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Scratch tips

Playing your first round in a while? Make these key adjustments, say low handicaps

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Mark Runnacles

Playing junior and college golf, I was spoiled. Instead of spending my summers in city-based internships, I was at the course practicing and playing all day to prepare for a full schedule of events. Yet it wasn’t until the last few years, when I’ve graduated and started working full time, that I realized how good I had it.

The reality is, most of us are in the same situation: Trying to squeak in a round a week (or month) and forced to accept that our games will never be as sharp as they would be with a more consistent routine. Urbanites, like my Manhattan-based self, have it worse.

The good news is there are some simple adjustments you can make to still play well when you’re not able to play often. The key is to accept your limitations. You don’t have to be sharp to score decently—you just need to be smart. These are the keys Golf Digest Senior Editor Luke Kerr-Dineen and I focus on when we sneak in a round.

Drew Powell, +2.0

1. Putter is your friend

Yes, it’s fun to hit the creative chip shot, spinning and stopping it next to the hole, but without hours of practice, you’re probably not going to pull it off. Instead, take putter from just off the green if you’re in the fairway or on the fringe. Even if you don’t get it up and down, you’ll avoid any chance of blading it over the green or chunking it right in front of you. Those mistakes kill confidence, and when you don’t play often, you need to preserve whatever confidence you have.

2. Avoid the awkward number

Accept it: Your feel will not be sharp, so don’t test it! Try to avoid leaving yourself in no man’s land, typically between 30 and 70 yards. These shots are not quite full wedge distances and require a lot of finesse to properly judge the distance. If you can’t reach the green, consider laying back to a full-shot number, where you can make a full and free swing.

3. Use less loft out of the bunkers

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Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Bunker shots are the scariest shots when you haven’t played in a while. A little thin and you’ll sail the green by 40 yards. So, you’re probably going to err on the side of caution, hitting behind the ball too much and catching the ball a little heavy. That’s OK! Plan for it by taking less loft. If you normally take a 60 degree from the sand, use your sand or gap wedge. Be sure to still open the face, but know that even if you catch it heavy, it will hit and run out a little.

4. Set up with intention

The setup fundamentals—posture, grip, ball position and alignment—are always boring to work on, even when you’re playing frequently. But when you’re rusty, these become even more important, as often they are the first things we forget to do properly. Take an extra few seconds to diligently check your alignment and ball position as your step into the ball. Consider focusing on an intermediate target—a spot a few feet in front of you—to make sure you’re aimed where you want.

5. Play more conservatively

Yes, it’s intuitive but worth reinforcing. You can’t strategize like you would if you were playing a lot. If there is a really tight hole off the tee, consider taking less than driver. If there is trouble down the right, aim in the left rough. If you’re undecided on a long carry, layup. Avoiding huge mistakes that lead to big numbers is key surviving your first round in a while.

Luke Kerr-Dineen, 0.7

6. Don't change a bunch of stuff

Listen, your golf swing maybe isn't where you want it to be. But I learned many winters ago that the formula for bad golf is changing lots of things in your golf swing without practicing or playing a lot. In your comeback rounds, start small. Don't make changes, make tweaks. Change the simple things you want to change first—things like setup, as Drew said, ball position, and posture. Save the big stuff for later.

7. More square-faced chips

Versatility around the green is a good thing. Opening the face and lofting it high, then hitting a low spinner. But chances are, if this is your first round back after some time off, you don't have those shots. At least not yet. Around the green, keep the face square, and the motion simple. Here's a good chipping recipe you can use.

9. Embrace the curve

It's hard to be consistent when you have too much curve on your golf shots. But chances are some old tendencies will show themselves when you arrive back at the course. The fade may look a little slicey; the draw a bit high-hooky. Again, there's time to fix that stuff later. Getting the ball in play means playing when you have.