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How To Lower Your Handicap [Data Study]

Playing more golf and practising more are not the key to lowering your handicap

We ran a data study to find out the key differences between golfers who improved their handicaps over 12 months and those who did not. We analysed the change in handicap for 257 golfers over the past 12 months, we also collected data on playing habits, practice habits and wider aspects such as taking golf lessons and keeping stats.

The average club golfer:

  • Start handicap: 18.9
  • Average handicap change: -2.82
  • Played: 1.68 rounds/week
  • Practised: 3.00 hours/week
  • Went to the gym: 1.78 times/week
  • Had 4.0 golf lessons/year
  • Watched YouTube Golf Content for: 68.6mins/week
  • Listened to golf podcasts: 23mins/week
  • Spent: $842/year on golf equipment (excluding golf lessons, green fees and memberships)
  • Kept playing stats: Yes 60.4%, Sometimes, 26.3%, No: 13.3%
  • Kept practice stats: Yes 12.5%, Sometimes, 21.0%, No: 66.5%

Key findings

  • Golfers who regularly kept playing stats showed an average handicap improvement of 3.38 shots, compared to an average improvement of 1.38 shots improvement for golfers who did not keep playing stats.
  • Golfers who lowered their handicaps reported 15% higher levels of focus and planning in practice than golfers whose handicaps increased, and 8% more focused than golfers whose handicaps did not change.
  • Playing more golf did not account for improvement. Golfers who improved their handicaps played fewer rounds of golf each week than golfers whose handicaps increased (1.6 rounds/week vs 2.02 rounds/week respectively).
  • Practising more hours did not account for improvement. Golfers who improved their handicaps practised fewer hours than those who improved (2.02 hours/week vs 3.37 hours/week respectively).
  • Taking golf lessons and having more frequent golf lessons was not associated with reducing handicaps unless you were over a 30 handicap at the start of the year.
  • The only significant practice variable explaining golfers lowering their handicap is their level of practice focus and planning.

Conclusions

Keeping regular playing stats and having a clear practice plan are the two factors you should focus on if you want to improve at a quicker rate.

Practising more or playing more golf is not likely to result in getting better without the above in place.

Understanding golf performance is challenging. The best model we could create suggests all of the factors we analysed could explain 43% of handicap changes, meaning 57% of the variance could not be accounted for. This is pretty good in the realms of motor learning studies but shows the messy nature of golf performance and the need for further analysis.

Sample size: 257 golfers, collected January 2024 (pictures can be republished when citing source).

To cite this data please use:

Will Shaw, Golf Insider (2024) How To Lower Your Handicap [Data Study]

Introduction

We wanted to analyse what separated golfers who improved, from golfers who stayed the same and those who regressed over the past 12 months, to do this we collected golfers’ current handicaps in January 2024 and asked them how many shots their handicaps had increased or decreased over the past 12 months.

We then collected various data on their practice habits playing habits and related aspects, such as keeping stats, having golf lessons etc.

We used this data to analyse the factors that showed the best relationships and trends with changes in handicap over the 12 months. We also broke this analysis down into handicap groups to see if there were trends specific to golfers at different levels.

In the next section, we’re going to dig into the main findings. If you do want to see some of the stats analysis that underpinned if these results were statistically significant you can jump to them here.

The full questionnaire can be viewed here.

Rounds of golf played

The first trend we’d expect to see is that if you play more golf you will get better. However, this was not the case. Golfers who improved their handicaps played fewer rounds of golf each week (1.6 rounds/week) than golfers whose handicaps increased (2.02 rounds/week).

The graph below shows a breakdown of this data by handicap group and whether golfers’ handicaps improved or got worse. We can see that better golfers tend to play more golf. However, within each group, those who improved their handicap tended to play fewer rounds of golf per week.

The one exception to this rule is golfers who are over a 30 handicap. In this group golfers who improved their handicaps tended to play 1.2 rounds a week, versus 1.0 rounds a week for golfers whose handicaps increased.

Practice Hours

With playing golf not accounting for handicap improvements, we were expecting to at least see a trend of golfers who practice more improving their handicap.

However…the data suggests the opposite.

Golfers who improved their handicap practised less on average (2.82 hours/week) than golfers who saw an increase in their handicap (3.37 hours/week) over the 12 months.

The findings are not causal, so we could state that golfers who were getting worse tended to practice more. However, we still have a clear trend between these two groups that more practice on its own is not a good metric for predicting handicap improvement.

It is still surprising to see a 20% increase in practice time between these two outcomes.

As we dive deeper, we can see that this trend is most apparent in higher handicappers. However, in general, practising more each week is not a significant factor in explaining golfers’ handicap improvement.

Practice Focus

We finally get to a variable that might help us make sense of what helps golfers get better and that is practice focus.

It is important to understand how we phrased this question:

How focused is your practice? (0 = I have no plan, 100 = I’m obsessive over every detail)

This needs further follow-up analysis in a future study, but we were aiming to explore if the quality of practice was more of a factor than the volume of practice. We considered i) having a practice plan and ii) paying attention to details during practice were important aspects of high-quality practice.

On average, golfers who improved their handicaps had a practice focus of 58 out of 100, compared to 54 out of 100 for golfers whose handicaps did not change and 50 out of 100 for golfers who got worse.

This trend becomes even stronger when we remove beginner golfers and those over a 30 handicap. For all other handicap groups practice focus was the only variable to consistently trend with golfers who lowered their handicap, suggesting having a practice plan and focusing on shot outcome and swing cues is far more important than practice volume.

Practice Difficulty

We also asked golfers to rate how challenging they find their practice. In golf practice, the challenge is predominantly set by what is a good or bad shot, or by the skills games you decide to play, so we phrased the question as follows:

How challenging do you find your practice? (0 = I don’t set targets, 1= I hit every practice target, 100 = I never hit my practice targets).

At a general level, there were no interesting differences between golfers who improved versus those who didn’t, with all groups averaging a practice difficulty of 49.5 to 50.7.

We also split the data into golfers who scored 0, stating they don’t set targets but again there was nothing of interest to report.

However, there is one finding that is worth sharing and that fits in with skill acquisition theory. When we break the findings down by handicap groups we can see that within 0-4 handicap golfers we see a sharp trend in practice difficulty between those who improved and those who got worse.

This suggests that for most golfers, moderate, structured practice is sufficiently challenging enough to elicit stress and trigger the adaptations required for learning. However, this may not be the case when you get to a higher standard.

When you reach a 4 handicap or below, scaling up the difficulty of your practice might become useful.

Golf lessons

Golf lessons were another factor we were interested in tracking and, as a golf coach, I likely had a biased opinion on what we were going to see, and I was wrong.

On average having more golf lessons didn’t help: golfers who improved averaged 3.92 golf lessons over the year compared to 4.78 golf lessons over the year for golfers whose handicaps got worse.

This isn’t causal so we could argue that golfers who were getting worse invested more time in golf lessons, but there is no clear trend to suggest more golf lessons helped golfers.

We also split the data into golfers who had no golf lessons and golfers who had one or more golf lessons. 186 golfers had one or more golf lessons, of which 67% improved their handicap. 71 golfers had no golfer lessons with 70% of that cohort improving their handicap.

The one trend that stands out is with golfers who have a 30+ handicap. In this group, it appears golf lessons were a beneficial factor in lowering handicaps.

This makes sense, as we can often see a big progression in beginner golfers and high handicappers just by getting good fundamentals in place and by improving their understanding of how to hit golf shots.

We have some evidence that golf lessons are useful for beginners but after that golf lessons by themselves do not magically help you improve, they should help inform how you practice and play.

We followed this up by exploring if golfers who have golf lessons practice with more focus. This was the key practice predictor that explained handicap improvements.

Golfers who had no golf lessons had an average practice focus of 47 out of 100. Whereas, golfers who had one or more golf lessons had an average practice focus of 57 out of 100.

This suggests golf lessons can be useful in informing your practice, but just having golf lessons will not guarantee better golf.

Golf coaches should consider spending more time on how to implement their suggestions within effective practice.

Playing stats

So we’re on to the big surprise in the findings. Something we didn’t expect to have such a strong relationship with improving as a golfer and that is keeping regular playing stats.

This was a categorical variable, meaning golfers could reply to whether they kept playing stats with ‘Yes’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘No’. To best understand the data we calculated the average handicap change and counted the percentage of golfers in the category who improved.

Keeping regular playing stats resulted in an average handicap improvement of 3.38 shots, compared to an average improvement of 2.29 shots for golfers who sometimes kept playing stats and 1.38 average improvement for golfers who did not keep playing stats.

Golfers who kept regular stats averaged 2.0 shots more improvement than golfers who didn’t keep playing stats.

55% of golfers improved who didn’t keep playing stats, this figure rose to 73% of golfers who did keep playing stats. Suggesting keeping playing stats takes your chances of getting better at golf

Summary – What you can learn from this

If you want to lower your handicap, the number one thing you should do is keep playing stats to inform your future practice and play. On average, keeping regular playing stats helped our cohort improve by 2.0 shots more than golfers who did not keep playing stats.

Practising more each week does not mean you will magically improve at a quicker rate. Having a clear practice plan and focusing on the details of your shot outcomes and swing cues are the most important factors for your practice resulting in lower scores.

If you are over a 30 handicap you should have golf lessons and spend time playing golf. Golf lessons will give you a better sense of what to work on, and playing rounds of golf is key to learning how to score.

Golf performance is messy, many factors contribute to getting better at golf. The best model we could build explained 43% of the variance in handicap change, meaning 57% of improvement could not be accounted for.

Feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

The current results are based on 257 golfers, a big thank you to those who took part. We’d love to keep updating this data study if you are happy to join in or have any way to share this with a group of golfers via email or social.

Additional material – Stats

This section is just for those who want to geek out about some of the numbers behind the findings above.

Welch T-tests were used to assess the statistical significance between golfers who improved their handicap and those who got worse. The Welch t-test is more robust to differences in variances between the two groups, making it a more appropriate choice when the assumption of equal variances is not satisfied.

Kruskal-Wallis Tests were used to assess the difference where there were 3 groups, with the data not meeting assumption tests required for ANOVA tests.

Practice focus

In examining the impact of practice focus on golfers’ handicap improvement, a Welch Two Sample t-test was conducted to compare the mean practice focus scores between golfers who improved their handicap and those who did not. The analysis revealed a statistically significant difference in the mean scores of practice focus between the two groups (mean for improved = 56.33, mean for not improved = 49.30), with a t-value of 1.98 (df = 150.03, p = 0.049). This suggests that golfers who improved their handicap had a higher mean practice focus score compared to those who did not improve. The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means ranged from 0.024 to 14.028, indicating a positive effect of practice focus on handicap improvement.

Practice hours

In assessing the relationship between the number of practice hours and golfers’ handicap improvement, we conducted a Welch Two Sample t-test. This analysis aimed to compare the mean practice hours between golfers who improved their handicap and those who did not. The results did not indicate a statistically significant difference in the mean practice hours between the groups (mean for improved = 2.82, mean for not improved = 3.36), with a t-value of -0.946 (df = 97.313, p = 0.346). The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means ranged from -1.676 to 0.594, suggesting that the difference in practice hours between the two groups is not statistically significant at the conventional alpha levels.

These findings imply that within our sample, the quantity of practice hours alone does not significantly differentiate golfers who improved their handicap from those who did not. This suggests that factors other than the sheer volume of practice may play a more critical role in handicap improvement.

Golf rounds played

In examining the relationship between the frequency of golf rounds played per week and handicap improvement, we utilized a Welch Two Sample t-test to compare the average number of rounds played by golfers who improved their handicap against those who did not. The analysis indicated a trend towards fewer rounds played per week among golfers who improved their handicap (mean = 1.60) compared to those who did not improve (mean = 1.84), though this difference did not reach statistical significance (t = -1.724, df = 138.38, p = 0.087). The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means ranged from -0.515 to 0.035.

While the p-value approached the conventional threshold for significance, it suggests that there is a marginal difference in the playing frequency between the two groups that could not be conclusively deemed significant within the context of this study. The confidence interval includes zero, indicating that our data does not provide strong evidence to definitively state that playing more or fewer rounds of golf per week has a direct impact on handicap improvement.

This finding suggests that while there may be a slight trend towards improvement with fewer rounds played, the effect of playing frequency on handicap improvement is not clear-cut and warrants further investigation. Other factors not captured in this analysis may play a more substantial role in influencing a golfer’s ability to improve their handicap.

Practice difficulty

In our investigation into the impact of practice difficulty on golfers’ handicap improvement, a Welch Two Sample t-test was employed to compare the mean practice difficulty levels between golfers who improved their handicap and those who did not. The analysis revealed no statistically significant difference in the mean practice difficulty levels between the two groups (mean for improved = 46.31, mean for not improved = 42.99), with a t-value of 0.853 (df = 147.96, p = 0.395). The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means extended from -4.37 to 11.01.

These results suggest that the level of practice difficulty, as quantified in our study, does not significantly distinguish between golfers who experienced handicap improvement and those who did not. The wide confidence interval indicates a substantial uncertainty about the true mean difference, further emphasizing the lack of a clear association between practice difficulty and handicap improvement within our sample.

Golf lessons

In our investigation into the impact of golf lessons on handicap improvement, we conducted a Welch Two Sample t-test to compare the average number of golf lessons taken by golfers who improved their handicaps against those who did not. The results showed that golfers who improved their handicap had an average of 3.93 lessons, compared to 4.34 lessons for those who did not improve, although this difference was not statistically significant (t = -0.576, df = 163.66, p = 0.565). The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means spanned from -1.82 to 1.00.

The lack of statistical significance, as indicated by the p-value and the confidence interval that spans zero, suggests that within our dataset, the number of golf lessons alone does not have a discernible impact on a golfer’s likelihood of handicap improvement. This finding implies that while golf lessons may contribute to skill development, their direct correlation with handicap improvement is not evident from the data.

This analysis underscores the multifaceted nature of golf performance improvement, where factors beyond the mere frequency of lessons, such as the quality of instruction and practice factors (focus and difficulty), likely play significant roles. Further research is warranted to explore these dimensions and to identify under what conditions golf lessons can be most beneficial for handicap improvement.

Impact of golf lessons on practice focus

In examining the relationship between golf lessons and practice focus, a Welch Two Sample t-test was conducted to compare the average practice focus scores of golfers who took lessons to those who did not. The analysis revealed that golfers who participated in lessons exhibited a significantly higher average practice focus score (mean = 56.84) compared to those who did not take lessons (mean = 46.77), with a t-value of 2.823 and a degrees of freedom (df) of 127.16, resulting in a p-value of 0.0055. The 95% confidence interval for the difference in means ranged from 3.01 to 17.12.

This statistically significant result suggests that taking golf lessons is associated with a higher level of practice focus among golfers. The positive difference in practice focus scores indicates that lessons may not only improve technical skills but also enhance the golfer’s engagement and concentration during practice sessions. The confidence interval further supports this conclusion, indicating a meaningful difference in practice focus levels between the two groups.

This enhanced focus could be a contributing factor to the overall effectiveness of lessons in improving golf performance. Future research could further explore the mechanisms through which lessons impact practice behaviours and the extent to which these changes translate into tangible improvements in golfing proficiency.

Keeping playing stats

The Kruskal-Wallis rank sum test was conducted to examine the differences in handicap reduction across different categories of playing statistics maintenance (Yes, No, Sometimes). The test revealed a statistically significant difference in handicap reduction among the three groups of playing statistics maintenance, with a Kruskal-Wallis chi-squared value of 7.9996, degrees of freedom (df) = 2, and a p-value of 0.01832. This suggests that the median handicap reduction differs between at least two of the groups.

Given the p-value is less than the conventional alpha level of 0.05, we reject the null hypothesis of equal medians across the groups. and used Dunn’s post hoc test to explore the differences between the three groups.

Dunn’s Test Summary

Dunn’s post-hoc test with Bonferroni correction was performed to identify which specific groups differ from each other. The comparisons and their adjusted p-values are as follows:

  • No vs. Sometimes: The comparison between golfers who do not keep playing stats (“No”) and those who sometimes keep playing stats (“Sometimes”) did not show a statistically significant difference in handicap reduction (adjusted p-value = 0.4411).
  • No vs. Yes: The comparison between golfers who do not keep playing stats (“No”) and those who always keep playing stats (“Yes”) showed a statistically significant difference in handicap reduction, with the “Yes” group likely having a greater median reduction (adjusted p-value = 0.0162*). This suggests that keeping playing stats consistently may be associated with greater improvement.
  • Sometimes vs. Yes: The comparison between golfers who sometimes keep playing stats (“Sometimes”) and those who always keep playing stats (“Yes”) did not show a statistically significant difference in handicap reduction (adjusted p-value = 0.1102), although the p-value approached significance, suggesting a possible trend towards better outcomes for those who consistently keep stats.

The analysis suggests that consistently keeping playing stats (“Yes”) is associated with a greater median handicap reduction compared to not keeping stats at all (“No”), with statistical significance. However, there was no significant difference found between those who sometimes keep stats and the other two groups. This implies that the practice of consistently tracking playing stats might contribute to better performance outcomes in golf.

Regression model on data

To complete the analysis we performed a backward step-wise regression analysis on the variables that were suited to this form of analysis (numeric data) to see how much of handicap change could be explained by the variables we collected.

The initial model could account for 30% (Adjusted R-squared: 0.3025) of change in handicap, however, this model did not include the categorical variable of keeping playing stats.

We ran a second model on a dataset for golfers who answered ‘Yes’ to keeping playing stats and followed the same backward step-wise regression analysis. With this model, we concluded with an adjusted R-squared value of 0.427 or 43% of the change in handicap explained by the model.

This result is from a linear regression analysis where the dependent variable is Handicap_Reduction, and the independent variables are Start_handicap, Practice_Hours, Practice_Focus, Practice_Difficulty, and Golf_Equipment_Spend. The analysis was conducted on a subset of data (df_playng_stats_yes), representing golfers who said “Yes” to keeping playing stats. Here’s a breakdown of the output:

In summary, the model suggests that starting handicap and practice focus are significant predictors of handicap reduction, with golf equipment spending also showing a significant but very small effect. Practice hours and practice difficulty are not significant predictors in this model.

Feel free to leave any questions below.

Happy golfing (if you are still reading) – Will @ Golf Insider

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Will is a PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. He spent 10 years lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in Biomechanics and Motor Control before becoming the Head of Golf for the University of Exeter. He currently runs Golf Insider UK, Sport Science Insider around wider consulting and academic roles in sport performance and motor control.

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