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Five takeaways from golfers who had huge breakthroughs in 2019

January 29, 2020
Patton Kizzire - Sanderson Farms Championship - Round One

(Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images)

An “aha” moment is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working on your game, few things feel better than when everything clicks. In collecting some feedback around the start of the new year, we were overwhelmed by the successes shared with us by golfers on social media. We thought highlighting some of the best breakthroughs from golfers like you last year might help you achieve your own in 2020.

We asked Alana Swain and Jason Sedan, two of Golf Digest’s Best Young Teachers in America, to weigh in on five of our favorite breakthroughs. Their advice will give you a good idea of where to start and what to expect from pursuing your own “aha” moment.

The proof is in the percentages

We’ve all made mistakes out on the course, but how often do we try to learn from them? After a tough round last year at his home course, Scott Schnaars, of San Jose, Calif., decided to study his scores and stats from his past rounds. He noticed that he was consistently shooting high numbers on the same holes every time he played, and it was mostly due to poor course-management skills. Schnaars hunkered down and strategized how he'd specifically adjust his approach on those holes in his next rounds. He changed his thought process when it came to club selection and where to place his ball. For example, instead of hitting driver on risky holes he opted for a more controllable club, like an iron. He noticed that he started to save a couple strokes a round with these simple course-management adjustments, so Schnaars started keeping more in-depth stats during his rounds. He found that on top of his course management, his short game was seriously lacking. He tightened up his practice routine and dedicated more of his time to chipping and putting. Schnaars said that if he hadn’t kept his stats, he would have never known how desperately he needed to improve his course management or short-game skills. Schnaars made the impressive jump from a 13-handicap down to an 8 by the end of the year, and he credits his approach as being key to him getting into single digits.


What can you learn from this?

Alana Swain, teaching professional at PGA Tour Performance Center at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, weighed in on this breakthrough saying, “While it isn’t for everyone, keeping stats can help you identify the areas in your game that need to be improved upon.” Not sure where to start? Swain says a good jumping-off point is to keep track of how many greens you hit and the length of your first putt. “Do this a few times and you’ll see where you need to spend your time.” Another piece of advice she shared was that course management is crucial and know when to change up your game plan. Alana's final key: “If you are playing the same course on a regular basis, be sure you aren’t making the same mistakes every time.”

Commitment is key

Most of us drop our New Year’s resolutions by the beginning of February. Unfortunately, this lack of commitment is usually what keeps us from achieving our golf goals for the year. Instead of letting his well intentioned goals go out the window, Walter Shelton of Plainville, Conn., buckled down and stuck with his game plan to get his handicap back into the single digits. He first assessed his game and pinpointed the changes he needed to make to improve. Shelton found that his equipment was part of his problem so he made a change. After getting fitted, Shelton switched his shafts from steel to graphite and purchased wedges that were a better fit for his game. His new wedges helped him become consistent inside 100 yards, and Shelton said he felt more confident standing over tough pitch shots knowing he had the right equipment in his hand. He also sought out help from a local PGA professional. He said that to truly make a commitment to his game, he needed to get the fundamentals of his swing right. From there, it was all pretty simple. Shelton set goals for himself, like practicing at the range five times a week and breaking 80 at least four times. Walter finally got his handicap back down to the single digits. When asked what made the biggest difference in his game, Shelton said that it wasn’t necessarily one thing. He felt it was his commitment to getting better, his ability to follow through with the goals he had put in place.

What can you learn from this?

“Walter committed the time with a specific plan, and the dividends were paid! Before you say this is your year, ask yourself what you are going to do differently to make this happen,” said Jason Sedan, who teaches at Lake Winnipesaukee Golf Club in New Durham, N.H. Sedan said by saying that a coach can help you stay accountable and stick to your process along the way, but that the real key was Walter's motivation. “There’s no stopping a highly motivated individual with good information to apply.” Jason said the best way to have your own breakthrough is to assess your game to learn where you can improve the fastest and capitalize on that momentum as you improve.

Dialing your drives

Let’s face it: None of us are able to get out to practice as much as we’d like. James Haire, of Oceanside, Calif., was lucky to get a couple hours a week of dedicated practice time. Knowing that an erratic off-the-tee game was costing him strokes, Haire decided to make the most of his limited schedule and discovered some useful swing-improvement videos and articles, including some old Arnold Palmer lessons on YouTube. He spent significant time learning from those videos, focusing on swing fundamentals, especially when he couldn’t make it to the course. When he was able to hit the range, Haire spent a large amount of his time utilizing those tips and drills he had found online. To his surprise, he found that when he stopped trying to get in perfect positions and just focused on feeling the overall move, he relaxed and saw quicker results. Once Haire found his natural groove and stopped trying to change his athleticism, he re-gained control over the direction of his driver, and he increased his distance on tee shots by 10 shots by focusing on consistency.

What can you learn from this?

Sedan, a Golf Digest Best Young Teacher, gave his thoughts on this story and said that, “A real key to keeping the driver, and your whole game, on track is not being suckered into any temptations to overhaul.” He advises against trying to completely switch up your natural ball flight because it’s more likely that you’ll have a nightmarish miss than the dreamy tee ball you want. Sedan suggests nailing down the curve of your tee ball to a single direction so you can aim confidently and know that it will consistently work toward your target. According to Sedan, striking the ball out of the center of the face and playing your natural curve is the best way to take advantage of what a consistent tee ball can bring to your game.

Shooting under-par for the first time

For most golfers, a sub-par round is only attainable in our dreams, but for Stewart Leonard that dream became a reality while playing at a course in Morristown, Tenn. Leonard started the round fast, with a few birdies, but on the back nine, he began to feel the pressure, and gave a couple back. It all came down to the last hole, he needed to make par or better on the 18th hole to finally shoot a sub-par round. After hitting the green in regulation, he carefully read his 15-footer for birdie. This was a distance he had been practicing over the season so he knew he could make the two-putt, but he was nervous and could feel his heart racing as he took his putter back. When the second and final putt dropped, Leonard said it felt like a weight had been lifted. In the months before his career round, he determined putting was his weak spot, so he focused his practice on mid-range putts, trying to never three-putt and giving every putt a chance to go in.

What can you learn from this?

Sedan's insights: “I don’t see many recreational golfers commit to anything worthwhile on the putting green.” Sedan says that the first stop on the road to improvement should be understanding why a putt was missed. He says to make sure that you’re accounting for enough break, “Most golfers underread putts, forcing compensations in stroke or pace.” On top of that, his advice for having a career-low round is to try to keep everything as normal as possible, whether it’s a deep breath before your shot or just cracking a few jokes with friends, he says it’s important to “get out of your head and enjoy what got you to the promiseland!”

Sharpen up your short game

At some point, we all caught the golf bug and were hooked on the game. Chris Kay, a San Diego native, is no different, picking up golf later in life. As a self-proclaimed “pedal to the metal” kind of guy, Kay said after finally picking up golf that he went all out trying to get better. He watched videos and spent hours on the range trying to understand the basics of the golf swing. Despite the dedication, Kay couldn’t figure out chipping. Kay became highly motivated to get better around the greens. He found articles and videos that helped him understand the fundamentals of the short game, as well as drills and games that kept practicing light and fun while still focusing on the basics. The key for him was finding games that also helped recreate the kind of pressure he faced out on the course. Additionally, this improvement in his game helped Kay sharpen his mental side, too. He said improving his chipping helped him be more confident and positive with every aspect of his game. Kay even broke 90 for the first time in his career, and believes his improved chipping and attitude were the main reasons he was able to break through that scoring barrier.


Photo by Walter Iooss Jr.

What can you learn from this?

Swain says the key here is efficient and simple practice. Her advice is to focus on one area of your game and take a little extra time to practice that skill. “Your practice should have a balance of mechanics, real-golf situations, and games with some pressure.” For easy-to-follow drills and games that are efficient, check out the library of lessons at Golf Digest Schools. She caps it off by saying that while you might not have hours you can dedicate, it’s important to have a real purpose to your practice sessions.

Our final thoughts

Breakthroughs can be different for everyone, so whatever it is you are working on, Swain says the key is patience. “Practice isn’t always instantly gratifying, but when you practice over a period of time, a breakthrough will happen when you least expect it.”