Working in the golf business, I get the same question pretty much every single day. How can I improve my game? I don’t have enough hours in the day to break down every person’s swing that I see on a daily basis, but there are a few tips on how amateur golfers can improve their game.
Be honest with yourself.
In the game of golf, there is no one else to blame but yourself. You are the singular reason for the result. You choose your equipment, you choose how to use that equipment, and you choose how to attack each shot based on the natural elements in front of you. No one is going to drop a pass, throw a ball into the stands, or call a bogus pass interference penalty.
Be honest with yourself has many meanings. More than half the time when I am fitting someone for a driver, the player will tell me, “I usually hit it X yards”. Then after about 10 swings, it’s more like X-15 or even 20 yards. Don’t try to convince yourself that you consistently hit the ball 280 yards off the tee, if 280 yards only happens once every five rounds. This will help you tremendously when trying to figure out how long of an approach shot you are going to have into a green.
-Hello sir, how are you today?
I’m good, I am looking to get a new driver. I need an extra few yards.
-Sounds great. Now before I grab a few drivers for you to demo, what kind of shaft do you normally play?
Well, I swing really hard. So I play a stiff.
-Watches 3 swings that go 228, 231, 232 yards.
Is this thing accurate?
-Yes sir, let’s try a regular flex shaft with a bit more loft.
Sees an increase of 15+ yards
That is a pretty typical interaction that I have when fitting someone for a driver in the simulator. Be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter to anyone else what type of shaft you are playing. You might think that being macho might be cool with your friends, but it won’t be cool on your scorecard while hacking out of the rough all day. Get a proper fitting for your driver. At places like Dicks’s Sporting Goods, Golf Galaxy, Golfsmith, and the PGA Superstore, a free fitting comes with the purchase of a new club. Having a shaft that is too stiff for your swing speed will cause all sorts of havoc. No one cares whether you are hitting a regular or an extra-stiff shaft. The proper shaft will add anywhere from 10 to 30 yards to your drives.
The same mindset can be applied to your fairway woods, hybrids, and irons. Yes, it is an advantage to be able to hit an 8 iron 165 yards, but if you can’t hit it 165 yards, don’t try to. The biggest miss I see on approach shots from players are balls that come up short. 99% of the greens that you will play on, slope from back to front. Make sure you hit enough club to get on the green. With that slope, the ball will stop on the green. There’s nothing macho about trying to muscle up on an iron. Needing a back hoe to get your plugged ball out of the sand won’t help anyone.
If you are the type of player that struggles around the greens, be honest with yourself and think about out why. Most people who I play with try to hit a flop shot every time they are around the greens. Yeah, it looks pretty freaking awesome when Phil Michelson does it, but he only does it when he HAS to do it. I don’t want to have to break out the goalie equipment every time you try to open the face on your sand wedge and then hit a missile, chest high, across the green. First off, he’s using a 60 or 64 degree wedge. Not the club that you should be “chipping with”. He can hit the flop shot because he has been practicing it for nearly 35 years. Please do all of your playing partners a favor, and stop trying to hit the flop shot every single time you are chipping. YOU CAN’T HIT IT. The flop shot has the smallest margin of error of any shot around the green. Use the method that will get the ball on the ground the quickest, and eliminating the volatility of the shot. Unless there is a bunker in front of you, use a 7 or an 8 iron, or even a putter, to get the ball on the ground as quick as possible. A bad putt is often better than a pretty good chip. When the ball comes up short of the green, it’s more than acceptable to pull out the flat stick. There is no portion of the game that requires more practice than the short game.
Play from the correct tees
I can’t stress checking your ego at the door enough. In this case, check it at the clubhouse door. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than seeing a group of high handicappers, put a dozen balls into the woods, from the blue tees. The blue tees are for single digit handicappers only. The tee shot from the blue tees requires anywhere from a 5 yard to 50 yard farther carry to get to the fairway. Not only do you have to hit it farther from the blue tees to get to the fairway, your approach shot to the green is going to be farther. Instead of hitting an 8 iron to the green, now you are pulling out a 5 iron, which is much more difficult to hit.
Make practice fun
This is the area of the game in which I think amateurs don’t spend enough time on. When I speak to higher handicap friends while at the driving range, I never get the sense that any of them have a “plan”. By this I mean that I don’t see them working on anything specific. They just grab a bucket of balls and just start mashing. Often starting with the driver, which is a huge no-no. Warm up properly. Which means starting with your wedges, and working up to the driver. You want to make sure you are loose and have oil in all of your joints, before breaking out the big dog. Now that you are all warmed up, work on the most important part of the game. There are only 18 tee shots during a round of golf, but you would be surprised how many you actually hit from around the green. If you two putt every green, but only make it on the green in regulation half of the time, that’s 45 shots you will be hitting from around and on the green. That’s a hefty portion of your scorecard. Practice it.
As I said in the last portion of being honest with yourself, know what your weaknesses are, and actually work on them. Many courses have a separate chipping area for players to work on their short game. Utilize this area to shave strokes off your game. Here’s a little game I like to play to make me concentrate, and try to improve during my practice session.
I’ll drop about ten balls just off the green, in the fringe or fairway. Usually starting from about 30 feet away from the hole, I will put four tees around the hole, equal distances away. One short of the hole, one long, one to the left, and one to the right. Due to my higher skill level, I make sure those tees are one putter length away from the hole. Most putters are 34 or 35 inches, and if my math is correct, that’s just short of 3 feet. My putter is only 29 inches long, so the tees make an even smaller target. I am very comfortable with making any putt inside 3 feet, so when I hit a chip that lands inside the target area, I won’t putt it. But when any of those balls are outside that 3 foot target area, I’m going to putt those balls. Not only is this a chipping drill, but a putting drill as well. Try this drill with 10 balls at a time and see how you do. A three-foot diameter target is pretty darn small, so start with a two putter length diameter target area. Make a mental note, or even write your score down on the back of an old scorecard to track your progress. I used to use the length of whatever club I was chipping with as my target size. Over the years I became a better chipper, and have now switched to my putter’s length.
If you are unable to find a course that has a practice green, a chipping net is a great training aid. For about $35, you can take this anywhere and practice chipping. I’ve seen this model at Dick’s Sporting Goods and I think it’s perfect. This net can be popped up anywhere. Even if you have a small backyard space, you can practice your chipping. I’ve used something like this for many years when practicing my distance control. With the target rings in the net, assign a point system and see how many points you can get. Just another easy way to practice and have fun at the same time.
Everyone has their own way of trying to improve their game. As someone who sees players all over the handicap spectrum on a weekly basis, I try to give the higher handicap players little tips like these to help shave stokes off their game. The most important thing for game improvement is consistency. Play the same tees (white) all the time, work on your chipping (getting the ball on the ground as quickly as possible), and be honest with yourself.
- Earl is a certified club fitter for one of the largest golf equipment companies in America. He is also a former Division I college golfer. Earl has no affiliation with the PGA of America.