Most of us spend a lifetime thinking we can be better than we are, but few actually close the gap between potential and performance. Well here's some good news: If you're a 15-handicapper, you have a way better shot of lowering your handicap than the No. 288 player in the world, Parker McLachlin, does of making a dent in the gap between himself and world No. 1 Tiger Woods. The following will show that the better you become, the harder it is to improve.
How you can close the gap
• Terry Freiberg, 15-handicap, Boston, Mass.
• Todd Points, Scratch, Boise, Idaho
• Parker McLachlin, Tour Player, No. 288 in the world, Scottsdale, Arizona
• Tiger Woods, No. 1-ranked player in the world, Orlando, Florida
• How you can close the gap
Weight 157 lbs
Low lifetime round 78
Average birdies per round 1-2
Average pars per round 6
Average bogeys per round 8-9
Average double-bogeys per round 2-3. "I haven't played a single round without at least one double-bogey."
Average fairways hit 10 (Counting par 3s)
Average greens hit 5
Average putts per round 30-32 "One of the strengths of my game. The high average is due to my inability to chip the ball close to the hole."
Driving distance 240 yards
EXERCISE REGIMEN Walks 12-15 rounds a month in the summer. Sometimes sails but admits that consists of mostly sitting. Most weekdays include 12 to 14 hours of sitting in front of a computer at his law firm.
ATHLETICISM "I am coordinated enough to never whiff."
INSTRUCTION "For the past 15 years, I've averaged about three or four lessons a summer. I have twice been to winter golf clinics where the teaching pros, lo and behold, found the same swing errors on their tapes. The same efforts were made to improve my swing with the same lack of results."
PLAYING SINCE Age 13 "It was one of the great pleasures of my relationship with my dad: a round of golf followed by a Brown Cow (root beer over ice cream). Since I went to high school in Los Angeles, I was able to play all year."
PLAYING HABITS "My course is only open from May through October, and during that period I am a devoted player, out early in the season, late in the season, and in modestly inclement weather. In golf months I work long hours Monday through Thursday so that I can take Friday off. I typically play Friday and either Saturday or Sunday, sometimes both. I play in all of the club tournaments."
LIFESTYLE A Harvard Law School grad, Freiberg has a successful law practice. He and his wife live in Brookline, a suburb right outside Boston, and own a summer home in Marion [near Cape Cod]. In Marion they play at a Kittansett, and also belong to a sailing club.
SELF-ANALYSIS "When I see video of my swing in slow motion, I want to cry. I make a backswing that not even a good player could convert into a consistent downswing. Regarding chipping: Despite all my practice around the green, my arms, wrists and hands tense up just before impact despite efforts to stay soft and relaxed. On the course, I too often attempt to play a hole like a fine player. I have played a lot of golf for the last 15 years and there has been little if any improvement. I can't get any younger or more coordinated, and I'm not convinced it's much easier to get my swing more grooved, my tempo more regular, my hands softer or my putting stroke smoother. I do think I could make significant strides in game plan and course management. The problem is, part of this depends on having the rational mind overcome the ego."
PRACTICE HABITS "I occasionally hit balls, and I practice my chipping and short game at the practice green, but to be honest, 80 percent of my practice is pre-round warm-up sessions." Percentage of practice time allocated to full swing: 80. Percentage allocated to short game and putting: 20.
Occupation Insurance Agent
Weight 200 lbs
Low lifetime round 65 (In a tournament)
Average birdies per round 5
Average pars per round 9
Average bogeys per round 3
Average double-bogeys per round 1
Average fairways hit 55% over his last three tournaments
Average greens hit 76% over his last three tournaments
Average putts per round 331.5 over his last three tournaments "'That's probably why I didn't win."
Driving distance 300+ yards
EXERCISE REGIMEN Stretching, focusing on hamstrings to avoid back trouble. Stays active bird-hunting and skiing in winter. Plays basketball and some fast-pitch softball at the end of the summer.
ATHLETICISM Points played football in college, quit, then returned to school at Albertson College [in Idaho], where he walked on and played number one on the golf team as a junior and senior.
INSTRUCTION Points has no coach. "People have looked at my swing and I've been videotaped. For me it comes down to tempo."
PLAYING SINCE Age 5
PLAYING HABITS "Before tournament season starts, I try to play at least two money games a week. We get between five and 10 scratch or better players, amateurs and pros, and another 10 single-digit guys." [Points has won as much as $350 in a day.] "In tournament season I'll play once a week plus a tournament on the weekend."
SELF-ANALYSIS, PART I: MIDDLE-GAME BLUES "I don't hit my mid-irons 10 percent of the time on Idaho courses. I'll hit driver-wedge or a shorter iron shot. That's why I don't think a lot of Idaho amateurs do well when they play in bigger tourneys. I played the Pacific Coast Amateur at Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes two years ago, and talk about a wake-up call. That place crushed me."
LIFESTYLE Points drives a high-mileage 2001 Ford Expedition; wife Michelle, an attorney, has a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta. Their household income is between $100,000 and $150,000, and they are building a home west of Boise.
SELF-ANALYSIS, PART II "I went to the 2000 PGA Championship and watched the pros hit irons, and they were more consistent but I could hit a lot of those shots. Then I watched them chip and putt and I wouldn't bet $1 against the worst putter and chipper out there! They were so focused, so committed to their routine, and that's something I tried to incorporate into my own game. But it's not a career for me. If my schedule works out I'll win one or two tournaments in a summer. Golf doesn't really start for me until May, and over an eight-month schedule I'll play four rounds a week on average. I hit it really long and have trouble fading the ball. There are probably a million guys out there who are scratch. [According to the latest USGA figures, more than 306,000 men are scratch or lower.] There's no way to know how big the gap is unless you try to close it."
PRACTICE HABITS "There's a golf course one minute from my office, so every lunch I'll hit two shag bags of 125-, 100- and 60-yard shots. There are probably 50-70 balls per shag bag, so that's about 110 wedges, three to four days a week, for eight months. I'll work on my putting probably once a week."
Occupation Professional Golfer (World Ranking #288)
Weight 185 lbs
Handicap +4 ("If I were to have one.")
Low lifetime round 65 (Final round of the FBR Open)
Average birdies per round 3.11
Average pars per round N/A
Average bogeys per round N/A
Average double-bogeys per round N/A
Average fairways hit 51.42%
Average greens hit 57.49%
Average putts per round 28.58
Driving distance 283.1 yards
Tour player, No. 288 in the world
EXERCISE REGIMEN "30 minutes per day of stretching, 30 minutes of ab/core/balance work, and then 30 minutes of cardio/strengthening. "
ATHLETICISM All-state high school volleyball player
INSTRUCTION "My early instruction was making sure I didn't stifle my abilities in other sports, so most of it was geared toward shot-making and enhancing my feel."
PLAYING SINCE Age 8
PLAYING HABITS "I play about four times per week. During tournament weeks, six times."
PERCENTAGE OF PRACTICE TIME ALLOCATED TO FULL SWING "70 percent is allocated to wedge play/short game/putting. The other 30 percent is focused on the full swing."
LIFESTYLE McLachlin made $280,832 this season through the Travelers Championship, not including money from corporate sponsors such as Waikoloa Beach Resort and Titleist. He and his wife, Kristy, live in Scottsdale.
SELF-ANALYSIS "I think Tiger and I hit the same amount of fairways, but he hits more greens in regulation. He's a better player out of the rough, and when he does hit the green in regulation, he's hitting the ball closer. Tiger has done an impressive job of eliminating silly bogeys and that is something I'm continuing to work on. I'm also still at a point where I'm trying to understand my swing. Tiger is far ahead of the game in that regard. He understands what his swing does in the highest-pressure situations and he pulls off incredible shots."
PRACTICE HABITS "During an event week, I practice every day. On an off week I'll practice three days, maybe four."
Occupation Professional Golfer (World Ranking #1)
Weight 185 lbs
Handicap Estimated at +8
Low lifetime round 61 (Three times on the PGA Tour)
Average birdies per round 3.38
Average pars per round N/A
Average bogeys per round N/A
Average double-bogeys per round N/A
Average fairways hit 55.36%
Average greens hit 69.4%
Average putts per round 29.44
Driving distance 295.3 yards
No. 1-ranked player in the world
EXERCISE REGIMEN Since the 1997 Masters, Woods' gym time has morphed him from Urkel into a more flexible Tiki Barber.
ATHLETICISM Woods is a lifetime avid runner, and is said to be a formidable Ping-Pong player, suggesting superior hand-eye coordination.
INSTRUCTION Woods always has the best possible instructors, from Rudy Duran as a child to John Anselmo as a teen to Butch Harmon as a pro. At press time Hank Haney was his coach.
PLAYING HABITS Plays practice rounds at the crack of dawn.
PRACTICE HABITS No one works harder than Tiger. Although Vijay Singh spends more time on the range, Woods does most of his work at home, where he will fly in his coach.
PERCENTAGE OF PRACTICE TIME ALLOCATED TO FULL SWING When changing his mechanics, Woods focuses his practice sessions on his full swing, but he never neglects his short game.
LIFESTYLE He's got the jet, the house, the yacht (optimistically christened "Privacy"), the gorgeous wife (Elin), the cute kid (Sam).
HOW TO CLOSE THE GAP
Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Jon Tattersall explains how each of our three players can make the leap to the next level
WEAKNESSES: Short game costs him shots.
• If his best drive is 240 yards, then his average is around 225 yards, so long par 4s are probably out of reach, which leaves more pressure on his short game.
• His desk job is killing his game, too. Sitting for too long can shorten your hip flexors, and when your brain thinks they're contracted, your abdominals relax. This leads to an incorrect pivot and can cause back injuries.
WHAT TO WORK ON: He should check his posture in a mirror. An arched lower back and rounded upper back might mean his hip flexors have shortened.
• If his posture is off, he should schedule a functional-movement screen (functionalmovement.com) specifically for golf. This will help his overall health and distance off the tee.
• Play some gambling games around the green to make short-game practice have a consequence and simulate performance.
CLOSEABILITY quotient between Freiberg and Points (1 being easiest; 10 hardest): 8
"Based on athleticism," Tattersall says.
WEAKNESSES: Points' driving distance, GIR and birdie average could win on the PGA Tour, but his 31.5 putts per round are hurting his stroke average. Putts make up 45 percent of his total score, so he should spend more of his practice time on putting.
WHAT TO WORK ON: Borrow a practice idea from Jack Nicklaus. When Nicklaus knew he'd be playing a course that demanded longer second shots into the greens, he would play his sons' drives or hit irons off the tee to leave longer approach shots , thereby preparing mentally and physically to hit longer irons into greens.
CLOSEABILITY quotient between Points and McLachlin: 6
"He has the physical skills to make it to the Tour," Tattersall says, "but he needs help with course management (difficulty to change = 4) and wedge and short game (difficulty to change = 7)."
PGA Tour player, ranked 288th in the world
WEAKNESSES: His GIR and fairways hit don't measure up on Tour.
• His distance off the tee is good and in his own words he hits "a similar number of fairways to Tiger." The big difference is that Tiger has the strength and ability to hit recovery shots and go for the green.
WHAT TO WORK ON: He should bump up his long-game practice schedule to about 50 percent of total practice time, as long as he doesn't see a drop off in his wedge play, short game and putting.
CLOSEABILITY quotient between McLachlin and Woods: 9.999
"From McLachlin to Tiger I'd say the athleticism gap is an 8," Tattersall says. "Strategy and course management is a 3. For McLachlin to close this gap on a regular basis is a 20!"
The science: "I consulted Peter Sanders, who developed a web-based game-analysis program called Shot By Shot (shotbyshot.com)," Tattersall says. "With more than 44,000 rounds of comparative data, Peter was able to provide an accurate assessment of how to close these gaps."
HOW YOU CAN CLOSE THE GAP
According to stats, you're closest in playing ability to Terry Freiberg (15-handicap). Here's how to begin to close the gap between yourself and better players.
"Stop thinking a single event or thought will transform your game," Tattersall says. "Focus your attention on your body, mind, swing technique, club-fitting and short game. All the tools available to a Tour player are available to you—you just have to look a little harder."
• A functional-movement screen (functionalmovement.com) for golf will tell you what your body can and can't do, and will allow you to develop an exercise program to improve your weak areas.
• Club-fitting is readily available nearly everywhere and is a must, but think also about "game-fitting." Do you need four wedges or a 3-iron in your bag?
• Find a teacher who understands that you want a long-term plan, not just a quick fix before the member-guest. Also, keep in mind you may need a physical or mental lesson, too.