Habit and Skill in Golf


“You Are What You Do.”

Before I taught golf, I taught high school students how to take standardized tests like the ACT.  One of the biggest frustrations in that job was students who wouldn’t do the simple things that would help them score better.  When I would point out that they were failing to use best practices, they would say, “Yeah, I know, I’ll do that on the real test.”  My response was always the same, “No, you won’t.  You are what you do.”  These students often had the talent to score well, but they didn’t have the habits or skills.

How does any of this apply to golf?  I’m glad you asked.

Defining the Terms

Before we get into the lesson, let me define my terms.


Talent is what you’re capable of, your potential.  If someone picks up a club for the first time and swings it over 110 MPH, they’re very talented in terms of speed.  Someone who can hit a fade when they want to, even if it’s not 100% of the time, has the talent to hit a fade.


Habit is what you do regularly.  If you take one lazy practice swing before every shot, that’s your habit.  If you line up every putt meticulously, that’s a habit.


Skill is how you perform when it counts. If you can shoot in the 70’s, you’re a skilled golfer.  If you shoot in the 100’s, you’re not.  Skill is where talent and habit collide.

Talent + Habits = Skill

What I tried to teach each student was that there are habits that could enhance their talent and make them a more skilled test taker.  There are also habits that will inhibit your talent‘s ability to show through making you less skilled.  This is true in golf as well.

Here’s an example: during his lesson, Ray can hit a cut on command.  He mentally commits to hitting a cut and visualizes the the shot.  Standing behind the ball, he makes a practice swing with a slightly exaggerated cut mechanics.  Then he steps up to the ball, looks at the target, and hits a beautiful cut.  When he’s alone on the range, however, Ray doesn’t commit to his shot or visualize, and he doesn’t take a practice swing.  The results are hit and miss, just like they are on the course.  Ray is baffled about why he’s so much better during his lessons.

From our perspective, it’s easy to see that Ray’s instructor doesn’t have any magic.  Ray simply doesn’t have the habits that will turn his talent into on-course skill.

What Are Good Habits for You?

In test taking, there are a set of habits that I teach to every student.  In golf, there’s more variability, but some things are universal.  Committing to your shot is a must.  Whether you do this in your mind or “call your shot” out loud, committing to your shot boosts your chances for success by removing doubt and confusion.  I believe visualization is universally helpful, too.  This doesn’t need to take a long time, but getting a clear mental picture of what you want to do is very beneficial.

Finding the other habits that will help you to be successful requires some experimentation.  Do you like taking practice swings, or do you prefer to play in a faster, more reactive state?  Where do you take your practice swings – behind the ball, from your address position, or somewhere else?  Are your shots better when you take your time or move quickly?  Collect some data while trying different things on the range.  Try things that are outside your comfort zone.  The results may surprise you.

Ingrain Good Habits

Once you’ve decided what your best habits are, you need to make them as routine as breathing.  That means that when you practice, you do those things on every shot.  This will make your practice more like your play and your play more like your practice.

Once you’ve discovered and ingrained the habits that unlock your talent, you’ll see your on course skills take a huge leap forward.

Matt Saternus
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  1. This is a great article.
    t’s the first step in getting to the right understanding of how to improve…

  2. Hello Matt, great article. It reinforces what my father always taught me, you play how you practice. As I try to pass this down to my kids your article will help. Where is that practice range? Wow would it be fun to be able to utilize it. Facing and hitting over real hazards at a practice range would definitely make a significant difference in your game vs trying pretend there is water between you and a target on the range. Keep up the great articles.

  3. Sean Kagawa

    Even pros practice without the full setup routine, where you you think the line is between basic practice and full routine practice?

    • Matt Saternus


      I don’t know what you mean by “basic practice” and “full routine practice”.


  4. This is very cool, I used to do this when I was younger, as I got older and didn’t allow time to practice I moved away from the committing and visualization moved to more hit and hope… which lead to my handicap growing.

    Thank you so much,

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