Chapter 1: Know Yourself: Making a Plan to Improve Your Game
All golfers are divided into two types -- hookers and slicers.
Sure, just about everyone has hit a golf ball straight at some point. But it doesn't happen very often. Not even if you're among the top tour professionals in the world. And especially not if you're an amateur. Each of us has a tendency to hit the ball in one of two directions, either left or right. That tendency forms the essence of our individual golfing personalities, and it has profound implications for how we should go about improving our golf games.
It's easy enough to determine whether you're a hooker or a slicer. All you have to do is watch the prevailing direction in which most of your shots curve. If, as sometimes happens, you tend to hit your iron shots in one direction and your drives in the opposite direction, the curvature of your drives, particularly your bad drives, is definitive. Drivers offer the purest test of prevailing direction because they have less loft than irons, and as a result, impart less of the backspin that helps make balls fly straight.
The odds are almost overwhelming that the prevailing direction of your shots is to the right, which means you're a slicer. Although there has been no formal statistical survey, veteran golf instructors report that well over 85 percent of their students are chronic banana ballers. True hookers, as opposed to those of us who occasionally pull shots to the left, are a rare breed. But hookers often are or have the potential to be better players than their counterparts because they have demonstrated the ability to release the clubface through impact. As Harvey Penick observed in his Little Red Book, a slicer must learn to hook the ball before he can learn to hit the ball straight. (Note: If you are a left-hander, simply reverse these directional dictums -- your hooks curve to the right; your slices curve to the left.)
Hookers and slicers are usually best advised to take opposite tacks in almost everything, including their choice of swing methods, as we'll see in the chapters ahead. But regardless of whether you hit your shots to the left or to the right, your starting point on the road to playing better golf is the same: if you want to make lasting improvements in your game, you have to begin by mapping out an effective learning program. And the key to that is to know yourself.
Both hookers and slicers have two main instructional approaches from which to choose. One is error correction. As the term implies, error correction focuses on a specific swing flaw or problem that needs fixing right away. The second approach is swing development. Here the focus is on building or overhauling your golf swing from top to bottom. Each approach has its pros and cons. Error correction can often produce immediate, visible improvements in your ball flight, but it is by definition short-term in nature, more of a Band-Aid than a lasting cure. Swing development aims to make lasting improvements, but it can be complex, frustrating, and require considerable time and money.
Which instructional approach -- error correction or swing development -- is right for you? The answer depends entirely on who you are.
In fields such as science and medicine, the best researchers typically start by asking a series of probing questions about the subject they are researching. That's a good approach in golf, as well. Unfortunately, it is seldom practiced by the average golfer or the average golf instructor. But several top-ranked teaching pros, among them Mike Adams, Hank Haney, Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter, Jim McLean, Rick Smith, and Mitchell Spearman, endeavor to gather relevant background information on their students, either through formal written questionnaires, informal conversation, and/or on-site observation and exercises.
Here is a composite list of eighteen questions first-rate teaching pros might ask before giving you a lesson. They are also the kind of questions you should ask yourself before taking a lesson.
Eighteen Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Golf Lesson
1 How long have you been playing golf?
2 What is your present handicap?
3 What is the lowest your handicap has been?
4 What is your occupation?
5 How often do you practice and play golf?
6 How much money are you willing to spend on improving your game?
7 How much more time are you willing to spend on improving than you do now?
8 Are you looking to overhaul your golf game or simply to fix a specific fault?
9 What instructors and/or golf schools have you taken lessons from?
10 What are the strengths and weaknesses of your golf game?
11 What is your age?
12 Do you have any physical handicaps or injuries?
13 What is the state of your overall body flexibility and range of motion?
14 Do you have long, short, or average-length arms relative to your torso?
15 Do you tend to hit most shots to the left or to the right?
16 Do you stroke putts straight back and straight through or on an arc?
17 Do you consider yourself a "technical" player or a "feel" player?
18 What long-term and short-term goals have you set for your golf game?
As you can see, these eighteen questions cover more than half a dozen general topic areas pertaining to your golf game and lifestyle. Among them are your frequency of play, playing ability, formal training, learning style, economic status, age and physical condition, and personal aspirations. All of these considerations are interrelated, and each can have a significant influence on the type of instructors and the type of swing methods best suited to you. But when it comes to choosing between the two main instructional approaches -- error correction and swing development -- your frequency of play, your playing ability, and your personal aspirations rank highest on the scale of influence. After examining their influence in more detail, I'll show you how to cross tabulate these factors to identify your personal golf instruction profile.
Frequency of Play
Let's start with your frequency of play, arguably the most important variable in the equation of your golf improvement formula. It is also a variable over which you can exercise a fair amount of personal control. Granted, there may be all manner of extenuating circumstances in your life that limit the number of rounds you can play in any given year. Unless you're a professional golfer, you probably have a nongolf day job. You may have family responsibilities and time constraints. You may live in a cold-climate area where golf courses are closed for several months of the year. Your access to nearby courses may be limited by membership restrictions, financial constraints, even overcrowding.
But at least in theory, your frequency of play is something you can increase if you are determined to do so. Ditto your frequency of practice. You can move from a cold-climate area to a warm-climate area where golf is played year-round, or migrate south in the winter. You can seek out publicly accessible golf courses that have modest green fees and fight the attendant overcrowding, or you can invest your life savings in a membership at a private club where there is relatively little daily play. At the end of the day, it becomes a matter of individual choice, albeit a potentially costly and disruptive one, inextricably related to your personal aspirations and your desire to improve.
In reality, the vast majority of golfers in America are recreational golfers, not aspiring tournament champions or dedicated professionals. According to a recent participation study by the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Florida, 26.4 million people played 564 million rounds of golf in the United States in calendar year 1999. That is an average of 21.3 rounds per person, or slightly less than 2 rounds per person per month. Confirming conventional wisdom, the NGF reports that more than 80 percent of all golfers are male, with an average age of thirty-nine and an average income of $68,000 a year. The average male golfer played about 5 more rounds annually than the average female golfer.
Relatively few golfers, however, play as often as once a week. In fact, the NGF reports that the greatest number of golfers -- some 10.6 million, or almost 40 percent of the total golfing population -- are "occasional" golfers who play an average of only 3.4 rounds over the span of the entire year. Those people whom the NGF categorizes as "moderate" golfers numbered 7.6 million strong, and played an average of 14.2 rounds, or just a little over once a month. Only 6 million people, roughly 22 percent of the total golfing population, were categorized as "avid" golfers, and they played an average of just 36.6 rounds, roughly 3 rounds per month.
Beginners and golfers at opposite ends of the age spectrum stood out from the rest of their fellow hookers and slicers. There were 3.2 million first-time golfers in 1999, more than twice as many as in 1994. The novices played an average of 10.6 rounds, or three times as often as so-called occasional golfers. The nation's 6.6 million senior golfers, defined as people age fifty and above, played more often than any other demographic group, averaging almost 40 rounds per person annually, but even that was still short of once a week.
Surprisingly enough, the NGF statistics suggest that Tiger Woods's much-heralded role in inspiring young people to take up golf may be overblown or at least rather short-lived. The total number of junior golfers, defined as youth between the ages of twelve and seventeen, actually declined to 2 million in 1999 after rising to a new peak of 2.3 million in 1997, the year Woods won his first Masters. Those junior golfers who stuck with the game played only slightly more often than so-called moderate golfers, averaging just 16.4 rounds annually.
No teaching pro in his or her right mind would suggest that frequency of play is the sole determinant of how well you play at present, or how well you might be able to play in the future. There are plenty of golfers who play every week and even several times a week who don't play very well and probably never will. Playing more golf will by no means guarantee that you will start playing better golf. Indeed, the opposite is often true for a variety of reasons, including poor practice habits and misguided instruction. But at the same time, it's fair to say that if you are a "moderate" golfer who plays only once a month, or an "occasional" golfer who plays just two or three times a year, your prospects of improving will be relatively limited.
To play better golf, you will probably have to play golf -- and practice golf -- with greater frequency than you do now. Exactly how much greater frequency depends on the individual. That's where your playing ability comes in.
Your playing ability can be simply defined as your level of golfing prowess at the present time, as measured by your average score. The vast majority of golfers rank pretty low in playing ability in comparison to PGA Tour players. According to the United States Golf Association, only 5 million of America's 26.4 million golfers have certified handicaps. The average handicap for male golfers is 15.7; the average handicap for female golfers is 28.5. But remember that a handicap is really a measure of the potential ability of a player, not an estimate of what the player is likely to shoot on any given day, since it is figured on the best ten of their last twenty rounds. The USGA's handicap researchers report that a player is expected to play to their handicap, or play better, only 25 percent of the time. A player's average score is actually expected to be about three strokes higher than their handicap.
The bottom line is that the average male golfer is hard pressed to break 90 and the average female golfer is hard pressed to break 100 most of the time. And despite the tall tales you may have heard in clubhouse bars, the truth is that relatively few players can break 80 on a consistent basis, much less shoot par or better. According to the USGA, only 20.44 percent of all male golfers, or roughly one in five men, and only 2.09 percent of female golfers, or roughly one in fifty women, have single-digit handicaps that attest to their potential ability to shoot scores in the 70s. Still fewer players have the ability or potential ability to shoot in the 60s. Only a little more than one half of 1 percent of all male golfers, and less than one tenth of 1 percent of all female golfers, have scratch handicaps or better.
That still means, however, there are hordes of expert golfers prowling America's links. While the percentage of players with handicaps of scratch or better may be low relative to the total golfing population, the absolute number is well above 35,000, according to USGA statistics. And even if you're lucky enough to find yourself among the elite group of players who can shoot par consistently, remember that there are still a few thousand golfers who have the ability to break par on a regular basis. Roughly seven hundred of those golfers play full-time or part-time on the PGA Tour, Senior PGA Tour, and the developmental Buy.Com Tour. Another three hundred or so play on the LPGA Tour and the developmental Futures Tour. Hundreds more play on professional mini-tours from coast to coast, or on top-ranked high school and college teams.
So how do you factor your playing ability and your frequency of play when you're mapping out a plan to improve your golf game? Playing ability is a product of nature and nurture, the combination of your innate physical and mental talent and your work ethic. If you're blessed with exceptional talent, you may not have to play and practice as frequently as a less talented golfer to achieve the same level of prowess. The catch is that the better you get, the more you will probably have to play and practice to maintain that higher level of proficiency. There are a few notable exceptions. PGA Tour veteran Bruce Lietzke is envied by his peers for his ability to take off months at a time without losing his form or feel. But virtually all of the reigning stars of the tour, including Tiger Woods, maintain rigorous practice and playing schedules along with physical conditioning regimens.
Most golfers will have to increase their frequency of play and practice if they want to achieve and maintain a higher level of playing ability. Again, the question becomes, How much? The answer depends on where you're starting from and where you want to go. That's where personal aspirations figure in the equation.
Personal aspirations are the golfing goals you set for yourself, and they are by definition unique to each golfer. The premise of this book is that virtually every golfer wants to improve his or her game. The hope of playing better the next time out is what keeps the vast majority of us coming back for more. Some golfers merely want to play well enough to break 100. Others long to break 90, or shoot consistently in the 80s. Still others dream of breaking 80 or 70. But not everyone aspires to play on the PGA Tour or the LPGA Tour -- and more to the point, not everyone can.
Like all of humankind, golfers are limited not only by their dreams. Dreaming and positive thinking are important, to be sure. If you don't believe you can ever break 100, or 90, or 80, you probably never will. If you don't believe that with the proper instruction and proper practice habits you can control that duck hook or cure that slice, you probably never will. But you can dream about being the next Tiger Woods for ten thousand nights and still not come anywhere close to reaching that goal if you don't have the necessary talent and drive, and maybe a good bit of luck, as well.
The point is, you're likely to have the most success in mapping out an effective plan to improve your golf game if you can be realistic about your personal aspirations. The eighteen questions listed at the beginning of this chapter can help guide you in identifying and analyzing the "reality factors" that may pertain to your personal aspirations.
Your age and physical condition are two major reality factors. One of the things that makes golf unique is that it can be played by almost all age groups. Another is that it is a game at which players can excel on the basis of finesse and mental acumen rather than solely on the basis of strength and power. In fact, the great Sam Snead once wrote a book entitled Golf Begins at Forty. But Snead's catchy title applies mostly to recreational golf, not world-class competitive golf. You may still have an outside shot at qualifying for the Senior PGA Tour if you embark on a serious program to improve your golf at age forty, but you'll have almost no chance of keeping up with the young bucks on the PGA Tour, as I found out in my own quest for fame and fortune on the pro golf circuit in 1995 and 1996. And even if you aim for the over-fifty pro circuit, you'd better be in as good physical shape as most of today's Senior PGA Tour stars are.
Time and money are two equally important reality factors. Let's say you're a relatively youthful, physically fit fifteen handicapper who aspires to play scratch golf. Are you really willing to spend the time and money it will likely take to lower your handicap by fifteen strokes? Are you willing to put in the effort required to overhaul your full swing, your short game, and your putting from top to bottom? Or are you really just looking for a quick fix that will cure your slice or reduce your tendency to duck-hook drives under the pressure of a two-dollar bet against the members of your regular Saturday morning foursome?
Here's a quick way to make a reality check on the true level of your aspirations to improve your golf game. It's also the first step in computing a golf instruction profile scorecard (GIPS) that will help you identify what type of player you really are and what type of instruction you really need. Take your current frequency of play and grade it on the following three-point scale:
1 Monthly: You play and/or practice golf 12 times per year or less.
2 Weekly: You play and/or practice golf between 36 and 52 times per year.
3 Daily: You play and/or practice golf an average of at least 4 days per week.
Now let's take the second step toward computing your GIPS by comparing your current frequency of play to the frequency of play typically required to achieve and maintain three selected levels of playing ability as measured by a player's average score:
PLAYING ABILITY -- FREQUENCY OF PLAY
1 LOW PROFIENCY (average score 90 or higher) -- Monthly
2 MIDDLING PROFICIENCY (average score 80-89) -- Weekly
3 HIGH PROFICIENCY (average score 79 or lower) -- Daily
Chances are that your current frequency of play is nowhere close to the frequency of play required to shoot the kind of scores you wish or hope to shoot. But wishing and hoping alone won't lower your average score or your handicap. You have to make a choice to improve and a commitment of time to achieve your goal. If, for example, you are a 90s shooter who plays about once a month, you're going to have to start playing and practicing at least once a week if you want to start shooting in the 80s. If your current average score is already in the 80s and you play about once a week, you're going to have to start playing and practicing at least four times a week if you want to start breaking 80 consistently, and considerably more often if you want to shoot scores of par or better.
That is where taking lessons from a first-rate teaching pro can make all the difference. As noted above, playing more golf does not guarantee that you will play better golf. Neither does devoting countless hours on the practice range or the putting green. If you're like most golfers, you need guidance from a qualified instructor in setting short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals for improvement, and in devising a specific program to address the strengths and weaknesses of your full swing, your short game, your putting, and your course management skills. Absent such guidance, you may very well end up practicing the wrong things, and further ingraining your bad habits when you go out on the course to play.
But taking golf lessons isn't for everyone. Both one-on-one lessons and golf schools can be very expensive as well as time-
consuming. Some of today's leading instructors demand the same rates as doctors and lawyers. Butch Harmon bills lessons at $500 per hour. David Leadbetter gets $5,000 for a minimum four-hour session. Mitchell Spearman insists on a minimum three-hour session for $1,500. Tuition at Jim McLean's three-day golf schools runs over $2,200 per person. One of the reasons these top teaching pros charge such high fees is that they can: their reputations and their track records of improving the games of top tour pros are among the best in the business. Another reason is that many of them prefer to work only with serious students.
With that in mind, it's time to arrive at a decision about the type of instructional approach is best suited to you and your game. Neither your current frequency of play nor your playing ability are in and of themselves the sole determinants. You can still be among the serious golfers who might benefit from taking lessons from a Butch Harmon or a David Leadbetter even if you do not play very often or play very well at the present time.
The decisive test of how serious you are about improving your game is made through assessing your realistic personal aspirations in the context of how often and how well you play now.
Tallying Your GIPS
The golf instruction profile scorecard you've begun computing in the sections above is a formula for measuring your true commitment and need to improve your game based on the three factors we've been discussing: your frequency of play, your playing ability, and your personal aspirations. The GIPS formula is derived in part from the pioneering studies of individual and small-group behavior done in the 1960s by Harvard University psychologist Robert F. Bales and his associates. Bales found that by ranking members of a group in terms of key behavioral characteristics, it is possible to plot their status relative to each other on a three-dimensional matrix. Using such a matrix also provides a way to categorize individuals into subgroups according to behavioral types.
You've already ranked each of the first two factors on a three-point scale. So let's rank your personal aspirations on a three-point scale:
1 Low: You are content with your current level of playing ability.
2 Middling: You want to improve your playing ability by 3 to 5 strokes.
3 High: You want to improve your playing ability by more than 5 strokes and/or you want to become a high-proficiency player (average score 79 or lower).
All you have to do to tally your GIPS is to write down your three-point scale scores for each of the three factors in the formula: your personal aspirations, your frequency of play, and your playing ability. After you've finished computing your GIPS, use the chart on page 18 to determine which of the golfer types matches your personal instructional profile.
Right away up to half of you may find that you really don't want to or need to take golf lessons. If you gave your personal aspirations a score of 1 (low), then you are already content with the way you play now, which means there's no point spending time and money on pursuing an instructional program. Continue to play or practice as much or as little as you like, and continue to enjoy what is probably your favorite hole on any course -- the nineteenth.
If your playing ability already equals or exceeds a "middling" level of personal aspirations, you are likely to be among one of four instructional profiles who are best advised to make only marginal changes, if any, in their current golfing regimen.
Three of these middling aspiration profiles are familiar fixtures at public, daily fee, and private courses from coast to coast. There's the Hustler, who plays several times a week and plays well, but has no aspirations of becoming a pro. There's the Country Club Bum, who plays several times a month and plays well, but has no aspirations of becoming a top amateur. And then there's the Local Legend, who doesn't play very often but still plays extremely well despite a sometimes mysterious lack of aspiration.
Hustlers, Country Club Bums, and Local Legends can probably shave three to five strokes off their average scores without embarking on a formal instructional program. In most cases, all they need to do is increase their frequency of play and/or their frequency of practice.
The fourth and most populous of the middling aspiration profiles are the Happy Hookers and Slicers, most of whom are actually borderline cases when it comes to prescribing a program of golf instruction. Happy Hookers and Slicers span the entire scale in their frequency of play. Depending on lifestyle, business interests, and other considerations, they may show up at the course or the practice range daily, weekly, or monthly. The one thing all of them have in common is that their middling level of playing ability already matches their middling level of personal aspirations.
As a rule, most Happy Hookers and Slicers are best suited to the most popular approach to golf instruction, which is error correction. They'd be happy to lower their average scores by a few strokes per round, but they're not prepared to devote much time or money to the effort. They much prefer to get quick fixes for their hooks and slices rather than tackle a long-term swing development program that may require extensive changes, retraining, and practice.
Now we come to golfers whose level of personal aspirations exceeds their current level of playing ability. That general category should include the vast majority of people who would read a consumer's guide to golf instruction -- i.e., golfers who want to map out an effective plan to improve their games -- and it consists of no less than twelve golf instruction profiles.
Depending on who is counting, up to a third of all golfers are either Hopeful Hackers or Unhappy Hackers. Both types have low playing ability and only middling aspirations. The difference between them is their frequency of play. Hopeful Hackers are primarily beginners who don't play well and don't play very much, but still have optimistic hopes of improving enough to play respectably. Unhappy Hackers go out on the golf course anywhere from three times a month to several times a week; their unhappiness stems from the fact that their hopes of achieving even middling improvement in their games remain unfulfilled no matter how often they play.
Hopeful Hackers and Unhappy Hackers are candidates for either swing development or error correction. The choice depends in part on if they are content to remain with middling aspirations or if they are moved to raise their aspirations. Hopeful Hackers who are just beginning to play golf are often best advised to embark on at least some form of swing development program that provides grounding in the fundamentals, though they don't necessarily have to seek out a Butch Harmon or a David Leadbetter to do the job. Unhappy Hackers typically opt for error correction, but if their Band-Aid fixes have worn off for the umpteenth time, they might be better off in a more thoroughgoing swing development program.
Another six instructional profiles have high personal aspirations that exceed their current level of playing ability. The differences between them are their playing ability and their frequency of play. On one end of the spectrum are the Dreamers, who don't play very well or play very often, but nevertheless dream of dramatic improvement. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Strivers, who have modest playing ability but play several times a week striving to improve.
In between are the hybrid profiles. There are the Striver/Dreamers, who have low playing ability but work hard on their games with dreams of playing much better. There are the Schemers, who have already have at least middling playing ability but play only a few times a month, believing that they can nevertheless hit upon a scheme to fulfill their high aspirations. There are the Slackers, who have middling ability but are too lazy to play frequently enough to fulfill their grandiose aspirations. And there are the Slacker/Schemers, who play more than the pure Slackers, but lack the ability of the pure Schemers.
Three main options are available to the various Strivers, Slackers, Dreamers, and Schemers whose personal aspirations exceed their playing ability: (a) they can increase their frequency of play, (b) they can embark on a serious program of golf instruction, or (c) they can do both. The choice ultimately depends on how serious they are about fulfilling their high aspirations.
The last three golf instruction profiles have high aspirations and high playing ability. The difference between them is their frequency of play. Those who play and practice at least several times a week are the Pro-Ams, tour pros, aspiring tour pros, or top-ranked amateur golfers. Those who play and practice at least several times a month are golfers whose handicaps are in the Single Digits. Those who are unable to play more than once a month due to extenuating life circumstances but still shoot low scores are the Onetime Wonders.
The majority of these highly proficient golfers have already mapped out their own instructional programs. But even the Pro-Ams can find themselves torn between error correction and swing development approaches. The choice often comes down to how serious they are about fulfilling their high aspirations to take their games to a still higher level. In their cases, given their demonstrated talent, the sky really is the limit. Witness Tiger Woods, who decided to overhaul his swing under the guidance of Butch Harmon after he had already won the 1997 Masters, an endeavor that took more than a year and a half.
The chart on page 25 is designed to help you decide whether you really want to seek error correction, swing development, neither of the two, or a combination of both. It matches GIPS types with their presently preferred instructional approach and the instructional approach recommended for achieving their middling or high personal aspirations.
Getting a Grip on Your GIPS
Once you have done the research necessary to know yourself, your golfing goals, and your preferred and recommended instructional approaches with the help of your GIPS, the next step is to decide which of the various putting, short game, and full swing methods is best suited to you and your game. Most top teaching pros can provide either error correction or swing development instruction. But they often differ dramatically in the putting, short-game, and full-swing methods they advocate. The same goes for the teaching pros you're likely to encounter at your home course or at your local driving range.
No matter which instructional approach you choose, you need to know where your instructors are coming from, which of the major methods they advocate, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Otherwise, you are likely to find yourself bouncing from one pro to another, perpetually trapped in states of confusion and frustration as you are inundated with conflicting advice and diametrically opposite swing thoughts. No one knows that better than I do after taking lessons from twenty-one different teaching pros in twenty-four months. Instead of suffering the pain and confusion of running a similar instructional gauntlet, you can simply read this book.
SUMMARY: Making a Plan to Improve Your Game
Regardless of whether you're a hooker or a slicer, the key to mapping out an effective learning program is to know yourself. The list of "Eighteen Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Lesson" can help in the self-assessment process.
FREQUENCY OF PLAY, PLAYING ABILITY, AND PERSONAL ASPIRATIONS
Most golfers will have to increase their frequency of play (and practice) if they want to play better golf than they do now. How much you will have to increase your frequency of play depends on current playing ability and your personal aspirations. You will likely have the most success and gain the most enjoyment out of the learning process if you can be realistic about your personal aspirations.
ERROR CORRECTION VS. SWING DEVELOPMENT
There are two main approaches to instruction: error correction and swing development. Error correction focuses on fixing a specific swing flaw or problem right away; it is by definition primarily a short-term or "Band-Aid" solution. Swing development focuses on building or overhauling your golf game from top to bottom; it is long-term in nature and can require considerable time, effort, and money.
CONSULT YOUR GOLF INSTRUCTION PROFILE SCORECARD (GIPS)
Your golf instruction profile scorecard (GIPS) is a formula for measuring your true commitment and need to improve your game based on your frequency of play, your playing ability, and your personal aspirations. Consult the chart on page 18 to determine which of the GIPS types best describes you. Consult the chart on page 25 to determine whether error correction or swing development is recommended for your GIPS type.
Copyright © 2002 by Harry Hurt III