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Work smarter, not harder

This golfer went from a 10 handicap to a 1 in less than two years — here's how

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jhorrocks

November 07, 2022

Michael Hutchinson didn't catch the golf bug once—he caught it twice.

The first came in the 90s as a junior golfer. He took lessons, played on his high school team, and took it pretty seriously. But then, as happens to so many, life took over. His focus shifted to his career—now, he spends his days as the Head of Business Strategy and Analytics at Amazon Prime Gaming—and as Hutch puts it, before you know it, "20 years golf in the way."

It was only the rise of golf's fledgling analytics scene over the past 10 years that sparked Hutch's love for the game once again.

Led by the likes of analytics guru Mark Broadie and his 2014 book "Every Shot Counts", suddenly a new crop of voices were presenting golf in a fascinating new way that made sense to Hutch, an analytical, self-proclaimed data nerd.

"As somebody who manages data science and analytics teams in my day job, I just became fascinated by the idea that I could quantify and measure my progress in a way that wasn’t possible when I took up the game," he says. "I think I just realized that I actually could get better."

Then, in 2021, the spark became an inferno. During a buddies trip to the Monterey Peninsula, Hutch—then a 10 handicap—birdied three of his first four holes at The Links at Spanish Bay.

"That was it," he said, "I was hooked."

He went all-in on improving his game. A year-and-a-half later, his handicap index was all the way down to a 1.1. Hutchinson often tweets about his progress and keeps an interesting newsletter as he journeys toward his ultimate goal of a scratch handicap.

With the offseason presenting an opportunity for the rest of us to reflect on our own games—and how we might be able to improve them—Hutch and I exchanged some messages about the various things he's learned along the way.

1. Do something useful every day

Committing to getting better at golf doesn't require one decision. It requires lots of little ones. It requires playing the long game: integrating good habits into your daily or weekly routine that will improve your game.

"I realized that all I had to do was put in some consistent effort, and there was a good chance that if I kept going I’d see some actual results," he says.

For Hutch, that took two forms: The physical, and the mental.

Hutch used to do Crossfit up to five times a week, but realizing that his hard work wasn't translating to golf, he worked with a trainer, began using the Fit For Golf app, and The Stack speed training aid to create a more golf-specifc program.

"I have a 20 minute daily movement practice of yoga and mobility work, and work on strength and power 2-3 days a week, which includes direct speed training with the Stack System," he says. "This has helped me avoid injury and keeps my swing feeling relatively strong and stable from day to day."

Editor's Note: If you're looking for a fitness program for yourself, check out this six-week "Fitness Reboot" program on Golf Digest Schools right here.

On the mental side he turned to another app, the "FitMind App" and started what he calls a "mindfulness routine," which helped him both on and off the course.

"It’s essentially spending 10 minutes finding something to focus my mind on like my breath, and when that attention wanders, gently redirecting it back to the present. That’s it. Just building that muscle. Then, when I’m on the course and the mind starts to wander, I can refocus on something in the present like the wind, sounds, or my breath, and redirect that focus back to the task at hand."

2. Track your stats

One of the reasons why golf shifted onto the backburner for Hutch was because his insatiable thirst for more data about his own game couldn't be matched by the stat-tracking apps at the time. He would track basic statistics like fairways hit, never quite sure how it correlated with his score.

Fast-forward to the present, and we arrive at Hutch’s second piece of advice.

“My advice to any golfer is that if they’re serious about improvement, they should be tracking strokes gained,” he says. Arccos, GolfMetrics, SwingU, ShotScope, V1, Decade are all apps that Hutch mentions, eventually settling on Arccos. "They all have great features and trade-offs that will matter more to some golfers than others.”

For Hutch, the biggest change this led to was in his greens in regulation statistic—one of areas the strokes gained stats revealed he had the most room to improve. Noticing he was losing strokes with his irons, he realized it wasn’t simply due to the occasional mis-hit. A large part was simply aiming at too many pins.

“Learning correct target selection and how to optimize for GIR instead of just flag hunting," he said. “This led to a lot more easy pars and somewhat counterintuitively, a lot more birdies."

Getting diligent about tracking your own statistics isn’t the sexiest solution in the world, but it is perhaps the best one. You’ll quickly start seeing trends emerge, and will highlight the areas you need to focus on the most.

3. Focus your practice

Believe it or not, you don’t need to practice all the time to improve your game (though, admittedly, it would help). But if you have aspirations to improve, you do need to practice smarter with the time you do have.

“At the start my practice was what Chasing Scratch fans would call the ‘suicide method,'” he said. “I’d go onto the range and spray 100 balls, trying all manner of swing tips, sampling a bit from each soda fountain just hoping to find something.”

Hutch recommends finding a coach—Golf Digest Best in State Adam Young, in his case—and committing to an improvement plan you believe in. In his case, Hutch would struggle hitting shots both left and right, with the occasional “chunk and thin” contact error thrown in. The cause for these inconsistencies, he found, was a pronounced side-to-side slide of his hips on the backswing.

“The two things we’ve worked on are related to improving ground strike and face strike consistency. We did this by addressing lateral movement in the backswing and early extension through impact.”

Hutch knew exactly what he needed to work on each time he arrived at the range. He’d dedicate portions of each range session to different things: Sometimes, it’d be technical work, focusing on drills and making technique changes without fear of the result. Other times, the opposite. His only focus was on hitting golf shots, without worrying about the swing stuff.

And slowly but surely, his scores started to drop. Hutch still has work to achieve his ultimate goal of sustaining a scratch handicap, but if he keeps walking down the road that got him this far, he knows what lies at the end.

“My approach isn’t going to work for everyone, especially those with an aversion to the analytical,” he says. “It definitely gets harder from here but I learn every round there’s still plenty of room to improve.”