10 mistakes I see average golfers make all the time

I’m not a teacher — if you’re looking for one of those, check out the best of the best, otherwise known as our GOLF Top 100 Teachers in America list — but I play lots of golf with lots of different people. Most of the people I play with are respectable mid-handicappers, equally capable of shooting in the high 70s and low 90s, but usually hover within the 80s. They all want to take that next step, but they have limited time to practice and aren’t always sure how. Too often, they’ll conclude they simply lack the skills — something that couldn’t be further from the truth. More often than not, they have all the tools, they just trip themselves up with a series of basic errors.

The good news is they’re extremely common — so common that you may not even be aware they’re mistakes you’re making yourself -— and easy to fix. Here are the errors I notice my fellow golfers making most often:

1. They don’t do any swing maintenance

Think about your swing the same way you do your hair. Or your lawn. Or your car’s engine. It’s something that is slowly but constantly changing. It requires regular maintenance, which isn’t always fun or easy, but it’s better than leaving it untouched and having to deal with something that’s been neglected and overrun.

Better players treat their swings the same way. They commit to a coach that they like for regular check-ins and are constantly tweaking their swings so they don’t need to do any major overhauls later on. So many mid-handicappers I play with do exactly the opposite. They actively try to not think about their swing until it all goes wrong, when they press the panic button.

2. They don’t pay attention to their fundamentals

On a related note: Better players tend to stay pretty laser-focused on their fundamentals, and while there are lots of different ways to grip a golf club, most pros settle relatively close to neutral. That’s not the case with many recreational golfers, especially those who struggle those who struggle to break 90. Those players often have one or two serious fundamental issues which cause compensations later on in their swing.

3. They only get the yardage to the pin

To be fair, I’ve noticed this getting a little better as players embrace on-course apps like Golf Logix (Golf Logix and GOLF.com are both owned by the same parent company, 8AM Golf) and technologies like Arccos, but so often I see golfers whip out their rangefinder, zap a yardage to the pin, pull a club and go. The best players I play with get yardages to all sorts of things: How long is it to carry that ridge in front of the green? What’s it to that back left bunker? Or the yardage to the middle? Don’t think about where you want to hit it; think about where you can hit your ball, and still avoid trouble.

4. They treat max yardages as stock yardages

Something Max Homa calls the “biggest lie in golf,” and probably the most common mistake on this list. Average golfers: Just because you can hit your driver 280 yards, doesn’t mean you do hit your driver 280 yards on average. Be real about how far you hit your clubs, because if you get those wrong, it’ll be almost impossible to effectively manage your way around the course.

5. They chunk difficult chip shots

Getting your yardages dialed-in will help you avoid tricky situations, like leaving yourself short-sided, which is good news, because I’ve seen recreational golfers chunk more short-sided chip shots than I can count. Part of the reason is a technical issue (more on that soon), but the main problem is a mental issue. They see the pin, try to hit a Phil Mickelson-style flop shot, and inevitably chunk it. Next time you’re in this spot, don’t fall into that trap. Forget about the pin; take your medicine and pitch it somewhere into the middle of the green, then focus on two-putting.

6. Their backswing is too long on short shots

As for the technical issue I mentioned above? Our Top 100 Teachers can attest that one of the most common issues they see among average golfers around the greens is decelerating, caused by a backswing that’s too long. Keep your backswing short around the greens and stay aggressive for chunk-proof chips.

7. Their clubface is too shut in bunkers

There’s no shot in golf scarier to average golfers than greenside bunker shots, and part of that is because they don’t know how they’re supposed to hit them. Often I see them making the mistake of not opening the face enough from the sand, which causes the club to dig too much. GOLF Top 100 Teacher Debbie Doniger has a good four-step checklist to help you avoid those issues.

8. They’re too-aggressive on birdie putts

Birdie putts don’t come along all that often, and I can almost sense the excitement whenever one of my playing partners have a good look at one. At that point, something incredibly predictable happens: They end up giving their putt a little extra, trying to force it into the hole, but accidentally give it too much. They leave themselves testy five-footer coming back which, rattled, they miss more often then not.

Don’t be that guy. When you have a good look at a birdie putt, your goal is simple: Not to make the putt, but to hit a good putt. That means hitting it with the right speed. Try not to think about whether the ball goes into the hole or not.

9. They don’t focus on getting the ball in play

As I’ve written about before: Marc Leishman says the key to breaking 80 is to not be the hero. That’s especially true off the tee, and a mistake I see average golfers make all the time. You don’t need to hit the ball perfectly. You need to get the ball in play. You don’t need to hit the ball straight to get the ball in play. You need to play what you have. It’s the doubles and triples that kill your round, not the bogeys. And those big numbers often result from an off-the-planet drive off the tee. So, whatever it takes, protect against that disaster outcome.

10. They have no idea how to hit a ball above/below their feet

Remember this, amateur golfers, here and now, so I can forever stop watching you get nervous and hit poor shots when you set up to a ball on an awkward lie. GOLF Top 100 Teacher Gary Weir has the perfect rundown right here for four of the most awkward lies in golf:

A ball above your feet will go left, so choke down and aim to the right.

A ball below your feet will go to the right, so play for the fade and keep some extra knee flex.

Ball uphill will cause it to go high, so choke-up and tilt your shoulders in the direction of the slope.

Ball downhill will cause it to go low, so again, tilt your shoulders in the direction of the slope and keep your weight forward.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.

An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.