When it comes to improvement in golf, everyone can agree that the ultimate benchmark is score and handicap.
There is nowhere to hide in golf. A number is tied to your performance and, even if that number isn’t indicative of how well you feel you hit the ball overall, it’s still your score. There are only so many times you can blame luck or “one bad hole” on a score that is higher than you feel like it should be.
As an instructor, one of the most common questions I get is about how to break through to the next barrier a golfer is facing. How do you break 100? Or 90? Or 80?
Of course, some of these answers are obvious. A better, more consistent swing will lead to lower scores. So will, generally speaking, practicing more and spending more time on the course.
But we’re not here to talk about the obvious answers. Here are five efficient methods for lowering your score that go beyond the straightforward advice anyone can give.
1. Take the High Percentage Shot
Golf is a math problem, and you need to learn how to use the equation to your benefit.
The good news is that this means taking the high percentage shot more often, something that in theory would make golf a little less intimidating. The bad news is that it requires a lot of patience and discipline.
A 2017 USGA study says that the average golfer drives the ball 208 yards. That may sound particularly short to people, but here’s the thing: if the average golfer is playing the correct set of tees, they should at least be having a chance to be around the green in regulation. But the stats also say that the average golfer misses a large percentage of their greens.
Even PGA Tour players only average hitting 11.7 greens in regulation per round. Most golfers are happy being in the six to seven range.
The lesson? Unless you are someone who just can’t make solid contact off the tee, scoring variability is concentrated in one central area.
It’s not off the tee, it’s not in the approach and it’s not on the green. It’s around the green.
The worse you are, the less risk you should take. Is the flag tucked just over a bunker but you have a free opening to putt the ball onto the green away from the hole? Do it.
Every stat we have in golf suggests that getting the ball onto the green is far more valuable than taking on a great amount of risk to try to get the ball close to the hole.
If you can’t break 100, don’t be overly concerned with where the hole is. You are likely shooting that high of a number because of train wrecks that happen around the green, so just get the ball on the surface. That almost always means taking a putter, a hybrid or some other club that keeps the ball on the ground for longer.
This applies to better players, too. Just take your medicine instead of forcing a high-risk shot.
2. Don't Follow a Bad Shot With a Stupid Shot
Everyone hits bad shots. It’s just a part of the game.
The problem is, most people want to get away with their bad shots. Golf doesn’t take too kindly to those people.
If you hit a ball into the trees, just get the ball back into the fairway. Hitting it into the trees is effectively like hitting into a hazard. It’s a one-shot penalty.
You may have heard that trees are 90 percent air, but the penalty for trying to pull off a great shot while you stymied behind multiple trees is severe in most cases.
And here is the kicker… it’s usually not even worth it. Even pulling off the shot will only get you around the green, in a slightly better position than if you were to punch out and have a full length shot into the green.
Even pulling the shot off would only gain you a half of a shot or so on average. And if you don’t, you’ve often spent two or three shots more than you would compared to a punch out into the fairway.
The stats say to get back in play.
3. Play Golf Backwards
How many golfers do you know who just show up and play without having any concept of what they are trying to accomplish?
If you are just having fun and don’t care about your score, that is one thing. But if you want to lower your score, you are going to need to identify some kind of plan.
That means playing the course backwards. What clubs and distances are you most comfortable with on approach shots? If you like hitting your 8-iron 150 yards and you feel good about it, while at the same time you don’t like hitting short wedges, why are you hitting a driver on a 320-yard par-4? Hit your 6-iron that goes 170 and set up the shot that you want.
A part of the Golf Smart concept here at Graff is to evaluate who you are as a golfer and then make the best decision available to you. That means finding what you are comfortable with, trying to put yourself in that position as much as possible and masking your weaknesses as well as you can.
For me, I love laying up to 105 yards. I’ve hit hundreds and hundreds of gap wedges on launch monitors, and I know that is my average. For some reason, I have more confidence with that number than if I have 90 yards into the hole.
It’s hard to lay up to an exact yardage, but knowing that information really informs where I am aiming and how aggressive to play the next shot.
Be honest with what you have. Are you a terrible chipper? Put away your wedge and just use a putter and an 8-iron around the greens. Are you uncomfortable with your driver? Hit a 3-wood or a 4-iron off the tee.
Remember, while the data in pro golf says that players should try to get as close to the hole as possible off the tee, that applies far less to your average player. Find your sweet spots — the same way a basketball player tries to find spots on the court where he feels the best shooting — and strategize to get the ball into those positions.
4. Know Multiple Carry Yardages
The most common mistake golfers make — and I would say over 90 percent do this — is that they laser the flagstick to find the distance and then try to hit a golf shot according to the one distance they think they hit a certain club.
I introduce to you… the concept of multiple carry yardages.
Everyone has an average for each club they hit. And then everyone has a max distance for every club they hit.
For me, I know that my pitching wedge goes an average of 115 yards. If I hit 100 balls on the range, that would be close to the end result.
I also know that if I really hit one well, it goes no more than 122 yards. Some of the particularly bad ones only travel about 108 yards.
It’s critical to know these yardages. I advise all of my students to carry an index card with three different carry yardages for all of their clubs.
Why do you need to know this? Let’s say I have a shot where the hole is 120 yards from me. It’s cut on the back of the green, a few paces from the back edge. A few yards beyond the green, there is a water hazard. There is no trouble short.
This would be a great yardage. I could hit my pitching wedge knowing that my average would leave me with about a 20-30 foot putt, and a perfectly struck shot would not have enough distance to reach the water. A poorly struck shot will be safe.
The goal is not always to get as close to the hole as possible. It’s to take on the least amount of risk while also playing the best shot available.
5. Play Up to Trick Your Brain and Lower Your Score
When you are kid, you usually start your first golf course experiences from the 150-yard marker and not the forward tees. When your skill level develops, you slowly move back.
There are no rules against playing a round of golf from the forward tees. Try to shoot the lowest score you possibly can. Go for every par-5 in two. Try to drive the green on par-4s.
If you can’t break 90 from the “regular” tees, go and do it another way. It takes the bite out of that barrier. It gives you confidence.
And in a lot of cases, it will expose parts of your game that need work. For example, if you struggle within 100 yards of the hole, you may notice that your score from the forward tees isn’t all that different than playing further back.
It can be a confidence booster and a weakness exposer. Both are productive.