Layne Gustafson is the head coach for a midwestern high school golf team. He has held his position for the past two years, guiding the game of all 19 players on his team.

The past two years have been as enjoyable as they have been challenging for countless reasons. I’m a young-looking 24-year-old, so I’m frequently mistaken for a player on the team, and I have been asked countless times by other coaches and tournament hosts if our coach is going to be here today. This one always gets a good laugh from the boys. My simple answer is always, “Yes, that would be me.” The advantage here, at least, is that it’s easier for me to level with my players on the tougher aspects of the game.

The team that I coach has an unusually large roster for a golf team in a small town. This leaves me with the responsibility of selecting only ten players to compete in each round; five Varsity and five Junior Varsity. With more than a dozen players in a similar scoring range, there are very small aspects of the game that separate one player from the next, and these lessons carry over to golfers of any age and skill level. 

By taking a look into the minute aspects of golf that end up painting the picture of your final score, we can all learn to avoid big mistakes, manage the ball properly on any course, and stay positive even when things aren’t going our way. Take a look below at the five most important lessons that I’ve learned from coaching the next generation of golfers. 

Lesson #1: The Short Game Reigns Supreme

The biggest factor that sets one high school golfer from another in terms of scoring averages comes down to the individual player’s short game. It doesn’t matter how far you smash the ball off the tee, one thing remains the same; you have to get the ball in the hole.

Far too often, I see players hit a green in regulation or leave themselves with a good chance to get up and down for par just to follow it up with a simple mistake like a three-putt, double chip, or occasionally both. The most valuable lesson that the average golfer can learn about the short game is that the longer you can keep the ball on the ground around the greens, the better off you’ll be. Every player wants to hit a shot that flies 30 feet in the air, lands next to the pin and sticks right where it is, but the odds of that happening are slim to none at the amateur level. Whenever possible, I will always advise my players to keep it low and bump it onto the green.

The struggle with learning the short game at the high school level often revolves around the simple fact that it’s not as much fun as hitting drivers on the range and nowhere near as enjoyable as getting out on the course. Players will often ask me how they can do things like hit a flop shot, spin the ball backward, or get the ball to sit quickly from anywhere around the green. My brutally honest answer has always been, “Practice hitting wedges over and over again, all the time.” In the end, the best rounds of this season have come when players did three things: kept the ball low; got up and down from around the greens a handful of times; and avoided three-putts.

Lesson #2: Alignment

The greatest coach I’ve ever had once told me, “Success in golf is 10% swing and 90% alignment.” This has remained true for me since that day. High school players will practice the intricacies of their swing on the range for hours on end just to walk away feeling discouraged about inconsistent shots. It didn’t take me long to realize that the issue typically lies in their alignment. It was uncommon for them to be aiming at the target on the range that they had in mind. When you’re lost in swing thoughts and frustration, the most simple aspects of the game, like where you’re aiming, can fall by the wayside. 

The trickiest part about improper alignment is the fact that your mind knows where the flag is even when you’re setup isn’t aimed at the target, and without someone pointing it out to you, it can be very difficult to self-diagnose. This leads to awkward rotations in the dowsing with the subconscious goal of getting the ball started on the proper line. Improper alignment will often lead to a pull if you’re aiming right of the flag and a push if you’re aiming left because of the way you naturally correct yourself on the downswing. The easiest way that I’ve found to solve this issue is to lay your club across your shoulders to see exactly where you’re aiming. 

Lesson #3: The Mental Game

Everybody knows the golfer that crumbles after one bad hole or even one shot. The frustration of hitting a shot O.B. or making a triple bogey is enough to drive us all crazy. The player that can regroup quickly and let it go before hitting their next shot has a huge advantage over the player that holds this frustration with them for a long stretch. The ability to forget the previous shots and plan the next one is one of the best ways to avoid big numbers. Behind the short game, of course. 

A player of mine recently had one of his best rounds to date on the line when he hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker on the final hole. He hit a somewhat fat shot from the sand which landed just outside the bunker, short of the green. He quickly jumped out of the bunker while mumbling with frustration and stepped up to the ball to hit it again. I called out to him, saying, “Stop. Take a breath and have a plan.” He let out a smile in my direction, likely because he’d heard that line before. Once he took a chance to let the bad shot go and think about the shot at hand, he committed to it and rolled it up to three feet from the pin. The near gimmie putt that followed will stay between us…

Lesson #4: Don’t ‘Fix’ Your Swing on the Course

At every tournament over the past two years without fail, at least one player has come up to me to explain a new change that they made during the round that they’re hoping will fix the issues they’re having that day. There isn’t a time that I can remember this tactic working in their favor. My philosophy on this will always be, swing your swing for that day. If you’re hitting a slice with your driver, aim it up the left side and put it away when there is trouble on the right. If you’re struggling to hit your long irons, hit a seven-iron up to wedge distance and give yourself a better chance.

Golf is a game that requires a constant focus for hours on end if your goal is to score as low as you potentially can. This type of concentration is difficult enough for the average golfer, but it’s nearly out the window when a group of 50 teenagers steps onto the course together. The best way to keep your round on track is to adjust to your frequent misses and avoid the clubs that are creating big mistakes. There will always be time to work out the kinks once your round is over.

Lesson #5: Course Management

The most fitting way to wrap up this list is with a lesson that encompasses everything on the course besides your swing itself. From club choice off the tee to aim lines, to laying it up to your best distance, there are small choices that you can make on each shot that will add up to a big difference. Like everything else in golf, course management is a skill that can’t be taught or learned quickly. It’s a skill set that slowly evolves as you make mistakes on the course. Learning from mistakes like aiming for a tucked pin on the left side when you should have just aimed for the center, takes a lot of time and knowledge of the game, but it’s a process best started early.

The most significant golf course management tip that I tell my players is to always aim at a line that you can miss left or right. This may seem obvious on every tee shot, but it becomes especially important when you’re approaching the green. If there’s water on the right side of the green with a right pin, aiming at the flag leaves you with two safe options; missing left or hitting it right on the money. If you aim at the center of the green, you can safely miss left or right, and if you end up hitting it straight, you’re still dancing. 

Find and Fix the Negative Trends to Score Lower

As cliche as it sounds, I feel like I’ve learned just as much as I’ve taught in the past two years, if not more, by simply paying attention to the common trends that I see for individual players and as a team. The path to success for a junior golfer who is new to the game is the same as for a high-skilled player with years of experience, just on a smaller scale. Once we put the magnifying glass to these issues, improvement is inevitable.

In golf, we often learn lessons the hard way by making mistakes over and over again, but the sooner we realize spot trends and create a plan to solve them, the sooner we’ll be chasing our personal best score. I hope you were able to find as much value in these lessons as I have, and I challenge you to find the negative trends in your next round of golf. We hope to hear how it goes for you!

Layne Gustafson

Layne Gustafson is a self-described golf fanatic from Green Bay, Wis. He’s been working in the golf industry since 2014, including at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. He hovers between a single- and double-digit handicap and is always working on improving.