Of all golf's woes you must imagine,
None so blighted as Johnny McDuff
He skulled, he tipped, he skied the ball.
What say you McDuff's game, Master Spence?

"Ay, he's a hacker alright.
Down to his bones, he dunnought a thing.
Can't say he can't play, though.
Just he dunnought know a thing."

from Tales of A Scottish Hacker

Preface: Are You a Golf Hacker?

by Lawrence Martin
Return to Lakeside Press
Go to Golf Bibliography

(NOTE: All links in this book have been tested before inclusion. However, links frequently disappear on the Web. If you find a link that doesn't work please let me know and I will delete it. Thank you. LM)

Why Are You Still a Hacker? is an on-line book for the millions of golf hackers in the English-speaking world. Its goals are simple: to make you a better golfer, to get you out of golf hacker-dom. Such will not happen just by reading this book, of course; it is only a template to get you on the right track. Still, if you follow the steps herein, you will become a better golfer -- and perhaps forever escape hacker-dom.

I went from total ignoramus about golf (never having swung a club until I was 50 years old) to breaking 100 in just under 5 years. It was and is a struggle, a crusade, a passion, -- call it what you will. I've had a good time along the way and now I want to help others achieve the same goal. Because I am such a weak golfer compared to the people who generally write golf books (mostly golf professionals), I have some unique insight into the struggle all hackers face. Very few books exist -- really, maybe only one or two - authored by high handicap golfers.

OK, I know what you must be thinking: "That's for a good reason. If you can't play the game well, how can you help others?" And my answer: I've been where you are. Unlike any teaching pro, I have experienced what you experience every time you go on the course: the frustration, the sense of hopelessness, the shear bewilderment of the game. Your pro, bless his or her heart, learned to play as a kid and doesn't know what it feels like to shoot over 100. You do. I do.

In my quest to learn the game I discovered some really good books and videos. Which is not surprising, as there are approximately 2800 books in print and over 180 videos about golf. (All books mentioned herein are linked to their specific web page on Amazon.com. They have been selected from my on-line, annotated Golf Bibliography.)

In my struggle to learn the game I also discovered some 'secrets' of all good players. These were were never told to me (at least directly) by any of the pros or top players I encountered. I learned them, as it were, by experience. And while this site is dedicated to the golf hacker, I believe the 'secrets' of all top players should be known to everybody else. I have devoted a separate web page to these secrets, which I call Secrets of the Best Golfers - from a Professional...Golfer.

They are:
1. Start playing when young
2. Have natural talent
3. Hit a lot of balls
4. That's all there is

I explain these secrets in detail in Secrets of the Best Golfers - from a Professional...Golfer. However, these secrets of all top golfers are also intertwined in the nine chapters that follow.


Golf for Dummies, by Gary McCord describes a hacker as simply a poor golfer. A Hacker did not start playing young, does not have natural talent, and does not hit a lot of balls (the secrets of all top golfers). But still, what constitutes a 'golf hacker'? He or she is someone who goes out to the golf course to have a good time (admirable), but doesn't have a clue as to why he or she is such a poor player (not so admirable). Someone who occasionally has a great shot (and that keeps the hacker returning) but more often has poor shots:

  • a tee shot that scoots off at a sharp angle;
  • a fairway ball that moves only a few yards despite a full swing;
  • a shot that misses the ball altogether (a whiff);
  • a green-side bunker shot that sends the ball across the green and into another bunker;
  • a putt that sends the ball way past the hole, so that the return putt is the same or longer distance

Often, the hacker doesn't even bother keeping score because the numbers are too high, or she fudges the numbers 'just a little' to come up with some score. Yet despite the poor play, the embarrassing shots, and general disregard for golf's basic rules, the hacker will often tell you that "it doesn't really matter. I had a good time, and that's what counts."

Hogwash. Lurking behind such rationalization is a frustrated golfer who really would like to play better, but just doesn't know how to start improving. Or, perhaps, he has an idea of what must be done but sees the effort as too great and "not worth it."

If you have three of more of the characteristics listed in the table, then you could be considered a golf hacker. (The poor golfer is also sometimes called a duffer, but hacker is the term I prefer.) Some self-professed 'good golfers' may admit to one or two of these traits -- sometimes -- but it would be rare to display three or more traits most of the time and still be considered a good golfer. You can describe your own game as you please, but at least my definition gives a good idea of who this book is for.

Characteristics of a golf hacker

3 or more characteristics = a golf hacker. See text for discussion. Definitions of golf terms can be found in the Golfer's Dictionary
  • Plays most rounds of golf without any warmup practice on the driving range or on the putting green
  • When playing a round of golf, does not keep score because the numbers are too high
  • If score is kept, does not count penalties for lost ball, ball out of bounds, or ball in the water
  • Consistently during 9-holes of golf, five or more shots are shanked, whiffed or mis-hit in a way that no meaningful advance is made toward the hole
  • Consistently during 9-holes of golf, the score for two or more holes is quintuple bogey (5 over par) or higher (when the score is accurately tallied).
  • Sees no problem in moving his/her ball a few inches or feet to "get a better lie" when such a move is not allowed for by the rules, and does not count any penalty for doing so.
  • Out of frustration with missed bunker shots, picks the ball up and throws it onto the green
  • Frequently does not putt out. After a 2nd, 3rd or 4th missed putt, picks up the ball (not a "gimme"), and says (or thinks) "the hell with it."
  • Is ignorant of, or routinely ignores, most basic rules of golf (such as not grounding the sand wedge in a bunker, or the stroke and distance penalty for a tee shot out of bounds).
  • Is ignorant of basic golf ball flight laws, such as what causes a ball to slice or hook.

My wife and I hit our first golf balls, and became 'hooked on golf' relatively late in life. I had no particular athletic prowess; in fact my main outdoor hobbies at the time were scuba diving and bicycling. In the first few years after starting the game I was a certified hacker. I played often, but not well. Still, the way I played didn't bother me very much, for several reasons. First, I was enjoying myself: learning a new game, being outside on some lovely terrain with friends, and experiencing the occasional (OK, rare) great shot. It helped that I usually played with other hackers, and that we were mighty tolerant of one another.

There was novelty in exploring new geography. Northeast Ohio is blessed with a wide range of public courses, over 100 within an hour's drive of our home. (In a Golf Digest survey Cleveland ranked fourth among large U.S. metropolitan areas in public golf course access. Just about every sizable city is blessed with good courses. For locations check out Golfcourse.com.

In the first few years we played on over two dozen courses, including Par 3, Executive, and 18-hole layouts that ranged from hacker-friendly (wide fairways, no water or bunkers) to championship caliber. While this eclectic activity opened our eyes to a new areas of real estate, it also meant most rounds were on unfamiliar territory -- not conducive to improving one's score. On the other hand, each new course provided a running excuse for poor play ("I didn't know water was there!").

Golf also broadened our vacation horizons; the opportunity to play on some exotic or famous courses was exciting, regardless of the score. On one wind-swept, manicured course in Aruba the ocean views were magnificent. Never mind that we lost half a dozen balls to the marshlands, seldom hit greens or fairways in regulation, and that we had to let people behind us "play through."

In the early phase of my golf learning curve I didn't want to spoil a good time obeying nit-picking rules, keeping accurate scores, or practicing long hours on the driving range. As a result, each game was pretty much the same, no matter where played: sculled shots, lost balls, air balls, every kind of horror shot you can imagine. And mulligans taken on half the holes.

Despite (or because of?) my atrocious play, I became more and more intrigued with the game. And with the intrigue there developed a strong desire to improve. For one thing, I noticed that people older and less agile could hit the ball straight -- consistently. If they could, why couldn't I? And then, on occasion, I did hit the perfect shot: a 250-yard drive down the middle of the fairway, a 150-yard seven iron to within 3 feet of the pin, or a chip off the green that stopped 6 inches from the hole. How did I manage those shots, and why couldn't I repeat them at will?

I read golf books, took private lessons, went to the driving range more frequently, and even took vacations at several out-of-town golf schools. And my great shots (read: straight, with some distance) came more frequently. And I began to ponder the previously unthinkable: what would my score be if I kept it accurately? With that single thought I began to escape from golf hacker-dom.

So I began keeping a real score, not the score you get when you don't count mulligans, lost balls and take overs. I didn't care that it was always above 50 for 9 holes (or above 100 for 18). I just wanted to know the real score. And along the way I studied other poor golfers, and pumped them for information. How long have you been playing? Do you have a handicap? Do you (or did you) take lessons? We often joked about mulligans, difficult lies and water balls, but mainly I wanted to know their attitude. I learned that many people who take up golf as adults start out as a hacker (like me), and choose to stay that way.

I learned that most hackers seem clueless about ball flight and swing mechanics, and sort of assume that "good golfers" have some natural talent they don't have and can never acquire. And if a bad shot hits a tree or falls in the water, well, that's not really their fault, and shouldn't count (assuming a score is kept). Most hackers couldn't care less about the rules or taking stroke penalties.

Now for new golfers of little skill, this is actually not a bad attitude. Adhering to the strict rules of golf when first learning the game will only add to frustration. For one thing, it's not fair to fellow players to slow their game because you keep mis-hitting or losing the ball. So if a novice can't get the ball out of the bunker, it is OK to just throw it on the green. And if he loses a ball in the woods, rather than spend an eternity looking for it (actually, 5 minutes is the legal limit), better to just drop another, fire away and forget the score. Yes, this is an acceptable way to play in the beginning. But to continue playing golf like this indefinitely is ridiculous and, ultimately, self-defeating.

From my non-scientific survey I came to the following conclusion. While most people who first take up the game as adults start out as hackers, after about three years new golfers seem to divide into three broad groups - those who give up the game, those who continue to play as hackers, and those who get better - escape hackerdom.

Golf is not for everyone. It is frustrating, time consuming and in some cases not very accessible if you don't belong to a private club (e.g., metropolitan New York City and Los Angeles are among the worst places for public access golf; populous states like Ohio, Michigan and Florida are among the best). Like any other sport, people enter and people leave. Most interesting, for this book anyway, are those who continue to play and enjoy the game. I will divide them into two groups: the ALWAYS HACKERS and the EX-HACKERS.

The ALWAYS HACKERS play with at least 3 of the traits listed in the table. Yes, they may "enjoy" -- or at least accept -- golf hacker-dom and not worry about it. And even though many ALWAYS HACKERS have a strong desire to "learn the game," they don't know how to do it. As a result, they do nothing, or take a sporadic lesson, or else fall prey to "quick fix" methods so heavily advertised: "specially-designed" golf clubs, "must-have" teaching aids, or a "pro's secrets" available in one or more "exclusive" video tapes. Each item is usually "guaranteed" to improve your game. The only problem, of course, is that the ads are 99% hype. Despite the testimonials accompanying every advertisement, the aids just don't seem to work (as promised) in the hands of the hacker.

Here's a telling statistic. Approximately 80% of all the people who play golf on a regular basis never break 100! For most people, 100+ for 18 holes is the rule. That still leaves plenty of good golfers (26 million people play the game in the U.S.), but the average golfer is not good. The average golfer is a hacker, or close enough to be at risk for sliding back into hacker-dom. The game is that hard.

The other broad group -- the EX-HACKERS -- did something about their game. They committed to improvement. I studied what it takes to become an EX-HACKER and now am a proud member of the group. (OK, you are curious, I know. When I finally got the courage to record my scores -- about three years after I started playing -- my handicap index was 34-36. Now it is around 20. (Twenty may seem high to the single digit crowd, but considering where I began it's not so bad.)

Since you are reading this, I assume you really want to become an ex-hacker. That's good. Chances are you have spent some hard-earned dollars on specialized equipment or gimmicks, videos or books, in an effort to improve your game. Well, I will make my own guarantee about this book. If you follow the 9 Steps, it will be by far the best investment you ever make in your quest to escape golf hacker-dom. Even if you ignore the advice, you will still have learned a lot after reading this book.

The book comes with an '18-hole Quiz'. Do the Front 9 first, then after you've read the book, do the Back 9. You should do much better on the back nine. There are no birdies or eagles in this quiz, only par, bogey, or worse. Par the back nine and you should be on your way out of hacker-dom!

Yes, I know you have heard similar claims before. But all I am really saying is that if you do the work, you will improve and no longer be a hacker. I am not claiming you will become a world class golfer, or even a good one. Only that you will change into someone who plays better. To be specific, you should be able to play consistently so that your United States Golf Association handicap is recordable (36 or less for men, 40 or less for women). And when that happens you will enjoy the game more than you can imagine.

This is one of the very few golf books written by a non-professional, by someone not 'inside' the sport. For this reason alone it should not be viewed as any kind of instruction book. The steps I advocate are designed to orient you in the right direction, not to teach fundamentals like grip, address, stance, posture, back swing, down swing, and follow through, which are best taught by a pro, on the golf course. Along the way I will provide some hard-earned tips as well as many linkages to web pages with useful information. But you won't learn to play golf here. Instead, I hope you will learn what you must do to play golf better.

This on-line book is free. What do you have to lose?

Table of Contents/ Go to Preface/ Go to Step 1/ Go to Step 2/ Go to Step 3/ Go to Step 4/ Go to Step 5/ Go to Step 6/ Go to Step 7/ Go to Step 8/ Go to Step 9/ Front Nine Quiz/ Back Nine Quiz/ Golf Bibliography/ Internet Sites Listed in Book/ Secrets of the Best Golfers - from a Professional...Golfer
Lawrence Martin
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