As a professional golfer, I have witnessed just about every level of golf that you could imagine. In fact, I’ve played at many of those levels myself, and I have experienced what it is that helped me to move from one level to the next (ie. mid handicap to single figure, single figure to scratch, scratch to international level).
In this article, I will give you five tips from the way professional golfers approach their own games. Some of them are from myself and others I have picked up from other players. What I want to avoid is giving you tips which require more time investment in your golf game.
The fact of the matter is that most of you either don’t have the time, or don’t particularly want to put extra time into your game, and that’s fine! If you put these tips into practice, you will see that there are some easy gains out there for you.
1. Play golf backwards
This will sound pretty weird, but stay with me. We often hear the phrase “one shot at a time” (which is absolutely valid) but I think a misconception of this is that amateurs think this applies to their decision making as well. It actually only refers to those last thoughts before you hit a shot.
As professionals, we are strategising from “green-to-tee”, this is what I mean by “backwards”. It means that we are trying to look forward and envisage where we want to play the next shot from, building a strategy for the current shot from there.
- For example, if you were on a hole with a large bunker covering the front right portion of the green, then it would make your approach shot much easier to be playing from the left hand side.
- Next time you are on the course, have a look at the layout and try to make a plan for which side of the hole you should favor. You’ll see how it narrows your focus and you can start asking more purposeful questions such as ,“which side would give me the best angle to reach that green?”
- Or maybe there is a bunker short of the green which you know would be nigh-on impossible to recover from, then you can ask “which club should I take to guarantee I carry that bunker?”
Asking these questions should give you more clarity when you are ready to hit your shot, and that can be the small difference that allows you to execute the shot you were going for.
2. Pick a target…A useful target
This is something which you may have heard, but it still surprises me to witness the amount of amateurs who make the mistake of either not picking a target, or picking one which adds no value to them. It is a tip which helped me to substantially improve my ball striking consistency.
Trying to capture the impact that effective target choice has is not that easy, it is likely to be slightly different for most players. Personally, it helps with focusing my mind on the target and therefore thinking less about how to actually hit the ball.
For some it is more about the simple physical reaction that we are likely to be more accurate when we aim for small targets. If you are within that beginner to mid-range handicap zone, then I believe it will allow your hand-eye coordination to take over and assist you in striking the ball towards your target.
How can you practice this?
- When you have addressed your ball, your last look up to the target needs to be with real intent. You need to be particularly aware of what you are aiming at.
- Maybe it is a little hump of grass, or a tree in the distance, or even smaller as you get to shorter shots like a leaf.
- What I really want you to do though, is trust that you are increasing your chances of hitting a good shot.
- This is what a large chunk of a professional’s routine boils down to.
We are trying to tick enough boxes that mean we can build that tiny bit of extra confidence:
“I know how to do this and I know I am aiming in the correct spot, so now I just have to make a swing and do it.”
That is what you should be looking for as well. We cannot control all of the variables in golf, but we can aim better and give ourselves the platform to succeed.
3. Make a routine and stop blaming yourself mid-round
This tip is particularly relevant to your performance on and around the greens. I frequently see this during pro-ams actually, on one particular occasion I witnessed a full blown capitulation of confidence. One of the amateurs I played with managed to completely destroy his putting confidence throughout the round, to the point where I knew he would not hole a putt because he looked scared and confused. If you can relate to this feeling, you are certainly not alone, but you can do something to control it more effectively and have greater golfing resilience in the future.
I’m not going to pretend that you won’t still have bad putting days and sometimes you just cannot see how you will hole a putt, but from my own experience I have become far less fussed by a missed putt early on than I used to be. I used to think that if I was to hole a decent length putt on the first, then I would hole everything. On the other hand, if I missed one, who knows what would happen and you could guarantee the golfing gods were going to test me from that range again before the round was done! What changed this for me was a change in attitude and acceptance towards putting.
First of all, it helps to accept that you are putting on an uneven surface where there are all sorts of external factors which can affect the result of your putt. Brad Faxon (one of the best putters of all time) considers any putt in which he completes his routine successfully to be a ‘holed’ putt, whether it goes in or not. What he means by that is that all you can actually do as a golfer is prepare yourself as well as possible and then put as good of a stroke on it as you can. After that it is not up to you any more. Even the best putter of all time is not going to read every putt correctly, and we cannot always see whether it was the read that was wrong, or a bump on the green, or the grain was unexpected etc.
So do yourself a favor and don’t assume it was always you. This game is hard enough without telling ourselves we’re not any good!
My recommendation is that you decide on what you want your putting routine to be and never change it mid-round. The routine is up to you; maybe you want two practice strokes next to the ball, maybe you don’t want any, maybe you just want to look at your target. Once you have done that, take some comfort from it and make your stroke.
Changing routine during the round is not going to help you to progress as a golfer. It may mean that you make one more putt during that round (it may also mean you miss many more) but it will not hold up again next time. You need to have some sort of routine which you can rely on each time you play. You can make tweaks as you go along, but you will find that it helps to give you a sense of calm if you go through the same routine each time, as if you can accept what happens to the ball because you did your part.
The goal is to repeat what your mindset is before every putt. This gives you a trigger that you are ready to start your stroke.
4. Keep it Simple Sunshine (KISS)
This is a particularly memorable thought which you can revert back to on the golf course during decision making. A pro’s plan is generally to keep things as stress-free as possible. Golf is really difficult and there are (it seems) infinite ways to get caught out, so don’t make it harder than it needs to be. I use this reminder on a consistent basis on the golf course and it is particularly handy on those days when you don’t have it and/or have just had a rough couple of holes.
Most amateurs are taking on too much risk without necessarily knowing how to execute what they are attempting. The next few times you are out on the course, have a think about what your plan is and whether you actually believe you can play this shot, then also think about your potential outcomes if it doesn’t work.
This doesn’t mean look at all of the hazards, it is more of a critical analysis:
“okay I have been missing it right today, so if I aim at this pin on the right hand side of the green and I continue to miss right, then I would be in the water, maybe I should adjust something here”.
It’s about non-emotionally accepting your level at the time and adjusting your strategy accordingly. This way you can shift your “scatter chart” to a place which improves your potential outcomes.
KISS is also particularly helpful around the greens. I see amateurs often taking too much loft and bringing too much risk into these shots. A good KISS strategy is to try and make every chip shot pitch five feet onto the green.
From here you decide which club to use that would allow the ball to run out to the hole. If the pin is close, you will use more loft, and vice versa. Five feet also gives you a reasonable margin for error that it should still land on the green if you catch it a bit soft and run to an acceptable range.
5. Play to your strengths
Analyse your game and figure out which areas of your game are strongest and which parts of your game you are struggling with. I find that a lot of amateurs are better with full swing shots and they struggle with the “in-between” shots. These generally occur between 30-80 yards when you cannot hit a full shot. I see a lot of strike issues here with fat or thin shots.
Don’t expect to eliminate these shots entirely, of course you will still come across them, and in an ideal world you will improve your skill level here over time. But until then, give yourself a chance to play around this area by adjusting your lay up options.
For example, you might be 200 yards from the hole and you know that you can only get the ball within 50 yards, but this will leave you with a shot that you do not like. So wouldn’t it be better to take less club on this shot and leave yourself a shot of 90 yards which is an easy 9-iron for you (for example)?
I hope that these tips will help you to better understand that golf is about your overall score, not hitting a bunch of individual shots. You are supposed to plot your way around the course with smart decisions based on realistic thinking. It is generally accepted that Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the two greatest strategists that golf has seen, so it may not be entirely coincidental that they are also the two most successful of all time. The interesting part is that they both adopt relatively conservative strategies.
You will definitely find some cross-over with these tips and that is because smart thinking and mindset can have an impact throughout your entire game and give you greater awareness of what you are doing and how to continue improving. Improving as a golfer is a long-term process so start working on these things now and it will hold you in good stead as you move up through your levels.