What Seperates Professional Golfers From the Rest of Us?

In Articles on July 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm

I read this question asked on a few golf forums and thought about it some for myself. The first thing I can say is, most people don’t really even have a guess. Which is understandable, golf can seem like an impossibly difficult game if your goal is simply finishing at par once in awhile, professionals are out there shooting four, five, six under on toughened-up courses with all the pressure of having the galleries and cameras focused on them while they do it.

So I can understand why most just say, “these guys are from another planet,” and leave it at that. But I think after studying the topic a little that there are some understandable differences that can be observed.

* * * * *

To start with there a few of what I call ‘binary factors’ that separate the potentially successful pro from those who have no chance. I call them binary factors because as a golfer you either have them, or can overcome them, or you can’t. If you can, you move onto the next challenge of becoming a pro golfer, if not, well then you’re done.

The first and most obvious is length. Professional golfers, like the majority of professional athletes, know how to generate force with their bodies, allowing them to hit their shots 30-40% longer than otherwise strong guys who don’t know how. The advantage of that length is pretty crucial and here’s why: If John Q. Golfer and David T. Professional-Golfer both tee off on a 420 yard par 4, John hits the ball 220 yards and David hits it 300. From there John still has 200 yards to go and is going to need his fairway wood for his next shot. David has 120 yards to go, which is not only considerably shorter, but he also hits longer anyway, so he’s pulling out a wedge. Which is easier to hit an accurate shot with, a 3-wood or a pitching wedge?

Now David has a significantly better chance of landing his ball near the pin than John. Maybe in this one example he does or he doesn’t, but over the course of four rounds of 18 holes, there’s simply no way John and his average amateur length can keep up. You either can hit it far enough or you can’t.

* * * * *

The second binary challenge is having the mental game. It takes a lot of practice to get a great swing, yet it means nothing if you can’t use it correctly because your mind keeps getting in the way. Golf is a game that is heavy in psychology, and you either have a mind for playing at a high level or you don’t. Do you get rattled and let it ruin your game? Do you work on out-thinking the course and not letting poor decisions turn fine swings into bad golf shots due to placement or strategy?

People get kind of shocked by, say, Tiger Wood’s angry reactions on the course sometimes, yet after he cusses and throws his clubs he goes on playing high level golf. Can you experience your emotions without it ruining your chances to win?

This one seems a little more subtle than being able to hit a golf ball a long ways, and it definitely has more shades of gray, but ultimately it means just as much given how competitive pro golf is and how few slots there are available for players to take. If you’re poor at managing your game mentally, there’s just going to be too many guys in front of you who can manage for you to last.

I don’t think anyone is born with great mental game, but you at least have to know how to acquire it, another skill to go alongside all the more tangible ones.

* * * * *

The final binary factor is personality. Well, intelligence and personality. Are you the kind of person who can overcome the challenges that’ll stand in the way of your pro golf career? Do you understand the practice that will be involved and do you practice in such a way that you continuously get significantly better?

I think for most people being a professional golfer would simply require a mind set and worldview that would be alien to them. Do you really feel the drive to succeed at this thing, which though society might see as impressive, is really a game with a club and a ball? Is it something you really want and really want to work to get, or is it something that is just nice to dream about? Are you the kind of person who wants to be near solely responsible for your vocation, or would you rather have a normal job and a stable life? Are you somebody who could commit to a long term goal, or are you a quitter?

And if you do have the personality, are you smart enough? It doesn’t require a high IQ, but there is some cleverness required to see your obstacles clearly and work through them. Or do you trudge through things, not seeing what problems may be cropping up for you, both in golf and in life?

* * * * *

Those are the first three things I see that are different. Each one winnows down the field in its own way. These alone take out most people, because you either have it or you don’t make it. Do you have the length? No, you’re out. Do you have the mental control? No, you’re out. Do you have the personality and ability to overcome problems instead of dropping out over them? No, you’re out. Of course, I believe any of these are acquirable. Length, despite being the thing most male golfers complain about being unable to get better at, is the easiest. Any human being with an able body can learn how to generate power for their golf swing with their legs and core. The other two are possible as well, and certainly as we mature and learn the more capable we can become.

* * * * *

Then there are of course some other things. A few researchers have looked at the differences and one big thing they find is the difference in making mistakes, specifically pros make way fewer of them. I think this is the real difference heavy amounts of practice can make. Once you’ve learned how to do it correctly, you must imprint that physical knowledge into your nervous system over and over again until your brain (a notoriously distractible thing) can do it with extreme reliability. Making a bad swing one out of ten times means you might ruin seven or eight holes per round. Doing it once every hundred swings means you’ll probably just have the chance it will mess up one. It’s the sort of thing that makes a big difference when you’re playing so much golf to determine a tournament winner.

Another difference is on the greens. Making a putt can be rather laborious process, because it requires a huge amount of forethought and precision aiming. You have to be able to read a green. You have to be skilled at striking a putt with correct force. You have to be skilled at just hitting the thing in the line you want! This sort of thing separates those with skill and practice from those who don’t. Research shows pros tend to place the ball nearly the same distance from the hole as amateurs for their first putt. But they average fewer than two putts per hole, while amateurs average well over two. As I recall, a difference of nearly a shots worth per hole for the rank amateurs, and nearly half a shot for the better amateurs. Trusting my memory, that’s almost nine strokes per round difference between pros and good amateurs. Think that might be a big deal?

Finally, there’s one difference that professionals point out all the time as being the biggest difference they see: fundamentals. Pros have to know how to take a shot as correctly as possible. That means actually lining up perpendicular to the target line and not at a 20-degree angle off it leading straight into the trees. That means knowing how to read your next play and thinking through your distance and what will happen to your shot accurately. It means having a pre-shot routine that allows you to not make a swing mistake. It’s professional polish, a commitment to doing what you’re doing correctly, and from my experience it makes a huge difference in most professions, not just golf.

Well, as I’ve heard some point out, having a caddy doing all your spotting, a club-maker endorsement deal with clubs painstakingly matched to your body and swing type, a comped rental Lexus waiting for you when you get off the plane, and money to hire a video crew to follow you around during practice so your golf teacher can analyze your swing on an 85″ 1080p monitor all shouldn’t hurt either. So if you’re interested in becoming a pro golfer and can arranging those things before you make the PGA Tour for yourself, then by all means do so.

Well that’s all I know on the issue.


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