There are 2 distinctly separate, but obviously related, aspects to every golfer's game:
(1) The physical.
(2) The mental.
The physical aspect pertains to the actual process of hitting the golf ball, which entails the setup, the stance, and the swing motion itself.
The mental aspect involves your psychological approach to the game, which includes both your strategic preparation for the round, as well as how you think about each individual shot that you’re about to take.
When we talk about golf course management, we’re referring to this mental part of the game and how to fine-tune your thought processes before and during your round.
The goal of good golf course management is to always make the right decisions when confronted with multiple shot options; i.e., playing the right shot at the right time.
Remember, golf is a game of mistakes.
The secret to scoring better is to make fewer of them and to make sure that the mistakes that you do make don’t hurt you too much.
Golf course management is the key ingredient to manage that.
It won’t automatically make you start hitting the ball better, but it can allow you to play better golf and to score better.
By using good golf course management, you can come closer to fulfilling your playing potential and enjoying your golf a lot more.
So what, then, are the primary ways that amateur golfers can think their way around the golf course a little better?
8 Golf Course Management Tips:
#1 Know Your Own Stats Intimately
This is the first step.
You’ll never be able to make the kinds of smart decisions about shot selection that’ll be needed if you aren’t 100% clear about what your capabilities are in the first place.
If you don’t already keep stats on your round, now would be a great time to get started.
After each round (or during it if you’re so inclined), identify what happened with each of your shots.
Developing an accurate gauge of exactly what your carry distance is with each club, what your normal tendencies are with each (slices, pulls, amount of dispersion), etc. will be the foundation for figuring out what your strengths and weaknesses are, not to mention identifying where additional practice time may be necessary.
#2 Play to Your Strengths (and Away from Weaknesses)
One of the first principles of golf course management is to recognize and accept your weaknesses as a golfer.
Everyone has them to one degree or another, even the pros on the PGA Tour.
Once you’ve come to grips with what your weaknesses are, you need to learn how to “play away” from them.
In other words, to play around your limitations.
By minimizing the effect of your weaknesses, you’ll have taken the first step in executing solid course management fundamentals.
The corollary to playing away from your weaknesses is to play to your strengths. This means recognizing which parts of your game will give you the greatest chances at scoring better and playing in a way that allows you to leverage them.
Example: Zach Johnson
An example from the PGA Tour comes to mind as a way to describe what it means to play to your strengths:
Zach Johnson has always been known as one of the shorter hitters on Tour, never ranking better than about 150th in the driving distance statistic. Counteracting that, however, he has always had one of the best and most accurate short games.
In 2007 he won the Masters on a course that most people agree favors the big hitters. On Augusta National, how you perform on its 4 famous Par 5’s often determines who puts on the green jacket.
From watching on TV, you’ve seen that most players go for the green in two on these holes.
But not Zach Johnson...
In the entire 4 rounds of the event, he didn’t once try to reach any Par 5 in 2, instead opting to lay up all 16 times and relying on his strength -- his stellar wedge play -- to get him close enough to putt for birdies.
The result? Out of the 16 Par 5’s he faced, he birdied 11 of them!
That was a man who knew what his strengths were and played to them.
#3 Work Backwards from the Hole to Prepare
One of the strategies that good course managers employ is to prepare for a hole by imagining it backwards, from the green to the tee.
As Jack Nicklaus once said:
“There is an ideal route for every golf hole ever built. The more precisely you can identify it, the greater your chances for success.”
To uncover this ideal route, get in the habit of mapping out the hole starting from the green.
As a simple example of this process:
If the pin on the Par 4 hole you’re about to play is over on the far right side of the green, you know that the ideal approach shot to that green would be from the left side of the fairway.
So you now know that your tee shot should ideally favor the left half of the fairway.
At the same time, if you know that your favorite distance into the green is, say, about 100 yards, you should then think about which club to select from the tee to place you at that distance from the hole.
Perhaps you’d only need a 3-wood or a hybrid, rather than automatically pulling the driver from your bag, which might bring some other hazards or tough lies into play.
On Par 5’s, and on holes with challenging features (streams, ponds, fairway bunkers, slopes, trees, etc.), this backward planning process becomes even more important, so that you can play away from trouble and find that hole’s “ideal route.”
#4 Don’t Try Shots You Haven’t Practiced
Does this sound familiar?
Your 20-handicap friend hits his drive deep into the rough with a large tree between his ball and the green. He has 150 yards to go.
Somehow, he concludes that if he could hit a low, punch slice under and around the tree, he could get on the green without giving up any strokes.
He then proceeds to top his shot, hitting the trunk of a tree and sending it into even deeper trouble. He ends up walking away from the hole with a triple bogey.
The obvious moral of the story is that, when you’re faced with a shot that you could only realistically hope to execute a small percentage of the time or one which you’ve never practiced, you should always opt for the safe play, even if it means that it may cost you a stroke.
The smart play for that 20-handicapper, of course, would’ve been to chip the ball sideways back into the fairway, from where he’d have a reasonable chance to save a bogey, and with a good third shot, possibly even a par.
When presented with a shot choice like this, it’s almost always best to choose the easier shot rather than the one that’s outside of your comfort zone.
These are times to take your medicine, play the percentage shot, and get yourself back in play. Leave the “hero shots” to Phil Mickelson (he has the skills to actually pull them off)!
By doing this, you’ll take the “big number” out of play and eliminate the blowup holes that can ruin a scorecard.
#5 Always Take Enough Club
"Underclubbing" is one of the most common golf course management mistakes that amateur golfers make, thinking that they can hit each club farther than they actually can.
This is where a solid understanding of your own exact carry distances with each club comes into play.
Here's an interesting fact (courtesy of Shot Scope):
With amateurs, slightly more than 80% of the shots that miss the green are missed short!
There are definitely some physical factors that can result in shots that fly shorter than expected, things like wind conditions, playing from thick rough, hitting to an elevated green, colder temperatures, etc.
But far too often, the mistake is a mental one, with players simply having an overly optimistic view of how far they can hit the ball.
Knowing now that most approach shots will be short, a much better strategy for higher-handicap amateurs is to take their distance measurement to the back of the green, rather than to the middle of the green.
Then, with the confidence that you have ample club for the shot, you can take a smooth, measured swing which will ensure that you make better, more consistent contact and your distance control will be much better.
#6 Leave the Lob Wedge in the Bag for Basic Chipping
Another common mistake that many amateurs make is to automatically reach for the lob wedge when they’re facing a chip around the green.
Trying to finesse a high-lofted shot for standard chip shots is usually not a good strategy.
Carrying this type of shot exactly the right distance and hitting the precise landing spot requires superb touch to get the shot to end up within a few feet of the hole.
In addition, the longer swing required for this kind of shot presents opportunities for mis-hits and inconsistency.
This is asking an awful lot of amateur golfers who don’t get a chance to practice their short game very often.
A better approach is to take a less lofted club (e.g., a pitching wedge, a 9-iron, or even less loft) and to take a shorter swing that keeps the ball lower to the ground and rolling like a putt after landing.
Spend a little time practicing these lower-flighted chips.
You’ll soon find that you’ll be much more consistent with both your ball contact as well as your distance control.
#7 Be a Little More Conservative on Approach Shots
An interesting way to think about the proper strategy to use when hitting approach shots into the green is to look at it from the perspective of birdies vs. double bogeys.
Some more interesting data from Shot Scope:
Players who carry a handicap index above a 15 make, on average, less than 1 birdie per round. Players with handicaps of 20+ very rarely make birdies. By contrast, those same players are averaging 5 ½ - 6 double bogies per round.
So since double bogeys are far more likely than birdies for high-handicappers, the fastest way to improve your scoring is NOT to make more birdies, it’s to make fewer double bogeys!
This strategy can take the form of a more conservative approach to hitting into greens.
If pins are tucked behind a bunker, or near to the edge of the green, etc. (in other words, a “sucker pin”), handicap golfers shouldn’t try to aim at the pin.
Unless the shot is executed perfectly, you can bring trouble into play, and before you know it, you’ve carded a double bogey or worse.
In these situations, play instead to the center of the green.
If successful, you’ll have a makeable chance at a birdie. But even with a slight miss, you’re likely to still catch some part of the green and your next shot will still be a putt.
This is the smart, conservative way to keep those big numbers off of your card.
#8 On Layups, the Closer to the Green, the Better
You often hear the PGA television announcers say that the best strategy on layups is to leave yourself a shot that allows you to take a full swing, rather than to lay up to a shorter distance where, as their theory goes, you’d be left with an uncomfortable shorter-distance shot.
This may be good advice for touring pros, but the statistics reveal that it’s not good advice for high handicappers.
Once again, Shot Scope did the research.
Testing for “proximity to the hole” on pitch shots of varying distances, the data was clear.
Shots made from closer to the hole consistently ended up nearer to the pin than the shots taken from a little farther away.
In fact, the shorter approach pitch shots were closer by over 20%.
So don’t fall into the trap of trying to lay up to the “perfect” full swing distance. If you can safely and accurately get the ball farther down the fairway, go ahead and do so.
You’ll be more accurate with your next shot.
The topic of golf course management can fill volumes. In fact, many entire books have been devoted to the subject.
Obviously, the thoughts and concepts presented in this article are not comprehensive.
What we’ve attempted to do in this summary is to highlight some of the most important and basic fundamentals of how to think your way around the course a little better, and how to strategically get more out of your round, even when you may not have your A-game.
The PGA players participate in pro-ams almost every week on Tour, so they have the best seat in the house to witness the golf games of high handicap amateurs.
When asked what they see as the primary flaw in the amateur game, they almost always cite course management as the biggest single issue, commenting that amateurs often don’t account for where the trouble is on a hole, or where the best places are to miss, etc.
In other words, amateurs cost themselves a lot of wasted strokes due to defects in the mental part of their game.
Always remember: In golf, it’s not how good your good shots are, it’s how good your bad shots are.
Ironically, it’s often not the quality of your golf swing that determines that.
Much of the time, it comes down to the quality of your thought processes.