The last two years I’ve played more golf than I have since I was 14 years old.
Back then, I’d spend half my summers playing. But it’s a time-consuming sport, and I hadn’t played more than a few rounds a year since I was young.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly golf was one of the few sports that was allowed—encouraged even—as it involved easy distancing and outdoor play.
I also started spending more time with friends who were also into golf. Some of them in a big way. And some of them were very good at it.
Golf is a frustrating sport, one that requires a high concentration to detail, a dedication to practice, and a lot of time.
Which meant I became a bit obsessed.
I’d go to the driving range in the morning to hit a few balls before work, and head out after to squeeze in 9 holes before dark.
I started watching every YouTube video about golf I could find.
And I made progress.
My two goals for last year were:
- Get below a 10 handicap
- Shoot a round under 80
I reached both. I got down to an 8.8 strokes to par on Golfshot (the app I was using for tracking my golf stats), and closed the year with a 77 at my home course. It felt good.
But what the year really accomplished was a true love for the game that has persisted, causing me to invest significant time and money in improving my game.
I think it’s interesting to hear high-performers talk about less central parts of their life: how they approach relationships, or recreation, or hobbies.
This will be that kind of post: I’m going to break down how I plan to improve my golf game.
It will be helpful for me to write it down, but I hope others get some insight into my thinking as they try to improve their own game, their hobbies, or their life in general. And I hope some of you will share your own approach to non-professional parts of life too.
In every 18-hole golf round, there are a few constants.
On average, most people will have 30-35 putts. That’s around 35-40% of the total strokes in the round, and it’s why putting is so important for scoring well.
You’ll also hit off the tee 18 times.
That doesn’t mean hitting driver 18 times; in fact, on many recreational courses you can get away with hitting long irons on a lot of holes. And most 18-hole courses will have ~4 par 3s, where you rarely need to hit driver.
But it wouldn’t be uncommon to hit driver 10-14 times per round, particularly on a long course. Which is another 10-15% of the total shots in the golf round.
Hitting off the tee is also a common area to get into trouble with penalty strokes—hitting it into a hazard, or woods, or out of bounds.
Everything in between off the tee and on the green is some combination of irons, wedges, and woods, and most golfers will have clubs they prefer to hit, and try and get more shots from those distances.
These “in-between” shots are also where there’s a lot of murkiness in terms of what’s easy to track.
Basic Golf Stats
Score-tracking apps like Golfshot—the one I typically use—produce three primary statistics:
- Fairways Hit
- GIR: Greens in Regulation
- Putts per round or putts per hole
Sometimes there will be others, like sand saves or recoveries. And looking at your scorecard with tracked putts will tell you how many times you 3-putted or had penalty strokes (a common round-killer for average golfers).
But there are some obvious limitations.
For example, if I hit the green, but gave myself a 60-foot putt, it’s much different than if I hit the green 10 feet from the pin.
Similarly, 3-putting is much worse if I’m 10 feet from the hole compared to when I’m 60 feet away.
Which brings us to some more advanced statistics.
Advanced Golf Stats
The gold standard for scoring statistics right now is strokes gained.
Strokes gained compares a player’s score to the field average.
It can be broken down into strokes gained:
All of these combined give the total strokes gained.
What this means in practice is that all types of shots can be isolated.
For example: strokes gained putting takes into account how far away from the hole you are. It compares the number of strokes it takes you to get into the hole from that distance with everyone else in the field from the same distance.
The poor approach shot—which put you at 60 feet—would be accounted for in approach-the-green or around-the-green strokes gained.
When this metric is tracked in the PGA, the comparison is the rest of the field.
But you can choose whatever comparison group you like, so for average golfers, provided there’s enough data, you can compare to others with the same handicap, or in roughly the same handicap range.
So why don’t average golfers use strokes gained?
Because it requires tracking the exact position of every shot you take on the golf course (and for even better stats, which club).
But thankfully, that’s much easier than it used to be.
Tracking Strokes Gained
Strokes gained is becoming more and more common amongst golf tracking devices, and there are a variety of options available. Garmin offers some insights, but apparently lacks hole location data. Taylormade offers a free app for tracking, as long as you’re willing to log shots.
Based on the research I’ve done, Arccos is the gold standard.
Arccos is a combination of hardware—sensors that fit into the top of your clubs—and software, which auto-detects shots and their location, and then gives strokes gained insights on your game.
Even better, Arccos sensors are coming standard (or for free) with a lot of new clubs (Ping & Taylormade in particular), so the main cost is the subscription.
I don’t like carrying my phone in my pocket while taking shots, which is required by Arccos unless you use either their belt clip device, or an Apple Watch.
I plan to use Arccos next season, which I hope will give me some more detailed insights into my game.
Using their app, I should be able to get more information about exactly how far I hit my shots, which areas of my game I need to work on, and what club I should be playing for any give shot.
But of course, insights are useless unless acted upon.
How to Practice
I don’t mind spending hours at the range. In fact, I enjoy it. Hitting balls is kind of like boxing—it’s good practice, sure, but it’s also good exercise and a stress reliever.
You’re bound to get better if you hit enough balls. Your body adapts, and you figure out how to make your swing work.
The problem with unstructured and unguided practice, however, is that you’re almost guaranteed to develop some poor habits. Look at some of the swings around your local golf club, even from players that score well, and you’ll see what I mean.
Many people make that kind of thing work for them. They’ll score well their whole life, play in the club championship and do well every year, and enjoy their time on the course.
I’m not one of those people.
A golf swing that looks good matters to me, and I also don’t want a ceiling imposed on my own game because my swing is so poor that it would require a massive change to find improvement.
So how should you practice?
In my experience, the best practice comes with a launch monitor and a coach.
The coach tells you what to work on; the launch monitor tells you whether you’ve succeeded. It’s a perfect feedback loop.
You get instruction from your coach, try the shot and feel the new movement, and then know immediately whether you did it well or not. You can link the right shot with the right feeling.
This kind of setup also works well because it works in the winter; the only difference is that you’re indoors.
Trackman is known as the gold standard in launch monitors, and most major cities will have practice facilities that have one.
They’ll probably look something like this:
The other benefit of using a launch monitor as part of your training is that you can track your progress over time. Your practice sessions and fittings can all be added to your profile. You can debrief with a coach later, build yardage cards, all kinds of things.
And speaking of practicing in the winter: for Canadians, it’s a huge advantage if you can keep golfing year-round, which is why it’s important to find a practice facility like this.
But what if you don’t have access to a practice facility? Or a coach, for that matter?
Well, as long as you have somewhere to hit balls, there are options.
Skillest is an online coaching platform that gives you access to all kinds of coaches from all around the world.
It varies by coach, but typically you set up your phone/camera while you practice at the range, and then get feedback and drills from your coach via the app.
It’s not nearly as good as the immediate feedback you get via a live session with a coach and a launch monitor; but it is a game-changer in that it gives you access to some of the best coaches in the world from wherever you happen to be located.
Putting, as I mentioned, typically represents 35-40% of the shots you’ll take during your round. So you need to practice it.
It also happens to be the easiest part of the game to practice: all you need is a putting matt like this one, and you can practice year-round.
Of course, you should still practice on the greens at your local course, as things like break, speed, and grain will all change depending on conditions.
But practicing your stroke and speed control is something you can do at home, every day.
Does Equipment Matter?
Yes and no. A golf pro would still undoubtedly beat the rest of us, even with terrible clubs.
My general philosophy is that I should be focused on improving my own technique long before I consider an equipment upgrade, regardless of the sport.
That said, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of having clubs which are fit to your game.
The last time I got new clubs was ~15 years ago, when I was around 14. They served me well, but needless to say, my swing is much different than when I was 14.
But last fall, after playing a lot of golf, I decided I’d go get a fitting, and see what some new clubs felt like.
The difference was remarkable; not necessarily the club itself, though modern clubs are much more forgiving. But the ability of the fitter to move my ball flight based on the shaft, the length and the lie was remarkable.
Which led me to wonder if I should bother getting new clubs. What if my swing improved or changed significantly? Should I wait until that’s happened?
The reality is that even if my swing was going to improve, I’d still have personal tendencies, and a good club fitting can help balance those tendencies. Many of the newer clubs also manage to balance forgiveness and performance in a way that I could continue using them without problem even if my game progressed.
Here’s the Trackman report from my fitting: as you can see, the new clubs seem to have a solid impact on my consistency:
So will new clubs improve my game? I think so. I don’t think new clubs every couple years is necessary; but if your game has changed significantly, or club technology has, then it may be worth an upgrade.
I do believe a putter can help change your game on the greens, but only those that differ in one specific attribute: toe hang.
I didn’t know what toe hang was until recently, but essentially, it’s the weight balance of the head. The tip of the putter head will tend to “hang” at a specific angle, which is the toe hang.
This angle matters because when you putt, depending on your stroke, it will influence the angle of the face at impact.
If you don’t have the right toe hang for your natural putting stroke, you’ll be constantly fighting the putter, and will experience a lot of inconsistency.
I couldn’t believe how much difference this made when I finally tried some different putters. Previously I had a putter with a lot of toe hang, which didn’t fit my stroke. I tried one that did, and all of a sudden felt like things were much more consistent. The ball went where I expected it.
Aside from that, no doubt feel, length, grip size, etc. matter. And you should try out some different ones to find one you like. But toe hang is the one factor that seems to be important to nail.
No clubs get changed out of golfer’s bags as often as the putter and the driver.
Sometimes for good reason; other times not. A large part of golf is mental, though, so sometimes the change, even if symbolic, can seem to make a difference.
What’s interesting about drivers is that most people will change driver, but not think too much about the shaft. They’ll get the same flex they used to have, and then go by feel.
The problem is, shafts vary A LOT. One manufacturer’s standard stiff flex shaft can be wildly different than another. They may have different weights. Different flex points. All of which have a big impact on your swing.
So, like irons, drivers shouldn’t be something you buy without a fitting.
I’d argue that the driver swing is also a particular swing that many can change significantly with some lessons; so, if you’re going to be focusing on improving your driver swing, you may want to wait before getting your fitting and ordering your new driver. And when you do, make sure you pay attention to the shaft.
I did exactly that; while I didn’t get as much work on my driver swing as I’d like, the difference I felt during my fitting was still pretty remarkable.
Here’s the Trackman report from my fitting: light blue is my old club, while dark blue is the new one.
Goals for This Year
What are my goals for the upcoming season?
I view goals as a way to push for something ambitious, potentially unattainable. And I like setting both performance and process goals. Performance won’t come without the process, and sometimes you just won’t reach the performance goals you set, so it’s nice to have both.
My goals for the upcoming season are:
- Reduce my handicap by at least 5 strokes (this would put me under 5)
- Shoot a round at even par (72 at my home course, no specific tees)
- Play more than 20 rounds of golf (20 might not seem like a lot, but I’m not anticipating being as close to a golf course as I was last summer)
I’ve spent a lot of time researching and learning about how to improve your golf game, and working on my own.
Here are what I consider the best bang-for-buck methods for improving your game:
- Get a putting mat at home, and get a putter that fits your stroke (correct toe hang)
- Get lessons at a facility that has a top-tier launch monitor (like a Trackman)
- Get fit for clubs
- Use Arccos to track your game on the course, and figure out where you need work
- Repeat lessons and practice