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Golf Digest Open

9 competitive mistakes made by golfers who don't compete often

August 30, 2023
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A regional qualifier for the Golf Digest Open was held at Rockaway Hunting Club on Aug. 21.

Will Fullerton

The beauty of a tournament with gross and net divisions, like the Golf Digest Open, is that golfers of all handicaps have something to play for. That was one of our goals with the GD Open, a two-person best-ball event that launched this year with qualifiers all over the country, culminating in a national final at a future PGA Championship site in October.

The competitors range from former college players with plus handicaps to 80s- and 90s-shooters whose competitive experience is limited to a weekend Nassau. Each qualifier presents a fascinating case study into the differences in how each group approaches competitive golf.

Along with several colleagues, I recently played in the Golf Digest Open qualifier at Rockaway Hunting Club on Long Island. Within our groups, we had a few scratch golfers teaming up with mid-handicaps who compete only a few times a year. The mid-handicaps hit some fantastic shots and made a few birdies, but it was numerous strategic and mental mistakes that caused their scores to balloon past the scratches.

Here are nine entirely avoidable competitive mistakes made by golfers who don’t compete often. Whether you’re prepping for a competitive event like the Golf Digest Open or your member-guest, close the gap between you and the best players by staying away from these common faults.

1. Aggressive and conservative in the wrong spots

You’ll often hear of professional golfers talk about wanting to make aggressive swings to conservative targets, but what does that really mean? Higher handicaps often do the opposite, taking unnecessary risk and making defensive swings. A good example of this is on longer par 5s that are very tight off the tee.

If a three-shot hole is narrow off the tee but opens up on the second shot, there’s no reason to take on all the trouble off the tee by hitting driver, only to leave a 6-iron for your wide-open layup. Instead, good players will consider a conservative play off the tee with less than driver, and then take a longer club on their layup, when there is more margin for error.

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2. Missing where you absolutely can’t

Scratch players know how to avoid blow-up holes that derail any competitive round. Much of that strategy occurs on the tee. On a few holes at Rockaway Hunting Club, water lines the entire right side with plenty of room on the left to bail out. One of my mid-handicap playing partners missed it to the right in the water on three straight holes. Until that point, he was scoring very well, with plenty of pars and a birdie, but those three holes ballooned his score.

To avoid the big miss, think about your club choice. If you miss to the right with the driver, consider taking a 3-wood or hybrid, which are easier to work from right to left. Also, don’t be afraid to aim away from the fairway. If one side of the hole is wide open, go ahead and aim in the rough. It’ll be less costly than a water ball and penalty stroke.

3. Lack of a warm-up plan

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Competitors warm up on the range at Rockaway Hunting Club before the Golf Digest Open qualifier on Aug. 21.

Will Fullerton

Golfers who compete often are great at time management, specifically in their pre-round routines. At the GD Open qualifier, there were two common mistakes. On one end, there were folks who arrived for a 9 a.m. shotgun at 7:15 and headed straight to the range. With too much time to kill, these players banged dozens of balls on the range without purpose, or worse, tried a bunch of different swing thoughts. Conserving energy is essential in competitive golf, and burning it on a pre-round grind session will cost you shots on the back nine.

On the other end, there were players who didn’t budget enough time and arrived at the course too late to hit any balls or putts. The low handicaps who had a 20-minute range session and hit enough putts to learn the pace of the greens had the early advantage.

4. Chipping from the fringe

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A competitor hits a chip shot at the Golf Digest Open qualifier at Rockaway Hunting Club on Aug. 21.

Will Fullerton

If you don’t compete often, opt for the simplest shot in nearly every situation. This is especially key when you’re just off the green and debating putter or wedge. It doesn’t matter if you’re a reliable chipper in your weekend game—when you’re nervous, solid contact on short shots is the first thing to go. Take the putter from off the green whenever you can.

5. Not eating or packing food

I used to wear a Whoop fitness band, which among other metrics tracked how many calories I burned during activities. After every round, I was shocked when I would burn nearly 2,000 calories. To fuel all the energy you’re using, you need to consistently eat carbs and protein throughout the round—something I didn’t see many players doing at our qualifier at Rockaway. Plan ahead and pack your snacks before your round, then be sure to follow the 5-10-15 rule.

6. Poor speed control

Playing your first competitive round in a while is stressful enough, so you need to avoid leaving yourself five- and six-foot comebackers all round. Speed control becomes far more difficult when you’re nervous, so take extra time on the practice green before the round to hit longer putts, focusing solely on dying the ball near the cup. Scratch golfers know that having tap-ins all day saves them valuable mental energy.

7. Afraid of the short ones

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A competitor hits a short putt at the Golf Digest Open qualifier at Rockaway Hunting Club.

Will Fullerton

No matter how good your speed control is, you’re going to have plenty of three- and four-footers. Play a competitive round, where you’re grinding over short putts, and you’ll realize we’re probably giving way too many gimmes in our weekend games. Short putting is perhaps the greatest separator between those who play competitively often and those who don’t. In the days leading up to your round, be sure to finish all your putts out. Then before your round, after you’ve dialed in your speed, hit a bunch of short putts to build up your confidence.

8. No consistent pre-shot routine

Many higher handicaps have pre-shot routines, but those routines quickly fall apart when they are under pressure. This was apparent at the GD Open qualifier, when a player in my group would ditch his routine when faced with a pressure putt. On multiple occasions after running the first putt by the hole, he would immediately step up and hit the second putt, seemingly hoping to get it over with as quickly as possible. Some went in, but others didn’t. Competitive golfers understand that their routines are made specifically for these pressure situations—to keep them calm and grounded in their process.

9. Not knowing basic rules

If you hit it on the cart path in your average round, you’ll brush it to the side and proceed as normal. Or if you find the water, you might toss another down in the general spot where you think the ball went in. Of course, in competition, you must follow a formal relief process, and not knowing how to take relief will cost your group time. Brush up on these common procedures before your competitive round.