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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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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