This is a posting that I have held on for years… this was first posted on another Golf Forum… and I have seen it on at least two forums. Want to get really good.
How to Take Your Game to the Next Level
By David Ober
From time to time, low-handicap friends and golf message board posters will ask my advice on taking their game from around scratch to “tournament level.” Since I have answered this question many times in various formats and forums, I thought I would really put some thought into this time, and in so doing, have come up with the following:
My initial advice to most golfers who want to become better players, is to actually play more. After all, we play Golf, not “Golf Swing.” You get no points for the prettiest or most “technically sound” golf swing. You win or compete by getting the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible. Not surprisingly then, the list of world-class players with unorthodox golf swings is long – and getting longer every year.
If you are reading this, then you are most likely already an accomplished golfer. What you need to learn is how to get the most out of your game – not how to have the swing of a PGA Tour pro. There are very few miracles in life, meaning few (if any) people who have been playing 2-handicap golf for 10 years will ever miraculously find the key to the perfect golf swing and start playing as a +5 to +7, which is about where you need to be to compete at the serious professional level. That kind of swing change just is not going to happen.
This is why I say it’s about learning how to play the game and not learning some new golf swing. Start learning how to get the most out of what you already have instead of relying on the pipe dream that some day you will “fix” your golf swing.
If you are playing near scratch golf, then you are already a fantastic athlete with phenomenal hand-eye coordination. You are capable of making a golf ball do amazing things, so trust your athletic ability and just do it. Does that make sense? If not, then this article is not for you.
A few things before I get into the specifics: Play as much as you can, and play as many tournaments as possible. (I can’t emphasize this enough). When you’re not playing a tournament, make sure you are playing a competitive match with someone as often as possible, and make sure you have some money on the line. And make it enough so that if you lose, it stings a bit. I know this (the wagering part) is a bit controversial, and not everyone will agree, and that’s fine. These are my ideas about how to get to the next level, so they will not necessarily be for everyone.
When you do play, make sure you play on a variety of courses with a variety of conditions if you can: Bermuda greens, bent greens, poa annua greens. Hot, cold, rain, wind. You name it. And whatever the conditions are, those are the conditions that are just perfect for you that day. Never use the conditions as an excuse. Never.
Try to learn something from every single experience on the golf course. Pay attention to how you feel, what your tendencies are, and your self-talk. For instance:
- What did you feel like when you hit that 100 yard sand wedge to 5 feet?
- How about before you hit it?
- How did your state of mind prior to the shot influence the outcome, if at all?
- What did you say to yourself prior to shoving that tee shot out of bounds late in that one round when you were 2-under par and about to beat your personal best?
- Why did you snap-hook that 3-iron into the water from that ball-below-your-feet lie? Isn’t the ball supposed to go right off ball-below-your-feet lies?
- Why do I always miss left from uphill lies?
- Why do I always miss left from downhill lies? (Yes, the dominant miss for many good players from uphill and downhill lies can be a pull, but for different reasons).
- Why do I leave so many 50 yard pitch shots short?
- Why do I have so much trouble on fast greens? Slow greens? Big breakers?
Here is an example of what I mean:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a couple low-handicap players in my group pull hook a shot OB left on the 8th hole at our home course. Our 8th hole is a very reachable par 5. The tee shot is uphill to a plateau fairway that falls off on the right side.
Well many guys hit their drives plenty solid and end up 200 to 225 away on the ride side of the plateau that slopes off to the right, leaving them with a long iron or 5-wood from a ball-below-the-feet lie with OB left up by the hole. I see the same guys hit the same shot on this hole over and over again. It’s like they do it once out of every four times they have the shot. Pay attention, and ask why you¡¦re doing it.
Now is this a difficult shot? Absolutely it is. I have no problem with a good player hitting a poor shot here (I don’t always nut it from that spot on the course). However, I hit a ball OB from that spot about once a year, maybe! Why? Because I realized very quickly that the potential to pull hook the ball off a ball-below-the-feet lie is a very real possibility for many good golfers. I resolved to figure out why I was doing it and then developed a strategy (a certain type of set-up and swing) so that I would (almost) never do it again.
That’s what I’m talking about. The guys I play with have this ability too. It’s just that they don’t use it because they’re not paying attention to why they hit the ball OB. They only know that they did, and that it’s a tough shot. And they might even think: “Well, I definitely rolled the clubface over on that one.” But they don’t analyze why, in that particular situation, they tend to do it more often than a good athlete should, and then plan to not let it happen again.
Of course, these are just a sampling of the kinds of questions you should ask yourself. However, to even ask them to begin with, you must pay attention on the golf course to notice your tendencies. And you must be honest with yourself above all. Do not let pride get in the way of sound reasoning. Finally, don’t be judgmental ¡V that¡¦s a killer. Just pay attention and learn from your tendencies without beating yourself up and being overly critical.
In my opinion, to become a legitimate regionally or nationally competitive amateur golfer (generally in the +1 to +4 index range month after month after month), you need to master the following:
1) Drive the ball relatively straight and relatively long (250 to 300 yards).
So definitely spend some time perfecting a solid, repeatable swing with the driver. And you should be comfortable on right-to-left holes and left-to-right holes. This is a must. I play with lots of players that can only hit one shot with the driver ¡V this is a recipe for disaster under pressure on a hole that doesn’t fit your eye. Notice I didn’t say you must be able to both draw and fade the driver. That’s nice, but not necessary.
You must, at a very minimum, be able to hit the ball straight when called upon if what you normally do is draw or fade the ball. Too many holes just do not fit a draw or a fade. If you can’t work the ball both ways, at least be able to hit it more-or-less straight when necessary. Even noteworthy faders of the ball like Lietzke and McCumber were able to straighten out their tee ball when necessary. You need to learn to do this also.
If a hole really doesn’t fit your eye, then take out the 2-iron and rip it. One of the biggest mistakes I see otherwise good players make is that when they do decide to “play smart” off the tee, they somehow become dumb when they actually execute the shot by trying to “guide” or “finesse” it. Remember, the whole reason you are hitting 2-iron instead of driver is so that you can swing freely and aggressively without having to worry about spraying it. That’s the whole reason you hit 2-iron instead of driver!
2) Know your yardages!
If you don’t know your yardages, you cannot play competitive golf, and I’ll tell you why: The ability to know your yardages with each club through the bag is an invaluable tool in your fight against nerves, and nerves are an omnipresent part of tournament golf.
If you know your yardages, you can do the following:
You’re 171 yards away, and slightly uphill and into a light wind. You figure that shot will play 183 (yes, you need to be that exact). You know that you hit your 6-iron 180-185, so that is obviously the club you need to hit. See how easy that can be? However, you would be surprised how many players can’t do something as simple as this because they don’t know the exact yardages they hit their clubs.
Pros know within a couple yards how far their carry each one of their clubs. You should know within 5 yards for sure. When you know those yardages, it makes the game simpler. When the game is simpler, there are fewer things to worry about. When there are fewer things to worry about, it’s easier to play your best under pressure.
And you need to keep track of how your yardages change with the seasons. For instance, I hit my 7-iron 165-170 during the cold winter months, but 170-175 during the summer months when the ball carries farther. You need to know this.
3) Hit the ball solidly with reasonable accuracy and repeatability from 130-179 yards.
So work a bit on your ball striking with 6-iron to pitching wedge. But don’t get too caught up spending time here. You will yield much better results by spending your practice time on the driver, full and three-quarter wedges, putting, and chipping/pitching.
4) Be a great full wedge player (80-120 yards).
This means when you have gap wedge, sand wedge, or lob wedge in your hands from the fairway, you should expect to get the ball within 30 feet almost every time. PGA Tour average from 75 to 100 yards is 18 feet. The very best on Tour in 2004 was Scott Hoch at 13-feet. If you want to be a scratch player, you should certainly average 25 feet or so, which means eliminating the horrible wedge shots from your bag. Absolutely zero: chunks, skulls, shanks, or duffs.
You must be rock solid with a wedge in your hands and feel like you have a better chance of knocking it in the hole, than missing the green. Now will you occasionally blade one or chunk one? Sure, but for most scratch players, that should be a very rare occurrence indeed.
The best way to become a great wedge player in my opinion? Practice hitting the ball low, lower and lowest with your PW, SW, and LW. Pros can hit their wedges amazingly low. If you can’t, you need to learn how. Do you always have to hit them low? No, but you should be doing it far more often than you (mostly likely) are.
How do you learn to hit your wedges low? Figure it out. You’re a great athlete, remember? You know how to control the clubface. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be a near scratch player. Watch what the pros do and copy them!
5) Be able to hit the ball solidly from 180 to 220.
You certainly don’t need to spend much time here, you really only need to be able to make consistent contact such that your distance is repeatable with the longer clubs. You’re not going to hit a lot of greens from this distance, so don’t fret when you miss from here. Just use your short game to get up and down, and try to stay away from the short side – especially in tournament play since the rough is usually up and the greens are firmer and faster.
6) Have a good to great short game.
Of course the closer to great you are, the worse other parts of your game can be. I’m only a decent driver of the ball (relatively straight, but on the short side), but I’m a considerably better player than most scratch amateurs because my short game is measurably better than theirs.
Spend lots of time on the practice green, and when you’re there, use your imagination! Practice some short pitches and chips, and ask yourself how many different ways there are to play the same shot – then execute each and every one of them. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to look bad. Just get creative and do it: High, low, cut spin, go spin, bump it through the fringe, flop it up and stop it on a dime. You name it.
If you’re good enough to be a 2-handicap, you can play all of these shots, but can you play them when it counts? That’s the question. If you don’t practice them, you don’t own them. And to have a great short game, you need to own all the different shots.
One quick caveat: Do not fall in love with the flop shot. It’s a valuable tool to have in your “golf belt,” but it is over-used by many near scratch players that learn it and then want to use it every time there’s an opportunity. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use the lob wedge, I’m saying don’t use it to flop the ball – unless the situation demands it.
7) Be a good lag putter, which means controlling distance and seeing the line on longish putts.
The longer and tougher a putt is, the more conservative you must be with your line. And when I say conservative, I mean erring on the high side. On many tough putts, you should really visualize the ball slowing down and literally trickling into the hole from the very top of the breaking point.
The reason? Balls coming in from the high side are working toward the hole, whereas balls on the low side are working away from the hole. It’s amazing, but this seemingly simple little distinction eludes so many otherwise good players.
8) Be good inside 6 feet with the putter.
All I can say here is: Practice, practice, practice. Groove a stroke, and become confident with it. Practice at home, practice at work, practice anywhere you can. There is no “correct” putting stroke, period. Find one that works for you and that you feel comfortable with and groove it. And don’t be afraid to switch to a mid-putter or a long-putter if necessary to fight off the occasional bout with the yips. I’ve done that several times in my life, always with excellent success.
9) Keep detailed stats on your rounds.
It really helps when you can look back over 40 rounds or more at your strengths and weaknesses, since many of us have a skewed view of our games. For instance, if you think you have a pretty good short game, but you’re only getting up and down 45% of the time from inside 30 yards, then you’re really not as good as you think. Keeping meticulous, detailed stats will tell you where you really are, not where you think you are.
And set some goals with your stats. My goals are for all of my stats to be in the middle of the PGA Tour pack, and most of mine are except driving distance, which I don’t track anyway. Now of course I’m not playing courses that are 7,100 to 7,500 yards long with 3-inch to 4-inch rough every week, so the numbers are misleading if you compare them to PGA Tour pros, but I think those numbers are realistic for good players to attain playing most of their golf on courses in the 6,500 to 7,200 yard range with light to moderate rough.
10) Read plenty of stuff on the mental game:
Golf is Not a Game of Perfect
Golf: How Good Do You Want to Be?
I saved this for last, but at the near-scratch level, developing and improving the mental game is probably the most important. Learning to control your emotions and your mind on the golf course is absolutely crucial to playing your best golf.
There are thousands of golfers out there with the athletic and ball-striking ability to compete at the regional/national amateur level or even the mini-tour professional level that will never know how good they can be. Why? Because they refuse to conquer the inconsistent thinking that leads to so many of their poor decisions and shots.
That’s how I see it anyway. I hope this has been helpful.