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Why Can't I Improve at Golf?

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

This site is targeting the ambitious golfer. If you are looking for random swing tips (how can anyone give a swing tip without seeing the swing anyways?), you might want to leave this site. If on the other hand, you are looking for insight into how to approach the long journey from average to good (or possibly great), welcome to Serious Golf Talk. I'm glad you are here.

From my experience as a golf instructor and as a player, I notice there are fundamental differences between the way elite players approach the game and the way everyone else approaches it. That might sound obvious, but it's actually quite interesting in what these differences are. Even though it's safe to assume all golfers want to play better golf than they currently are playing, you can separate all golfers into two separate categories based upon the strategies they apply.

Category One (99% of golfers): Improvement Strategies based on Feels/Emotion

Category Two (1% of golfers): Improvement Strategies based on Sound Principles

Let me give you an example of the Category One Golfer: John is a 10 handicap. He has been as low as a 7 handicap in the past, but this year he is shooting a few too many 88s to maintain that single-digit handicap. What confuses him is that his old swing feel (pretending the clubhead is a hammer and the ball is a nail) is no longer working. He begins to experiment almost everyday after work, hitting 100+ balls a day. He is working hard. After all, John remembers Hogan's famous quote of finding "it" in the dirt. John continues this until he thinks finds the key--a slightly different feel that he can't believe he forgot when using his trusty hammer thought. He shoots a 79 the next day and drops to a 9. This play and the daily range sessions continue for two weeks until the effectiveness gradually wears off and he shoots his worst round of the year-- a 90. Determined, he continues to search for it in the late afternoon heat.

From my experience, John will never fall below a 5 handicap if he continues to implement the improvement strategies I just depicted. He might have the occasional 75 or 76, but that's all they are-- occasional.

Let me ask you a question: would you invest in a company without a business plan? Or worse, would you invest in a company that changed its marketing strategy daily? I would hope not. Yet, when we think of golf, many of us still hold onto the hope that there is a single tip or swing feel that will solve all of our problems! This is wrong.

Now lets look at Julian, an example of a Category 2 Golfer: Julian is also a 10 handicap, but he started two years ago. He has trended down steadily over the past twenty-four months from playing a couple times a week with his friends and reading a golf book his wife gave him when he picked up the game: Jack Nicklaus' famous How I Play Golf. Julian loves the game and recently started playing tournaments. Being competitive, he didn't like being in the third flight of his club championship and made a goal to be in the First Flight with all of the real sticks at the club in two years time. He decides that he needs to know what he is bad at and purchases a stat-tracking app into which he puts details of his round after every time he plays. He does this for a month, playing his usual weekend games with the boys but being sure to putt everything out for good measure. At the end of the month, he looks at his data that his app gives him and realizes from what is says that he drives the ball like a that of a 4 handicap, his approaches are like that of a 8 handicap, his short game is like a 14 handicap and his putting is like that of a 12 handicap. This is good data as Julian realizes he needs to begin his quest towards that first flight by improving his short game. He finds through the reference of better players a reputable short game coach in his area and begins to take bi-weekly lessons with him. All of his swing "feels" are based on the principles his instructor is teaching him. By the end of the next month, his short game has improved so much that it is now time for him to move onto improving his putting (while still maintaining his short game). He repeats the process once again.

If I had to bet on whether or not Julian would make it into the first flight within two years, I would say that he has a good chance. Ten shots in 2 years is a lot to drop, but when you approach it as logically as Julian, it is certainly possible. What is certain, is that he will improve if he continues to be a Category Two Golfer.

This is my request of any of you that want to improve.

1. Before you begin your practice plan, buy a stat tracking app (I will post an article reviewing some of the ones I like soon) that tracks more than just Greens Hit, Fairways Hit and Putts. Ideally, one that gives you strokes-gained/lost OR a handicap for each part of your game.

2. Play five rounds. If this takes you five weeks because you only play once a week, that's okay! No rush. We want our process to be sustainable, after all.

3. See what area is the weakest. Usually (not always in the case of physical limitations) weaker areas provide the largest opportunity for improvement!

4. Find a professional near you and schedule a lesson. Tell him your goals and that you want to learn the principles of this area of golf and that you are in no rush for improvement. You want real progress, not band-aids! (Be sure to say this as the content of the lesson might change drastically).

5. Make a REALISTIC practice plan with the amount of time you are willing to dedicate to golf improvement. I'd say there is no right answer here; however, if you are trying to improve at more than a snails pace, I'd recommend at least 2-3 60 minute practices a week and at least 1 round of golf per week so that you can continue to keep your statistics.

6. Reassess your Data at the end of every month. If progress is slow or non-existent. Ask good questions: Are you sticking to the principles you're learning? Are you sticking to your practice plan? Except in rare instances, give your professional at least 8 weeks before deciding he/she might not be right for you.

7. Continue until you feel you are ready to tackle another part of your game and begin again at Number 4.

Before signing off, I want to stress that golf is a competition against one's self. In fact, there is no real need for an opponent to be able to play the game. Our goals, therefore, will all vary greatly. For some it's breaking 90. For others, its winning the Masters to clench their 15th major championship.

What remains the same is how we should approach the improvement process.

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