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Opinion & Analysis

A Modern Blueprint to Breaking 80

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Background

When I was lucky enough to join a golf club many years ago, my No. 1 goal was to become a real 5-handicap. But first, I had to figure out how to break 90 on my new difficult golf course. I played on weekends and 9-holes after work without seeing improvement. I took one lesson from the pro, who laughed at my list of ambitious goals.  His response was, “OK, but how about we start with letting me see you hit a 5-iron.” His prescription was a minor grip change and much more practice time on the range.

In my second month of membership, I signed up for my first event: a one-day member-guest with my 70-year-old, 36-handicap father who had introduced me to golf when I was seven. We played nine holes every Saturday at a public course in Washington, DC, that had no hazards and no sand traps – just nine tees, nine circular greens and one gigantic fairway. When I was 12, “real sports” took over and I dropped golf and my dad.

Anyway, here we were at my great new club getting ready to play in our first event together. My dad, a lofty 36, and me, a shiny new 14-handicap. I was nervous for myself, but I was much more nervous for my Dad. How he would enjoy — or NOT enjoy — the long, difficult test of golf. I was so nervous, I guess, that I started to hit shanks on the practice tee… and I couldn’t figure out how to stop them. Finally, it was time to head to the tee for the shotgun start.  To my horror, we were starting on the most difficult par-3 on the course. It was 165 yards over WATER and we were paired with two fairly good golfers that I didn’t know.

“Go ahead,” one of them said. “Lead us off!”

Not wanting to expose my dad to the extreme pressure of going first, I took the tee. I somehow summoned my inner pride and made a fairly good swing with my 6 iron. I did NOT s_____, and my tee shot hit the green. I not only broke 90; I shot 78. Dad chimed in on a couple of holes with his two strokes and we won low net. It’s amazing what can happen when one totally forgets score and focuses on the process of selecting and hitting quality shots.

From there, I worked hard on my game and reached my 5-handicap goal and more. It led me to start a business providing a new type of golf statistics and analysis for golfers, now known as Strokes Gained, and you can read about the History of Strokes Gained on my website www.ShotByShot.com.

Want to break 80? Here is my blueprint

The game of golf is a puzzle and all the pieces fit together. Further, each round is a mix of good shots, average shots and bad shots/errors. The challenge is to determine which piece of your game’s unique puzzle is your greatest weakness in order to target your improvement efforts on the highest impact area. If you track the simple good and bad outcomes listed below for a few rounds, your strengths and weaknesses will become apparent.

Tee Game/Driving

Drive goals 2

Distance: I’ll ignore this and assume you’re playing from the appropriate tees for your game.
Fairways: Hitting fairways is important, as we are all more accurate from the short grass.
Errors: Far more important than Fairways Hit is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of misses. ShotByShot.com users record THREE types of Driving Errors:

  1. No Shot: You have missed in a place from which you do not have a normal next shot, requiring some sort of advancement to get the ball back to normal play.  Preferably, your one error will be of this, less costly, nature.
  2. Penalty: A one-stroke penalty due to hazard or unplayable lie.
  3. Lost/OB: Stroke and distance penalty

Approach Shots

1-Appr. goal 2 Error = Penalty/Second: This means either a penalty, or a shot hit so poorly that you are left with yet another full approach shot from greater than 50 yards of the hole.

Short Game (shots from within 50 yards of the hole)

If you miss NINE Greens, you will have EIGHT of these greenside save opportunities.

Chip/Pitch shots  

1.C.P goals 2Errors = Shots that miss the green.  The fringe does not count as an error

Sand shots  

You should have ONE of these greenside save opportunities.

1. sand goal2

Errors = Shots that miss the green.  The fringe does not count as an error

Putting  

You need 32 putts.

1. Putt goal 2

Good luck, and please let me know if and when you are successful.

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In 1989, Peter Sanders founded Golf Research Associates, LP, creating what is now referred to as Strokes Gained Analysis. His goal was to design and market a new standard of statistically based performance analysis programs using proprietary computer models. A departure from “traditional stats,” the program provided analysis with answers, supported by comparative data. In 2006, the company’s website, ShotByShot.com, was launched. It provides interactive, Strokes Gained analysis for individual golfers and more than 150 instructors and coaches that use the program to build and monitor their player groups. Peter has written, or contributed to, more than 60 articles in major golf publications including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women. From 2007 through 2013, Peter was an exclusive contributor and Professional Advisor to Golf Digest and GolfDigest.com. Peter also works with PGA Tour players and their coaches to interpret the often confusing ShotLink data. Zach Johnson has been a client for nearly five years. More recently, Peter has teamed up with Smylie Kaufman’s swing coach, Tony Ruggiero, to help guide Smylie’s fast-rising career.

40 Comments

40 Comments

  1. EddieEdwards

    Aug 2, 2017 at 1:14 am

    Most important, you need to keep your drive in play, minimize penalties, and have a shot at the green most of the time. Next you need to hit greens or miss close. If you can do this, it’s unlikely your short game and putting will be that far behind. A couple up and downs, longer putts made, close approaches and you will break 80 and have a good day. On a bad day, penalties, duffs, 3 putts, burning the edges, an errant shot will keep you in the eighties.

    I’ve broke 80 several times, par once recently. Hopefully, I don’t have to resort to playing from the womens tees to break 70.

  2. BobInNH

    Jun 14, 2017 at 9:32 am

    I walk half the time and ride half the time on a very hilly course in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My scores do not depend on that fact. But, while walking I sometimes shoot my lowest scores because I am totally focused on my game, and not for looking for balls and taking care of the other guy.

  3. golfraven

    May 18, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Stats are way to go and each serious player should collect their own independent of Hcp. I would be looking at the avarage on the PGA tour. Considering that avarage for GIR is 66%, FIR 61% and scrambling 60% ish, this are the numbers to strive for in the first place to put down a reasonable score. Assuming you don’t 3/4 putt on 50% of the holes you should be in good shape.
    If you want to break 80 or Par then my best advise is to take your scorecard hopefully with a course map and set a strategy for each hole how you hit it of the tee (fade, draw or straight) and most importantly the landing spot of the ball on the fairway and green. Start recording where you miss it (also on the green) and this will give you and idea what to work on.
    Play your game and shots for instance the hybrid (if what is required) of the tee even if big Joe hits a driver – don’t bother what others play unless those guys are aspiring players and you practice with them.
    From the stats you should get a picture of your range, patterns and tendencies and you can adjust your practice and course management accordingly.

  4. Photo

    May 18, 2017 at 1:10 am

    The more I play and the closer I get to breaking 80, my tee ball has become the difference maker. An OB on the back 9 has been my downfall each time i’ve been close. Distance plus the strokes are killer. Other than driving, 3 putts are a nemesis. Outside 40 feet, the 2 putt % needs to be much higher. Good data!

  5. Dell Man

    May 17, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    This is great. I started keeping stats when I play almost any round. Fairways, Greens, and Putts. I also putt little tick marks when I get into the sand and circle it when I get up and down. Keeping the stats don’t necessarily make you play better, but they give you a better idea of what is costing you strokes. And if you can figure out what is really costing you strokes based on trends over several rounds, then you can use your likely minimal practice time to focus on those aspects. I struggle hitting full mid-irons shots and it has cost me because I hit 10 or more fairways quite often, but I’m hooking 7/8-irons and wasting the opportunities. So instead of hitting drivers on the range, I have been working hard on mid/short irons. This is a good way to break down your rounds. Good stuff.

  6. larrybud

    May 17, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    9 GIRS is PLENTY to break 80. I’m a 2 index who averages 55% girs. I just don’t make big numbers.

    Even when I was a lousy 40-42% GIRS I shot half my rounds under 80 and was a 4-5 index.

  7. setter02

    May 17, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Personally off the tee is the biggest issue. If I’m in the fairway off the tee, I’ll likely have a good day regardless of ball striking and putting (unless a complete outlier day happens) as I know I will avoid big numbers unless something is seriously off. Can’t go wrong with avoiding costly penalties (which likely also hurt you mentally for the rest of the hole) and being in a good position into the green.

    • Scott

      May 18, 2017 at 12:12 pm

      Agreed. I have never had a great round if my driving was bad.

  8. Gurn

    May 16, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    95- (GIR *2) = score
    Assuming you putt to a Hula hoop distance… NO 3 putts

    So 8 GIR is minimum to break 80, 9-11 is a better goal..
    4-5 GIR a side is my goal…
    Gurn

  9. Adam

    May 16, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    This matches up with my experience really well. I got down to a single digit handicap after just a few years of playing. From my second season to my third I dropped from a 16 to a shaky 6, and it was almost entirely due to cleaning up mistakes. My ball striking improved just enough that I largely stopped hitting tee shots into the woods/water, and largely stopped duffing iron shots. I still missed half the greens, but I learned how to miss in places where I had relatively straightforward chips. I don’t think I even made more birdies – I just stopped throwing shots away.

  10. Max

    May 16, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Nice blueprint. For me, the GIR is definitely the difference for breaking 80 since I count anything withing 6 feet as a gimme. On a good day 7 GIR can get it done, but the more the merrier.

    Also, you forgot the number one tip: Play a par 70 course!

    • Jack

      May 16, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      Anything within 6 feet as a gimme? Well that’s one way to lower your score lol. Look up the pro averages from 6 feet.

    • ROY

      May 17, 2017 at 11:02 am

      Why not move that magic circle back to 10 feet and shoot for breaking 70?? At 15 feet the course record is in danger!!!

    • Scott

      May 18, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      HAHAHAHA. 6 foot gimmes! I love it! You turned your course into a par 60 with that method.

  11. Sh

    May 16, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Try doing that on a US Open set up. You’d be hard pressed to break 100 this way.

    • JC

      May 16, 2017 at 4:40 pm

      When was the last time any of us played on a US open setup, dweeb.

      • B

        May 16, 2017 at 10:03 pm

        That’s the point. That this article doesn’t put handicap and slope to the formula because different courses will require different means to break that same 80.

    • Jack

      May 16, 2017 at 11:02 pm

      If you can’t break 100 on a US open setup then you shouldn’t be playing on it expecting to score well. What’s your point? Most of us should pick courses that suit our skill level.

  12. birdie

    May 16, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Another example of good shot or bad shot…you’re 120yd out, you cold top your approach and it rolls to front of green?

    just seems there is a difference in using the above in tracking scoring and tracking actual ball striking or playing level. are we trying to get to a point we’re tracking the quality of shots or simply the outcomes.

    • BobInNH

      Jun 14, 2017 at 9:38 am

      “you’re 120yd out, you cold top your approach and it rolls to front of green?”

      We call that a “son-in-law” shot. Meaning that, it was not what you expected, but in the end it turned out pretty good!”

  13. dapadre

    May 16, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Love love love this!
    My pro who also happens to have played pro sports ( NHL) and became scratch himself within 2 years of taking up golf, uses this philosophy and Ive used it to break 80 several times. His approach, cut the game into little strategical pieces based on GIR. 7-10 GIR almost guarantees me I will break 80. I simply focus on the task at hand, hitting the green, INSTEAD of getting to the hole. I know it sounds absurd, but that mental picture is easier.

  14. birdie

    May 16, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    my only question is regarding tracking errors in driving. is it only based on the outcome of the shot, or the actual shot. if you slice it into an opposing fairway and have a good look at the green, do you count this as an error even though the outcome is very playable.

  15. PSG

    May 16, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    This is a great format in terms of how to think about how to break 80. I think it is a very thought-provoking article.

    My only issue with it is that it is way way too broad, and ignores that each shot influences the next, so it doesn’t actually show you what you need to work on.

    For example, you want five one-putts. But practicing putting isn’t the best way to improve your one-putt percentage or number. The best way to get better at putting (And it isn’t close) is to hit the ball closer to the hole. There is no putter on Earth who is worse from 10 feet than the best PGA Tour putter is from 20. “5 one putts” sounds like a putting statistic, but it isn’t. Its an approach statistic. It should be in the approach box, not the putting box. Avoiding 3 putts should be the only thing in the putting category, because it is the only thing that evaluates solely putting skill.

    Similarly, “fairways” is meaningless. I can hit the fairway with a pitching wedge. While this is an extreme example, you will always be less accurate the longer you are (i will miss much further 1* open swinging 110 than 90 – the 90 will be a “fairway” in your system, the 110 won’t).

    Its the same thing with “chip/pitch” shots. Whats the best way to get up and down more often? And by “best way” I mean “most efficient way to practice”. Its not to hit pitches and chips until your hands bleed, its to improve your approach shots! If you hit one extra green, you can “get up and down” one more time by two-putting instead of pitching/chipping.

    This entire article should simply say “practice your driving and your approach shots” because that’s all that matters until you are around scratch. There is no amount of chipping, pitching or putting practice that will make up for hitting it closer and hitting the green more often. None. Zero.

    It is always more efficient to improve your putting, pitching and chipping by improving your approach shots. Practicing putting, chipping and pitching is a horrifically inefficient way to break 80 (and this doesn’t even include missing in the right spots – your article treats all missed greens equally, when this couldn’t be further from the truth – missing in the right spot is just as important to pitching and chipping success as technique).

    So, great article concept, just too long – you didn’t need to go past driver and approach. The rest doesn’t matter until you get up around scratch.

    Please note I DID NOT SAY pitching, chipping and putting don’t matter. I said that practicing them is way less efficient than practicing your full swing and your full swing controls how difficult your putting, chipping and pitching are on the course. Of course practicing them will “help”, but practicing chipping is silly unless your approach shots are around scratch level – you will automatically be better because you’ll hit more greens and have to chip less.

    “A Marine and a Navy man are using the restroom. The Marine leaves without washing his hands. The Navy man says “in the navy, they teach us to wash our hands. The marine says “in the marines, they teach us not to piss on our hands. ” Hitting greens is not pissing on your hands.

    “32 putts” is meaningless. If I hit it an inch from the hole on every hole I would get 18 putts!!!!! Best putter in the world!!!!!!! Until a certain very high level, the full swing is all that matters.

    • Brandon

      May 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm

      Great comment

    • Iutodd

      May 16, 2017 at 5:02 pm

      I disagree that tee shots and approach shots are all that matters until you are around scratch. Nor do I think that practicing putting is an inefficient way to practice if you are trying to break 80.

      I’m actively trying to break 80 so I feel like I can comment on this with some meaningfulness. I’ve broken 40 for 9 many times but have never been able to put it together.

      Because on a par 72 course – getting to 79 means only giving up seven shots to par. Obviously if I hit every fairway and hit every approach shot to an inch I’d break 80. Then I’d have my girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence pick me up from the course in her Ferrari and fly to Vegas for the weekend. Practicing with that goal in mind just has no basis in reality.

      Missing fairways and greens are all part of being a golfer. The best golfers in the world miss fairways and greens all the time so it’s quite likely that I’m going to miss just as many, if not more. So in order to only give up seven shots to par you have to be able to limit mistakes in every aspect of your game. So you need to hit about 8 of 14 fairways. You need to hit about 9 of 18 greens. You need to have around 5 one putts and maybe sneak a birdie in there to make up for the inevitable 3 putt or drive that goes awry. When you miss the green you need to be able to get up and down 3 or 4 times out of 9 or 10 greens missed.

      The point he is trying to make – and he says it pretty clearly – is that breaking 80 involves EVERY skill you have. You have to drive the ball cleanly, get onto the green and 2 putt. You only have 7 strokes to give up. Yes limiting mistakes off the tee and on your approach is important…but it’s not any more important than chipping and putting well.

      I think if you were trying to break 90 focusing just on tee shots and approach shots would make sense. But if you’re trying to break 80? You gotta make putts and you have to score. That means you have to make putts.

      • Denny Jones

        May 16, 2017 at 9:19 pm

        +1

      • TR1PTIK

        May 17, 2017 at 8:53 am

        Agreed. The one and only time I’ve managed to break 80 I drove the ball decent (only getting into severe trouble on one hole – damn water!), hit 7 greens, pitched/chipped well, and putted slightly better than average (which is about 1.89 putts/hole). Simply put, it took every aspect of my game working together to achieve that feat. Since then, I haven’t been able to sniff 80 because pitching/chipping has been horrible and I haven’t been hitting enough greens. On the rare occasion pitching/chipping has been good, my driving or putting has slipped. You gotta be able to do it all moderately well and manage the course.

      • PineStreetGolf

        May 17, 2017 at 9:19 am

        Read the part of my post that said “PLEASE NOTE”.

        I’m not saying putting isn’t important. Of course it is. What I’m saying is that no amount of practice with your putter will make you better at putting than hitting the ball five feet closer to the hole. Its not that “putting doesn’t matter” or “putting practice is stupid” its that “the best way to practice putting is to hit it closer”.

        There is no better way to get “good” at putting than to make your putts shorter by being better at irons.

        • Iutodd

          May 17, 2017 at 5:19 pm

          I just don’t agree. Billy Horschel is T51 in terms of proximity to hole after his approach shots. He averages almost 36 ft! Number 1 is Chez Reavie at 33′. Alex Noren is last at 43′.

          The average 10 handicap golfer is probably, what, 50 feet? What does being 5 feet closer to the hole get me?

          I don’t think I’d make significantly more putts from 45 feet than from 50 feet – I don’t think anyone would. I make more 5 footers than 10 footers for sure – but THAT is down to chipping and lag putting – not approach shots or tee shots. That is true for pros as well and the statistics bear that out. Even inside 100 yards the average pro hits it to like 15-20 feet.

          Bottom line here: 79 is a great score for me – it’s about 6 shots better than my average round of 85 – so it’s like Rickie Fowler shooting a 62. Rickie can’t ball strike his way to a 62 and I can’t ball strike my way to a 79. Gotta make putts and I have to save strokes in all aspects of my game.

    • wrxer

      May 17, 2017 at 5:01 am

      @ psg- players who hit their shots 1 inch from the hole struggle for breaking 50 in stead of 80.
      Nevertheless your point is clear.

    • Leezer

      May 17, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      Sounds like you’re looking for a real plan. Here’s the article from 2012… the links are dead on this site but you can find them by digging a little. http://www.golf.com/instruction/how-break-80-your-six-week-plan-lifetime-low-scores

  16. iShankEveryArticle

    May 16, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Great article. A hack like me needs a blueprint for breaking 90 though…

  17. Alex

    May 16, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    What you just described is looking at every shot in a vacuum. Don’t look at the entire round, don’t think about the hole on the score, focus on the task that is immediately at hand. There is no water, there is no green side bunker, the only thing that should be going through your mind is if you hit that 6 iron the way you should, it will go 170, and the rest will take care of itself. Getting to low single digit handicap is entirely mental. Being able to repeat the right mindset over 18 holes is what makes for good scores.

  18. Gareth Roberts

    May 16, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Hi Peter,

    How would you recommend tweaking those numbers to look at shooting low 70’s? (for context I’ve just been cut to 5 and keen to keep getting lower meaning regular rounds in the low 70’s are necessary)

    Thanks,

    Gareth

    • Peter Sanders

      May 17, 2017 at 8:36 am

      Gareth,
      Briefly, GIR’s should go up to 11 or 12 and weed out all the errors and short game saves to 50%.
      I hope this helps.

  19. Steve Dodds

    May 16, 2017 at 10:28 am

    I’ve always based it on GIR. If, using your formula, you have 9 GIR, and get up and down on 40% of the greens you miss, that’s 13 pars. That gives you an 8 shot buffer for the other five holes. So you can have 3 bogeys and two doubles.

    First time I broke 80 I had a couple of birdies which made up for the triple I had on the last as I limped over the line.

    • Peter

      May 16, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Thanks Steve,
      Yes, birdies provide a nice cushion. Bear in mind, those 9 GIR’s are only pars if followed by 2-Putts. Also, the errors sited tend to result in bogeys or worse unless followed by 1-Putts. It is a complicated puzzle.

    • BobInNH

      Jun 14, 2017 at 9:41 am

      Seven shot buffer, not eight.

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Opinion & Analysis

Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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Opinion & Analysis

5 things we learned on Saturday at the 2018 U.S. Open

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Whoops, we did it again. While not as dramatic as the 7th hole concern of 2004, the Saturday of 2018 seemed eerily familiar. The commentators were divided on the question of whether the USGA was pleased with the playing conditions. The suggestion was, the grass in the rough was higher than necessary, and the cuts of the fairway and greens were just a bit too close of a shave. No matter, everyone finished and the band played on. The hashtag #KeepShinnyWeird didn’t trend, but Saturday the 16th was certainly not ordinary. Five weird things we learned, on the way.

5) Phil’s breaking point

It wasn’t violent. No outburst or hysteria. We’d seen Phil leap in triumph at Augusta. Now we’ve seen the Mickelson jog, albeit under most different circumstances. Near as we can determine, for a moment Phil forgot that he was playing a U.S. Open. After belting a downhill, sliding bogey putt well past the mark, the left-handed one discerned that the orb would not come to rest for quite some time: a lower tier beckoned. As if dancing a Tarantella, Phil sprang toward the ball and gave it a spank while still it moved. Just like that, his quadruple-bogey 8 become a 10, thanks to the 2 strokes for striking a moving ball penalty. In true warrior fashion, Mickelson accepted the penalty without questions, intimating that it saved him another stroke or two in the end. Yeesh. Phil, we feel you.

4) DJ’s front-nine free fall

Just as unlikely as Phil’s whack-and-walk was Dustin Johnson’s front nine of 41. The cool gunslinger of Thursday-Friday faced the same turmoil as the other 66 golfers remaining, and the outward nine did not go according to his plan. DJ got past the opening hole with par, after making bogey there on Friday. Number two was another story. Double bogey on the long par three was followed by 4 bogeys in 5 holes, beginning with the 4th. The irony once again was, Johnson struggled on holes that the field did not necessarily find difficult. Hole No. 2 was the 10th-ranked hole for difficulty on day 3, while 4 and 7 were 13th and 11th-ranked, respectively. Hole No. 6 and 8 did fall in the more difficult half, but not by much. At day’s end, however, the tall drink of water remained in contention for his second U.S. Open title.

3) The firm of Berger and Finau

Each likely anticipated no more than a top-15 placing after 3 days, despite posting the two low rounds of the day, 4-under 66. Those efforts brought them from +7 to +3 for the tournament, but Johnson and the other leaders had yet to tee off. Every indication was lower and deeper; then the winds picked up, blustery like the 100 acre wood of Winnie The Pooh. Both golfers posted 6 birdies against 2 bogeys, to play themselves into the cauldron of contention. Berger has one top-10 finish in major events, while Finau has 2. None of those three came in a U.S. Open, so a win tomorrow by either golfer would qualify as an absolute shock.

2) Recent winners fared well

In addition to Johnson, the 2016 champion, Justin Rose (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2017) found themselves near or in the lead for most of the afternoon. Since Shinnecock Hills offers much of what characterizes links golf, it should come as no surprise that 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson is also within a handful of strokes of the top spot. Rose played the best tee-to-green golf of the leaders on Saturday, but was unable to coax legitimate birdie efforts from his putter. Koepka was the most impressive putter of the day, making up to 60-feet bombs and consistently holing the clutch par saves. On another note, given his victories at Chambers Bay (2015 U.S. Open) and Royal Birkdale (2017 British Open), the missed cut by Jordan Spieth was the week’s biggest surprise.

1) The wind

The most unpredictable of nature’s weapons, the winds of Shinnecock Hills exposed flaws in the course preparation. Areas that would have held off-line putts, were dried out enough to escort those efforts off the shortest grass, into the runoff compartments. The zephyrs pushed tee balls and approach shots just far enough astray to bring all the danger zones into the recipe. Prediction for tomorrow is, any golfer within 5 shots of the lead has a chance at the title. A Miller-esque round of 63 would bring anyone into contention, if the wind continues to blow. No event appreciates drama more than the U.S. Open, and Sunday at Shinnecock promises plenty of it.

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