Chapter 1: The Scorer's Game
Golf is a seductive game because there are so many ways to enjoy it. You can get satisfaction from walking in the outdoors, from the exercise it provides, from the camaraderie of your playing partners, from the sheer distance you can hit the ball, from the fascination of the golf swing, from the challenge of competition, all the way to the opportunity to learn self-control and build character.
All of the above are fine reasons to play. But if you want to be the best golfer you can be, the most important part of the game is measured by one thing and one thing only:
The object of the game is to shoot the lowest score you can. Everything else is subordinate to that goal, at every level of the game. For all the spectacular shots they can hit, what pros do better than anything else is to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible. That was true of Bobby Jones, of Ben Hogan, of Arnold Palmer, of Jack Nicklaus, and of Tiger Woods. In my experience, for all the other undeniable benefits of the game, scoring well is also the most surefire way to really enjoy golf.
That might sound obvious, but I've always been surprised by how little effort and focus most amateurs devote to understanding how to score lower. Right now, there are probably more people captivated and even obsessed by golf than ever before, yet most are consumed with swing mechanics, driving the ball farther, sports psychology, and having the latest high-tech equipment. All those are worthy subjects that can improve your game and increase your enjoyment, but I think most people miss the forest for the trees. The reason people don't shoot lower scores, to be blunt, is that most people don't know how to PLAY. Not how to swing, or how to hit the ball farther; how to play the game.
Don't take that the wrong way. It's not an easy thing to know. In fact, when all is said and done, it's the hardest. Learning to play golf -- learning to score -- is a lifelong process. I know that, at age fifty-six, I'm still learning.
But here is the hard truth: If somehow I was given your physical game, and we had a match, I would beat you 99 times out of 100 times because I know how to play the game better than you do.
I want this book to teach you how to get the most out of what you have. I'm going to impart everything I know about playing the game. About attitude and visualization, about how to deal with pressure and anger and fear, about preparation and strategy. About what's most important in a round of golf to make the lowest score.
There are elements of scoring, things that will make anyone a better player and will let you shoot lower scores. They are specific, they are learnable, and if you take on the challenge, they will help you improve.
First, we should define what a scorer is. Certainly, it can be someone who shoots low scores, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, in my definition, a high handicapper can be a better scorer than a low handicapper.
To me, a scorer is someone who consistently gets the most from his skill level, who often shoots scores that are better than the way he or she hits the ball, and who in that sense regularly beats the golf course. For a pro, that can be a 71 on a day when he felt uncomfortable with his swing or putting stroke. For someone with a 16 handicap, it can be an 89 on a day when his slice seemed uncontrollable. Conversely, a 67 for a pro on a day when his game was on all cylinders can be a round in which the golf course won, and an 89 can be a defeat for that 16-handicapper if it includes penalty shots from foolish risks on a day when he's hitting straight and true.
Scorers possess a blend of fundamentals, good attitude, and mental strength. They are winners. If you are a scorer, you won't always win, but you will know and play the percentages, and you won't often beat yourself. Being a scorer means playing golf cleanly, efficiently, without waste. It means a thousand other things. Knowing when to take what the golf course gives and when to back off. Knowing your limitations, not just in general but from day to day, from hole to hole, and even from shot to shot. Keeping your composure during disappointments and having fortitude. Having a positive attitude. Handling pressure. Having a sense for the crucial make-or-break shots in a round that keeps a good score going or turns around a bad one. Understanding that while we would all like to have days where we hit every shot solid and straight, it almost never happens. That the reality of playing is improvising, doing the most with what you have, shooting the best score you are capable of THAT DAY.
The subtitle of this book is "A Master's Guide to the Art of Scoring Your Best When You're Not Playing Your Best." Even at the highest level, on the PGA Tour, you learn very early that there is no perfect golf, and that no one has a perfect game. The best players in the world, despite sharing golf's basic fundamentals and shooting nearly identical scores, all have flaws. But they have also all found their own way to play. It's a way that's dictated by their particular abilities, temperaments, and peculiarities, and it's a way that best allows them to score.
Let me tell you a little about how I became a scorer. I may have a reputation as a guy who gets a lot out of what he has, but believe me, I was a long time getting there.
I started playing golf very young, under the tutelage of my father, L. B. Floyd. My dad was a golf pro who served a twenty-one-year hitch in the army, much of it as a master sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he ran a driving range and the enlisted men's base course. As a kid I loved all sports, but I spent a lot of days playing forty-five holes, practicing for hours at a time, experimenting with shots around the green, and getting a lot of supervision from my dad. My mom, Edith, was the local women's club champion, and my younger sister, Marlene, has played on the LPGA tour since 1976. As far as learning the game goes, I had all the advantages.
Although I didn't play a great deal of amateur golf -- in part because I was busy with baseball, football, and basketball -- I did play in a lot of gambling games around the Carolinas, where I honed a sharp competitive edge. At first, I would play in nassaus in which I had backers. Before too long I was backing myself, regularly playing for hundreds, and occasionally thousands, of dollars. When I won the National Jaycees in 1960 at the age of seventeen, I set my sights on making a career out of golf. The next year, I had an offer to become a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians farm system, but I turned it down because something was telling me that golf was my future. Soon after, in 1961, I turned pro.
At that stage, I was like a lot of young guys with talent: I liked to hit it far, and I liked to shoot at pins. When I was hot, I was effective; when I wasn't, I went for big numbers, with plenty of penalties. I had a lot to learn, which was evident as soon as I became a PGA tour rookie in 1963. In my first nine events, I didn't make a cent. Somehow, in my tenth at Saint Petersburg, I caught a hot streak and won, coming from behind in the final round to defeat Dave Marr by a stroke.
But I didn't win again for two years, and after that, I didn't win again for four more. I had plenty of tools; I was a long hitter, often grouped with Jack Nicklaus and George Bayer as among the longest in golf. I had a good-looking golf swing, and, if my memory serves, I made a ton of putts. I didn't run into a lot of players with more ability than I had. But on the tour, I ran into plenty who were scoring lower.
It took me a while to figure out why, and to develop a different approach to playing. Fortunately, I had enough talent to survive on the tour while I was learning my craft. I wouldn't have that luxury today, not with the numbers of highly accomplished players fighting just to get on the PGA Tour. I would have become one of the many cutting his teeth on the foreign tours or the Nike Tour. But what I eventually had to face was that I was wasting strokes, through temperament, pride, poor judgment, and limitations in my technique. I also had to face the fact that I hadn't really been dedicated enough to my profession.
As a young man, I was just happy to be on the PGA Tour making a living. Because that seemed like enough, I let the good times roll. I remember being asked by a journalist what color my eyes were, and answering, "Mostly red." After a few years of underachieving, I got a dose of seriousness in 1968, when I finally set some goals. The next year would be the first I was eligible for the Ryder Cup, and I really wanted to make the team. I also wanted to earn $100,000 in a single season. And having seen Jack Nicklaus win several Grand Slam events since I had become a pro, I also decided I wanted to win a major championship.
In 1969, I played the best golf I had ever played, won the PGA Championship and two other tournaments, made the Ryder Cup team, and I won $109,957. But I was barely twenty-seven, and I still didn't know what it took to sustain that level of play. My short-term goals fulfilled, I became aimless again. For the next three years I played some of the worst golf of my career, barely worked at it, and totally lost my enthusiasm. I was lost, and it wasn't until 1973, when I met Maria Fraietta, that I finally got on the path to becoming the best player I could be.
From the moment I met Maria, I sensed that this was a special woman who understood me, and whom I could learn from. Maria and I were married on December 8, 1973; twenty-five years later, I know I am one of those lucky people who married the right person.
What Maria taught me was responsibility -- to my talent, to my family, and, ultimately, to myself. As the product of a close-knit, hard-working family in Philadelphia, she knew firsthand that real success never comes easily. When I met her, she was running a group of successful fashion and design schools. Without ever having been an athlete, she knew all about winning.
It was abhorrent to her to see a person waste his or her gift. We'd been married only a few months when the turning point came. In Jacksonville in 1974, after a bad first round, I withdrew with the intention of heading back to Miami. Maria very seriously said to me, "If you don't want to play golf, why not get into something else that would interest you? But don't waste your life." That shook me up. I suddenly realized that there was nothing else in life that I wanted to do, and that I had been going through the motions for too long. Up to that point I had won five tournaments in eleven years on the tour. In the next twelve years, I won sixteen, including three major championships. I categorize my career, in a simple way: before Maria, and after Maria.
My wife is tough, smart, and totally supportive of me and our three children. When she gets on me, I might not like it, but I listen. Maria gave me an appreciation for how lucky I was to be playing a game I loved for a living, real belief in my ability, and a consistent work ethic. I began to beat players who used to beat me, and more important, I began to consistently beat the golf course.
Although I certainly made an effort to improve my shotmaking, in the mid '70s I began to think about the game differently, about being effective rather than trying to play perfect golf. That meant I had to understand my strengths, and play away from my weaknesses. I discovered there are no perfect golfers, that even the best pros don't play flawless golf; the successful ones all play around their limitations. I learned that if I minimized the effect of my weaknesses, I could do well.
What I came to accept is that I'm not a particularly pretty golfer, not a brilliant one in any particular area except in shots around the green. I've got some pretty persistent technical flaws in my swing that I have to keep under control. I always have to fight the tendency to lay the club off at the top of the backswing, and my tempo can get quick. On days when I'm fighting my bad tendencies, I'm a pretty average ball striker.
To combat these weaknesses, I have to recognize -- and then play to -- my strengths. One is my natural touch and imagination. I certainly didn't have a complete short game when I came on tour, but I always enjoyed shots around the green, and I had fun watching and borrowing from real geniuses like Phil Rodgers, Doug Ford, and Bob Rosburg. I finally got it in my head that I could undo a lot of wrongs with a complete short game, and I took pride in being as good at it as possible.
My other strength was a knack for competition, a very strong desire to win. I found that if I could stay in reasonable contact with the lead for the first three days of a tournament -- chiefly by playing conservatively and avoiding big numbers -- I enjoyed and even thrived on the opportunity to win. What I had to learn was to have the patience and the management skills to keep myself in the game.
I also made a key discovery. While in the past I had become discouraged when my game was less than its best, I came to realize that the times when even the best players had their A game -- when everything was running on all cylinders -- were rare, perhaps 10 percent of the time. Conversely, there will be another 10 percent when you have no game at all and are nearly sure to miss the cut. In between is the 80 percent when things are far from perfect, but they're workable if you can manufacture something with your ability to play the game. That's when you have to be a scorer.
I can count the times in my career when I've had my A game. The most memorable example was the 1976 Masters, when I tied the then 72-hole record of 271 and won by 8. I was very close to the same kind of zone at the 1982 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, when I opened with a 63 and won by 3. I'm very proud of those victories, but the fact is, they were relatively easy. Anybody can play when they're in what we pros call "the zone." It's the victories that come from making something out of not very much that are the most satisfying.
I evolved into that final stage in the latter stages of my regular tour career, after I turned forty. I didn't have the physical ability of my youth, but I had finally gotten my swing to a place where I wasn't worried about it all the time. I had gotten the game down to its essence: no swing thoughts, no complications, just the target, the ball, and me. That's when I got to be known for my stare, which is really just a reflection of a very clear state of mind.
The culmination came in the 1986 U.S. Open. That year at Shinnecock Hills was the only real opportunity I had to win what I believe is the most demanding major championship. In most of the Opens I've played, the deep rough off the fairways and around the greens has always been a little too much for me. But by staying in command of myself during a week when I really wasn't hitting the ball exceptionally well, I kept in contact with the lead. To be honest, I probably won that championship with a first-round 75 in terrible weather on a day I had almost no feel with my full swing. For three days, I used all my skill as a scorer to stay in contention, and then on Sunday let my experience and will to win elevate my game. It remains the most satisfying victory of my career.
I had come full circle as a player -- from having all the tools but few skills, to having the skill to make the most of the tools I had left.
This book is not about getting you to overhaul your tools, but to use them in a better way.
You probably have a lot of room for improvement. Most amateurs routinely make mistakes that professionals almost never make. For a start, consider these ten.
- Swinging too hard.
- Automatically shooting at the flag.
- Not playing away from trouble.
- Missing the green on the wrong side of the flag.
- Trying for too much out of trouble.
- Trying shots you have never practiced.
- Panicking in the sand.
- Misreading turf and lie conditions.
- Consistently underreading the break on the greens.
Of course, professionals also make mistakes, although most of them have to do with state of mind rather than ignorance. Here are ten I've fallen prey to more than once:
- Becoming impatient.
- Playing overaggressively.
- Thinking about swing mechanics on the course.
- Dwelling on a shot already played.
- Thinking about score and anticipating shots.
- Rushing under pressure.
- Practicing without a specific purpose.
- Neglecting the short game.
- Becoming overly meticulous on the greens.
- Forgetting to have fun.
Amateurs are susceptible to these flaws as well. But to correct the ten that are most troublesome, you must devote yourself to two overriding principles, which I'll return to in depth in Chapter 3.
The first is play comfortable.
This means many things, but mostly it means finding out and understanding what is your best possible golf, and playing for a little less. Play for what you know you can do instead of what you hope you can do. Take what the golf course gives you. Play comfortable.
I think this is the best advice I can give anyone about actually playing the game. It's the road to consistency. It's so simple, but it makes a huge difference.
The second principle is to avoid the big mistake,
the big number. How many times have you said after a round, "I had 88 [or 78 or 98], but I had two triple bogeys," as if the disasters were aberrations, freakish; as if they didn't count. In fact, those triples are as much a part of your round as birdies. In fact, more. They probably happened because of carelessness or poor judgment as much as bad mechanics. That's what I want to show you how to avoid.
Here's another way to look at it: The easiest way to shoot lower scores is to avoid making higher ones. It sounds self-evident, but it's not.
I've got a scoop, and sometimes I think it's the sport's biggest secret: Golf is a hard game to play well. It's fun, but it's hard. It's full of disappointments and setbacks and days when nothing goes right. It will exasperate you, I don't care how good your attitude is. I think we love it because on those rare occasions when we do come close to conquering it, we know we've really done something.
Accept the failures as opportunities for growth, get excited by the successes, enjoy the journey. And don't forget that learning and improvement come more easily when the student is having fun. Looking back on my career, and observing my own sons, Raymond Jr. and Robert, that is certainly true. You're more aware, more creative, and more effective when you're having fun. Kids are such fast learners of games because they instinctively make them fun. Golf is a game. Games are supposed to be fun.
In the pages that follow, I'm going to open up some areas intended to improve your feel for how golf is played. Then it's up to you. And that's the most important part -- because all players who have become scorers, in the final analysis, did the hardest work by themselves. They took everything that they knew about the game and filtered it into what worked for them. To a large extent, they trusted their instincts to let them become what their natural talents best allowed them to be. When it comes down to doing something well, it has to be an extension of yourself and who you are. You and your method have to be inseparable.
Golf is a game for a lifetime -- not only because you can play it forever, but also because, if you pay attention, you never stop learning about it. This book will help you learn that the real object of the game, once the round is under way, is not to make pretty swings or hit pretty shots, but to find the wisest, most efficient way to get the ball into the hole in the fewest strokes possible.
Copyright © 1998 by Raymond Floyd