How to Prepare to Play a Difficult Golf Course

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How to Prepare to Play a Difficult Golf Course

As golfers, we all love to check out new courses.  That excitement is even greater when the course in question is one of the best courses in the country – or even the world.

If you have the opportunity to play a famous golf course that has also played host to some of the best players in the world, you should absolutely take it – but there are a few things you should know going in.

When you head out to play a great golf course, there is a good chance you will be encountering a course that is much more difficult than your usual track.  Great courses usually get a reputation by challenging some of the best players in the game, meaning that you aren’t going to find a course with huge fairways and big, flat greens.  Expect to see plenty of hazards, plenty of length, and plenty of long grass.

For golfers on the east coast of the U.S., some of the great destination golf courses include Bethpage Black and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.  On the west coast, you might choose to visit iconic locations like Pebble Beach or the South Course at Torrey Pines.

Bethpage Black Golf Warning Sign

What do all of these courses have in common?  Difficulty.  There isn’t an ‘easy’ option among them, and the story will be the same for many of the other great courses located across the country and around the world.

This introduction isn’t meant to scare you away from playing these great courses – not at all.  The point of this article is to help you prepare for the challenge that awaits.

With the right attitude and a little bit of planning, you can have a great time on these amazing courses, and you just might shoot a nice score along the way.

It’s About More than the Scorecard

When you play your regular Saturday morning round with some friends at your local course, the score you shoot might be the only thing about the day that is particularly memorable.  After all, you’ve played the course hundreds of times, and you will probably play it again next week.  Challenging yourself to play your best and beat your friends is the exciting part, so you strive to shoot the best score possible.

That isn’t necessarily the case when you take a trip to a great course.  Instead, you should be focused more on the experience and less on the score you post at the end of the day.  Obviously, you are still going to try to shoot a good number, but you shouldn’t let that pursuit distract you from the enjoyment of the course.

You might only get one chance to play somewhere like Bethpage or Pebble, and it would be a shame to spend too much of the day worrying about the numbers on the card.

Having Reasonable Expectations

Before you tee it up on a difficult golf course, stop for a second and check out the slope rating that is listed on the scorecard.  For the average course, that rating might be in the 120 range.  On a tough course, the rating can easily shoot up into the 130’s or 140’s.

What does that mean?  Basically, it means that you should expect to shoot a higher score.  You also have a higher handicap on difficult golf courses than you do on easy ones, and that fact will likely be reflected at the end of the day when you add everything up.

If you are a player who normally shoots around 80 at your home course, you could easily find yourself around 90 or higher on a hard layout and that’s ok because USGA handicaps are designed to account for slope ratings.

How to Prepare to Play a Difficult Golf Course

Photo by Greg Johnston on Flickr.

If you go into the round knowing that you shouldn’t expect to match your typical score, your mind will be more relaxed and prepared to enjoy the day.  Should you happen to be playing great that day, your low score will simply be enjoyed as a bonus.  It is frustrating to go into a round expecting great things only to struggle on the first few holes, so keep your expectations reasonable and have a great time.

A Smart Game Plan Can Help

Even with lower-than-normal expectations, you aren’t just going to walk out to the first tee and surrender to the course.  You still want to put up your best fight and see how you can fare.  With that in mind, your best bet on a difficult golf course is to employ a patient and conservative game plan.  This is where you’ll really need to put your course management skills and strategy to the test.

Most courses wind up in the ‘difficult’ category because of the hazards they contain – water, out of bounds, deep rough, etc.  Your goal is to keep your ball in play and on the short grass as often as possible.  Even if that means laying up where you might be tempted to go for the green, the premium should be put on control and accuracy.  Keep in mind that all the best golf course designers strategically lay the course out to tempt you into going for shots in a risk vs. reward trade-off.  Remember to be smarter than the course and play the shots with the highest ‘make’ percentage for your game.

On a hard golf course, it is simply impossible to make up for penalty shots.  If you incur a few penalty strokes along the way because you are playing aggressively, there won’t be enough easy holes on the course for you to make up for those mistakes.

When you face a challenging course, boring golf is the best kind of golf you can play.  Keep the ball in the fairway, hit the greens, and two putt as often as possible.  It might not be flashy, but boring golf gets the job done more times than not.

Final Notes and Suggestions

One final note on getting ready to play a hard course – don’t do anything out of the usual prior to the round.  It won’t help to show up extra early in order to hit hundreds of range balls before going to the first tee.  Stick with your normal pre-round routine to give yourself the best chance at playing some good golf.

You should embrace your opportunities to play challenging golf courses.  Not only will you have a great time seeing some of the top courses in the country, you will also learn from the experience.  When you go back to your home course, you just might have a new understanding of how to score effectively based on what you learned while battling the most difficult courses around.

Cover Photo by Greg Johnston on Flickr

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