How to Break 80

Break 80

Introduction

Congratulations, if you’re searching for tips on “How to Break 80,” you’re probably scoring in the mid to low 80’s consistently.  That alone places you in rare company, but it’s time to get into the 70’s, and I’m going to help you do just that.

Let’s start with a simple realization:

79 = 11 pars + 7 bogeys

That’s it.  You don’t need to set the world on fire, you just need to scrape it around and keep the big numbers off the card.  To do that, you DO NOT need a new swing, you just need to upgrade your practice and improve your mental game.

Two Commandments

Matt’s Two Commandments

When trying to break 100, my Two Commandments are a suggestion.  When trying to break 90, they’re a strong suggestion.  When you’re trying to get into the 70’s, they’re almost mandatory.

Keep the ball in play and don’t three putt.

Driving Range

Upgrade Your Practice

Upgrading your practice doesn’t mean buying a bunch of new training aids, nor does it mean putting in more hours, it means getting more out of your hours.  To do that, you need to approach your practice sessions with a clear plan of what you need to accomplish.

Know Your Distances and Your Percentages

As someone scoring in the 80’s, you probably have some idea of your yardages and percentages.  Get a better one.  You should know your average/comfortable yardage for each club as well as your maximum yardage.  Of equal importance are your percentages: how often do you hit each club perfectly?  How often are you successful in hitting your chosen shot shape or trajectory?  This is the information you need to form a good game plan.

The 80% Rule

Once you know your percentages, you can put the 80% Rule into effect.  Simply put: if you can’t execute a certain shot 80% of the time in practice, you should not attempt it on the course.  That could mean that you don’t try to hit a high draw with your 4-iron, or it could mean the 4 iron comes out of your bag altogether.

Tee Shot Competence

In my plan for “How to Break 90”, I advocated leaving your driver, 3W, hybrid, and long irons at home.  Unless you’re Bubba-long, that won’t work for breaking 80.  That said, you don’t need to hit driver to break 80: you can easily do it with a fairway wood or hybrid depending on your length and the course you’re playing.

The key to breaking 80 is hitting it far enough while keeping it in play.  Again, “far enough” is relative to the course you’re playing, but “keeping it in play” should be easy enough to understand.

Ultimately, you need a club that will put you in a position to go for the green most of the time without ever getting you into trouble.  If that’s your driver, great.  If that’s your 3W, fine.  Find a tee shot club that you can rely on, and stick with it.

Develop a “Go To” Shot

In both your long game and your short game, you need a “go to” shot, a shot you can execute even under the crippling pressure of needing to make par on #18 for a 79.

Your “go to” shot should be very specific, for example, a high, left-to-right, 163 yard 7-iron.  That level of specificity makes it a real “go to” shot.  Saying that your 7-iron is your “go to” shot isn’t going to cut it because you will find yourself questioning how you will shape the ball and how far it will go.

With your short game shot, you want to know the club, the mechanics, and the expected trajectory of the shot.  When I say “know the mechanics,” I simply mean that you should be able to verbalize what the shot feels like so that you can recreate it under pressure.  For me, that would mean, “60° wedge, ball centered, quiet hands, left shoulder drives the club back and through.”  That produces a shot I can hit up to 60 yards on a low trajectory with moderate roll out.  It may not be the perfect shot for every situation, but I know I can execute it under any circumstance.

Better Putting Practice

We all like seeing the ball go in the hole and pouring in dozens of 4-footers is great for your confidence, but it does not replicate the challenges you will face on the course.  The first step to better putting practice is to use one ball instead of multiple balls.  This replicates on-course putting and forces you to focus more.  Now, with one ball, do 18 holes worth of putting: drop the ball some distance from the hole, putt until you make it, repeat 17 times.  Mix up the starting distances: give yourself some 10-15 foot birdie opportunities and some 40-50 foot putts as well.

human-brain

Mental Skills

Why is a caddy so valuable?  Because he does the thinking for you, free of ego or other concerns.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t get to play with a caddy or a coach, so we have to do the thinking for ourselves.  On the bright side, this becomes a built-in advantage for those of us who develop our mental skills since 99% of golfers don’t.

Know Your Game

I already mentioned knowing your distances and percentages.  That’s a great start, but it’s the bare minimum of knowing your game.

What shots do you like hitting the most?  What shots do you fear?  What situations make you feel confident?  When do you feel nervous or tense on the course?  What are the things that have kept you from breaking 80 in the past?

All these questions should be answered literally, but also probed for deeper insights.  For instance, I used to prefer chipping a 50-footer to putting it.  That’s a surface level preference.  On deeper examination, I realized that preference wasn’t based on my success with each approach but on the fact that I had lower expectations for my chips.  By simply examining that preference, I was able to upgrade my course management and play to the actual percentages as opposed to hurting myself with an irrational decision.

By taking time to reflect and analyze, you can learn all there is to know about your game and put yourself on a path to real improvement.  I strongly recommend the Vision 54 books for those who want to explore this in more detail.

Green

Minimize Risk

“Minimax” is an idea that comes from game theory.  It refers to a strategy that minimizes the maximum loss, and it can be a very helpful way to think on the golf course.  I’m going to use the picture above to illustrate.

On a Par 5, you have hit your second shot to the position shown above.  If you play a really good pitch, playing along Line A gives you a much shorter birdie putt than Line B.  However, Line A also brings a lot of big numbers into play.  If you hit it short, you’re in the water and re-playing the same shot again plus two strokes.  Hit it long and you have a dicey sand shot that needs to be perfect, lest it ends up in the water.  Along Line B, the huge numbers are virtually impossible: hit it short and you can 2 or 3 putt for par or bogey, hit it long and you can chip it on the green and 2 putt for an easy six.

Of course, every shot entails risk and has some bad possible outcomes, but by focusing on minimizing your maximum score, you can stack the odds in your favor.

Discipline

Do you know why 80 is the toughest “break” in golf?  It’s because players at this level have just enough skill that they forget about being disciplined.  They’ve pulled off enough miracle shots that they believe they have one more in the bag.  Unfortunately, they’re usually wrong, and the result is a big number.

Having the discipline to play for the middle of the green, taking your medicine, punching out, or laying-up is the key to better course management.  If you’re going to be swayed by your friends’ taunting or your own ego, you will be chasing this milestone for a long time.

weight-lifting-brain

Mental Practice

If you’re still reading, I’ll take that to mean that you agree with me about the importance of mental skills for golf.  If we agree that mental skills are important, we should also agree that they’re worth practicing.

Visualization

Visualization is the most powerful mental tool we have.  We can actually convince our mind that things have already happened if we imagine them richly enough.  You know this to be true: call to mind a strong negative memory and feel your body go through the physical response as if it’s happening again.  We all know the power of our imagination, but most of us fail to use it to our benefit.  Separate yourself by imagining or remembering positive things about your game: perfectly struck shots, putts falling in the cup, and chips stopping next to the hole.  You can even play an entire round of golf in your mind.

Practice Decision Making

The best way to make the tough decisions easier is to make them in advance.  This can be part of your visualization practice.  Imagine a tough situation: the ball hit a sprinkler head and bounced behind a tree.  What are you going to do?  In your mind, see that tiny little window that you could try squeezing the ball through, then visualize yourself ignoring that window and making the smart play back onto the fairway.  Envision yourself laying up in a situation where going for it carries too much risk.  Picture yourself aiming at the center of the green, away from sucker pins.

Routine

Whether you’re playing, practicing, or imagining, routine is key to creating consistency.  Use the same pre-shot routine on the course that you use in your practice.  See that same routine when you visualize.  The routine should include both physical and mental elements: a key phrase is every bit as important as your waggle.

TPC Sawgrass (68)

Game Day

When it’s time to get on the course and break 80, you should treat it just like any athlete treats a day of competition.  Start with a good night of rest, good nutrition, and then get to the course with plenty of time to warm up.

Warm Up

Most players at this level have a routine that they like to use, whether that means starting on the range or starting at the putting green.  Regardless of the order, make sure you do the following things:

Warm up your body with stretching and activity.

Observe your ball flight on the range.  This is not the time to make swing changes, simply note your distances, shot shape, and the effect of the wind, temperature, and other factors.

Get a feel for the speed of the greens.  This will be critical to both your putting and short game.

Play the Right Tees

I cannot stress this enough: breaking 80 is breaking 80, the yardage does not matter.  If moving up a set of tees allows you to hit a more reliable club off the tee, do it.  If it will improve your sight lines or angles from the tee or into the green, do it.  Break 80 now, worry about doing it from the tips later.

Stick to the Plan

You’ve structured your practice, both physical and mental, around giving yourself the best chances for success.  Don’t abandon that now.  Ignore the hero shot to shoot the hero score.

In Case of Emergency

You will get in trouble.  That’s the reality of golf.  It’s virtually impossible to hit 14 fairways and 18 greens.  This is OK because you don’t have to do either to shoot 79.  Remember the minimax concept and keep in mind that you have 7 bogeys to “spend.”  Even a double bogey is a good score if it prevents triple or worse.

One Shot at a Time

Finally, remember that at no point in the round can you shoot 79.  All you can ever do is hit the shot in front of you.  Give it your full attention.

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Matt Saternus

Co-Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is a golf instructor, club fitter, and writer living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Matt's work has been published in Mulligan Magazine, Chicagoland Golf, South Florida Golf, and other golf media outlets. He's also been a featured speaker in the Online Golf Summit and is a member of Ultimate Golf Advantage's Faculty of Experts.

Latest posts by Matt Saternus (see all)

46 Comments

  1. Matt, great article. Im right there, got down to a 10 last year to see it rise close to a 13 in the end. I can benefit from a lot of this article. Keep up the good work!

    -EA

  2. This is a great article. I have broken 80 about a dozen times in my life, but cannot do it consistently. A lot of that has to do with not having the time to play like I did when I was in high school and college. This article hits very close to home with me since I shot 86 (which I was happy with) the first time I was out this year. I also lost 2 balls and had 3-4 two-putts. I did manage to sneak in 2 birdies though which is what saved me from a low 90’s round. I am going to take the key points from this article, print them on cardstock, and have it laminated to keep in my bag. This information seems to be common sense, but all that changes when I hit the first tee box and find myself in the rough with a lie that is not in my favor. I must learn to “take my medicine” and get myself closer to the hole with a shot at the pin. BTW, I have also forwarded the link to this article to all my buddies. Thanks for the free advice. I will certainly use it.

    • Matt Saternus

      Kevin,

      I’m really pleased to hear that you found the article helpful, and that you thought enough of it to share it with your friends. Good luck keeping your scores in the 70’s this year!

      Best,

      Matt

  3. Joe Nededog

    Matt,

    Thank you.

    Your article on “Breaking 80” is, I believe, on the mark. Not surprisingly, you aptly describe my thoughts and tendencies as a golfer–the very characteristics that keep me from going below 80.

    After having read your article, I am convinced that when I put into practice the suggestions you’ve made and keep in mind the maxims you espouse (“mini-max,” for example), my goal of breaking 80 will be realized in the not-too-distant future.

    Thank you, again, for a great article!

    All the best,

    Joe

  4. Great article 81 last night with three 3 puts and a 5 on a par three, there is always next week….

  5. Hi Matt,

    After congratulating you on the very good breaking 90, i will reiterate : fantastic article once again.
    I particularly enjoyed the strategic approach and the course management part. Do you plan to write more about this in a near future ? Or anything you’d recommend on this topic ?

    Thanks a lot.

    Martin

    • Matt Saternus

      Martin,

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      I would love to write more about strategy and course management, and we actually have a Golf Myths Unplugged article coming soon that will speak to a major strategic issue (tee shots). Are there specific questions/topics you’d like me to write about?

      As for recommendations, Mark Broadie’s book “Every Shot Counts” is beyond compare. It probably isn’t classified as a course management book, but it is that and much more.

      Best,

      Matt

  6. I was wondering about the whole mindset and the thinking behind each shot. For example ruling out left side when water or out of bound come in play by teeing off left and playing a draw.

    But also wondering about what is the thinking before playing approaches, chips and pitch shots. Really having the thought process you would go through in term of course management would be fantastic.
    Maybe having a schema of a typical par 4 and sharing what you want and do not want to do. What is your thought process for each shot and what will be your match plan on such hole.

    The thing i’m looking for is to be able to compare my mindset and figure what steps i’m missing when playing a new hole.
    I’ve reached the point where distance isn’t the concern anymore and a confortable second shot matters more so i’d pick my club to tee off for the according distance. As per the thought process behind where to land : it’s only “avoid the hazard” which seems incomplete.

    Thanks again for your reply and the good work.
    Can’t wait to read this new article of yours !

    Martin

  7. Kevin Swann

    Great article…I’m breaking 80 this year! I’ve been sooooo close in previous years! This one’s mine!

  8. Dean O'Shea

    After coming so close the last couple of years I finally broke 80 on July 13th it took a lot of practice and patience now I can relax and hopefully to it again

  9. So I stumbled across the breaking 90 and breaking 80 at the beginning of February. Went and got a swing analysis and lesson, determined the ball flight that I prefer to hit: oddly enough draw the irons and fairway woods, but fade the wedges and driver. Score immediately went mid 80s. Took all the advice from the 80 post near the start of summer. By July I shot 4 79’s and one 78. Recently I fell back into what you described as the 80s problem of getting undisciplined. Started shaking some shots, went back to the teaching pro and went out yesterday- shot a 77!!! With one OB but that had more to do with an errant shot from the group behind me.
    Thanks for all the work on these posts!

  10. Hi Matt

    Found the breaking 90 thread very helpful. Just an update on my progress. Shot 81 but did everything right just about to have a shot at 79. Only hit driver twice my only concern I’m not a long hitter and I had a lot of longer 2nd shots. My pitching wedge was a revelation and putting was off the planet. 29 putts when my best had been 35.

    I always had the goal to be a low handicap now it seems real. Index has now dropped to 14 so I’m not far away.

    Thanks

  11. Hi! I really enjoy looking and reading articles like this. I am currently holding a 16 handicap, and I can drive the ball 240m, straight into the fairway. Somehow, my mental game doesn’t keep up and I end up having double and triple bogeys. Given my ability to hit it far and straight, and a short game that’s not bad, I figured that I should be able to play in the 70s and 80s often. However, I keep getting stuck around the high 90s and Low 100s. Any tips that you would advice? I believe it’s my mental game and my negativity on course that causes all the big numbers. Thanks!!

    • Matt Saternus

      Loo,

      To be blunt, your story strains credulity. The only thing I can assume is that your iron play is somehow lightyears worse than your driving, and you miss every green from the middle of the fairway. Even then, if your short game is “not bad” you would be bogeying most holes (Missed GIR, chip on, 2 putt) and shooting around 90, not 100.

      I would suggest looking into a shot tracking device like Arccos to figure out where you are losing strokes. Most golfers (myself included) are very poor at assessing their own game, and having real data can make the process much easier.

      Best,

      Matt

  12. Hi Matt,
    I read this artical a while ago and glad to have found it again as it is really what I needed.
    Currently a 14 handicap but my aim this year is to get down to 10 and to break 80. I think I will need to do it regularly to get down to 10 but got to have a stretch target.
    I play on a par 70 course in the UK so it is a slightly easier challange (9 pars, 9 bogeys).
    One question I have is regarding adjusting between winter and summer conditions. Last year was the first year I joined a club and played more regularly all year round. When summer came I found it hard/I was slow to adjust. With the greens softer in the winter I was able to be more aggressive with my approach shots, getting it to stop quickly. Suddenly summer comes, shots don’t stop on the green the same and it took a long time to adjust to the speed of chips and putts.
    Apart from being more aware of this and practicing more as the conditions change, do you have any advice?

    • Matt Saternus

      Greg,

      I’m glad you found this article helpful.
      As far as adjusting to changing conditions, you nailed it: have greater awareness and practice more. James Ridyard’s short game videos, which I reviewed on Monday, have some excellent material on evaluating shots/course management, so I might look into those to gain insight into the thinking of a high level player.

      Best,

      Matt

  13. Hi Matt,

    I posted couple of times on your break 90 but also this article.

    I had played this summer a nice 78 on a par 70 but this time did it again on a simulator with a very decent 73 (par 72). Only to find that I should have listened to you even more !
    Taking the pill, shoot the hero score not the hero shot. I was 1 Under on the 14th tee and decided to hit driver for a complete block right OB. On a 360 yard par 4 I could easily hit a 4 to 6 irons and have a reasonable 2nd shot to have GIR.

    I’m now considering getting a tattoo on the forehead of your “shoot the hero score not the hero shot” haha.

    Anyway thanks again for the article.

    Lastly, you mentionned you were preparing an article on Course Manamgent especially the “process and mindset” to play safely. Was it published yet ? I have seen a couple of articles going in that direction but not 100% on this.
    What I would love to read about is what shot shape you would choose when you have water on the right (for a righty) choosing a fade – with the risk of over fading it, or a draw with the risk of hitting a push ?
    All these risk limitation you want to consider before deciding what to play.

    Thanks again for everything !

    Martin

    • Matt Saternus

      Martin,

      Good to hear! Thanks for checking back in.

      I haven’t written explicitly about the mindset of playing safe, but I will add that to my list.

      Best,

      Matt

  14. scott gatewood

    Mid 80 player. Looking for improvement.

  15. Hey Matt, I have been following your site / blog. I enjoy your articles when it comes to reviews and tips. I followed the steps you wrote on how to break 90. I usually break 90 easily but there are times I shot in the 90’s. I have to say that what you said that you do not have to use a driver all the time to break 100-90-80.

    I played a 6000 plus yard course last week and I scored 1 over par. I was driving ok, nothing spectacular, just average 200-230 yard drives. But what stood up was my short game. I was able to scramble for par 55% for the whole game!

    I stuck to my routine, my pre short routine was the same all game long in all aspects. Driving, irons, chipping or putting. I played safe and stayed away from hero shots.

    I never did get a score more than bogey until the 18th hole. I did not realize that I was -1 at that time and rushed the putts because I was so tired. If I looked at my score I could have saved bogey and ended even par. But I am still grateful!

    I am a living proof that driving is so overrated and with a decent tee shot, scoring 80 is easy and 70 should be within reach specially the tees that us amateurs play.

    Thanks again Matt and you have greatly influenced the way I play golf in the last two years!

    • Matt Saternus

      Miguel,

      That’s awesome! Congrats on the great round! Please let me know when you shoot under par, I know it will be coming soon.

      Best,

      Matt

  16. Andy Brown

    Finally managed to break 100 after reading your article and did exactly what you said and kept my plan together from start to finish and I managed 98..My next mission I’m going g to achieve will be break 90..
    Thanks for your advice Matt.

  17. Great article, I took everything you said to heart. While I didn’t exactly manage to keep the commandments, I had 1 3 putt and one lost ball and made a quad bogey on number 3. I made a total of 5 birdies and an eagle and shot a 73 after having never broken 80 before.
    My course management was very disciplined and I hit shots I knew I could hit all day. In fact I played the course in my mind last night and had a good idea of how I wanted to play it before I ever started. My putting was excellent most of the day. Everything just seemed to click other than the one bad hole.

    • Matt Saternus

      Matt,

      From 81 to 73??? WOW!!!

      Best,

      Matt

      • Yes Sir,
        I had my buddy who was playing along with me keeping score and I did my best not to pay attention to it. Played each shot and each hole with laser focus. I’m still on cloud nine from today’s round.

  18. After getting close to breaking 80 the last 3 years i finally did it on Aug. 8th! 77! And it was actually pretty easy! The night before i really focused on visualization. I imagined each shot from tee to green. Then when i got on the course my swing felt automatic and i had the line on every putt! I’ll be using visualization before every round now! Who knows maybe breaking 70 is next!

  19. Great article Matt, thank you. Been living in the 83-86 range all summer and am hoping to break 80 before the end of the season. Often find myself turning one bad shot into 3 simply by compiling my frustration. Need to keep in mind that GIR isn’t always possible, and that 2 putting for a bogey can be acceptable.

    Do you have any drills or practice games that have helped you with going up and down?

    Thanks,
    Taylor

    • Matt Saternus

      Taylor,

      The best thing to do is to go to the short game area with one ball and just try to get up and down a lot. Track your conversion rate and try to improve. The mistake most people make is bringing multiple balls and allowing themselves to hit the same shot repeatedly – something you never do on the course.

      If you need help with the short game, check out the video series by James Ridyard, Short Game Secrets. It’s been huge in adding to my understanding of the short game and my short game shot variety.

      Best,

      Matt

  20. Great article Matt, I currently play off 16 off whites. Thought I would break 80 this year but 81 was my best, it’s so frustrating. Yesterday I was at 75 on the 17th a 190 par 3 0ver water. I took 5 wood as I did not want to be long! You’ve guessed it I took 6!! Parred the par 5 last …this is how my decent rounds often go. How can I get over the mental stumbling block?

    • Matt Saternus

      Pau,

      It sounds like you’re trying to shoot 79 instead of trying to hit the shot in front of you. I would recommend not keeping score, or at least not adding them up, until you’re done. A system like Arccos can help with that if you find it too difficult with pencil and paper.

      Best,

      Matt

  21. 83 last Saturday Matt, getting closer…8 pars, 8 Bogeys 2 doubles! 1 three putt no penalties, 3 one putts. On the 17th this week (same course) I was at 72 on the tee, par three & five to come…double on 17 bogey on 18th…its so frustrating. I’ve looked into buying Game Golf I’m sure it can help me.

  22. Hi Matt

    Still looking for this goal. Started ok this summer with an 88 and 89. Foolishly played around with my long game in search of more distance. Lost my ball flight completely off the tee. That then infected my whole bag. Strangely my short game definitely improved. Worst score 94 even with lost balls and inconsistent wedging in that 70-110 range.
    At least I know how to shape the ball out of trouble. Have now entered winter practice totally back on track. Shot 81 last summer so know the shots are there but I learned a lot this year and will look to do it come the spring.

  23. colten fergeson

    I honestly play very well from the black tees, it’s more comfortable for me then playing from the ladies or white. I played from the ladies the other day and shot an 87. When I played from the blacks I shot a 78

  24. Hi
    I recently removed my 2006 model driver from the bag. In fact I snap it in two pieces to avoid the chance of ever going back to it. I then broke 90 for the first time scoring 88 then backing it up with a 90 a few days after. I use my 5 iron that I can hit around 200 then that generally gives a 7 iron to the green or near it as is generally the case for me.
    Last round however my playing partner offered the use of his driver on the par 5 17th and I hit the longest and straightest drive I have ever hit probably 295yards.
    I wanted to forget the driver for now while I get better a the game but now I find myself searching drivers on the net.
    Should I continue to master my irons and short game and then bring the driver back once I break 80 or should I learn all aspects together.
    Your opinions would be appreciated.

    • Matt Saternus

      Mike,

      Good question. To fully realize your potential as a golfer, you’ll need your driver, but if you want to shoot low scores today and tomorrow, leaving it to the side might be best.

      Ultimately, whether you want to focus on different elements individually or try to bring your game along all together depends on how much time you have and how you like to practice. If you have a lot of time to practice, I’d spend a good bit of time on driving so you can get that back into your bag sooner. If your time is limited and you’re enjoying shooting those lower scores, perhaps you should maximize your short game before turning your attention to the big stick.

      Best,

      Matt

      • Thanks Matt
        Makes sense to think about my personal situation when answering the question. I have access to short game practice almost daily but a full length driving range is over half an hour away so the only driving I do is on the course. I think I will leave it out of the bag for awhile and try to consistently score in the eighties then revisit the question then
        Cheers

  25. I finally broke 80 with a 78 at my home club this weekend. I read this article several times prior and just did for the first time since. I managed to meet the two commandments (perhaps for the first time) and really managed mental game well throughtout the round. I hit a “stock” SW from 70 out on 18 to inside 10 feet to make the final score stress free. Great feeling watching ball come in and knowing it was finally going to happen. I hope the breakthrough carries over to more good scores. I’m a big fan of the site – keep up the good work.

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