As my buddies and I wander around many fine golf courses of the world, a common question often pops up – “what would it take to become a scratch golfer?”.
You can also hear Vaughan, and I debate this question on Golf Drifter the Podcast.
For the most part, my normal golf partners, like myself, tend to be anywhere from high single-figure handicaps through to mid-teens. We all can low scores in the mid-’70s but normally find ways to blow out the vast majority of the time. Furthermore, none of us spend a tonne of time practicing, and arguably as men in our late 30’s and early 40’s we are now tracking downhill in terms of our ability.
One thing none of us lack, however, is the ambition to be better at golf, so the question of how good we could be is never far from our minds. It’s closely followed by ‘how the hell would be doing it?’
The first very blunt and honest answer I know to be true is that within the confines of my current life, including kids, a wife, and the need to earn money, I have no great chance of improving more than a handful of shots better than I am now (currently a 12 handicapper). On a good week, I can normally find time for a range visit and hopefully one round of golf, but that’s it. Whilst I can improve parts of my game at any given stage, I am also trading off one skill for another.
So for this conversation, the better question might need to be, “what would I need to do to have a chance to be a scratch a golfer?” whilst magically assuming I can find the time and resources to make it happen.
It’s also worth just for a second considering what ‘scratch’ actually means. For a start, scratch does not even require breaking par every round. It required you to play good golf for 8 out of every 20 rounds you play. Normally within 1 or 2 shots on par. Or perhaps even up to 3-5 strokes on a tough course. So it is important not to confuse being a ‘scratch golfer’ with being a pro capable of winning tournaments.
So, where to start? Let’s look at the fundamentals to consider if things are even possible?
- Can I physically do it?
Yes. This is easy to answer as many thousands of golfers, both older and in worse shape than me, play at scratch or better. I don’t think I would not have to make massive advancements in many aspects of my physical state for a second to improve my golf, but with the benefit of time, I think this stuff could happen.
- Is my swing good enough?
No, not as it stands. The good news is that I believe this could be changed and improved upon with time and effort. So once again, I don’t think this stands in the way of my being a scratch golfer in its own right. There are certainly scratch golfers out there with ugly or imperfect swings who have learned how to manufacture their way around the golf course, and I know when I am feeling good that I have all the skills to make plenty of pars. Plus, the consensus opinion on the internet seems to be that you need a 100mph + swing speed to be a scratch golfer, and I have that. Consistency is the primary issue to deal with, and most importantly …
- Do I have the mental game for it?
Of all the big fundamentals, this is really the key issue for me. Can I take years of shaky and inconsistent golf and effectively blank these out to somehow carry most good thoughts with me to each golf shot. Also, can I mentally dedicate myself to the many hours of changes, practice, and frustration needed to effect real change? Right now, I think the answer to these questions is ‘no.’ However, in theory, these are areas in which I can get help with mental skills coaches, so I don’t think it is impossible.
Assuming that the answer to these three questions is a debatable ‘yes,’ the next layer of questions is trickier. How would I embark on this journey, and would any of these steps create an issue? Can I find a way around these issues too …
- Practice, practice, practice and a bit more practice – For the vast majority of golfers at some point in their life they have done something golfing related every day to help them get better. Be it physical preparation, striking balls or improving their mental game, this needs to be a ‘always on pursuit’. Luckily for me I love golf so I think I could find a way to practice or play everyday if, as mentioned above, magically I had the time.
- Stop playing as much – Striking a balance between practice and playing will be tough. After all, I love playing, but being on course is a sure fire way to focus on working around your issues vs fixing them. I will answer ‘maybe’ to this question.
- Can I take instruction – Yes. I have always enjoyed working with coaches of all nature, including golf coaches. And this help would be required to improve. The key question here is whether I would end up tinkering too much. This has always been an issue of mine.
- Puting the time into short games and putting – Luckily for me short games have for the most part been a strength of my game. Especially compared to my highly erratic long game. I would have to step up even more in this area and spend hours working on this stuff. Something I think I would find very boring and tough to master.
- Course management and research – This is one area I do not believe I would enjoy in the pursuit to be better. I already enjoy researching courses and planning how in theory I could conquer each hole. And I enjoy the stats of golf. Sadly I am just not good enough to consistently follow through with my planning.
- Playing with better golfers: I think part of getting better at golf would be playing more consistently with better golfers. Partly to keep me focused on my game, but also to ensure I was seeing the course through a different set of eyes. Ideally I would drag a buddy or two with me on this journey and this problem could go away, but in reality I would imagine golf over a few beers may not be the best way to get to scratch. So we would have to give up a bit to get better and that could be tough.
- Better equipment: No drama here. I’ve always enjoyed golf equipment advancements and the theoretical advantages they would give me. So no issue in changing up this part of my game to be better.
So could I really do it?
During the research and writing of this article, I became more and more confident that, in theory, I could become a scratch golfer if I did not have the limitations of time or other aspects of my life.
However, I accepted the caveat in making this decision that it would be a very shaky scratch and one that I would never want to test too hard. For example, I don’t think I would be a scratch golfer in the white-hot heat of competition or under howling winds. But on a good day, with a relaxed environment around me, it would be possible. For at least the next 5 years before, physically, my pace of decline would catch up with my rate of improvement.
But it also dawned on me that I wouldn’t complete this journey for 3 reasons …
- Mental game : I’m just not sure I could erase years of shake golf quick enough to really believe in my ability to be that good. To be able to forget the pain of golf failures past would just be too hard.
- The time taken to improve : I would expect any improvement to anything resembling scratch for me would be a 5 year journey minimum. I think I could carve off 3 shots a year at least for the first 2 years but the last 5 shots would be torture and take 3 years minimum to erase. I am just not sure I have the patience or focus to practice for that many years without just being able to enjoy playing golf with no great thought around my results.
- My friends : Ultimately I play golf to have a good time with my friends. I love going on trips and experiencing new courses and environments. I think I would need to shelf too much of this in the pursuit of practice and improvement for me to see the benefit in what I was doing.
Being a scratch golfer is still something I will dream about for years to come, but in reality, the game of golf will always be a lot more to me than this. I will continue the grind to improve but enjoy knowing that I can find joy in so much more than being a number on paper.