Course management is one part of golf that is often overlooked. Yet it plays a critical role in lowering your scores and consistently maximising your golfing potential.
In this article we will cover five key steps to improve your course management; and lower your scores. Course management is the decision making process you go through before you hit every golf shot. At an elite level it encompasses how a professional will approach a four-day event, all the way down to the decisions they make before hitting every golf shot. In layman’s terms course management is working out how the hell you’ll get that little white ball round the golf course in the fewest amount of shots.
Course management is entirely within your control. It is depart from your golfing ability. No matter if you turn up feeling like you’re Rory McIlroy, or you’re swiping at fresh air. Course management will be a key factor in lowering your scores every time you play.
So let us dive into five key course management strategies to optimise your performance.
1. Course management – work backwards on each hole
The first place to start with your course management is at the end. What is the desired (realistic) outcome for each hole? Although there will be varying levels of golfers reading this. I feel a great ‘general aim’ is this – to give yourself a birdie putt on each hole. If we manage this the whole way round, we’re in for a great game. If you are a shorter hitter, you may wish to alter this to achieving a ‘par putt’ on the longer holes.
Once we have this aim, we can carry on working backwards and break down each hole we play.
The example we have here is the 2nd hole at Hoylake (I was lucky enough to play it last week). It is a par 4, and is 372 yards long from the back tees.
My aim was to give myself a birdie putt. To achieve this, I need to leave myself anywhere from 100 – 180 yards away from the green with my tee shot. Outside this range, just made the percentages too small for my liking.
This meant I needed to hit the ball off the tee anywhere from 192 – 272 yards. The critical factor in narrowing down my strategy was those bunkers you see.
The first right hand bunker is 200 yards to carry, the left two are well places at 235 and 270ish. This is a sign of a great golf course, as there is no easy shot. I could have laid up short of all the bunkers, but I’d have my maximum distance in. Or I could take on some of the bunkers and increase my chances of a birdie putt.
When I played I opted for the latter decision. I carry my driver around 265. This eliminates the right hand bunker and just leaves the left two bunkers.
To reduce the risk further I aimed down the right side of the fairway. This meant I may end up in the right hand rough, but I really reduced the chances of ending up in one of the graves… I mean bunkers down the left.
This is a great example of when driver may seem like an aggressive play, but to me it was the percentage play, in terms of maximising my goal of having a birdie putt.
For each hole you play try this approach of working backwards. You’ll be surprised what conclusions you may draw. Sometimes a 5 iron off the tee may serve you well. Other times a driver, with a well thought out line, will be the best choice.
On each hole strike the best balance between minimising potential disaster and maximising the chances of achieving your goal
2. Course management – Off the tee
Next up, let us look specifically at tee shots. Most golfers will look down the fairway, aim and pull the trigger. This is not a million miles off, but you’re leaving a few extra shots out there every time you play.
Once you have gone through step one in this article, you should have a set distance in mind that you wish to hit it off the tee. This should narrow you clubs selection down to a club or maybe two. The next step is to finalise your club selection, decide the type of shot you wish to play and hone in on an exact target.
As we covered in step one, your ideal choice is to hit the fairway, but to also take any big hazards – bunkers, water, OOB out of play. However, this is not always possible. When you can’t play short or long of hazards here are the steps to follow:
Firstly, if there is serious danger on one side of the hole, aim slightly down the opposing side of the fairway. This will give you a few precious extra yards.
Secondly, understand your shot distribution and use it to your advantage. On the day I played Hoylake, I was steady off the tee, but a tad right with the majority of my drives (see below). Knowing your tendencies allows you to further refine your end target. It also give yourself the best possible chance of leaving you an ideal approach into the green.
The next thing to decide on is the type of shot you wish to play. This may sound a little advanced for some of you, but still consider it. Is this a ‘green light’ tee shot, where you can have a full swing? Or does it require something more cultured?
Being able to play a fade into a right to left wind is safer than a draw with the wind. However, the big draw with the wind will maximise distance and roll. As you move towards a single figure handicap, I would advise you to spend time at the range working on adaptations of your golf swing.
Having a swing you can make that never misses right, and another swing adaptation that you know will never miss left is powerful. Particularly when you are play round tough golf courses.
After these steps, you should have an exact end point for your tee shot to finish, and a start point based on your shot selection.
This start point might be straight down the middle of the fairway, or favouring one side. Once you have a start point and shot selected, pick a precise target on this line.
If I can, I pick targets in the distance and hone in on a small detail to aim at. Hoylake GC is a sparse landscape, but has some lovely houses on the horizon. For each tee shot I picked my line, picked a house, then picked a window or chimney to aim at.
This process takes all of the decision making and converts it into one simple target for me to focus on.
3. Course management – Into the green
Here we follow a similar process as we do off the tee. It staggers me how often amateur golfers reach for a club and aim straight for the pin. Yet, the best players in the world frequently aim away from flags and towards the centre of the green.
If we stick to our goal for a birdie or par putt, we can clearly think through our options. If the pin is tucked behind a bunker on the left, then the middle of the green is perfectly fine. It will achieve our aim of a birdie putt. And if we get the distance correct we will be left a surprisingly good chance for a birdie.
Just like our tee shots, we can then factor in the shot we wish to play to come up with a start point and precise target. However, here are a few extra factors to really squeeze the most out of your approach play.
Aim to get the ball as close to pin high as possible. Amateurs like to take dead aim, but are often blazè about distance control. Just being four yards short means a 12 foot putt for a laser-straight shot at the pin. Distance control really does matter. A range finder that tells you the precise distance to the flag is far more valuable than rough estimates to the front and back of the green.
The only time to shy away from being pin high is when the flag is dangerously close to the front or back of the green. In these instances pick a target distance 3-5 yards closer towards the green centre. These small course management decisions really add up over a round.
Lastly, assess carry and roll. If you are playing on a firm course, or hitting a long club into the green where will the ball land and how will it roll? Are there any slopes you can use to your advantage? What obstacles do you need to avoid?
4. Course management – Around the greens
Some golfers may be confused as they read this sub-title. Course management… around the greens?? However, this is one area where the pros on tour seriously shine.
Many coaches will suggest you aim for a dustbin lid around the hole as you play long chips and putts. However, I disagree. If you look at amateurs’ and pros’ putting stats we see a very obvious trend.
Every additional foot we add onto a two foot putt, our holing out percentage rapidly decreases. I suggest you try to get the ball in the hole with every shot around the green, or at least as close as possible. I feel a more precise target hones our focus and makes our misses tighter to our target.
Your aim for any shot around the green is to get the ball as close as possible to the hole, and minimise the chances of the ball finishing outside 10 feet (as our holing out percentage drops to less than 20% outside 10 feet).
When chipping and pitching visualising a landing spot, the roll of the ball, the break it will take are all key factors. The sad news is that these skills come with lots of practice. However, try to practice and improve your visualisation skills every time you play and practice.
Should you use an 8 iron, Sand Wedge or Putter to chip with? My grand answer is simple. Practice all of them and then when you are on the course choose the one option you feel most confident with. Never choose a club because you think you should. Instead try the following thought experiment:
If I had to play this shot 10 times in a row, which club would give me the lowest total distance to the hole for my 10 shots?
5. Grow your course management over time
Course management is not a one-off thing. You can’t tick it off the list and be done with. Instead, it is a way of thinking. Just like any cognitive skill it needs constant work to keep it sharp and improve it.
View the first four steps in this article as thought experiments that you can re-visit from time to time. Maybe you should put a note in your diary to re-read this article in a few weeks time.
Course management should feed its way in to your practice and coaching sessions. Dedicate some range sessions to developing shots you want to be able to play. Play games on your golf course where you mix up the clubs you hit off the tee. Or create new rules that challenge you to hit as many greens as possible.
Great course management skills truly take years to hone. The good news? Once you have these in check you can start to consider your pre-shot routine. 😉
Lucky for you there is a life time of learning if you wish to keep improving your golf.
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