On the course: Tee shots

The most important way to break 90 consistently is to make good decisions on the course. The average 90-shooter loses more strokes due to poor club and shot selection than to a bad swing or missed shot. I’m convinced of that. I could caddie for the average 25-handicapper and take 10 shots off his or her score instantly–not by overhauling the swing, but by helping with on-course decision-making.

The biggest challenge you face on the tee–even before you decide what kind of shot you want to hit–is changing your mind-set from “driving range” to “on the course.” Most people who hit balls with the driver at the range don’t really aim–they just hit it out there somewhere. Then, when they get on the first tee, the edges of the rough and the trees running down both sides make the fairway seem two feet wide. You can avoid this by being more precise in your practice. Always hit range balls at a target, whether you’re hitting a 9-iron or a driver. You might be standing there admiring the 245-yard screamer you just hit without noticing that you pulled it 30 yards left.

Once you get a little more comfortable on the tee, then you can start to think about strategies that will make the hole play more easily for you. The goal for each hole is to hit a tee shot that will give you the greatest margin for error and simultaneously put you in the best position for the next shot. On a straight hole, that means aiming for the landing point that accepts the shot you hit most frequently and penalizes you the least for your most common mistake. For a slicer, that means aiming for the left edge of the fairway. I’ve played with amateurs who insisted on aiming right down the middle of the fairway just because they nail one tee shot in 10 dead straight. So for the entire day, they’re playing most of their approach shots from the right rough. If that amateur would just aim for the left edge of the fairway, he could be playing from the short grass on nine out of 10 tee shots. You can get better without changing a thing about your game if you learn your tendencies and play them.

For most players–male players, that is–getting better also means checking your testosterone at the clubhouse. The game rewards people who control their egos, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner your scores will go down. At pro-ams, I often have to pry the driver out of my amateur partner’s hand on the tee of a 320-yard par 4 with water down the right side, even though every drive he’s hit has been a 20-yard slice. It’s tough to convince him that the best shot is a 200-yard 3-wood, which leaves a nice, full 120-yard 8-iron or 9-iron into the green. Even if he hits a career 270-yard drive, he has a 50-yard pitch left–a shot even tour pros don’t like to play.

I realize that there’s always the temptation to pull off the miracle shot. I call that temptation “The Blonde.” It’s like when a sexy blonde propositions a happily married man. The easiest thing in the world is to say yes. Golf can be the same. The narrow landing area off to the left, 235 yards away, is The Blonde. Forget The Blonde! Aim for the fat part of the fairway. Some people think it’s heroic to go for the gambling shot. Ac-tually, it’s stupid. It’s The Blonde. Boring is good. Think about the odds. If you make it one time out of 20, the 19 times you miss translate into double bogey or worse. Do the math.

On the course: Approach shots

When I’m standing over an average approach shot in a tournament, the number of calculations that go through my mind the instant before I pull a club from the bag would terrify the average player. The most obvious factors are the conditions: wind, humidity, elevation, lie. But beyond that, like a pool player, I’m thinking about my next shot as well. I know I don’t want to leave myself a downhill or sidehill putt. If the grain of the green is going away from me, I also know that my approach shot will bounce three or four extra yards. If the greens are hard, like the ones at Augusta, I know that any shot that lands within 30 feet of the hole is going to bounce over the green. But when the greens are softer, I can be more aggressive and go after the flag. If I’m leading and trying to be more conservative, I have to make sure that my miss is on the fat part of the green. I’m also thinking about my physical condition. Am I tired? Pumped? If the adrenaline is flowing, I’ll usually use less club and swing harder. A harder swing also promotes a fade, which flies higher and lands with more spin. A draw will fly lower and longer and roll more when it lands.

All of these things register in about half a second. Then I pull the club, brush the grass with my practice swing and then take my real swing. Follow my example when you’re on the course. Go through your own set of calculations to help pick the shot that will give you the most room for error–in other words, the shot that even in a worst-case scenario won’t be the end of the world.

On the course: Red–yellow–green

If you’ve put yourself in good position with your tee shot, it’s time to take advantage of it with a strong approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should be aiming for every flag.

Many amateurs stripe one down the middle of the fairway off the tee, and when they get to their ball, they automatically line up the next shot right at the flag and fire away without a second thought. If you want to break 90 consistently, break yourself of that habit. I divide pin locations into three colors: red, yellow and green, just like a traffic light. “Green” means that I’ve got a good lie and good yardage (I’m not between clubs), that the green is flat or angled toward me, and that the pin is in an accessible place (like the center of the green) and away from any bunkers or trouble. “Green” means go, and I play an aggressive shot and try to hit it close.

“Red” means that I have a suspect lie or bad distance, or that I’m playing from the wrong side of the fairway (instead of being able to play it up a chute between bunkers guarding the green, the shot has to be played over sand or other hazards), or that the flag is cut close to water or a bunker. For a “red” flag, I play very conservatively toward the fat part of the green and concentrate on making my two-putt par. Let me give you an example. If I hit my tee shot into the right rough and I’m stuck with a slight downhill lie, I know I’m not going to be able to hit a high shot. If the flag is at the front of the green, just a few paces behind a stream, I also know that I can’t run a low shot onto the green, which is what the lie dictates. I have two options. I can take a lot more club and blow one onto the back of the green and take my chances with my putter, or I can lay up short of the stream and rely on my short game. Either choice is better than trying to hit a high shot from a mediocre downhill lie.

“Yellow” flags fall somewhere in between. If I’m really swinging the club well or I need to make up some shots, I might consider going for it. If I’m tired or protecting a lead, I play a more conservative shot.

Tailor a system to your own game. I’m sure you have clubs and shots you love to play. When you get the chance to hit them from reasonably good lies and the pin is in a good location, go for it! But be smart enough to take the gamble out of it when the odds aren’t in your favor. It’s often better to miss the green completely to the safe side than to gamble and go for a pin that’s tucked next to a deep bunker or water hazard. You could be 15 feet from the flag but at the bottom of a deep bunker with little green to work with. On the other hand, you could have an easy 70-foot chip from the other side of the green.

When you do decide to go for a “green” flag, keep in mind one important piece of advice. Most 90-shooters step off the yardage and pull a club based on their optimum shot. For example, if you hit a perfectly-struck 5-iron 160 yards, your tendency is to use that club when you have 160 to the flag. You set yourself up to fail, because the only way you can hit it close is to hit a career shot. The best thing to do in that situation is to hit a 4-iron with a smooth swing. If you kill it, you might be 10 yards past the flag. If you hit it well, you’re somewhere around the hole. If you hit it not so well, you’re on the front part of the green or just off. Don’t try to be a hero. Putting a smoother swing on a longer club is always the better play.

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