Bad Golf's John Robins: "Playing with four clubs improves your game"

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In his exclusive Today's Golfer column, award-winning comedian, BBC Radio 5Live host and Bad Golfer John Robins explains how playing a round with just three clubs and a putter is helping his game.

For this month’s column I’ve decided to completely ignore the state we’re in. I’m heartbroken, frustrated, but also grudgingly accepting of the current situation as regards golf, as I’m sure some of you are too.

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So, with fingers in ears singing ‘la, la, la, la’ I’m going to cast my mind back to the last time I played golf.

In what is usually the realm of YouTube golf videos, I’ve just come back from a ‘Three Clubs and a Putter Challenge” at my local club. I have to admit to having started writing this article in my head long before the day came. It was to be a searing indictment of our obsession with distance, a seminal work on how we confused ourselves with too many clubs. Oh, the purity of it! Oh, the rolling back the years! Low cuts and bump and runs proving all we need is a niblick and some plus fours! And then, the crowning glory of the piece, I would end by revealing I’d shot my lowest ever score with just four clubs, creating a tectonic shift in golf strategy the world over.

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We joined Bad Golf's John Robins and Alex Horne for a three clubs and a putter challenge last year.

Well, dear reader, it didn’t quite work out like that.

The best bit was the selection process. Selecting ten clubs to come out of your bag really forces you to think about your individual game. And if, like me, you take these sorts of challenges way too seriously it also forces you to engage with course management in a way we probably all should every round.

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I’ve been using the Arccos shot tracking app for the last couple of months, and the data it gave me really came into its own. I could go back to every hole I’d played, get stats like what clubs I hit most greens with (PW), which do I leave short (every club) and most importantly, the smart distance range for each club and how often I use each of them on my home course.

One thing, blindingly obvious in retrospect, was just how often you use your putter. From the fourteen rounds I’ve tracked I’ve hit my putter 526 times, next is my driver at 142. Do I spend four hundred per cent more time on the putting green than I do on the range? Do I heck, but I really should.

Luckily the putter was a given. The big decisions were Driver or Hybrid, and which wedge. I knew I needed a mid-iron, but that would be decided by gapping between the other two clubs.

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I think I knew deep down I wasn’t going to take my driver. Since shortening my driver shaft by an inch I’ve improved the amount of fairways hit by about 10% (thanks Arccos!), but I’ve given up a bit of distance, and at an average of 197 yards I just couldn’t justify not taking my 3-hybrid, which I use off a lot of fairways and for four of the tee shots on my local course anyway. A no brainer.

Wedge wise it’s made tricky by the fact that, like most of us, I’ve probably got too many. My Gap Wedge came out of the bag a few weeks ago as there was no real difference between that and my 52 degree. I’ve hit some great shots with my 52, but I had a hunch it was better to go stronger in the wet and mud, so it was between the 56-degree and my pitching wedge. The pitching wedge just gave me so many more options. When you’re forced to really slim down your bag it makes you think what clubs you can hit the most shots with. A pitching wedge might be the most versatile club in your bag, especially if you can get out of a bunker with it, so off I went to the practice bunker and found, after a bit of fiddling, I could get out about four times in five. That would have to do.

Despite being his most used club, Bad Golf's John Robins spends far less time practising with his putter than his driver..

So, I had my 3-hybrid giving me 170-180yrds off the tee with more consistency than the driver, and I had a pitching wedge from 20-115 yards depending on the shot. My 7-iron would have to take the remaining slot. Maybe I’d finally be able to try some of those bump and runs my father-in-law swears by, and it’s not bad for chipping from the fringe either.

And so to the tee. In retrospect I was asking a lot of myself, a nineteen handicapper, to set the world alight with so few options. And initially my hybrid just wasn’t firing. That’s probably the main drawback of just three clubs – you can’t fall out with any of them and banish them for the rest of the round. Top your first one and you’re destined to spend the next three hours like a couple trapped by lockdown mid-divorce.

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The par 3s were also underwhelming. I say underwhelming, I didn’t hit a single green. But I was expecting to struggle as this is where you need the closer gapping in your irons. With a full bag I’d probably only have used my seven iron on one of them.

But there were upsides. I’ve heard many pros say that for the average golfer, picking one club to use around the greens and sticking with it is better than fussing about flops and gaps and 52, 54 and 56 degrees. And they’re right. Based on strokes gained compared to the average 18 handicapper I picked up 2.8 strokes by just using the pitching wedge. This is definitely a change I will make long term. No more fluffed wedges, no more delicate shots I’m incapable of playing, just get it on the damn green, and if it rolls twenty foot past the pin that’s better than flubbing it two foot in front of you.

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Another lesson was how smoothly I strike the ball when I’m playing with a three-quarter backswing. My 7-iron from 120 yards and my pitching wedge from 85 yards were a revelation. So, no more full wedges from inside 100 yards for me (well, not until summer anyway).

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I ended with 28 stableford points. I’m not in any way happy with that, but I’ve done worse with a full set. And, in truth, the one big mistake I made was trying to make up lost yards with high tariff shots. It’s a good discipline to plot out each hole according to your handicap, and I should have accepted that I was aiming for bogey golf, not trying to hit greens in regulation with shots a pro might think twice about. This probably cost me five points in total. If I could have increased the selection to five clubs and a putter I’m pretty confident I’d have scored the full 36 points, which does make me ask what I’m doing wrong with the other nine!

So, given that a lot of us might have more time on our hands than usual in the next month or two, why not give it some thought? You may not shake up the world or achieve your best ever score, but you’ll certainly learn a thing or two, and definitely improve your shot selection the next time you’re at full compliment.

WATCH: Bad Golf's three clubs plus putter challenge with TG

WITB: Bad Golf's John Robins

Click the club names to read reviews and tests of John's clubs

Driver: Cobra King Speedzone Xtreme Loft: 10.5º set to 11.5º. Shaft: Tensei blue 65 reg

Hybrid: Cobra King Speedzone Loft: 2H. Shaft: Recoil reg

Irons: Cobra King Speedzone Lofts: 5-GW. Shafts: Recoil reg

Wedges: Cobra King MIM Lofts: 52º, 58º. Shafts: STD wedge shaft

Putter: Odyssey O-Works 2.0 R-Line

Golf ball: Bridgestone E6

Apparel: Puma

John Robins is an award-winning stand-up comedian and radio host. Listen to his BBC Radio 5Live show every Friday from 1pm or download the podcast here and watch his comedy special 'The Darkness of Robins' on Netflix here. You can also follow John on Twitter and Instagram.

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