3 keys that took me from a 14-handicap to a pro
Back in January 2003, I was a 27-year old 14-handicapper who had only broken 80 once on a normal length golf course, a 78 at the Walker Course at Clemson University. At the time, breaking 90 was sort of my barometer for playing well.
As luck would have it, right after I moved out to California to embark on my golf journey I was taken under the wing of a local Pro named Dan Shauger. By the end of March, Dan helped me add 63 yards to my longest drive and shoot my first 18-hole round of golf under par.
Since then, I’ve posted multiple tournament rounds in the 60s and made numerous cuts in professional golf events. My lowest score in a casual 18-hole round of golf is now a 64 (8-under) at GolfPark Otelfingen in Switzerland, where I now reside.
Obviously, a lot of people were curious about what I did to make such a dramatic improvement. As I look back in hindsight, here are what I consider to be the three things that had the greatest influence on improving my game and lowering my scores.
1. Less Clubface Rotation
As I talked about in my article, “The 6 Actions of the Wrists & Forearms”, it’s very commonly taught to pronate and supinate your wrists and forearms in the swing.
In the beginning of my golf journey I was self-coaching and was doing exactly that — rolling my wrists and forearms open in the back swing and then rolling them back to square and then over to closed as I swung through the ball. I remember thinking one day on the range at Lost Canyons in California that it would probably be easier to hit straighter if I didn’t roll like what I was seeing in photos of the golf books I was reading, but I figured if some of the best players in the world were doing it, then maybe I should try it too.
Interestingly, once I met Dan, he took a lot of that clubface rotation out of my swing and, wouldn’t you know it, I started hitting much straighter. All those disastrous doubles and triples that I used to have that ruined my scores started turning in to pars and bogeys and my handicap started to really drop.
If you are struggling with hitting the ball with any kind of predictable shot shape and don’t want as high maintenance of a swing, I would definitely look in to minimizing the amount of wrist rolling you are doing through the hitting zone.
It was by far the biggest thing that helped improve my precision and accuracy.
2. A More Steady Head
Back when I was a player who shot in the 80s and 90s, I had quite a bit of lateral head movement during my swing. I suppose that was born out of some tip I had heard about getting my front shoulder turned back over my rear foot in the back swing. My head drifted away from the target and then laterally back towards it.
Although there is the added benefit of the club path deviating less from the target line as you are coming through the ball with this top-half type of lateral move through the ball, it does create a complication in that the bottom of your swing arc is constantly changing.
This isn’t so bad if you’re sweeping the ball, but it can be more of a problem if you take a divot — in particular for me on uphill shots when I didn’t get my body weight back up the hill. Invariably, I would have a number of score-killing fat shots during my rounds.
Once Dan had me minimize the amount of head movement I was making during my swing, my ball striking consistency really improved because the low point in my swing wasn’t moving around so much.
I should clarify that I’m not advocating for your head to be perfectly still or saying that you still can’t hit good shots with some head movement, however, I would consider looking in to minimizing dramatic vertical and horizontal head movement until after the ball is struck if you are struggling with your ball striking.
For me, it helped cut down on my fat shots and translated into hitting closer to the center of the club face much more often, which of course had numerous subsequent benefits like more average distance, better distance control, etc.
3. Less Tension
Aside from minimizing my club face rotation and cutting down on my head movement, the thing that really rounded out my improvements was getting rid of excessive tension.
The difference between a well-struck shot on target and one that gives up distance and goes off line isn’t much. Introducing tension in to your swing can really complicate getting the club consistently and solidly back on the ball.
You might also equate tension to a rusty door hinge. It takes a lot more energy to close a door with rusty hinges than it does one that’s well lubricated. Plus, the one that’s oily will move faster and with less effort.
I think this is a little easier said than done, especially for us guys, because it requires a bit of ego management to not want to be manly and hit every club as far as humanly possible. However, the self control was an important discipline for me to get better at managing.
The great Canadian player George Knudson was a strong advocate of never swinging beyond a point of sacrificing balance. Harry Hilary Von Frankenberg, who has shot in the 50s three times in competition, stressed that a golfer should be relaxed and graceful and cannot ever be too boneless or too loose nor too muscleless. Mike Austin, the man that hit the 515-yard drive in the U.S. National Senior Open, spoke of supple quickness, which I think is a good way of describing it because swinging without tension doesn’t necessarily mean swinging slow. You can still swing fast…just be soft and supple.
One of my favorite tension-relieving drills is to hit a bucket of balls while blowing a subtle amount of air through my nose or mouth while hitting each ball. If there’s a big disruption to the flow of air during the swing, I’ll know I had some tension in my swing. Sometimes while I’m doing this I’ll also focus on keeping my face relaxed and not gritting my teeth while I swing…or I’ll imagine myself swinging with the grace and balance of Ernie Els or Fred Couples. By the end of the bucket, my shots are usually much better.
Obviously, individual keys will differ from person to person. However, as a generalization, if you are looking to lower your handicap I would definitely tell you to consider rotating the club less through impact, keeping a relatively relaxed steadiness to your head until the ball is gone, and taking care not to clench up too tight during all of your shots from full swings, to pitches, and chips.
Those are the things that made the most difference to my scores and perhaps you’ll find that they can help you drop some shots from tee to green as well.