Handicap Improvement: From 5 to +1 In One Year.
In April 2020 my handicap was 5.1, the lowest handicap I’d ever had. I am writing this blog post in May 2021, just over one year on. My handicap is +0.7 (It was +0.9 a few weeks after writing this article). Throughout this time frame I have been posting updates on Twitter and Instagram quite regularly. As my handicap got lower, more and more people reached out asking questions about what I did to enable this handicap improvement. This article lays out the approach I used, the set backs I faced, and lessons I learned. I hope it helps.
One year handicap trend. (I can only go back exactly one year, which is why it starts at the end of May rather than April)
The project of getting to 0.0 handicap became “official” on April 18th 2020. I put a poll on Twitter posing a question. You can see the votes below. There were also a lot of comments that I found quite motivating. If you want someone to do something, tell them they have no chance of doing it!
As you will find out, I immediately violated the terms of practicing 2 x week and playing 1 x week, so this original poll question became null and void quite quickly. Soon after this project began it turned into practicing almost everyday and playing once per week, then twice per week. I’d made a decision that I wanted to get to 0.0 handicap, and got started with the necessary work.
I’m a very analytical person, so it was natural I tried to use data to help me on my quest. Thankfully, for the 2018 and 2019 seasons I had been tracking my Strokes Gained statistics on Mark Broadie’s App “GolfMetrics“. This statistical tracking was absolutely instrumental. It provided me with objective information about each element of my game compared to scratch. With this information I could plan practice, instruction, and track my progress or regression over time.
The GolfMetrics App allows you see where you gain or lose strokes relative to scratch (or your current handicap) for driving, approach, short game, and putting. You also get a handicap for each category. Furthermore, it breaks approach, short game, and putting down further, into very specific distances for more detailed info. What’s really nice about the GolfMetrics App is that you can look at your stats breakdown for individual rounds and whatever combination of rounds you like. I found a lot of value in looking at 5 and 10 round trends, and also what I tended to do well on days I scored better than usual.
For more info about “Strokes Gained” Statistics, check out my recent podcast with Mark Broadie: The Fit For Golf Podcast Episode #18
I have shared two full GolfMetrics reports below. The first one is for the first 10 rounds I played after I made the decision to try and get to scratch. The second report is for my most recent 10 rounds. There is 13 months, 85 rounds, and a couple of hundred practice sessions between the first round in the initial report, and the last round in the second report.
To keep the statistics standardized I only included rounds from my home course. This is where is I play most regularly (but not exclusively). It is worth noting that there is one “outlier” round in the initial 10 rounds. I shot a very unexpected 68 (-4) . That was my best ever round by 4 strokes, and I gained 8 strokes in approach play versus scratch in just that round. Without this round my strokes gained approach in the initial 10 round report would be a little different!
Swipe through the 8 images below to see my GolfMetrics statistics report for my first 10 rounds after I set the goal of getting to scratch. SG refers to Strokes Gained, and the numbers refer to per round.
After seeing this data (and the data from 2018 and 2019, which was worse) I placed the vast majority of my emphasis on my driver and wedges. This would allow me hit a lot more greens in regulation, which makes things much easier. On my home course I hit 14 drivers per round. I was hitting too many of them sideways into hazards, trees or when I was lucky, adjacent fairways. This is one of the reasons my average driving distance was only 275 yards (for me this is short). GolfMetrics measures driving distance by the length your second shot is from the hole, not how far the ball actually travels. When you hit it way offline you are further from the hole, even though the ball may have travelled quite a distance.
I knew if I hit my driver solidly and in play it would go at least 280, and often closer to 300. I use my wedges anytime I’m inside 140 yards (unless there’s strong wind).
280 yards +140 yards = 420 yards. This basically means that on any hole 420 yards or less I knew I should be looking at a driver and PW or more lofted club to the hole. Most muni par 4’s are less than 400 yards. I figured I could base my game around a lot of 300 yard drives, followed by approach wedges of less than 100 yards to the green.
I put lots of work into these two areas.
Here is the same style of report for my most recent 10 rounds.
Strokes Gained Summary
|1st 10 rounds of challenge||Most recent 10 rounds||Change|
|Off The Tee||-1.3||2.2||2.9|
|Short Game (100 yards & in)||0.0||1.7||1.7|
-6 stroke improvement in scoring average
-5.8 stroke improvement in Strokes Gained Total
-5.8 stroke improvement in handicap
I would like to make a note about the “Short Game” category in this table. 0.8 strokes of the 1.7 stroke improvement per round in my “Short Game” statistics came from shots between 60-100 yards. This could easily be categorized as “Approach”. A lot of these shots were second shots into par 4’s. Just 0.3 strokes of the 1.7 stroke improvement came from 0-20 yards from the green.
My total strokes gained improvement for this period was 5.8 strokes per round. The combined contribution of putting (0.9 strokes per round) and 0-20 yards from the green (0.3 strokes per round) was 1.2 strokes per round. Or just 20%. 80% of my improvement in scoring came from shots outside 20 yards. I feel this is a critical point to make. In my experience amateur golfers hugely overestimate the improvements they can make in their game solely by focusing on short game and putting.
When I first shared my plans to get to scratch I was inundated with advice from well meaning amateurs and golf instructors. The vast majority of them suggested that I should spend the vast majority of my practice time chipping and putting. While rapid improvements in scoring can be made from improvements in these areas, you will probably hit a ceiling quite quickly. Putting has the most variance of any element in golf. On average a scratch golfer only holes 50% of their 6 foot putts. They average 2.0 strokes to get the ball in the hole from 27 feet. Unless you have a huge amount of practice time on your hands, or you’re an exceptional putter, it’s pretty tough to average better than scratch putting.
Even if you develop an extremely good short game, getting up and down from off the green is much harder than two putting. I am by no means saying not to work on improving your short game. I absolutely encourage it. There is a lot of very low hanging fruit there for golfers, and I need to work on mine. Just make sure you realise getting to very low handicaps and threatening par is not “all about short game and putting”, as so many seem to believe. You must work on hitting less balls into trouble spots, and hitting more greens in regulation.
Getting back to my GolfMetrics report, it’s clear to see from going through the images that there has been a big improvement in most categories. At first glace it appears there was not an improvement from 150-200 or 200-250 yards.
I don’t want to make this too complicated but I’m assuming if you’ve come this far you are a golf geek. In the initial 10 rounds I spent a lot of time hitting approach shots from adjacent fairways (which are marked as “rough” in GolfMetrics even though the lie is perfect), and recovery shots. Recovery shots are when you don’t have a clear route to the green. A good shot from rough and recovery is highly rewarded in strokes gained, and will be rewarded much more than a not so great shot from the fairway. If you skip to the last image in both slide shows you will see my median proximity got slightly better in both categories.
I don’t hit many shots from outside 230, so 150-230 and 7-21 feet putting are where my relative weaknesses are.
150-230 is primarily par 3’s and second shots on par 5’s. 7-21 feet is a lot birdie putts and some par saves.
The plan for the future is to continue to work on everything while putting slightly more emphasis on these areas.
Due to the fact I knew I would be hitting a lot of drivers and wedges on my home course, I did the vast majority of my practice on the range. It primarily consisted of hitting wedges from 50-120 yards and drivers. I bought a tripod for making it easy to get good quality swing recordings with my iphone. This was absolutely instrumental in my improvement. While video work might not be a good fit for everyone, it keeps me very engaged. I had a good idea of the changes I wanted to make. I’d received good coaching over the years, had an instructor I could send video to, and I spent a lot of time analysing my swing from each practice session.
I spent an hour on the range 4-5 days per week, and set up my tripod and camera for 90% of these practice sessions. Usually, I only hit about 30-35 balls in one hour. A lot of my practice time was spent very deliberately rehearsing the movement I was trying to make in slow motion. Much much time on the range was spent rehearsing feels than actually hitting golf balls. My friend Ted Scott, who is Bubba Watson’s caddy and a golf coach in his spare time did an extremely good job sending me feedback on my swing progress.
Within the space of 6 months, I reduced my handicap from 5.1 to 0.4 with almost zero chipping or putting practice. My chipping did improve a lot during this timeframe, but that was due to the amount of golf I played, and a better understanding of some key concepts.
A podcast episode from the “Chasing Scratch” Podcast with short game master James Sieckmann was extremely useful. (LINK)
Getting It Done On The Course
I played 60 rounds between April 18th and December 31st in 2020. It required another 21 rounds in 2021 between January 1st and May 13th to get to 0.0, and then just another 4 rounds to get to +0.7. So 13 months and 85 rounds to get from 5 to +1. This means I have averaged 6.5 rounds per month over the past 13 months. On the vast majority of days I haven’t played, I have practiced for approximately one hour.
There was a pretty linear improvement from 5 to 1.5. This happened in the first 4 months. Once I started getting my driver in play and was able to strike my wedges consistently most of the time it was quite easy to make a lot of pars. On days when the putter was hot par was threatened and on one “freak day” in August I shot 68 (-4). This was a huge boost to to my confidence and handicap reduction goals. I hit 16 greens in regulation, making 5 birdies and 1 bogey. This was only second time ever shooting under par, and the other time was when I was 16, and it was -1.
81 and 78 were my scores directly before and directly after this 68, on the same golf course. An illustration of how much variance there can be in golf scores.
As the summer went on, I continued my practice and increased my play to sometimes twice per week rather than just once. A few weeks after the 68, I shot 71 (same course) and I was really hopeful that under par was going to become a regular occurrence. I WAS WRONG!!!!
Mental Hurdles & Overcoming Them
Due to a combination of our skill level and our “mental comfort zone” we all seem to have a scoring barrier. We sometimes flirt with breaking through, but lo and behold, we find a way of letting a great score slip. Or at least that’s what we think happened.
For me, that barrier was breaking par. During the entirety of this project I have been extremely consistent with my practice and play routine. In November of 2020 my handicap hit a low of 0.4. I was very motivated to hit 0.0 by the end of the year. This lead me to really ramping up the amount of rounds I played. I drove to the course very early on a lot of mornings to put my name on the waiting list and try to get out with a group who had space. Not really because I wanted to play, but because I knew that I needed to play more to give myself a realistic chance of my goal.
My play was very consistent for November and December, with my handicap hovering between 0.4 and 1.
The under bar barrier proved a tall task for me however. I mentioned that after the rounds of 68 and 71, I was hopeful under par rounds would become a regular event.
Following that 71, I did not break par for another 28 rounds on that same golf course. In those 28 rounds I shot even par 7 times, but none under par. That was challenging mentally. An even par round on my home golf course works out at a 0.5 differential, so it was impossible to reach my goal without breaking par regularly, or having a few very low round.
This was easily the most testing time during the last year in terms of patience. I really learned the importance of
“the mental game”. In some of these even par rounds I did quite well to finish even par, shooting an under par back 9, or making a couple of late birdies. There were however two very disappointing rounds during this spell and I learned a lot from both of them.
In one round I was -3 after 15, then bogeyed 16, doubled 17, and parred 18 to shoot even. While that was very very disappointing, it had nothing on a future round. The lessons learned from this round make it one of the most important rounds of golf I’ve ever played.
On one magical day I got to -5 through 13 holes, making 6 birdies. I wasn’t actually hitting it that much better than usual, but it was an outlier of a putting day.
I parred 14, then the fun started. 3 putt bogey 14, 3 putt bogey 16, bogey 17, double bogey 18……to finish even. Bear in mind, 18 is probably the easiest hole on the course, a par 5 that I can reach in two.
This result was tough to take. The 3 putts on 14 and 16 weren’t that bad. They were downhill putts from 30 and 32 feet on slick greens that I hit slightly too hard, and missed the 6 and 7 footers back. 17 is the hardest hole on the course, a 450 yard par 4 that plays into the wind. Those, while disappointing, I can accept.
18 was “the choke”.
I have thought back to this hole many times in the days, weeks, and months after it happened. Even though I’d had a bad run coming up to this hole I’d done a reasonably good job of “staying present” (more on this later). On the 18th tee I was very disappointed and a little bit rattled that I’d let such a good round slip. At -2, and facing the easiest hole on the course I was still in with a great chance of shooting my 2nd best ever score. I felt OK over the tee shot, but there was definitely some tension compared to normal. I hit a big hook into an adjoining fairway, and smacked my driver off the ground in frustration. This little outburst was the beginning of the “choke”.
Choking isn’t feeling nervous, hitting a bad shot, or finishing poorly. We all hit terrible shots in practice all the time, when there is nothing riding on the outcome. It shouldn’t be overly surprising if they occur at important moments. Choking is allowing thoughts that are destructive to performance take you out of the present moment. They negatively impact your ability to both and assess a situation and perform in it. None of us can control the thoughts that come into our mind during any given situation. Through training however, we can develop strategies to recognise these certain thoughts as unhelpful, and focus our attention back on things that can help us.
I’d lost any semblance of “presence” or focus on the task at hand walking from the tee to my ball. I was thinking about how annoyed I was that I’d put in so much work for this challenge and I’d blown a chance to pretty much wrap it up in one day. I was cursing myself for not better judging the lag putts on 14 and 16. What I was not thinking, but I should have been thinking was…..
“What shot am I facing right now, and what is the best course of action for it?“
In situations like this you need to try and remain emotionless. Step back and analyse the situation in a cold and calculated manner. This is very hard to do at times. (It’s also why meditation is so valuable)
My ball was in the middle of an adjoining fairway, 290 yards from the hole I was playing. I had some trees in my line but they are short trees. No issue to get over unless you top or duff your shot. As often happens when you’re on the wrong fairway of a busy course, I was in the way of the group who were actually playing the hole. I was caught between wanting to get off the golf course, cursing myself, and trying to decide if I should attempt to smash 3 wood up near the green, or hit a long iron or hybrid and hopefully get back in position, 80-130 yards out.
With my attention divided between a number of unhelpful thoughts, the group coming down the fairway pleasantly prompted me to go ahead. If I was thinking clearly I would have told them to go first, that I would wait. Of course, I was not thinking clearly, my clarity of thinking was hugely affected by emotion.
The 3 wood was grabbed haphazardly, with very little commitment to the shot. I knew I was rushing and that I was not in the right frame of mind to hit a golf shot. I hit a huge hook, exactly like the preceding tee shot, into a hazard. The hazard is way left of the green with a big side slope running down to it. Between the hazard and the green are very very tall tress and no areas of grass you would like to hit a golf shot from. After my drop I was 80 yards from the green but did not have a clear shot to the green, because of the height and thickness of the trees, and the area next to the hazard where I dropped was rough that your ball nestles to the bottom of.
At this point my brain was completely scrambled as I realised I had imploded and I was staring at double to shoot even. Again. It took me 4 to get down from the drop area (the writing was on the wall after getting into the hazard, it’s a complete horror area), and I signed off for another even par.
This was probably the worst I’d ever felt coming off a golf course. My mental game had massively improved during the season, primarily due to getting very diligent with meditation and truly committing to each shot as a completely separate entity. We are human however and prone to mistakes. This was a big one. I went from the course to the gym and after an hour of pushing heavy weights to loud music I felt a bit better, and within a couple of days I was completely over it, and back on the horse as they say. This round was a great reminder of the importance of really understanding and committing to the old cliche “one shot at a time”.
This cliche sounds simple, but requires extreme discipline. It also requires a lot of practice. You need to try and completely eliminate emotion from each shot, and just get into a bubble for the shot you are currently faced with. No trying to make up for bad scores on previous holes, no thinking or forecaating “if I can par the next 3, I’ve a birdie hole coming up and I can beat my handicap”. Just deal with one shot, over and over again, until you are out of holes. Something I’ve used since with good success is after I’ve analysed the upcoming shot I just imagine I’m hitting the shot as part of a range session. I even visualise the alignment sticks I place on the ground when I’m practicing.
We must place our attention on the task at hand, not what a good or bad result from the task at hand means. This is a crucial skill.
In the round directly after this one I shot even again, but this time I went -2 for the last 4 holes, including a birdie on 18. I have gotten much much better at not reacting to the score I am at any point in the the round and just playing each shot as it comes. This has lead to a huge improvement in rounds where things start poorly, and rounds where I know I’m coming into the last few holes with the chance of a low score.
End of 2020
These rounds were at the end of November and I was at 0.4. I continued on the plan, but didn’t quite keep up the same standard of scoring. As the 68 and 71, and the big run of even par rounds rolled out of my last 20 scores my handicap started to trend back up. I wasn’t really concerned though as I still felt like I was getting better, it just wasn’t quite showing up on the course. Fluctuations in scoring are normal and are not a cause for concern as long as you can see why the scores aren’t quite coming. I wasn’t playing particularly badly and was shooting a lot of 74-76 rounds. My handicap drifted from 0.4 in October 2020 all the way back up to 2.1 by the beginning of April 2021.
This is one of the big things about the World Handicap System. While it provides a good chance to slash your handicap, you can go up just as quickly, as only your last 20 rounds are used for handicap purposes. In the old UK & Irish system there was always a fight to avoid the dreaded “0.1” handicap increase. I have gone up as much as 0.7 on two occasions after one round in the world handicap system when a great score is knocked out of your last 20 and replaced by a mediocre one.
Purple Patches – When It All Comes Together
Nothing of significance happened on the course from January to the beginning of April, but I was still extremely consistent with showing up and putting in the time for my practice and play. After reviewing some trends on the GolfMetrics App I was able to clearly identify two areas that were holding me back. Putting from outside 6 feet, and iron play from 150-230 yards. I hadn’t really putting anytime into practicing my putting up until this point, as the gains that can be made from improving tee to green are just so much greater.
As I got closer to my scratch goal and trying to break par consistently, I knew needed to improve my putting. I had a lot of rounds where all my strokes gained stats were better than scratch, except for putting where I was losing 1-3 strokes per round. Improving my putting quite was simple, as I hadn’t been practicing my putting much at all. Once I started practicing regularly the changes were clear to see.
I started doing about 15 mins practice after my range sessions, and swapped out one of my weekly range sessions for a 60-90 minute putting practice session instead. I also put more of an emphasis on my 5-9 irons in my practice in an effort to improve the 150-230 yard category.
In my 15 minute putting practice sessions I did the drill outlined below. I loved it as I was able to constantly track my scores which was very engaging. During my longer putting sessions I did a lot of work on speed control on medium to long putts. (Shoutout to the speed drill in Scott Fawcett’s DECADE APP).
Pretty quickly this started to make a big difference. I had a few putting rounds where I gained strokes versus the scratch benchmark, which I had not been doing with any regularity.
It’s rare in golf to have days where every category of your game is performing well, but that is what you are hoping to give yourself a better chance of through practice.
I mentioned earlier that it took me 28 rounds to break par after shooting a 71 in October. This streak was broken in April when I holed a 15 footer on 18 for birdie to shoot 71. Two days later I birdied 16 and 18 to shoot 70. A couple of rounds later I shot 68. Then 69 in the very next round after that. So after a 28 round streak of not breaking par on the same golf course, I shot -1,-2,-4,-3 in a 9 round stretch, and all the other rounds were either par or quite close to it.
What was also very encouraging is that during this period I also had handicap reductions in three other golf courses. Two of these were courses which I played for the first time (Buenaventura and Sandpiper) and another one I had only played twice previously (Goose Greek). I was very happy with this as I knew I was getting very comfortable on my home course due to how frequently I was playing it. Showing up to unfamiliar and more difficult courses and scoring well enough to get handicap reductions was very pleasing.
The big breakthrough of shooting under par regularly had finally come and that is now my comfort zone. While I don’t shoot under par every round, it feels much more normal to be under par. After gradually increasing from 0.4 to 2.1 over the space of 5 months, I went from 2.1 to +0.7 in under 2 months. It’s important to note that this comfort zone wasn’t overcome solely by better handling the nerves and hoping I “didn’t mess up”. Golf is extremely hard regardless of how good your mental game is. You need to be constantly working on improving your physical skills so that good quality shots are more likely when crunch time comes. The golf ball responds to physics, not positive thinking. How and what you’re thinking can have a big impact on the physics you communicate to the golf ball however.
It wasn’t that any part of my game had reached a level that I had not demonstrated previously, it was just that they finally all started showing up at the same time, more often. This is why sometimes when we “throw away” a good score with a few bogies coming in, it’s not “choking”. It’s just your skill level catching up with you. For big improvements we must constantly be working to improve our physical and mental skills.
Continuing on the same path, and adding in tournaments. I’m enjoying the process of trying to improve and feeling like I am only scratching the surface. To keep improving I need to get out my comfort zone. The vast majority of my golf in the past year has been on the same course with the same playing partners. Whilst I definitely still felt pressure and nerves in these rounds as I knew I was approaching a big goal I had set myself, there is still a sense of familiarity at all times.
To improve more I need to play in “stressful” environments. This means true competitive golf, harder golf courses, and being surrounded by better players.
Last week I played my first competitive round in 5 years. I went in with zero expectations and didn’t build it up at all. I just wanted to play a round in competition and see how I did. Even though I kept telling myself I didn’t really care what I shot and I was just there for experience, I was shaking profusely on the first tee after the starter announced my name! This is exactly what I need to improve. I hit two good shots on the first, made par and after the first hole it just felt like a normal round of golf. I have signed up for pretty much every amateur championship / qualifier in my region that I am eligible for.
It’s very important to me that I keep golf fun, so I will still play lots of casual rounds with friends, seek out new courses, and just enjoy being out on the golf course.
- GolfMetrics App
- Decade App
- Check out Dr Michael Lardon’s mental scorecard. I didn’t write about this for the sake of article length. It’s a must use however.
- Extremely focused and deliberate practice
- Play enough to get on course data and give yourself a chance to see your skill improvements show up
- Commit to meditating for 10 mins a day, it’s a complete game changer. Try the free versions of Headspace or Calm
- Truly commit to one shot at a time. Your meditation will really help with this
- Patience and perseverance
- Your improvement won’t be linear. Set backs are going to happen
- You never know when it will all come together. As long as there are signs you’re moving in the right direction keep going
Two things I didn’t mention:
- Fitness – Distance is one of the main reasons I was able to achieve this improvement. If you’re not currently engaged in a physical training program geared around improving your ability to swing a golf club at a higher speed than you can currently, start immediately. It’s hard to overexaggerate how important this is. I didn’t mention it in the post because it’s been a constant for me for over a decade. Throughout this whole process I was in the gym every Mon-Wed-Fri working on mobility, strength, and power.
- Commitments – I don’t have any kids. While A LOT of my free time is dedicated to physical training and golf, it is all my time. I am not a “full time” amateur golfer however. I put a lot of time into running my own business
“Fit For Golf” and other things outside of golf.
Even with a lot of time, sticking to the process is still quite challenging.
In my experience, if you want to get to a high level of physical function or get much better at golf (or anything), you will need to develop a lot of grit.
This means you get really good at showing up and “switching on” for the workout / practice session / round, even when you’re tired, or would much prefer to skip it and do something else.
The Fit For Golf App
I hope this article helped some of you, please reach out with any questions or feedback.