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Golf is a funny game. After watching the pros on TV "easily" shoot under par, it seems like breaking 90 should be a rather attainable goal right? Unfortunately, golf is not a math equation. Each milestone you reach comes with unique challenges that are equally hard. In other words, breaking 90 for the first time is no more/less difficult than breaking 70 for the first time. It's all relative.
In this post, we're going to walk through 5 reasons why you're not breaking 90 and what to do instead.
I know, you're rolling your eyes. "I should chip out when I'm in the trees, lay up on par 5s, and hit to the middle of every green, I know the drill."
The typical advice you get on this topic is a set of rules, but every golfer is different. There is far more nuance to course management than "lay up on every par 5". So what can you do?
Par 5s are a great opportunity for any golfer, especially if you're above average in the driving distance department. That said, most golfers screw these holes up badly because they have this impression that it's an "easy par". Unfortunately, despite par 5s being some of the most score-able holes on the course, we tend to make the biggest numbers on them.
To better take advantage of par 5s, here are few rules of thumb:
- Don't assume they are easy - every golf hole is difficult. Accept this. The worst thing you can do going into a par 5 is think, "this is easy". You'll be chopping out of the weeds before you know it with that expectation. Execute your shots with focus just like you would the hardest par 4 on the course.
- Go for it if there are no hazards, lay-up otherwise - by following the rule, "always lay up on par 5s" you're cheating yourself out of some birdies/eagles. That said, many par 5s do require a lay-up. While I had a slightly different strategy as a collegiate golfer, if I was trying to break 90 for the first time, my rule of thumb would be this: if 3/4 sides of the green have hazards (OB, water, thick rough, deep bunkers, etc.), then lay up. If there aren't hazards around the green, it's usually a good idea to go for it!
- Is driver off the tee necessary? - if you know that you're going to lay up on this hole no matter what (see point #2 above), then you have to ask yourself, is driver the club you need off this tee? In many cases, hitting a hybrid or 3 wood off the tee will increase your chances of staying in play and won't significantly affect your ability to reach the green in regulation (remember, you've got 3 shots to play with!). But let's also be real. Some of you have a very poor relationship with your 3-wood or hybrid. In that case, driver all day!
Similar to our discussion about par 5s above, you should have a "safe distance" that you use to determine whether to go for the green. Even on par 4s.
For most golfers trying to break 90, it is a good idea to lay-up anytime you are >200 yards away from the green and the green has a water hazard or OB surrounding it on any side. Why? Because most golfers attempting to break 90 have a very low success percentage outside 200 yards, which basically means you're gambling with a hazard that will cost you 1-2 penalty strokes. This is a no brainer. Swallow your pride and lay up.
I talk about this a lot on this blog. Having suitable equipment for your game is far more important than the "it's the golfer, not the equipment" folks tend to think. Even having a single club in your bag that doesn't fit your game can wreak havoc on your final score.
Now let me be clear. You don't need to spend $3,000 to re-build your entire bag. If you research enough (this blog should help), you should be able to get your hands on a great iron set for $300-$500, a great set of woods (driver, 3-wood, possibly hybrid) for $500 all-in, some good wedges for $200 and a trusty putter for $100. All in, this is less than $1,500. If you're serious about breaking 90, you need to be willing to at least get a bag that isn't hurting you.
To further elaborate on why equipment matters so much, let's imagine a scenario for a second. Imagine that you're standing on the tee box of a long par 4 and have your driver out. This par 4 has water right and OB left (sorry to make your hands sweat). Let's also imagine that your driver is a cheap piece of metal without a custom golf shaft. In this scenario, even if you put the perfect swing on it, your equipment alone may cause that ball to go OB.
Again, this doesn't need to be expensive. You don't need a $900 driver. You just need a quality driver (it can be old) with a quality golf shaft in it. You could pick up a 10 year old driver head, throw a nice $100 driver shaft in it, and have an awesome club built for less than $150.
For some tips on finding the right equipment, I've created an entire series on how to buy the right clubs.
I played golf at the collegiate level and I'll be the first to say that the mental game is hard. Even as a golfer who would shoot around even-par every round, I still had terrible thoughts of golf balls snapping OB, topping a 3-wood from the fairway, or missing a 3-footer. These thoughts get better over time and practice, but they don't go away.
Unfortunately, most golfers have so many terrible thoughts going through their heads at all times that they give up on it entirely. They say, "I'm a lost cause".
If you're serious about breaking 90, you can't be one of those golfers. You have to commit yourself to at least working on it. Here are a few things that have worked well for me that you can implement in your next round immediately:
- "Count sheep" during your swing - not literally, but kind of. The trick here is to pick a 3-syllable phrase and match each syllable to the start, top of backswing, and impact. A great one to use is, "Down the pipe". So in other words, when you start your backswing, say "down", when you reach the top, say "the", and when you reach impact, say "pipe". This works because instead of allowing negative thoughts to enter your head during the swing, you're focusing on your rhythm. It isn't bulletproof (thoughts still sometimes creep in), but it is a significant improvement over nothing.
- Verbalize where you want the ball to go before your shot - no seriously, I want you to say out loud what you want the ball to do. Build this into your pre-shot routine. Here's an example: "I want this ball to start 10 yards right of the flag, draw back in, land 10 feet behind the flag, and spin back in the hole". Yep, sounds ridiculous, but by being this specific, you'll start hitting better shots GUARANTEED.
- Read a mental game book - you don't need to become a full-on researcher of the mental game. One book is enough, yet surprisingly, most golfers (especially the ones who need it the most) either refuse to or have never thought of reading a mental game book. My recommendation is Every Shot Must have a Purpose, but I have an entire list of recommended golf books here.
Let's be real. We all 3-putt more than we should. As a collegiate golfer, my rounds were only "good" if I had entirely avoided 3-putting for the round. Professionals will often go entire 4-day tournaments without a 3-putt (and usually those guys finish in the top 10).
But what about a golfer trying to break 90? In reality, 3-putting is part of the game at this stage. If you go an entire round without a 3-putt and don't break 90, please send me an email because we need to do something about your ballstriking pronto. More realistically, you'll have a couple 3-putts during a round of golf. The goal here is to minimize them and whatever we do, avoid 4-putts. Even as someone trying to break 90, you should never be 4-putting.
It's easy to talk about not 3-putting, but much harder to do it. Here are some tips for keeping these to a minimum (ideally, less than 2 per 18 holes):
- Practice 3 foot putts - it pains me at how little golfers practice 3 foot putts. You've made it 400+ yards of a hole and you're telling me you're going to waste a stroke from 3 feet on a consistent basis? This can be fixed, and it doesn't require you to hit 3-footers for 3 hours a day. I recommend spending 5-10 minutes daily using either the Putting Tutor or the Eyeline tool from 3 feet. Hit putts with these tools until your alignment is consistent. After that, hit a few 3-footers without the tools to gain confidence. This won't guarantee you make every 3 footer from here forward, but it will dramatically improve your ability in those short ranges and save you at least 3-5 strokes per round.
- Lag it and guess - in my opinion, practicing lag putts is terribly boring. I'm a realist, and I know you don't actually want to practice lag putts. Yet, these are super important in the big picture of things. So what I recommend is that before your rounds, hit putts from 30-50 feet, but with a catch. Before you look up, make a guess as to where you think that putt ended in relation to the hole you hit to. For example, you might say, "I think that putt ended about 5 feet short and 3 feet left of the hole". After guessing 10-15 times, you'll have a much better feel for the greens you're playing on.
Hey, I'm not here to make you feel bad about this. I've had plenty of blow up holes in my lifetime and I know how frustrating and difficult they can be. My goal in this section is to give you some strategies for minimizing the occurrences of these on your scorecard.
As someone trying to break 90, there is a harsh reality. Double-bogeys are going to happen. Even as a collegiate golfer, I always seemed to have a double-bogey sprinkled into my rounds and could probably count on one hand how many full tournaments I played without any doubles.
What we're trying to prevent are the huge numbers. Obviously you can't break 90 with a scorecard full of doubles, but you definitely can't break 90 with a couple quads sprinkled in there.
While this is a bit of a re-iteration of points I've made regarding course strategy and mental game above, I've got a few tips for you regarding this specific topic of blow-up holes.
- Big clubs and high loft are the enemy - the most common causes of blow-up holes happen on the tee and around the green. While we can't avoid having to hit tee shots and touchy pitch shots, we can minimize the likelihood of them causing us trouble. You should always be asking yourself two questions. First, "do I need driver here?", and second, "do I need all this loft to hit this chip shot?". In many scenarios, the answer is no. If possible, hit 3-wood or hybrid off the tee. If possible, putt it when you're off the green. These are the high percentage shots that we hate playing, but are 100% necessary to play if we want to break 90.
- Step off the shot - it's amazing how many times you talk to someone after a round with a blow up hole and the story is the same. It goes something like this - "If I could have just hit a better drive on 17 I would have avoided the quad and broken 90!". What's interesting is that in most cases, that same golfer knew that drive was going to be bad before they started their swing. Most of us know when the bad shots are coming yet we do nothing about them. My advice here is to get more comfortable stepping off your shots and restarting your pre-shot routine. Don't get carried away here, but chances are, you'll have 2-3 times during a given round where stepping off the shot will save you 2-3 shots alone!
While I can't give you the magic formula for breaking 90, by following the tips I've left you above I guarantee your chances will exponentially increase. It is only a matter of time before you're waving that scorecard with an 87 in front of your playing partners' faces. These tips aren't "fun" like most "quick tips" tend to be, but I can guarantee you this--they're real. These are things I've used myself as a competitive golfer with pretty good success and I know they'll work for you too!