Are you the type of player that enjoys golf more when you have moments of greatness mixed in with poor play? Or do you get more satisfaction from a steady level of competent performances, no blow-up holes, but with little fanfare? The answer depends largely on your personality and your preference for risk. If we put a professional persona on each type, Phil Mickelson might be the roller coaster riding risk taker and Nick Faldo the solid performing steady eddie. Each had comparable levels of success in major tournaments and across their careers, but were highly different in the way they built their records. Because I’m generally risk adverse, I’m in the Faldo camp, how about you?
For those preferring a steady course, I have some advice that may help you get to the level of consistency you seek. The following plan has been working for me for two months (which coincides with my last lesson of the season). In that session, my instructor made a couple of key changes to my setup. The specifics are not important because they are unique to me and not you. The key takeaway is that they addressed fundamentals, and to improve and play consistent golf, it starts with a mastery of the fundamentals. I know, not very profound, but without fundamentals, good course management and sensible practice habits will only get you so far. If you want to get to a level of real consistency, you need to work to get the fundamentals ingrained so that you can strike the ball with confidence. It’s sort of a chicken and egg scenario. For years I worked on various techniques to improve my practice habits and course management. But until I understood and could replicate the mechanics needed for good ball striking, my improvement was limited. Seeking the advice from a pro is a start, not the end of your journey. I’ve had to iterate through three years of lessons before I found the keys that resonated to a point where I feel I can take my game to an away course, in a variety of weather conditions, and know I have a good chance to play a successful round because my ball striking will not falter.
Being well prepared with the fundamentals is a good feeling. Handling the smallest details are also important. In my last lesson, I discussed a concern about my grip that I had always wondered about. Use a long thumb or short thumb on my left hand. I’ve read conflicting points on that in different instruction books. Stupid little topic but if you’ve been switching back and forth over the years, how can you expect to build consistency into your swing? So I had the discussion, got the recommendation (short) and have gone with that ever since. It’s best to dialog and eliminate these inconsistencies because they create doubt. Get them worked out because it provides a baseline of correctness you can start from when working on your swing. Many of the fundamentals can be applied using different techniques and it’s important to pick a single approach and stick with it. Elevate your baseline understanding of the fundamentals, work them continuously in practice, and you will gain the consistency you seek.
After the fundamentals, you must work to simulate game conditions during practice. This is critical for those who have limited time to practice and for players having trouble transitioning from the practice tee to the golf course. There are two aspects to focus on. First is creating real pressure. If you struggle with choking on or around the greens or having your range swing disappear on the golf course try the following: Play 9-hole games of up-and-down and / or have putting matches with a friend or with yourself to simulate real round pressure. Go through your full pre-shot routine on every chip, pitch, or putt. Play for small wagers. Next, head to the driving range, where you can play a simulated round on a familiar course, hitting all the tee shots and approach shots and varying targets on every swing. Keep score in your head. If you are playing poorly, don’t quit! Learning how to handle adversity is an important skill that’s worth practicing. Second is preparing to play shots you will need during your rounds. Last Saturday, I was on the practice tee and it was sunny and 70 degrees. I knew my round the next day would be played in 40 degree temps with heavy winds, so every iron shot I hit during my simulated round was a knock-down. Somebody watching me may have been wondering what I was doing, hitting all these low bullets, but conditions the next day were difficult and I felt prepared, and was able to execute a lot of good low iron approaches.
How do you measure your success? Your scores are the best indicator. Say you are a 20-handicap and average between 90 and 100 strokes per round. If you are improving your fundamentals and practicing correctly, you should hope to have a solid string of scores in the low 90s and occasionally break into the high 80s. For lower handicap players the same holds true. My current index is 4.4. With my limited ability to play and practice I try to keep my scores under 80 and the current trend is good with the last seven in the 70s.
To truly improve, you need to seek professional instruction and focus on getting your fundamentals ironed out during the lessons. Then dedicate 20% of your practice time to mechanics and 80% to the skills you’ll need on the course. You’ll find the transition becomes seamless from practice to play. Whether you hit it like Phil or Faldo, mastering the fundamentals and correcting the way you prepare will help you play better over time. Give it a try.
Good luck and play well!