If you head out to almost any golf course practice range on a sunny Saturday afternoon, you are likely to find a long line of golfers hitting ball after ball. Of course, they are all there for the same reason – to improve their game and shoot lower scores. As golfers, we always want to get better, and improving our swings is commonly thought of as the best way to do just that.
But what if there is another way?
What if you could get significantly better without making any changes at all to your swing? Obviously, that is something that every golfer would be very interested in.
That ‘other way’ does exist, and it is commonly known as golf course management. That is the name given to making smart decisions as you work your way around the course, whether it is picking the right club for a certain shot, or picking a safe target line to keep your ball out of harm’s way.
Between two golfers of equal physical skills, the player with superior course management skills will almost always be the one to prevail.
Have we peaked your interest enough? If so, let’s get started covering the basics of how proper golf course management works and how you can use it to start lowering your scores immediately.
The First Steps
To commit to improving your game through course management, the first step is to quit working on your swing for a while. That doesn’t mean you should stop practicing, just stop tinkering or making any technical changes (at least for the time being). For now, stick with the swing you currently have, and get to work lowering your scores through better thinking on the course.
This seemingly simple step might be a little bit harder than you realize to take to heart. For many golfers, making changes to their swing is a continual process that never really stops. This is especially true for amateur golfers who haven’t quite yet found a swing they are comfortable with, but have faith in the process. You can always return to tinkering with your swing once you’ve begun to understand how course management works. In the meantime, it will likely take some concerted effort to get your mind out of the “swing fix” mode and into a place where you just trust your technique and go play the game.
Do What You Do Best
At the heart of the matter, golf course management is really about putting yourself in situations that play to your strengths, and avoiding situations that expose your weaknesses. Think about the golf course like the defense of a football team. The bunkers, water hazards, slopes, trees, etc., are all defenders that are trying to stop you from shooting good scores. It is your job to beat that defense with a solid game plan. Just like the QB of a football team who looks over the defense and picks out the weak spots, you should be analyzing the course and picking shots that give you the best scoring opportunities.
Before you decide where the weaknesses in the golf course are, you need to understand fully the strengths and weaknesses in your own game. What is your favorite ball flight? Alternatively, what ball flight can you just not hit at all?
Simply, don’t hit the shots you aren’t comfortable with, and find ways to hit the shots you love. Regardless of what the kind of shots the course is encouraging you to hit, try not to stray too far from what comes natural to you.
For example, if the only way to hit a protected green is to play a high fade around the tree line, and you know your game well enough to understand that you’re just not capable of making the shot, simply don’t try it! One day you might add that specific skill set to your arsenal but for now it’s not worth the aggravation (and bad score) that will result from not executing the shot. Instead try a shot path that you have a better chance of executing. In this case it may be a low punch shot or even a layup that gets you close enough to setup a chip shot.
Remember, there is always time to go back and learn new shots on the range. The time to push the limits of your capability is not when you’re on the course and trying to score well.
Build a Conservative Plan
Many golfers choose to use a more-aggressive golf course management strategy simply because it sounds like more fun. After all, who doesn’t want to try for all of the par five greens in two shots, or try to drive the green on a short par four? Aggressive shots might be exciting, but they are rarely the smart play. If you are like most amateur golfers, you don’t possess the consistency in your ball striking to take on challenging shots hole after hole and escape without doing some major damage to your scorecard.
When you are putting together your game plan for a given round, look for the most conservative path first. Once you have figured out the safest clubs to hit on each hole, and the safest targets to pick, then you can mix in a few more aggressive decisions if the opportunity presents itself.
When it doubt, always opt for the safer shot – your score at the end of the round will thank you.
Harness The Power of Uphill
Once you are inside 50 yards or so from the green, ideally you want to be playing uphill as often as possible. Short shots are almost always easier to negotiate when they are played uphill toward the hole, as opposed to down the slope running away. Speed control is key on short shots, and you will have more of a margin for error when you are playing up the slope.
So what does this have to do with golf course management? Simply put, it’s your job to position your ball below the hole as often as possible throughout the round. Try picking targets that error on the side of being below the hole, so you can enjoy the benefit of chipping and putting uphill more often. You won’t always be able to position your ball successfully in this way – but the more you can do it, the better off you will be.
Avoid The Dreaded Short Side
Just like the idea that you want to be playing chip shots downhill as little as possible, you also want to avoid chipping from the short side of the green. For those who are not familiar with the term, the short side of the green is the side which is closest to the location of the pin that day. Without much green to work with, you will likely have a harder time chipping the ball close to the hole, and therefore a harder time getting up and down to save your par.
Avoiding the short side is another reason to lean toward using a conservative game plan throughout the round. When you play away from the pin with your approach shot, you will naturally be aiming toward the wide side of the green, and will be less likely to wind up short sided. Avoiding the short side is a common golf course management tactic among professional golfers, and you would be wise to add it to your game as well.
Start Thinking Two Shots Ahead
Often it can be our tendency to try to cover as much ground as possible with every single shot. The problem with this strategy is that it can lead to taking a number of undue risks. In general, this type of action usually stems from only planning one shot at a time instead of creating a more well thought-out strategy.
For example, think of a time when you’ve been faced with a long second shot on a par five. Perhaps your ball has landed just off the fairway and is sitting in a challenging lie in the short rough. Ahead of you is 270 yards to the green (a distance you can’t reach even with your best 3-wood swing). Chances are you’ve been in this position before and you’ve grabbed the 3-wood out of the bag thinking you might as well smash it as far as you can and try to get close enough for a short pitch shot. The problem with this decision is that you are introducing a lot of unneeded risk into your game. Hitting a 3-wood out of the rough is a difficult shot, and the low loft increases your chances of not getting the ball in the air, as well as generating quite a bit of side spin. All this leads to an increased chance of an errant shot that can require quite a bit of work to just save par.
Now let’s try a different method instead. Faced with the same shot try thinking through the hole backwards by trying to envision what shot you would feel comfortable playing next. In this case, perhaps you know that you could easily hit the green from a fairway lie at about 125 yards out. Given that you are currently 270 yards from the green, all you need to do to setup that next shot is move the ball another 145 yards! This is something which can be done fairly easily with a high lofted iron (a club that’s far easier to hit from the rough than a 3-wood).
Can you see how this approach is a much easier way of managing the course? Sure it might not be as glamorous as hitting that long 3-wood but it certainly makes for an easier par than having to scramble back if you didn’t hit that first shot perfectly!
Here’s PGA Professional Andy Proudman explaining this important concept in more detail:
Summing it All Up
It can be hard for many amateur golfers to embrace any way of improving their game other than just focusing on building a better swing, but that is exactly what you should be trying to do. There will always be time to work on your swing later, but it makes sense to tighten up your golf course management skills first in order to maximize your scoring ability.
Once you understand the basics of good course management and how much it can affect your game, you might find out that your swing is already good enough to reach most of your goals in the game of golf.