One of the things which makes golf such an exciting game is that it is complicated. Very complicated. Every hole on every course is different. Each has its quirks.
On many courses, a smooth hole is followed by a complete monster. Each course will have different traps for you. These traps may be the hazards: sand, pot bunkers, and rough grass will all present challenges. Or it can be the weather, that lovely links course has a very stiff breeze, for example.
As you develop as a player, you get to know all these difficulties. The next step is to work out how to deal with them. And this is where the golf course strategy comes in.
Golf course strategy versus just playing
I know some terrific players who never seem to get their handicap down beyond a certain point. I watch them, and they make the most beautiful swings. They drive the ball straight and true and achieve a reasonable distance. They are calm and accurate on the green. But they are never the best.
After studying these players for a time, I realized what was going wrong for them. They had it all on the individual strokes, but they did not have a strategy. And that can make the difference between an okay player and a superb golfer.
What do we mean by strategy?
It’s about putting it all together, to boil it right down to essentials. I believe a good strategy consists of choosing the right target and the right shot every time. Selecting the right shot has to be pinpoint perfect. It is no good having a fantastic swing if a better strategy on a particular shot would be to play it shorter and more accurately.
If you pick the wrong shot, or if you aim at the wrong target for even a couple of holes in a round you are not going to succeed. It’s about making the right decisions all the time. Fixing this means three essential things:
- understanding the course
- knowing your own game
- assessing correctly what your options are.
Getting this right is a mental task. Sure, you will need the practice to improve your physical game, but strategy development is really about your mental attitude to the challenges each golf course presents on the day you are playing.
You need to be well prepared to do this. Remember, you only get thirty seconds to play each shot, you must make the correct decision quickly. What does this mean? Break it down into two steps. Firstly, make the decision, so you know what you are doing. Information adequately digested, so you make a choice is step one. The next step is executing that decision with speed and confidence.
The three essentials of a sound strategy
I have this quick checklist concerning the information you need.
- The course: consider what can you use on the course and what do you need to avoid. Time spent learning a course is never time wasted. Be honest with yourself. Target your weak points and practice until you improve.
- The conditions: this includes factors such as rain, wind, sun in your eyes. You need to take these into account and compensate for them. Plan out what you will do, irrespective of circumstances. You want to avoid panic and indecision during the actual game. You should know what you are going to do in each situation before you step onto the course.
- The tools: choose the right club for the task. Selecting this takes practice and then remembering why you pick out a particular club in a specific situation, so you build on your experience. You will not have time to run through the whole routine when you are playing. You will rely on information and expertise you have already gathered.
Why the target matters
With the relevant information at hand, think about your aim or your target.
Now is the time to learn a secret. You will miss your target far more often than you will hit it. It isn’t because you are a terrible player, this rule applies even to the professionals. The great Ben Hogan once said he only got the ball exactly where he intended for about four shots in any round. So, if you are going to miss your target so often, is there any point of even having a goal? The answer to this is yes. You may miss your mark a lot but how you miss the target is what counts.
Let’s find out some more about how to miss a target.
The positive miss and how you get it
You need a goal, and you need to make it precise. Somewhere along the fairway near the middle is not exact enough, the middle parallel to a particular feature is a more accurate measurement.
After you have focused on your target, then think about the best miss. Concentrating on your goal is how you do it.
Take a view on where the ball would be if you miss. If this sounds too weird, think about this example. On a tee shot, you will often be considering what is the best side of the fairway to end up on even if you miss.
You have your target. That target is your ideal. But you are confident in the knowledge that you will often miss this target. Prepare yourself for this. You know that landing the ball on one side of the fairway will give you a much better chance than landing on the other side. So, an essential part of your strategy is to ensure that your ball never deviates from your preferred area.
It is a safe play. You still have a good chance at coming in under par. And you know that you are not creating harm and trouble by letting the ball go off into a hazard. You are not ending up with the ball at an angle which becomes impossible to play.
Make sure you are thinking shots ahead with your ultimate aim in mind. Every time you hit the ball should be taking you to a good position nearer to the pin.
Positive missing for a good golf strategy
You need to identify three things to become an expert at positive missing:
- The target
- An area of the best possible miss
- Your least lousy outcome, between these two
Once you have this routine in your head, you can accommodate your skill levels. More than this, you can still play a good game even when you are having a bad day. This strategy gives you more flexibility and enables you to be more forgiving of errors.
A strategy for working within your limitations
If you use this system, you can vary your realistic target when you need to.
Not every day is a good day on the golf course. Let’s consider one scenario:
A stressful day can be because the conditions of the course are less than optimum on that day. If it is very windy, for example, you may play more safely and take the safer option. You may widen the range for your least bad outcome. You may decide that all you can realistically achieve is to keep the ball on the fairway and you will sacrifice distance on a particular shot.
If it’s a day when the weather is perfect, and you are on fire, then you can go much nearer to the ideal target. You may decide to hit the ball as far as possible within the constraint of keeping to the area of the fairway which you have determined.
Having this flexibility can improve your game. It means you are learning to adapt your game to different conditions. It can also develop your mindset and your enjoyment of the game. In harsh situations, you may take a lot longer to put the ball in the hole, but you may recognize for yourself how you overcame the challenges. You know that you played your best given what was happening. That feels good. And it is good, and it will make you a better player.
Developing a complete golf course strategy
Let’s look at ways to build up to a comprehensive golf course strategy. Central to this is collecting and assessing good information. And being honest with yourself. You need to know how your ball is going to behave in different situations given your skill level. Once you understand this, you are on the way to making the right strategic decisions.
What you need to know about yourself and your game
How far can you hit the ball?
You probably know the furthest you can hit the ball with a particular club. It is the type of memory which burns bright and which you recall with pleasure. What you are less likely to know is what the average distance at which you hit the ball. It is essential to find this out.
Here is an excellent way to do this. Get out on the practice course on different days, in different conditions and measure your distances. You should take an average of at least thirty shots. Make sure you use the same type of balls as you use in actual games. Also, try with different clubs, you might learn that you make better scores with a different iron.
You can use a golf simulator to get this information very accurately. By all means, go down this route, but remember it will not take account of the different conditions which are part of golfing life on every real golf course.
Once you have this information average it out to find your distances. And reassess every few months. You will be getting better, and so your distances will change
Where does the ball go?
It is what we call ball dispersion. A golf simulator is ideal for this. Hit twenty-five balls and find out what pattern they make. Answer the following questions for each shot:
- Is the ball short?
- Or is the ball long?
- Is the ball to the right?
- Or is the ball to the left?
Then add up the results for each one.
You now have crucial information. You will soon know if you have a general tendency to hit short or long or to the right or the left.
Putting your information together
I hope by now a new world is opening up to you, and you can plan better. Try this:
- Think of that hazard you need to avoid if you are to make your optimum target.
- Think of the characteristics in your shots using the above information.
- Then compensate. If you hit to the right and that bunker is perilously close to your right-hand side then deliberately change your targeting more to the left.
You will find it comes naturally. I use a formula for this, which you may find useful.
- Optimum target
- Length and position information
- Adjusted optimum target
Once you are doing this, you can take your game to the next level. You have learned how to play to your strengths and to compensate for your weaknesses. That is what the best professionals do. It means you can always practice safe play and avoid getting into bad messes. And where you understand your own game and how to maximize your advantages, you can make much better scores. Developing a strategy in this way not only enables you to avoid a bad shot, but it also means you use your advantages to make your best shots.
Play within your capabilities and compensate for your weaknesses
Your knowledge about the course will affect how you hit the ball.
You are not playing in a vacuum; you are playing on a particular course. The better you know the course, the better your strategy will be.
Things to remember:
- The par: Pay attention to the par on each hole. It may sound obvious, but most players do not play taking it into account. I notice so often that players will play in the same way on every hole on the course. It is madness to play like this.
- On a simple hole, you can go for the longer shots; you can try for your optimum target in many more circumstances. On the hardest hole on the course, you will benefit if you play your safest game. There is nothing wrong with coming in on par on difficult holes. What you need to avoid is wasting shots by trying too hard. Just get those hard holes done and show off and shine on the easier ones.
- The Lie. Knowing a lie means paying attention to detail. You need to know the characteristics of the grass on the course; it will affect how far your ball will travel. If you find yourself in a bad lie, you need to know how to change the trajectory of your shot. You need to know all this to be able to make a good choice of club. You also need to know how far the ball is going to travel even when you hit it correctly. Without this, you cannot decide what to do next.
- Hazards: sounds obvious but players often miss it. Know where the bunkers are, where is that water you must avoid. How you position the ball to keep out of that terrible bit of rough is essential. Take time to learn the course.
Enjoy developing your strategy
I am going to recommend you some great resources to get you in that right mental zone, you can find the first here
Eddie Pepperall takes ten scenarios (such as getting out of bunkers, chipping the ball, and sequencing. Clear and to the point. A pleasure to watch
Using your skills to improve your scores. In five minutes. This is well worth five minutes of your time
An excellent explanation of how to play a difficult hole. Good for getting you into the right zone of thinking about strategy.
Golf Course Strategy conclusion
If you started this article thinking golf strategy is dull, then I hope I have changed your mind. I believe nearly everyone who comes to the game has a lightbulb moment when they realize that it is more than just the swing, or just the short game. It is about putting it all together and understanding the world around you. That makes golf so much more fun.
So, develop your strategy and enjoy golfing.