PIIMP Your Game: The 5 Pillars of Better Golf

Let me tell you something you already know: golf is hard. Ok, we got that out of the way. Now let me tell you why it’s hard, and what to do about it. The most difficult part about golf isn’t the game itself – that part is simple: get the ball in the hole.

The most difficult part of golf is the long feedback loop, where a single swing or putt is of little consequence to the actual outcome of a round of golf.

Simply put, your score is a lagging measure and limited actionable information – you know the days where you hit the ball so well you expected the total score to be 4-5 strokes lower. Even those like greens in regulation or strokes gained are nearly impossible to control and actually impossible to affect when you’re not on a golf course.

This long feedback loop is compounded by the fact that golf is enveloped in constant change – from the equipment to your body to the field of play, it can make most instructional material ambiguous at best and counter-productive at worst.  

So how do you make your efforts off the course translate to on-course success with more certainty? In other words, if we were to build a better version of You the Golfer, how could we guarantee drastic results in a year with minimal practice and expenditure?

The answer is the PIIMP Framework: 5 Pillars for Better Golf. This is something your local teaching pro won’t give you, because he doesn’t have it – we created it. This is the only tried-and-true method for lower scores that is also flexible to all ages and budgets.

I’ve devised the PIIMP Framework for golf over 3 decades of competitive and casual play, from my days as a junior with a limited budget to now, and it has guided me to achieve and maintain a single-digit handicap with few lessons and minimal practice.

While you can spend as much money as you want on these 5 Pillars of Better Golf, the biggest benefit of the PIIMP method is that it’s mostly free if you want it to be, as long as you have discipline.

What is PIIMP? The 5 Pillars of Better Golf

Physical – A long-overlooked aspect of the game, physical fitness is now becoming commonplace for many golfers. We’ll teach you where to start, or how you can make your workouts more golf-specific.

Implemental – This is just a fancy word for the philosophy of equipment, or implements, that you will use to actually play the game. Everything from your shoes to your ball can affect your game, and we aim to cut through the noise of the marketing-heavy language to tell you what you actually need to know.

Intellectual – Golf course management has long been talked about, but the recent acceptance of Strokes Gained analysis and usage of satellite imagery have created an entirely new era of golf course strategy.

Mental – I probably don’t need to tell you how losing your cool can negatively affect your scores, but I will – I’ll also tell you how to increase your ability to stay focused and prime your mind for performance.

Practical – ok, you will have to practice some, and lessons do help. But what should you practice, and how much? How do you know your instructor is helping, and how do you direct them to get you what you actually need? We’ll review this.

Physical – Fitness

Man With Smart Watch on
Photo by Blocks Fletcher on Unsplash

Golfers long have a reputation for not being “real” athletes, and while you can certainly still find a few guys who look like they spend more time at the bar than at the gym, the vast majority of professional golfers spend large amounts of time working on their body.

While the obvious benefits of physical fitness in the golf swing is increased strength and flexibility that allow you to hit those positions in your swing and gain some distance, a big benefit can be a longer golf career with fewer injuries.

Walk the damn golf course

The easiest way to get in a little better golf shape is the simplest – walk the damn golf course! You’re already golfing, and you’ll save a few bucks at most courses. Get yourself a carry bag (the Ping Hoofer and its variations are our long-standing favorite), and deal with a few rounds where you end up more exhausted than you planned. It’s damn satisfying, and the beer at the end of the round comes 100% guilt-free.

Do anything

Recently I was fortunate enough to play a round with a couple of guys from Urban Golf Performance, and after the round, we were discussing how they approached fitness with their clients. Matt, who worked with high-level basketball players in Chicago before UGP, said most amateurs need to “do anything”.

The idea behind “doing anything” is that the golf swing is such a complex movement that basically any exercise will have a positive impact on golf-related fitness. Running will help improve leg strength and hip mobility, push-ups will increase upper body strength and help you gain swing speed, yoga will help with flexibility throughout. Just get (and keep) moving.

Work out regimen

If you’re like me and prefer some direction, nothing can beat the golf-specific workouts that Mike Carroll has put together for the masses with his Fit for Golf app. There’s enough in here to keep you going for more than one season, with separate recommended activities for warm-ups, in-season, off-season, and speed training.

Speed training

One of the most popular additions to a golfer’s off-course routines in recent years has been speed training. The long ball is not just for impressing the ladies anymore, as strokes gained numbers justify the strategic importance of a skilled high-speed strike. Two of the most common systems are SuperSpeed and The Stack, but be careful if you go down this route and make sure you’re pairing it with a fitness routine that accommodates, as those who jump right in are prone to injuries, according to Mike Carroll from Fit for Golf.

Implemental  – Equipment

When I was playing high school golf in Arizona and asking my parents to spend money on new equipment, the response was often “It’s the Indian, not the arrow”. While convenient for parents looking to find more affordable ways to support their son’s passion, life experience has taught me that it’s worth paying for precision tools – and golf is nothing if not about precision.

Ball fitting

Play one ball: The most overlooked – yet arguably the most important – part of your equipment is the ball. After all, it’s the only thing in your bag that’s in play for every shot. While there is much ado about the marketing around different balls, the most common mistake most golfers make is not sticking to a single ball for an extended period of time. Removing this single variable will give you a better understanding of your game, and once you know your game better, you can adjust this to see if it helps to tackle your main issue.

Types of golf balls: With so many options on the market, it can be easy to get lost in the details, but the truth is there are two main types: urethane and surlyn.

Let’s save ourselves a lot of time upfront and disregard surlyn balls outright, no matter the level of your game. While typically cheaper and marketed toward golfers who need more distance and are afraid of sidespin, they typically seem like a good option but, in fact, are glorified range balls. You do need spin around the green if you hope to keep any control of your ball in the scoring area, and the only way to do that is to play a urethane ball. And if cost is a concern…

Direct-to-consumer golf balls vs Tour Brands: Like mattresses and sunglasses and all sorts of other consumer goods over the last 5-7 years, direct-to-consumer options have sprung up in the golf ball market as well. These brands skip the expensive Tour sponsorships and in-store distribution to give you better golf balls at lower prices, and for the most part, they deliver on their promise (pun intended).

The most reputable ball in terms of design and performance is Snell, with Vice being a popular brand that’s taken some heat for less durable covers for high swing speed players. There are others out there as well – they won’t be difficult to find.

Golf ball fitting: Want someone to help you choose? Titleist offers free virtual golf ball fittings where they send you free samples at the end – we wrote about the experience here.

Club fitting

A proper club fitting can come in many forms, but getting any level of fit is better than buying off the rack. While premium club fitters like Club Champion and TrueSpec will have more options for custom builds, you can also walk into your neighborhood PGA Superstore or Vans Golf Shop and someone can help guide you for free, with extra attention to detail (like which shaft to choose) with purchase.

Club fitting doesn’t stop there, however – many drivers now come with adjustments to evolve with you as a golfer. Check out some of our articles on adjusting these settings like this one on the Callaway Rogue.

Accessories

We’ll have more on gloves, bags, and apparel soon.

Intellectual – Strategy

How to score” would be a good alternate title for this section. Sure, hitting bombs is fun as hell and does help, but what we’re really talking about is how to make effective decisions on the golf course. Decisions that can cut strokes from your game relatively easily with some patience and discipline.

Strokes gained

The emerging foundational principle in strategy is strokes gained. Not familiar? Get familiar, and it will transform how you think about each and every shot you take on the course, as well as help with the expectations of your own performance.

Strokes gained sounds complex, but it’s actually fairly simple. Take a group of golfers at a given level – say, 15 handicaps. Then, take a shot – say, 100 yards from the pin. In this case, 15 handicaps are expected to take 3.62 (?) strokes to complete the hole on average. If you are a 15 handicap and take 3 strokes to get the ball in the hole, then you have gained 0.62 strokes on your fellow 15 handicaps. If you take 4 strokes to hole it, you’ve lost 0.38 strokes on your fellow 15 handicaps.

Once you understand this concept, you can remember a few key rules: you won’t be able to two-putt from 30 feet, for example, but you’ll be able to identify what the margins are to help give you a few more 25-footers than 35 footers – if you can gain just 0.1 strokes per hole vs your current handicap, that’s 1.8 strokes per round – not a bad way to drop 2 strokes from your handicap.

To learn more about strokes gained, you absolutely must start with the foundational text: Every Shot Counts by Mark Broadie

Course management

If you understand how strokes gained works, you can understand how to manage the golf course more effectively in general. To understand your home course or any specific course you may play, you can use the principles created by Scott Fawcett and his DECADE approach (named such because it “gives golfers a decade of experience” in just a few weeks, according to the program guinea pig and PGA Tour winner Will Zalatoris). While DECADE has a two-tier paid subscription meant for dedicated amateurs and aspiring/elite golfers, signing up for the email list will give you insights, including overviews of what founder Scott Fawcett sends to PGA touring pros prior to majors.

Playing style

While golf playing style can mean a few things, the one we’ll focus on here is aggressiveness. Specifically, when and where you should be aggressive.

Tiger Woods could hit shots no one else could and gave us highlights no one else has since, which gives us the impression he was also aggressive – how else do you win a US Open by 15 strokes when no one else can even get to par? This, however, is not the case. In fact, Tiger says he never fires at pins but fires aggressively at his targets. Variance in those outcomes sometimes yielded spectacular results, but let’s face it, your variability isn’t that of a Korn Ferry Tour pro, let alone the most dominant golfer of the last 50 years.

The best recent example of contrasting styles was at this year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews, where Cam Smith does what he seems to do best – live and die by flag-hunting. And with an incredible 5-hole birdie spree to come from behind, he caught the more consistent Rory McIlroy, who hit 18 greens but two-putted each one as his approaches were just too far away.

That said, for amateurs like you and me, our low rounds will not come from flag-hunting, which will often cost us more by ending up in hazards and short-siding ourselves. In fact, scratch golfers average only 1 birdie per round more than 20-handicaps. The goal is bogey- and double-bogey-avoidance that manifests itself more through Rory-style play than Cam’s. And let’s face it, while you may have a few bucks on the line with your buddies, you’re going to want to save this do-or-die approach for the big trophies when you absolutely need it, not on the 4th hole when your buddy just put one in the water and you think you can take advantage.

Technology

We’ll have more on apps you can use to help your game soon, including Arccos Caddie, TheGrint, and even the USGA GHIN app.

Mental – Emotions

Man Swinging Club at Ball
Photo by Andrew Rice on Unsplash

There are roughly 8,000 cliches we could drop in here about the space between your ears being the most important part of the golf course, but there’s a reason they’re so common: because they’re so true, and you can’t reach your potential as a golfer until you reach enlightenment…

Ok so that’s not entirely true, but using the Buddha as your role model for your mental game isn’t the worst idea in the world. In reality, though, you’ve really got to master a few things to achieve your potential.

Expectations

One of the big challenges in life is balancing expectations vs reality. In golf, it’s no different, if not amplified. After a lifetime of watching the best shots of the best players in the world when they’re playing their best (read: PGA Tour events on a Sunday afternoon), it’s no wonder so many of us can aim for that tucked pin from 150 yards out.

But the reality is that, on average, Tour players are more likely to end up more than 31 feet from the hole on a 125-yard approach than get it to within 10 feet. Lou Stagner, Arccos Golf’s head of data, is the cream of the crop for data on how you should think about your game and is certainly worth a Twitter follow.

Commit to one shot at a time

“Forever is composed of Nows”, and so is your golf score. What do I mean by that? Well, when you’re standing over your ball on the 5th hole, you’re not shooting a 93 at that moment, though you may do so at the end of the round. You are shooting one shot in a collection of shots that may compose a 93 at day’s end, but at that moment you’re only hitting a wedge 75 yards – so why are you thinking about that missed putt on the last hole? Or the daunting tee shot on the next hole? There’s little room for distraction in the exacting motion that is the golf swing, and if you’re head’s not in it, you’re going to make an error. You know the feeling, you don’t really want me to have to tell you this. But I have to, and you know I do, so I am.

Develop a pre-shot routine

To play that one shot, however, isn’t an instantaneous transition. You’ll try to focus, but like the golf swing itself, grasping at it too hard will only lead to tension. So you need to prime yourself, not unlike a fuel pump. And the best way to do this is through a physical routine that signals to your brain that it’s ready to perform the task at hand.

You can put two of Tiger Woods’s swings side-by-side, one from his prime and one from his most-recent Masters win, and the pre-shot routine is identical down to the millisecond. Annika Sorenstam is the same. So is Michael Jordan’s free throw routine (shout out to the Chasing Scratch guys for pointing that out). If you signal to your brain that you know how to do this, then you can let go a little more, and let your body and mind do what they know how to do.

The science backs this up – Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” dedicates many pages to the importance of this routine for top performance.

Note this priming effect can also extend to off-course – while Scott Fawcett has talked about how Will Zalatoris has a three-hour pre-tee-time routine that gets him in his competition mindset, Waitzkin talks about using this method for preparing for important business meetings or other occasions where the mind can get in the way of performance.

Concentration

It takes time to be able to concentrate enough to make good decisions for 4-5 hours. In the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, he mentions that you can’t just sit down to learn a language for 4 hours on Day 1 (oddly, he references the 4-hour window of deep work regularly, indicating that maybe there’s something innately human about detaching for that amount of time). You have to work up to it – just as beginners need to start on par 3 courses and executive courses as they learn to hit the ball longer and straighter, you’ll likely need to focus on something like 3 holes at a time and be persistent as you lose focus around holes 13 and 14 (my personal No Man’s Land of a golf round).

Tools

We’ll have more on techniques, apps, and books that can help with your mental game soon.

Practical – The Swing

Man Swinging Golf Club
Photo by Courtney Cook on Unsplash

We saved this section for last for a reason – working on your swing, contrary to popular belief, is not always the answer. In fact, if you’re getting close to breaking a barrier, like breaking 90 or getting your handicap down a couple of strokes, you likely have a swing that’s good enough to do so today. But if the well is running dry on strategic or

You get out what you put in, and practicing to implement the changes is going to be necessary.

Swing your swing

Golf has finally (mostly) progressed from the one-swing-fits-all mentality that has plagued it since its instructors began to formalize the profession nearly a century ago. Today, the prevailing wisdom is more algebra than arithmetic: while there are some axioms that hold true for golfers to reach their highest potential, the path to solving each individual golfer’s problems isn’t singular. Your body is genetically different from mine, as is your injury history and lifestyle, providing layers of complexity in understanding the unique challenges standing in your way between you and lower scores.

Forget YouTube, IG tips

Ok, look – if you’re a true beginner, you’re going to need help any way you can get it, especially if you’re on a tighter budget. But once you’ve established a way to make contact regularly, it’s best to get instruction from people who know you and your swing. Group instruction is much better for in=person training for beginners than an amalgamation of the latest hot tips from social media. We humans are notoriously horrible at self-diagnosis, even those that are most self-aware.

Lessons from *your* coach

There’s no replacement for someone who can see your swing in person, and seasoned golf instructors will understand how to identify the physical limitations of your swing. Have tight shoulders or hips? TikTok won’t be able to help you tackle those issues in concert with your own swing idiosyncrasies, so find yourself a professional and let them paint the picture that is your golf swing – it’s difficult for the canvas to paint itself.

Technology

Skillest

The pandemic has boosted the popularity of golf, sure, but the same remote-first interactions also extend to lessons. With phone stands ubiquitous thanks in part to the TikTok boom, it’s easy to set up a camera in the standard down-the-line orientation on the range, send a few videos to an instructor you’ve got a relationship with, and to get their feedback. While not optimal vs in-person lessons due to the lack of impromptu training aid usage or literally hands-on orientations of your instructor, this can be a very valuable method (if you’re a good and disciplined student).

Launch monitors

There are two types of launch monitors: professional-grade, and consumer-grade. The former is best exemplified by Trackman, which costs $20,000+. If you’re here, I’m guessing you’re not going to buy one of those, which leads me to consumer-grade. These can be very handy for giving you approximations, but it’s going to be hard to get dialed in on numbers like spin rate, as they can have up to 5% Experts think these will be much better as we get closer to 2024-2025 given the current pace of innovation in this space.

Conclusion

When you break the elements of playing golf into these five distinct parts – the pillars that make up your ability to play a round – you can see where the deceptively simple nature of the game becomes more robust. It’s easy to fall into the trap that you are a good or bad golfer who played good or bad on a given day for a variety of reasons that may or may not be your fault, but by employing a few different lenses to the state of your game, you can begin to decipher where your quickest wins are to lower your scores.

And sure, lowering your scores is a great reason to dig in, but you’ll likely find – as I did – that the byproducts of this approach are more satisfying than a new scoring milestone. After you’ve worked this into your game, you’ll be able to focus more on enjoying the game, the camaraderie, the time outdoors, and the time away from your responsibilities. You’ll feel mentally and physically healthier, and more resilient, and some additional discipline may even creep into your daily life. In short, the metaphor of golf as life will begin to take shape more clearly, and you’ll regard the game in the way you want to, not the way you think it should be regarded.

Save this article and come back to it, because we will update it with more information regularly, with more actionable recommendations and suggestions on how to execute this plan. Come back to this article tomorrow and read it again with a brain that’s absorbed the main points after a good night’s sleep to catch the next level of detail, then choose the one pillar of the five that’s easiest to act on for you. Have you been meaning to get to the gym anyway? Good, look through Mike Carroll’s tweets and find a piece of fitness advice you’ll take to the gym. Do you like maps and think the strategy section is intellectually stimulating? Awesome, go read about DECADE. Have you been inconsistent or confused about which golf ball to use? Wonderful, go sign up for a free virtual golf ball fitting with Titleist.

Or don’t do any of it. Call your time reading this article a sunk cost and move on, ignoring the weeks, months, and years of sunk cost you’ve put into purposelessly hitting golf balls on the driving range. Play the same golf you’ve always played, have the wrong expectations about your abilities, and get frustrated during your ‘time away’ more often than you need to. Be my guest.

Don’t kid yourself – bookmark this page now and return to it regularly (as it will be updated), sign up for the PIIMP Golf email list (coming soon), and click on any of the links in this article to get started on having the most fun and the best performance possible on the golf course.

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