by Lawrence Martin
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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 Golfcourse.com or 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.

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 Manual:

"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. 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 handicap index 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, see 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 weekends).

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 ratings.

Score Cards

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.


Par 71, Course Rating 71.5, Slope Rating 125
Hole # 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
Par 4 4 4 5 3 4 4 4 3 35 5 3 4 4 5 4 4 3 4 36
Handicap 15 1 3 7 17 13 9 5 11 10 16 4 2 6 14 8 18 12
White tees (yrds.) 309 418 403 519 160 351 377 387 200 3124 470 152 390 426 516 340 360 140 375 3169 6293 yards


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 tees (128).
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 hundreds of 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 championship caliber.

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.

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 handicap index. 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
The Handi(cap)-Man
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!

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
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