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Golf IQ: A Method for Training It and Measuring It

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The phrase “golf is a mental game” defines many things. Amateurs and average golfers understand the difficulty of execution under the gun, but very few would know what to do even if they had the physical skills of a professional. At its core, strategy and management of our games requires an objective calmness and sequential set of actions/steps to succeed. A high Golf IQ separates the best from all others. But what exactly does “a high Golf IQ” mean?

Consider the golfer we have all encountered. Throughout the round it looked like they were struggling, and we never saw them hit a good shot with the exception of a decent putt or wedge shot here or there. They were very deliberate on the tee box. At the end of the round we thought they shot 82 or worse, but the final number was 73… and they were unhappy with it.

That’s a high Golf IQ: a stingy, quiet and unassuming golfer who prioritizes well.

When I think about golfers with high golf IQs, names like Lydia Ko and Jordan Spieth come to mind. These players are way down the list regarding their physical and ball striking strength. They go about their business navigating the course hitting good shots, but nothing they do is awe inspiring. And they win all the time. Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson also fit the bill. They’re genius golfers. Extremely high Golf IQs!

While the common thread of an excellent short game seems rather obvious, it’s only a small part of the overall behavior of a highly advanced golfer. Through my two decades as a club designer and occasional PGA Tour liaison, I was very fortunate to observe and interact with some of the best players in the world, sometimes on a weekly basis. From that vantage point, it was easy to recognize that the best players were often extremely intelligent people.

These “athletes” are often voracious readers and life learners. If they weren’t playing golf for a living, they may well be attorneys or business executives. They have excellent control of their intellectual faculties… it shows up in the way they play golf.

A Eureka Moment

A few years ago, my daughter Hannah Wood (currently on the University of Oklahoma Women’s Golf Team) received an invitation to one of the most prestigious girl’s junior events in the game: The Kathy Whitworth Invitational played in March in Fort Worth, Texas. At the time she was a relative unknown player with the exception of having qualified for the Junior World and the U.S. Junior the year before. Kathy likes to give unknown girls a shot at playing with the best and she is known to invite the occasional “obscure” from snow states (like ours of Colorado) just to make things interesting. Thank you, Kathy!

The epic winter of 2012-2013 was brutal in Colorado. We had a ton of snow on the ground and it just wouldn’t let up. While ball striking practice was available indoors (with launch monitors) and on heated outdoor driving ranges, short-game practice and playing golf was impossible. The thought of Hannah going down to Texas having not played a single round in months was daunting at best and terrifying to her. As a single parent who was financially unable to send her somewhere South to get in some rounds, I had to find a way to exercise her golfing prowess in the absence of actual play.

A Eureka moment hit me one snowy morning on the way to work. What if I devised a test to make her mind play golf virtually? But this could be no ordinary test; it had to be situational, yet extremely difficult and make her use her head — just like what a competitive round of golf would do. Regardless of how she scored, the very act of taking the test molded her playing ethos and prepared her for this very high-level completion.

Because of the test and a few other fortuitous events, Hannah won the event and skyrocketed to No. 3 (from 389th) in the Polo Rankings for her class of 2014. Her life was changed forever. While this may sound like a Cinderella Story, it was no accident. That week, she had the highest golf IQ in the event. Hannah played her own game and gave every shot its complete effort and thought. She certainly didn’t have the physical attributes or playing opportunities of competitors in the field like Baily Tardy, Angel Yin, Hannah O’Sullivan or Kristin Gilman.

Out of desperation and the will for my daughter to succeed, I had inadvertently created a method of strengthening the approach to playing competitive golf. This patent-pending process forces golfers to use their cognitive resources and to play the game in their mind, remotely and in an abstract way. It forces recall of the steps to produce golf shots and strategy required to successfully navigate the course.

Earlier this year, I wrote a similar test for the University of Oklahoma. While the results of that endeavor are unclear, the team was forced to think about their games in a virtual and situational way. Last year the team finished No. 58 in the Golfweek rankings, but as of this writing the team is ranked 21st. Interestingly, the test scores follow the intra-team rankings perfectly. In other words, the highest and lowest scores on the test correlate precisely with the player rank.

Some samples of the test are below.

Measuring Aptitude

There is a straight-forward correlation of the knowledge required to hit certain shots and a golfer’s ability to troubleshoot his or her game on the fly. But regardless of that knowledge, golfers must organize their actions and make use of every ounce of intellectual energy to succeed.

A high Golf IQ encompasses the following areas:

  • Reconnaissance and responsible mapping of the course.
  • Preparation and a quality approach to practice.
  • Tee protocol and pre-shot protocol.
  • Appropriate rehearsal motions.
  • Intuition and judgment regarding percentages; realistic pursuit.
  • Maturity, humbleness, patience and being devoid of heroic behavior.
  • Post-shot observation and actions.
  • Aloofness to competitive circumstance: concentration on sequential steps to hitting quality shots over a long period of time.

The above defines what the Golf IQ is and what this process measures: to use the mind while guiding the body to execute tasks to an end. Without going into all of the specifics of the above, the reader is invited to sample some of the test questions below. Be very careful with your answers. These questions assume a minimum level of competency, essentially for single-digit players or better. It assumes you have the ability to shape the ball or hit risky wedge shots.

Also, you will not find all of the answers in this article. Regardless of the answer key and what I think the correct answers should be, the aim of this exercise is to make you think about playing the game.

To date, there are more than 500 such questions in the database that can be found on my website: www.MyGolfIQ.com. Soon, the tests will be inclusive and arranged for all levels of golfer and gender.

Let’s start with a fairly easy question, if not blatantly obvious.

1. The ball curves more when I am hitting it into the wind and less when I am hitting downwind. 

  • True
  • False

Most relatively skilled players know that hitting a ball into the wind not only makes it fly shorter, but make it more difficult to keep shots online. The technical issue has to do with the amount of friction being applied to the ball as it travels through the air. If a golf ball has 4000 rpm of spin and it is going through the air at 125 mph (ground speed) into a 20 mph wind that means the air speed/spin relationship is 4000 rpm/145 mph. The ball is going to be much more affected into the wind and will slice or hook more.

By design, this question will prompt golfers of any kind to remember this very cerebral and cognitive piece of the golfing puzzle the next time they are confronted with the situation.

And while we’re on the topic of wind, here’s another question that may be less obvious to anyone without a single-digit handicap. The next time they play in the wind, they’ll remember some of these things.

2. Playing in extremely heavy wind:

  1. Tighter grip.
  2. Slightly wider stance.
  3. Maintain tempo and don’t try to muscle the ball.
  4. Keep my head steady.
  5. Knock everything down, low-and-flighted trajectory regardless of the shot.
  6. 2 and 3.
  7. All of the above.

This process removes the golfer from the physical pressure of having to experiment with their body and shot making. It allows them to think about these conditions using their memory and problem-solving acuities. And unlike reading a 300-page book about playing golf, the process engages the player interactively (rather than making them drink through a firehose) replete with all the verbiage and memory-intensive requirements that an instructional book brings.

Like in a round of golf or our development as players, the process is preparing the test taker for increasing layers of complexity. As golfers, we have all been confronted with situations where our decision making was stressed. Here we not only had to make a good swing, but the situational variables applied a completely different set of decisions that had little to do with swing… but management of the course and our score. In this case, it is more like a video game or a chess move.

3. Consider the question below.

I’ve just hit my drive well right on a par-5; pretty far offline in the rough. There isn’t a lot of fairway for me to hit my second shot into the “garden spot,” the best range for me to hit my third shot close for a birdie putt. I have to hit a pretty big and long left-to-right shot to get it there, but my ball is sitting down in the rough. To the left of the garden spot is a cart path, more rough, trees and white stakes (OB). In front of me and blocking the green is a stand of trees with a lake just to the right of them. If I hit one of them, my ball might deflect into the water. It’s a very small green with lots of bunkers protecting it. I have to make a birdie to stay in the game. I’m running out of holes.

  1. Hit down on the ball as hard as possible and shape the shot left-to-right into the perfect place (the garden spot) and make birdie. Be aggressive! Let’s win this thing right now!
  2. Wedge it back to the fairway to get the ball back into play. Even if I have to hit a long iron to the green, I can continue my round and “live to fight another day.” I can make par with my short game.
  3. I’m pretty good with the short irons. If I can knock it to 135 yards or so, I can hit it in there with a short iron or wedge depending on the wind and lie. It might work. Might have a little bit of a weird stance…sort of downhill and a hanging lie. I don’t have to shape it too much to get it there. It’s not too hard of a second shot and it gives me a good look at the green and a chance at a birdie.
  4. With the ball sitting down in the rough, it might be difficult to “carve it” into the garden spot as the ball spins less from this type of lie. Trying to hit a big fade or draw could result in disaster if the shot goes too straight.
  5. Regardless of what shot I hit, make good and sure that the face of my club is clean so whatever I do the grooves will be as effective as possible.
  6. 1, 3 and 5
  7. 2 and 4
  8. 3, 4 and 5
  9. The right answer isn’t here

Did you visualize yourself playing golf? The next time you’re out playing in the club championship or a nassau with your buddies, remember to use your head. Treat the game as a delicate balance between your graceful motions and responsible navigation of the day’s efforts. You’ll be a lot better golfer as a result.

Here are a few more questions. 

What is a FLYER lie?

  1. Ball in the rough sitting way high…could use a driver.
  2. A ball in the rough, sitting sort of up but with a little grass behind it. This can cause the ball to come out hot taking all the spin off and going too far.
  3. Similar to 2, but it’s wet.
  4. Great lie in the fairway.
  5. None of the above.
  6. 2 or 3.

Normally, the worst mis-hit from a bunker is:

  1. Take too much sand.
  2. Blade it.
  3. Face too open…ball goes too high.
  4. Put too much spin or not enough spin on the shot.
  5. Leave it in the bunker.
  6. All of the above… they are all going to result in at least a bogey.
  7. None of the above.
  8. 2 or 5.

Lee Trevino once quipped: “You can talk to a fade but a hook won’t listen.” What did he mean?

  1. Hooking shots tend to carve more than wanted… at least for him.
  2. Because hooks go farther on tee shots, they can get away from you.
  3. In general, for stronger players who don’t need the distance, a fade is a more controllable shot.
  4. All of the above.
  5. None of the above.
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Don Wood is a 25-year veteran of the golf industry, and is the owner of MyGolfIQ.com. He has worked in golf equipment R&D, design and manufacturing for companies such as Cleveland Golf, Golfsmith, Wood Brothers Golf and more, and spent many years working with some of the best players in the world on their equipment needs. Don has many U.S. Patents pertaining to fitting and short-game golf equipment. He is currently a member of the instructional staff at Common Ground Golf Club in Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Chris Houston

    Feb 21, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Whoever commented about “caveman” golf… Those players who deny strategy are simply too stupid to know that they naturally possess sound golf strategy and intuition. I don’t think Dustin Johnson thinks too much on the course, but what he is thinking is correct and he has a natural gift to do so. He doesn’t know he is doing it, but he is.

  2. Scott

    Feb 16, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Would love to take the quiz or even a sample one (with answers) but not for $300!!

    • Don Wood

      Feb 16, 2017 at 4:21 pm

      It’s $24.99 for the special introductory offer.

  3. Tcope

    Feb 16, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    $300 seems a little steep for something like this.

  4. Deadeye

    Feb 16, 2017 at 9:56 am

    This article reminds me of why I always preferred to walk as opposed to riding a cart when I played. It gave me time to assess how I was going to play my next shot. I could run through all the variables like distance, angles,obstacles,wind,and then when I was standing over the ball I could judge the actual lie. Unless I had a really bad lie I had already decided what club to use and whether par or better was even possible any more. Knowing when to walk off feeling good about making no worse than bogey has saved me many strokes. I was 25 before I started playing golf, about the time John Daly was born. Grip it and rip it was not a common term then but that’s how I played. I lost a lot of Golden Ram balls before I figured out that , as in life, some analysis was required before I made my next move. I ride in a cart now and this constant reevaluating of where I stand on the hole and in the round takes place much more quickly now due to experience. I am always envious of players like Jordan Spieth who seem to have fifty years of golf IQ when they are twenty. It’s a great game no matter what level we play at.

  5. RonaldRump

    Feb 15, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    This is “fake news”.

  6. Weekend Duffer

    Feb 15, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Author calls Lydia Ko a poor ballstriker…lol

    • Don Wood

      Feb 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      Lydia Ko is an exceptional ball striker. She doesn’t have the size, distance nor overall horsepower that Lexie Thompson or Ariya Jutanugarn or many others on the LPGA Tour. But she has all the shots. And she totally uses her intellectual skills to execute them.

    • Weekday Pro

      Feb 15, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      No he doesn’t. He said, “regarding their physical and ball striking STRENGTH.” He was referencing Speith and Ko, and his daughter’s, limited physical capabilities compared to their peers. He clearly meant Jordan can not drive the ball as far as JD or DJ and he is usually at least a club shorter from similar distances through the bag. Same with Ko. That doesn’t mean she is a poor ballstriker, just a less powerful one. Which is often times why those golfers have to have an higher IQ. They don’t overpower courses they plot around them. Don’t disparage an author because you misrepresent their actual words.

    • XLee2000

      Feb 16, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      And THAT’S why comments on social media are as bad as they are. Reading comprehension seems to be at an all time low in America these days!

  7. Steve

    Feb 15, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    The author is a bit disingenuous in writing his daughter was a relative unknown at the time of her invitation to the Whitworth.

    This from the U of OK website:

    http://www.soonersports.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=31000&ATCLID=209618503

    BEFORE COLLEGE
    Named All-Colorado and all-conference all four years of high school … Placed third in the state tournament her sophomore and junior years and second as a senior … Recorded a 75.7 high school career scoring average … Set school record for low round (68) … Ranked fourth in her class and 20th overall in the Polo Junior Rankings … Won the 2013 Kathy Whitworth Invitational … Won the 2012 and 2013 Tournament of Champions … Finished in the top 20 in the Girl’s Junior America’s Cup in 2012 and 2013 (represented Team Colorado) … Competed in five USGA events, including the 2013 U.S. Women’s Public Links that was played at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club.

    • Don Wood

      Feb 15, 2017 at 5:03 pm

      Thank you for that research. But at the time she was invited to compete in the Whitworth, she had a reputation here in Colorado…but certainly not in the National or Global arena.

      • Steve

        Feb 15, 2017 at 5:33 pm

        She’s turned out to be an excellent golfer. I wish only the best of luck to her.

  8. JustTrying2BAwesome

    Feb 15, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Great article. I love a more in depth view of the competitive golfer and how they approach the game and a tournament. Also, cool golf course/brain picture.

  9. Looper

    Feb 15, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    If golf isn’t hard enough!!! Way to much info, imagine trying to explain this to a junior… We sometimes forget its a game…

    • Mongoose

      Feb 15, 2017 at 1:06 pm

      Great point… Camilo Villegas said it best, “caveman golf, hit ball, find ball, hit ball again”. Making the “game” more complicated…

    • Don Wood

      Feb 15, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Thank you for that input. I heard it said best by Jack Burke JR…a Masters Champion.
      “There are two kinds of golfers in this world: There are highly cerebral mechanics like Tom Watson or Jack Nicklaus. And then there are athletes like Hal Sutton or Sam Sneed”. One or the other works well.

      • Looper

        Feb 15, 2017 at 2:26 pm

        Thank you for responding to my opinion. I’m sure your knowledge far outweighs mine, but growing up playing reactionary sports I try to do the same in golf. I am 53 years of age and have had only one instructor, and have found that feel vs. thought has worked best for me. Thanks again my dear friend…

      • Michael A Preiss

        Feb 16, 2017 at 12:09 am

        Seems the cerebral/mechanics records speak for itself , but either way enjoy it!

    • Chris Houston

      Feb 21, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      If you can’t comprehend this, you will never make it to a truly competitive level. These are just basics in the grand scheme of golf strategy. He is spot on here, with virtually everything he said in the article. If you want your junior to get recruited, you can start by understanding the situational events he or she faces on the course. That situation he describes with “hitting toward the garden spot” is a perfect scenario that you will see all the time in college and beyond. Have to be able to limit mental mistakes that you can control. Decision making is key!

  10. stephenf

    Feb 15, 2017 at 11:59 am

    “These players (Spieth and Ko) are way down the list regarding their physical and ball striking strength…”

    Good grief. The fact that they restrain and control the strength they have doesn’t mean they don’t have “physical and ball-striking strength.” Sheesh.

  11. Buford T Justice

    Feb 15, 2017 at 11:22 am

    Step 1: Grip It
    Step 2: Rip It

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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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TG2: What’s the most annoying breach of golf etiquette?

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Listen to the full podcast below on SoundCloud, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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