Five Steps to Improving Your Golf Game This Year

For many in the northern hemisphere, winter is upon us. We can’t do many golf-related things aside from taking some practice swings indoors or maybe waiting for the occasional day between snowfalls where the temperatures rise enough to make a round of golf bearable.

Those of us in that predicament are left to feed our passion for golf through books, magazines, television, or the internet. In times like these, we tend to try and learn some new technique or magic tip so we can hit the ground running when spring gets here. It’s like the ever-renewed New Year’s Resolution. We study up and vow to shave strokes off our games, come spring.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually happen, for a variety of reasons. It is partly because we overload ourselves with information in an attempt to figure out what’s going wrong, and just blindly go out and try a few things. Nothing really works and within a short time, we just slip back into last season’s form.

By the time you finish this post, you’re probably going to be thinking, “he didn’t tell me squat.” It’s true, nothing here is rocket science. But, too often, we fail to improve because we have no plan for success. We just flail around and ultimately fall short.

These steps will help you create a blueprint to improve your game, but I assure you, ALL the work falls on you. There is no magic pill.

Step One: Figure out What You Want from the Game

This step is so simple, it’s almost silly. But it’s the one that many people never consider.

Why do you play the game? For enjoyment? For exercise? Love of competition? To bond with family or friends? Love of gambling? The challenge?

Everyone has some reason(s) that they play golf. Take a moment and think about yours and do me (and you) a favor: write them down. Grab a sheet of paper and create a list of the reasons you play the game. List them all, however trivial, but list them in order of importance.

Step Two: Figure out Why You Want to Improve

Look at the list you created in step one. Those are the reasons why you play the game. Now, think about why you want to improve.

Are you embarrassed about your scores? Are you competitive and you just don’t like losing? Do you want to win more money? Are you trying to become a pro?

Create a second column on your sheet of paper and list the reasons you want to improve next to the reasons why you play the game, again, in priority order. Be completely honest. If your number one reason for wanting to improve is vanity or peer pressure, then you need to understand and acknowledge that.

Part of the reason for doing this is to help you decide if you should even bother going any further. Yes, that’s right, I said maybe you shouldn’t bother going any further. Look back at the reasons you play the game. Do your scores matter in relation to those things?

Maybe you just want to bond with your son and get some exercise and don’t really have any specific reasons for wanting to improve. In that case, why bother? Just go out and have fun.

On the other hand, suppose the only reason you play the game is for love of competition and your only reason for wanting to improve is to win more. That should tell you that if you’re not seriously working on improving your game, then you’re short-changing your own enjoyment of it.

Sometimes, it seems like we humans are wired to do an awful lot of things without spending enough time asking, “why?” It’s hard to change or to plot a course without first asking that question.

Step Three: Figure out What’s Wrong

I’m talking broad terms here. What’s wrong with your game? I don’t want you to figure out what’s wrong with your swing. We’ll get to that. In a perfect world, you keep stats about your play and can look at those, but you can just think back through your last several rounds or just think about your general tendencies.

What costs you strokes? Here are some examples of questions you should be asking yourself:

  • Do you hit the ball into trouble a lot? Do you need more control off the tee to avoid that?
  • Do you three-putt most of the time?
  • Do you struggle with knowing which club to hit? Do you end up short of your target most of the time?
  • Do you feel like there are certain shots you just don’t know how to hit?
  • Do you have a slice or hook you can’t figure out how to control? Even worse, do you not have any consistent shot one way or the other?
  • Do you struggle making solid contact with the ball on full shots? On short game shots? Both?
  • Do you have problems being frustrated after bad shots? Do you have anxiety before shots?

Take your sheet of paper and turn it over. List out the things that are wrong with your game. Order by severity of problem with the worst things at the top of the list. Ask yourself why your scores are not where you want them to be. Think back to specific bad rounds or holes and try and figure out what went wrong. Write down every weakness in your game.

Again, don’t try and turn into Butch Harmon. If you had a blow-up hole, don’t write down, “I scored a nine because I’m having trouble releasing the club and am off-plane, which caused me to have a big slice and inconsistent contact.” Instead, the idea that you’re struggling with inconsistent contact and a big slice is good enough for now.

Step Four: Figure Out What to Improve and How to Improve It

Not counting the actual work of improving, this is the most difficult step. And it’s one that you might want to tackle with the help of a pro.

If you’ve gotten this far, then you have a list with reasons why you play the game, reasons why you want to improve, and things that are wrong with your game. These are the things that a pro needs to know to help you to improve. But if you insist on going it alone, you’re still going to need to know those things to formulate a plan.

For now, I’m going to pretend that you’re going to consult with a pro. With the information in hand from the previous three steps, he or she can begin to get a picture of what’s wrong with your game. Maybe your physical capability isn’t bad, but your attitude is what costs you. Maybe you can get back five strokes per round just by spending some time working on your putting.

A pro will be able to look at the list of things that are going wrong and suggest ways to tackle them. Obviously, he or she will need to see you in action to diagnose your technique, but this information will help with formulating a plan. Are you going to benefit from a couple of band-aid fixes and be on your way, or do your goals warrant a completely rebuilt swing? Are most of your problems with course management? Can playing within your own limitations better lead you to better scores immediately?

A good pro will probably try to determine the things I outlined in the first three steps through some casual questions. If you sit down and think about it ahead of time, you won’t be stuck trying to figure all this out while you’re standing on the lesson tee with the meter running. Take your sheet of paper with you and talk about the priorities that you arrived at through this exercise.

After looking at the parts of your game that are failing you, and after looking at your swing in action, the pro should provide you with a plan for improvement, based on what you’re looking to get out of the game. It might be a couple of swing tips and some drills. It might be a longer-term plan that spans a few lessons. It might be some tips on the mental game. But it will definitely target the things standing between you and what you’re trying to get from the game.

If you perform this step on your own, then you need to try and figure out what’s wrong by yourself. That, I can’t easily tell you how to do because everyone is different. Video can be a help, if you know what you’re looking at. Analyzing divots, ball flights, and so on can give you a lot of information.

It can be done, but you need to take your list from step three and then figure out what’s going wrong to cause those things, in a technical sense. Naturally, if your biggest fault in your game is that you three-putt almost all of the time, then your primary improvement plan probably shouldn’t center around fixing your over-the-top move. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need addressing, it means that it might not be the biggest problem. If you can’t hit a 2-iron well, but you only need to hit it occasionally, then it doesn’t make sense to spend hours on the range trying to hit it better.

Once you have a prioritized list of things to attack, then you need to figure out how to fix them. If you feel like you need to build your swing from the ground-up, then maybe you’ll want to get Jim McLean’s The Eight-Step Swing, or a book about the Stack and Tilt to see where to go next. If your short game is failing you, then maybe Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible is what you need. If you won’t see a pro for help, then one way or another, you need to find the information you need to improve, through books, videos, or some other means.

The bottom line for step four is, you need to have a plan in hand, either from working with a pro, or from doing your own legwork, that gives you specific things to work on to produce better results in your game, and it should be prioritized.

Things that are most critical and that will provide the most benefit should be at the top of the list.  If you don’t prioritize, then you’ll just end up working on things that are easy and might not solve your most pressing issues. Humans like to take the path of least resistance and we don’t want to do that here.

There’s another reason to prioritize. No matter how serious you are about improving your game, unless it’s also your job, you’re not going to find time to address every issue with your game, at least not at first. There just isn’t enough time, and if you have a busy life, even dealing with just the top priorities in golf will take a back seat to the top priorities in life.

Focus on the important things that provide the most benefit to give yourself a realistic chance to see good improvement.

Step Five: Put in the Work

I hope you knew this was coming. It’s rare in the game of golf when improvement comes without work. Sometimes, it’s possible to improve immediately with properly-fitted equipment. Or, maybe a quick tip gives immediate results to get you on track.

Usually, though, improvement comes at a cost of time and effort. If you’ve gotten this far, then I hope you realized that the first four steps were leading here. I told you at the top that there’s no magic pill.

At this point, you should have a plan for improvement. All that is left is to execute it. You identified what’s going wrong, and you came up with a plan to fix those things. So get out there and work.

Set aside time planned for working on your game. Whether it’s an hour per week or an hour per day, it doesn’t matter. Schedule practice like it’s an appointment just like any other. Try to keep from getting distracted by other things that tend to draw your attention (yes, I know it would be so much more fun to be out on the course than stuck at the practice green).

Organize your time well. You have your list of things you need to do, so allot the time to address the things on your list in order of priority. Make your practice time count. You should always be practicing with purpose, or else you’re just out there hitting balls.

And don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Remember the old saying, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?” Well, don’t lose out on the fun of playing because you’ve now blocked in all your free time to practice. Look at your list from step one. Don’t forget why you’re playing golf in the first place. You need to commit to improve, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of enjoyment of the game.

It’s Not Just a Golf Thing

If it hasn’t hit you yet, these steps aren’t something that are specific to golf. They can apply to many different things. Having documented goals and a plan for achieving them is important for success.

If you boil down these five steps, it’s nothing but:

  1. Figure out why you like to do something
  2. Figure out why you want to do it better
  3. Figure out why you don’t do it as well as you like
  4. Come up with a plan to do it better
  5. Execute the plan

You could come up with a hundred different things that you could improve in your life by performing steps like these to document your goals and to devise and implement a plan for improvement.

I really wish I could magically make us all better golfers, but I can’t. We can’t usually get magically better at anything. Improvement is greatly assisted by defining goals and creating a plan.

When we skip everything else and just arrive at step five, it’s not conducive to success because if you don’t know why you’re trying to improve, what you need to improve, and how to improve it, then what, exactly, are you going to accomplish?

If you’re sitting around, snowed-in like I am, then you probably have time on your hands. If you’re serious about wanting to improve, then give it a try. What do you have to lose?


  1. Related to the last point, I know a teaching pro that make his students carry a practice journal. After a lesson is finished he would tell the student until he saw a certain number of entries in the journal. He wanted to be sure the student was applying what was taught and to see what progress the student was making.

  2. mleopold says:

    Thanks for the advice. Practice is something that I rarely have time for, however, I have went on spurts for months and it does seem to help me focus better and score a little better, as well.

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