I have been playing golf nearly all my life, but in the last 4 years, I’ve made a deliberate effort to learn how to get better at golf. I’ve gone from a 6 to +3.5 handicap during that time.
While a lifetime of experience playing golf has been exceptionally valuable, deliberately learning how to get better at golf has been an absolute game changer.
Before you read on, though, I need to lay some ground rules for this article.
- This is not a “get rich quick – golf edition” tutorial. If that is what you want, go to YouTube and start your search. Someone will sell you what you are looking for. I’m not that guy.
- Some of my content regarding how to get better at golf will appear to be fodder for the cynical. If you’re a cynic or a pessimist, this article is also probably not for you.
- I began this process as a solid 6 handicap. If you are not a single digit handicap or simply an average golfer, don’t worry. Much of the content will be beneficial to you. With that being said, the most value will be found by single digit handicappers who have already overcome some of the mistakes typical double digit handicappers make.
- This article is long, and it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve written it for myself just as much as for you, so bear with me. If you persevere, you will have “aha!” moments.
And to prove that the +3.5 is not a joke, here’s a screenshot from my GHIN profile in September 2021 showing the low handicap index of +3.5.
This article is organized into five distinct sections:
- The Beginning, which tells the story behind how I learned to play golf.
- The Transition, which tells the story behind how I became motivated to learn how to get better at golf.
- The Process, which tells the story behind how I approached getting better at golf.
- The Principles, which share the foundational ideas that undergird actually getting better at golf.
- The Training Aids, which share the helpful accessories that improve your golf game more quickly.
Let’s jump in!
How to Get Better at Golf – The Beginning
Before I get into the details of how to get better at golf, I want to provide you with some helpful background information. I believe it is important for you to understand the context of my advice.
I’ve played golf since I could walk. My dad had built a makeshift bunker in the back yard, so from the time I could stand up, watch and understand what he was doing, I knew I wanted to do it too. I’d watch him hit bunker shots and chip around the yard. As soon as I was able, I had a plastic club in my hand and followed him around, doing with my club whatever I saw him doing with his.
Beyond this, my grandfather also played golf regularly. Growing up, I remember playing with him during the summers with my brother at the local public courses. We always had a blast, and it was playing with him where my game began to blossom.
In middle school, I shot my first ever even par round for 9 holes, and I made the varsity golf team as an 8th grader. I played all four years of high school, even making it to the state tournament my sophomore year and placing in the top 10 individually.
By the time I graduated high school, I had shot my first under par rounds on 9 and 18 holes. I shot a four under 32 in a practice round my senior year, and I shot a one under 70 during recreational play with a friend during my junior year.
I didn’t play much during college. I had a girlfriend (now my sweet wife), and I was more interested in enjoying the college experience. Additionally, because I went to college in the mountains, it wasn’t conducive to playing golf at any time other than the summer. My game was sporadic at best, and I shot even or one under a couple of times during my four years of college. I also shot in the 90s a few times too.
After college, by God’s providence, I ended up walking 9 holes of golf with the headmaster of a local private school. During the round, he mentioned he needed an assistant golf coach for the school team. I was freelancing with only one software product at the time, so I said yes and helped coach the team that year.
I stayed on an additional two years as the head coach, winning the conference championship both years and taking at least one golfer to the state tournament individually each year. My game improved to the extent that I played 5 days a week for 3 months straight — multiple years in a row.
After the second year of coaching, my businesses were growing steadily, and I could no longer commit to taking that much time out of my day to coach. It would be detrimental to the growth of the business, so I declined to take the coaching position for a third year in 2015.
As you’d might expect, my game suffered from not playing as often. I went back to sporadic play for the next two years. I floundered around the same types of scores, mid-upper 70s and low 80s, with the occasional good round mixed in with a bad one.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I realized something needed to change if I actually wanted to get better at golf.
How to Get Better at Golf – The Transition
A couple of months before our first son was born in March of 2017, I thought back to an experience I had the previous summer.
I was playing with an acquaintance who had invited me to join him at his club. We knew each other through the local chamber of commerce. I had not played that particular course since high school, and I was excited about the opportunity to play it again.
I did not expect what happened that day.
The round began like most of my rounds – shaky and lacking confidence. I bogeyed the first hole, then settled down after that. I managed a couple of birdies on the rest of the front 9, and by the time I stood on hole 10, I was -1 for the day. I was happy because that hadn’t happened recently.
I was not prepared for what happened next!
On hole 10, I nearly jarred my approach shot. I left it about 6 inches from the hole and tapped in for birdie, -2 on the day.
I became more nervous as the round progressed. For the first time in a long time, I was successfully managing an under par round. By the time I came the 18th tee, I was still -2 on the day.
Hole 18 was a par 5, and I was visibly nervous on the tee. It was my first real chance to break 70!
I hit a shaky but decent drive. I managed a good 2nd golf shot, and then I hit an excellent approach that allowed me a great look at birdie. I read the putt, took a deep breath, made my stroke… and it went in!
I had shot my first sub-70 round of 69. It felt so good to finally break 70.
I was also bewildered after the round. What actually happened so that I would be able to do that?
The excitement didn’t last long.
The very next round I played, I shot 89, and in similar fashion, I was bewildered after the round.
How could I shoot 69 one day and then shoot 89 the next? It’s enough to drive a person mad.
And for a time, I was. I tried feverishly to recreate my prior success, only to fail over and over again. It was frustrating and demoralizing, especially knowing that the game was in me somewhere.
I know you feel this way too. You believe there’s a better golfer inside of you because there is. It’s waiting there to be pulled out.
And as I reflected, I decided I was going to go on a journey to figure out how to rediscover that golfer inside of me – and never let go. I was going on a journey to learn how to play better golf, deliberately.
How to Get Better at Golf – The Process
I didn’t know much about my swing, but what I did know was that it was wildly inconsistent. I was a good player. Some would say I had “natural” talent. But if I had an off day hitting the ball, I had no idea why. I was just as clueless as the poor souls playing with me that day.
When I really began to reflect on this reality, it frustrated me. How could I play something all my life and not be aware of what I was doing? I had lived Golf Year 1 for 20+ years in a row. Again, me getting better was only a function of playing more, not because I knew what I was doing.
I asked some people I knew about who to take lessons from, and they all mentioned a guy named Bruce Sudderth. He taught lessons out at the club where I played. He was a PGA Master Professional and the swing instructor for Harold Varner, so I thought he must be good. I got his contact information, reached out to him and set up my first swing lesson.
During that first lesson, I told him what I was looking for. I wanted to be more consistent (I’d rather always shoot in the mid 70s then range from low 70s to high 80s) and understand what I was doing. It didn’t take long for him to point out some flaws with my swing.
“Your swing is very handsy, and you move into the ball a lot on your downswing.”, he said. “If you want consistency, you have to get your hands out of the swing.”
I never realized I was a handsy, “feel” player until that first lesson. I just did what I had always done. He changed my grip slightly, which felt funny, and then for that first lesson and the next three, all we worked on was the takeaway and the position of my hands.
I was all over the place. If I didn’t know where it was going before, I really didn’t know where it was going now. I’d hit some decent shots during the lesson, and then almost immediately after, when I went to practice the drills he gave me, something entirely different would happen. It was exasperating, and it didn’t take long before I wanted to quit the lessons altogether and go back to the old way that “worked”.
The only thing that kept me coming back was that once in a blue moon, I’d hit a three-quarter shot so pure that it would catch me off guard. It would go dead straight, and it would be just as long as my full shot.
I was totally perplexed. I didn’t understand the mechanics of it. I’m sure Bruce told me why, but I wasn’t fully a student of the game yet, so it went in one ear and right out the other. I knew that if I stuck with it “just a little bit longer”, I might be able to re-create it often enough to play with it.
2017 was one of the hardest golfing years I’ve ever had. I had qualified for the NC Amateur, and my first lesson was the day before. Definitely a mistake. I shot 79-80 to miss the cut by a lot.
I tried to practice and play while taking lessons, but it was infuriating. I couldn’t break 80. I hit the ball out of bounds off the tee so many times that I stopped hitting my driver altogether. I even had one round where I hit it OB 6 times off the tee through 12 holes. It was a two way miss, and I almost broke down crying on the course because of my frustration.
I was actively doing the right things to get better at golf, but nothing seemed to be working.
In hindsight, I was experiencing what James Clear calls “The Plateau of Latent Potential”.
I was fully expecting my results to grow linearly over time, but in reality that never happens. The way we experience growth in any field, given the right amount of time, is exponentially. Golf is no different.
I was stuck in the Valley of Disappointment, and I had no clear vision of how to get out. But I was confident of one thing: I was not going to quit.
2018 proved to be equally as difficult as 2017, but I had three important breakthroughs that are worth noting:
- During one of my swing lessons in the spring of 2018, Bruce (my swing coach) mentioned to me that it might be a good idea to play from the red tees. He said it could be helpful to get over some mental game hurdles about shooting low scores. I had not even come close to the 65 from a few years ago, but my ball contact was improving. I decided to try it, and wouldn’t you know, on the very first round out from the red tees, I shot 63! It felt like the easiest round of golf in my life. I eagled 3 of the 4 par 5s, birdied a few others and only had one bogey. Certainly many things came together that day, but what I learned was that there was something to the mental side of the sport that had previously been untapped.
- On a random summer round at the local muni, I shot 62. It was a par 70 course, and I shot a pair of 31s. It came out of the blue. I just happened to hit everything well enough to not get into trouble, and I was lights out putting. To date, it is still the lowest score I’ve recorded on a scorecard.
- In late summer, I was working with Bruce on addressing early extension (a common problem with good amateur golfers – I’ll explain more later), and near the end of the session, he said, “Thomas – I’ve done all I can do. You have the talent to make a good golf swing, but physically you cannot get your hips into the right position to make a proper turn in your downswing. I’ve done all I can do, but from here, you need to find someone to help with your mobility”. I was devastated. I’d spent all that practice time and all that money to learn that my body wouldn’t allow me to make the right moves. I was in great shape. I went to the gym three times a week and ran regularly. How could this be?
My handicap improved in 2018 as the consistency of my swing improved. I went from a 6 handicap to a 1, and while I was happy with the progress, the reality is the 1 handicap was only because of the 62 I shot in the summer. If it weren’t for that, I don’t believe I would’ve dipped below 3.
Fortunately, I played in a charity event in the late summer and connected with a friend who had gone to college with me. We had played on the same intramural football and basketball teams, and as we talked, I learned he was a TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) certified personal trainer. I spoke with him about my flexibility woes, and we agreed it would be good to come in for an assessment.
After the initial assessment, he told me I was one of the most inflexible people he had ever seen. Bruce was on to something.
I immediately signed up to begin working out with him a couple of times a week, and although I had been working out regularly for 4 years at the time, you would’ve thought I was a total novice in the gym. In the first 6 months, training stability, mobility, flexibility and core strength were some of the most difficult workouts I had ever done.
In the fall of 2018, my friend James Clear released his now bestselling book Atomic Habits. It was life changing for me. I remember reading it on a plane and not putting it down the entire flight. I devoured the book in 2 days. My mind was swirling about how I had placed my focus on all the wrong things.
From that point onward, my mindset toward golf changed. Not long after, I created a document called the Pro Athlete Mindset and placed it in my office so I would see it every day.
My entire focus was on how to get better at golf, but what I learned was that I had a mistaken identity. I didn’t need to become a better golfer. I needed to become a pro athlete who played golf.
In 2019, I was fully focused on how to orient my training regimen like a pro athlete. I didn’t have the time to train and practice how I would like – after all, I had a full time, demanding job, a young child and other responsibilities to attend to – but I did my best with the time I had.
I worked hard in the gym, and I could see the improvements in flexibility and stability begin to pay off. I began to hit the ball further off the tee, and it was noticeable to the other people I played with. I was a decently long hitter before, but now I was noticeably long off the tee. I could sense my legs not giving out toward the end of my rounds, and I felt like my legs and core were now becoming an asset instead of a liability.
I also began to cut out the largely mundane practice sessions at the driving range. Instead of hitting balls without a purpose, I laid down alignment sticks and practiced my pre-shot routine before each ball I hit. I measured the distance for each shot, and I routinely aimed at different targets.
The right approach and mindset were there, but my game still wasn’t catching up. I improved marginally, but nothing earth shattering. I would still go out and shoot 76 or 78, although a little less frequently than before.
How could I be doing what I believed to be all the right things and still not see big improvements?
I was able to shoot in the 60s a handful of times, and that was an improvement over the previous year, but overall, the results were muted. My handicap inched down to a 0, and it stayed there for the majority of the year.
I didn’t play in any tournaments in 2019. Life and work were simply too busy, and the dates when tournaments were available never panned out with my schedule.
It was a decent but mostly forgettable golf year. The thought had begun to creep in that I had reached the limits of my golf potential. We had our second baby on the way, and I knew that would further eliminate free time to practice and play.
I had come to terms that this might be it for a while, and I had resigned myself to accepting that I would be a pretty good scratch golfer that could occasionally break par on the course.
In early 2020, I was talking with a friend who played golf regularly, and he showed me an app he was using to track his stats. It may come as a surprise to you, but up until this point, I had never tracked any of my golf stats.
I was intrigued, so I created a simple spreadsheet where I could track things like score, fairways in regulation (FIR), greens in regulation (GIR), putts per round, penalty strokes, etc.
It didn’t take long before I started to see some trends. In just a few rounds, some things became painfully obvious.
I was only averaging about 30% of fairways in regulation. I knew I tended to struggle off the tee, but I didn’t realize it was that much of a problem. My short game, ability to scramble around the greens and putt had masked the huge weakness I had off the tee. I knew that if I could improve accuracy off the tee, I would be able to hit a couple more greens per round, and my putter would hopefully take care of the rest.
When I practiced on the driving range, I focused more time on my 3 wood and driver. I became more diligent in my setup and pre-shot routine, and I began to play games with myself on the range to add some pressure.
Then COVID hit, and then our second baby was born! My ideas of practice and playing quickly went out the door. I had played three rounds up until April 12, 2020 when our son Jude was born: 75, 78 and 77.
The first kid was difficult for my wife. The second kid was difficult for me. You can’t just leave your wife home with two young boys for a long period of time, especially not with a newborn. I didn’t practice or play for nearly two months.
Around the end of May, my wife took our two boys with her family to the beach. I had to stay home to work, but after work, I got the chance to practice and play a few times. Again, I shot mostly forgettable scores: 77, 78, 73.
I had continued to do all the right things, but my score wasn’t improving. And later in June, when playing with a friend, I shot 79 at an easy course. I was dumbfounded. I felt as if I was moving backwards, and I was so frustrated that I could not figure it out. Sure, my swing had improved noticeably, but I wasn’t scoring any better. I was tracking stats, but that didn’t seem to make a difference.
After that 79, I went home totally puzzled. On the drive home, I poured my heart out to God in a fit of prayer, anger, confusion and frustration. I was again at the point where I was ready to just give up this stupid game and focus on getting better at playing drums.
But somewhere during that time, the subtle thought occurred to me: “If you can’t figure out getting better at this, why do you think you can figure out getting better at doing something else?”
I’ll admit – I had to wrestle with this one. It was terrifyingly true. It was hard, and I was actively trying to justify getting myself out of the hard situation to enter into something that felt easy. But the reality was that the easy thing would at some point become hard again, and I had a choice to make: was I going to quit then too, or was I going to figure it out?
I determined in that car ride home that I was going to figure it out. And given my life circumstances, I was going to have to get creative.
I came home and laid bare all my assumptions about playing golf. That night, I scribbled down a ton of things on paper, and one thing that came to mind was the idea of “vanity metrics”.
We talk about this a lot in our business because vanity metrics are a distraction. They look shiny, but they don’t move the needle. It takes discipline to remain focused on the right metrics because they are often opaque and dull. Vanity metrics are shiny and make you feel good, but they are deceitful.
I began to apply that concept to golf. What “vanity metrics” was I focusing on? And as I walked down this mental rabbit hole, I had a stark realization: I was solely focused on golf vanity metrics!
I would talk about how I wanted to get better at golf, but I was participating in active self-sabotage by focusing on the wrong things. When I really dug in, it occurred to me that there is one and only one metric you should ever focus on to get better at the game of golf: your score.
Now you might be saying, “Thomas – isn’t that obvious?”, to which I will respond, “Yes, and hardly anybody does it.”
It is easy to give lip service to wanting to shoot better scores, but when it comes down to playing, most people focus on everything except the score: their swing, their pre-shot routine, their swing thoughts, their swing speed, their putting stroke, their grip… and the list could go on.
What you will hear people say is, “I’m going to focus on having a good grip today” or “I’m going to have this specific swing thought during my downswing” or “I’m going to just try to stay loose and calm before every shot”.
These are good and deceitfully wrong. The focus is entirely on the action, not the result. When you focus on the action, you are happy being in aimless motion. You say you want better scores, but if you don’t shoot the good score you were looking for, you have a bail out: “Well, at least I stayed calm today” or “My putting stroke was great!”
Don’t kid yourself. The self-deception is pervasive and enormous!
When I came to fully understand this paradigm shift, I was floored. No wonder I wasn’t getting better. I was focused on all the wrong things.
By the end of that day, I had made a singular determination: I will focus solely on my score. Nothing else mattered.
The next day I reviewed my golf scores. I began to draw some loose correlations to how certain metrics impacted my score. But what I began to realize is that I did not understand WHY I was shooting the scores I was shooting.
In fact, as I truly began to dissect the rounds I could remember, I began to understand that I honestly didn’t know where the ball intended to go! Because I had not truly focused on improving my score, I had not developed the disciplines necessary to lower it.
So, the next time I went out on the range, I came out with a different purpose. On each shot, I would go through my routines and processes, but with two additional items to pay attention to:
- I would actually focus on a very small target, and I would do my best to hit that target, both in distance and direction.
- I would pay attention to what was happening when I hit my target, and most importantly, when I didn’t hit my target.
This wasn’t just for the driving range. It was also on the putting and chipping greens too. And, because I had two young kids, my time away was very limited. I would get the kids down in bed between 7-7:30 pm, so on the days where I did get a chance to practice, I only had 30-45 minutes of daylight.
On some days, I would only hit 20 balls, but each ball would be an intensely deliberate shot. Because time was a huge constraint, I had to turn to different avenues of working to get better at golf. This was that avenue.
After my practice, I would go back and write down my results in a journaling app. I would note what I felt on the good shots and what I felt on the bad shots. Sometimes I would have a video recording of the shots so I could review them afterward. Because I didn’t have as much time to practice physically, I had to improve how I practiced off the course.
I immediately began to notice trends, and I began to correlate those trends with the metrics I had been tracking. On average, I was having nearly 3 penalty strokes per round and one double bogey per round. I quickly saw that if I wanted to improve my score, I had to eliminate those errors.
As I practiced with the singular focus of improving my score, I began to notice a change in my behavior and demeanor while practicing. I became very disciplined with my processes, and I began to enjoy the curious work of investigating good and bad shots.
I was becoming a student of the game.
In my first round after this epiphany, I shot 76. The score itself was nothing special, but what I did afterward would set the tone for some very good scores in the future. And, it would set the foundation for me actually getting better at golf.
I had never journaled my rounds before, but this time, I was determined to learn and understand why I shot the score I shot so I could work to make it better. I wrote down detailed notes about each hole, and for the first time in my golfing career, I was not going to be an active participant in self-sabotage. I was going to be brutally honest with myself.
Here’s a screenshot from my journaling app after the round:
Some of those things were difficult to write because they were difficult to admit. Even before this section, I had written “amateur hour” a couple of times because that’s what it was. I thought of myself as a pro athlete, and I yet I made one amateur mistake after another.
After you have a mental awakening like this, you have two options: quit or get better. There’s no middle ground here, and if it happened to be somewhere, I wasn’t settling for it.
I was all in. From here on out, I was going to journal every single round of golf with full honesty.
I was going to get better at the game of golf.
As I reflected on the round, I began to think of one particular thing I did multiple times that caused poor shots. My right foot kept coming up early in the downswing (that early extension again), and it caused some errant shots. So, in my next practice session, I basically practiced hitting the ball flat footed. I went through all my routines like usual, but I was determined to keep that pesky right foot down.
It felt odd, but the result was what I wanted. I eliminated the underneath, flared right shot almost completely. I still had a fade, and I noticed I lost marginal distance off the tee, but I knew I was going to lower my score by doing it.
In reality, “feel” is never quite “real”, so my flat footed practice kept me in a more stable posture in my downswing, and the next round I played showed it.
I went out to play with some friends at a brand new course, and from the first drive off the tee, something felt different. I couldn’t put my finger on it – the mindset shift, the focus on getting the ball in the hole with the least amount of strokes as possible, the paying attention to WHY I hit poor shots – but something was different.
I shot 69 that day, and it was with a penalty stroke and a double bogey!
But unlike other times where I had shot under par, this time I was an active participant in it. I knew where I was doing well and where I wasn’t.
The next round I would shoot 75, but then I began a streak of something I had never done before.
I shot 68-68-67-73-68. One of the 68s was in a tournament, and one of the 68s was my first ever bogey-free round of golf.
I was on to something. I was practicing and playing far less than I had in prior years, but my scores began to improve quickly and dramatically. And with the anomaly of me shooting 80 on a day where I was sick to my stomach, I did not shoot above 74 for the remainder of 2020, and my scoring average ended at 73 for the year.
So far in 2021, I’ve had many of the same results. I played on a golf trip with some men at our church in January, and on the first day of playing, it didn’t get above 40 degrees and the wind was steady at 20-25mph with gusts much higher. I shot 78 and felt like I had shot 68 given the conditions. The other rounds were 71-72-72-69, and considering the time of year and course conditions, I was pretty happy with it.
I’ve had a couple of rough patches this year though, and it’s given me the opportunity to truly learn and instill the things I had begun to work on in the summer of 2020.
- During the spring, I had a stretch where I shot 82-82-81-84-77. I’ll be honest – I was totally perplexed. I began hitting this awful snap hook with my driver off the tee, and it wreaked havoc on my scores. I was accumulating penalty strokes quickly, and coupled with my putting performance decreasing substantially, my scores shot up. It took me until the end of the round where I shot 84 to learn that I had a slight crack and indention in the top right area on the face of my driver! I played with a different driver for the next round until the new head arrived at my club. Since then, my highest round has been 74.
- I also began struggling mightily with putting at the tail end of 2020, and it carried over into 2021. I was averaging nearly 33 putts per round. In a chance conversation with Kyle Stanley at the Wells Fargo Pro-Am this year, he told me I should look into a face-balanced putter based on my putting stroke (I like to putt straight back and straight through). I had never heard of a face-balanced putter before, so I switched to a new 2021 Scotty Cameron Phantom X 5. Since then, my average putts per round is 29.1. My putting stroke had gotten better, but my putting stats were getting worse (and thus scores were getting worse). I guess face-balanced makes the most sense when I practice my putting stroke in-between two 2x4s at home!
My most recent stretch of golf this summer has been stellar. I’ve shot 69-67-69-67-66-67-73. Cumulatively, that’s -22 over 7 rounds, which I consider to be good for an amateur player. In fact, I’ve had more rounds in the 60s than not so far in 2021.
I’ve not had the chance to practice a ton this year, and the times where I have been able to play, they’ve mostly been condensed into quick bursts while my wife and kids were away on trips (notably a few weekends where I played 27 on Friday after work and 36 on Saturday). And yet, to be able to shoot those kinds of scores consistently tells me this is not some fluke.
At the time of this article being published (August 16, 2021), I am a +3.6 handicap. That’s almost 10 points different from when I started as a 6 in 2017.
If you get nothing else from this article, just know that there’s hope for you getting better at golf… if you just stick to it and adopt some of the principles I share below.
How to Get Better at Golf – The Principles
Part of the learning and growing process in anything is distilling what you think you know into writing. When you write, you force yourself to clarify the good from the bad, the gold nuggets from the muddy soil.
As I’ve reflected on my journey of how to get better at golf, I’ve discovered 11 principles that I believe you can apply to dramatically improve your game.
Some are mental, some are swing related, and some are intensely practical.
1. Adopt a desired identity and live into it
Just saying you want to get better at golf is not enough. Everyone wants to get better. Few want to adopt the mindset, identity and habits required to get there.
Here’s the path, from least effective to most effective:
Get better at golf > Shoot lower scores > Shoot 72 > Be an elite athlete who wins golf tournaments
If you want to get better, you must adopt the identity of those who are better. So, I have this written out for me to see regularly:
I am an elite athlete who wins golf tournaments.
That is my desired identity. I want to train, practice and be disciplined like an elite athlete, and my desired outcome is to win golf tournaments. In order to win golf tournaments, I have to take the least amount of shots out of anyone in the field. The identity points directly to the metric that matters: my score.
2. Understand the WHY behind what you are doing
Most everyone can tell you what they do on the golf course. Some people can tell you how they do it. Very few can tell you WHY.
And why is that?
Discovering the WHY is hard work, and it often requires painful self-reflection. In fact, I heard this thought recently, and it was so profound that I had to write it down in my journal.
Most people would rather live a lifetime of self-deception than endure the pain during moments of self-reflection.
Ouch, and it is true. It’s painful to be honest with yourself and pull back the curtain of deceit. When that happens, you often feel completely exposed. It’s uncomfortable, and most people choose to close the curtain back up and never open it again.
That’s a shame, because being honest with yourself and getting to the WHY behind how you play on the course is a must-make step to getting better at golf (and being an active participant in that process). Until you do, any progress you make is transitory because you lack the understanding necessary to make it stick.
How do you do this?
Reflective journaling is one of the best avenues to discover the WHY. Write down honest assessments of how you play and score, and the more you do it, the more trends you will spot, and the more frustrated you will become with yourself for persisting in those trends without addressing them.
Visibility is key here, because what is visible is deemed important. If you see the same things over and over, especially if they are not what you desire, you’ll either work hard to fix them or run away. But I know you won’t run away – you’ve made it this far reading!
If you have it, get accountability. If you play regularly with a caddie, ask them to give you honest feedback. Your job at that point is to listen to understand, not respond, and to not take what they are saying personally. If you can do these things, I promise you’ll quickly discover where you can improve.
3. Your best golf is played by thinking in first principles
If you’ve never heard of the concept of first principles, I encourage you to take some time and read this article about first principles by Shane Parrish.
The short is that first principles thinking involves breaking down complex problems into their simplest parts, and then solving for those simple parts.
Golf is a complex game. No course is ever the same. There’s no regulation size for anything, and mother nature introduces new variables each time you tee it up.
Because of this reality, golf is not so much a game where you win but rather a game where you lose less.
It is you vs. the course you are playing, and you will never beat the course. The course will always win in the end (to my knowledge, no one has ever had a perfect round with 100% perfect swings and shots), but you have the ability to force the course to win less by playing from first principles thinking.
In particular, the model of first principles thinking called Inversion is your best friend on the course.
Let’s say you are on the tee box with a dogleg left. You’ve got a lefthand fairway bunker 250 out, trees lining the left side of the fairway, and trees lining the right side of the fairway. The fairway straight ahead runs out around 270, and there are OB stakes at 300.
There’s a lot of information to navigate here. Suppose you average 305 off the tee, so you know OB comes into play if you happen to spray one straight. There’s a big reward for carrying the left bunker, as it leaves a flip wedge into the green, but anything else could mean trouble from the trees or a re-tee if you hit it long and straight.
Inversion asks the question, “How do I die here?”, and then it leaves you to respond to that. By attempting to eliminate scenarios where you know you die, you shrink the number of possible shots you can take off the tee. It might be that you are best suited hitting a 3 wood down the middle, and if you happen to tug it left, you can likely still carry that left fairway bunker.
The same type of thinking must be present as you navigate every shot. Because of the general patterns of shot dispersion, you don’t have to fire at every pin. You just need to fire at the locations where you are least likely to die, then let simple math and probability do its work to get you close to the pin on occasion.
From the people I talk with, this is often the most difficult concept to both comprehend and accept because it requires re-programming how you think. But, I guarantee the effort you put in to thinking this way will make you shoot lower scores, and it will feel like magic!
4. Even pros hit bad shots, but they rarely compound them
The idea that you can eliminate bad shots from your game is a fool’s errand. Give up on that notion now because it will never happen. Even the pros hit bad shots.
But what separates the pros from the really good amateurs is that they rarely compound a bad shot with another one.
Hitting bad shots is inevitable. It is going to happen. There are too many variables out of your control to assume otherwise.
However, following up a bad shot with another bad shot is entirely preventable and completely unacceptable. I recently shot 67-66 in a single day, and I left happy but exceedingly frustrated because I violated this principle once in each round.
I compounded a bad shot with the next shot, one time leading to a bogey on a par 5 and another leading to a double bogey on a par 4. That’s easily the difference between shooting 66-65, and that could just as easily be the difference between winning and losing.
Don’t compound mistakes. If you hit a bad shot, first collect yourself, then select the shot where you don’t die, and then hit that shot with confidence. Only then can you try to salvage whatever is left of the hole.
5. A strong, mobile core is your best friend
You cannot perform at elite levels without your body responding positively to the pressures you put on it.
And, because you’ve now adopted the identity of an elite athlete, you cannot ignore your physique. It’s not enough to simply stretch and be mobile. You need to be strong.
The golf swing requires an athletic move that has lots of moving parts. To the extent that you can control those parts, you will be a better ball striker — and thus be able to shoot lower scores.
Your core – abs, back, glutes and legs – are the foundation of your swing. Leg day has to become your favorite day. Explosive movements (power) are just as important as eccentric movements (control).
In the gym, my trainer and I do everything from weighted single leg RDL’s on the Bosu ball to what I call Hell Jumps. Here’s a video of me doing them in late 2020:
A strong, mobile core allows you to generate power while remaining under control, both of which are advantages in today’s game.
If you aren’t already working out, I recommend you start today. You’re at a big disadvantage to true elite athletes otherwise.
6. Invisible logo on the golf glove
This is a practical bit of advice that I have shared with many people. It’s an instant way to make better contact with the ball.
At the start of your takeaway, most people turn their glove hand up. Unless you do some trickery before the club is at the top of your backswing, your club face will be open, and your glove hand will be “cupped”. This tendency leads to all kinds of bad shots, and when you do make contact, you will make poor, sweeping contact at the ball.
Instead, on your takeaway, turn your glove hand down so that you cannot see the logo on your glove. It will feel like you are “bowing” your wrist. At this point, you only need to rotate your body back. As long as you hold that position with your hands and wrists, your club will remain square or slightly closed at the top of your backswing.
To aid this hand and wrist position, you can use a stronger grip with your glove hand.
The benefit here is that you can mostly eliminate the use of your hands on the downswing. When coupled with a strong, mobile core, this produces very consistent club-to-ball impact.
This is only a piece of a well-rounded swing, but I have found that it is one of the most important pieces. Without this, it doesn’t matter how well you do the other things in your swing. You’ll produce wildly inconsistent shot dispersions, especially when it comes to controlling distance.
7. Butt back on the downswing and through impact
Early extension – the act of not keeping your butt back in the downswing – is a golfer’s worst enemy.
When your body creeps toward the ball in the downswing, you introduce an unsavory mix of bad shots into your bag. Everything from big push to hard pull to shank comes into play when you do this.
I used to struggle with it mightily, and I can see it clear as day in others now. If you want better, more consistent shot patterns, you have to keep your butt back during the downswing and through impact.
A simple drill to determine if you do this or not is to place your butt against a wall and then practice doing a full swing. If your butt comes off the wall before the finishing position, you are engaging in early extension.
I will say that this is probably the most advanced and difficult thing to master in the swing (at least from my experience). It requires that strong, mobile core, but most importantly, it requires patience and discipline. You’ve got to trust where the ball is going when you make contact with it and fight against the tendency to pick your head up early to watch it. If you watch, you won’t keep your butt back.
Outside of a strong, mobile core (which took two years to build), the only drill I know on the range that worked to address this issue was the flat footed swing drill. It’s just like what it sounds. I practice hitting the ball flat footed, because when you do this, you can’t engage in early extension.
If you do this drill, what many people find is they can’t rotate through the swing. That’s not uncommon, but I guarantee the pros can do this. As an example, pay attention when they hit their wedge shots from inside 100 yards. Many of them won’t lift up their back foot at all.
If you can’t do it, all the more reason for you to get in the gym and work on that strong, mobile core.
8. Putt like the pros do
The pros do it best, so it’s best if we mimic what they do! There are 4 key elements to putting like the pros do:
- Keep your head still. Be disciplined in the stroke, and don’t pick it up until you’ve finished the follow through. When you try to watch the ball to the hole, you’ll watch the ball miss the hole.
- Don’t break your leading wrist. This is why the reverse grip is so popular amongst tour professionals. That grip makes it impossible to break the leading wrist. Once you have your leading wrist in a set position, don’t break it.
- Identify your spot. It is far easier to putt to a spot 4 inches in front of the ball than to line up your ball to a desired location near the hole. It’s easier to say “putt over this little blade of grass right in front of me” than it is to say “make sure my line is perfect for a 40 foot putt”. It sounds oversimplified until you try it.
- Keep your trailing shoulder down through impact. Lifting this shoulder up causes all kinds of directional and contact problems. If you struggle with this, take a head cover and place it under your leading arm. This keeps that trailing shoulder down. I find that my hybrid head cover works best.
These are baselines for putting well. Because putting is highly individualized, other concepts that work for me may not work for you. These key elements work for anyone, regardless of putting preferences.
9. Make practice intentional and memorable
It’s astonishing how much time is wasted during practice. I watch as people aimlessly hit balls, and I remember when I did that too.
It doesn’t help, and if you see any improvement, like I’ve said before, it’s only transitory.
Come to practice prepared and with a goal in mind. Make every shot count. Document out your pre-shot routines, and follow them before you make any type of shot. Study how you practice and implement change to get better.
The same goes for putting practice. I watch people on the putting green practice these rote 4 footers from the same tee markers over and over, and it makes me want to scream. When will you ever do this in a tournament? Never!
Plus, it is only tangentially focused on improving your score and primarily focused on improving your putting stroke. That’s backwards! This putting drill from Brad Faxon would be far more beneficial.
Make your golf practice intentional, and don’t waste time doing what other amateur golfers do.
10. Stay humble with a learning mindset
Golf will never be mastered. Just when you think you are something, golf will remind you otherwise.
Pride and arrogance have no place in you seeking out how to get better at golf. You must remain humble at all times, and you must have a bias to being curious with a learning mindset.
Humility reminds you that you’ve never arrived, and it forces you to do the simple things over and over for an inordinate amount of time. When you do the right things for a long enough period of time, you can’t help but see the right results.
I like this tweet from Shane Parrish that sums up this concept nicely:
Ninety percent of success can be boiled down to consistently doing the obvious thing for an uncommonly long period of time without convincing yourself that you’re smarter than you are.— Shane Parrish (@ShaneAParrish) August 8, 2021
11. Focus on the score
If you want to get better at golf, focus on the score at the end of the round. It’s really that simple, and it took me 4 years to learn how to do it.
How to Get Better at Golf – The Training Aids
There are a handful of training aids that I have used to improve specific areas of my golf game. Most training aids are not helpful, but these are!
EyeLine Golf Putting Mirror (Small)
This tool is a must-have for improving your putting stroke, head direction and ball contact. There’s no way my putting would have improved without it.
Click here to learn more and buy it today →
Perfect Practice Putting Mat
When I first discovered this product, I wrote it off as gimmicky. But, a friend of mine had purchased it, and once I had the chance to use it, I immediately bought one for myself.
It is not cheap, but it is effective. Where the putting mirror helps you with stroke, direction and contact, the perfect practice putting mat helps you tremendously with accuracy and speed.
Click here to learn more and buy it today →
SKLZ Golf Alignment Sticks
I use these every single time I hit golf balls on the range. It is a non-negotiable. While most people use one stick to line up their feet to the target, I use a different approach. I use two sticks that line up to the target, and I place the ball in the middle of them. I get my club face square in my hands, then I align the club to the target. The alignment sticks enhance the visual, so my body more naturally aligns correctly.
Click here to learn more and buy it today →
If you have an ounce of doubt that this will work for you, suspend those limiting beliefs for a week and give my insights a chance. I believe you will be happily surprised with the results!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on how to get better at golf. If you believe someone else would benefit from reading it, please share it using the social share buttons available.
Do you have any questions? Maybe your own story or insight to share? Leave a comment below so myself and others can join in, or feel free to reach out to me on Twitter to start a conversation there.
To better golfers,
This is a great article Thomas, thank you. I’m on a similar journey trying to get down to single digits.
How did you deal with not being able to play as much as you would like when life got in the way? I get time to practice and hit balls but when you don’t get to play as often as you would like it is tough.
Thanks Dave – and great question!
I believe the first step for me was accepting the reality that golf would always take a backseat to faith and family. And for my family in particular, I knew that the challenges to play more would only last for a season. What I did that helped a ton was to turn my practice into games. Instead of just hitting ball after ball, I would step back and approach each shot as if I was actually playing on the course. I would go through my routine, and then I would hit the shot. (I still do that to this day!)
The practical effect of this was that when I got on the course, I felt far more prepared because I had already done this in practice. I felt more comfortable over the shots, and the result was that I encountered far less “rust”, even though I was not playing very often.
Prithvi G Rao
Excellent article. Focusing on what matters instead of spending a life time watching youtbe everytime you bomb on the course. On journaling after my last game I found a few things I was simply trying to ignore and repeating the same mistakes for the past few years. Eg: Once I miss a short putt I never foucs on putting throughout the game. I simply walk up to the ball and try putting it and keep missing.
Also, trying to be macho and take stupid risks on long shots on Par 5 & 4. This ends up in erratic distances, bunker or water.
Thanks for the kind words! It takes discipline and hard work to get better and stay better. Focusing on the right things, no matter how difficult, is the key!
Wanna say thank you for such a great article. I would probably be considered about a 12 handicap, but a lot of your points really made sense to me. Recently had a second child too and while on leave have more time to practice. I will using a lot of your suggestions!
Congratulations on the second baby – what a blessing! The principles are applicable for anyone at any stage of their golf game, so I am certain you’ll discover better scores after you put them to practice. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experiences and reflections about same. A very inspiring journey you are on. And something a lot of us golfers can relate to, as we all dream of getting better – only you stopped dreaming and did something about it.
I am on my own journey of really wanting to improve my ability to play golf and score, and I take a lot of learnings from your article. I would also enjoy learning your view on a few more issues:
1) In whatever time you do have available to practise, how to roughly split it between short game / long game / mental / physical?
2) Do you ever fear your intense focus on scoring will negatively impact your love of the game? and if so, how do you manage that?
3) How would you consider talent versus hard work? With the right dedication do you think all single digit handicappers could get to scratch?
4) What specific mental practise have you engaged with, if any?(in addition to keeping a journal and the related reflections)
5) Did you do specific work to increase your swing speed, either technical or in the gym?
Thanks again for sharing your experiences, and for hopefully responding to my questions.
Best wishes for your future golf scores,
Thanks for your kind words Jesper! Happy to answer those questions:
1) I tend to practice on my short game the most, particularly wedges from 125 yards and in. I practice putting routines at home when I have a few minutes to spare, and when you are diligent there, it can translate fairly well on the course. I practice the mental game all the time by reading books, reflecting with journaling, etc. And for the physical aspect, I work out 3-4 times a week, with 2 times per week dedicate specifically to fitness for golf.
2) I love the process just as much as I love the low scores. The opposite has occurred for me, in that the more intense I focus, the more I enjoy it, because I enjoy the delayed gratification of seeing results. By tweaking the process in an effort to lower my scores, it allows me to be curious rather than frustrated.
3) I won’t deny that talent is important. There are some natural abilities that are incredibly helpful. But on the long term, I’ll take anyone who has the proper mindset and hustles over someone who has talent but is undisciplined and lazy. The former will be a success story, while the latter will be “what could have been”.
4) One simple practice is to remind myself of this: never think about missing a shot you haven’t taken yet. It’s from Michael Jordan, and it’s smart. Another mental practice that I have recently adopted as part of my pre-shot routine is called pointing and calling. It’s a popular Japanese operational methodology that reduces errors and promotes safety. Through the lens of golf, it forces you to be clear on where you are hitting your shot.
5) Yes, I have done specific work to increase my swing speed. Much of the swing speed gains can be attributed to improved core stability, eccentric training and explosive movements. You need all three to gain swing speed while maintaining control and accuracy.
I hope those answers are helpful!