Realistic Expectations
One of the great regrets of my life is that I missed the fatherhood experience, never having had children of my own. As I get older, I find that I gravitate to the younger folks, and offer my help whenever I can, whether on the golf course, hunting fields or just life in general. One of my joys is working with younger kids on their golf. That includes instruction, of course, but what I think is more important for them in the developmental stages is to learn to manage their expectations. Actually, we all could benefit from that bit of advice.

On Sunday, I had the joy of playing with the 16-year-old son of one of our partners here at SCOR Golf. Kyle is a tremendously talented young man who I’ve worked with quite a bit, but he really hasn’t committed himself to golf yet. I’m talking about the kind of commitment that keeps him working hard at it as long as there is daylight. He might not ever get that, and that’s OK, but he hasn’t figured out yet that your expectations can only rise from your achievements, and not from you desires.

On a granular level, Kyle has great strength, but hasn’t learned to harness it yet. He wants to choose his clubs based on his maximum distance with that club . . . if everything falls exactly into place. Like most golfers, and especially young ones, he’s enamored with the power game. When we play, I show him that throttling back and controlling the shot is much more reliable.

On the more global level, I discovered Sunday that Kyle has very unrealistic expectations about what a round of golf should really be like. He, like most of us, expects all the shots to be struck solidly and fly like he imagined. So I explained that he hasn’t earned the right to have such expectations yet. His scores average around 90-95 and his best ever is an 85.

So, here’s my point (finally.)

Kyle was off to a good start with three pars and two bogies in his first five holes. He kind of “fat-pulled” a four-iron approach on a 200+ yard par three. His shot left him only 10-15 yards short and left of the green, but he wheeled around, dropped his club and expressed his disgust with the shot. And I got on him about it. “What’s wrong with that? It’s a difficult par-3 with a 20 mph crosswind and you are in good position to get up and down or at least make no worse than bogey.”

I went on to explain that he was only two pars away from tying his best round ever, and if he just played for bogies – and stay excited -- he would probably make twice that many or more. And I seemed to get through to him of the reality of golf, or his golf at least. He stayed in the moment, with only a little more cajoling from me, and shot an 86 – one shot off his best ever! And I MADE him congratulate himself on his accomplishments. Instead of focusing on those few shots that were bad, and the 2-3 doubles he made, I told him to focus on the good that came out of that round.

So, here’s my point (or points) for managing your expectations, too.
  1. If you are a low single digit player, you’ll still only hit 2-3 shots a round just like you wanted.

  2. If you play to a 12 or higher, any shot that keeps you in the game isn’t really all that bad.

  3. Regardless of your skill level, there is no such thing as a “birdie hole” when you are standing on the tee. A “birdie hole” can only be claimed when you have managed a good tee shot and approach to makeable putt range.

  4. If you are a 12-15 handicap player, you only need to make 3-6 pars to beat your handicap, as long as you don’t chop up any holes. Bogies are good scores unless you regularly shoot in the 70s!
So, the next time you are on the golf course, try to set and manage realistic expectations. Your golf will be better for it, and you’ll have a ton more fun.
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[ comments ]
birdieXris says:
Wow. those are the single most defeatist type of expectations i have ever heard. 2-3 shots a round for a low single digit handicapper? You're telling me a 2 handicapper only hits 2-3 shots all day how they want to? And number 3 - there are absolutely birdie holes. Birdie holes are the holes that you can be aggressive on. they're the holes that fit your eye and your bailout. If you stand on the tee and don't think of it as a birdie hole, you've already made bogey. Having desire and high expectation is what makes people become better. It's what makes them strive to BE better. if i "lowered my expectation" last year, i'd be a 10 handicap. I RAISED my expectations. I fully expect to break par this year. Once at least - and i'm biting, scratching, and working until my hands bleed to do it. There's a difference in not knowing what a good shot or good miss is and having unrealistic expectations.
Nojdemo2 says:
@birdieXris. You're confusing goals and expectations.

The point of Terry's article is that unless you've actually practised until your hands bleed, you've no right to "expect" to play better golf. That's not defeatist, because as you say, if you set yourself ambitious "goals" then you have a target you can strive to achieve.

It's just semantics but it's an important distinction.

To pick up on your other two points:
1) birdie holes - again Terry's point is that until you've landed the ball on the green within putting distance, you can't expect to make birdie. You've got to earn it first and that means staying in the moment. For your average par 4 that means a) getting it to within approach shot distance and b) making that approach shot.
2) If you're so confident you play more than 2-3 shots *exactly* as you want, then start calling them to your partners first. Did you really mean to start your tee shot right and hit a low draw into the wind or did you mean to hit it straight and narrow. Be honest now!
larrynjr says:
Not to toot my own horn too much but I think I actually have a pretty good handle on recognising when I'm playing well for me but still pushing to be better. I was able to play over Christmas for the first time in at least 2 months and shot an 8 over 45, which is MUCH better than my handicap of 24. I made 4 pars and didn't punish myself on the holes that I did screw up. I think Terry has a point that many golfers have an unrealistic expections for themselves and their game. For sure, play your best, try to beat your best but be realistic when you only play your average or less than average. Relax! It's golf!
DoubleDingo says:
I see throttling back and lower expectations helping out. I often get over anxious after hitting a great tee shot. I almost automatically think of making birdie and then screw it up because my approach didn't come off the right way.
birdieXris says:
@Nojdemo - Being honest, i do call them out. And i'll bet most low single digits have more than 2-3 strokes per round that they hit the way they want so it's not just me. That's how you get to be a low single digit, by hitting the shots you want to hit. And everyone who plays with a thought in their head has the right to expect to play better golf. You don't have to practice that hard to get better, you just have to practice the right things -- still expecting to not make any better than bogey is counting yourself out directly off the tee. If you follow that logic, every double digit handicapper should expect to hit a slice off the tee and make no better than bogey on average and not get any better. There cannot be a blanket approach to expectations but if you expect the worst, it's probably what you're going to get.
jcstoll says:
I'm a low single-digit player, and a round with 2 - 3 shots that went the way I want is about right. In fact, that's probably a good round. I keep practicing and playing because my goal is to hit more of them per round, and I believe that I can do it. But I don't necessarily expect that that will happen in any one round. With respect to the rest of the shots..."Golf is about how well you accept, respond to, and score with your misses much more so than it is a game of your perfect shots."- Dr Bob Rotella
GBogey says:
I have to agree with Terry. As a 13-14 handicap, I never expect birdie and am only upset when I miss the occasional 3-5 footer that would be birdie. Even then, I consider most birdie at least partially due to luck. I do, unfortunately, get upset with myself whenever I hit a really bad shot or miss what I consider to be an easy one, but generally any par or bogey is acceptable. In fact, I usually keep score in my head versus bogey golf - a birdie is -2, par is -1, a bogey is 0, etc.
aaronm04 says:
When I first started playing golf, I looked for the small victories. As I would say to myself (and at times my playing partners), I have to find the small victories in golf or else I'd have none.
Dusty23 says:
Please do not ask where I read this because I couldn't tell you, But I have read somewhere in one of several books about Ben Hogan, where he expected to only hit a handful of shots exactly the way he wanted. I figure if Hogan misfired on the majority of his shots, then I shouldn't be too hard myself when I do
legitimatebeef says:
Young Kyle should play a round with me. 10-15 yards short and left, that is practically my whole game.

I tend to agree with Xris, it is good to expect the best from yourself. Personally I expect to hit every shot cleanly, on my intended target line. On the other hand I am realistic about my game at this point, I don't get all crazy when it doesn't happen. Just try to reset for the next shot, it seems to work for me.
stedar says:
I agree with BirdieXris. I also understand WG's point and that when you have unrealistic expectations, frustration sets in quick. I feel that you need to set high expectations once you have put the hours in.
Hackers, or weekend golfers that play once a month, should never expect a par round, or even 1 birdie in a round. They do get over-ambitious. A lower handicap player should target certain holes as birdie holes, particularly par 5's under 450yrds. And realistically any par 3 around 100 yrds should be an up and down. Walking off with a par is ok on those holes is still par, but disappointing all the same.
And for hitting 2-3 good shots, hmmm. More like 2-3 bad ones that create 6-8 stokes because of bad lies is more accurate.
Tim Horan says:
Terry's point has validity in setting realistic goals and not beating yourself up when it doesn't happen but I see in the comments that you all refer to "a round" or "the round". Most of you are used to thinking in terms of front and back nines and even this is too big a chunk to be really in the moment. Why not think in terms of six three hole chunks and set a goal for each and manage your expectation of each shot on each hole. Once your are through the first three holes regardless of result the next three holes become the focus.
wedgeguy says:
Great dialog, guys. When I talk about expectations, I mean the things that lead to disappointment, not your desires, goals or objectives. Disappointment changes your body chemistry, usually for the worse. The point I was trying to make is that until you've built a pattern of hitting certain shots well a majority of the time, you can't get down when you don't. It's all part of the learning process. Regarding the 2-3 "good" shots a round, Dusty23 is right about Hogan's own personal assesment. It's not that they weren't good, but only that they weren't exactly how he envisioned . . . and therefore expected . . . them to be.
wedgeguy says:
Continuing on . . . Playing your best golf, scorewise, requires you to stay "up" and in the moment. A shot that doesn't destroy your chances of a good score on that hole is OK. And that "chance of a good score" depends on your handicap. A bogey to an 18+ is the same as a par to a scratch -- you stayed on track for your handicap. A 24 looking to improve would do better to elimate doubles than try to press for more pars -- 15 bogies and 3 doubles could be your best round ever, right? Trying to shoot 85 for the first time means you have to make 5 pars -- if you avoid doubles -- you don't need any birdies. Is that a clearer explanation of where I was trying to go?
BAKE_DAWG40 says:
I started this past season as 5.3 and expected to shave a half stroke off of that. I ended up an 8.7 to my dismay. I didn't break 80 once. I think my expectation was realistic at the start of the season. I need to assess my game over the next few months and work on my weaknesses. I definitely let myself get frustrated too often and that will be goal #1 after reading the everyone's comments here.
legitimatebeef says:
I think you nailed it Wedgeguy. When expectation leads to disappointment leads to quitting on a hole. That's the beginning of the end.
SD Charlie says:
Wow - finally just getting to this post. This is a great reminder! While I try my best to stay positive, I often beat myself up for item #3, the myth of the birdie hole. That puts me in a funk for 2-3 holes afterward. I will definitely remember these tips the next time I'm out. I'll probably shoot better, while definitely having more fun!
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Terry Koehler is "The Wedge Guy" and President of SCOR Golf- The Short Game Company.

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