I've played my fair share of golf, and in the process, have reached each of the golfing milestones. I've broken 100, 90, 80, 70, and even... Well, I guess I haven't reached ALL the milestones. I've yet to shoot that magical 59.
Each stage of the game brings different challenges, so here are my top 10 tips for someone trying to break 90.
(1) - To break 90, learn the art of risk-taking
Every time you approach a shot in golf, you become a risk manager. The outcome of your risk management strategy won't create financial ruin like banks' risk departments did in 2008, but it will determine the score on your scorecard (and how your ego feels at the end of the round).
Risk management in golf is an art. I cannot lay out a list of rules for you to follow in order to optimize your risk-taking on the golf course, but I can suggest a few things to AVOID doing out there. Here we go:
- If you're in thick rough, don't hit anything less than a 7-iron (especially if the rough is wet). Trying to hoist a 4-iron 200 yards out of thick rough like Tiger Woods will rarely result in a good outcome. Tiger Woods can do it because he's (a LOT) better than you. Accept that.
- If there are more than 2 trees between you and your target, you probably shouldn't aim anywhere near your target. Take your medicine. You've only got 89 strokes to use, so don't waste 3 of them escaping the trees on the second hole.
- Stop playing the "correct shot". Play the one you're confident in. Some might tell you to bump-and-run a 7-iron from the fringe, but if you're more comfortable putting a sand-wedge back in the stance and bringing a low spinner in there, DO IT. Shots you aren't comfortable with are for practice only.
- If a par-5 green has any sort of hazard around it and you are more than a 5-iron away from the green, lay up. This rule will change as you become a more skilled golfer, but for now, trust me on it.
- Stop aiming at the pin (unless it is in the middle of the green). If you are struggling to break 90, you have no business aiming at most of the pins out there. Instead, aim at the middle of the green. Now let's briefly talk about this "middle of the green" concept. This is not always going to be the geometric center of the green. When I say "middle of the green", I'm referring to the portion of the green that is safest. Usually, this is easy to figure out, but when in doubt, aim for the dead-center of the green.
These are just a few risk management strategies to employ next time you're on the course, but by no means will turn you into a course management artist like Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, or some of the other greats. A great way to improve your "art" in this area is by keeping a golf journal to see what strategies work and what don't.
(2) - To break 90, learn how to set a "playing focus"
This concept comes from Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, and might be the single best thing you can do for your game.
The idea is simple–set yourself a goal for the round that has nothing to do with outcomes, and most importantly, stick with this playing focus no matter how your round is going.
Here are a few that I have used in collegiate golf that has helped me make it through high-pressure rounds of golf:
- "This round, I will hold my finish on every golf shot that I hit"
- "This round, I will go through my pre-shot routine on every shot and place my focus on my target only"
- "This round, I will focus on good tempo in my swing for every shot and nothing else"
A "playing focus" can be a swing thought OR an overall theme for your round. My first two examples above could be described as "themes" while my third example is more of a specific swing thought.
Don't get too caught up in the details though–just pick one thing you can control and go with it.
(3) - To break 90, focus on your score
You literally just told me to stop focusing on something that I can't control, and now, you're telling me to focus on my score??
Hear me out.
This is something I went back and forth on for a LONG time, but I finally feel that I have a good grasp on it. Many golf instructors will tell you to stop focusing on your score (including myself in the previous tip), but here's the deal–the human brain isn't so black and white.
Our brains need a goal to fixate on, and while your "playing focus" from the previous tip should be your primary thought, you need to give your subconscious brain something to work towards throughout the round.
Tiger's Post Round Interviews
I learned this through TONS of personal experience and by listening to Tiger Woods give post-round interviews. As Tiger talked to reporters, something that I noticed was that he always had a target score in mind before the round. He would look at the course conditions, weather conditions, and where he was on the leaderboard to determine his target score. If he was 5 back going into Sunday, he might set a target score of 66. This would then determine his overall round strategy (aka "play aggressive golf"). If he had a 4 shot lead going into Sunday, his target score would usually be 71 or 72, and his strategy would be more conservative (aka "make a lot of pars").
While I have not done extensive analytical testing on this, I have found that my best golf rounds are the ones where I set a score goal for myself before the round. That said, the score goal needs to be realistic. If you haven't ever broken 90 and your score goal is to shoot 75, game over. You're shooting 105 guaranteed. But if your best score is 92 and your goal is 88, this will start a subconscious process in your mind that will help you throughout the round.
Set a scoring goal the night before or morning of a round, create your round strategy based on that number, and then FORGET IT. As I said, your "playing focus" from the previous tip should be your only focus during the round, and your scoring goal should just be something sitting in the back of your mind.
(4) - To break 90, keep your head down while putting
If you finish out all your putts (like you should!), you know how scary those 3 footers are. You're so close, yet so far.
Oftentimes, you might rationalize to yourself, "Don't worry about that 3-footer... You deserve a par after that nice chip shot you just hit. Just go tap it in."
And then... You miss it.
Subsequently, you make a fool of yourself on the next hole because you weren't supposed to care about that 3-footer, yet for some reason, it's still making you mad. Then you get mad about being mad. You realize that you actually DO care about missing 3-footers and now you're behind a tree hitting your second shot because you lost focus on your drive.
How to keep your head down
Well, there's a solution to this. Follow these instructions, and you'll save yourself at least a couple of shots per round:
- Start treating your 3-foot putts like you do tee shots. Go through your routine and don't rush them.
- Keep your head down for at least 1 full second after making contact with your putts
If you have a hard time keeping your head down, here are two additional tips that might help:
- Close your left eye (right-handed golfer) just before starting your putting stroke and keep it closed. This will prevent you from seeing the outcome of your 3-footers, and I GUARANTEE you it will give you more confidence.
- If you're not a fan of closing an eye, pick a spot 1cm in front of the ball (between the ball and the hole). Before you start your putting stroke, fixate your eyes on that spot in front of the ball, and keep your eye on it until the ball goes in.
(5) - To break 90, hit lead-handed chip shots (in practice)
I'm convinced that humans were either a) not meant to play golf correctly or b) have zero understanding of physics.
Because 9/10 beginner golfers have a bent lead wrist through impact, and it's KILLING their chances of shooting low scores.
By keeping that lead wrist (geometrically) flat through impact, a golfer is able to maintain the integrity of centripetal force, keep a fixed low-point in the swing, and gain a ton of confidence, especially in the short game.
Here's a video from my Break 90 in 90 Days course that explains this "lead hand chipping" drill in detail.
Be sure to do this drill daily until you've learned how to hit a chip/pitch shot cleanly.
(6) - To break 90, develop a pre-shot routine
But Zach, I already have one!
While you might already have a pre-shot routine, I guarantee you it could be better. Does your pre-shot routine meet the following criteria? If not, I'd work on it a lot because it is the glue that holds everything together in golf (especially when you're nervous).
Pre-shot routine criteria
- Is consistent in duration (just watch Tiger's pre-shot routine over the years. It has been around 14 seconds since he started playing golf)
- Includes some form of visualization of what you want the ball to do in the air
- Is deliberate, but also concise enough to prevent bad thoughts from creeping in
- Is the same every time (but it is okay to have slightly different pre-shot routines for full shots vs. short shots)
(7) - To break 90, clean your clubs
This point might sound trivial, but it isn't.
It always amazes me how many high-handicap golfers simply don't clean their golf clubs prior to hitting a golf shot.
If you hit a clean sand wedge on the first hole and a sand wedge caked with dirt on the second hole, the following things will happen:
- You won't know how far you hit your clubs because dirt on the face of an iron affects distance and spin
- You won't ever be able to spin the ball, which is necessary in dry conditions
- You won't have as much confidence. Half the reason golfers don't clean their clubs is that they don't think it matters. You dress up in a suit for a job interview, yet you don't clean your golf clubs before hitting a shot that could change the outcome of your golf round. Okay, maybe a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.
How to clean your clubs
Buy a Frogger groove cleaning brush, spit on your club, brush it until the grooves are clean, and wipe it clean with a golf towel (yep, that's what golf towels are for).
It's disgusting, but your golf score will thank you.
(8) - To break 90, read a mental game book
I remember my time as a 90s and 100s shooter in golf. I was a mental disaster.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize the power of golf mental game books until much later. I want a better outcome for you.
Here are my top recommendations (in order):
- Every Shot Must Have a Purpose - Lynn Marriot and Pia Nilsson
- Golf is Not a Game of Perfect - Bob Rotella
- Zen Golf - Joseph Parent
Pick one of these and read it for 10 minutes the night before or morning of a round of golf. I especially recommend Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, because Rotella has a ton of fun anecdotes to share from his time coaching professional golfers. This will get your mind in a great place.
How books helped me in college golf
When playing collegiate golf, you have to "qualify" for each tournament. There are usually 10-15 guys on a team and only 5 play in each tournament. Some players have such a proven track record that they don't ever sit out, but I was not one of them. I had to earn my way into most tournaments, and I still remember one of our qualifiers that included 7 rounds of golf in 7 days, and the lowest 5 scores went to the tournament.
I started well with scores of 73, 72, 73, but in the fourth round, I fired a whopping 82. I thought I was toast.
The night after shooting that 82, I sat down and read a few chapters of Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, which helped me re-focus on my pre-shot routine and my mental state on the course. I ended up firing 70, 71, 72 in the final three days and made the tournament by 1 shot.
While I can't promise you'll go from shooting 95 to 75 by reading these books, I promise you they work. So get reading!
(9) - To break 90, practice these shots
While all shots count equally during a golf round, there are a few types of shots that come up a LOT and have a disproportionate impact on your total score.
I could sit here and tell you to practice your driver and iron shots, but I get it. No matter what I tell you, these are going to be difficult. These are difficult for anyone, and usually require some serious practice to fix in a reliable manner.
What I'm going to share are things that anyone can improve on quickly. Here they are:
- 3-6 foot putts
- The basic chip shot
- The punch shot
If you can get marginally better at all three of these, I guarantee your strokes will fall off your scorecard.
How do you do it?
Well, I usually charge money for these videos via my Break 90 in 90 Days Course, but I'm going to share them for free here because I genuinely want you to shoot lower scores.
Watch these to get better at 3-6 foot putts
Watch this to get better at the basic chip shot
Watch this to learn the proper way to hit a punch shot
(10) - To break 90, watch golf on T.V.
Tell your family that you're doing "homework". I don't care what it takes. Watching golf on T.V. is a great way to learn more about course strategy and visualize yourself hitting great shots (because pros tend to do that often).
And if you're not a big T.V. person, here are a few rounds on YouTube that you can watch. Tiger is great to watch because he is one of the game's greatest "course managers".
Tiger Woods in 2000 U.S. Open
Tiger Woods 2019 Masters
Jordan Spieth 2015 Masters
Here is a list of things I recommend focusing on while you watch:
- What club are they hitting off the tee? Why do you think they hit that club?
- Where are they landing the ball on the green in relation to the pin? Why?
- What are some of the things they do in their pre-shot routines?
- Do they keep their head down while putting?
- What kind of short game shots are they playing? Are they hitting high flop shots all the time? Or are they hitting a lot of bump and runs?
What else can I do to break 90?
This blog is free, and considering this post is about breaking 90, I have to leave a shameless plug for my online video training course, Break 90 in 90 Days. In this course, we go through things like:
- A full game audit
- The 5 critical skills of golf
- Short game deep-dives
- Course management 101
- A full walk-through of the different parts of the golf swing and how they work (bio-mechanically)
- A mental game framework
- My full college golf practice routine
If it sounds interesting, here's a link to go learn more! I open it a couple of times a year, so be sure to get on the waiting list if it's not open right now.