Course Management – The Art Of Smart Golf

Course management is the art of playing smart golf. By improving your choices on the golf course you can save yourself shots and possibly even golf balls!

The best part is you don’t need to improve your swing or your putting stroke!

Let’s see if you can save yourself a few shots per round.

Golf is not about the quality of your good shots, it is about the quality of your bad shots

Sir Nick Faldo

Why Is Course Management Important In Golf?

Because making a good decision is sometimes more important than hitting good golf shots.

Even the greatest players don’t always pull off the shot they are trying to hit. Knowing what to take on and where best to leave yourself is a cheap way of improving your golf scores.

It can also help you from running up a big score when your game is a little off.

It’s like playing snooker, the best players know how to manoeuvre the cue ball to leave themselves the easiest shot. By using some simple strategies you can improve your scores without having to spend time at the driving range working on your swing.

Course Management Tips

Not all of these tips will necessarily apply to you but there should be quite a few that you may find useful.

Research The Course

Course management can start even before you get there! If you’ve never played the course before then you can probably pull up the club website to view a course guide or failing that take a look at Google Earth to get a feel for the course.

You can probably plot a strategy right then and there. It’s also useful for spotting hazards that may not be visible when you’re on the ground.

Know Your Yardages

It’s important for you to work out your stock yardages with each club. It’s going to be difficult to play strategically if you don’t have any idea how far you hit your shots. I’m not suggesting you need to have tour pro levels of accuracy but knowing that a solidly struck 7-iron goes 130 yards means you have a base to work from.

Play From The Correct Tees

An underrated way of improving your game is by playing from a set of tees that suits the distance you can actually hit the ball. If you struggle to drive the ball 200 yards then you’re not going to enjoy playing from the very back tees at most golf courses!

Be realistic about your ability and your scores will tumble while your enjoyment levels rise. A quick way to judge the best option is to multiply your 5-iron distance by 36.

5-iron carryCourse Length
1204320
1405040
1605760
1806480
2007200
Suggested course lengths

Swing Aggressively At Conservative Targets

It’s always better to make aggressive swings at a conservative target rather than pick aggressive targets which may lead you to swing carefully and therefore hit a bad shot.

Making a committed swing aiming for the centre of the green is likely to produce better results long term than going for a flag tucked behind a bunker that even a tour pro probably wouldn’t chase.

Avoid Leaving Yourself Half Shots

Try to avoid leaving yourself in situations where you have to play finesse shots. Even the best players in the world would rather hit a full shot with a wedge rather than a 30 or 40-yard pitch.

Use The Teeing Ground

Try to use the teeing ground to your advantage. If you normally hit a fade shot then tee up on the right-hand side and aim down the left side of the fairway to give you a better chance of success.

Try To Play To Flat Areas On The Fairway

Most players don’t hit great shots from severely sloping lies. Wherever possible try to put the ball on a flat piece of the fairway. You are much more likely to play your next shot well.

Concentrate On The Speed Of Putts

Unless the greens are very undulating you are probably more likely to misjudge the speed than the direction of your long putts. If you can get more of your long putts close then you’ll find your second putt so much easier. If you keep leaving yourself 8-10 footers then you will start to miss them eventually!

Keep The Ball Low Around The Green

If you can putt it then that’s probably your best option. If you can’t putt it then try to chip it with a 7-iron. Only go for a fancy pitch or lob if you have no other option or you are a good player.

pot bunker
Really want to chip over this?

Try Not To Short Side Yourself

If a flag is close to the edge of the green then try to avoid missing on that side. The same goes for short or long if the flag is close to the front or back.

It’s much better to be putting from the middle of the green than trying to play a delicate chip or bunker shot.

Work Backwards

Assuming you played the hole before you probably know the best strategy for that hole. If it’s the first time you’ve played then work backwards from the green. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where would you like to play your approach shot from? 
  • What club do you need to hit from the tee to get there? 
  • What hazards are in play? 
  • Can you reach the hole in regulation?
  • How will the weather affect my ball?
  • Are ground conditions firm and fast or soft?

If you can’t reach the hole in regulation then is it worth taking your driver off the tee? Taking a fairway wood and making sure you’re in play will probably lead to better results than trying to bust a driver and then smash a fairway wood for your second.

Remember there aren’t any pictures on the scorecard, you just need to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible.

Be Realistic About Your Ability

Try not to play shots that take you outside of your comfort zone too often. If you’re not confident that you can make the shot at least 50 to 60% of the time then I would play something easier.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew especially when there is a risk of penalty shots.

Remember that something like 80% of the time club golfers come up short of the target. So club accordingly.

Pick Exact Targets

Studies have shown that focusing on very specific targets tends to result in better outcomes. Don’t just aimlessly think about hitting the fairway. Pick a tree or bush in the distance on the line you want to go or maybe use the stripes on the fairway. Anything that gets you focused on a specific direction.

When you’re putting, don’t just line up vaguely in the direction you want to go, pick a small target on the green and try to get your ball started over that mark.

water hazard
Don’t aim at this!

Never Aim Where A Straight Shot Will Put You In Trouble

While every player has certain tendencies to shape the ball one way or another you don’t want to aim out of bounds or at a water hazard with the expectation that your normal draw or fade will kick in. Give yourself some margin for error and aim inside the line of the hazard that way if you manage to hit a straight shot you should still be in the clear.

Middle Of The Green Is Usually Good

Pretty well every golfer can be guilty of chasing the flag but there are times when the middle of the green should suffice. At the majority of golf courses if you can get your ball in the middle of the green then you’ll be facing no more than a 30-40 foot putt. That has to be better than chipping or escaping from a bunker.

Know Your Tendencies

If you tend to fade your irons then aiming at a flag on the right side of the green is probably not a great idea. If your normal fade kicked in then you’re going to be short-sided.

It would be a much better idea for you to aim a little left of the flag. This would mean pretty well all of your shots should hit the green no matter which way they curved.

So without changing your swing or the result you’ve now got a lot more of your approach shots finishing on the green.

Have A Go To Shot Off The Tee

When the pressure is on it’s good to have a particular favourite club and shot that you can rely on. Many pros will tee the ball down and try to squeeze a driver out from left to right thus eliminating the left-hand side of the course.

Try to find your version.

Watch Your Playing Partner’s Shots

I find this particularly useful with putts but it’s also useful on long shots as you can see what the wind is doing and also if you’re quick enough you can check out which club from their bag. It should also give you a good idea of how the ball is going to react on the green.

Keep Your Eyes Open

You should always keep an eye out for pin positions on other holes while you’re playing. This can be useful because later in the round you may have to play to a green with a blind approach shot.

Use A GPS Or Rangefinder

For the majority of recreational golfers, I think a GPS device is sufficient. Knowing the distance to the front middle and back is enough unless you are a good ball striker that can achieve consistent distances with their irons.

Many clubs now have different coloured flags to tell you whether the pin is positioned in the front middle or back section of the green. That means you know to within about 10 yards where the flag is.

If you are a low handicapper then a rangefinder might be more useful as you are probably able to hit the ball to specific yardages more often.

I’ve had a Skycaddie SG2.5 for some time but these days you can get some from mobile phone apps.

Uphill Putts Are Usually Easier

Particularly on fast greens, uphill putts (and chips) are usually easier. Try to leave yourself in a position where your next putt is uphill as you can be more positive and take out some of the break.

Golf Course Management For High Handicappers

I think the points I’ve raised are valid for all types of golfers. High handicappers though shouldn’t get caught in the trap of thinking too much about par.

Par is what a scratch golfer is going to get. Just because it’s a par-4 or par-5 doesn’t mean you have to automatically pull out your driver.

If you are a high handicapper then there’s a good chance you don’t hit your driver very straight. Try leaving it in the bag and use a fairway wood or hybrid that will get you in play.

Remember you have a handicap for a reason. Use those shots wisely.

Here are some more tips for beginners.

Course Management: Conclusion

While course management alone won’t get you from 18-handicap to scratch it can help you shave a few strokes off your score. It might turn a bad day into an ok one and an ok day into a good one.

Those who fail to plan, plan to fail!

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