Category Archives: playing the game

Golf Is a “Next Shot” Game

Many people play golf by hitting the ball, finding it, and figuring out what to do next. They make golf a “this shot” game. Golf is better played by thinking about the shot after this one.

An easy example to make this clear is the second shot on a par-5 hole. You can either hit the ball as far as you can to get on the green with whatever is left over, or you can figure out what shot you want to hit into the green, then play your second shot to set up that one.

The general rule is to play this shot so as to make the next shot as easy and productive as possible.

A Few Little Things

No essay today — just a few thoughts for you, in no particular order.

1. At the range, hit one ball at a time. Put your bucket in a place where you have to walk to it to get another ball. This will force you to set up all over again for each shot. This is how you practice your setup: grip, stance, posture, aim, ball position. Most of your bad shots are the result of a bad setup, not a bad swing.

2. Make your first read of a putt standing 50 feet from the hole. Only from that distance can you see the overall tilt of the green. Do you want to know why you missed that straight-in 3-footer? Because you couldn’t see from just a few feet behind the ball that the entire green was tilted to the left.

3. Have you figured out which club you want to hit from the fairway? Factored in lie, wind, green firmness? Good. Now take one more club and grip down an inch. Otherwise, you’re relying on a perfect strike.

4. Hit a few stock 9-irons. Your swing with a driver should take just as long, from start to finish, as those.

5. Unless you’re hitting a specialty shot, use the same ball position for all shots off the ground. Thus the ball will always be in the same place relative to the bottom of your swing.

6. You can’t generate clubhead speed by turning your hips at 100 mph. The calmer your center stays, the more speed will be built up at the outside — the clubhead.

7. Never hit over water unless you have no choice. Bad things happen when you challenge a water hazard needlessly.

8. Make it your rule from close in to get the ball on the green in one shot. Even if you leave the ball 30 feet from the hole, you’ve done your job.

9. The conventional advice when playing a par 3 from an elevated tee is to take less club. Actually, you should take more club and punch the ball off the tee. This is a more secure swing, and keeps the ball down to get the ball on the green quicker.

10. At the range, practice as long as your mind is sharp. If you feel your mind is losing focus, that’s enough for the day. Give the rest of your bucket to another golfer and go home. You don’t learn anything when your mind is tired.

Get the Most Out of Your Warm-Up

I’m not going to say you have to warm up before a round in order to play well. I’ve warmed up and played indifferently. I’ve also gone straight to the first tee, took a few swings to get loose, and shot even par.

But in general, you’ll play better if you warm up first, and better still if you warm up correctly. There’s more to it than just beating balls. A lot more.

It certainly helps to hit a few balls just to get relaxed, loose, and, well, warmed up. Literally. Move your muscles around by swinging the club lightly, even like a baseball bat at first, enough times for your muscles to actually heat up a bit. As you get older, this becomes more important for preventing injuries.

You want to hit a few balls to remember how your swing works. Much of the time, the first four or five balls I hit make it look like I picked up a golf club for the first time last week. Then everything falls in place and I have my swing back. I would rather hit my clinkers on the range than on the first few tees and fairways.

I like to hit one shot with every club. I don’t want to have to hit my 8-iron for the first time on the fifth hole. I would rather already have made friends with it that day.

Are there special shots you need to hit on this course? A tee shot around a corner? and approach over a tree? Rehearse them on the practice tee.

But let’s get down to subtle things that will make a big difference.

Find the tempo you will use today. Find the tempo that lets you swing as fast as you can without feeling like you’re forcing it, and lets you maintain your 3:1 swing rhythm. It might be a little faster, or a little slower than you think you normally use. That’s OK. It’s your tempo for today.

Then move on to ball position. You’re looking for the low point of your swing, so you can set up with the ball an inch or so behind. Move the ball back and forth between shots to find the position where you get the most solid strike.

Next, practice your aim. You don’t have to hit any balls to do this. Set yourself up to some marker downrange with a club or an alignment stick behind your heels. Reach back with your clubhead and pull the stick against your heels. Now step out of your stance and see if the stick/club is aligned parallel left of where you were aiming. Keep setting up to different targets until your sense of aim is spot on.

Have you ever gone to a professional tournament and watched the players warm up? Here is something they do not do:

Pull a ball over, set up, look downrange, hit the ball, watch it for a bit, pull over another ball, set up, hit it, watch it for a second or two, pull over another ball, and so on.

What they do is take their time. They take their time. They pull over a ball, take their time getting set up and aimed, hit it, and watch it until it lands. Then they’ll take a few practice swings, or practice a swing movement, and without being in any hurry, drag one over, take their time getting set up, hit it, watch it, and so on.

They’re practicing being deliberate when they have a shot to make. They’re not practicing to take five and half yours to get around the course, but not to be in a rush when it’s time to hit.

If warm-up like this, and get clear on tempo, ball position, aim, and deliberation, you will, on the whole, play as well as you can much more often.

A Basic Golf Skills Inventory

These are a few things you must be able to do to call yourself a golfer. How many of them do you KNOW how to do?

Hit an intentional fade

Hit an intentional draw

Hit with the ball below your feet

Hit with the ball above your feet

Hit from an uphill lie

Hit from a downhill lie

Hit the ball higher than normal

Hit the ball lower than normal

Hit the ball 125 yards with your 9-iron, 8-iron, and 7-iron

Hit out of fairway bunker

Hit out of a greenside bunker to a specific distance

Pitch to any distance between 50 and 100 yards

Play a chip that checks quickly, and another than runs, with the same club

There’s more, but this is a good enough start. You can add others on your owns you discover them.

How do you learn to do these things? Well, you don’t learn by trying to figure it out yourself. I have posts on most of them, but the best way is to get a lesson.

Have a pro show you how, and take notes. Then practice.

You want to get to the point where the course cannot give you a problem you don’t already have a solution for.

Play Golf Like There’s No Tomorrow

A few weeks ago, I put up a post that was secretly about the benefits of playing conservatively. This post is openly about doing the opposite.

I’m not contradicting myself. I’m just giving you something else to think about.

You’re on the course, looking over a tricky shot, and thinking, “I know I can hit that shot, but if I miss, there’s water/bunkers/OB/etc. I’d better play it safe to keep from shooting the Big Number.”

So you do, and take a Gentleman’s Bogey to the next tee, no happier, and still wondering if you should have tried that riskier shot.

Yes, you should have. You’ll never know how good you are if you never take a challenge, or if you don’t learn how to take a challenge. And most of all, you’ll never have all the fun golf can provide.

Not every shot is challenging. I’m talking about five or so shots per round. If you have the shot in your bag, accept the challenge. Play a full-sized game. Don’t go small every time.

Say you’re 80 yards from the pin, but it’s tucked behind a bunker. If you have confidence in your pitching game, don’t chicken out toward the center of the green. Play right for the pin.

That’s how you’re going to get your up and down. Regard the bunker as out of play. Forget about it. Play for down in two instead of guaranteeing down in three.

Narrow driving hole? Out comes your fairway wood or some kind of hybrid iron.

But if you have a little fade with your driver you can hit whenever you want to (and that’s not a hard shot to learn) go with the Big Dog.

Yes, sometimes you won’t pull off the challenging shot and you’ll end up with a double bogey. So? There are seventeen other holes.

Or you don’t want to play this way because bad rounds will raise your handicap. Well, the low scores you’ll shoot offset the occasional bad ones, and why do you even have a handicap anyway, when all you’re out there for is to have fun?

It comes down to this. Don’t play stupid shots. But if you know you can do it, then do it. Stretch yourself. Step out of your rut.

You become a better player by hitting shots better players hit.

And you’ll have more fun.

Three Plans For Playing Golf

I want to ask you to try three different ways of playing golf. They come from a book titled, Golf Is a Very Simple Game, by Jonathan Fine.

The book is a summary of the teachings of the golf teacher Francisco Lopez. I recommend this book to you, and its companion volume, What’s This Got to Do With Golf?

You are going to make three plans for playing a round of golf on a course you know well.

There is likely to be a map of the course on the scorecard. Make three blown-up copies of this map to twice its size on the scorecard.

You can make marks on the maps to show where you would want to play the ball, and which clubs you would use.

1. On one map, make a plan to get onto every green in regulation.

2. On the second map, make a plan to stay in the fairway at all times, and out of rough, bunkers, trees, water, and what have you.

3. On the third map, make a plan to get on the green in one shot over regulation on every hole. No GIRs allowed!

After you have done that, play one round with each plan, following it strictly.

As Fine says, “See what happens.”

The Gap in Your Golf Game

Unless you are a very good player, there is a gap in your golf game that you likely cannot close. That gap is between your 4-iron/24° hybrid/7-wood and your driver. Within that space, recreational golfers generally do not have a good chance to hit greens and make pars.

The solution is to judge the conditions carefully if you have a long shot into the green. When there’s no real trouble around it, then go for it IF you can get there with a club you get into the air easily.

(Having said that, if it’s a club you don’t get into the air easily, maybe it shouldn’t be in your bag at all.)

If you miss the green, you’ll at least be hole high with a chip onto the green for a par putt and a sure bogey. Nothing wrong with that.
What if there’s trouble in the form of bunkers, water, tall grass? Now it might make sense to play short to a long chipping position. In that case, hit the shot with the longest club you have confidence in.

That way, you’ll eat up a lot of yards, be in front of the green with a good lie and a chance, again, to chip on for a par or a sure bogey.
If you have a gap like the one I’m talking about, and I do, it’s best to think of the longer clubs as advancement clubs — clubs that get your ball down the fairway without the risk of losing strokes.

Or, you can go one step farther and not even put them in your bag. That way, they will never get you in trouble.

I like a light bag, so I carry only 10 clubs. The set starts off with driver, 24° hybrid, 6-iron and on down stepwise to a 56° wedge and my putter. No 5-iron? I hit it well, but not often enough to carry it.

I hit my driver 220 yards. With a 175-yard second, I can reach the green on all but the longest par 4s. Long par 3s are hard to hit anyway, so playing short and safe works out better than playing long and into trouble. Par 5s are three-shotters, and 395 after two shots leaves a short iron into the green.

I’m not asking you to play wimpy golf. Not at all. I‘m suggesting that you be realistic about how to play from long distances so you don’t lose strokes needlessly.

The pros play golf one way. We play it another. When you’re ready to hit into the green from 200 yards without courting disaster, you’ll know.

One Swing Tip, One Mental Tip

Between clubs?

Rule: When between clubs, take the longer club and grip down. Then make your normal swing.

Don’t try to hit the ball harder, because you don’t have to, and for sure don’t ease up, because that’s like hitting the shorter club.

——

One of the things that made me be a better golfer is that I don’t care where the ball goes after I hit it. If it goes here, or goes there, I just get to my ball and play the next shot, whatever it is. If you want to put your best swing on the ball, let a graceful swing flow through the ball, and leave it at that.

Consider this point well.

Be Your Own Caddy

In Better Recreational Golf, I have a small essay on the chapter titled Playing the Game, called Be Your Own Caddy. The point I made was that you need to have a good reason for every shot you hit.

It has to be a shot you know you can hit, that you have confidence in, and one that leaves the ball in a good spot for the next one.

Yet, more often than not, all we think about is how to get the ball from point A to point B, without giving much thought to our selection of exactly where point B should be.

If we had a caddy with us, those two questions would be the topic of some conversation. The caddy would not be satisfied until you had good answers to both of them.

To play your best golf, you have to step into the role of your caddy and discuss things with your other self, the player self, until you both are in agreement.

Now this might not work for everyone, but I believe that if before you take a club out of the bag, you explain to yourself why you want to use this club, and what shot you’re going to hit with it, and to where, you might start thinking a little clearer about the choices you make.

You would consider the lie, the wind, the landing area, and the distance. Then you hit the shot you can hit, rather than the shot you want to hit, or would be good if it works out.

Take your salary, convert it to an hourly rate, and compute how much is costs you, at that rate, to play a round of golf. Add on a quarter of your green fees to that hourly rate, too.

Now ask yourself if you would pay a caddy that much money for the same advice you usually give to yourself. For most of us, I think we would demand a little more.

Hitting shots is only part of golf. Hitting the right shot to the right place is how you use your hard-earned skills to shoot a low score. You do that by being your own caddy.

How to Play Single-Digit Golf

Yes, you heard me. How to play single-digit golf, and it’s not that hard to do, or I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m not saying scratch golf, that’s another matter entirely. But coming in at nine strokes over the course rating? That’s a lot of room for error.

Let’s see. Shotmaking skills.

First of all, you need to be able to hit the ball straight, consistently. Not every shot, but seven out of ten need to go where you want them to, and the other three must be playable.

Second, you need to be good at approach putting. Three-putt greens are most often caused by leaving the first putt too far from the hole. That said, it’s OK to be very good from four feet in as well.

With your short game plus putting, you need to have a chance to get up and down from most places around the green.

Now the playing skills.

Know the yardages of your irons, and know how to hit them different distances. Say you hit your 7-iron 148 yards, and the pin is 144 yards away. You should know how to shave four yards off the shot.

While we’re at it, play to pin-high or beyond from the fairway, Always have enough club in your hand, because you don’t always make perfect contact. Your iron from the fairway is the key to making a good score possible, so play these shots conservatively.

Know what your best shots are, and hit them as often as you can. Make the course bend to your skills. Know what your weak shots are and avoid them while you’re working on them.

Always keep bogey in play. Your scorecard can handle bogeys, but doubles add up too fast.

Play from the right set of tees. If you’re hitting long irons or hybrids into half of the par 4s, those tees are too long for you.

Finally, forget your score and just play golf. Don’t ask too much out of any shot, and thereby keep the ball in play. Enjoy yourself, play one easy, controlled shot after another, and you’ll pull it off.

Here’s the formula for shooting a 79, which on most courses is single-digit golf: par all of the par 5s (20), half the par 3s (14), and half the par 4s (45). You might just stumble across a birdie or two. None of that sounds too hard, does it?