Whether you are a beginner or a life-long enthusiast, there are three keys you need to play better golf. Depending on your skill level, the percentage of your time spent on each will vary. If you continue to work them all, I guarantee your golf journey will be an enjoyable one. I use the word “journey” because you never have anything permanently solved in this game. It’s a constant process of reaching peaks and valleys, and working the Keys will ensure an upward curve of improvement. Your goal of maximizing the peaks and minimizing the valleys is doable so let’s get started.
The Three Keys:
- Mastery of fundamentals
- Purposeful practice
KEY 1 – Mastery of fundamentals:
Most highly accomplished players are ground in a solid understanding of the fundamentals. These include: grip, aim, posture, conditioning, and learning the proper physical sequence to make solid contact. There are players on the world stage that are unique in their approach to fundamentals, but one commonality is they almost look identical at impact. They are particularly adept at learning the proper body sequencing to get them to strike solid shots. To illustrate, look at the similarities of Jim Furyk and John Daly down-the-line at impact – amazingly similar, and such different players!
A commitment to solid fundamentals is essential. Many self-proclaimed hackers stay at their current level because of a reluctance to make this commitment. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is time consuming, but think of anything you are trying to gain a mastery of. Doesn’t that require a deep understanding of fundamentals and a commitment to improve them? Golf is no different.
For the average amateur, fundamentals are best learned early, and under the watchful eye of a professional instructor. Improvement can also be made by the seasoned player at any point by seeking professional help, but the deeper bad fundamentals are ingrained in a player’s swing, the more difficult they are to break.
I took my first lessons 42 years ago and my instructor provided a lot of the fundamentals I needed. However, he missed on a critical one, and I’ve been working very hard with my current instructor to break the bad habit and re-learn a good one. I’ve made the commitment and it’s difficult.
Instruction is a lot different today than when I first learned. The explosion of materials on the internet can confuse a student to the point of reverse productivity if the student doesn’t know how to filter the incoming data. My recommendation is to find a qualified instructor, take an honest look at your fundamentals, and develop a focused learning improvement plan. (Generally, the fewer fundamentals you try to fix at once, the better.) A big side-benefit is that when you make a mistake on the course or during practice, you’ll have a better way to identify anti-patterns, and will stop trying too many different fixes. Reduce confusion, work your plan, and reap the rewards.
KEY 2 – Purposeful practice:
It actually takes practice to learn how to practice. Purposeful practice means getting a method to help you learn and retain skill that you can use to execute on the golf course. Most amateurs don’t practice correctly. They buy a bucket of balls and head out to the driving range for an hour of banging drivers as far as possible. This will build ample callouses on your hands, and maybe a good sweat, but will do nothing for your golf game.
Start by seeking out a good practice facility which might include a driving range, practice green for short game, separate putting green, and maybe a bunker. A lot of serious golfers keep a shag bag with some good quality practice balls nearby. Mine lives in the car trunk. You’ll never know when you arrive at a practice facility if there are no balls to work with in the short game area. Most shag bags have a picker contraption to collect balls without making you stoop over – a must have if you practice a lot of short game.
Beginning players should spend about 75% of their practice time working to improve their basic fundamentals – that means full swing. One school of thought is to learn the game backwards (putting first, moving back to short game, and then full swing), but I am not in favor. It’s very hard for a beginner to gain enough satisfaction just knocking in three-foot putts. You need to build enthusiasm with the novice player and golf is an athletic activity. The thrill of hitting a flush shot is a powerful force. I remember when I made my first good contact, how amazed I was to be able to hit the ball so far.
As players gain more experience, the percentage of their practice time should begin to favor the short game because of the intricacies of greenside shots. The spectrum is limitless and the more you can practice a core set of go-to short shots, the more confident you will be on the course and the lower your scores will go.
I have different types of practice routines depending on what I want to work on, but I also have a stock session I use the day before I play. It takes about 90 minutes and covers my full game. It works like this:
- Start with 30 minutes of short game. I work on chipping with my lob wedge, pitching wedge, and 8-iron. I’ll try to hit three different chip shots with the lob wedge (low, medium, and high) and I do this by varying the ball position. Then I’ll hit some stock chips with the PW and 8-iron. Next, I work on pitching with my lob wedge and sand wedge and I try to vary the distance from the hole. Finally, I wrap up with a few lob shots and if the practice green is clear, a half dozen bunker shots.
- Next is 30 minutes on the range. I’ll hit three balls with each of my lob wedge through 7-iron (low, medium, and high trajectories). Then I’ll skip to my 4-iron for three, and finally take three stock 3WDs and three drivers. Next I’ll play three simulated holes which uses six or seven balls. Great things happen in groups of three 🙂 This helps to get my mind off mechanics and in game mode. The low-medium-high iron shots are a recent change that I’ve found very beneficial and I’ll often repeat this shot pattern warming up the day of a round. It gives me an excellent feel for the trajectory I’m most comfortable with for that day. Note how few drivers I hit. I picked this up after reading an article on how Dustin Johnson practices. He saves energy and focuses on the shorter clubs which has helped his scoring.
- The last 30 minutes is for putting. I’ll frame a hole with my alignment sticks and take five groups of 10 putts within the sticks. This grooves my stroke incredibly well and boosts my confidence within five feet. I’ll take three long lag putts between the groups of ten, just to break up the routine. Finally, I’ll finish with two rounds of the 5-star drill. This is where you place five balls in a star pattern around a hole and try to make all five going through your full pre-shot routine.
KEY 3 – Self-accountability:
Golfers fall into two camps. Those that play for fun and those that are more serious about their games. There is nothing wrong with either and you can certainly have fun while being serious about your game. If you play for fun, enjoy yourself, be courteous to your playing partners, mind the pace of play, and leave the course better than you found it. That’s all the accountability you’ll need. But if you are a serious player, you need to exhibit an honest approach regarding scoring. Being accurate with your score means playing by the rules, taking your penalty shots, and putting out the shorties. You will find that if you hold yourself accountable during the casual rounds, tournament play is much less of an adjustment. You’ll be surprised how many players get thrown off their game when they must hole every three-foot putt. Bang ‘em in during practice, bang ‘em in during casual play, and you’ll have a much better shot when it matters.
For those that carry a handicap, accountability means keeping an accurate index. You also need to pay off any gambling losses immediately. Once you get caught playing to a lower handicap in a tournament (sandbagging) your reputation will precede you in a bad way. Welching on bets or worse, being labeled a cheater because you’ve taken other’s money unfairly, can stay with you forever. If winning a small side-wager or even a large tournament purse is more important than playing fairly, you need to find another endeavor. Just do the right thing and you’ll be fine.
As a life-long enthusiast, I have been afforded the luxury of excellent professional instruction. It’s a great way to get introduced to the game if you’re just starting. I’ve also had the opportunity to try new things (and fail a lot), and to work hard to understand the psychological aspect of the game. It all adds up to a tremendous experience framed and punctuated by the Three Keys. Work the Three Keys and enjoy the journey.