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

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  1. 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. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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…

    • 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!

  5. “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.

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