If you have spent anytime around a golf course, I’m sure someone has told you to practice your short game if you want to lower you scores. This person probably had good intentions.
You might have even believed them!
But before you go and spend hours on the putting green, let me recommend an alternative.
So golfers who want to shoot consistently lower scores can choose to focus their efforts either on putting, the short game (scrambling) or long game (tee to green).
Those aiming to be a scratch or low handicap player will of course need to become excellent in all three, but for the player of average handicap (11-15), with more modest ambitions, both the statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that concentrating on the long game will usually bring the fastest improvement.
What Does It Mean to Hit A Green in Regulation?
Improving at the long game can also be expressed as” hitting more greens in regulation” (GIR). Put simply, GIR is the par of a hole minus the two shots which are always allowed for putts.
So to hit the green of a par 3 hole in regulation you need to be on the green from the tee; for a par 4 hole you must be on the green in two, and for a Par 5 you need to be on the green in 3. It's even better if you can reach a par 5 in two!
There are no set rules for determining how the par of a hole should be determined, but the USGA does issue guidelines to be used as part of its complex method for determining player handicaps.
They have changed considerably over the years, mostly to reflect the dramatic improvements in equipment which have occurred, but these are the current ones:
Up to 250 yards
Up to 210 yards
251 to 470 yards
211 to 400 yards
471 to 690 yards
401 to 575 yards
(yes, Par 6 holes do exist. I admit you have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot, but they do exist.)
Why Your GIR Number Is Crucial To Your Score
One of the oldest adages in golf is that “you drive for show, but you putt for dough”, and there’s certainly some truth in it.
There are dozens of stories of the top players who have kept their ball striking abilities well into the later stages of their careers but have ceased to be competitive because of problems on the greens. Ben Hogan may well be the best example.
Widely acknowledged as one of the best tee to green ball strikers ever to have played the game, he failed to add to his resume of nine major titles only because of the putting nightmares which badly affected the later years of his career.
Then think about the extraordinary variety of methods the top pros have used in their sometimes desperate attempts to get the ball into the hole. Clearly it’s an area of the game to which they attach enormous importance.
And this is only logical – for them, since they are by definition already extremely good at the tee to green and short game and have little room left for improvement in those areas.
But the reverse is true for the average player.
Why hours on the practice green offer little reward for most golfers
Good putting, after all, requires little in the way of physical strength or coordination. So with a sound technique and some regular practice it should be possible for average handicap players to average the par standard of two putts per hole, particularly playing on a home course where they are familiar with the slopes and borrows of the greens.
Beyond this level, however, the law of diminishing returns means that further marginal improvements must be bought at the price of long lonely hours on the practice green; a price which few if any amateurs are able or willing to pay.
And if you’ll forgive a little number crunching, this conclusion is borne out by the statistics.
In May 2016 My Golf Spy published figures, based on a sample of some 400,000 rounds played on 18 hole courses across the US, showing that players in the 11-15 handicap range averaged 34.8 putts per round while their average total score was 90.
In other words, they were already beating the par standard of 2 putts per hole, but were missing the GIR standard of 36 strokes a round by a massive 19 shots.
Now bear in mind that even scratch players were taking 31.5 putts and that the best putter on the PGA tour in 2015 was Jordan Spieth, with an average 27.82 putts a round. So even if the average handicap player could improve his putting to the level of a scratch player he would be shooting an average of 87; putting like Spieth he would still only get down to 83.
And the difficulty of the task is of course compounded by the fact that both the scratch player and Spieth will normally be putting from much nearer the hole.
The same sample revealed GIR figures of 57% (just over 10 holes per round) for the scratch player, but only 28% (5 holes per round) for the 11-15 handicap player.
The conclusion seems clear. Improvements from tee to green offer the average player considerably more scope for reducing his overall score and handicap than putting improvements.
And the same argument applies with equal force to the short game.
How to save 5 strokes a round (by getting up and down like a tour pro!)
It’s true that many pros are now so good at recovering from greenside rough and bunkers that it sometimes seems they might as well be on the green. But to reach anything like this standard, quite apart from the natural talent involved, requires countless hours of practice,
In a revealing 2015 article in GolfWRX.com, Mark Harman, the national course director for the United States Golf Teachers Federation, tackled the popular belief that the average handicap golfer can quickly cut five strokes from his score through short game improvements alone.
Harman agreed with the My Golf Spy stats that such a player typically completes 18 holes with a GIR of just 5, and, based on the premise that most players’ skill levels are roughly equivalent as between their long and short games, suggests that they will likely save par on 3 of the 13 greens which they don’t hit in regulation
So to save a further 5 strokes through scrambling alone would mean saving par on 8 of the 13, a percentage of 61.5%.
While this might not immediately sound like the stuff of champions, it’s the figure achieved by the player (Peter Malnati) who placed 38th of the 190 pros listed in the PGA tour scrambling rankings for 2017 (thru 6 October).
To put this in better perspective, Malnati’s ranking placed him immediately below Hideki Matsuyama, Daniel Berger, Sergio Garcia and short-game legend, Jordan Spieth (61.76%).
You get the idea.
Of course individual “average” players will always vary somewhat in the relative strengths of their long and short games, but Harman is surely right to maintain that it is unrealistic to expect a 13 handicapper to match the short-game of a top tour pro, no matter how many hours of practice they may put in.
But might this hypothetical 13 handicap player instead save 5 shots a round by improving his tee to green game? At first sight, it looks a tall order, but there is a way in which his chances of success may be dramatically improved.
How To Hit More Greens In Regulation
W. Timothy Gallwey, well-known as the author of “The Inner game of Golf”, said that the golf swing may be the most closely analyzed of all human movements, and the statistics suggest that he was right.
An Amazon search for the term “golf swing” yields more than 15,000 results, and it’s a dime to a dollar bet that a significant proportion of these will be instructional books or DVDs largely devoted to helping golfers with the accuracy of their shot-making.
So with such a plethora of well-informed information available, much of it provided by some of the greatest players and teachers the game has known, and with all the advantages of modern equipment, how is it that average handicaps have stubbornly refused to budge?
The answer is probably that there has been far too much emphasis on the quest for the perfect swing, and a never-ending supply of technical information, tips and fixes, all of which have served only to confuse and frustrate the average player.
The truth is that the ball striking standards achieved by the pros are the result of years and even decades of hitting hundreds of balls a day; and although improvements in distance and accuracy are of course possible for the average player, they require a far greater investment of time and effort than the teaching industry has been prepared to admit.
But this is not a counsel of despair.
How To Improve Your GIR With Smart Course Management
In his wonderful book, “My Game and Yours” Arnold Palmer recalled his father, and only teacher, Deacon’s favorite saying, that “90% of the game is played from the shoulders up”.
But he wasn’t of course referring to modern sports psychology techniques, as helpful as they can be. He meant that the application of some common-sense course management principles can be far more effective in reducing scores than any amount of technical tinkering.
Everyone loves to hit the ball a long way. Quite apart from the envious looks from your playing partners, there’s surely no better feeling in the game than watching the ball soar towards the heavens after you’ve made a perfect impact with your driver.
But more importantly, from the point of view of scoring, there’s no doubt that long drives will tend to improve your percentage of greens hit in regulation. This is simply because you will normally be using a shorter, more lofted, and therefore more accurate club for your second shot.
There are all sorts of exercises and training drills which can in time increase your driving distance and therefore your GIR. But with that said, the best tee shot isn’t always the longest. It’s the one which leaves you the easiest shot to the green, and there’s more to that than just avoiding bunkers, water, trees and rough.
So don’t automatically reach for your driver just because you’re on the tee at a par 4 or 5. If you’re not confident that you can carry any trouble such as fairway bunkers or water, you may do better to go with your 3 wood, hybrid or even a long iron and lay up short. Likewise if your typical length of drive will mean finishing on a sloping part of the fairway, it may be best to take less club and aim for a flat area. This will likely leave you an easier second shot, even if it is somewhat longer.
Smart Tactics in the Fairway
When it comes to your second shot, the right choice of club is obviously critical, but this is a far more complex matter than simply reading the yardage of your GPS, shooting a flag with a rangefinder or finding an on-course marker and selecting your club accordingly.
To begin with, you have to get your ego out of the way. Palmer joked that it was probably possible to make a decent living by standing next to the green of a typical golf course and betting that the next ball to arrive would finish short of the flag.
And the reason of course is simply that most golfers have an exaggerated idea of how far they hit the ball with each club. So one of the most important steps in forming a sound long game strategy is to compile a table of exactly how far you hit each club.
But the problems of club selection don’t end there. Distance control issues are real. You think you hit your 7 iron 140 yards? Well maybe on a warm sunny day on the range, with a perfectly flat lie, you do. But on a cool damp day on the course, when you’re contending with the wind, a variety of lies and a sore back, and your wet weather gear’s severely restricting your shoulder turn, you can probably deduct at least 10-15 yards.
Then you have to remember that even the very best players do not make perfect contact with every shot they hit, and that even the slightest mishit can significantly reduce the distance the ball travels.
So as a general rule, the percentage play is to take more club than you think you need. And this idea of percentage play is the real key to tee to green consistency. It may seem a little defeatist or even boring, but it was the approach that won Jack Nicklaus an amazing 18 Major titles. For as good a ball striker as Nicklaus was, especially with the long irons, there were others who were his equal. What really set him apart was his methodical mental approach and self-discipline.
Once you’re certain you have the right club to reach the green, you need also to decide upon a clearly defined target area. Lining up and hitting hopefully in the general direction of the pin will seldom achieve a good result. Instead take account of where the hole is in relation to the trouble around the green, and consider any obvious slopes and contours on the green which you can use or which you need to avoid.
There will be many times when the percentage play is to aim for the center, or fat part, of the green, rather than the pin. And there is no shame in this. Remember the stats: you are far more likely to get down in two from on the green than off it, even if you leave yourself a long first putt.
You also need to consider your normal shot type and the depth and hardness of the green. It’s no good landing directly on a small unyielding putting surface if you have to hit a low draw to get there: the ball will scuttle through and over. Better by far, if the trouble allows you a route, is to land the ball short of the green and run it on.
These suggestions only scratch the surface of what is possible with sound course management, but they should start you on the way to a better average GIR number, which will inevitably take some shots off your average score and handicap.
Click here to read a more in-depth piece on approach shot strategy.
The Simple Method of Hitting more Greens in Regulation
It’s true that really effective course management requires planning, focus and self-discipline. But there’s no need to worry that this will take all the fun out of the game.
For one thing, there’s great pleasure to be had in seeing your scores come steadily down, and to see your name on the Club Championship Trophy. But there will also be times when the percentage shot is to go for broke, because the state of a match or round leaves you no option.
In the end, as Arnold Palmer insisted, the most enjoyment is to be had by playing the game with maximum intensity. And striving for a better GIR number, however you choose to go about it, is an integral part of this approach.