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Golf Course Management & Strategy Tips

Improving your golf course management is one of the easiest ways to improve your golf – no gym sessions, no expensive clubs, no hours at the range, just thinking a little differently about how you play golf and score.

First, let’s explain two key concepts:

Golf course strategy

Golf course strategy is an overarching plan that will give you the best possible chance of achieving your golfing goal. For example, how to break 80, win the club championship, or beat your rival in a grudge match.

Golf course management

Golf course management relates to the decisions you make on each hole and every shot that will help you execute your strategy. Therefore great golf course management first relies on building a strategy.

The process is shown below:

Golfing goal > optimise strategy > optimise course management = lower scores

Golf strategy and course management – the golden rule

I only have one rule for you – optimising your scoring is not about how good your good shots are, but rather, how good your bad shots are and how many strokes those bad shots cost you.

Bear this in mind with your strategy and course management decisions. Tour players don’t play flawless golf, but those shots rarely cost them a double bogey. Great golf strategy and management is about hitting bad golf shots and them barely affecting your score. The golden rule is this:

Conservative strategy, cocky swing

You are far better off picking easy shots and making confident swings, than you are picking challenging golf shots that are outside your comfort zone. You’ll be amazed how easy scoring becomes with this approach.

Golfing goals and creating your strategy

I assume you have a golfing goal in your head – write it down. Next, work out ways you can achieve this outcome. Every golfing goal has an infinite set of strategies that could work, you just need to find the best strategy for you.

If your goal is to break 80, you could do this with 6 bogeys and 12 pars (78 for a par 72), or 5 birdies, 6 pars, 4 bogeys, 2 doubles and a treble (again 78) – both work equally well. You can’t control your scoring, but you need to choose the strategy that you think gives you the best possible chance of succeeding.

If you are new to competitive golf, feel free to play around with alternative approaches. Play overly aggressive and overly cautious and see what happens. Great golf strategy is something a player learns over years of competing.

Now you have a strategy, let’s apply it to your course management. If you are serious about performing well, grab a stroke saver or online guide of your golf course. I’ll run you through the key steps below, and your aim is to apply this approach to every hole on your home course or competition venue.

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 general aims are follows:

  • Below a 18 handicap – give yourself a birdie putt on each hole.
  • Above a 18 handicap – give yourself a par putt on every hole.

Some holes will be special cases, but just look back at your strategy and create a plan that gets you through safely.

Once we know if we are looking for a birdie or par putt, we can carry on working backwards and break down each hole we play.

course management Hoylake
This is the 2nd hole at Hoylake. It is 372 yards long. If you remember Woods’ fine win at Hoylake, you’ll remember him going round all week (mainly with a 2 iron) not entering in a single bunker.

The example we have here is the 2nd hole at Hoylake (such a great course for strategy and management). It is a par 4, playing 372 yards from the back tees.

My aim is 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 makes hitting the green too unlikely.

I need to hit the ball 192 – 272 yards off the tee, however we have some pot-bunkers to contend with.

The first right-hand bunker is 200 yards to carry, the left two are well placed at 235 and 270-ish. This is a sign of a great golf course, as there is no easy shot. I can lay 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 this hole 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 would only have a short club in. Aiming down the right edge of the fairway really reduces the chances of ending up in one of the graves… I mean bunkers down the left.

This is a great example of when hitting 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-planned line, will be the best choice.

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 isn’t terrible course management, but I feel we can squeeze a little more performance out of your game.

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 your club selection down to a club or maybe two. The next step is to finalise your club selection and to hone in on an exact target.

As we covered in step one, your ideal choice is to hit the fairway, but also to take any big hazards – bunkers, water, OOB – out of play. When you can’t play short or long of serious hazards (such as deep bunkers or out of bounds) consider favouring the one side of the fairway that gives you a little extra room for error.

Course management off the tee at Hoylake
The picture above is another classic example from Hoylake. The deep left-hand fairway bunker pushes you to favour the right side of the fairway – but then check out the right greenside bunker in the distance. If you play down the right of the fairway, you’re forced to then play over the greenside bunker.

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.

Course management shot distribution
The Golf Insider Performance Diary: Tracking what direction you miss fairways and greens is a little more advanced, but really useful when maximising your course management.

The last step is to finalise your target off the tee and pick a small point on the horizon. This might be a distant landmark, a tree branch or anything that stands out on your desired line. Once you have your target, the process is simple – make the best possible swing you can towards this target. Don’t worry about bunkers, OOB or anything else at ground level. Just focus on your target on the horizon and make the best swing you can.

Course management – into the green

Course management green approach

Here we follow a similar process to our tee shots. It staggers me how often amateur golfers reach for a club and aim straight at the pin. Yet, great players I work with frequently aim away from flags and towards the centre of the green.

Look back at your strategy – if you are looking to make lots of pars, you should be very happy putting for the middle of the green. The middle of the green rarely leaves you a long putt.

Aim to get the ball as close to pin high as possible. Amateurs love to take dead aim at the flag, but they are often blasé about distance control. 135-ish may sound like a good course strategy. However, being five yards off with your planning means an extra 15-foot added onto your putt or chip. Distance control really does matter.

In my humble opinion, a rangefinder is far more valuable than rough estimates to the front and back of the green. Also, take time in practice to work out your golf club distances every 6-months or so.

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, find out the distance to the pin, then pick a target distance 5 yards closer to the green centre. Making these small adjustments really adds up over the course of a round. Making two considerate decisions like this one is often the difference between being a 15 handicap and a 12 handicap player.

Lastly, consider your shot tendencies. TrackMan’s data (below) shows that ~80% of mid-iron shots finish short of the intended target for amateurs! I’ll say it again, ~80 percent of mid-iron shots!

golf club distances: This shows the shot distribution for a 15 handicapper. Most shots finish short of their intended target.

Unless you strike your irons like Justin Rose, you may want to consider hitting an extra club for every approach shot and just see what happens to your greens in regulation and scoring.

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.

Firstly, be very clear with what is possible, if you have a simple chip inside 20-yards aim to hole it. You won’t hole it every time, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t try.

Golf Insider tip: Many coaches will suggest you aim for a dustbin lid around the hole when you play chips and long putts. However, the research suggests picking precise targets tends to minimise the error around that point. If you look at amateurs’ and pros’ putting stats we see a very clear trend – every additional foot they are from the hole leads to fewer putts holed.

If you have a terrible lie, a large bunker in the way and no green to work with, then you should aim 15-feet past the pin and make a positive pitch towards this spot. In this situation, you rarely end up hitting your pitch this far, but you minimise your chances of the dreaded double or triple bogey.

When chipping and pitching, visualise a landing spot and the roll of the golf ball as it tracks towards the hole. This ability come with lots of practice – here is an in-depth golf chipping guide and some great chipping games to help you improve.

Should you use an 8-iron, sand wedge or putter to chip with? My grand answer is this – practice with all of them and then choose the option you feel most confident with on the course. Never choose a club because you think it’s what most golfers should use.

Golf strategy and course management – summary

Great strategy and golf course management is a key ingredient in scoring. Be clear with your strategy, break down each hole and work backwards to come up with the best plan you can.

This approach doesn’t guarantee success, but it maximises your chances. Next time you head out for a game around your home course wipe the slate clean. Imagine you have never played the course before and see what happens when you apply this new approach to every hole.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If you would like a free article like this one posted straight to your inbox, come join the Golf Insider weekly post.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider.

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Will is a PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. He spent 10 years lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in Biomechanics and Motor Control before becoming the Head of Golf for the University of Exeter. He currently runs Golf Insider UK, Sport Science Insider around wider consulting and academic roles in sport performance and motor control.

19 thoughts on “Golf Course Management & Strategy Tips”

    • Yep, sorry about this one particularly bad. I actually put an apology to my email readers this week. I try to get a post out every Monday, but this one was finished at 11:36pm in a hotel room. I shall amend tomorrow eve and hopefully turn most of it into english. Thanks for the feedback. Will

      • I found this article very insightful
        It makes perfect sense. BTW I could give 2 beans about typos, it’s about content.

        Lower (best) scores for me are flukes of nature.. But a consistent lower score should be possible with good course management.
        Thank you.

        • Thanks JD,

          I have a very wonderful person slowly working through all of the content to improve my terrible english. I’ll aim to keep building Golf Insider into the best resource on golfing performance that I can.

          I hope the golf is going well.


        • So glad I read this! Currently preparing for club championship qualifier. I play off two and I have a tendency to switch off and be aggressive rather than playing within myself. This is a timely reminder to engage my brain. Many thanks keep up the great work.

  1. Another fine article. Simple and effective, yet so often overlooked. I’m off to plan out Wednesday’s round…from green to tee!

  2. This is just advice I am looking for and needing at the moment. As a new 12 handicapper I’ve come to the realisation that my course management is the next “low fruit” to pick. Voila – your email arrives – thank you Will!

    • Thanks Duncan,

      Glad it is of use. Course strategy is an area that can keep being refined. I will try to add to this article in the future, but I hope it sets you off on the right track.

      Keep up the fine golf.


  3. I have a rising junior and it seems that we are loosing 1-3 strokes a round to “mental mistakes”. Do you have any advice?

    • Hi Jacob, thanks for getting in touch. I’m putting this together over 2019:

      It isn’t complete yet, but hopefully that has some useful points. Secondly, if it is more course management/decision related, try creating fun games where you get points for hitting fairways and greens hit, rather than always playing for score. Lastly, let them have so much fun, they learn over time – the best way to get good at anything is to love doing it – this is never the shortest route, but making mistake after mistake and thinking about it is the most fundamental way to become an expert at anything.

      I hope that is of some use.


  4. Thanks Will.
    Just found your page and love how you simplify pretty complicated matters and make them more understandable. This is the perfect format for me. Whenever I raise a future trophy I will try to mention you as an inspiration. / P

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the nice words. Your last statement made me chuckle – maybe I should aim for 50 winner speech mentions in 2021?

      I hope the golf is going well.

      All the best.


      • Hi Will.
        Maybe you should. Aim for the stars, spread your Gospel. Etc 🙂

        Unfortunately I don’t play in sunny Yorkshire, so it takes some effort, but what don’t kill you makes you stronger. Right? I tend to draw the ball when I have more than four layers of clothes on. Maybe that is an universal problem?

        And thank you again. I found your article on Swing Mechanics very useful/ Peter

  5. Great article, the only thing I’ve observed about the Trackman data amateurs are short, greens are usually sloped back towards fairways, a lot of times I’d rather be short than say long with a tough downhill chip or worse. At least for me an uphill putt or chip is better.

  6. Excellent content, Thought provoking and logical advice presented in laymans terms. your coaching is insightful and petinent


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