Is Golf Difficult? – Why is it so Hard to Hit a Golf Ball?

Yes, golf is difficult. To hit a golf ball perfectly every time requires that you repeatedly co-ordinate numerous muscle groups and parts of the body in an almost robotic fashion for four hours or more on constantly varying terrain with a high degree of mental strain involved.

A golf ball isn’t difficult to hit, it’s just difficult to hit well.

A golf ball is difficult to hit well because you’re attempting to hit a small object, with a small club face at speed in a specific direction to a point a set distance away.

But when you’re playing well, it’s easy.

It always amazes me that, stood on the tee box of a par 5, the task at hand it to propel a 1 inch diameter ball into a 2 inch diameter hole that is out of my field of vision, around 500 yards away, in 5 shots.

That takes a very high level of skill.

Consider this – for the average 18 handicap golfer, you’re expected to make that par 5 in six shots.

One more than a scratch golfer – a golf professional if you like.

But give your bag to the average person who’s never played golf and ask them to do it, and they’d be lucky to complete the hole in less than 20 shots.

So what makes golf difficult?

The golf course

Unlike most other sports, the course, the pitch, the arena on which golf is played, doesn’t have standard dimensions or features. The big sports are standardised in terms of the layout of the area that they are played on, no matter where that is in the country, or the world. It’s no co-incidence that these are team sports. If you’re going to fit a bunch of people into a small area and have then play a game, it had better be in a standardised space. Even one v one games like tennis fit this model.

Golf courses are designed to test every skill required of a golfer, Namely, driving the ball accurately, hitting long and short iron shots, pitching and chipping, sand shots, and putting.

The Game

What’s almost unique in golf is that there is little repetition, or better said, what repetition there is is separated by time.

The golfer is required on any one hole to hit an accurate distance shot requiring timing and power, followed by shots of finesse requiring touch and vision.

Once concluded, that’s immediately followed by a short walk and a reversion to another long, power shot.

In other words. golf doesn’t allow the player the luxury of a similar set of circumstances for each stage of the 70 – 100 move game.

The shots

The Tee Shot

The tee shot, the first shot on each hole is the first variable and is largely determined by the par of the hole. Typically a par five hole will be 500 yards plus, a par 4 hole 300 – 450 yards and a par 3 hole 120 – 220 yards. The golfer is free to select whichever club for the tee shot that they think is most appropriate.

Par 5 Tee Shots

A long par five will be straight forward with few problems to trap the golfer and a short par five can be expected to present difficulties to compensate for lack of length. Those difficulties will be one or more of:

  • Narrow fairways
  • Dog Legs
  • Trees
  • Rough
  • Bunkers
  • Sloping Terrain
  • Elevation Changes
  • Water Hazards
  • Rough
  • Bunkers
  • Multi level or sloping greens
  • Drop offs

par five tee shot with driverThe most likely choice of club for a par 5 tee shot is a driver or occasionally a three wood if any of the course difficulties, or combination of them, are present. Some hazards can often be taken out of play from a par 5 hole tee shot, simply by driving the ball past them.

The average golfer will drive the ball 200 yards plus and a scratch golfer will drive the ball 260 yards plus. So provided they hit a clean drive, they can simply ignore all the trouble that’s short of those distances.

A poor drive though, could easily find trouble, which is likely to add a shot or two to their score.

A par four, usually requires a long accurate tee shot, usually with a driver or three wood, followed by a long accurate iron to make the green in two. The same thought process off the tee applies, plus some thought about position for the approach shot to the green.

A par three, requires an accurate shot off the tee with anything from a pitching wedge to a four iron (or hybrid). The objective on a par three is always to land the ball on the green. Most par 3 greens are “protected” by bunkers which can make a miss, short, or left/right costly. The longer the hole, the fewer hazards there are likely to be as the distance itself is the difficulty.

It follows that there are 18 tee shots per round and a golfer who struggles to hit good tee shots, is going to post high scores.

Shots from the fairway

A good tee shot will land the ball on the fairway which is the strip of cut grass between tee and green. Shots from the fairway will be either:

The second shot on a par 5 with a long iron or 3 wood. With around 300 yards to the hole, this shot is about distance and position. Get it wrong though and you can add another dropped shot to your total.

The approach shot to a par 4 with anything from a wedge to a 3 wood. The objective here is to land the ball on the green. The more yardage the approach shot has, the higher the probability of error.

Chip shots – approach shots that have missed the green are often on the fairway and short. Now a different skill is required to play a short shot onto the green, often over a bunker.

Putting 

The standard play in golf is that we’re looking to be on the green with two putts to make par. So on a par 5, “green in regulation” means that we get the ball onto the green in 3 shots, leaving two putts to make par.

Putting requires different skills again. Most greens are not flat which means that the golf ball will travel in an arc from where it is struck, to the hole. Reading the greens to predict how the ball will travel can be tricky. Even if a golfer does correctly read the line of the putt, now they have to make the putting stoke with the correct pace to get it to the hole along the line that they have envisaged.

So putting is a combination of reading the green and correct pace. Get either wrong and the ball isn’t going to drop. Factor in also that there will be uphill putts requiring a firmer stroke to counteract the incline; and downhill putts, where the slightest touch can send the ball many yards past the hole.

Golfers hate three putts, but a beginner will find that they three putt a lot of the time. That’s a dropped shot on every hole.

The lie

If every shot we played was from a flat stance on closely mown grass, golf would be much easier, but that’s not the case. The lie of a golf ball is literally that, how the golf ball lies on or in the piece of ground that it has come to rest on.

golf ball sat down in grassSo the ball might be sat down in grass with only half of it visible for example. Added to this, the grass behind the ball can be bent so that it partly touches and covers the ball, or bent the other way leaving more of the ball showing.

A ball sat down like this presents three problems. 1) The golfer cannot see all of the ball and so has to visualise the contact point. 2) There will be contact with grass prior to the club face hitting the ball, which may deviate the club from its path. 3) There will be grass in between the club face and ball at impact, meaning that the strike will not be pure.

Where there is grass in between club face and ball at impact, a golfer will often get “a flier” where less backspin is generated. This results in two things happening because of the lower backspin generated. 1) The ball will fly further than usual for that club and 2) the ball will roll out further when it hits the green. A golfer needs to take the possibility of a flier into account when playing their shot in these circumstances.

Lie also refers to the ball position on inclines either at 90 degrees to the golfers stance, or in line with it.

An “above the feet” lie means that the golfer needs to grip down on the club as their hands are closer to the ground than their feet are because of the incline. For a right handed golfer, the ball will tend to move left in the air when this shot is played, so an adjustment to alignment and aim need to be made to compensate.

A “below the feet” lie is the opposite and the ball will tend to move right in the air.

An uphill lie is where the ball comes to rest on an incline that is parallel with the feet and intended direction of shot. Here we have a “launch pad” and the ball will tend to go higher than normal with a loss of distance. The solution to this is to use a lower lofted club (to club up) to compensate.

A downhill lie is the opposite and the ball will tend to fly lower and further than normal. A higher lofted club is used to get a more normal ball flight.

Of course, we can encounter any combination of these lies and frequently do, so for example the ball may be above our feet on an uphill lie. Assessing the lie is one of the key skills of golf and it takes a lot of experience to be able to play shots well from all lies.

Hazards

Golf course designers add hazards to a course in order to present variety and challenges to the golfer. The main hazards are:

playing from a water hazard

  • The rough – any ground which is off the fairway
  • Trees – either lining a fairway, or sometimes on it
  • Bunkers – sand traps used to effectively narrow a fairway or make a green more difficult to hit
  • Water – this can be anything from a lake to a small drainage channel
  • OOB – out of bounds areas are sometimes designated to deter golfers from hitting balls onto nearby property

The weather

The most difficult weather variable to play in is strong wind. This will affect the ball flight and if it is gusting can be difficult to work with. Rain slows down the ball in flight and on the ground. It also means the golfer donning wet weather gear to attempt to stay dry. Strong sun brings it’s obvious challenges in terms of hydration and sunburn. It is also difficult to play shots “into the sun” as it’s hard to see well with the sun glaring into your eyes. When it’s cold, the ground gets hard and the bounce of the ball becomes unpredictable.

So yes, because of the range of variables encountered, golf is difficult. Dealing with these difficulties is the challenge and what makes golf so compelling as a game.