Why is golf so hard? And how to master 5 common problems

Arghhh! Why is golf so hard!?! You’ve been playing for years and years, week in week out. Lonely nights in the sub-zero temperatures down the driving range, but still you aren’t at the level you want to be.

Well, you’re not alone my friend. It only takes watching a few rounds of golf on the TV and you will see that even the pros can’t master the game every time. Tiger’s fall from grace, Rory’s dip in form. This all goes to show that even for professionals; golf is one of the hardest games on the planet. But why? I’m going to try and explain.

5 Factors making golf so damn hard!

 1) You need a lot of time and practice

You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule. This was a rule made famous by American psychologist and author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The theory goes that to become an expert in any field you need around 10,000 hours of focussed practice time to accomplish this.

Now, 10,000 hours is a long time, a very long time, that it more than a full year of golf, 24 hours a day, every day. So if you’ve only just taken up the sport, you have a long way to go in terms of practice. It was also found in a more recent study by Princeton University that this 10,000-hour rule only really applies to skills and sports with limited variables, for instance, chess or tennis where conditions don’t vary too much. Now if you then consider that golf courses vary considerably and conditions can also vary vastly (especially if you play in the UK!) then 10,000 hours is probably an under-estimate.

Golf’s difficulty rises further when you consider that you also have to master a variety of different skills. You have driving, long irons, chipping, bunker shots and putting which all require different skill sets. A master of the drive will still find golf incredibly frustrating if they take 5 putts on every hole!

An article in Today’s Golfer predicted it would require between 3 and 4 hours every single day of practice to reach scratch. So it has to be your full-time job effectively, or you have to be taking that retirement plan seriously!

Image: Chong Fat (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

2) Athletic Ability

Many people new to the game can appreciate how mentally difficult golf can be, but few understand that the athletic ability required also makes the sport a lot trickier. Many people mock golf for ‘not being a proper sport’ as it doesn’t involve frantic running around, but don’t be fooled, you burn more calories walking around a golf course than you do in a full game of soccer.

But the distance one has to walk isn’t what makes golf so taxing, you don’t see marathon runners turning their hand to golf for some easy prize money. It is other physical skills that increase the challenge.

Golf requires strong muscles in the back, shoulders, core and glutes not just to add distance to shots, but to keep a consistent swing. Having strong muscles in these areas allows the body to stay in line as the weight is transferred from the top of the swing to the follow through. If the body is not kept stable throughout the swing, even by the slightest amount, errors are likely to start creeping in.

Image CC Scott Airforce

3) Mental Skill

Now golf isn’t just hard because of the physical requirements, the mental requirements to master the sport are just as, if not more challenging. The number of books, DVDs and coaches available out there tells you that there is a lot to learn mentally. The slightest change in thought as you step up to the ball or adjustment of your shoulders at the last second can make or ruin a shot (or entire round!).

Not letting these little things get into your head is one of the hardest aspects of golf. I am sure I’m not the only one who has a constant nagging voice following them around the entire course, playing scenarios through over and over of topping the ball off the tee or taking 4 shots to get out of a bunker. You imagine your friends sniggering behind you, you can see the score going up and up, ruining an entire day in just one hole. Sound familiar? Thought so. Well you’re not alone, this pressure on every shot is real, even when playing for fun. Being able to keep calm and regain that composure after a fluffed shot is something that takes years to perfect and for some people (like me) frustration is uncontrollable a lot of the time.

No other sport at an amateur level consistently sees a mini crowd (your 2 or 3 fellow players, and maybe the following group) watching your every shot, and in complete silence. Yes, the mental side of a golfers game makes it very hard to master!

Image: Flickr Marco Belluci CC2.0

4) Consistency is key

Tying in with the mental aspect comes consistency. This not only applies from day to day, but also throughout each 18 hole round. Nobody is going to care how sweetly you hit that drive on the first tee if you hit the next 10 drives into the rough! Likewise, that 15-foot beaut of a putt is going to be a distant memory if you 3 putt for the rest of the round.

And it is not just consistency in one type of shot. A player must be consistent with all aspects of the game throughout an entire round and from day to day. With so much conflicting information filling our heads of why shots are not going to plan we are constantly tweaking our swings, moving feet, and turning shoulders. Finding consistency, therefore, is even harder and when you correct one error you may be bringing in another bad habit!

This moving from thinking to habit can improve consistency, but consistency can be good or bad. There’s no point in a consistent wrong swing that lands you in the rough every time!

Making something second nature is the key. When something isn’t an ingrained habit you overthink it, overcomplicate and make mistakes. Have you ever had it where you overthink catching a ball and then drop it, but someone can suddenly throw you a ball without warning and you catch it with just one hand? The closer you can get to the ‘one-handed catch mindset’ with your golf swing, the more consistent you will be.

5) Expensive equipment can make a big difference

In all sports, an element of the difficulty is down to your own skill level and limiting mistakes. However in golf, probably more than any sport, the quality of the equipment does really make a difference.

Ok so buying the most expensive driver won’t make you instantly the best player at your club, but having the least expensive could make you the worst! The truth is that technology has advanced significantly when it comes to golf equipment over the past 20 or so years, and in particular with the clubs. Materials have changed and clubs are lighter and even have adjustability now so you can see an instant improvement sometimes just by switching club.

This isn’t an advert for Dicks sporting goods, but I do believe that decent clubs are a wise investment. But don’t go changing them every year, get used to the clubs and play with them consistently. Only if you truly hate a club or there is a significant technical advance should you move on. Otherwise, you risk losing that all-important consistency I was just talking about.

 

So there you have it, I hope now you are starting to understand why golf is often quoted as being the hardest sport in the world. But there must be some shortcuts to get better surely? Some ‘life hacks’ as the kids are calling them these days. Well as I say the practice is key and I can’t train you to be at your physical and mental peak. But below are 5 golfing/ life ‘hacks’ to get you some momentum!

 

5 ‘Golf Hacks’ to accelerate your improvement.

1) Break it down into smaller goals

As with any big goal in life, mastering golf seems like an impossible and horribly overwhelming task when looked at from afar. When a climber wants to scale Everest they don’t go out on day one and attempt to climb it with no problems, they train for years practicing with small hikes, then preparing the body until eventually accomplishing the goal. Yet many people expect to pick up a golf club and instantly be able to hit a hole in one. This is especially true for people who are naturally good at other sports, they often think they can master golf easily, but they overlook the intricate skills required.

So work on mastering one element of your game at a time. Instead of using the range balls cycling through every club in your bag, pick one club and shot type to practice and focus on that and only that!

You may choose to work on your drive first for example. By keeping your mind on this you can really focus down on what you are doing right and more importantly, what you are doing wrong. Film yourself, watch it back, tweak and learn. If you get coaching, ask them to focus on this one element until you have it mastered. By all means, work on other stuff to break up the practice but I work on an 80/20 ratio with 80% of the practice time dedicated to that one element that you are focussing on.

As mentioned before, getting the skills set as ‘deep habits’ will improve your consistency and the quickest way to get these habits installed within that brain of yours is to focus deeply on one skill at a time.

Getting your handicap lower works like this too. Don’t start off aiming for scratch as you will never achieve it unless you are superhuman. Set a goal of improving by 1 or 2 in a few months or a year (depending on where you are now) and celebrate each little victory as you get closer to that bigger goal!

2) Work out!

As I mentioned above, one of the elements that are often overlooked by players and thus makes golf much harder for them is the physical attributes required.

You’ve seen the poor shape of some of the players on the course these days, and one easy way to get an edge on them is by getting in shape. Now I’m not talking about becoming Mr/Mrs. Universe here (although I don’t think too many would complain if that accidentally happened), just a few small improvements can go a long way.

Don’t go down the gym and mindlessly work out on whatever thing looks fun, or only do press-ups because that’s all you’ve ever done. Work on the key muscle groups that can benefit your game the most. Focus on the core, sit-ups, and planks will develop a strong core and a much more stable swing. The muscles that may not seem obvious such as the glutes (butt) are also key and will help with more consistent weight transfer. If you have more muscle in the right places this will lead to more consistency and greater shot distance as an added bonus.

And you don’t need to go to the gym for this either, all these muscles can be worked out from the comfort of your own living room! Check out this old article I wrote with a few exercises you can do at home to get you started.

3) Get a great mentor, and play with better players

Again another lesson that is as true in life as it is in golf. It is said that you are they some of the 5 people you spend most time with, and I would argue you are probably the sum of the 5 golfers you spend the most time with too!

Yes although you might enjoy winning against your friends Bill and John every Sunday because you are a better player than them, if you are serious about improving you need to find some better people to play with! Surrounding yourself with better players than you will not only make you raise your own game naturally, but you can learn more, watching and improving faster. Don’t hide behind that handicap using it as an excuse not to improve, challenge yourself and the rewards will follow.

The same applies to getting great mentors. This could be people you play with, or it could be a great coach. Seek out the best in the area and utilize your time with them wisely. A great mentor will accelerate your learning more than any other factor.

 

4) Master putting

If you want to improve fastest then this is the key. Yes, it’s no secret that well over half of the shots you (should) take on a golf course are with one club, the putter. It does take much playing the game to realize that it doesn’t matter how straight your drive is, if you take 4 or 5 putts on every hole it will be a three-figure number on that scorecard.

Putting is also one of the easiest skills to practice, you can go down to the local putting green, or you can even practice in your own home. Buying a simple home putting green such as this may not represent the undulating greens of St Andrews, but it will help you work on important things like keeping your head down and keeping the putter head straight through the ball.

This is all part of forming those habits. It will mean that when it comes to the big shot on the 18th green you will hopefuly not overthink the shot and it will be second nature. Use the kids running around your feet as a good replication of the unwanted mental distractions on the course!

5) Invest in a new driver

I spent years as a junior playing with a driver that was handed down through the generations. I used to avoid using this club at all costs and it stayed in my bad gathering dust most of the round. It wasn’t until I went to the pro-shop and started messing around with new, more expensive drivers that I found out what I’d been missing!

Of all the club types, the one that is worth investing most cash on is the driver. At the higher end, you will get great features these days such as lightweight materials making for an easier swing to generate lots of power. You will get more forgiveness, meaning hitting the ball slightly off center won’t lead to wild slice every time.

One of the best features of new drivers is the adjustability. This allows features such as loft and weighing in the head to be adjusted so you can fix minor problems with your shots easily. The adjustable loft means you can go for more loft when starting out which means less distance but more accuracy, which you can then bring down as you get more confident!

I did an article recently on this in more detail and why I think getting a good driver is key.

 

So there you have it. There is no denying that golf is hard. So hard in fact that even the pros struggle and it’s their job! So don’t worry, in fact, the best thing you can do is relax. Break down those big goals and use these hacks and you will be saying ‘golf isn’t that hard’ before you know it.