InstructionJuly 16, 2014

The 36 Most Common Mistakes in Golf

And how to steer clear of them

We don't love the term "mistakes" here. It sounds kind of pompous and preachy, like we're going to rap you on the knuckles or start slapping behinds if we get you to admit to any of these little gaffes. That's not our intent at all (even if you're into that kind of thing). We're well aware of our own shortcomings—in fact, they were the catalyst for and provider of much of the content that follows. Think of our advice as coming from a good friend, a caring golf partner or the guy you tortured last Saturday by taking three practice swings before every damn shot.

Our so-called mistakes are not limited to swing or playing faults. In fact, the bulk of them fall into the social and emotional realms, like hitting on the beverage-cart girl or thinking everybody wants to hear the blow-by-blow of the 98 you just fired. Our tips are mostly common sense, which golf sometimes has a funny way of taking away from us. So open your mind, and let's go.

1.TALKING TO ANOTHER GUY'S BALL

Screaming "Get up! Get up!" when your playing partner's ball is flirting with a water hazard doesn't promote friendship the way the screamer thinks. Most partners are ambivalent about it, but opponents downright hate it. Why? Well-intentioned though your shouts may be, there's always the suspicion that you aren't as sincere as you would be if it were your ball.

2. NOT PLAYING READY GOLF

"Is it you or me?" "After you." "Are you sure?" Meanwhile, paint is drying, civilizations are rising and falling, and the folks playing behind you are trying to quell their rising fury. Forget the honor—hit when ready.

3. WEARING BLACK SOCKS WITH KHAKIS

"The contrast is murder," says our fashion guru, Marty Hackel. "Black is excellent for funerals and job interviews in law enforcement, but it doesn't go well with neutral-colored golf clothing. Your socks should be the same color—or lighter—than your pants or shorts."

4. STUFFING YOUR FACE RIGHT BEFORE YOU TEE OFF

The legendary Paul Runyan, winner of the 1934 and '38 PGA Championships, said his easiest opponent was one who had just consumed ham for breakfast. Too slow to digest. Likewise, scarfing down the Double Eagle Burger before heading to the first tee will teach you a hard lesson about playing golf in the throes of digestion.

5. NOT GETTING FIT FOR CLUBS

Back when bloodletting and reading tea leaves were all the rage, golfers performed clubfitting in some strange ways. To test shaft flex, they waggled the club or even leaned on it. For lie angle, they simply peered down at address. Today, the performance advantages—especially distance—of getting fit make it the only way to go.

6. GOING FOR THE FLAG

It's a free country: You can fire at that pin set three paces from the edge of a pond if you like. But when you're weary of writing Xs on your scorecard, you'll learn there's no shame in aiming for the middle of the green. As Ken Venturi used to say: "Take your par, and walk away quietly."

7. HAVING NO CLUE ABOUT YELLOW STAKES

If you hit into a yellow-staked area, you have three options:

(1) Play it as it lies; (2) Drop as far back as you want, keeping the point where your ball went in between you and the hole; (3) Replay from where you last hit the ball. Nos. 2 and 3 will cost you a stroke. iddle of the green. As Ken Venturi used to say: "Take your par, and walk away quietly."

8. NOT RAKING BUNKERS OR REPLACING DIVOTS

We believe in karma: Your disrespect will come back to bite you in the ass. If you don't care about other golfers, they might not care about you. Treat your world with love and care, and your world will greet you in kind.

9. LEAVING A CLUB BEHIND

Some say the longest walk in golf is from the 18th green to the clubhouse after blowing a 4-up lead. We say it's trudging back two holes to retrieve a wedge left on the fringe. To prevent this, place your wedge between the hole and where you exit the green. That way, you or another player will literally walk into it.

10. NEVER CLEANING OUT YOUR GOLF BAG

Get rid of that yardage book from a buddies trip years ago that has turned into mulch. The old towel that's sprouting alfalfa shoots. Five rancid gloves, each riddled with holes. And, of course, loads of crappy, battered balls. Time to declutter: Enough with hanging on to useless baggage, including all those self-defeating tasks, behavior patterns, thoughts, people. Lighten your load.

11. PRACTICING 20-FOOTERS

On the practice putting green, you reflexively putt from one hole to another, a distance of 15 to 25 feet. Top teacher Dean Reinmuth offers a more useful strategy. "Do most of your practicing from four to eight feet out," he says. "A circle of putts from eight feet around the hole will get you sharp where your real chances for birdie will come. From four feet, that's where many of your chips will stop, and where you need to practice those tough putts for par."

12. WEARING THE WRONG SIZE

Even a great physique can't make a shirt or pair of pants look good when it's a size too big or too small. There's only one route to looking your best, and that's to have every item sized correctly.

13. NOT SHOUTING 'FORE!'

Don't think your errant tee shot will land near that worker pruning bushes? Shout "Fore!" anyway. Can't believe your 3-wood will reach players on a green you've never hit in two? "Fore!" is still a must. Follow a simple policy: Better safe than sorry.

14. THINKING THE BEVERAGE-CART GIRL ENJOYS YOUR SNAPPY REPARTEE

There's a moment in the movie "Adaptation" when the Nicolas Cage character misreads the young diner waitress' friendliness and, to her horror, asks her out on a date. It's an excruciating scene, one that's repeated every day, across the land, between sweaty golfers and fragrant beverage-cart maidens.

15. HAVING NO HYBRIDS

Why do you carry any iron longer than a 5? Go to the range, measure the carry distance of your 4-iron, and you tell us. Hybrids, people. Think hybrids.

16. AIMING AT NOTHING

Harvey Penick's final marching order to his tournament-bound students was: "Take dead aim." It wasn't a slogan so much as a warning. If you don't aim the clubface and check alignment on every shot, don't be surprised if the ball doesn't do what you had in mind.

17. PLAYING BACK TOO FAR

The narcissist golfer believes he's attractive, funny, talented. And he insists on playing the championship tees, as if anything less than 7,500 yards is an affront to his manhood. Be gentle with him, for beneath the deluded self-image lies an aching void of nothingness. "We're going to play the middle tees today," you might suggest. "We'd be honored if you'd join us."

18. CHECKING YOUR PHONE

Is looking at your phone during a round rude? Maybe. But we do know it rarely helps your game. Hard to thread one down a tight fairway when you've just learned a document needs your signature at the office by 4 p.m.

19. GIVING THE BLOW-BY-BLOW OF YOUR LATEST ROUND

There comes a point in the post-game press conference when the tour player is invited to go through his round. Then it starts, in a life-extinguishing monologue: "On the first, I had 187 to the pin, downwind, so I took the 9 and... " If it's really boring when the pros do it, imagine how boring it is when you do it.

20. EXPLODING WHEN YOU PLAY BADLY

When people get angry about little things, like golf, it's because they're really angry about big things, like life. So when your game inexplicably turns sour, your unconscious regurgitates those awful feelings you had that time your dad abandoned you, or you caught your sweetheart cheating, or you got fired by that boss who never liked you. Bad shots appear like Banquo's ghost—a painful reminder that we're indeed powerless. Peace on the course starts with acceptance.

21. STILL USING A 3-WOOD

Most guys we know hit a 3-wood off the deck barely higher than the roof of the range tractor. Lesson: Ditch your 15-degree 3-wood. Fact is, every fitter we talk to says average golfers hit higher-lofted fairway woods longer. Why? Distance starts by getting the ball on a higher trajectory. So replace your 3-wood with a 4-wood. The range picker thanks you.

22. NOT WATCHING YOUR BALL

You hit a terrible tee shot and look to the sky for answers. Meanwhile, your ball bounds deep into the woods. "Anyone see where I ended up?" you ask. Usually there's one attentive person in the group who kept an eye out. Better to not rely on that person.

23. PLAYING ON WHEN YOU'RE OUT OF THE HOLE

Are you a sadomasochist? No? Then why do you insist on flailing away in a deep bunker or skulling chips back and forth? Have some dignity, man. Pick it up. We don't mind playing with bad golfers, just the ones who don't know when to quit.

24. THINKING A WHITE BELT MAKES YOU LOOK HIP

A white belt can add zest to an ordinary outfit. But remember what our fashion expert, Marty Hackel, calls the Rule of 36: "If your waist size or age is greater than 36, don't just leave the white belt in the closet -- leave it at the store."

25. BLAMING THE GOLF GODS

Yes, you were unlucky. Yes, you deserved a better lie. Yes, you could've scored better with a few breaks. You're highly invested in being one of life's victims, and as long as you see yourself that way, bad things will keep happening.

26. YOU THINK YOU HIT THE BALL FARTHER THAN YOU DO

That pitiful narcissist again. He waits for the green to clear on a par 5 despite the fact he's 300 yards away, into a brisk wind. Finally the green opens up. He swings and holds his finish. The ball dribbles 100 yards along the ground. "The wait killed me," he mutters to no one in particular.

27. NOT KNOWING HOW TO DROP

When you take a drop, stand with the ball in hand facing the hole, extend your arm and drop. No spinning it, flipping it or otherwise trying to get it to jump into a perfect lie. The biggest offense when it comes to where you drop has to be the ball hit out-of-bounds. There you have only one option: Add a stroke and re-hit from where you played your last shot. No dropping where you think the ball went bye-bye.

28. TRYING TO MAKE A BAD OUTFIT WORK

If a mirror check reveals your plaid pants and camo shirt don't work, you have 10 seconds to convince yourself otherwise. If you're still pirouetting after that, try another combo.

29. THINKING A SLOW START LEADS TO A BAD ROUND

You four-putt the first green for triple. You could descend into a fog of rage and have a miserable time. Or you could relax, enjoy your day and just play. Forgetting about your score, paradoxically, will likely lead to lower scores.

30. COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR GAME

Whining is a deeply unattractive trait. Keep it up, and soon there'll be no one left to whine to. Save it for your post-round soliloquy on the car ride home. Or tell it to your therapist, or the family dog. (The latter is cheaper than the former and might be more understanding, too.)

31. NOT CARRYING THE RIGHT WEDGES

You know that nagging distance gap between your sand wedge and your pitching wedge? There's a club for that. Here's the rule: Clubfitters say there should be no more than 5 or 6 degrees between your wedges. So if your pitching wedge is 45 degrees, you're going to need a gap wedge between that and your 56-degree sand wedge. This tip will change your game.

32. THINKING YOU CAN'T DROP INTO A BETTER LIE

The rules make no distinction between fairway and rough. If taking relief from an obstruction -- a sprinkler head or irrigation box, for example—moves you from long grass to short, lucky you.

33. SWINGING TOO FAST

If your swing brings to mind a blender set on liquefy, time to slow it down. Jim McLean offers this advice on rhythm: "Step off to the side and practice making swings while saying, '1 and 2,' with emphasis on the 'and.' The '1' takes you to the top, the 'and' covers the all-important pause and transition, and the '2' takes you through impact."

34. FOLLOWING A BAD SHOT WITH A REALLY DUMB SHOT

Last year Dustin Johnson topped the "bounce back" stat on the PGA Tour. If he was over par on a hole, he'd play the next hole under par 30 percent of the time. This might have something to do with thinking positively (or being engaged to Paulina Gretzky). But we non-D.J. types do the opposite: We try the miracle shot and make matters worse. Let's be like D.J. instead.

35. FORGETTING TO APPLY SUNSCREEN

Seriously, this is nothing to be casual about: Apply before a round and again at the turn, and don't forget the lip balm. Do this every time you play, and your future self will thank you.

36. TAKING TOO MANY PRACTICE SWINGS

The more practice swings, the worse the outcome. Hit it already, freely, with abandon, vitality, spontaneity. Our rule proposal: Every swing counts as a shot. Result? Quicker rounds, better scores, world peace.