Category Archives: playing the game

The Difference That Distance Makes

(. . . and it’ ain’t that much.)

I want to give you, for your consideration, a new way of looking at distance. It’s a way of showing you how little of it you need to shoot good scores.

There is a link at the bottom of this post to a spreadsheet which shows you that on a 6,200-yard course you can hit no shot farther than 120 yards and break 100. Or you can break 90 with no shot longer than 140 yards.

Breaking 80 is a little more demanding, but not by anything huge. If your longest tee shot is 220 yards, and your longest shot from the fairway is 165 yards, you can break 80.

Granted, this assumes that each shot is hit well and straight. And that you take two putts on every green.

But no one does that. So what am I getting at here?

I’m saying that accuracy trumps distance. If you’re accurate you can still score even if you don’t or can’t pound the ball. Being pretty good around the green won’t hurt, either.

Not convinced? Try it. Play a round with nothing longer than your 140-yard club, and just hit it 140 yards, no trying to get more out of it than that, and see what you shoot.

You may download this Excel spreadsheet and put in data for your own courses. Cells with boldface entries may be changed. All other cells are locked.

A Few Odds and Ends

I was looking through a notebook I keep that contains notes from golf lessons I have taken. The last playing lesson I took emphasized the tee shot. My note says, “Tee shot is paramount to making par. Work on these.” So work on your driver, but work on hitting it straight, not far. If you can hit your irons straight, but not your driver, get a lesson. You’ll never figure it out yourself.

There are several other notes that pertain only to me, but another general note is, “Make your targets very precise from the tee and the fairway.” Think not only of which direction you want the shot to go, but on what spot do you want the ball to land. And it’s a spot, not an area.

You know the bottom of your swing needs to be ahead of the ball. How do you do that? I practice this indoors with a fairway wood. I set up and take note of the place where the leading edge of the sole is. Then I make a slow-motion swing and try to lightly tap the rug with the sole of the club ahead of that place when I swing through. Hint: if you’re not getting your weight to the left in the forward swing, and early in the forward swing, you won’t be able to get the club out there.

I’ve been playing around with a short stroke for short putts this past week. It started out as the old pop stroke, but I quickly found out that the rapid stroke and percussive hit the word “pop” suggests is the wrong way to go about it. I’m finding success with a rhythmic stroke that nudges the ball to the hole. That might be a better starting point for you if you want try this out. I should also mention my upper arms rest against my sides for security. The advantage of a short stroke (about six inches for a 10-foot putt) is that the clubface stays square throughout. I’m only using this stroke for short putts I think I can sink. For longer putts, I go back to my sweeping pendulum stroke and the TAP method.

I read a tip in a current golf magazine that I thought might help. So I went out and tried it. The results were terrible. What I realized very quickly is that I was already doing what the tip suggested. In trying to follow the tip I did more of it and that was too much. Beware of tips you read in golf magazines.

Your Golf Has to Travel

A few days ago I got a wake-up call. I was doing business at an end of town I don’t spend a lot of time in, but which has a driving range nearby. So I took along a putter and a ball to get a little practice in before I went back home.

I get all of my putting practice on the green at the range where I normally go to. If you saw me putt on this green, you would say that I’m a very good putter. I make putts from all over the place, and I go around the putting clock and never three-putt.


On this new green, I couldn’t do a thing right. I was three-putting from twenty-five feet about half the time, it was hit-and-miss with four-footers, and my distance control was just nowhere.

I realized that I putted so well on my usual green not because of things that I thought made me a good putter. They didn’t have anything to do with it.

I had merely unconsciously memorized the green. That’s it. So when I went to this new green, I didn’t have the skills to handle the differences in green speed and contour.

I play the same courses, and I putt very well on them, because I have memorized their greens. It all adds up to having become lazy.

An under-appreciated aspect of the way Tour pros play the game is that their golf travels. They play different courses every week, that require different shots, that provide different responses to the shot, and you know what? They don’t care! The adapt after a practice round or two and it’s off to the birdie-fest.

You improve and become a Golfer by having skills that hold up under any condition. Looks like I have some work to do. How about you?

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.