Winning at Golf on Your Terms

Winning Your Way

The phrase “winning on your own terms” is generally used in a positive way.  It can describe achieving success without compromising your values or priorities.  In this lesson, I’ll explain why trying to win on your terms in golf may be a fool’s errand.

This Lesson Is For You If:

You’re trying to shoot lower scores but aren’t making progress

A Prefatory Analogy

I coach my daughters’ basketball teams.  Every kid on the teams says they want to win.  But when some are assigned positions where they’re more likely to set screens than shoot, they pout.  On the court, they’ll sabotage the team by doing what they want rather than what the team needs them to do.  These players don’t want to win – they want to win on their own terms.

Winning at Golf on Your Terms

In golf, this negative version of winning on your own terms can take many forms.

For the purposes of this lesson, let’s understand “winning” to only mean shooting lower scores.

The Clubs You Play

Many players are trying to win on their own terms before they even get to the course.  We all know players like this.

“I couldn’t possibly put (club that might help my game) in my bag.”

There’s also the failure to get fit, the refusal to play the appropriate shaft flex or weight, and playing eight different types of golf balls per round.

Whether your objections are aesthetic, financial, or something else entirely, you’re welcome to play clubs that don’t fit your game, body, or swing.  You can insist on playing the same shafts at 65 that you did at 24.  Just know that you’re making winning a lot harder than it needs to be.

Club Selection

The most cliched version of this disease is taking too little club.

“I want to hit that green, but only if I can do it with a club that has the same number on the sole as the one Fred used.”

If you’re a regular reader, you already know that the number on the sole is virtually meaningless.  There are no standards – OEMs can put a “7” on a club with 20 degrees of loft if they want to [more on irons lofts HERE].

This can also happen on the tee.  While the math supports hitting driver as often as possible, there are players who should stop hitting driver until they fix their 40 yard slice.  On the other hand, there are players consistently hitting less than driver because they’re convinced it’s the smart play and won’t be told otherwise by silly contrivances like statistics.

You can hit whatever club you want off the tee.  You can hit 8I into a 197 yard par 3.  Just don’t tell me you care about winning.


This one is going to ruffle some feathers: on the green, roughly half your misses should be short of the hole.

“I want to make putts, but I’m more afraid of people making jokes if I leave it short.”

Much like the guy who can’t tolerate hitting a 6I when Fred hit a 7I, this player is busy tending to their ego rather than their scorecard.  If you’re smashing every putt, refusing to ever leave one short, you’re wasting strokes.  But, in reality, you’re probably also scooping up that six footer, so you’re not actually playing to win anyway.

Shaping Shots

Every high level swing coach and golf strategist that I’m aware of preaches the virtue of choosing a single shot and playing it over and over.  Yet the game is full of delusional mid and low handicap players – and some truly delulu high handicappers – who think they need to work the ball in every direction to score well.

I’m not suggesting that the skilled ball striker shouldn’t occasionally flight the ball down.  I’m saying that the overwhelming majority of the time, you should play your stock shot.  And when you’re not going to play your stock shot, the one you choose better pass the 80% Test [more on that HERE].

If you want to play “all the shots” because Tiger does, feel free.  But you’re not Tiger Woods, and that strategy is not going to lead to winning.

Ignoring the Conditions

If you’ve ever felt the wind in your face and said, “It’s ok, I’ll just hit this harder,” you’re trying to win on your own terms.

Playing to win requires a lot of different things.  First, you need the mental discipline to be aware of the conditions on every shot.  Is it windy?  Is the turf hard or soft?  Are you dealing with elevation changes?  Second, you need the emotional maturity to take more club or play the conservative shot when it’s called for.  Finally, you need the social fortitude to ignore the eye rolls when you go back for a different club.  Just like leaving putts short may result in taunts, taking the time to get the right club and commit to the shot* may get you roasted by your friends.  But if the score is what you’re after, it’s what you need to do.

*This is not an endorsement of slow play.  If you’re consistently changing clubs, the conditions aren’t the problem, you are.

Practice Habits

If you’ve spent any amount of time on this site, you know about good practice.  You’ve probably read about tracking your practice [HERE], practicing with purpose [HERE], finding The Goldilocks Zone [HERE], and worrying about the things that really matter [HERE].  Also, being a smarter-than-average golfer, you know that you need to work on all aspects of your game if you’re going to score well.

If, in spite of all that, your practice routine consists of smashing the extra large bucket, primarily with your driver, at no particular target, you’re trying to win on your own terms.  Practicing putting and bunker shots may not be as much fun as hitting driver, but it’s what winners do.

Not Shot Tracking

If you’re not shot tracking, you don’t actually care about your score.

“I know my game.”

Do you know your game better than a PGA Tour player?  No.  And many of them, perhaps most, employ statisticians and coaches who pick apart their shot tracking data to find ways to improve.

“Well, I’m not a PGA Tour player.”

Does it hurt your back to move the goalposts like that?  We know you’re not a Tour player.  But you asserted that you’re playing to win, just like they do.  If you mean it, you need to start shot tracking.  You are going to find weaknesses – and possibly strengths – that you were not aware of.  This gives you places where you can make quick, easy progress toward a lower handicap, and parts of your game you can lean on when things go sideways.

Two Roads to Success

I wrote this lesson with the hope of helping golfers.  I envision readers falling into one of three camps:

The first group is truly committed to better scores, and this helps them to see their blind spots.  After reading this, they understand that they can’t beat golf on their own terms, so they need to adjust something in their approach.

Another group will realize that they actually don’t care about their score that much.  This is a huge step forward for your enjoyment!  Now you’re free to play golf for whatever reason you choose: hitting the longest driver, playing the prettiest clubs, talking the most creative s*** to your friends.  To those that would rather play on their own terms than “win,” welcome to the club.

The third group thinks this doesn’t apply to them.  They’re smarter than me and math and everyone else who’s trying to help them.  By including this, am I trying to chide them into joining one of the other groups?  Absolutely.  Do I think it will work?  Probably not.  They’re too smart for that.

Regardless of which of those groups you fall into, I want to sincerely thank you for reading.

Matt Saternus


  1. Excellent article and advice Matt. I joined a semi private club a few years ago and am able to play regularly finally. I started playing in a skins game and realized how much my putting and short game were lacking, which was key to being competitive. I now spend as much or more time practicing chipping, putting and bunker shots as i do on the range. Chipping and putting are now a strength of my game and i win more than i lose. Sand game is better but still needs work 😂

  2. This might be the best article on golf i have ever read. FANTASTIC ADVICE A for me I win everytime i get the ball flight i envisioned before the swing. To me the score is secondary. However my score is slowly but surpriseingly improves I am 70 years young. Started at 63. Having the time of my life.

  3. Excellent writing.
    Fully agreed.
    Am on your side. But sometimes ‘ego’ takes over sply at my home club.
    I know that, will take care more.


  4. Matt –
    The idea of 3 classifications of golfers is really interesting. I think what happens is one progresses from one classification to the next, meaning we all start out thinking we can beat the course on our own terms (as we learn some swing fundamentals), then realize that no matter how “good” we get our scores don’t improve until we make certain adjustments in our thinking. Perhaps those who don’t change from the initial attitude end up being the “smarter than all” golfers, those who give up “winning” become the second group of having fun golfers, and those struggling to improve their scores by playing smarter and looking at data and strategies become the winning type of golfer. It is important to know which category one is, why we play golf, and what we really want out of the game.

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