldn’t intrude) and suggested he lay up to a point in the fairway about 60 yards from the pin. Doing so required a fairly easy iron shot, and I knew he’d be much more comfortable with that shot. He laid up, pitched onto the green, and actually made the putt for a bogey. Doing so took the big number out of play – if he’d gotten into one of the bunkers or got into the rough around the green, he easily could have walked away with an 8 or 9. There’s no shame in playing away from hazards if you’re an average golfer – especially if the alternative is a double or triple bogey. Avoiding blow-up holes is one of the surest ways to lower your handicap if you’re a high handicapper. As you develop your game and skills then – and only then – you can be a bit more aggressive!
- Work on the most important shot in golf. This point is an extension of #2, and if you were paying attention, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not going to talk about your driver. The importance of sinking putts cannot be overemphasized. If you don’t devote very much time to practice, at the very least – and I am assuming if you’ve read this far you’re a golfer who wants to improve and is willing to spend at least some time practicing – practice putting 3 and 4 foot putts. If you’re able to reliably make putts of this length it will accomplish 2 very important things: a) you’ll lower your scores, and b) you’ll be able to be a bit more aggressive on longer putts as you’ll be confident that if you miss you’ll make the comebacker. There are many resources available on putting – Dave Pelz’ Putt Like The Pros is a good resource; you may also want to check out this brief article at golftipsmag.com Ultimately, however, there’s no substitute for having a pro check your mechanics and practicing, practicing, practicing. Rolling a few putts before a round does not qualify – spend 15-20 minutes per week rolling putts from 3-4 feet – and keep a few basics in mind: stay stable, don’t peek, and roll the ball hard enough to get it about 12-14″ past the cup. (According to Pelz, 17″ is the magic number; for the average golfer, 12-14″ will work just fine – certainly better than trying to lag every putt!!)
- Play with better players. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but the principle is valid: play with better players than yourself. Playing with better players will encourage you to play (and therefore, practice) better, and afford you opportunities to learn from them. If you’re a 10 and you’re playing with a few 20’s, it’s not going to help you improve. Having said this, your friends are your friends, and if they’re hacks but great people, you may not have a lot of options (at least you’re blessed with some good friends.) Another option is to enter a few tournaments to see how your game responds to tournament pressure – plus you may meet some other players.
- Commit to the shot and then just do it. One of the paradoxes I’ve noticed in golf is that most amateurs play too aggressively off the tee and quit on critical short shots. When faced with difficult chips or tough putts or a pitch over a big bunker, they often “chicken out” rather than aggressively executing the shot. One of the absolutes in golf is that you must fully commit to each shot, focusing on what you need to do and not thinking about outcomes. (The only exception is match play, which is an entirely different subject.) When you begin to think about your expectations or the outcome of a certain shot or putt should you miss, you have doomed yourself. Determine what you need to do, think it through, commit to the shot, and then having “programmed” in what you need to do, simply do it – without regard to outcomes. Which leads to my next tip…
- One shot at a time. Perhaps you’ve heard this expression before. The essential point here is that you must play each shot in the present – not thinking about what comes next, not thinking about your score, and certainly not thinking about what happened in your last round, on the last hole, or with the last swing. Play and enjoy each shot in the present – think through your lie, the wind, your target, and so on – utilize your pre-shot routine to give yourself some “mental space” – and then execute the shot. This can be difficult to do; the best suggestion I can make is to simply train yourself to let your expectations and the past go: when you find your thoughts wandering to your score, the next hole, the last shot, – get your mind back on your next shot and what you need to do. Banish all other thoughts from your mind – they aren’t going to help you – determine what you need to do and then execute the shot and enjoy it.
- Develop a safety shot. I’ve written quite a bit here about the short game and how essential it is; there’s no doubt that the short game is a huge factor in every round. Having said this, it’s also true that many disasters (and therefore, big numbers on your card) happen from the tee. As you develop as a golfer you’ll need to develop a reliable “safety shot.” A safety shot is a shot you know you can execute when the wheels start coming off. It may be dropping down to a favorite utility club, or aiming at the left rough, weakening your grip and hitting a cut – what it is doesn’t matter, as long as you have a shot you KNOW you can execute when you or your game is in trouble. If you’re leaking oil when you’re finishing your round – or when you come to a critical hole – a safety shot will enable you to get through it unscathed – or at least without carding an ugly number.
- Buy equipment that’s suited to your game. If you’re a high handicapper, buy super game improvement irons and a forgiving driver. If you’re a mid handicapper, I’d still recommend game improvement irons, and I’d suggest you give some consideration to not carrying an iron longer than a 5 iron. This game is tough enough – take advantage of technology and all it offers. I’m a 6-7 handicap (current index is 6.5) and my 5, 6, and 7 irons are classified as “super game improvement” clubs, and I couldn’t be happier. My 8, 9, PW, and gap wedge are “player’s” clubs, as are my sand and lob wedges. My 3 and 4 irons are hybirds. (October, 2011 update: my index is now 4.9; I currently play a mixed set of Mizuno irons: 5-6-7 irons are MP53’s, and my 8-9-PW are MP63’s. Same principle applies.) I see no point in making the game any more difficult by trying to hit a 3 iron blade – what’s the point? Find some other endeavor where you can be a purist – here our focus is on playing as well as we can and lowering our handicaps.
- Have a game plan and stick to it. This is especially critical as you approach tournament play, but the principle is just as valid when it comes to playing with your girlfriends or buddies on the weekend. Develop a plan well before your round as to how you’ll approach each hole, and then stick to that plan. That short par 4 with the narrow, sloping fairway and fairway bunkers 240 yards off the tee? Hit your 3 iron hybrid and put yourself on the fairway for your approach shot. That par 3 over water that eats your lunch when the pin is back – at the narrower part of the green? Hit a shorter, more comfortable iron to the front (fat part) of the green. Having a well thought out plan will settle your mind and let you concentrate on executing your plan, rather than improvising something on the spot. When you’re making your mind up on the tee, doubt enters your mind, and with doubt comes much greater potential for poor execution and mistakes. Plan your round and then stick with your plan.
- Play the critical holes backward – especially par 5’s. Of course I’m not suggesting you literally play from green to tee – what I’d like you to do is to examine each long (or simply tough) par 4 and par 5 from the green, looking back at the tee. When you’re in the fairway on these holes, turn around and look back at the tee as well. Where is the fairway widest? What are the best lines to take from the tee? On par 5’s, where’s the safest point to land your 2nd shot? On our course we have a par 4 that when viewed from the back tees, it appears that the center of the fairway is straight toward a large pine tree in the distance. When you stand at that tree and look back at the tee however, it’s obvious that the actual center of the fairway is about 30 yards left of the “apparent” center… and there’s a water hazard on the right. Looking at par 5’s and long or tricky par 4’s from the fairway and green back toward the tee will afford you fresh insight into the best approach to playing these holes. Here’s a link to a brief article on this subject by Ernie Els. Try it the next time you’re on the course!
- Develop one or two simple swing thoughts. I’m not a proponent of complicated swing thoughts. The ideal state when you initiate a swing is one of relaxation, focus, and commitment. We all, however, sometimes find odd thoughts or (swing) memories entering our minds as we prepare for shots. A simple swing thought or two can – in conjunction with your pre-shot routine – help you get into the proper frame of mind and avoid mistakes. My swing thoughts are very simple – something like “Slow-Stable-Smooth.” This is just a way for me to remind myself to be slow on my takeaway, to not sway laterally during the backswing (“stable”,) and to initiate the downswing smoothly. I’ll let these thoughts run through my mind as I take a couple of smooth practice swings and then step up to the ball. If I feel as though my backswing has been getting a little long, I might might think “Slow-Short-Smooth.” As we develop as golfers we begin to understand what our mistakes are – perhaps you get a bit quick from the top and pull your shots under pressure; in that case, you might consider something like “Slow at the top and drop” – be slow and smooth as you transition to your downswing, and just drop your hands from the top of the backswing. A good swing thought is simple and helps you avoid your common mistakes – especially under pressure.
- Visualize the shot. We are all familiar with the concept of visualization. In golf, try to imagine the flight and shape of the shot; “see” it landing on the green or fairway. The same concept applies to putting. All top athletes visualize their performances, running through a mental “movie” of the performance before executing it. One of the most striking examples I’ve ever seen of visualization was by Olympic champion high jumper Dwight Stones. Before each jump Stones would close his eyes and visualize the jump, his head nodding slightly as he imagined each stride in his approach. Here’s a link to a brief article on this subject by LPGA Pro Lisa Ann Horst.
- Take a lesson lessons. I have high handicapper friends who think nothing of spending $300 or $400 on new drivers, but never invest in lessons. Newsflash: if your swing is faulty, the latest technology is not going to fix it. Talk to golfers in your area and find out who the best teaching professional is, and then take some lessons. We can’t see ourselves swing, and it’s really difficult if not impossible for the average golfer to figure out what she’s doing wrong, let alone how to fix it. A good pro will keep it simple, give you a few things to work on, and will build your confidence. Spend your money on a real game improvement secret – lessons with a talented teacher!
- Warm up by chipping and pitching, gradually working up to full swings
- Practice from ~100 yards and in – those shots represent 60-70% of your strokes!
- Develop a pre-shot routine and use it without fail
- Play away from trouble – lay up when it makes sense & helps you avoid the big number
- Practice the most important shot in golf – the 3 to 4 foot putt!
- To improve, try to play with better players
- Fully commit to your shots and then just execute!
- Play one shot at a time – stay in the present
- Develop a safety shot that you can rely upon when the wheels start coming off
- Swallow your pride and buy equipment that’s suited to your ability level
- Have a game plan for your round and follow it – it’ll help you avoid indecision & improvisation
- “Play” the par 5’s and tough par 4’s “backward” to better understand them
- Develop one or two simple swing thoughts to help you avoid your common faults
- Visualize your shots, focusing on your target
- Take lessons from a qualified PGA Professional!
That’s it – follow these tips and you will lower your handicap!
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