There’s no better way to demotivate yourself and drain the fun out of a round than by having unrealistic expectations. If you’ve only been playing the sport for a few months it’s crazy to expect that you’ll be hitting seven or eight pars every round or never putting the ball out of bounds. You will fail to get out of bunkers. You will hear the dreaded plop of a ball hitting water. You will shoot triple bogeys (and worse!) and you will miss three foot putts. Take solace in the fact that these things happen to the best players sometimes too. If you’re realistic about what you can do and how quickly you’ll improve you’re more likely to do so.
CHOOSE APPROPRIATE CLUBS
Yes I know that those forged Titleist blades are works of art. I know. But can you really hit them? Probably not. Choosing the right clubs can drastically influence your scores. It may not seem quite as ‘sexy’ but a quality set of oversized cavity backs is more often than not the place to start for beginners. The beautiful blades can wait until your game is as beautiful as they are and you’re down in single figures. Until then, there are some amazing clubs that are infinitely more forgiving to the beginner and you would just be foolish not to take advantage of the technology available these days. Shop around, play a few holes with different shapes. Once you have a set you like visit a pro or your local store, see if you need your shafts altered for length or flex, or maybe there are grips that you prefer to the standard ones on the clubs. These things are relatively cheap and can really transform your game so take advantage of the options available. Think of your clubs like buying a suit, not just any old thing off the rack will be right for you.
I don’t mean play three or four rounds a week. For most of us that just isn’t possible. I mean PRACTICE. Whether it’s hitting mid-irons at your club’s practice area for an hour after work once or twice a week, chipping around the back garden, putting on the living room carpet during the news or going to the driving range at lunch, practice should never be all on the course. Practice doesn’t need to take hours, be smart, squeeze in a few drills now and again and you’ll notice the improvement. And don’t forget technology, watching your swing back in slow motion on video can really help and who doesn’t have a camera phone these days? Ideally you should have at least two to three practice sessions between rounds. Remember what Seve said after chipping in from a bunker when a cheeky fan called it lucky, “Yeah it’s funny, the more I practice the luckier I get!”
PUTT PUTT AND PUTT SOME MORE
‘Drive for show, putt for dough,’ goes the old adage and few people will disagree about the importance of putting. Think about it, if you shoot a 90 and two-putt every hole that’s 36 shots just on the greens! That’s 40% of your total score. Avoiding three putts and sinking all those little three or four foot testers can easily be the difference between a normal round and a great one. It’s probably the easiest part of the game to practice too, ten or fifteen minutes on the putting green a few times a week, or at home on a putting mat (or the lino!) is easy work. Plus there’s no shortcut to learning feel or how to read the break on a green, you just have to go out and get on with knocking some balls around. Not to mention sinking a great putt supplies the kind of euphoria that only a golfer can understand, and who doesn’t want to feel that more often?
LEARN TO LOVE THE SHORT GAME
Okay, imagine you’ve hit the perfect tee shot. You’re ninety yards out from a par 4. The green is big but surrounded by bunkers and small trees. Obviously this could go two very different ways. The difference between a birdie putt and a scramble in the sand or a lay-up from the trees is all down to this shot. Some people dread these situations but you’ve practiced for hours with your short irons. You know your ranges, even in the wind, you know what kind of loft you need to stop before that downslope at the back of the green, you know what you’re going to do. Confidence with the short irons will save you countless shots. Missed the green and found yourself in deep rough thirty yards left? No problem. Need to get up and over a tree to find the green? No problem. Need to make an up and down from sixty yards to win the hole? You know you can give yourself a chance. Look after your short game and your short game will look after you!
READ THE COURSE
Course management takes time but a few savvy decisions during your round could be the difference between a personal best and a lost temper in the trees. Knowing your limits, taking calculated risks, studying the course map or guide, knowing your club ranges, adapting your shots to the weather, even changing which clubs or balls go into your bag, all these things are important tools in your arsenal and can be the difference between playing the course and the course playing you. Which areas are out of bounds? Which type of water hazard is that down the left? Are these stakes 150 yards to the pin or the front of the green? There’s much more to a good round than just hitting it straight!
NOT EVERY TEE MEANS DRIVING
Many beginners fall into the trap of thinking that a long hole means the longest shot possible first, which means the driver. Get the big, colourful, loud, sportscar club out and WHACK IT. And often this is right. But maybe you’re more likely to stay out of trouble with a 4 iron or a 3 wood. Maybe something even shorter. This point goes back to course management. Dog-leg left? Maybe that big stick is too long. Narrow fairway bordered by fir trees? Maybe save yourself the forest walk. Taking a driver on every tee is a good way for the beginner to lose balls, and we all know how expensive they can be! Don’t be afraid to play it safe. Save the distance wagers for the range and focus on your score. Is it really worth trying to rip it over that fairway bunker so that you can play in with an 8 iron instead of a 6? Maybe not.
DON’T GET TOO COMPETITIVE
A wise golfer once said ‘Play the course, not your opponent,’ and this timeless advice applies here. If you shoot a par and your opponent wins the hole with a birdie there’s no reason to be upset. Your biggest enemy on the course is yourself. Shot selection is a good place to illustrate this. Let’s say you’re playing with someone who can drive every fairway beautifully, how does that affect your game? Answer, it doesn’t. At all. Golf is not like tennis or football or race driving. No one has the ability to interfere with your game, so don’t let them. It’s only ever you, your clubs, your ball and the course. That’s it. Anything else and you’re distracted, and that’s when mistakes happen.
Let’s not forget equipment. Shoes need to be comfortable, you’re walking a long way, probably with a heavy bag on. So your bag should be comfortable too. Don’t overfill it if it’s a carry bag. Do you have a cap or sunglasses to keep the sun out of your eyes? Do you have suncream if you need it? Do you have wet-weather gear and an umbrella for if the heavens open? Are your spikes appropriate for the ground or will you be slipping on your follow through? Have you remembered a glove if you wear one? Being too cold or too hot or too wet or uncomfortable is the last thing you need on the course so make sure your clothes are comfortable and your kit is appropriate. All you want to think about is the next shot, not a blister or the fact that your pants are soaking!
Finally ENJOY YOURSELF! This is the most important thing. The quickest way to improve is to love the game and the easiest way to love the game is by making it a pleasure for yourself. Okay maybe you’ve still never broken 100 but you know what, if you’re enjoying the sport and giving it your energy with a smile then you definitely will one day. And then you can keep smiling and improving all the way down to 90, then 80, then…. well, one step at a time!