Mistakes—we’re all going to make them, especially on the golf course. Luckily, this isn’t a game that demands perfection. Even on Tour, low scores can be had without being perfect on every swing. The key is to limit the mistakes that can cause the most damage and jump on scoring opportunities whenever they arise.
At the highest level, on-course mistakes typically take the form of a slight mis-hit or an error in club selection. Within the recreational ranks, however, mistakes run the gamut from poor mechanics to poor course strategy. However, you don’t need an overhaul of your swing to keep many of these mistakes at bay and, certainly, there’s no need to correct them all. It’s a simple matter of fixing the ones that produce the type of results from which recovery is impossible. I’ll address 15 of these over the next several pages, encompassing the areas of driving, wedge play and putting. By doing so, you’ll be in better position off the tee—a blessing for most recreational players—and have greater ability to get the ball close and into the hole.
Driving is paramount to success. As you probably know, the flood of low scores on Tour is fueled by longer, more accurate drives that leave shorter approaches into the green. Eliminating common driving mistakes will leave you with the same, welcomed proposition.
Mistake #1: Equipment
A big mistake recreational players make when driving occurs even before the swing is begun—more specifically, even before the round has begun. Some golfers are dead-set in their belief that a driver should feature no more than nine degrees of loft. Most recreational players would be better served by a driver with 11 or even 12 degrees of loft for several reasons.
One, more loft creates more backspin, and more backspin means less sidespin and, thus, less slice and hook. Second, it’s becoming apparent that it’s easier to create optimal launch conditions with a high-lofted driver. Many Tour players and long-drive competitors are increasing the lofts on their drivers to create the higher angle associated with optimal launch. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking you need a stiffer shaft than what your swing realistically needs. If you’re not sure what flex is right for you, err on the “flexier” side. A key component of successful driving is getting the face square and through the golf ball, which is more easily accomplished with a softer flex. If the shaft is too stiff, you’ll have to make compensations to get that head to turn over.
Mistake #2: Level Shoulders
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before, but I’ll repeat it anyway: A good golf swing follows an inside-out path on the downswing. The opposite type of path will always produce poor results unless you plan for it. There are many theories on how to create an in-out path, and that’s the problem—you can’t create path. It simply happens in response to how you move your body in the downswing—more specifically, how you move your shoulders. If you keep your shoulders level during the downswing, your club can’t trace an inside-out path, regardless of the quality of their rotation.
To keep the club on the correct plane, your left shoulder must rock up as your right shoulder turns underneath your chin as you approach impact. When I teach this to most of my students, the common reaction is to overemphasize the “rock up,” which causes the right shoulder to drop severely and hit the ball fat. The rock up must be paired with rotation. In a good golf swing, the right shoulder moves underneath the chin and through to the finish.
Mistake #3: Too Much Body
While it’s true that your lower body should pivot during the swing to hit the ball powerfully, it’s not what generates power and speed in the swing. That’s the role of the hands. They’re the fastest part of your body—it’s imperative that you use them to your advantage.
Swing with an attempt to propel the club by the movement of your hands and simply allow the rest of your body to turn with them. It’s a much simpler swing than what’s taught by other instructors, and simplicity will help keep mistakes at bay. During practice, try hitting balls with your feet together. You’ll find that your drives travel just as far as they do when you swing from a wide stance with lots of hip action. You’ll also find it easier to swing the club on-plane. Keep your lower body quiet—active legs are for the dance floor.
Mistake #4: No Control
Forget what you see on TV—you don’t need a massive shoulder turn and a parallel shaft at the top to play the game of golf. The key is to maneuver your body so that you’re in control of the clubhead at all times.
To attain such control, unify your backswing. With your hands acting as lead, rotate your shoulders, arms and chest to a comfortable stop, which, if your flexibility allows, should be when the left shoulder sits above the right thigh. Once you’re set, simply unwind that rotation, again, leading with the hands. A good swing thought is to turn your left shoulder under your chin on the backswing, and the right shoulder under the chin on the downswing. Keep it simple and you’ll find more than your fair share of fairways.
Mistake #5: Poor Alignment
Poor alignment is evident in 90% of amateur swings, and I can’t blame you for it. Today’s longer-shafted drivers force golfers to stand further away from the ball, which makes alignment difficult. A good way to ingrain proper alignment is to place guide clubs on the ground when you hit balls on the range. This will help you feel how your feet should be positioned relative to the target you select. Have a friend check your hip and shoulder lines from behind you. Often, even if the feet are aligned properly, the shoulders and hips will be open. This sets the stage for a slice path.
I love wedge shots. With wedges, you have the greatest chance of hitting the ball close to the hole. They set up birdie chances and can turn bogey into par real quick. For most recreational players, the wedge shot is feared because it demands a steep, out-in path. And the extra bounce on wedges makes it easy to hit the ball thin, especially from tight lies. A quick review of common mistakes should easily put these fears to rest, however.
Mistake #1: High-Fiving
One of my favorite lessons is, “In golf, you shake hands like a gentleman.” Most golfers, however, “high five.” In other words, they swing from low to high following impact.
In all swings, hit down and through the ball so that in the postimpact position, your hands are still below your waist. For better wedge shots, follow impact by shaking hands with your target.
Mistake #2: Poor Setup
It seems so simple, but many recreational players hurt their chances for solid contact by not properly setting up to the golf ball, especially with a pitching or sand wedge in their hands. A major setup mistake golfers make when playing a wedge shot is standing too far away from the ball. It’s a short club, so stand a little closer and in an upright posture. Since you won’t have time to get your left side out of the way, play from an open stance, with your front foot pulled back. And always make sure your right elbow is against your right side. If the elbow gets away from the body, you’ll lose control of the clubhead, and since swings with wedges are much shorter than those with your other irons, you won’t have time to recover.
Mistake #3: Open Clubface
If the face of your wedge is open, and you’re not prepared for it, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. It’s a mistake that far too many amateur golfers make. The extra loft of the wedge makes it a bit more difficult to determine if the face is closed, open or square, a problem further complicated by the fact that most golfers look at the toe of the club to square the face to the target line.
To align your clubhead properly, focus on the leading edge, not the toe. The leading edge should bisect an imaginary line running from your ball to the target. This probably sounds elementary, but I bet you’ve played a few shots with an open face without your knowing about it. It happens to everybody. One reason why is that most wedge shots are played from the back of the stance. With the ball played from this position, it’s even easier to forgetfully allow the clubface to slide open to the target.
Mistake #4: Yardage Control
How many times, from 75 yards, did you come up 15 yards short or 15 yards long? I bet it’s more than you’d like to admit. Erring by that much from such short distance is unforgivable. Good wedge players know how to hit the ball specific distances. The key is practice.
Use a session on the range to find out how far you hit each wedge with backswings that stop at knee-high, waist-high and shoulder-high. Once you have this inventory of shots, you’ll know how far to take the club back when you’re faced with a specific yardage on the course. Remember, the length of your backswing, not the force of your swing, controls how far you hit a wedge. Set the length, then accelerate through impact.
Mistake #5: Overactive Legs
Watch any Tour player make a short-game swing and one thing should jump out: The legs of the golfer are dead. The smooth, unhurried, even tempo of a short swing doesn’t require a ton of leg action. In fact, if you set up properly with a slightly open stance, you shouldn’t need any leg action at all.
For most wedge swings, power the club exclusively with your hands and arms. Above all, don’t shift laterally or flail your hips open as if you’re trying to crush the ball 300 yards. The short game is all about control, so stay in control and keep those legs quiet. Plus, since wedge shots require a shorter, slower swing, there isn’t enough time to maneuver the hips closed, then open, before impact.
Putting is for scoring. You won’t need to drive the ball on every hole, and you don’t need an accurately placed wedge shot on every hole, either. What you do need is a solid putting stroke, one that continually gets the ball within tap-in range at the very worst. If we all three-putted less, our scores would be much lower without having to make a single change to our full swings. Avoid these mistakes on the putting green at all costs.
Mistake #1: Putterhead Deceleration
You have a three-foot putt to win a match on the final hole. It’s a straight putt. A no-brainer. But it comes up short or drifts just below the right edge. What happened? If you’re like the majority of recreational players, you decelerated, the worst of all putting errors. It’s easy to do on short putts, where we’ve all been guilty of trying to “baby” the ball into the hole.
Your putting stroke, regardless of the length of the putt, should always be accelerating at a constant rate. The manner in which you alter distance is by changing the length of your backstroke and throughstroke. Whatever the length, your putterhead should gain speed through the contact zone.
Mistake #2: Open Face
You can’t set up to putt with an open face. If you do, you’ll miss to the right every time (for a right-handed golfer), regardless of the quality of your stroke.
Look to the leading edge of the putterhead to align your putter perpendicularly to the target line, or make use of the club’s painted sight lines or natural aiming lines. Consider these lines when shopping for a new putter. Find a putter that feels good, of course, but also one that’s easy to align. We’re all likely to try something that works well for our playing partners or our favorite Tour player. Don’t fall into that trap. Experiment and find a putter that works for you. It may be something you’d never consider owning.
Mistake #3: Bad Reads
Green reading is a tough area of the game to teach. It takes practice. It takes experience. But even golfers with long playing careers fail to judge the appropriate break because they look for break in all the wrong places. Most focus solely on the area around the hole.
True, the ground around the cup will influence the roll, but don’t forget about other break influences, such as the area where your ball lies or collection areas off the green. Look for drainage areas. If the course sits near a large geographical landmark (an ocean, mountain, etc.), keep in mind that these will greatly affect break. Plan accordingly.
Mistake #4: Poor Stance
Putting is personal, and you should adopt a stance that provides the most comfort. But I suggest you follow the stance fundamentals pictured here. If you do, you’ll be in a lot better position to make the kind of stroke that produces the truest roll and putts that stay true to the line.
Don’t make the mistake of making comfort and ease your primary concern when putting.
Mistake #5: Right Shoulder Stops
Contrary to public opinion, the putterhead should “release” along the target line, much like your iron or driver head does in the full swing. This release is a natural reaction to the putterhead accelerating through impact and moving the ball along the intended line. One of the reasons why golfers fail to accelerate is that they stop the movement of their right shoulder after impact.
To properly accelerate and release the putterhead, the right shoulder must continue to move down the target line following contact. If you stop your right shoulder, your right hand will take over and lift up the putterhead and increase the chance of striking the top half of the golf ball, producing more skid than roll.
Senior Instruction Editor Marshall Smith has taught the game of golf for more than 50 years. He currently instructs at Miami Country Club and Peoria Ridge Golf Club in northeastern Oklahoma.