Updated: Sep 14, 2020
By James W. E. Glenn
“Course Management.” For many golfers, this is an abstract or foreign term, heard occasionally by commentators and reserved only to describe the games of the very best players who made winning look particularly easy that week. Or, worse, it is a term that is misunderstood and taken as a substitute for practice or hitting irons off of par 5’s and always hitting the middle of the green.
In reality, course management refers to the way we try to play and practicing good course management implies an understanding of how we go about scoring and shaping our little 18-hole (or 36, 54,and 72-hole) masterpieces. Course Management is about knowing:
Where you want to hit the golf ball
Where you need to hit the golf ball
Where you probably will hit the golf ball
Why you should hit the golf ball there
What to hit to get the golf ball there
Where to aim to put the golf ball there.
All at once.
And I have great news for you, right now; you don’t have to be a Tour player, or elite amateur, to get anything out of good course management (or CM for the remainder of the article).
Good CM does several things: it makes golf more fun and less stressful, it helps us shoot lower scores more easily, it helps us identify the areas we can and need to work on while also helping us work around those areas when we play, and it helps keep our wallets closed and drink on our friends’ money. This article will walk you through, in my experience, the five most common course management mistakes and some simple fixes for each one (without breaking your bank, breaking your marriage, or needing to rip the space-time continuum). EVERY GOLFER, REGARDLESS OF THEIR ABILITY, CAN BENEFIT FROM AND EMPLOY GOOD COURSE MANAGEMENT.
Mistake 1. We Look, But We Don’t See
Sometimes we fail to actually see the courses we are playing. Every golf hole has been painstakingly designed; some are better than others and yeah, you’re right, some holes are just plain awful. Yet no matter how excellent or diabolical they are, we can rely on one thing at least--every hole is, therefore, designed to be played a particular way. Pay attention to where the opening of greens are, where the bunkers are placed, and how slopes on the fairways and greens work and where these run-offs send the ball. Maybe that shot you’re about to take on isn’t so much risk-reward as…just...risk. I know most of us can all physically tell where the flag is on a green, for example it might be tucked front left behind a bunker. We can see that. I’ve got to ask you, though, in what way did that information influence your previous shot?
There is such an abundance of visual information available to us, it can be overwhelming. I’ve done it before. We all do it. We stand on the tee, think “oh, short par 4! Birdie chance.” We rip a drive down the fairway. Our golf ball finished just down the right side, great lie. 62 yards. “Oh, I didn’t think I’d be this close to that tree. That’s ok, I can get it up over it.” Then we look at the pin placement (or we don’t)…”Zone C? Zone C my ass, that’s barely on the green!” Then we flop it over the tree, and it’s looking absolutely beautiful as it just comes up short and plugs in the bunker. Or, it just doesn’t quite get over that tree and rattles around, ending up God-knows where. So we bogey this 300-350 yard birdie-chance. Hmmm. Perhaps we’d have been better off hitting 4-iron down the left side, leaving ourselves a full, open shot into that flag? Last week I tried to lay-up on a short par 5 (having started birdie-birdie-eagle...hello course record, right?!) and hit an 8-iron 210 yards into the ditch I wasn’t trying to carry. I normally hit an 8 about 165, and knew the ditch was 210. No problem. I didn’t see that my ball was landing on a downslope, and it hadn’t rained in a few days so it was already firm. There was no rough to catch my ball before rolling into the hazard. So yeah, I might have only carried the ball 165, but it was always going farther.
The Fix: Grab a pin sheet or take note of the pin placement zone before you go out. Know where the flag is on the green. Work your way back from the green to the tee. Honestly think about where your easiest shot INTO that flag is. Is it actually that 65-yard flop over the tree? Or the 80 yard fairway bunker shot? Or, as much fun as it is to crush our driver a lot (and we need to be able to hit it well!), sometimes we might be better off hitting something that leaves us a clean 100-150 yards from the correct side of the fairway.
Mistake 2: We Don’t Know How Far We Hit It
Another mistake that we all make, as ridiculous as it sounds, is that we don’t know how far we hit it! Knowing that an 8-iron goes about 165 is great, but how far does a flush one go? What about an average one? Does a skinny 9-iron still get over that bunker? Does an average driver get over the water? My personal favourite, “I’m positive that I can get to this par 5 in two. I’ve hit it 265 off the tee, and I’m 285 out, but I just KNOW I’m going to hit my three wood, off the deck, 25 yards farther than I just hit my driver or have ever hit my driver.” (Also, if this is you...just lay it up! Everyone will thank you).
It is easy to club ourselves off of how far a “good” strike goes--and to be honest, for wedges and approach shots inside of 150, that is a great idea. In general however, and especially off the tee, we should be planning our tee shots on how far an average strike will go. Even more importantly, when we need to either carry something (water, bunker, etc.) or choose between a safer shot and a shot that needs to carry, we absolutely need to plan on what an average strike does. How many times do we look at a hazard, think to ourselves “oh, that’s only (insert your carry distance here), I can get that,” only to watch a round, dimpled, white $4 bill get wet? For me, even though I can carry a driver 295+, I’ll never try to carry anything on that number. 280 is the limit--longer than that, and I lay up or aim away. Likewise, I’ll never aim at bunker 290 off the tee with a 3wood, because sometimes my TS3 gets hot and thinks it's a driver, and I can hit it into it, but at the same time I won’t try to carry anything over 245 with a 3wood.
Paying attention to, and understanding, our yardages in a more realistic fashion will help us end up where we want to more consistently. To borrow from Matthew Berry (for all you Fantasy Football Fans), “what is most likely to happen?” Am I most likely to hit my 8iron 171, the upper limit of distance for that club, or 164-66...my average? Am I most likely to hit my driver as far as I ever have, or as far as I (regretfully…) usually do?
The Fix: Play for the average. If you KNOW, FOR SURE, that even an AVERAGE strike will get you to the green, or over the water, then go for it. If not? Play the club you know will get there, or pick a club that cannot get to the trouble rather than trying to carry it. If you don’t have a good idea of your average yardages, then you need to spend some quality time with 5 balls, a rangefinder, and an empty twilight fairway.
Mistake 3: Misjudging Wind
Wind is a critical element to playing golf in some places, like springtime in East Texas or literally anytime in Scotland. You should always know which direction the wind is blowing across a golf course, especially in this day and age with information at our fingertips. At 20mph the difference between down-off-the-right and into-off-the-right can be substantial.
Rarely, if ever, is there such a thing as a one-club, two-club, or three-club wind. The wind affects the ball in much more dynamic ways. Shotlink data from over 10 years of shots hit on the PGA Tour shows us that wind influences shorter shots and longer shots proportionately. Furthermore, the wind is most likely not swirling. You’re in the trees, but the wind above the trees is constant.
The Fix: Pull up the weather on your phone. Note which direction and speed the wind is blowing. Grab a scorecard with a course map on it (preferably one with a compass), and mark the direction across the map. This way, you can reference the map to know what the wind is really doing if you have trouble figuring it out. Use the following shortcut for yardage adjustments: If Headwind, Playing Yardage is 1% of the Static Yardage (i.e. 150 yards = 1.5) x Wind speed. If Tailwind, Playing Yardage is 0.5% Static Yardage (i.e. 150 yards = .75 or ¾) x wind speed. 150 yards into a 20 mph wind will play 180. 150 yards with a 20mph wind will play 135.
Mistake 4: Not Choosing Targets Based on Shot Dispersion
Another critical mistake in CM, and one that every golfer will make from time to time, is picking poor targets. The reason why we end up picking poor targets, and hit “good” shots that end up in crap, is because we forget that our dispersion is a shotgun--not a rifle. Think back to the last time you did a club fitting on a launch monitor, or TrackMan, or even the last time you hit wedge shots into a practice green; were they all lined up neatly in a row? The better we get, the smaller our spread becomes, but we can still hit 5 great shots with one a few yards short, one a few yards long, another a couple left, a couple right, etc. We have to pick targets to allow for great shots to still be in the fairway, or on the green; rather than great shots, within their spread, that end up somewhere they shouldn’t!
Next time you play, when picking a club and target going into a green, try to imagine a shotgun spread over it. Are you still okay if you come up a bit short? A bit left? Right? Hit it a touch farther than you wanted? If the flag is 3 paces on the front edge, over water, are you still ok if you come up 3-5 yards short of your target?
The Fix: From the tee, pick a target that gives you 25 yards of safety either side (if you’re trying to hit it straight). If you don’t have a 50 yard window to hit that driver into, then you probably shouldn’t hit it. Going into the green, pick a target that gives you room to go a bit left, a bit right, a bit short and a bit long, and still be putting (for example, if the flag is tight to the left, aim 5 yards right -- a little pull and you’re on the pin, a little push and you still have 30 feet for birdie). Avoid picking targets where a little bit of a miss (and be REALISTIC!) makes your life significantly harder.
Mistake 5: Not Being Ok With Sensible Golf (A.K.A. Unable to take your “medicine”)
One last common mistake we all make with CM is mentally accepting when we can’t, or shouldn’t, do something. We all want to hit that hero shot from the trees, that makes our buddies’ spit out their beer, and saves birdie or par from the jaws of a much larger number. However, even though we have all at times pulled these shots off, they rarely pay off (ever had a ball bounce off that last tree and ricochet into even more crap? Or worse, ricochet into someone else? Or, God-forbid, ricochet out of bounds?). One reason why Tour players shoot such consistently good scores is that they never try those shots...well, Tour Players NOT named Phil Mickelson. Then again, we all remember Winged Foot, right? Geoff Ogilvy sends his regards. They will take bogey when they hit it into the knee-high. They will lay-up when they cannot comfortably carry a hazard, or bunker, or get onto that par 5 in two. They don’t fire at every flag, especially at major championships when not making bogey at the wrong time can make their career.
If you find yourself thinking too much about how to get the ball where you want it, you’re probably playing the wrong shot. Just chip it back into the fairway, put it on the green, have a chance of saving par and move on. Your scorecard will thank you. Next time you play, challenge yourself to play sensible golf.
The Fix: Make your goal to have bogey (or double) be the worst score you take. You’ll find yourself shooting lower scores, having more fun and getting frustrated less, and actually improving. As a general rule, if you are not comfortable hitting a shot--do not hit it. No matter where it is, or what type of shot it is. Do not ever let yourself swing the club if you are not 100% confident you will pull it off (being realistic is on you).
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