Updated: May 27, 2021
When we talk about improving, the focus is usually on sharpening skills so as to raise a player's potential. Sometimes coaches will refer to this as "raising a player's ceiling". It is just as important though that the player improves their ability to score well on their off days, or as PGA Tour coach Corey Lundberg likes to say, "raise their floor". Let me provide an example, using two time PGA-Tour winner Nick Taylor.
Nick Taylor: A case study in high floor play
Growing up as a junior golfer in Canada, Nick Taylor was the player to beat. Nick is from the opposite side of Canada as me, and I was only paired with him once as a junior. I had finished second at my provincial championship the year before, and thought I may be able to keep pace with Nick.
It was quickly revealed that I could not. From the moment we teed off, Nick established that he was at a far different level than I was. All aspects of his game were ahead of mine, but most notable was the difference in our ball-striking. Whereas I struggled mightily with control, Nick was lethally accurate. This difference made it obvious that I had a LOT of work to do to achieve my dream of being a pro golfer.
Nick Taylor after winning the 2007 Canadian Amateur
Later that summer, Nick won the Canadian Junior by a record 11 strokes, showing that I wasn't the only player struggling to keep up with him. The year after that (2007), he won the Canadian Amateur and in 2009, he became the number one ranked amateur in the world. These tremendous achievements all demonstrated very clearly that Nick had (and has) a very high ceiling. What differentiates Nick though is not just his high ceiling, but also his high floor.
Shortly after graduating from University, I was caddying for my university teammate Cory Renfrew at the Tour Championship of the Canadian Tour (now called the Mackenzie Tour). Nick was playing very well by most people's standards, but not quite up to the lofty bar that is set for him. I had heard some whispers that he had been struggling throughout the summer, and several players (including Cory) had been outperforming Nick throughout the season.
Both Nick and Cory narrowly made the cut, and for the third round Nick was teeing off one group in front of Cory. When we got to the range before the round, Nick started warming up directly beside us. I was very excited! Here was my chance to watch the next great Canadian golfer, who had shown himself to be so much better than me a few years earlier, warm up. I wanted to see where Nick was at now and gauge how I had progressed relative to him. But I was shocked by what I saw: Nick was not hitting the ball flawlessly at all; in fact, he was hitting it terribly! (at least by the standards of a professional golfer)
With all due respect to Nick (did I mention he is a two-time PGA Tour winner!!?), on this day he had little to no control of his swing. He was hitting snap hooks and slices, as well as shots both fat and thin. Watching him warm up, it seemed like each shot was worse than the one before. No golfer likes watching another player struggle and I started to feel very uncomfortable for Nick.
Things got even worse when we went to the first tee. As we arrived to the tee, Nick was teeing off in his group with an iron, which he promptly snap-hooked towards the trees. By this point, I felt terrible for Nick, and was even slightly embarrassed for him. On a stage like the Canadian Tour, all eyes are on the up and coming hot-shot players like Nick. Some players advance to this level easily only to fall off rapidly. It was clear at this point that Nick was struggling mightily and I doubted he would even break 80 for the round.
I didn't see any other shots Nick played that day, but made a note to check what he scored after the round was through. Yet when I checked the scores after the round, I was in for another shock. Nick didn't shoot the 82 or 83 I expected. Instead, he had a posted a 68. The next day he shot 69, and finished the tournament within the top-10.
On that weekend, Nick demonstrated very impressively that he had not only a high ceiling, but also a very high floor.
The importance of a high floor
The longer I coach and play this game, the more convinced I become that having a high floor is just as important as having a high ceiling. Throughout nearly a decade of competing professionally, I have now played with many players who have gone on to the PGA Tour, including several who are PGA Tour winners. While all of these players who advanced were impressive, I have played with several other players who were even more talented, with even higher ceilings, but have not yet made it to golf's highest level.
One factor that has stood out amongst the players who made it on to the PGA Tour is that they not only had high ceilings, but also tremendously high floors. Like Nick, they are able to shoot scores at or below par even on their off-days. For the most part, the players who have haven't made it to the PGA tour (yet) have tended to be high-ceiling, low-floor players who play brilliantly when they are on, but mediocrely (or worse) when they are off.
Often these high-ceiling, low-floor players will have a stellar mini-tour season with several wins only to crash and burn at q-school in the fall. During the long mini-tour season, little note will be made of the few bad scores they posted, as they will seem like anomalies and the player will usually rebound well the next week. But at q-school there is no next week, and the player must be able to score well no matter how well they are playing. Over the multiple stages of q-school, it is inevitable that every player will have a bad day or two. When this day comes for the low-floor player, this player often posts a high score seemingly "out of nowhere", ending their chance of advancing.
In four-day tournaments, great shots and highlights get the most attention, but high-floor play is just as important to contend and win. Very rarely (if ever) do even the best players in the world play 72 great holes in a row. More commonly, the player will go through stretches where they "get hot" and go on a birdie run contrasted with periods where the player struggles a bit and needs to "weather the storm" (sometimes these struggles last for the entire round, or even entire tournaments). Having the ability to make pars and even the occasional birdie when struggling (or for less advanced players, to play to your handicap during such a stretch/round) gives a huge leg up over the player whose play falls off a cliff when they are struggling. The high-floor player is able to stay in contention even through a tough stretch of play, then take advantage when a stretch of good play comes.
Characteristics of high-floor players
There isn't one simple factor that makes someone a high-floor player. Instead, these high-floor players have several skills which work together, including:
Knowing themselves - Every player has tendencies that come out when they are struggling. The high-floor player doesn't fight their tendencies, but instead accepts it, often even using it to their advantage. An extreme example I once read about was a former NCAA champion (Jonathan Moore) who got the putting yips while in University. Moore noticed that when he yipped his putts, he typically pushed the putt to the right. Rather than fighting this tendency to push (as most people would have done), Moore simply aimed left and pushed his putts into the hole.
Getting the ball in play - It often won't be pretty, but the high-floor player will find a way to get the ball into play with a shot that they can depend on. When I am struggling, I personally like to tee up on the left side of the tee box, aim down the right side of the hole and hit a "safety slice" that starts right and curves back into play. I lose some distance with this shot, but have a good chance of getting the ball in play.
Being entitled/shameless - Some players feel slightly embarrassed when they hit an imperfect shot that rolls close to the hole. "Got away with one there!", they might say nervously to the rest of the group. A high-floor player feels no shame after such a shot and recognizes that is just part of golf. In fact, many high-floor players are even somewhat entitled, often feeling that they deserve a good result, even after mishitting shots.
Embracing the struggle - Ever hear the old joke about why you should never wrestle with pigs in the mud? (Answer: you both end up covered in crap but the pig kind of likes it). High-floor players are like the proverbial pig: whereas most players are put off by the chaos of playing a round when struggling, the high-floor player actually kind of likes it.
Having a great short games - All high-floor players have great short games. This enables them to not only make pars after missing greens in regulation, but also to make scrappy birdies on reachable par 5s, where after hitting two (often imperfect) shots somewhat close to the green, they can pitch it close to the hole and make a putt for an unlikely birdie.
I hope by now that I have convinced you that a player having a high floor like Nick Taylor does is just as important a factor in differentiating the player as is their outright potential. Some other great "high-floor" players that are worthy of study are Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, and Tiger Woods.
Tiger Woods' most famous achievements are having won 82 PGA Tour events and 15 majors, but in my opinion his record of 142 consecutive cuts made is just as impressive. In his prime, Woods prided himself on shooting low scores on days where he struggled. He took flak early in his career after a tournament for saying that he had won with only his "'C+'-game", but this quote was largely taken out of context. Most people assumed Woods was boasting about being better than his competitors, they didn't listen to his full quote: ''Winning like this means a lot. It shows if you think well and have a good short game, you can win.''. Rather than bragging, Woods was merely expressing pride that he had developed the skills not only to have a ceiling, but also a high floor. (For a masterclass performance in high-floor play, watch Tiger Woods' final round 64 at the 2018 PGA Championship).
The great news is, becoming a high-floor player is a skill that can be a learned. With the appropriate mindset, strategy, and some essential shots such as having a go-to tee shot and a great short game, you too can become a player who posts good scores even on days when you are struggling.