An interesting title to a more interesting subject. How do we properly negotiate our way around the golf course? There are many opinions on the subject, but I think any expert would be hard pressed to argue with this statement. Play YOUR game. Too many of us play someone else’s game, the game we think we SHOULD play, or that game we want to have. If your goal is to shoot the best score you can TODAY then you must play to your strengths.
I will say now what most amateurs don’t want to hear. Your strength is likely not to “go for it”. We see Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and other icons in golf, pulling off shots that are not only heroic but extremely high risk. And what is learned from that? We say “I can do that!” To be clear, I am not saying you can’t, this article is not a challenge of ability. Rather, it is a challenge to consider percentages. Tiger or Phil might try a high risk shot that, because of their ridiculously high level of talent AND intense focused practice, is maybe a 1 out of 10 or a 1 out of 20 chance that they pull it off. So we are talking thousands of hours of dedicated practice PLUS a phenomenal talent for the game, and we get a 5 of 10 percent chance of success.
For the avid golfer with some skill, that percentage drops to a fraction of 1 percent. For the weekend or social golfer, we drop drastically lower. Golfers don’t realize how often they try shots that are 1 in a thousand. I am not telling you that you are poor players. I am telling you that to try to pull off a high shot, that you want to hit to tap in distance, from a tight lie, to a tucked pin, which you are short sided to, on firm and fast greens, is a recipe for disaster. How many times has a shot similar to that one “ruined” a round of yours? When you really sit down and think about it, a pretty decent number of times. We short side ourselves, and instead of just a simple pitch to the middle of the green and a two-putt from 30 feet for bogey, we try the flop. It results in a chunk, then a partial blade over the green. Then another chunk. Then a frustrated 3-putt later we find ourselves having hit 6 shots inside 20 yards. It happens all the time! THAT ruins a round, not a simple shot to the middle of the green and a couple putts from there. Many times trying to avoid making a bogey we end up staring triple or quadruple bogey in the face.
Let me share a couple of stories with you. The first relates directly to the short example I gave above. A student of mine, let’s call him John, was delighted at his progress in his lessons. He was a high handicap, and had never broken 100 for a full round of golf. He had broken 50 on 9 holes several times, and was describing to me his most recent effort to break the elusive 100. “Matt, I played SO great on the front 9… by far my best 9 ever. I shot 42! I thought, ‘Today is the day John, you are going to do this’. I got a bogey on 10, no big deal. Then I got to 11. I hit one right in the trees. I said ‘Alright John, don’t mess this up. You have to get this one around the green to keep it going.’ So I tried a low, cutting 3 wood below and around the trees. It hit one and bounced out of bounds. Then I tried again and it hit another tree, the ball dropped straight down. All said and done I ended up with a 9 on the hole, which of course threw me off for the rest of the round.” Dejected, he described to me his 59 on the back 9, narrowly missing his end goal. After it ended I said “So from what I understand it all went wrong on 11?” Which he confirmed. I followed that with this “John, aren’t the trees to the right on 11 towards the green much more dense than the trees going out sideways or even a bit backwards? What would have happened if you had just chipped out 20 or 30 yards with a little 7 or 8 iron and then hit your approach to the green from 140 or 150?” After some thought he said “Well the way I have been hitting it better I would imagine I would have been able to get it around the green in 3… probably no worse than 6 and maybe even a 5 if I could have hit the green on the approach.” John realized that although the poor tee shot/following shots DID hurt his round, it was more his course management and reaction to the bad shots that led to disaster. I am happy to report that not only has he accomplished his goal of breaking 100, but 90 as well, and I am confident that he will soon be on his way to 80 and beyond.
Another example came when I was teaching full time at a golf school and academy. I taught a gentleman who was a frequent weekend golfer. He was a high handicap, but mostly because he was a short hitter/kept his weight on his back foot throughout the swing leading to lots of fat and thin pitch shots, leading to lost shots around the green. After some good work we got him to his lead foot on short irons, and he started striking them very well (at nearly a scratch level in fact, it was impressive improvement). However, he still struggled mightily with the longer clubs and short pitch shots (20-40 yards), fighting that “hang back, help it up” tendency. So, we were out playing on the course for our final lesson before he headed home. My student hit a great drive on a very short par 5, and was left with 220 yards to the flag, 210 to the front edge. He automatically pulled out his 3 wood, which he hit about 190 yards when struck well. I asked him “what are you doing?” To which he responded “Well… I am trying to get it as close to the green as possible.” I said “Think about what you are doing. You know that when you hit it well, you hit your 3 wood about 190. If you hit it poorly we are looking at 170. So best case you are 20-30 yards from the flag and at worst you are 40-50. You acknowledge you struggle with 20-40 yard shots. Now until you practice those and feel good about them, you are laying up to a weakness. Why would you do that?” He looked at me like I had two heads. He responded, a little frustrated “what would you have me do then?” So I proposed this idea, “You hit your pitching wedge beautifully, and pretty much dead on 105-110 every time. How about we go pitching wedge-pitching wedge?” Again, I got the two heads look. I convinced him to just go with it. He hit two great wedges, 110 and 110, to 8 feet and made the putt for birdie. Walking off the green he had this bewildered smile on his face. He commented “I would have never thought of that… it was so easy… why would I not just DO that??” We never think of the good layup, often thinking that closer=better.
For everyone out there, we all have things we are working on, improving on. To play golf well, we need to understand what we are good at any given moment. If we are putting well, any opportunity we have to get it on the green and give ourselves a chance should be taken. If we are striking it well, take a few more aggressive lines than we might have taken before. Remember, not ever shot has to be perfect to shoot a great score. We just have to avoid making those mental mistakes that could cause disaster and high numbers. Play to your strengths, whatever they are!