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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Important: Long or Short Game?

I guess this is my week to gripe, huh? Here's another common piece of advice frequently given to weekend players:
If you want to lower your scores, work on your short game. The pros who win the most are the ones who spend the most time on their short games. Weekend players spend way too much time working on their long game, and that's why they don't seem to improve.
This advice has a grain of truth in it, and that's why you hear it so much. But, like so many other "truths" in life, it's a flat statement that doesn't take everything into account. And since weekend players don't have 10 hours a day to practice like the pros, this is an important question.

The truth is, some of you should spend most of your time working on your long game... but others of you should spend most of your time on your short game. How can you know which group you fall into?

I'm so glad you asked. Let me give you a simple guideline that you can use.

The first thing you need to do, if you don't already, is keep a record of how you play. The great Byron Nelson reportedly did this and managed to drop a full stroke from his average in just one year, which is pretty impressive when you consider how good he was to begin with! The more you know, the more prepared you will be to maximize your practice time.

What sort of information do you want to record? It can vary, depending on what your goals are. Some players get extremely detailed while others keep minimal records. At the very least, you should collect the following info on each shot:
  • what kind of shot you played
  • what club you used
  • did it go where you aimed
  • was the shot long, short, or about right
  • an accurate score for each hole
You may want to be more detailed, including things like what the lie was like, the actual distance the ball traveled, etc. But the five things I listed are the critical info you need to decide where to focus your practice.

Here's the make-or-break question: Where was I in regulation?

For those of you who are very new to the game, here's how to figure regulation. You're allowed two putts on every hole. If you subtract those two putts from the hole's par, that tells you what "regulation" is on that hole. For example, if I played a par-4, I subtract 2 (putts) from 4 (par), which gives me 2. So regulation on a par-4 is 2. And it follows that it's 3 on a par-5, and 1 on a par-3.

So let's say you're on a par-4 and I've hit 2 shots. Where are you in regulation? What will your next shot be?
  • If you're on the green, your next shot will be a putt. That's a short game shot.
  • If you're not on the green but you're nearby, that could be a putt, a chip, a pitch, or a bunker shot. All of those are short game shots.
  • If you're far enough away that you need to play a full wedge or something longer, that's a full game shot.
After your round ask this question about every hole. If the vast majority of your answers were "My next shot is a short game shot," then you need to spend the vast majority of your practice time working on your short game.

However, if most of your answers are "My next shot is a long game shot," then screw that advice about short game practice for now. You don't need to be long to play good golf. But if you're not on or near the green in regulation most of the time, then short game practice won't help you as much, no matter what the pros and famous teachers say. You need to focus on your long game. (I'm assuming, of course, that you're playing from an appropriate tee. If your best drive is 180 yards and you're playing from the back tees, the quickest route to improvement is moving to a closer tee!)

Why? Think about it. Let's make this easy and say that you weren't on or near the green on any hole in your round. Then you're playing at least 18 extra long game shots each round before you ever get close enough to make a short game shot! This isn't a problem the pros are having, so of course they need to focus on their short games. But in your case, by focusing on your long game and getting the ball on or near the green in regulation, you could chop 18 strokes or more from your game!

Once you're consistently getting on or near the green in regulation, then you should focus most of your practice time on your short game.

Let me stress that all you need to do is consistently get close to the green in regulation before you focus on short game. You don't have to be on the green every time before you change the focus of your practice.

I know what I'm talking about here. I went through a period a few years ago where I couldn't land the ball in short grass to save my life. My short game was good enough that I would hear the pros I was playing with say things like "how is he doing that?" Give me a shot within 30 yards or so of the green and I could stick it close... but I couldn't get within 30 yards of the green in regulation. Because I had lost control of my long game, I was having trouble breaking 100! Once I fixed the long game problem, my scores literally started dropping several strokes on each 9 holes I played. In a week or so I was back down near par.

So use that as your yardstick whenever you hear this advice. If you can get the ball on or near the green in regulation most of the time, then focus on your short game. But if you're frequently playing long shots after you've reached regulation on each hole, then focus on your long game. You'll make more progress lowering your score that way.

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