You’ve probably heard that one way to get better as a golfer is to play with skilled players. This bit of advice, although common, is often underestimated. If you’re committed to taking your game to the next level, I believe it’s critical to get out on the course with players who are better than you.

When I speak of better players, I’m not talking about the guy who beats you by two strokes in your foursome. I’m talking about players who truly understand all aspects of the game – mental, spiritual, physical.

High-handicappers often are reluctant to play with skilled players because they’re intimidated or afraid they’ll embarrass themselves on the course. As a skilled player myself, I know there’s nothing worse than a less-experienced player constantly apologizing for playing badly.

Here are a few bits of advice I’ve given to high-handicappers who want to progress by playing with skilled golfers:

bullet When playing with someone you know you can’t beat, set yourself up to make a few good shots. Make that player turn around and notice you. Regardless of your score, a good player always appreciates a good shot.

bullet Let your competitor know that you respect his game by paying attention and focusing on your game … as well as his. Learn by watching how your competitor approaches his shots, calculates yardage, swings his clubs in certain situations, handles himself after a bad hole and how he conducts himself between golf shots.

bullet Don’t be afraid to give him a bet. You don’t have to gamble away your child’s college tuition, but bet him a couple of bucks for his time and to let him know you want to see his best game. After all, you’re not going to learn from a competitor who’s not playing at his highest level.
And if you haven’t run into a skilled player who wants to give you a game, then learn to move your game. Sometimes it’s good to simply show up to a tee and ask to join along. I’ve done this plenty of times, and it’s taught me to be prepared, because you never know who’s going to give you a tough game.

I’ve often said that a round with a really good player can match even the best golf lesson. I know this personally. Here’s my story about learning the value of playing with a skilled golfer.

The first time I played Pat Carter, the top amateur in West Virginia, I wasn’t a good player; I just had talent. I’d met Pat through an acquaintance, and he invited me to play in a foursome at Esquire Country Club in Huntington, W.Va.

We soon played again at Riviera Country Club for $5 a hole. Regardless of our disparate playing levels, I wasn’t intimidated. Pat never offered me strokes, and I didn’t ask. He beat me out of $45. I didn’t care about losing because I was thrilled finally to see how golf is supposed to be played. He hit fairways, and he hit greens, and he did it over and over.

One striking thing I remember about our match, though, is he asked me “What club did you hit?” after a couple of pretty good shots. So I did catch his attention. After the round, Pat told me he’d beat me the same way every time we played at Riviera, his home course. But the thing was, I also played the course a lot. So I told him, “If I lose, I’ll pay you. If you lose, you pay me.” Game on.

A few days later, Pat invited me back for a game. At that point in my golfing life, I’d never shot below 70. But by the end of the round, I was facing a putt to shoot 68 and beat Pat by a shot. I lipped the putt out, however, and we tied at 69. I destroyed his friend Derek, who was on Pat’s high school golf team. I think Pat brought him along because Pat, not knowing me well, thought I was easy money.

I refused to be beaten. If you have the right mindset and the desire, that’s what playing with a good player can do for you. It’s OK to lose the battle, but never lose the war.