How I Slashed 8 Strokes Off My Handicap In Three Years

This is a guest post by John Brende

It’s been a long time, but I still remember the article.

It hit me with a gut punch: “regardless of how long we play, we might not actually get much better…”

Data-backed analysis of 4,000 golfers collected from TheGrint, a handicap and stat tracking service, showed that handicap index averages do not improve (or decline) with age. The good news is you won’t necessarily get worse, but you just can’t get better.

When we hear something like that, our first reaction is usually something along the lines of, “sure but that doesn’t apply to me.” Smarty, science folks call this optimism bias, or only seeing a positive, future outcome for ourselves while ignoring glaring counter-evidence.

You’re familiar with this bias. It’s what convinces you to try to carry a water hazard instead of laying up or looking for a window through the trees instead of punching out to the fairway.

Optimism can get us in trouble in those situations, but it can also encourage us to keep moving forward toward the bigger picture: getting better at golf.

A couple months after reading that article, I signed up for an account with TheGrint and received my first handicap of 12.2 (fun fact: statistically the largest percentage of the USGA Men’s Handicap Index).

Three years later I can say I beat the odds and currently hold a handicap of 3.9.

Now that’s not a brag (okay maybe a little), but I’m proof that you can improve! It’s not an accident or fluke. I went from feeling lucky to break 90 to consistently breaking 80 and beyond, including my first even-par round last year.

If you’re a frequent reader of Practical Golf you know there is no club or magic pill that can cure your slice or chunky short game. It takes knowledge, work, and time. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably selling something.

The real “trick” is that there isn’t one. Take it from someone just like you: there is no secret and you can still make incredible progress!

So let’s look into some lessons you can take away from my experience to create lasting change in your quest for improvement.

Don’t Go At It Alone!

This one shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Find yourself a coach or swing aid that gives you feedback on what you’re doing. What you think you are doing and what you are actually doing are not the same.

When I first started my path of progress, I purchased a Zepp Swing Analyzer. For about $150, the device attaches to your golf glove and sends swing info to an app on your phone or tablet. With this little piece of technology, I reduced my club swing plane by 19%. Using only data and practice, I went from having a terrible slice to a manageable fade.

These days I’m on my third golf coach. The first moved away for a dream job in California and the second didn’t remember my name after my fourth visit in two months.

When considering a golf coach, here are a few tips. First, figure out what you’re looking for. Remember every teacher has something to teach you, but think about what your budget is, how far you’re willing to travel, and even feedback technology a coach has available, like Trackman or video analysis.

Once you know what you want, do your research! Find a few instructors that are in your area, price range, and have examples of comparable students like you. If an instructor has a website, Twitter, or Instagram, take a look at what he or she is sharing. Reach out to them on whatever platform you’re comfortable with and ask some qualifying questions for your situation.

If you’re lucky enough to get all of your boxes checked, book a lesson! Seriously, do it right now. Maybe it’s scary or you are nervous about whether or not it will work out. Picking an instructor is like dating, you have to put yourself out there because coaches aren’t going to knock on your door (especially not the good ones).

On your first date, er I mean appointment, remember you are both trying to find a match. They are giving their time and you are giving your money. If you find a great one they will be able to help you on the day of your lesson and have a plan for you in the long run (like true romance).

At the same time, be a good student! Be inquisitive. Ask questions. Use critical thinking to show them that you are seriously invested. And at the end of the lesson, ask when you can see them again! I’m not joking. Book another appointment right away, even if it’s a month or two out, bring your calendar and block it off.

One last thing about a lesson is to practice what they work on with you. That should go without saying. I promise you most instructors have seen it all, but if you show up the next time having accomplished or overdone what they suggested, you will truly surprise them. And they will love it!

Embrace Your Beginner's Mind

If you’re serious about bettering your game, you have to stop being so serious. Going into each round, range session, or lesson with a beginner’s mind is the easiest way to grow.

You see it with kids the first time they get a club, even if it’s just a rubber putter for minigolf. The potential is infinite for them, and the same is true for you!

There will be a time when you reach a plateau, but eventually, that too will be a distant memory. The quickest way to break out is to go in. Keep your mind off your score and focus on the process of what you’re doing. Continue to learn and see each hurdle as an opportunity to improve (like that annoyingly optimistic guy in the office).

If Tiger was number one in the world and still trying to get better, why wouldn’t you want to follow in those footsteps?

Golf is fun. Golf isn’t “supposed to be” fun; it is. When the game doesn’t feel fun, take a break. Eventually, that break will turn into an itch, and when you go to scratch it, you will see the game with renewed eyes. One of the best parts about a break is you can’t expect to be great when you get back. It takes the stress of constant improvement out of the equation for a while.

Finally, find a community. I’ve found plenty of great golf groups on blogs and Twitter, from #golfchat to tour statisticians and forums. Invest yourself into the game by volunteering at an LPGA event or local tournament.

Find out what you love about the game and revisit it every chance you can while being open to new opportunities.

One Thing At a Time

Focus might be the single greatest multiplier to your future success.

Mindlessly hitting balls on the range or putting from the same spot 20 times in a row isn’t helping you. If you aren’t actively engaged in what you’re doing, then you aren’t making progress.

To really get the most out of your practices, you need to find your challenge point. Your challenge point is different from mine, and it changes as you get better. The task you’re working on has to be just difficult enough to keep you engaged but not too hard to where you give up. It’s like lifting weights for your brain. A great golf instructor will help you find your challenge point.

When you practice and lose track of time without being distracted, that’s the best indicator that you are challenged and engaged.

And when you hit the wall and can’t focus anymore, call it for the day. You are no longer doing any good when you can’t actively focus on your task at hand.

For additional ideas on focus, I highly recommend Anders Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Ericsson calls this focused work “deliberate practice,” and it will seriously change how quickly you improve.

Plan, Track, and Adjust

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Figure out what you want, what you need to do to accomplish that, break it down into small pieces, and start working on it.

Every month I write down in my golf journal what my goals are and schedule a practice around it. It’s good to keep a reminder of your larger goal (like becoming a scratch golfer) near the monthly goals to stay motivated. And if you become discouraged at any point, just look back on the last couple months to see how far you’ve already grown.

Tracking in and of itself has many benefits. Like the phrase “what gets measured gets managed,” you have to do some legwork. Just being aware of your numbers and stats can help you change your game. Use a free stat-tracking app like TheGrint or purchase a club-tagging system like GAME GOLF or Arccos for easy data collection.

Turn stats into mini-games, like trying to increase your GIR% or playing Around the World on the practice green. Improvements from games sneak up on you, and before you know it you have a different skill set.

Then make sure to adjust your goals along the way. There will be bumps in the road, so don’t be afraid to take a step back and realign your target. Quick success can mean quick regression. You can’t run a marathon tomorrow if you haven’t run for years. Be patient.


The last and most important tip for creating lasting change in your game is…GOLF!

Experience is your best teacher. No range session can replicate the variation of shots and decision making required to play better golf like being out on the course can.

My first year keeping track I carded 32 rounds. Last year I played over 60 rounds! I understand seasons can vary for everyone, but get in as many rounds as you can. If that means finding a cheaper course due to budget restrictions, then do that.

If your foursome doesn’t show up because of the rain or wind, see if you can get paired with another group by the course. In the three years of my improvement, the rest of my regular foursome is still shooting the same scores. They don’t have the drive to get better like I do, and it shows.

Golf like it’s the last year before they ban the sport and come to collect your clubs.

Listen, I don’t go to the golf course feeling any different than I did as a 12 handicap. In fact some days it feels like my game could drift back to the old ways, but it doesn’t happen. If you’re looking for some secret, maybe that’s it:

You will always be you.

The great feeling is that your new and improved game is also you!

Keep at it, embrace change, and find your own way. Use these tips as a platform to create your own small improvements and let me know how it goes. I’m pulling for you!

Good vibes and long drives.

If you're looking for ways to keep an official handicap index, check out this guide.

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