What causes us to play bad golf?

We all have them, we all dread them. Those days on the golf course where we feel utterly useless. Our golfing skill leaves us and we’re left flailing a lump of metal at the golf ball. No one likes playing bad golf, but what causes us to have a bad day on the golf course?

In this article, I’m going to explore three factors that might cause us to play bad golf and consider what we can do to minimise our bad golfing days in the future.

What is a successful day of golf?

Before we consider the dark side of golf, we must first identify what a good day of golf consists of. To me, a good days golf is one where many of my golf shots are highly accurate, and my bad shots are not too far away from my intended target.

To achieve this we need to consistently predict what forces we need to apply to the ball at impact. We then need to make a golf swing that achieves these forces. It is as simple as that.

Therefore, bad golf is a day where we are depart from the ability to create the ideal forces at impact. Why is this?

Let us take a look at some of the factors that may affect our ability to produce great golf shots, and lead us to a bad days golf.

Bad golf – golf is a game of timing

Swinging a lump of metal around our body to hit a little white ball at over 100mph takes timing.

But what do we mean by timing? Many golfers describe ‘losing their rhythm’ when they play badly. I often hear fellow golfers say “Your swing looked too quick on that shot” after their playing partner has hit a bad golf shot. However, rarely is the golfer trying to swing quickly, it just looks and feels that way.

I think the best way to describe timing, rhythm and tempo is to break them down a little and think about what we truly mean when we say these terms. All of these terms mean the same thing:

“Something you just did didn’t look right”

There are only a finite number of factors that can actually change in your golf swing:

1) Position

The position of your upper body, arms or golf club.

2) Velocity & acceleration

The speed at which a body part, or the golf club is travelling.

3) Sequencing

The timing between two body parts or the golf club.

From this perspective timing/rhythm/tempo can be seen as a change of one or more of these factors. Now at first, this may not seem helpful. However, you now have a checklist and structure to consider changes to your tempo/timing and rhythm.

Bad golf – poor planning

When most golf coaches talk about poor planning they mean – “You should have hit 5 iron off the tee, not Driver“. However, there is a more granular type of shot planning that is vital for golf performance.

Every time you come across your golf ball laid on the fairway, or placed on a tee your body has to come up with a plan. It needs to look at the situation, consider all the past times you’ve done similar tasks and come up with a solution.

This plan consists of – right body, I think we need to do ‘x’.

This type of shot planning is complex and predominately sub-conscious. However, I feel it may play a big role in why we have bad days on the golf course. Some days our planning and ability to come up with the correct solution may just suck.

In motor control and neuroscience, we call this ability to devise a solution – forward planning. There is some really cool research that is starting to suggest the development of forward planning while we sleep.

Forward planning is a skill that we develop when we practice. Most golfers see practice as a chance to refine their golf swing. However, a second critical component of practice is the development of forward planning.

Each time we hit a golf shot in practice our body has to guess what swing is ideal. It then needs to attempt to execute this solution. Both are imperative to produce an accurate golf shot.

This importance of forward planning in golf might not be true. I will openly say I am applying empirical lab findings to the world of golf performance; there is a big jump.

However, if it is true, it may explain why range practice does not transfer well to the golf course. The forward planning on the range is very different compared to the golf course.

It may also explain why variable practice may prove more useful for learning golfing skill.  During variable practice you have to continually re-plan your next shot. This is very different to hitting 40 7-irons in a row to the same target.

If you wish to develop your forward planning I suggest you spend more timing hitting shots on the golf course where the shots match what you will face when you compete. When you do practice on the golf range, mix up your shot selection. This will force your body to keep developing its forward planning.

Bad golf – my swing doesn’t feel right

Last on my list is another learning from studying human movement. I personally experience days where halfway through my downswing blind panic sets in. It feels as if I’m going to hit my shot miles left. As a result, I compensate and lose the ball miles right instead. This leaves me even more confused as to what to do on the next shot.

Until recently I would always blame this on a bad golf swing. However, I now have a new thought that intrigues me.

When we make a movement, such as swinging the golf club, our brain does two things. It first tells our body to make a certain movement. It also sends a message to our hindbrain and sub-cortical areas saying – if I make this movement this is what it should feel like.

When we start to make a golf swing sensory information begins to flow in. This sensory information is compared to our prediction of what we think the golf swing should feel like.

If the two signals match up they cancel each other out and our swing feels effortless. If they don’t match, our body intervenes and we try to update our movement.

It is this process that is in charge of our in-swing updates. Some days this process may play up. It may incorrectly guess what a good golf swing should feel like. Therefore even when we make good golf swings they feel effortful, ungainly and uncoordinated. All of these may come from our predicted feedback and actual feedback not matching up, not a bad golf swing.

I’m not saying every bad feeling golf swing is caused by this. However, it should make you think harder about what feels like a good and bad golf swing next time you play.

Bad golf – summary

There we have my modern take on what may cause our bad golf days. Hopefully, this article has made you think a little deeper about how timing, planning and prediction may all play a role in those days where our golfing skill packs its bags and leaves us.

You may or may not agree. I would love you to leave a comment below with your thoughts. If you would like a free weekly article like this one emailed to your inbox please join the golf insiders.

Or for more playing guides check out how to break 80 and how to become a scratch golfer.

Many thanks for reading and happy golfing.

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

2 thoughts on “What causes us to play bad golf?”

  1. Hi Clay, thanks for the kind offer. I would be happy to look at chatting on your show. I’ve checked out your website, but have you got a link to your podcast? Fire over some details to [email protected] and we’ll come up with a plan.

    Kind regards,

    Will

    Reply
  2. You gave advice on dealing with a game of timing and poor planning. You did not give advice on dealing with sequencing, or is it just understanding that sequencing issues exist.

    Reply

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