Handicaps are a funny thing. Your expectations about where you might shoot are guided mostly by your index. So as a 15-handicapper, you already know you’re most likely to shoot in the 90s before you even hit a practice shot. What every golfer craves is stealth info, a secret of sorts to break through to shoot your career round.
We’re here to help. We asked five top coaches for their best advice about how to achieve your lowest scores—whether that’s breaking par or breaking 100. What might surprise you is that the way you play better today is to separate the work you do on your game from what needs to happen on the course. Let us explain.
A career round is rarely a perfect round of golf
A career round often dies early out of the gate because a player didn’t put themselves in the best possible frame of mind getting ready to play. “When one of my players has a big tournament coming up, I ask them, when you’re feeling great about your game, what ball flight do you see? What do you feel in your body?” says top Michigan teacher Jason Guss. “That sounds simple, but what it does is make you focus on one concrete thing. Let me give you an example. When I play, I like to hit a little draw, and when I’m playing well, I tend to miss toward the toe. When I’m warming up, all I’m interested in seeing is the shot shape I expect, and misses—when they happen, and they always do—where I want them to be. That helps you feel comfortable, and reminds you you don’t have to be perfect out there.”
Guss says that his tour player clients who come back from shooting super-low rounds almost universally have one thing to say about the experience. It wasn’t a stripe show. “They say they didn’t hit it as well as they thought they would have had to to shoot 63 or 62,” says Guss. “They usually hit it OK, and just hit a lot of fairways and greens. Stayed out of trouble and made putts. You don’t have to be perfect. Once you realize that, it takes so much pressure off.”
The putting work you can work on: Become ultra consistent from 15 and 30 feet
You probably feel like you’re doing your homework, hitting loads of big, breaking putts on the practice green to really tune in your read. You’re spending your time in the wrong place, says top Georgia teacher Brandon Stooksbury.
“You will never have a career round with a bad putting day, and what makes a putting day bad is three putts,” says Stooksbury. “Bad distance control is what causes the most three putts, not poor reading skills. Instead of grinding on the breakers, just drop a towel on the practice green and different distances between 15 and 30 feet, then tune your touch by rolling putts to the towel.
“All I want you to think about is getting the ball to make its last roll onto the edge of the towel,” says Stooksbury. “Don’t jam it through the break or leave it short. Just roll it on the towel. Once you get your distance tuned in, you dramatically improve your chances to do no worse than two-putt.”
Prepare your process to trust when you play great
On the course, the narrative in your mind often changes as you continue to play better through the round. “The best players play with swing thoughts that intentionally do two things,” says top Pennsylvania coach David Wedzik. “They build confidence when you see the thought produce a great shot, and they keep your mind clear from a bunch of other non-productive things. The key to shooting the lowest possible score is finding your focus to use when you play.”
The key is for the swing thought to be simple and consistent, and to be tied to an external outcome. “If you’re trying to get your right elbow in a good position on the downswing, a great swing thought might be, ‘Right elbow in front of ribcage for ball-first contact.”
The external focus part of that is the most important, says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Mark Blackburn, because it creates specific intent—to make a shot do a certain thing. “External cues, like seeing a specific shot shape and outcome in your mind, are extremely powerful,” says Blackburn. “Motor learning research tells us that those cues are extremely durable—they stick, when, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, mechanical thoughts on their own tend to be fleeting!”
Never get too up or too down
What makes the best players able to ride momentum and keep piling on good holes? They know they only can control certain things, and they let the rest go. “All you can be is the best version of yourself,” says top New Jersey teacher Terry Rowles. “Know what your standard shots do, and play those over and over again. Mistakes are part of it, and to be expected. Good breaks and bad breaks are to be expected. What you’re after is to be able to stay on an even pitch with your emotions and your thought processes so a mistake or some bad luck doesn’t make you check out and a couple of birdies in a row doesn’t tighten you up.”