Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pretenders vs. Contenders

I get asked a lot about what it takes to go from a low handicap (say 3-6 handicap) to a scratch golfer. And I've been working on this post for awhile because I wanted to word it just right with what I deem the proper verbiage so people can be sold on my point. I'm sure there are many views on the subject, but the ones I come across are along the lines of 'improve your short game' and/or 'improve your mental game.' This is a bit different.

My qualifications are having played scratch golf (lowest ever was +2.3) 10+ years ago and just recently getting back into the game after an 8-year layoff I was between a 4-5 handicap in February and now I'm at +0.3 (according to my latest calculations). So while I'm not an expert, I think I've been around the block a few times on the subject and have a pretty good perception on how it's done.

I think the problem with the 'improve your short game' approach is that some of it is unrealistic expectations. David Orr's putting studies show that golfers putt about 20% better on PGA Tour greens. Let's say the average Tour player averages about 1.7 putts/GIR and 29 putts/round, that would likely mean on your regular club course they wouldn't putt as well. They may be better statistically because the ballstriking part of the course may be less challenging, but if they were asked to sink 20 different putts from 10 feet on the regular club course, they probably would sink about 20% less than they would if the course was of PGA Tour quality. Now you have amateurs expecting to have 24-30 putts in a round and they simply do not have the ballstriking for it.

That's what leads me to what I think the #1 factor between most low handicappers and scratch golfers...ballstriking. But the big thing for me is the swing, in particular impact alignments. It's what has gotten my handicap to the (+) range in just about 3 months of work.

The big key I believe is the flat left wrist at impact. Now, you don't have to be creating a ton of lag to have a flat left wrist at impact. Morgan Pressel is an example of this.

However, if a golfer has a flip with a lot of clubhead throwaway they will never hit it as long, accurate and consistent as they would if they still had a lot of throwaway, but a flat left wrist at impact.

I believe that the in this case, where there is still throwaway but now with a FLW at impact, the distance improvement will be slight...maybe ten yards or so. But the improvement in accuracy and consistency will be very noticeable. And if you can finally eliminate most if not all clubhead throwaway, then you can see major improvements in power without being in better physical condition or doing more training for that power.

I still have a bit of clubhead throwaway with the new swing under the Taly, but I've seen at least 10-20 yards in added power. In fact, this is one of my problems. For instance I hit my PW about 135 yards and the other day I got up and caught one extremely flush and with the Bushnell 1600 Rangefinder w/slope we figured that I hit it a little over 150 yards. Which is nice, but it cost me any real shot at a birdie. They goal is to one day get that type of swing down pretty consistently.

However, the real noticeable improvement is in the greens in regulation and the fairways hit. I'm now hitting about 13-16 GIR on a consistent basis. Even more importantly...and something that would go unnoticed by most missed greens are in far better position. So now I can make a pretty easy up and down. Most amateurs who keep scramble percentages for their own statistics see it and say 'wow, I need to improve my short game dramatically' and don't realize that their short game isn't that bad, it's just that they've missed the green so badly that even Mickelson or Tiger would have a difficult time getting up and down.

Almost all low handicappers have some sort of flip in their stroke and I believe that should be solved FIRST if they are serious about raising their level of play.

This also leads to another important factor...distance. This almost never gets mentioned when it comes to this question, but it's an unbelievably huge factor. If you can hit the ball deep or greatly improve your distance, you're at least making it easier to become a scratch golfer. Of course, you can't be all over the grid because if you're having to hit 3-woods off the tee instead of a driver and can 'only' hit a 3-wood about 260 yards, then you really haven't increased your distance or become a 'power player' because that is not a long distance off the tee if that is the main club you need to use to stay in play. But otherwise if a golfer becomes quite long off the tee, they are turning most par 72's into par 68's, which is very beneficial when trying to lower your handicap. So it's not mandatory, but is a great shortcut. And of course, it helps to improve swing mechanics...particularly getting a FLW at impact in order to hit the ball longer and with accuracy.


I decided to capitalize this for good reason. I think it's important to really understand the mental game and what the pros do versus what most amateurs think the pros do. My qualifications for this are having played with many Tour pros in tournament action, be it college or mini-tour golf and carefully observing them. In a nutshell, here's some key points of their mental game.

1. They play 'smart' golf and rarely piss away shots.
2. They have tremendous focus on every shot.
3. They play without fear.
4. They make sure to be aggressive, if the risk/reward situation is favorable.

They play 'smart' golf and rarely piss away shots.

Mainly this means the Tour pros are very observant. They know where it's okay to 'miss' a shot and avoid 'short siding' themselves. They account for environmental factors like wind, topography of the hole, tricks designers use, etc.

For example, the 6th hole at one of my home courses calls for a shot from 150 yards. The lie will almost always be a downhill lie and the green is very slightly elevated with a bunker up front that has a big lip. I would estimate that at least 9 out of 10 golfers will come up short. And to make it worse, they'll come up short again and again and keep using the same club into the hole. OTOH, I routinely hit the green because I understand that while there's a very slight elevation to the green, the downhill lie is likely to make the ball go shorter, so I need to hit one extra club into the hole. And if I didn't know that, I would be sure to make the adjustment the next time out.

Another good shortcut to improving is to keep statistics. Not only on your GIR, Fwys, Scramble %, etc. but on your score for each hole every time out. When I did this recently I found that I was the most over par on 2 of the easiest holes on the course. From there I was able to adjust my way of playing the hole and I dropped my scores significantly. I feel if the golfer who continually comes up short on #6 and comes away with a bogey or worse would take the same statistical approach, then they would realize that they need to play the approach shot differently. To me, this all falls under the umbrella of 'smart golf.'

They have tremendous focus on every shot.

One of the annoying fallacies I come across is that according to many amateurs, the Pros never get that upset. If you've ever been to a pro event, you'll know that is pretty untrue. I remember watching Chris Dimarco year after year at a certain PGA Tour event have quite a few memorable temper tantrums.

I also remember watching an event where Tiger hit a poor bunker shot and slammed his club quite hard on the ground, something that quite noticeable and could seen from far away. But what I really noticed in both Dimarco and Tiger's cases, along with many other cases of Tour pros is that they may get upset after a shot, but they IMMEDIATELY start becoming engulfed in focusing on the very next shot.

They play without fear.

This is one reason why I like watching The Golf Channel's 'The Big Break' show. It's a fascinating observance in the mental game and its impact on golf. You can best bet that the champion of each Big Break winds up being the golfer who plays without fear and can focus on every shot. Those players advance while the perhaps more talented hothead who plays careful winds up getting eliminated.

They make sure to be aggressive, if the risk/reward situation is favorable.

There are few holes at one of my home courses that display this point. The 3rd hole at my home course is a dogleg par-5, more shaped like a reverse 'C' with trouble hugging the right side and trouble on the right. Most low handicappers take a 3-wood off the tee because they are afraid that if they go a little too far to the right, they'll go in trouble with the driver where they would land safe with the 3-wood. But the pros and scratch golfers usually take the driver out because it should be a drive they can hit with some reasonable chance. But that's only because the reward is excellent for a driver hit safely over a 3-wood hit safely. With a 3-wood, the golfer is left with a 230 yard shot on a downhill lie. With a driver, you're looking at a flat lie with about 190 yards into the green.

The 15th hole is a bit of a strange hole. Again, most low handicappers take out a 3-wood. I take out a driver because a well struck driver will roll down into the rough of this large valley. However, a well struck driver will give me a shot to an extremely elevated green, but all I am hitting is a lob wedge. However, a well struck 3-wood will leave me with a 7 or 8-iron into a green that if you miss you could be in a lot of trouble. Not to mention that you have to hit a very hard and precise shot 3-wood off the tee because there are some fairway bunkers that come into play with the 3-wood. To me, it's a NO BRAINER to be agressive on this tee shot and while the rest of the golfers are struggling to make a par, I'm threatening for a birdie.

However, the 4th hole shows where being aggressive is not worth it. Strangely enough, this is the hole where many low handicappers decide to be aggressive. A short hole about 370 yards long. The golfer can take out a driver and fly some the fairway bunkers on the left. However, the hole gets narrow once you get past those fairway bunkers and you could start flirting with the hazard on the right. On the flip side, taking a 3-wood off the tee will put you just short of those fairway bunkers. But the real key is with the driver the golfer would have at best a SW into the green and with the 3-wood they are still likely hitting a PW. The 'reward' certainly is not worth it, IMO.

Of course, a lot of this is intertwined with improved ballstriking and impact alignments. If the golfer's impact alignments are superb, then they can play more aggressively and without fear.

All of this is to not say that the short game isn't important, but IMO it's not nearly as important as those who are low handicappers that want to be scratch golfers think. Where superb short games become of major importance is for the golfer who wants to start breaking 80 and the scratch golfer who wants to be one of the nation's best amateurs or become a tour pro. The rate that those players can get down in 2 whenever they have a wedge in their hand is outstanding. But for the low handicapper who wants to turn scratch, it's more important to have 'better misses' and to be able to attack courses more.


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