Rethinking "Bad" Shots: How to Constructively Evaluate Your Rounds

The most valuable exercise for a golfer is a post-round analysis. The clues for how to improve your game, and more importantly, how to enjoy yourself more, are all hiding in your memory.

In this article, I want to explore "bad shots." I'm using quotation marks because I'm going to explain several concepts and questions you can ask yourself that will likely redefine how you classify the outcomes of certain shots during your round. You may realize that the shots weren't even "bad" in the first place, or perhaps, if they were, an analysis of why they occurred can help limit them in the future.

Was the Shot Even Bad?

Before we move on to other questions you should ask yourself, let's determine if it was even a poor result in the first place. Perhaps the biggest challenge we all face as golfers is how we interpret our results. Generically speaking, most players are too hard on themselves and get upset at shots that aren't all that bad (guilty as charged).

When doing a post-round analysis and looking at your results through an analytical perspective (rather than emotional), I think you'll find out that a lot of the outcomes during your round weren't "bad."

This can get complicated, but I'll explore a couple of examples of tee shots and approach shots to give you an idea.

Tee Shots - It's Not Fairway or Bust

Golfers assume that a successful tee shot's measuring stick is whether or not you hit a fairway. I used to think this too. But with modern statistical analysis, we know a lot more about what kinds of tee shots lead to lower scores.

Based on everything I have learned, here is how I define a successful tee shot:

  • You avoided a fairway bunker, penalty area, or recovery situation (i.e., being blocked out by trees). In other words, you have a manageable lie and a clear path to the green.
  • You hit your tee shot an acceptable distance. For example, if your average drive is usually 240 yards, keeping it within a 10-20 yard window of that distance is reasonable.

That's it!

Tee shots are crucial for scoring in golf, and perhaps the biggest challenge golfers must overcome is avoiding penalties and recovery situations.

Further reading:

Fairways Hit Is an Incomplete Statistic

Driver vs. 3-Wood Off the Tee: What's the Right Decision?

Iron vs. Driver Off the Tee: Can a Conservative Strategy Cost You Strokes?

Approach Shots

I've written before about how hitting more greens in regulation is the gold standard for lowering your handicap. In general, your approach shots are the most influential factor in scoring ability.

That doesn't mean you need to land the ball within 20 feet of the pin every time; nobody in the world can do that. When we're looking to define what a "bad" approach shot looks like versus a "good" one, it has a lot to do with proximity to the hole and avoiding certain situations.

Here are a few metrics that I define as good results for approach shots:

  • You are on the putting surface. Even if you're 45 feet away from the hole, you've done a great job!
  • You missed the green, but your ball is still within a "close" distance. Having a 20-30 yard wedge shot will increase your chances of posting a lower score on the hole versus being 50-70 yards away.
  • You are not short-sided. You have plenty of room between yourself and the pin, which takes less pressure off your wedge shot.
  • You've avoided a bunker or any penalty/recovery situation that makes it difficult to get your ball on the putting surface.

Further Reading:

Why Iron Play is so Important for Scoring Potential

Was it Within Your Shot Pattern?

Another thing to consider is what are reasonable shot distributions for each club in your bag. This concept builds upon the last section.

For example, most PGA Tour players and elite amateurs have about a 65-70 yard left-to-right dispersion with their drivers. So while it might be disappointing for them to land the ball 40 yards right of the center of the fairway, it's a perfectly normal result.

With approach play, where distance control is more important, you have to think about left-to-right distribution and short and long of your target. What you'll end up with is what I would call a "circle of proximity." Better players have tighter circles, but they are still much bigger than most people think.

Whatever target you've picked with your 7-iron is just a starting point. Please start thinking about what your shot circle looks like and whether or not you've kept the ball within its borders. This is where shot-tracking systems can come in handy.

Further Reading:

You Don't Have As Much Control Over the Golf Ball As You Think

Did You Make a Strategic Mistake?

Let's say you did land your tee shot in the trees or your approach shot in a bunker while being short-sided. We can define this as a bad outcome, but perhaps your swing wasn't the culprit.

I've discussed strategy ad nauseam on Practical Golf for a good reason. Golfers stand to make quick gains in their scoring if they learn how to select smarter targets.

Perhaps that tee shot went into the trees because you were trying to gain an advantageous angle into the green, and you took a more aggressive line. Or, your 7-iron landed in the bunker because you were chasing a tucked pin position.

When going through your post-round analysis, ask yourself if a poor strategic decision caused the mistake. Could you have avoided the recovery situation by simply changing your target and club selection?

If you'd like to learn more about becoming a smarter course manager, I highly recommend checking out DECADE Foundations.

Was Your Mind the Culprit?

Controlling our thoughts and emotions on the golf course is difficult. But I can tell you from personal experience that going through a repeatable routine, committing to your decision, and doing your best not to worry about what's already happened, or will happen in your round, makes a difference.

So if you are looking back on shots that meet our definition of bad, start to evaluate your emotions.

Were you angry about a prior shot and couldn't clear your mind? Did you have lingering doubts about your club selection? Did your score on the front nine dominate your thoughts?

While it's challenging to completely determine whether your thought process contributed to a poor result, what you can do is start looking for patterns. If your post-round analysis starts to uncover that your mental state is correlated with your worst shots, then that's something you'll need to work on.

Is It a Technical Issue in Your Swing?

You can pick the right target, mentally commit to your routine, and do pretty much everything else correct, but then hit a drive that sails out of bounds. This is perhaps the most frustrating part of golf.

More often than not, the source of many of your errant shots are issues in your golf swing. Unfortunately, I can't help you with those. And I don't recommend watching 50 YouTube videos either.

It's possible you can address the problem through practice. When I review my rounds, I try to think about what parts of my game were deficient and spend extra time on them during my next range session.

Sometimes, the problem is deeper, though. I've been in contact with many golfers who read Practical Golf that get stuck in their journey to improvement despite following a lot of the advice they read here. My suggestion is usually quite similar: "you need to invest in lessons."

Getting customized advice for your swing and following the prescribed drills/practice plans is one of the most efficient ways to get better at this game. I've worked with 4-5 different swing coaches at different points in my life and gotten positive results out of each experience.

That's not to say you can't figure out things on your own - some golfers can improve through trial and error and smart practice habits. However, if you are really struggling, it's best to have someone who knows what they're doing take a look at your swing (definitely not "that guy" at the range).

Wrapping It Up

As usual, my goal with these kinds of articles is to get you thinking differently. I know from personal experience what it's like to get stuck in a negative loop. If you go through your rounds and start to think critically about what's occurring with a new perspective, a few things might happen:

  • You realize things aren't as bad as they seem
  • There might be some small adjustments you can make to save strokes
  • You can hone in on the core issues in your game and potentially find help to solve them
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