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What makes an elite golfer "elite"? Components to success


RoyalMustang

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I'd love to hear your thoughts on what makes an elite golfer. A confluence of factors coming together makes an elite athlete, and enough of them coming together makes a all-time great, which is why we only have one Tiger Woods, one Michael Phelps, one Michael Jordan, one Usain Bolt. Then there are those who are elite just below that tier, and so on and so forth, until you get to the person who likes sport but isn't anywhere close to elite, such as a 14 cap. For the purposes of this, you can define elite however you want, but I'd wager something like 2% of golfers. It doesn't really matter though.  

 

In your mind what makes an elite golfer? Here is how I would look at things, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

 

Elite athletic ability: 70% overall

Hand-eye coordination 

Strength

Flexiblity

Motor Control 

Kinestetic awareness 

 

In this category, a person with moderate talent can work hard to improve in each of these areas. This is easily the "lowest hanging fruit" for most golfers but for whatever reason, something you hear almost nothing about. Pros focus a ton of effort in these areas but few amateurs do. If you aren't elite in at least two of these areas, you won't be an elite golfer. However someone who is average in these areas could get close to elite with the right training. For example, average would be someone that could learn how to juggle, ride a unicycle, or build the strength to squat 250lbs. All of those things would be indicators of enough physical ability to become a very solid golfer. However, I'd offer that most elite pros are very, very good athletes. Jack Nicklaus comes to mind. Likewise, we've all heard the anecdotes about superb athletes in other sports taking up golf. I once read where Tim Lincecum basically had never picked up a golf club, played a round with a friend, and shot something like 2 over. He was a superb athlete of course (nicknamed The Freak). 

 

Question for the group: why isn't more effort focused here? We talk about clubs and lessons all day long, but we never stop to see if we have the physical tools developed to make a good swing, much less focus on building the required athletic skills?  If you can't move in ways required to make a good swing, you'll never be a great golfer. 

 

Desire: 11%

I'm ranking this pretty low because "outworking the other guy" is pretty rare. Most people who are elite golfers are putting in the time. Those that don't want to and are still elite are likley physical freaks or lying about how much they practice. Hard work is essentially table stakes for an elite athlete. Furthermore, not all levels of practice are optimal for all athletes. Some can grind day after day: others need a reprieve and a hobby outside of the sport to put things into prespective.  When I ran in college, we had 3 guys who were sub 13:30 in the 5,000 meters. One could handle 100 mile weeks, one 70 mile weeks, and one broke down at 45 mile weeks. Every body is different. 

 

Background: 8%

Slightly different than coaching below, but related. Resources to play the game. That may be in the form of wealthy parents or simply extremely committed parents. Again, it's mostly table stakes. If your parents aren't committed to getting you to tournaments and finding the right exposure for you, making it is very tough. We don't see kids from the West Baltimore neighborhood on "The Wire" making it in pro golf. I'd call this a small factor in success but a very prominent hurdle: either you have it or you don't. But being from an upper-middle class family who is committed to getting a kid to tournaments likely won't hurt you vs. being from a super wealthy family where mom is flying you to tournaments on the family jet all summer. 

 

Coaching: 7% 

Coaching is important, no doubt, but many HOF level players haven't had much in the way of formal coaching. It's important to learn and understand one's swing but finding the perfect coach is hard. You need someone that understands you, your swing, and what you are capable of. Understanding someone who knows "the golf swing" is super easy, but everyone's swing looks different because we all are differenet in that category above: "elite athletic ability". The wrong coach can derail a player; the right coach can extract a bit more out. 

 

Mental makeup and temperment: 3%

Having the right mental mindset is important, no doubt, and a player that falls apart at the first sign of trouble will never be a great golfer. However, I think that most players have the game and confidence to deal with general nerves. What we think of as "elite" mental makeup in someone like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan may separate the world's best from the guy they beat in a playoff, but that second guy with average mental abilities is still losing a playoff to Tiger Woods. I'd wouldn't mind being that guy. Even those with a bad temperment seem to do well more often than not if they have the skills. 

 

Clubs and gear: 1%

This is one area that, in my mind, almost doesn't matter, assuming you aren't playing with 70's era blades. Any modern set from the last decade will serve a golfer well, assuming the shafts are a good match. Balls barely matter at most levels; I'd wager on a regular non-PGA type setup, a pro would barely lose a stroke by playing a Callaway Supersoft. My personal experience on this is in cycling: I was an elite racer (domsetic pro) and occasionally a world-class pro would be in town. On our weekly hammerfest ride, one such pro showed up on a mountain bike with slicks. He proceeded to tow us along at 27-28mph for the majority of the 35 mile ride, on a freaking mountain bike. He was easily throwing down 7-8% more power than us domestic elite guys; it was ridiculous and no different than Viktor Hovland shooting the course record by 3 strokes at your course with the pro shop's rental clubs and a sleeve of supersofts. 

 

 

Edited by RoyalMustang
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A lot depends on your definition of elite.

 

There are lots of players who can go low on hard courses fairly often. There are very few who can go consistently low enough, often enough, with their B/C game, to make a good living at the game.

 

Instead of the percentage breakdown I'd look at it differently. There's a minimum level of physical ability that a player MUST possess to be able to be elite, no matter what your definition is. Once you get past that minimum other factors come into play. Players with better physical skills can apply less effort to some of the other areas and be elite. The closer to the minimum level you are the more you need to work on the other stuff.

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Mitigate mistakes and be able to recover from mistakes, score when the opportunity to score is there. 

 

That's pretty much golf elite to me, nothing overly complicated. 

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Personally I believe that getting into exact percentages on anything is a futile task.  From a purely skillset perspective, the strongest players I have played with/watched play from the amateur ranks into the pro ranks all share 3 main traits.  For starters, 1) they believe that they can hit the shot/putt and win at all times (even after 5 bogeys in a row, they truly believe they could birdie out if needed) so their mental game is truly elite, 2) they have a very strong short game, 3) they never make two mistakes in a row on the course.  As an example, maybe they they hit a tee shot out of bounds on a par 5, then they either pipe the next tee ball down the middle (if out of bounds) or hit the 3rd shot on the green (if lateral). 

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What makes an elite golfer elite is that their “bad” is barely noticeable from their good. That is from good coaching and so many reps and practice that ingrain a movement patern so deep and consistent that it doesn’t change day to day, week to week, month to month and so on.

 

It’s being able to replicate the exact same movement pattern through motor control and coordination.  Thats what it takes to be an elite BALLSTRIKER. The other intangibles are what makes someone an elite player/scorer and they will be different and weighted differently for everyone.

 

Coaching is a huge part of that today vs 30,40,50 years ago. Players of old beat balls day in and day out until they liked what they saw and could replicate it every time but couldn’t tell you if they need to get more flexion or rear shoulder external at p5 and what not. Their dedication and work ethic were what got them to be elite.  These days kids have a coach watching and monitoring their positions from the moment they pick up a club. Perfect practice makes perfect. 

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21 minutes ago, Rosco1216 said:

What makes an elite golfer elite is that their “bad” is barely noticeable from their good.

There are different ways to become an elite golfer, but the one thing they all have in common is the quote above.  The misses are off by smaller margins.  30 ft putt becomes a 10ft putt, or green side chip to 14 feet instead of 4 feet.  A miss from driver may go 25y right or left, but on or near the fairway.  3 putt avoidance.  ETC ETC.   How a person becomes "elite" is through hours of practice. "Dig it out of the ground" as Hogan stated.  Some may be more physically even mentally inclined, but those who are not can get there through hard work.  Just look up the Tom Kite story.  He was no Nicholas or Watson.  He worked for hours and hours for years and years to get there.  There is no "method" for greatness because all people are inherently different.  They say it takes 10000 hours to master something?  Tiger Woods did that by 15.  

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2 hours ago, david.c.w said:

Mental makeup and temperament: 3%

 

You missed a 0.   The mental game is at least 30%

IMO it’s closer to 90%.  If you reach an elite level, the physical skills are a given.  Just go to watch the range at any pro tournament.  You wonder how these people don’t shoot 60 every round.  But put the screws to many of them and coming down the stretch, when it counts, they can barely take the club back.

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7 minutes ago, skraly said:

IMO it’s closer to 90%.  If you reach an elite level, the physical skills are a given.  Just go to watch the range at any pro tournament.  You wonder how these people don’t shoot 60 every round.  But put the screws to many of them and coming down the stretch, when it counts, they can barely take the club back.

 

Oh my, no.

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1 hour ago, skraly said:

IMO it’s closer to 90%.  If you reach an elite level, the physical skills are a given.  Just go to watch the range at any pro tournament.  You wonder how these people don’t shoot 60 every round.  But put the screws to many of them and coming down the stretch, when it counts, they can barely take the club back.

Yes, golf is 90% mental and the other 10% is in your head.

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I train a few clients who are at the pro level in sports.  They all have one thing in common which is that they put in work in the gym and I'm sure they put in equally as much effort when they're practicing.  They all have insane talent and athletic ability which shows up during their training sessions.  I won't post their names but will refer to them by their respective positions/sports.

 

Minor League Pitcher - He hits 98 on the regular on radar gun with his 4 seam fast ball.  Incredible flexibility and mobility. 

Tour Pro - Swing speed is 125 now after a lot of speed training.  Claims that handicap is +4 atm which I believe as we've gone out and played numerous times.  

Semi-Pro Linebacker - Absolutely incredible strength.  Insanely quick despite his weight and mobility is also off the charts.     

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Part of answering the question is defining "Elite" compared to which population.  Pros?  Good pros?  Enthusiasts or better?  Everyone?

 

My take is, it's precision.  Their distribution of shots is tighter and closer to their aim than other golfers.  Their lows are much higher than other golfers. 

 

In addition, they've sufficient speed to be competitive in their population.  As far as mental game...I mean, is course management really that tough a task?  Maybe it's that I've played a bit of cards in the past, and I enjoy the theory, but the principles of Strokes Gained don't seem that tough, honestly.

 

I will say that the mental game is of paramount importance for a popular touring pro, in order for them to balance all of the new demands on their time and additional administrative tasks, with continuing to hone that skill edge. Lots can't do it, and "Getting IMG'd" explains some of it, but not all.

 

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2 hours ago, moptop said:

I think the modern stats bear out that the main deciding factor in score is the long game.  Now the question becomes I think, How do some people get good at the long game while others struggle?  Why do I come over the top and early extend, but back in my basketball days I had almost perfect jump shot form?  

 

I think we can all agree that Tiger was able to dominate for so many years because he was a bazillion under par on the par 5's and kept it together on the par 3's. That being said, the average distance in on par 5's on the PGAT this past year was 265 yards. If you want to even keep up with the field nowadays you're going to need to be hitting something manageable into those holes.  

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There's definitely something more important that I should be doing.
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17 minutes ago, leezer99 said:

 

I think we can all agree that Tiger was able to dominate for so many years because he was a bazillion under par on the par 5's and kept it together on the par 3's. That being said, the average distance in on par 5's on the PGAT this past year was 265 yards. If you want to even keep up with the field nowadays you're going to need to be hitting something manageable into those holes.  

No player hits with two shots a high percentage of par 5 greens . Tiger dominated par 5's because he consistently hit his green side bunker shots, pitches, and chips next to the hole.

For the par 4 and par 3 holes he did the same thing. His seven year 140+ consecutive cuts made streak included lots of bad ball striking days, but he was able to score low because his green side bunker-pitching-chipping play was so good that he consistently left himself short putts.

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30 minutes ago, Louis_Posture said:

Tiger dominated par 5's because he consistently hit his green side bunker shots, pitches, and chips next to the hole.

 

The statistics do not back you there.

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In another thread, some people are said to be elitists if he doesn't use iron head covers and say's so.  Can you imagine the label if someone doesn't use iron head covers and plays good golf?  LOL 

 

@Louis_Posture says * golf is a learned technique game, not a sport requiring exceptional athletic skills. 

 

IF that were true, anyone taking up the game would exhibit the appropriately needed techniques and excel at the game.  Yet, that's not remotely the case when looking at index segments; 8.55% are under 5, and 1.99% under scratch or less.  IMO What separates those under 5 index, from the rest is not only athletic abilities, maybe genetics, but mental approach and what he/she does to excel.

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8 minutes ago, Pepperturbo said:

 

 

@Louis_Posture says * golf is a learned technique game, not a sport requiring exceptional athletic skills. 

 

IF that were true, anyone taking up the game would exhibit the appropriately needed techniques and excel at the game.  

 

For every 100 people playing golf I guess less than 1% actually learn and practice proper technique.

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22 minutes ago, Louis_Posture said:

For every 100 people playing golf I guess less than 1% actually learn and practice proper technique.

 

Harvey Penick… he had the technique down pretty well, right? But he couldn't break 100 toward the end because… he was no longer able to be exceptionally athletic.

 

Golf's a sport that requires athleticism expressed via proper technique. It's not either/or. It's both.

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Erik J. Barzeski | Erie, PA

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