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Scratch Accomplished, What Next?

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I enjoy reflecting on and planning for golf improvement. My last two seasons have gone very well, playing by far my best golf to date. In April 2020 I was a 5.1 handicap and by the end of 2021 I was a +1.1 handicap.

Quick Recap
2020 2021
Starting Hcp 5.1 0.8
Low Hcp 0.4 +1.1
Rounds Played  60 70
Under Par Rounds 2 14
Even Par Rounds  7 7

This article I posted in May 2021 goes through the 13 month process of getting from from 5.1 to +0.7. A lot of rounds have been played and 8 months have passed since, and I wanted to provide an update. Writing these also forces me to reflect on the past season of play of play and practice, dig into my stats, and come up with a plan going forward. Hopefully it helps you and I!

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Can You Handle The Truth?

Many of us do a poor job of evaluating each area of our golf game. This is one of the reasons I am such a big fan of objective measures. Strokes Gained statistics are easy to track and provide much better information than traditional stats like fairways, greens, up and down %, and number of putts.

You can listen to Strokes Gained analytics creator Mark Broadie explain why in this podcast episode.

I used his app GolfMetrics to track every round I played in 2020 & 2021 (130 rounds). The information I learned about my game was instrumental in coming up with a plan for improving my scores.

The images below are my last 20 rounds of 2021 combined. As these are the rounds that make up my current handicap, I felt it was a good sample size to use for this article.

My average Strokes Gained (SG) total vs the scratch handicap baseline is 3.8 shots per round. This brings up the obvious question…. If I am averaging 3.8 strokes better than scratch per round, and only the best 8 of these 20 rounds are included in my handicap, how am I only a +1.1 handicap?

This is a good time to explain some of the slight limitations of strokes gained apps for amateurs. They do not take into account course rating or conditions. The baseline is simply worked out from the data tens of thousands of golfers have inputted. It is all calculated by distance to hole and lie. My home course went through some changes during the year and is no longer this way, but for a while it was relatively long, but easy compared to other courses of its length. It was a par 73 of 6850 yards, with a course rating of 72.3/127. A score of even par on this course was a 0.6 differential, but +4.5 SG versus the scratch baseline in GolfMetrics. It’s now a par 72 of 6820 yards with a rating 72.2/127. On this updated course an even par score is a -0.2 differential and +5.3 SG.

This doesn’t really matter for how you are going to use Strokes Gained Stats to help your game. Some courses are long but relatively forgiving. Some courses are short, but treacherous. The difficulty of short game shots and putting can vary widely from course to course. There can be lots of variability. This makes it less than perfect to compare one person’s stats to another and stats from one course to another. This is just a minor limitation however and it is still superb for tracking your own personal improvement . There are also functions on the app that allow you combine all the rounds from a single course at a time, a combination of courses, and any other selection of rounds you have entered. I like to look at 5 and 10 round trends.

Once a few rounds have been entered on your own course, or courses you regularly play you get a good idea of what type of strokes gained numbers correlate to a certain handicap range. You may also get more interested in your average score and average strokes gained than your handicap, but it’s generally very closely linked.

Now, back on track. I would like to get two strokes better this year.

How can I do it?

Category # of these shots per round Last 20 Rounds Goal Change
Driving  14 1.3 2.0 0.7
Approach (>100y) 16.9 1.8 2.5 0.7
Short Game (<100y) 12 0.2 0.7 0.5
Putting  31.2 0.5  1.0 0.5
Total: 3.8 6.5 2.4

Driving: With changes in technique this off season I have gained speed & distance. It will be interesting to see how well I can take advantage of it on the course. I am confident I can be close to 10 yards longer on average with my driver this year. Driving should be a big strength in my stats due to my average driver distance. I wear a ShotScope V3 watch which tracks each shot in a round. For the last 20 rounds my average driver distance for all drives was 281 yards (includes all mishits, hitting trees, etc) and the average driver distance on well struck drives was 301 yards.

If I’m hitting it slightly further on every hole and not hitting a greater number of balls into trouble, my scores will go down. The goal is more distance and less balls in trouble.

Approach Play: My 100-150 yard shots were a strength at the end of last season. I was not happy with my approach play outside of this. I hit 10 approach shots a round from 150-250 yards. This is generally tee shots on par 3’s and second shots into par 5’s. I have room for significant improvement here and it will be a big area of my focus on the range. 


Short Game: I do a decent amount of practice with wedges from outside 50 yards as I hit a lot of wedges into greens, but almost no practice from inside this distance. I also did almost none during my improvement from 5 to +1 (It did get better from playing so much though). There is just way more to be gained with driving and approach, and it can provide a bigger return for me long term. Distance wedge shots from 50-120 yards are almost their own skill too, separate to short game and approach. They are very different to greenside pitching and chipping and still quite different to longer approaches with irons. I have a plan for getting better at these which I outlined here.

With that said, I know some practice closer to the green would be beneficial.

I don’t really have any concerns about the 20-60 yard stat (the weakest in the analysis above) and think it will bounce back up to at least neutral. I averaged 4 of these per round and lost an average of 0.3 strokes per round versus the scratch baseline. Finding a good spot to practice these shots is a challenge too.

These types of shots are another good example of something to watch out for in strokes gained stats. A 150 yard shot into the green from the fairway is pretty similar on most occasions. The variability isn’t particularly big. On 20-60 yard shots there can be massively varying degrees of difficulty however, and strokes gained statistics doesn’t take this into account. Think of the difference between a short sided 35 yard lob off a downslope from light rough versus a standard 35 yard pitch with plenty of green to work with from light rough.

Strokes gained apps don’t know the difference between those two shots. It just knows that it’s 35 yards to the hole from light rough. A great shot from the first scenario might leave your ball further away from the hole than a poor shot from the second scenario. Strokes Gained will only calculate the distance you left each shot from the hole. This is why you need to dig into the story behind your stats after each round and review.

Now, I don’t want to be making excuses. Over 20 rounds this should wash out, and I will do some work on it! I think improving approach play will lead to less very difficult short game shots too. The hardest short game shots for me tend to be as a result of poor tee shots on par 3’s or second shots on par 5s.

Putting: Towards the end of last year I decided to experiment with “heads up putting’ / looking at the target while putting.
I did this after listening to a podcast with Sasho Mackenzie. For the 20 rounds before the experiment on average I lost 0.2 strokes per round on the greens compared to the scratch baseline on GolfMetrics. During the 20 round experiment, this improved to an average of +0.6 strokes per round. Improving by an average of 0.8 strokes per round on the greens is HUGE. The lower your scores get, the harder it is to keep finding improvement.

I try to practice my putting once per week. I have a 75-90 minute practice session that I go through. Every putt in the session is scored in the golfmetrics app which is great for keeping focus and checking progress over time. I will post that another time if people are interested. The focus is from 3 to 15 feet and 30-50 feet.


Strokes Gained Attitude – Tracking The Mental Game

Your mental process and attitude towards golf improvement on and off  the course is a trainable skill. If you want to significantly improve it is one of the most important skills to train. Golf improvement is a perseverance test. Be prepared for frustration and periods where it feels like you are stuck or going backwards. This happens everyone, even world class players, not just you. You need to show up and play / practice / workout anyway.
(James Clears book Atomic Habits is highly recommended)

High emotion leads to poor decision making and lack of attention on the task at hand. It distracts us. Think about how many times you have looked back on certain shots / holes and said:

“What was I thinking, it would have been so much easier to do X?!!!

We have all had meltdowns on the course.

If our emotions are at the mercy of the outcome of each shot, hole, and round we are setting ourselves up for a volatile and miserable state of mind.

One Shot At A Time is one of golf’s oldest clichés. Learning how to deal with each shot in as emotionless a state as possible is absolutely critical. No hangover of negativity from previous shots and no forecasting your score if you can “just par the last 3 holes”. I know you’ve been there, we all have. 

You need an emotionless process you go through on each shot, until the ball is in the hole on 18.

Dr Michael Lardon’s Mental Scorecard and his book Mastering Golf’s Mental Game are great resources for this.
Lastly, meditation practice can help you deal with high pressure situations. Consider starting.


It’s Not All About Handicap

Be mindful of the difference between golf improvement and handicap improvement. While obviously related they may not be the exact same thing. If your ultimate goal is getting your handicap as low as possible you will likely benefit from finding a course that suits your profile as a player and playing this course almost exclusively. You can also set up your practice to reflect the needs of this course. There is a hard to quantify advantage of playing a course you know inside out. You can pick the target for each shot almost unconsciously and know exactly how to plot your way around. You still need to improve your skills to significantly lower your scores and handicap, but you’re taking the path of least resistance.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. You may have very good reasons for playing the same course all the time.

In my opinion, if your goal is to become as good a golfer as possible, you test yourself in a variety of different environments. Different types of courses, different playing partners, and maybe even some formal competition. This type of approach may lead to slightly higher scores and a higher handicap as you will be playing on less familiar courses in slightly more challenging environments, but you might be a better developed golfer.

There is no right or wrong answer here. The beauty of golf is that we all get to choose exactly what we would like it to get from it. You can simply go for a walk with friends and hit some golf balls along the way, you can try to fulfill your potential as a competitive golfer, or anything in between.

What I have most enjoyed in the two years since I started really focusing on trying to get better is the battle against myself. I play primarily the same course with the same playing partners for a number of reasons. Keeping detailed stats as illustrated above made it crystal clear to me how I was improving (or not) in each element of the game, and how they impacted my scores. It was enjoyable trying to come up with a plan to gradually improve the stats, bounce back from the not so good days, and whittle down the scores. That’s my competition.

After a certain amount of time there is not really any further advantage to getting to know a course better. The comfort level from familiarity is saturated and the only way to get the ball in the hole in less strokes is to become a better golfer.

If you significantly improve your skills it will transfer to all golf courses. I noticed this throughout 2021. Just don’t expect to maximise your scores and handicap reduction if you are regularly playing unfamiliar courses or ones that don’t really suit your profile as a player.

Again, it is completely up to all of us to individually decide what we would like to do with our limited time to play golf. Playing new courses can be fun. It’s good for developing our skills. There were definitely times last year however when I didn’t really want to play a new course however. I knew I didn’t have as good a chance of a handicap reduction compared to my home course. This may be good for handicap reduction, but not ideal for developing as a golfer.

Same goes for formal tournaments. They can stress test your game to a higher level, and will likely be good for overall development. They are also often on unfamiliar courses and set up very difficult for the tournament. This usually isn’t reflected in the handicap differential for that round. You could play really well and see your handicap go up or get a much higher differential than if you played to the same standard on a course you know and that wasn’t set up super tough for a tournament round.

I played a few last year for the first time in about 6 years, and was glad I did. I will probably play a few this year too to get the competitive juices flowing and test myself against players of similar (and higher) standard. 


Recent & Upcoming Golf

I live in Southern California so the weather is good for golf 12 months a year. The last round I posted was 8 weeks ago, on December 7th. I decided after this round I would take a little break from the golf improvement quest to recharge the batteries. In 2020 & 2021 I put a lot of energy and time into golf improvement. On December 9th I traveled home to Ireland for a month. I didn’t practice in Ireland at all but played casual golf a few times which was nice. I got back to California 4 weeks ago and have done good practice on the range, but only got out on the course once.

I’m going to South America for 10 weeks on February 14th during which period I won’t hit a golf ball at all. I am going to play 3 or 4 rounds before I go and these will be the first I post since December 7th. This will give me a chance to knock some rust off, see where the game is at, and have me thinking about how I can improve my golf game while traveling. I also just want to get out on the course with friends again! When I return in late April / early May is when my 2022 season will really start.

Current handicap +1.1……I’m curious to see where I can take that and my golf game.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, and your own personal golf goals.

Follow on twitter @fit_for_golf for regular updates.