New HeightsJune 25, 2019

Mike Bender: How to (finally) drop your handicap into single digits

Get to the next level with these tips from one of the country's top teachers
Mike Bender
Photo by Dom Furore

Many golfers have hovered at the same handicap level for so long, it's tempting to ignore their names and refer to them as a number. “Hey, 15, how's the family?” If you've been shooting the same scores for years (or decades), I'll spare you the lecture about practicing more. Instead, I'm going to offer a less-taxing solution to attaining the next level of golf. My studies on amateur and professional golfers have identified habits and skills that can significantly lower your handicap, and they don't require Malcolm Gladwell's recommended 10,000 hours of repetition to master.

For example, when examining golfers who have won at least five majors, I found that all of them took no more than eight seconds to hit a shot from the time they addressed it. Another thing they all did was keep in constant motion before taking the club back. Those things are pretty easy to incorporate into your game.

Here's another: Before you pull the trigger, take one last look at your target. Not a peek; give it a hard stare. Then look down at the ball and go. You'll find this makes it nearly impossible to think about swing mechanics. When you can shut down those thoughts, you're on your way to a more fluid swing—and possibly your first single-digit handicap. Read on for more habits and skills to acquire. —with Ron Kaspriske

DISTANCE WEDGES
BRING IT IN MUCH LOWER

You expect to hit the green from inside 100 yards, but I'm going to show you how to get the ball within one-putt range. It's so much easier to control distance and direction if you bring your shot trajectory down. And this shot doesn't require a ton of practice. Just play the ball back with a slightly open stance and the shaft leaning toward the target.

Photo by Dom Furore

When you swing, there are two things to emphasize: (1) Swing into the ball from inside the target line—don't cut across it. (2) Scrape the ground with the club after it strikes the ball. Give the turf a trim, not a scalp. Look at me in the follow-through here. Note how my hands appear to be leading as my body rotates toward the target. This is the look of a swing designed for control.

CHIPPING
PAY ATTENTION TO THE WRISTS

Photo by Dom Furore

Here's my general philosophy to chipping it close: Ask yourself, What's the lowest trajectory and lowest-lofted club I can use for this shot? Once you've determined that, I want you to make a chipping stroke that has minimal wrist action. Feel like your arms are in casts, and the only way you can propel the club is to pivot your body toward the target while keeping your weight on your left side.

Photo by Dom Furore

Become an expert at this dead-handed chipping motion by practicing with a wrist band wrapped around your trail arm and shaft. Only when you get good at this technique should you add a little wrist play to vary spin and trajectory. But just remember one thing: The lead wrist should remain bowed or flat as you swing back and down.

“IN THE FOUR HOURS IT TAKES TO PLAY GOLF, YOU'RE ONLY ACTUALLY PLAYING FOR ABOUT 20 MINUTES.

Photo by Dom Furore

DRIVING
KNOW YOUR SPRAY PATTERN

Photo by Dom Furore

Hit 20 drivers noting your average distance and the balls that were farthest left and right of your target. You can throw out one or two outliers if you really mis-hit them. The rest represent what you can expect from a typical drive. It's your spray pattern—and knowing it will help you adjust your strategy to give yourself the best chance of setting up a quality second shot from the fairway.

To eventually shrink your spray pattern, try this drill: Angle an alignment rod slightly upward from the turf and lie another flat on the ground along your target line. The angled rod reminds me to make a wide-and-shallow swing. The other helps create a gateway between the shafts. It reinforces the goal of swinging down on a path from inside the target line.

FULL-SWING IRONS
BOOST YOUR BALL-STRIKING

Photo by Dom Furore

While waiting to play, practice swinging with a purpose. Yes, that means taking a divot, paying attention to where the hole you created starts in relation to the spot you were using to represent the golf ball's location. This will help you make real-time adjustments to your swing, so the divot always comes after you strike the ball.

Photo by Dom Furore

Another thing to be aware of is your ball's start line. Stick an alignment rod in the ground about 10 yards in front of you on your target line. Depending on the predominant curve of your ball flight, you'll want to see the ball starting left or right of that rod every time. You'll find that to hit shots that land on target, the start line has to appear a lot farther left or right than you might have thought without having the alignment rod for reference.

THERE'S A LOT OF DOWNTIME BETWEEN SHOTS YOU COULD USE TO PRACTICE THINGS—JUST A THOUGHT.”

PUTTING
INCREASE THE HOLE'S SIZE

Photo by Dom Furore

Amateurs usually don't play enough break when they putt. Unless you're deadly from 10 feet and in, visualize a little more movement than you think. You want to see the ball tracking toward the hole as it slows down, not slipping underneath it.

Photo by Dom Furore

The slower it's rolling when it gets to the hole, the larger the area around the rim where gravity can help it drop. Keep in mind that the speed you hit the putt determines the break. So instead of trying to make everything on the practice green before a round, take some time to work on speed. For 10-feet-and-shorter putts, roll balls that stop no farther than 14 inches past the cup. That number might seem arbitrary, but testing has shown that it's the optimum speed for making putts.