Genesis Invitational

Riviera Country Club

Scratch tips

8 ways to score well without your best ball-striking, according to low-handicap golfers


Jasmin Merdan

Among the worst feelings in golf is having a terrible warmup session ahead of an important round. The ball is going everywhere, and your focus turns to how you're not going to embarrass yourself.

It doesn't have to be that way. In fact, scoring well without your best ball-striking can be a fun challenge that requires a different strategy than you're used to. The key is to view it as an opportunity and make a few strategic adjustments.

(Editor's note: If you're looking to get better right away this winter, check out our 1 Percent Challenge, where each weekday in January we'll give you a new way to jumpstart your season.)

To help you play your best when you don't have your best, we asked a couple of Golf Digest low handicaps, Drew Powell and Luke Kerr-Dineen, for their best tips to get it to the house.

Drew Powell, +2 handicap

Strangely enough, a lot of my best tournament rounds have come when I'm not hitting it very well. I've learned to make these adjustments to get the most out of my game and score well:

Dial it back

Sure, the analytics say that the closer you can get to the green off the tee, the lower your scoring average will be, but when you’re hitting it all over the map, your priority is to avoid big numbers. That’s why I take less club off the tee when I’m hitting it poorly. A shot that goes offline with a hybrid or 3-wood has less time to get in trouble than a driver.

Find a go-to club to hit off the tee, whether it’s a 3-wood, hybrid or 5-wood. Don’t worry about the optics—your only goal is to keep the ball in play and avoid penalty strokes.

Get creative with your targets

Scoring well when you’re hitting it poorly takes a different approach. If there’s OB or a lake lining the entire right side of the hole, simply aiming at the left-center of the fairway isn’t enough. If I’m fighting a right miss, I’ll aim in the left rough to take the trouble out of play. No, it’s not the way I’m going to shoot a career round, but it’s how I ensure I won’t shoot my career worst.

I take this same approach into the greens. If the pin is on the left and there is a deep bunker or trouble to the left, I’ll aim to the right side of the green, maybe even the right edge. Staying on the strong side and not short siding yourself will stop you throwing away shots.

Don’t try and fix it

When the ball is going everywhere, it’s very tempting to try and fix your swing. Don’t. Trying a new swing thought on every shot might work for a few holes, but when that thought inevitably leads to a terrible shot, your brain will be scattered, and you won’t have any clue what to do.

The key is to focus on today and not tomorrow. Accept that you’re not hitting it well today, and don’t try to fix it for tomorrow or the long term. You can work on that after the round or at the range another day. I’ll try and find one shot that I feel semi-comfortable hitting and just keep hitting that. Even if it’s a 30-yard fade, who cares, at least you know where it’s going.

Focus on speed control

When you’re not hitting it well, your short game will be under pressure. You will feel like you need to make every putt inside 15 feet to salvage your score. This can lead to you blowing putts by the hole and quickly giving away shots.

Instead, I’ll dial in my speed control to try and ensure that I don’t have any three putts. In doing this, I often end up making more putts than I normally would, but that doesn’t matter. The key is to avoid throwing shots away by having poor speed.

Take another club

On approaches into the green, club up. This accomplishes a couple things. First, when you swing easier, you will make a better swing. Your bad tendencies won’t be as noticeable, and your dispersion will be tighter. Second, if you’re not hitting it well, you’re likely going to mishit the shot, so having more club will account for that poor contact ahead of time.

Luke Kerr-Dineen, 0.6 handicap

Some great advice there from Drew. Here's a few more I'd offer up...

Think of it as temporary turbulence

Go with me on this because this is a visual that really helped me, even though it's a little strange.

Think of your round of golf like a pilot flying a plane from one place to another. There's the takeoff (the first tee shot), the landing (the final hole), and a bunch of time in between where you're just cruising. At some point during that journey, you're going to hit some rough winds. Some turbulence. It's an inevitable part of every round, and every journey.

In those times it's important to remember a few things:

  • Accept that there's nothing you can do about it.
  • Focus on the plane that you still have to land
  • Remember that the turbulence won't last forever
  • Stay calm, and fasten your seatbelt

Learn to hit the ball low

Was that advice too conceptual? Fair enough, then here's some practical advice: Hit the ball low.

Tee it low, club up, play the ball slightly back in your stance, and make an abbreviated swing. That goes for around the greens, too: Pull putter when you can, and play basic low chips when you can't.

It won't be pretty, but it will be in control. It'll give you something you can run up the fairway (or green) safely.

If all else fails, get a little crazy

Everything above is very sensible advice. But if none of it is working, then there are times you need to just throw caution to the wind and do something different. Swing harder, aim at more pins. It may help you commit to the shot a little more, and rather than fretting about how poorly you're playing, at least you may have a little fun trying to hit the hero shot. After all, if the round is going to bomb out, it might as well go down in flames, right?