Why Are You STILL a Hacker?
by Lawrence Martin
Return to Lakeside Press

Step 2. Commit to Improvement

Do you really want to escape golf hacker-dom? Or are you just as happy with performing below your potential? Think about it.

The true golf hacker drives to the course on a weekend, gets out of the car and in no time is on the links. No warmup, no driving range, no putting practice. She may even be using her father's old set of clubs. On the first tee there is a palpable air of excitement. She may think: 'It's so pretty out here. The first fairway is fairly wide; maybe today I'll finally have a breakthrough. All I need to do is put together a few good shots and not whiff the ball.'

Oops! The first ball is shanked, or dribbles forward only a few yards. No matter. So it's not a great shot, not even a good one. Another ball is brought into play and a "mulligan" is announced. Perhaps she doesn't really want to take a mulligan, but her spouse/friend/golfing acquaintance says, "Why don't you take a mulligan? I don't mind." Oh well, in that case she thinks, 'I will take another shot.' After all, she knows her playing partner will likely do the same, if not on this first hole then later on. Oh! Oh! Her mulligan shot is almost as bad as the first one, but more playable, and she settles for ball #2.

The game proceeds along this path. A few more mulligans. An occasional lost ball here and there. Like a sailor trying to get from point A to point B upwind, she tacks to the green. And when there's water, isn't it strange how her balls are attracted to it? Of course water balls even happen to the pros; she's seen that on TV, so it's not so embarrassing.

She finishes playing 18 holes and at the end totes up her score. The mulligans aren't counted, the lost balls are blamed on course topography and also not counted, and any whiffs out in the fairway or the rough are, well, conveniently ignored. In the end her "score" bears no relationship to reality. But no matter. The hacker announces to her friends, "Well, not too bad today, I got 112." What she won't announce (because she doesn't really know) is her true score, the score that includes penalties for lost balls, water shots, mulligans and whiffs. Her real score? 136.

Afterwards the hacker and her playing partners may even commiserate with one another. After all, she knows that even a bogus 112 is not so hot. "Why can't I (we) play better?" she asks, perhaps rhetorically. And her companion retorts. "Who cares? What's important is that we had a good time. We'll do this again next weekend."

Sound familiar? This scenario happens all the time with hackers. I know, because I've been there. And for a long time I really didn't care. I was just happy to be out on the golf course, hitting the golf ball and getting some fresh air and walking exercise. I bought a junky set of starter clubs, and unbelievably (to me, in retrospect) used them for almost two years.

Having started this game relatively late in life I figured, at least in the beginning, 'What the hell, at my age I won't ever get better.' But something inside nagged at me. Occasionally I would hit a magnificent drive, or sink a difficult putt, and wonder: why can't I do this more consistently?

I bought new equipment. I began to read golf books. I subscribed to a golf magazine, watched The Golf Channel and surfed the internet.

Yes, the internet is full of golf sites that want to sell you everything from golf clubs to polo shirts, but there are many information-packed pages as well. Particularly recommended for original content are:
Golf Magazine's Golf On Line
Golf Digest
Golf Week
The PGA Tour

Recommended for their encyclopedic approach to whole field of golf (mainly by linkages to other web pages) are:
Golf Link
Golf Help.com
Golf Bytes.com

There are also a few sites like this one, dedicated in some fashion to instruction for the beginning or high handicap golfer. Particularly recommended in this category is
The Golf Channel.

If you enter "golf hacker" into google.com, you will retrieve millions of hits, of which maybe a dozen will be useful (make sure to enter the word "golf" or you'll be inundated with links about computer hackers). Two sites in particular are more or less dedicated to the ordinary (aka hacker) golfer (and I'm sure there are others):
Anyone for tee, a collection of tidbits and trivia, and
BadGolf.Com, a travel-oriented web magazine "For the golfer who really sucks."

Another interesting site, Duffers Golf Club, makes a distinction between "duffers" and "hackers", and classifies hackers as people who cheat, don't know the rules, etc. Of course, this is not a universal distinction, as many people use both terms interchangeably.

But most importantly, I took lessons. After a few sporadic lessons locally, my wife and I decided to "go to school." In our third year of playing, we went to a John Jacobs golf school in Tucson, for a week. Nothing changed right away, but I began to learn the basics in a more structured fashion. With the books, the videos, the lesssons and lots of practice, I gained some valuable insight about why most adults new to golf start out as hackers and stay that way.

It's not because of lack of physical ability or brains or common sense. It's because they don't care enough to develop any plan of improvement. To play better golf you must care, and that means you must commit yourself to improve. In short order, committment means:

Not a simple list of things 'to do', for sure. But without such commitment it is practically hopeless to think you will better your game. Unless you are a one-in-a-million natural golf talent, you will never improve your golf game without caring, without committing yourself to improvement, without going through these steps. For sure, committment means something more than occasional weekend rounds played like the hacker above.

I know golf hackers who don't care. They still love getting on the course summer weekends, and I have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) many a game with them. It's fine with me. Having been in their position, I am tolerant. And that is part of the greatness of golf: You can play with a hacker, and while he or she is tacking toward the green and racking up quadruple and quintuple bogeys, you can be playing your own game. Within reason, it shouldn't matter how bad he (or she) is, as long as he is courteous and doesn't take an unreasonable amount of time with all the extra shots. The point is, you are really only playing to your own standards, against the one immutable opponent: the golf course itself.

I know the hackers I meet could play better, but most of them never will. One plays with equipment designed for a person a foot taller than he is. Another has never taken a lesson. Another thinks the score is something not relevant to his game. And so on. But the main reasons these and other hackers don't play better, the fundamental reason, is because they don't commit.

So be honest now. Would you rather just remain in a blissful state of golf hacker-dom? This state is not immoral, wrong, or anything you should be ashamed of. If this is what you want, if you would rather spend your time and energy and money on some other endeavor (or none), that is your choice. No matter what the arm chair philosophers say, golf is not a metaphor for life. It is just a game. Still, I believe that if you like to play, you will like it so much better if you can escape hacker-dom.

If these are your goals -- to play better golf, to learn what the game is all about, to have a real score (i.e., a real handicap) -- then you do have the desire to escape golf hacker-dom and this book can help. But here's the rub: it will take work to get better.

The Good News

Golf as work? That's not what you (or I) thought when first starting to play the game. You wanted to have fun. But to have real fun, you must commit to some work. Otherwise, accept that you will forever remain a hacker. You cannot get better at golf without working at it.

Now the good news. Getting from hacker-dom to the next level, which is a high handicapper, is much easier than getting from high handicapper to a mid- or low- handicapper. Let's say that, even though you are a hacker, you keep an honest score, and it is 128 for 18 holes (or 64 for nine holes). Yes, it sometimes looks like you are playing croquet, but you count every stroke, and take all the required penalties. Your score averages out to 3 over par for each hole (or 56 above par), but the USGA does not recognize such a handicap. The highest handicap recognized by the USGA for men is 36, which is 2 over par for each hole (for women it is 40, or just over 2 strokes per hole). Including hacker (not an official category), most amateur golfers can be divided into six levels.

The Six Golf Levels for Amateurs

(Scores for 18 holes on a par 72 course)

Hacker -- (no real handicap, but would be above 36 for men, above 40 for women)

D Player -- (high handicap; 25-36)

C Player -- (high mid-handicap; 18-24)

B Player -- (low mid-handicap; 12-17)

A Player -- (low handicap; 6-11)

AA Player -- (handicap 5 or less)

A high handicapper is between 25 and 36; for 18 holes he or she averages about 1.5 to 2 strokes over par. For the hacker, this level is an excellent goal. Once in the high handicap range, it will be more difficult to go lower than it was to get there in the first place. And to go from mid- to low handicap (less than 12) is the most difficult move of all.

Think of it this way. The worse you are the easier it should be to improve. As a hacker, it will be far easier to drop 10 strokes off your game than for the high handicapper to drop 10 strokes. The reason is apparent. The hacker really doesn't know how to play the game, how to swing the club properly, how to line up shots or to putt. These things are relatively easily taught and, when learned, scores can plummet quickly. The high handicapper knows how to do these things (at least on occasion), and the types of improvement he or she needs are more subtle, in the realm of improving swing mechanics, for example.

To get even lower, the skills become harder to learn; this is where the "mental side" of golf and the all-important short game take a front and center role. (See my "Core Reading List" below).

The mid-handicapper knows how to swing the club, but his or her level of concentration may cause subtle errors in body positioning, affecting ball contact. Heady stuff, for sure, and something you can worry about later. For the hacker, the problem is unlikely to be mental; instead, it is simply not knowing the basics of the swing or the rudiments of the game. The purpose of this book is take you from hacker-dom to a high handicap level.

How much work is needed?

Consider the pros on tour. Sure, they may look like they're having fun but for them it's a job, and a difficult one at that. Score poorly, on a consistent basis, and you can go hungry. So they work at the game, and I mean work. They hire coaches, they constantly fiddle with new equipment, and they spend hours hitting shots, refining their game. Listen to them during the middle of a four-day tournament when they are in contention. "I went back to the putting green and practiced for two hours." "I went to the driving range and hit my driver until the sun set."

Many, if not most, of the pros are innately talented for the game, but they still work hard at it. From Tiger Woods (who practices with both a personal coach and a physical trainer) to the journeyman tour golfer who has yet to win a tournament. And you should work hard, in your own way, in order to escape hacker-dom. This book will show you how.

As the first and easiest step, I recommend you immerse yourself in the game. By immerse I mean read a few good books, pick up a couple of videos at the rental store, subscribe to one or two golf magazines and perhaps watch The Golf Channel. I say "perhaps" because most of TGC's fare is either informercials or impossible to watch MTV-style offerings (like "The Big Break", where the emphasis is on camera angles and banging background music, not golf). Still, there are some jewels on TGC, including broadasts of European tournaments that air live on Saturday and Sunday morning, which come without the endless commercials that mar so many other tournament broadcasts. (TGC is not alone in ruining televised golf. Except for the Masters, most televised golf tournaments are a 70-30 mixture of non-golf -- ads, talking heads, interviews -- and golf, with golf being the 30%. And sometimes it's even less.)

As for magazines, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine are the two large-circulation monthlies. Also recommended are two golf weeklies, Golfworld Magazine and Golfweek Magazine. Apart from coming out every week (and therefore providing almost current tournament coverage), they differ from the monthlies in having less (almost none) instructional articles and much more about tournaments and the players. Golfweek advertises itself as for "preferred by serious golfers."

No one book or video or TV program will matter, but in the aggregate you will come across many useful pointers, and some of it will sink in. (On the Golf Channel you will also come across many advertorials, half-hour segments that push a certain club or learning aid; I generally ignore them.)

Over the years I have assembled a comprehensive Golf Bibliography. I have read many of these books, but certainly not all. Of this list, there is a core group that I consider essential for any amateur who wants to study the game. They have helped me and I believe they will help any other late-to-play golfer trying to learn the game. I own every one of this core list, and occasionally re-read them as the need arises. I recommend these books to any hacker, novice, duffer or high handicapper who really wants to improve.

My Core Reading List - For Beginners, Hackers, and High Handicappers Who Really Want to Improve

It's not just books, of course, but golf magazines, The Golf Channel and any other sources of useful information. Yes, I know many pros and top amateurs eschew all this instructional verbiage. But remember: they learned to play by imitation at a very young age. You don't have that luxury. You need to learn in a different manner: by studious immersion. This immersion effort is designed to jump start your game, to give you information that will come in handy when you really need it. The more you immerse yourself, the more you will come across universal pointers that will gradually sink in (yes, like your putts).

The following table shows what you can and cannot learn from information in books, videos, magazines, TV and the internet. Skills in the first column require real-world practice, and it is highly unlikely that anything you read or see on TV will be translated into a useful activity on the course. Ideally, someone should show you how to do these tasks, then reinforce your movements as you practice over and over and over. However, you can also learn many important tips and information from print and visual media (books, videos, magazines, TV and the internet). Too many golfers look down their noses at print and visual media, yet I have found a wealth of information there for the taking. Examples of what you can learn from print and visual media are shown in the second column.

Cannot learn from print & visual media Can learn from print & visual media
How to make a full swing The rules of the game
How to make a partial swing The difference between a pitch and a chip shot
How to chip How to grip the club
How to putt How to stand to the ball
What clubs are best for you Differences between graphite and steel shafts
How to read the break in greens How to line up shots
How to play with consistentcy How high to tee up the ball
How to hit a lob shot The difference between a sand wedge and other irons
The distance you can hit the ball with each club The typical distance each club can hit the ball
The air vs. roll distance when chipping with short irons Rule for club selection when the green is significantly elevated above or below your lie
What it feels like to play well or play poorly How to play within your level of skill
How to account for the wind on a given shot Factors that make a ball slice or hook
Whether you can clear a tree between your ball and the green The wisdom of trying a shot you've never accomplished before

I will be more specific. What follows are some universal tips you will come across in a variety of books, videos and golf magazines, but that you might never learn from formal golf lessons.


1) If your drives constantly go astray, put the driver away. Don't use it at all. Instead, use your 3-wood off the tee. A well hit drive with a 3-wood is only about 20 yards shorter than with a driver, and what you might lose in distance you will gain in accuracy; this is because the 3 wood imparts less side spin on the ball than does the driver. (Yes, I know you may have spent oodles on your driver, but put it away until your swing improves.)

2) Weak golfers should never go for the impossible shot, but instead should opt for the safe one. Thus, if your ball is in the woods with only a small opening through the trees to the green, go for the safe punch out to the fairway, even if it doesn't advance your distance. You won't be a hero, but will, on average, achieve a much better score (the heroic shot will usually ricochet off some tree and leave you worse off). In the same way, if it is 150 yards to the green and there's water in front, and 90% of your 150-yard attempts go astray, then don't go for it; lay up instead. This is simply "playing within yourself" or playing the percentages, and is a way to lower your score

3) Always line up your shots on the tee and on the fairway. This means going behind the ball, sighting the path you want the ball to take, then standing parallel to this path. Place your club down against your toes, then step back; more often then not, you will not be aligned, so make appropriate adjustments. Remember, the club on the ground should not point to your target but to the left of your target (for right-handed players). It is the ball itself that should be aimed at the target, not the line across the tips of your toes. (Think railroad tracks; only the right rail is aimed at the target; your toes are on the left rail.)

4) The rules of golf allow you to tee up the ball anywhere between the tee markers and as far back as 2 club lengths; this allows you to seek a level area on the tee box. Too often, hackers tee up their ball in an area that is sloped, hurting their chances for a good tee shot.

5) For most putts over 6 feet, distance is more important than line. It is not as important to get the right line as it is to hit the ball so it goes the right distance. If your ball travels the right distance and your line is off, you should still be able to make the next putt. If you have the right line but stroke the ball too hard, you may miss the cup by an inch only to see the ball roll further than the distance you started from, making the next putt iffy. Or, on long putts you may have the right line but stroke the ball too softly, leaving your ball so far from the cup that you will still need two more putts to sink it.

6) In a bunker, never let your club touch the sand until you swing at the ball. It is a two-stroke penalty to let your club touch the sand in any way (by mistake or intentionally).

7) For a green-side bunker shot, with the ball on top of the sand (i.e., not buried), think follow-through. You must hit the sand first, and make sure you follow-though with your swing so that the sand and ball are lifted out of the bunker.

8) For every 10 yards that the green is elevated above your lie, use one more club to hit the ball. Thus if you are 110 yards away from a green elevated 10 yards above your ball, and you normally hit a pitching wedge 110 yards, then use a nine iron. This is because a longer angle of flight will be needed to hit an elevated green. Conversely, for every 10 yards that the green is below your lie, use one less club; if you normally hit a pitching wedge 110 yards, you should use a sand wedge for the lowered green.

Hear or read common pointers like these often enough, and you will gradually adopt them in practice. Of course along the way you may run into "information overload," including advice that will be contradictory (i.e.: don't move your head vs. move your head a little; keep your left arm straight vs. bend it a little; don't bend your wrists vs. bend them some, etc.) Don't worry. Eventually you will realize that there are some universal truths, and you will register those. You will learn to recognize what advice is subject to interpretation and private usage. No two golfers swing exactly alike, and you must develop your own individual style, within some well defined limits. So intelligent immersion is a good thing, as long as it is coupled with the other steps I will list.

Golf is a multi-billion dollar business. In the U.S. alone, there are some 25 million active golfers, with millions more in Europe and Asia, Australia and South America. There are over 2700 books in print dealing with golf, and probably half of those relate to golf instruction (the others deal with stories about golf, golf jokes, golf tournaments, course construction and golf personalities). There are several magazines with huge circulations (see above), hundreds of golf instruction videos, and over two dozen nationally-advertised golf schools with over a hundred separate locations.

The Golf Channel operates 24 hours a day, with much of the non-prime time programming devoted to golf ads ("advertorials") of up to 30 minutes in length. Everybody wants to sell you something to improve your game. No doubt about it: golf is a big business because the market is huge. Much of the advertising bombardment has a common message, sometimes blatant: 'Buy this book, this gadget or this club, watch this video or take this course, and your game will improve.' That's all there is to it, the ads blare. The more brazen advertisers even guarantee your game will improve (what do they do, come out on the course and count your strokes?).

Well, what about equipment?

Lee Trevino has been quoted: "It's not the arrows, it's the indian." Up to a point, this is true. Tiger Woods could beat us using a frying pan, shovel and pool cue (like the pro in The Tin Cup.) The latest clubs on the market are not going to improve your game, or at least you should not count on it. Conversely, the wrong set of clubs could make learning, and improving, much harder. I don't intend to go into the nuances of equipment, and there are many, believe me. From 'lie angle' to the type and flex of your club shaft, everything is important in golf clubs. But at our level, what's really important is: comfort (right length and weight) and durability.

The biggest mistake a committed golfer can make is to buy cheap clubs that are not comfortable or that don't have durability. (The first set I bought was so cheap the heads bent just from hitting the ball.) Over a life time, the cost of the clubs will be insignificant compared to greens fees, golf balls, etc.

There are many ways to buy clubs. Before buying, it would be a good idea to do some investigation for prices, types of clubs available, etc., just to get an idea what's out there. There are so many sites on the internet to do this research, but you can start your search at Golf.com's Equipment site. There are many comprehensive on-line golf stores, including:
Mammoth Golf.com
The Golf Warehouse

But remember: buying without some assurance that the clubs are right for you is not going to work. And again, buy the best clubs you can afford; it will pay in the long run.

The simplest way to get the right clubs is to decide on the most you're willing to spend, then put yourself in the hands of a knowlegeable professional (your golf pro) or sales person at a reputable store. As a minimum they should check you for height, lie angle (the angle between the bottom of the iron and the ground) and swing speed. Then they can recommend the proper shaft type (graphite or steel) and flex (measure of shaft stiffness), and even special order clubs if necessary. Don't forget that "package deals" seldom include the putter, which will cost extra.

In fact, I recommend the beginner buy from a retail golf store, as long as the sales person is knowledgeable and you have easy exchange privileges. Avoid buying a set of discounted clubs from the local K Mart. The money you save could be wasted if they're not the right clubs for you. Similarly avoid buying clubs on the internet or from a catalog unless you are sure of what you're buying. If you know exactly what you want (which transcends just knowing the brand, of course), then buying on-line is fast and easy.

Also avoid buying a particular brand because some pro endorses them, or uses them. The clubs the pro uses are completely different than what you will buy, even if they have the same brand name and look the same. All pros use custom fitted clubs, given by the manufacturer and hand-tweaked to fit the pro's game. You can also order custom-fitted clubs, but generally at your level this is not necessary.

Finally, one last recommendation. Don't buy just a few clubs -- buy a complete set. It is a mistake to buy "half a set" to save money. For hackers and high handicappers, a complete set should include the following, in my opinion:

That makes 12 clubs. You certainly won't need a 3 iron or a 2 iron. If you know how to hit with these difficult clubs you are not a hacker! Anyway, the limit you can carry is 14 clubs (USGA rule); you probably won't need that many, but if you want to spring for two more clubs, I recommend the following:

You will find these two clubs invaluable as you get better at the game, the former for short shots over a bunker or water, the latter for long shots out of light rough.

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
Lawrence Martin
Return to Lakeside Press