Play your natural shot shape away from trouble, even if that means hitting it in the rough. Long grass is always a better option than a penalty shot.
Do you know why you shoot the scores you do? Thanks to the PGA Tour's ShotLink--which measures every shot hit week in and week out--tour players know. When they see where their shots are going, they know which parts of their games need improvement. Nobody is charting every ball you hit, but you can still use statistics to improve.
I believe you can take the true temperature of any player's game by looking at four stats: total driving, greens in regulation, scrambling and three-putt avoidance. I'll show you some average-golfer stats and compare them to the best pros (keep in mind, they play tougher courses). You'll see where you need to be to reach the next level, and how to do it.
Two pieces of the scoring puzzle go hand-in-hand for tour players and 20-handicappers alike: You have to get good at the most straightforward short-game shots, and you should try to give yourself more of those shots when you miss the green. Padraig Harrington is so good in the scrambling stat--getting up and down from 30 yards and in--because he's rock solid on this bread-and-butter chip, and he's a terrific course manager. The rough around the greens on tour is really difficult, but he misses in places that make for easier up-and-downs--the wide side versus the narrow side.
The most damaging thing for a 20-handicapper is the two-chip: When you duff one or hit it over the green, then hit a mediocre second chip, you're looking at double bogey. For 10-handicappers or better, the next stage is getting the tough ones up and down. That comes from learning different kinds of shots. The best short-game guys have precise control over trajectory and spin.
Amateurs have more miscon-ceptions about the state of their putting than any other part of their game. I've played with plenty of 10-handicappers who finish the day having made a bunch of five-footers and tell me they had a great putting day. That's sort of true, but if most of those five-footers resulted from bad first putts, the music is going to stop at some point. Even the best players in the world don't make every five-footer--even on perfect tour greens.
Guys like Daniel Chopra putt with great distance control on the 20-, 30- and 40-footers. They don't miss a lot of five-footers--and they hardly ever three-putt--because they're hitting most of those 20-footers to tap-in range.
Another underrated skill is knowing where you should leave your lag putt. If every second putt you have is a downhiller with six inches of break, you're going to struggle, no matter how good your stroke is technically. Any tour player would rather have a five-footer straight up the hill than one of those little sliders. The three-putt stat is also an indicator of how good your iron play and short game are. If you're missing greens and chipping poorly, you're going to have longer approach putts.