This is a three-part article explaining the underlying process of how to lower your score. I must warn you, there are no swing tips, drills, or new clubs to buy. This is a deep dive into the thoughts, processes and decisions you should make to become a better golfer.
This is the way I coach and think about improving elite players, however, it’s the first time I’ve attempted to write it out on paper, so apologies if it is a little rough around the edges.
- Part 1: A deterministic model for scoring
- Part 2: The hidden performance cycle
- Part 3: Weekly systems & processes for excellence
Part 1: A deterministic model for scoring
In part one We’ll take the concept of scoring and make the process of how to shoot lower scores as simple as possible.
This isn’t going to make you a better golfer next week, rather, it is a tool to help you improve your golf game by making clearer and simpler decisions in the coming months and years.
What is a deterministic model?
Strictly speaking, a deterministic model is an analysis whereby a movement outcome can be fully explained by subsequent layers of mechanical variables. Each layer fully explains the layer above. This approach has proved incredibly useful in sport science and coaching.
You can geek out on a full deterministic modelling review here but I’ve created a basic example below. Here we can see how average running speed can be fully explained by two variables: average stride length x average stride frequency.
If you know both of these base variables you can precisely work out an athlete’s average speed. Furthermore, if you know the outcome variable and one of the base variables you can calculate the missing piece.
However, the real power in deterministic models is not in explaining performance, but rather in being able to predict and calculate what changes are needed to create your desired performance. The example above shows how a coach could sit down and work out what changes would be needed in stride length or stride frequency in order to reach 10m/s (righthand images).
As you can see from the graphic, the coach could choose to increase stride length, or increase the stride frequency of the athlete. Both options work, it is then up to the athlete and coach to decide how they can make these adaptations in practice.
This ability to explain and predict performance is one I love to share with students when lecturing at university. Before we jump back to golf, I must highlight this great article by Mickey Ferri, using this approach to explain how Usain Bolt outperformed the rest of the sprinting world, check it out if you want to learn more.
What is the best outcome variable for golf?
So how does this apply to golf? Well, the key variable for golf performance is stroke average. This is our golden outcome variable. The graphic below shows how stroke average is related to handicap.
Essentially to become a lower handicap golfer you need to reduce your score average. This relationship between performance and score average still holds true on all major golf tours too. Average less than 69.0 across the year and you’ll likely win the EuroPro, Challenge Tour, DP Tour, LET, LPGA or PGA Tour.
The course and standard of play may change, but this variable really does predict success at every level of golf.
A deterministic model for golf
So our outcome is stroke average. The next stage is to systematically break down stroke average into layers that fully explain the level above. Again, I don’t think this has been done before, there may be some tweaks needed, but I feel it is useful to share how I think about optimising golfing performance.
At the top, we have stroke average, or total strokes gained. Each Tour and app producer has a slightly different way of calculating strokes gained. The maths is the same, but some use the PGA database, others use scratch data as a strokes gained benchmark and some apps benchmark you against average players of your own ability. Don’t worry the following approach works for all of the above.
If you need a quick recap on how strokes gained works check out this link. Have a quick scan of the graphic below, then we’ll talk through each stage. These models are read top to bottom and each area has the same structure, but I’ve just drawn one out to keep it clear and concise.
On level one we can confidently predict your strokes gained total (outcome) will be fully made up of your strokes gained in driving, approach play, short game and putting. Lower any of these by one shot and your total score lowers by one shot.
Even thinking about your golf game on this level can be very insightful – where you should be spending your time and effort?
Below each of these is a layer that few golfers think about. Your strokes gained score in each category is made up of two factors. The number of shots you hit in that category and your average strokes gained score per shot.
Simply put, if you are gaining shots in a given area, and you hit more shots (all else staying equal) you’ll reduce your overall score. Obviously, this is never the case, if you are chipping more, you’ve likely missed more greens. More 6-ft putts, rather than 2-ft putts means you chipped worse…and so on.
However, think hard about what shots you have over and over again on the golf course – unless they are 1-ft tap-ins go practice these shots! Improving them slightly will tumble your overall stroke average.
Level three is simply the strokes gained calculation. What is i) the average number of shots taken to complete a hole from your start location, ii) minus the average shots taken to complete a hole from the finish distance, and iii) minus one for the shot you’ve hit to advance the ball there.
All this drills us down to level four, which is really interesting but obvious. Essentially, to improve any area of your golf game you need to worry about two factors. How you can get the golf ball to finish closer to the hole and/or how you can improve your finish location.
The power of strokes gained is that it makes understanding golf performance far simpler. When you average across a large number of data points it is clear that leaving 180-yards in to a green, rather than 200-yards will result in lower scores. Averaging 8-ft away rather than 12-ft away with chip shots will also result in lower scores.
Strokes gained extra
These two factors of distance and location are how strokes gained works. The entire golf course is broken up into bins/boxes with the average shots taken to complete the hole in each box. Golf is then a game of jumping from box to box as you hit each shot. Box examples are:
- What is the average number of shots taken to complete a hole from 120-130 yards from the rough?
- What is the average number of shots taken to complete a hole for a 10-15 yards bunker shot?
- What is the average number of shots taken to complete a 440-450 yard hole from the tee?
There is a really geeky trade-off between how big you make each analysis bin (1, 5 or 10-yards) and the accuracy/certainty of the strokes gained data you get. There is no perfect solution, as this revolves around a key trade-off centred in the ‘general uncertainty principle’ that exists across many domains.
The four layers of analysis above now lead us back to the well-trodden area of golf performance. What technical, tactical, physical and psychological changes should you make to improve level 4?
Nothing should be off the table. When you look through a player’s data, one of the easiest wins can be to aim towards the middle of more greens. This sounds stupidly simple, but averaging 10 yards away on the green, vs 10 yards away on the fringe and in bunkers makes a dramatic difference to scoring.
Take a look at the questions at the bottom of the model, they are just a start point but hopefully, they get you thinking about all the possibilities that could be used to make you a better golfer.
All technical, tactical, physical and psychological changes should be steeped in this model. If it does not reduce your distance to the target, or improve your finish location do not do it!
It is a waste of time.
So why is this approach useful?
Most golfers reading this want to be better at golf. That means shooting lower scores. It is very easy to get lost on a pathway that doesn’t lead to lower scores. After working with many elite and sub-elite players I can tell you that the most impressive strikers of the golf ball, with the prettiest swings, are often not the best golfers.
The players who optimise their deterministic scoring models are the ones who will be successful.
This approach shows that you have options, and the model doesn’t care how you play golf. See the two examples below. Example 1 is a poor driver, but an exceptional iron player and putter. Example 2 is a phenomenal driver and not a bad iron player, but he/she is poor on the greens.
These two players are equal in terms of performance. Players need to look at their weaknesses, but improving your current strengths is just as valuable if you feel it can be done.
Secondly, consider how many shots you hit in each area, and if it is easy to improve your strokes gained data just a little. This is one reason driving is important, you hit 14 drives a round and the difference between a good and bad drive can be 15-30 yards in distance left to the hole (distance and lateral error).
This isn’t something you should be doing weekly after a poor round. Rather, a tool you reach for every 3-6 months when you are looking at a batch of golf rounds (10-50 rounds) and planning your next few months of development. Take a long hard look at what you are working on, and what you are possibly missing.
Where are you spending your time and is it helping you get the ball closer to the hole?
After reading this section you should have 2-3 areas to work on that you know will lead to lower scores. Now let’s move on to parts two and three where we break down the practical steps required to get better over time.
Part 2: The hidden performance cycle
It is very easy for us to get caught up in how Bryson added 60 yards to his game, how Nelly Korda’s swing appears technically flawless, or how Colin Morikawa is as accurate with a 7-iron as most pros are with their wedge. But this can make getting better at golf seem unattainable, how do you go from zero to 1,000?
Well the truth is you can’t, but you can go from 0 to 5, 5 to 10, 10 to 15….and so on. The key to improving your golf game is making these jumps consistently and making them as large as possible through each performance cycle. In part two we’ll look at the performance cycle that every golfer goes through.
How effective your performance cycle is will determine how big a jump you make each week with your golf game. It is basic and boring, but it underpins how quickly you will improve. In part three we’ll build on this approach, linking back to simple, practical ideas. Below is the simple performance cycle.
Every week as a golfer you go through this cycle. The key question is do you come out 1 point better, 10 points better, or worse than you were before?
The cycle above is super simple, and I’d say obvious, but how optimised is each stage of your cycle? The better you can get this cycle, the quicker you’ll improve. Below we take a closer look at each stage.
Reflecting & understanding how you played
Do you know what constitutes good play? Ideally, you have key metrics that let you know if your driving, short game, putting etc. was or wasn’t good enough. These metrics can be strokes gained data, or more basic measures of putts per round and greens in regulation.
If you don’t have any metrics you’ll judge your performance on emotion, and the one or two shots that you feel made or broke your round.
Here are some tips to help you improve this stage:
- Analyse your golf in batches of 3-5 rounds, don’t worry about poor stats for one-off rounds.
- Set a benchmark for each area of your game, use these benchmarks as goals every time you play.
- Use your personal insight on top of stats, maybe you just had 3 impossible up and downs, factor this in when looking at your numbers.
- Try to finish this stage with one thing you did well and one area that needs work (yes, I’m aware you may want to list 6 areas that need work, but focus on one).
Developing a golf improvement plan based on data
We dive into building a holistic development plan more in part 3, but here we cover the basics. You need to create a practice plan that targets the key areas for scoring and development. This includes the core skills that are important for you to score well and the weakness you settled on after your analysis.
For me, the core skills and practices involve a driving challenge (driver, 4-wood & 2-iron), a wedge challenge (125 – 80 yards), 3, 6, 9ft putting and a short game challenge. I also like to have 40-60 balls working on technical aspects of my game throughout the bag on the range. If I get these core tasks done I can usually keep my game in good shape.
I try to get these completed each week, then bolt on additional practice for my area of weakness. This practice will be bespoke and may be technically focused or more skill-based – it depends where my golf game is.
One final note, even when I’m training to compete, I’ll normally only get 70-80% of these tasks completed. Aiming for 100% is great, but accept that if you consistently complete 70% or more every cycle, you’ll still make great progress – consistency is key.
Once you have a plan in place it is all about executing. However, there is a big difference between turning up and going through the motions, and really investing and focusing on every shot. For more, on what great practice looks and feels like check out this short note on practice intensity.
Deploying skills on the golf course
This is one of the key steps missed by many club golfers. The golf course is just different from the range. I’ve talked a lot about how to close that gap between the range and the golf course, but the perception-action coupling that underpins human movement means you have to practice on the course if you want your skills to work when it counts.
In this stage head onto the golf course with the sole aim of practicing your new technique, ball flight control or decision making. This is not about scoring, it is about practicing your skill on the golf course, where every shot is different.
You’ll likely hit lots of bad shots during this stage, and that is absolutely fine, it is part of the learning process.
Planning an effective strategy for golf improvement
Do you think you would play your home course the same with the skills of a player 5 shots better or worse than where you are now? Would you choose the same strategy if you hit it 15-yards further? Or if you had a terrible short game? The answer is hopefully no.
This is another piece of this cycle many club players miss. Before each new competitive round you should reflect on your current golf skills and adapt your strategy, rather than mindlessly reaching for the same club and aiming for the same targets off every tee, you should stop and think – how do I maximise my scoring potential with my current golf game?
If you’re hitting driver well, it may be time to capitalise, if you can’t keep your driver in your county/state maybe you should hit a hybrid off more tees. Are you pin seeking, or aiming for the middle of the green? These are really important questions to reflect on before every competitive round.
This stage is something plus handicap golfers and pros are very, very good at. They often get the best score out of their sub-optimal skills during off-days. You may also want to check out how to prepare for a golf tournament.
Playing competitive golf
Playing great golf is all about staying in the movement, sticking to the game plan and focusing on great processes for every shot. It is so simple, but far from easy to do. The two most important factors in becoming great at competitive golf are i) to use your great weekly practices as a source of confidence, giving you the knowledge that you are good enough to execute the shot, paired with ii) putting yourself into competitive situations over and over again so you can keep learning and improving.
After every competitive round, fill in your stats, make some short notes and reflect on the round.
And the cycle starts again…
Summary – The hidden performance cycle
This cycle is one we all go through, but after reading this section what would you rate yours out of 10? Mine is about a 6 currently, which means I’m leaving 4 points on the table every time I go through a cycle. Improving my own golf isn’t a current priority, but writing this has made me think!
Hopefully, this breakdown of each step allows you to think about the stages you do well, and where you could make improvements. Consider how you can get your own process up to an 8, 9 or 10. These improvements will really start to add up over a number of weeks and months.
Part 3: Weekly systems & processes for excellence
So, you now have a logical way to think about golf performance and scoring (part 1). You should also be aware of the hidden performance cycle you go through every week (part 2). In part three we’ll see how you can pull all of the above together into a simple plan you can execute every week.
In this part you’ll need a pad and pen to start scribbling down what you should do each week to take this theory and put it into an actionable plan. Let’s start with one of my all-time favourite quotes.
“We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems & processes.”
Setting goals is pointless if you don’t build weekly systems and processes that will deliver your desired outcome.
What are systems and processes?
Systems are structures that result in an outcome. Within each system there are multiple processes that need to be completed.
For example, you and I have a system to get ready for work every morning. It is made up of multiple processes: having a shower, breakfast, brushing our teeth… This approach is nice because you can zoom in and out of a system and think about how effective it is for a given outcome.
For example, if our goal was to lose weight we could tweak our morning system to contain some exercise and a lower calorie breakfast, if we follow this over a period of weeks/months, we’ll move towards our goal.
Now let’s think about this in a golfing context.
Many golfers set goals, but few think deeply about if their systems and processes are aligned to their goals – hence why so many fail.
What systems should you have in place?
The six systems outlined below are the framework I use with players. I’m not saying this break down is perfect, but I tend to find this approach drastically improves the way players think about getting better.
- System 1 – Reflection on playing performance
- System 2 – Core weekly practices
- System 3 – Developmental practices for current areas of weakness
- System 4 – Development of areas you want to become exceptional
- System 5 – Physiological development
- System 6 – Psychological development
System 1 – Reflection on playing performance
This section has a little overlap from part two, but what is your system for reflecting on your play? What stats do you keep? When do you put them in? Do you take 5 minutes to look at the passed 3-5 rounds and re-assess what you should practice? Do you know the direction of your misses for key areas? Do you evaluate your thought process and pre-shout routine and score them 1-10?
These are just a few questions to help you get going.
Look back at what areas you need to improve and write down the key metrics you need to track. This could be strokes gained data, GIR data, average driving distance, or something more bespoke to you. Just make sure you have some metrics that are useful and that you will reflect on.
If you want to extra help here check out our golf stats by handicap dashboard.
There are three key parts that I would advise most players have within their playing analysis system:
- Keep track of what parts of your game went well and what didn’t.
- Ideally, add directional information and context to your stats in key areas (this helps shape your practice).
- Once you’ve finished reflecting you should have 1 or 2 key areas to focus on.
The key takeaway is to have something that you track after you play that fits into the areas you want to improve. The second key takeaway is to make time after every 3-5 rounds to look at these numbers and work out if they are getting better or worse.
Make sure you pencil time into your weekly plan to evaluate your game. If you’re going to practice for 5 hours or more, please make sure you spend the 5-10 minutes analysing your stats to make your practice efficient.
System 2 – Core weekly practices
What are the core tasks you need to keep your game in good order? This may be technical time on the range, playing certain skills games, playing 18 holes golf or a key putting drill. Think back to when you were playing well, what were you doing every week?
Think about how you play golf, do you have lots of fairway woods into greens, or short wedge shots? Make time to practice the shots that are the core of your golf game. Do the things in practice that build your confidence and do them every week.
Make a note of these tasks, these are the activities you must make time for each week.
System 3 – Developmental practices for weaknesses
What are the areas in part one you highlighted to work on? Go back to this model and think through what you need to work on – technique, skill development, tactics, physical and psychological aspects within each area.
This isn’t easy to do, and it will really help if you have a great coach to support you, but please try. Grab a piece of paper and start breaking down your performance – you are leaving so much on the table if you just focus on technical changes. Remember your goal is to i) reduce your average distance to the target and/or ii) improve the finish location of your shots.
This is where directional information for playing stats becomes really valuable. The strokes gained number tells you what to work on, and the directional data tells you how to improve your performance (fewer misses right, better distance control…).
Now write down some processes that are needed to improve each area. For technical changes pencil in some time at the range. For skill development grab some skills games:
- Putting skills games
- Chipping skills games
- Long game skills games
- Driving range practice plan
- Short game practice plan
For tactical development, plan some time on the golf course selecting targets, hitting shots and working out how to control your miss.
As we covered in part 2, make sure you have time off and on the golf course to work on your skills. This is a key part in helping your skills transfer into competition.
- Off-course – great for practice volume
- On-course – more representative environment
Ideally, pick one key metric in practice (a skills game) and one key metric in play. Keep a note of these numbers each week, as they will be the earliest indication that you are moving in the right direction.
System 4 – Development of areas to become exceptional
Being great at one area of the game can make up for weaknesses in other areas. Being an exceptional iron player often means a poor short game or putting will affect your scores less. Work on your weaknesses, but also create a weekly system to make your current strengths even better.
Pick the one or two areas of the game and go through the same process as above. What can you do to improve your technique, skill and tactics? What does this look like in a weekly practice structure – skills games, time on the course, time on the range? Make some notes on how you will take your strengths to the next level.
System 5 – Physiological development
The modern game is one where power is a serious asset. However, great physiological development goes much deeper than hitting the ball further. Yes – an extra 8mph clubhead speed ≈ 20 yards on your drives, you will shoot lower scores if everything else in your game stays the same.
However, better conditioning also means you can keep control of the clubhead during your golf swing. It means you will feel fresher on your 3rd hour of practice, and consequently, make better swings and stay focused. Better conditioning will help you recover quicker after your practice and play, meaning you can fit more of ‘life’ around your golf.
What are you going to do each week to move this aspect forward? For elite players, great physiological development will likely include 2-3 strength and mobility sessions, 15 minutes warm-up and cool-down sessions after a full day’s play or practice, and a nutrition plan that ensures enough calories, macro and micronutrients.
If you don’t have anything in place, just think about what will move your game forward with the minimum input? Two 20-minute strength sessions a week, combined with one/two sessions hitting the ball harder can have a very noticeable effect if executed correctly.
System 6 – Psychological development
I don’t think any of us would say we get 100% of our ability when competing. Many of us will point to better thinking as a key to better golf.
But here is a question – what do you do each week to maintain, develop and optimise your thinking? If the answer is very little, then you can have no complaints.
Are you good at staying in the present, or do you get distracted with ‘what-ifs’? Are you process focused when executing your golf shots? Do you even have a clear pre-shot routine? How good is your planning for each golf shot?
Many golfers jump straight to their long game when thinking about the questions above. But these questions are just as critical for your recovery shots, short game and putting performance.
So what are you going to do about this? Think back to our performance model, what are the key areas to improve? Now create some weekly processes to improve your thinking in these areas. 20-minutes of weekly mindfulness and optimising your pre-shot routine once a month isn’t a big ask, but you’d be surprised how big the effect could be on your performance.
For non-elite players, the key here is not to invest all of your time but to have something useful in place that you repeat every week or month. If better thinking is important to you, build a great system to help develop it.
Pulling your golf improvement plan together
The aim of this article is to provide you with a comprehensive guide to improving your golf game. I hope you have some new ways of thinking, and new tools, but we now need to make sure you take action. So in this final section, we need to build you a simple weekly plan.
Take a look at all of the notes you have for your systems and processes and distil them down into 5-20 weekly tasks you need to complete.
There are two ways you can go to keep yourself on track: a super structured timetable, or a list of weekly tasks to cross off. I prefer the latter, due to work constraints and the great British weather.
Below I’ve created an example of both, click on them to have a closer look, and then below you can download a free copy of either using the buttons.
Perfect is the enemy of good – I don’t always agree with this notion, but here it is perfect. Within the next hour create a ‘good’ plan and get going. You can, and will, iterate your plan as you get going – this is one final kick for you to find those extra 20-minutes in an evening, get to the course an hour early and start doing the things each week that will make you a better golfer.
This has taken me a long time to put together! But I have enjoyed writing it. It isn’t perfect, but I really hope it is a useful resource you can keep coming back to when needed.
For me personally as a coach, understanding and implementing the above is far more important for golfers who want to get better than mastering any one swing position. Just like technical work, this isn’t a one-off task. Save this page and re-visit this process every 6 or 12-months.
If this has been useful to you, then it has been well worth my time. I only have two asks – number one – go take action. Reading this won’t make you better, create a plan and start crossing off tasks.
Number two – if you have found this useful please share it with a friend, or some other golfing destination online (where appropriate). These ‘non-SEO’ pieces tend to get 3,000 – 10,000 reads in a week, then disappear into the black hole of the internet.
Finally, if you have any questions or comments, leave them below. I’ll do my best to answer them all so we can create even more value for follow up readers.
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Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider
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