WHY ARE YOU STILL A HACKER?
by Lawrence Martin
Return to Lakeside Press
Step 9. Play Often and on the Right Courses - And
Keep an Honest Score.
In the previous Step I wrote that you won't get better if all you do
is go out to the course every weekend and make the same old mistakes. That's
intuitive. However, it's also true that some people seem able to
'practice' while they play. They accomplish this by remembering how they hit a shot so
that next time (even days or weeks later) they can make a subtle change and improve
their swing. Such 'trial and error' on the golf course is how many kids learn the game
and end up as good golfers.
Frequent play with little or no practice or instruction no
doubt enables some late comers to lower their handicap,
although the degree of improvement would likely be so much faster
with instruction and practice. Still, the truth about most people who
start golf late in life is this: they won't improve just by playing.
So, basically, what I wrote before remains valid.
The reason to play often is not to improve your swing (again, that
takes instruction and driving range-type practice), but to
learn to play a variety of shots, to learn course management, and to
improve your score.
We've all been in the situation where drive after drive
goes straight on the range, but then a few minutes later,
on the course, you can't hit a decent shot off the tee.
Why? On the driving range you get into a groove, so that you easily
remember how you hit a shot and are able to repeat.
During a game you will hit one drive, but a lot happens before you can hit the next
one: perhaps a fairway shot, a pitch or chip, and of course putts. Then there is
walking or riding, conversation, and just waiting around for the next guy to hit. Finally,
your next drive is in a totally different location than your previous one, with a different
vista. This is not at all what you experience when pounding balls on the range. (Also,
on the range there is no pressure, no one is watching you, and there is no score to keep.)
In a nutshell, driving range golf is not golf. So if
you want to learn to play golf you must -- play golf!
Course management, by definition, can only be learned playing golf. You will find your
score is as much predicated on "course management" as on your
swing (well, almost as much). You need to learn which side of the
fairway to aim your tee shot, when to use the 3 wood vs. the driver,
when to lay up, when to try the lob over water, and so
on: all elements of course management. You can't learn
this on the driving range, ever; it requires a lot of playing.
But you must play the right courses. This means a golf course you can handle,
that will reward you for your efforts and not penalize you or discourage you
from continuing with golf.
A wide range of courses can be found in any given metropolitan area (for
course locations, or to search for a course, see
Golf Web Course Locator). There
are several ways to categorize golf courses, e.g., public, private, resort,
daily fee, links, mountain, etc. However, for hackers and high
handicappers the following categories are the most useful.
- Pitch and Putt. 9-hole course of all Par 3's; each is less than 100 yards,
so that each green is approachable with a pitching wedge or short iron.
- Regular Par 3. 9-hole course of all Par 3's; the lengths are longer than
on Pitch and Putt courses, averaging about 100-120 yards, with some up to 180-200
- Executive Course. 9-hole course where each hole is Par 3 or Par 4; typical
length for entire course is about 1500 yards.
- Regulation Course. 18-holes, with the length of the course depending on which
tees you play from. The middle tees for most regulation courses average about 6000-6300
yards in overall length. Championship or back tees range between 6600 and 7000 yards.
The PGA players (men) always play from the championship tees. The LPGA players (women)
play a shorter course, typically about 6100-6300 yards. Regulation courses can be
further stratified by overall degree of difficulty based on slope rating.
What is Slope Rating?
There is a wide range of difficulty regulation 18-hole courses. This
difficulty is actually quantitated by two numbers called the "slope rating" and the
"course rating". The course rating is the score a "scratch" golfer should shoot on the
course; it is usually within a stroke or two of the par for the course.
Ignore course rating; it doesn't pertain to you. When playing a course,
pay closest attention to slope rating, a single number that best
relates to course difficulty. According to the
"USGA Slope Rating is the USGA's mark that indicates the measurement
of the relative difficulty of a course for players who are not scratch golfers
compared to the Course Rating (i.e. compared to the difficulty of the
course for scratch golfers). The lowest Slope Rating is 55, and the
highest is 155. A golf course of standard playing difficulty has a USGA
Slope Rating of 113."
(Skip this and the next 2 paragraphs if the subject of slope rating bores you.)
Slope rating is used to determine a player's
Handicap index takes into account the difficulty of the course played.
The idea is that if Golfer A shoots 10 over par on a course with
113 slope rating, and Golfer B shoots 10 over par on a course with
123 slope rating, the two golfers -- though both shot 10 over par --
cannot be considered equal. Golfer B would have a
lower handicap index than golfer A, because the course he played was more
difficult. By comparing the actual score against the course
difficulty, the handicap (strokes over par) is converted into the
handicap index. The handicap index can then be used among players to
match them up fairly in any game on any course. (The conversion of 'handicap'
into 'handicap index' is through a mathematical formula we don't need to know.)
Here is how
would be used in a match between players, depending on the slope rating.
Low Golfer has a handicap index of 7.0, High Golfer a handicap index of 20.0. On a course
with a slope of 113 (average difficulty), Low Golfer is allotted 7 strokes against
a scratch golfer; High Golfer is allotted 20 strokes. But on a course with a slope
rating of 140 (very difficult), Low Golfer Low gets 9 strokes,
two more than his index, while High Golfer gets 25 strokes,
5 more than his index. The slope rating system is based on two factors,
length and obstacles (sand traps, trees, water, etc.). The higher-handicap player
has more difficulty overcoming these obstacles than the lower-handicap player.
A slope rating above 120 represents a difficult course for
the hacker/high handicapper, and above 130 he or she is apt
to become very frustrated with the degree of difficulty.
(For more about the slope system see
What is the
Slope System?. And if you want to learn how it all originated,
A History of Course Rating.)
More on Course Difficulty
In the Cleveland area is a public Par 3 course - Shawnee -- that has no water hazards,
no sand bunkers, and every flag is visible easily from the tee (the course
is not rated, but I estimate it would have a slope rating of about 70). Shawnee's
overall length is about 1100 yards. The longest hole is 170 yards, the shortest 90
yards, playing from the middle tees. This course is ideal for beginners and
anyone else who might be intimidated by a regulation course. I love this Par 3,
and played a lot there when just beginning the game. It is hard to lose your ball,
and at the end there is a feeling of accomplishment. This Par 3 is
perfect for hackers (too perfect; it is often very crowded on summer
In Cleveland there is also an upscale public course,
StoneWater, that is built around wetlands, and some of whose fairways
are lined with houses. It is an intimidating
course for hackers and high handicappers (top golfers love StoneWater
because it is a well maintained, quality course). StoneWater has several
sets of tees. The back or championship
tees have a slope rating of 139(!); the next closest set of tees has a slope
rating of 133, and the next closest, 128. A mishit off any tee and your
ball may end up in a wetland area and be irretrievable. A slice
or a hook and you may hit a house. This is not a course for hackers.
Imagine if you are just starting out to learn the game and all you know is
StoneWater or a place like it. Perhaps that's the
course your spouse or friend likes to play, and takes
you along so you will become interested in golf. What a mistake! You would be
intimidated by the course (and likely hounded by better golfers behind you because
of inevitable slow play). You would easily become discouraged and perhaps
give up the game altogether.
This would be a mistake because there are many easier courses! A fancy but
difficult course is simply the wrong venue for hackers. In the beginning, hackers
should be playing on Par 3 or Executive-type courses, to gain confidence and
ability with their irons, and then switch over to 18-hole layouts with low slope
You can find out a lot about a course just from examining its
score card. The regulation course score card contains the par for each hole,
its length, and the relative degree of difficulty for each hole called the
'handicap' for that hole (not to be confused with the golfer's handicap).
Some score cards even include
a drawing of each golf hole, to help orient you while playing.
Below are the score card data with explanations from a course of Par 71,
slope rating 125 (when played from the middle tees). Learn
to examine the score card for any course you are playing and you will gain
a better "feel" for the challenge ahead of you.
SCORE CARD - WHITE (MIDDLE) TEES
Par 71, Course Rating 71.5, Slope Rating 125
White tees (yrds.)
Par. The score if every hole is played as designed; the course has
four Par 3 holes, three Par 5 holes, and the rest Par 4 holes, so the total par is 71.
The Par for each hole is based solely on length. For most courses, playing
from the middle tees, Par 3's are between 100 and 200 yards;
Par 4's are between 250 and 450 yards; and Par 5's are above 450 yards.
Virtually every 18-hole golf course in the U.S. has a total par of 70, 71, or 72;
most are 72.
Course Rating. The score expected to be made by scratch golfers.
It is always close to par.
Slope Rating. The degree of difficulty of this course, relative to the average USGA
slope rating, which is 113. Thus this course is moderate difficulty playing from the
white tees. Not shown are the lengths for the front tees (slope rating 121) and back
Handicap. In this context (i.e. on the score card), handicap indicates
the relative difficulty of each individual hole; 1 is hardest of the 18 holes (hole #2),
and 18 is the easiest (hole #17).
Yards. Distance from tees to middle of the green. Playing from the white
tees to the center of each green, the course is 6293 yards long. Playing from the forward
tees (not shown) the course is 5923 yards long. Playing from the back tees (not shown)
the course is 6743 yards long.
On the Internet you can view
score cards from all
over the world, including
score cards from the U.S. Browse through these score cards and
you will come to realize the wide range of difficulty that exists, from
less than average difficulty to
It is important that you play on a course within your skill level,
one that doesn't gobble up every ball in the rough, one without
a lake next to every other fairway, one that doesn't have bunkers deep enough to
swallow a house. Of course, you may want to play difficult courses
for their beauty or novelty or lots of other reasons, but if so
please don't let them discourage you from the game.
There are lots of high handicapper-friendly courses in the world!
Newer courses have four to five sets of tees for every hole and, depending
on how far you hit the ball, you should be playing from one of the two closer sets of
tees; the tees farther back are for the better players.
Keep an Honest Score
Ah, yes. Keep score. I wrote about this earlier, and will emphasize it here.
Keep an accurate score, at least for yourself. If you want to fib to your buddies,
that's OK. But YOU should know what your real score is. Otherwise, you'll never know
if you're improving or not (yes, the score will reflect that, over time).
Keeping an accurate score means DON'T MOVE THE BALL UNLESS ALLOWED FOR BY THE
RULES OF GOLF.
I have played with golfers whose handicap is some fictional
number, say 16. Yet on the course I see them routinely do the following:
With moves like these - typically observed 8-10 times a round - I know
their handicap is not what they say it is. No way.
- Move the ball a few inches on the fairway to get a better lie.
- Pick up balls 2-3 feet from the cup (i.e., not putt out).
- Take a mulligan off the tee and count it as their first shot.
- Retrieve their ball from a water hazard and place it closer to the hole
than where it entered the water.
- Throw an out-of-bounds ball back onto the fairway.
Too bad if your ball lands in fairway divot. Play it as it lies. Too bad it is
out of bounds. Take a penalty stroke. Too bad you dribbled the tee shot only
15 yards. Play it from there. And we all know that pros occasionally
miss 2 and 3-foot putts. So how can some rank amateur assume he (or she) would
make every one?
In a word, this is cheating. You should learn to play golf the way it is supposed
to be played. It's more than morality or ethics; it learning to play the game. Unless
you play the difficult shots, unless you account for the penalties you're suppose
to take, unless you know the rules and abide by them, unless you putt out every hole,
your score, your handicap, is meaningless. You are cheating yourself
by not giving yourself a chance to experience difficult shots,
by not learning how good or bad a player you really are, by not learning to play
the real game.
While keeping an honest score it's also a good idea to record your total number of
putts (which obviously requires that you putt out every hole). You should aim for 36
putts per round. Inevitably you will have some 3-putt holes, and an
occasional (hopefully rare) 4 putt hole, but there should also be
some single putt holes that help balance out the total. By keeping count you will
learn how much of your high score is due to putting, which may (or may not)
lead you to the putting green for practice. (NOTE: A putt
is only counted when putting on the putting green. If you putt
off the putting green, that doesn't count as a putt).
When you get comfortable keeping your score, you can enter it into a computer to
achieve a true
All private golf clubs have this service, and many municipal
courses offer it as well. A handicap index is sanctioned by the
USGA, and must be entered
in a computer managed by a golf professional. It is not hard to do this on a public
course, but you have to ask around to find which courses in your area offer the service.
You can also do this on the internet at one of several sites, although they
may not be sanctioned by the USGA. Check out:
The Internet Golf Handicap Service
Golf Handicap Calculator
So in summary, play often, on the right courses for your ability, and keep an
honest score. You will begin to enjoy this game more than you already do!