Category Archives: playing the game

150 Yards and In

Harvey Penick has a short bit in his Little Red Book titled “Long and Short.” The point he makes is that you should spend most of your practice time on your 150-yard shot, using whatever club that is.

This is best advice I have ever seen for the strength of your overall game.


Penick says, “There’s no reason why the average golfer should take more than three to get down from 150 yards.”

That’s exactly right. You should expect to hit the ball onto or beside the green and get down in two from there or closer.

To be able to expect that, not only does your swing need to produce accurate shots, you have to be able to chip and approach putt quite well, too.

I should mention the driver. If you are money with an iron from 150 yards, that same swing will put your tee ball in the fairway reliably, too.

That’s how being good from 150 yards affects the overall strength of your game.

How important is the 150-yard strategy?

By adopting it as the basis of my game I became a single-digit golfer.

Ten Good Golfing Habits

Make these ten ideas your habits and you will cut down on the number of poorly-hit shots and increase the number of well-struck shots.

1. Take a careful look at your lie. It defines your shot choices.

2. Swing the club so it, not you, does the work it was designed to do.

3. Before you swing at the ball, take a practice swing and hold your finish. Where you end up looking is where you are aimed.

4. Every shot into the green, or from on the green to the hole, should be hit hard enough to pass the hole.

5. Use as light a grip pressure as you can, especially in the short game.

6. Swing with a tempo that keeps everything under control.

7. Look at every putt from behind, even the shortest ones.

8. Before you take the club away, draw an imaginary line straight through the ball to the target. Tell your unconscious mind to send the clubhead along that path through impact. Every stoke, drive to putt.

9. Do not hit shots you haven’t practiced. Remember that situation and save it for a trip to the range after the round.

10. Always take two practice strokes before any short game shot.

There are many more. Your job as a golfer is to find them.

Golf Is a Language

This morning I was taking my weekly six-mile hike in the hills south of town. Six miles up hill and down dale. When I’m out there, my mind wanders to places I never expect. This morning it struck me that golf is a language.

When we study a new language, we learn vocabulary and the rules of grammar. But at the same time we learn how to apply those things to speaking the language.

Because, knowing a set of words and the rules for putting them together is not enough for expressing a coherent thought in the new language. We have to learn how to speak in sentences that mean something.

In golf, shot-making skills are analogous to vocabulary and grammar. They are what allow us to play the game.

But still we have to learn how to play. We have to learn, for particular situation, what shot to hit, with what club, and to where. And if conditions are unusual, we also have to know how to hit the shot.

Playing, in my analogy, corresponds to speaking.

Conditions at the driving range are pretty normal. You just aren’t going to encounter all the different situations a golf course will throw at you.

Only by playing can you learn how to take out of your bag of tricks the right one at the right time.

Golf then is a matter of (a) developing skills and (b) learning how to use them on the golf course.

All this sounds obvious, but let me ask you. How much attention do you pay on the course to what works and doesn’t work, compared to doing the same thing at the range? Not as much, maybe?

It doesn’t matter how good you look at the range. The only question is, when you take your range skills to the course, how well do you use them to get the ball in the hole?

How well do you speak the language of golf?

One Change to Lower Your Golf Score Guaranteed

I’m going to present you with some information that you can’t argue with and which points the way to shooting lower scores without having to hit one pracice ball.

The main reason why recreational golfers have a hard time making par when they get up to the green is that they didn’t get up far enough. They don’t arrive.

The chart below shows that over 80 percent of approach shots by recreational golfers finish short of the center of the green, and over one-third of approach shots never get as far as the green.

To have your best chance at a par, your shot into the green has to get there. It has to arrive. We will always have problems with hitting the ball to the right or left, but we should never have a problem with being too short.

For shots you fly into the green, play the ball to end up past the pin.* This is the scoring zone. Why?

First of all, if you play for going past the pin, mishits will still land on the green. Second, you avoid trouble, which is usually in front of the green. Third, you make up for a general tendency to underclub.

When I mention this on forums, some people respond by saying they play short to avoid the trouble behind the green. But to hit the ball over the green you have to flush it. And how often do you do that?

Any shot into the green has to get there. Instead of your best 7, hit an easy 6. O.K.?

*Except, obviously, pins that are in the back.

Your Needlessly High Golf Score

Golf is a game you play. You play golf by hitting shots. Many people think you play good golf by hitting good shots. Yes, but they have to be the right shots, and that’s the rub.

I am convinced, based on my experience, and by watching other golfers play, that anyone could lower their average score by 3 to 6 strokes just by being a better player.* Same skills, wiser use.

The only book I know of devoted to this topic is The Elements of Scoring, by Raymond Floyd. I suggest you get a copy.

I went through notes I made on my rounds over the years to find mistakes I commonly made, that raised my score needlessly. You might think these things are obvious, and they are, but only when your attention is called to them.

Most of them have to do with play around the green, the place where most strokes get thrown away.

1. From close in, get the ball on the green with one shot. Two is an absolute no-no. Think about the pin only if course conditions are perfect, and you have the shot to get the ball close. Otherwise, forget about zeroing in on the pin. Just get the ball on the green in its vicinity.

2. From about 30 yards and closer, know when to chip and when to pitch. My notes are full of “Should have chipped” and “Should have pitched.”

3. Aim your chips with the intention having them go in. It doesn’t do you any good to get the distance right when the ball finishes five feet left because you didn’t aim the shot. Or read the green.

4. From the fairway, always have enough club in your hand. “I can get there with a 7-iron” is a way of saying, “I think I’ll hit a 6.”

5. Never take unnecessary risks over water. In fact avoid hitting over water unless you absolutely have to.

6. Develop good habits so they become habits and you don’t muff a shot because of a simple thing you should have done but forgot to. Like using an identical grip for every shot. Like having the ball in a consistent position that matches your swing. Like aiming yourself at the target. Like the little things you have found that make each stroke type (swing, pitch, chip, putt) work best for you.

7. Learn to LOOK at the course and see what is there that will affect the choice of shots: your lie, hazards, intervening ground, landing area, wind, etc. Don’t be thinking about what you want to do, but instead about what the course is giving you.

8. Hit only shots you know how to hit. “This worked once,” or “I think I’ll try this” are not good ways of getting the ball around the course.

Bonus (this is something I never fail to do, but I wonder who else does it): Have a plan for how you are going to play the hole, in general, and adapted to the day’s conditions (weather, pin positions, how you’re playing that day, etc.). The plan is where to put your tee ball to have the easiest shot into the green, how you want to ball to approach the pin from the fairway and where the safe miss is, how to get down in two and no more than three shots from around the green.

*Or if you had a professional caddy. We don’t, so you have to be your own caddy. I would like to see a professional tournament where caddies were not allowed and the players had to make their own decisions. Like the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, so no one could duck out.

Notes From a Round – 3/8/22

Once your golfing skills get under control, that is, you have a reasonable expectation that the shot will come off like you wanted it to, what keeps your score higher than it should be is poor decision-making.

Yesterday I played nine holes and lost five strokes that I shouldn’t have. Two were from shots I absolutely skanked, which happens. But three were from not thinking things through.

Par 4, 413 yards, right-angled dogleg right. My tee shot ended up in the corner with no real shot toward the green. So I took out my 6-iron and set up to hit a fade around the corner at least get me back in the fairway and somewhat closer to the green. Except the fade didn’t come off. The ball went dead straight and sailed out of bounds.

I dropped a ball at the same spot, hit a 8-iron, and from there a 6-iron got the ball on the green for two putts and a 7 that would have been a 5 if I had used my head.

Here’s the rule, then. If, from the fairway, it will take more than one stroke to get the ball on the green, what is the easiest combination of shots that will do the job?

Two holes later, my tee shot on a par 3 ended up about two feet short of the green, on a very tight lie. The pin was about 40 feet away.

I like to chip from off the green. I hardly ever use my putter. So instead of using my putter, I went to my habit and tried to chip with a sand wedge. As I was standing over the ball, I couldn’t quite feel good about what I was about to do. Sure enough, I didn’t get the contact to spin the ball enough, and it rolled about twelve feet past the hole.

Two putts later I had a 4 when an easy 3 had almost been handed to me.

Here’s the rule. If you don’t feel confident about the shot you’re about to hit, stop and try one you feel good about.

So there you have it. Golf is a game you play. Shot-making skills are tools you develop at the range. The course is where you learn which ones to use to shoot low scores.

Two Reasons Why You hit Bad Shots

Your bad shots are not always caused by a physical error. They can be caused by a mental lapse that leads to a physical error.

The most common mental lapse is to think about hitting the ball a long way. This makes you swing too fast or hit with the trailing hand, neither of which work out very often.

Another common mental lapse is picking a shot you do not have confidence in. Pick a shot you are confident about, then make your stroke with that feeling.

These ideas might make you take two shots when you wanted to take only one, but they prevent you from taking three.

Notes From a Round

I played nine holes yesterday, solo. This is what I learned, or reminded myself of.

My chipping clubs go from a 60* wedge to a 7-iron. On the fourth hole I was just off the front of a deep green with the pin in the back. That invites a pitch. But it was also perfect for a chip with an 8-iron. When you set up your chipping clubs, trust them.

On a par 5, I was about 240 yards from the hole after my drive. I pulled out a fairway wood, but reconsidered. It would take two shots, regardless, to get the ball on the green, so why not make it two easy shots? The FW went back into the bag and out came a 24* hybrid. That club, and an easy pitch got me on the green for two putts and an easy par, not a hard one.

Short putt, about eight feet, downhill. I am not a die-at-the-hole putter normally. But for putts like these, I am. I gave the ball a little tap, sending it slowly to the hole and catching the right lip on the last roll to fall in. Any more pace and the ball would have stayed out.

Ball in the rough off the tee, enough that I would have to go down and get it at impact. If you play the ball in the center of your stance, the grass will grab the clubhead and the ball won’t go very far, and you’ll never get the clubhead down to the bottom of the ball. Instead, play the ball back in your stance and employ a more vertical forward swing. Since the ball is back, the clubpath will still be a bit rightward at impact, so aim left of your target.

Forty feet from the flag, about five feet off the green on very short grass. With a long putt like this over grass at the start, the ball will be in its bouncing phase when crosses the grass, so there is no need to hit the ball harder to get it through the grass. Hit it like you would if the ball was on the green.

Read your chips as if they were approach putts. If you ignore slope, chips that go the right distance can get carried away from the hole by contours you didn’t take into consideration.

Reading the green: I read every putt over two feet putt at 30 feet from the hole. You can see slopes in the green that are not apparent when you read from right behind the ball. Also, do not overread short putts. The large majority of putts from about three feet in do not have to be played outside the hole.

Straight Beats Distance in Recreational Golf

Terry Kohler, who writes for GolfWRX, wrote recently about how good touring pros are, or rather are not, when they have to play their tee ball out of the rough.

It seems, when we watch them play on television, that it doesn’t matter where the ball ends up. They still get on the green and make their par and even some birdies.

One thing you always want to remember is that the players we see on TV are the ones who are playing really well that week. So of course they will tend to play well out of the rough.

But they aren’t as good from the rough as you think they are. The fairway matters.

This chart, suggested by Kohler’s column shows how far the ball is left from the pin, on average, from the fairway, and from the rough, for a given distance.

Notice, as Kohler points out in his article, that guys get it closer from 150-175 yards from the fairway than they do from 75-100 yards from the rough.

What does that tell you about your game, when you are not as strong as they are, not as athletic as they are, and not as talented as they are? Hmmm?

If you said the recreational game depends on getting your tee ball in the fairway, you win the prize.

Now I don’t mean to pull back so much that you handicap yourself, but that on some holes you can let it out with your driver and on other holes you need to leave it in the bag.

Or, if you can drive 260 and miss a few fairways that is much better than hitting 230 and not missing any. But then…

Colin Montgomery said on a Playing Lessons With the Pros show (when he was standing in the fairway), “People say I was a good iron player. … The only reason I was a good iron player was because I’m hitting them from this, and not from that. No one’s a good iron player from there. Nobody. The only good iron players are the ones who hit it from here.”

If hitting the fairway off the tee is not your honest expectation, it’s time to re-think your tee game.

Hitting straight in your approach game is even more important, but that’s another post.

Notes From a Personal Best

Eleven years ago I shot my personal best round of 75. These are the notes I made when I got home, which were no doubt relevant to having shot that score.

1. Don’t hit a shot until you’re ready. That means you are at ease with what you are about to do. If you have any misgivings, or doubt, or something just doesn’t feel right, step away. Clear your head, and step up to the ball again.

2. Play within yourself, especially off the tee. Play easy and believe in what you’re about to do.

3. Read putts by looking uphill. If you’re putting uphill, read the green from behind the ball. If you’re putting downhill, read from behind the hole. The slope of the hill and the break are always seen more clearly when you look uphill.

4. Find the shots that are working and use them to death. Let the shots that aren’t working take the day off.

5. When in doubt about which iron to choose, take the longer one, grip down a half inch, and fire away.