That may sound rather defeatist, but, unless we are willing and able to get good instruction and devote ourselves to hours of practice, we are probably not going to see huge improvement in our ability to hit the golf ball. But most of us can improve in our ability to play the game.
Raymond Floyd wrote an excellent book called The Elements of Scoring. It is really a must read for anyone interested in learning how to play golf and shoot lower scores even when you're not playing your best. It contains no information on swing mechanics. It is a book designed to help you learn to play your best golf with what ball striking ability you already possess.
Raymond says in his book that, were it possible to give you the same ball striking ability as him, or vice versa, he is confident that he would beat you every time because he knows how to play the game. This, I firmly believe, because there is so much more involved in making a good score than simply being able to hit good golf shots. It all comes down to managing what game you have.
Raymond talks about the importance of "playing comfortable." By playing comfortable, he means not trying for too much; sticking to hitting the shots you know you can hit. Even if you can't hit it like a professional, you can learn to think like one, and Raymond talks about the mental process of every good player.
The simple fact is that many duffers attempt shots that a seasoned pro wouldn't dream of trying. We quite often beat ourselves. The best way to shoot lower scores is to stop making big numbers. That may sound obvious, but often, in our attempt to shoot low numbers, we make big ones. If you can play more intelligently and eliminate the "dreaded others," those double and triple bogeys that really ruin a round, you can maximize your scoring potential. Low scoring really has more to do with eliminating double and triple bogeys than making eagles and birdies.
Steve sent me an e-mail last night. We had been talking about playing comfortable. I had suggested he start mentally giving himself fourteen shots a round; that he start playing not to make worse than bogey, rather than trying to make birdies. He felt this was somehow too conservative an approach because he is capable of making birdies and pars. He hits it at least 230 yards with the driver, and is capable of reaching all the par fours on our course in two. But his handicap is currently 14. I suggested that this inflated handicap was more the result of him trying for too much, and making big numbers in the process, than a problem with his golf swing.
In his e-mail yesterday, Steve said he shot 80, with a front nine of 38. The important thing, he noted, was that he made nothing worse than bogey. I haven't had a chance to go over the round with him, but I suspect he played a little more conservatively. His scores, which are generally in the mid eighties, inevitably include two or three double bogeys or worse. By eliminating those bad holes--or at least more of those bad holes--I am confident that he would soon find himself regularly breaking 80. But you only eliminate those "dreaded others" by playing smart.
I had found that giving myself three shots a side really helped me. Instead of trying to shoot 72, when I mentally tried to shoot no worse than 78, I found myself shooting 72 more often. I was playing comfortably and accepting a bogey as sometimes being a good score. Playing comfortably doesn't mean we try less, it means we make committed swings to conservative targets. We don't try to hit shots that are high risk. We don't fire at every pin. We learn to play the percentages. As the saying goes, better a live dog than a dead lion. Discretion really is the better part of valour in golf.
Steve talked recently about being at the Canadian Open and watching the pros hit shot after shot to the safe side of a pin tucked near the water. He appreciated the fact that virtually none of the pros tried for that "sucker pin." There was a lesson in that for him. Most of those pros had the ability to hit it close to that pin, but the penalty for failure exceeded the potential reward for success. They were content to have a twenty to thirty foot putt for birdie, rather than risking a bogey or worse trying to hit it close.
I suspect most of us can learn to play more intelligently. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend you get a copy of Raymond Floyd's book. It's one of the best books on golf you'll ever read.