There's no getting around the capricious caroms, unpredictable turns and basic bad luck that make golf such a mystifying game. But the more attention you pay to the course's features, the more control you'll have over your fate.
Take the example of professional golfers. Before each tournament, they spend hours dissecting the course's every hump and hollow, tee to green, enlisting their caddies for additional aid. Most of the time, they're already familiar with the course from past years – yet they still pore over the details with a scientist's diligence, looking for things they may have missed before.
That doesn't mean you should chart every inch of your home course. You should, however, learn something new every time out. No matter how many rounds you've played on the same track, you'll never uncover all of its secrets.
Think about it: When's the last time you went 18 holes without misreading a putt? Without being surprised by a wild bounce? Without misjudging your yardage on an uphill or downhill shot?
It's impossible to eliminate all of golf's variables and vagaries. You can whittle them down, though, by keeping your eyes open throughout the round. Here are several tips for studying the course as you play, with no extra time required. (Part II of this feature offers more pointers.)
Examine the green as you walk away
Next time you misread a putt, don't storm back to the cart or shuffle off with your head down. If time permits (as in, you're not holding up another group), try the putt again and figure it out. Barring that, study the area surrounding the putt as you walk off the green. The long view often provides visual clues – the influence of a nob or the pull of a pond – that aren't as obvious up close.
Check out the space behind big bunkers
Steep-lipped bunkers aren't just intimidating, they can be quite deceptive. When the flag is tucked behind such a monster, there's often much more room between sand and pin than meets the eye from 100+ yards away. Once on the green, take note of the room behind the bunker. In the future, knowing that you've got lots of space – or very little – can come in handy.
Identify contours that can help (or hurt) your shots
Golfers are prone to viewing yardages as all-carry propositions. In other words, a 150-yard shot calls for your 150-yard club. But many times, the ground is your best friend. Mounds or berms bordering fairways can provide friendly kicks and increase your margin for error, especially when trouble lurks on the opposite side.
Course designers often equip green complexes with subtle banks, which may propel shots onto the dance floor. The interior slopes on multi-tiered or heavily contoured greens can serve as a springboard, sending your ball toward the hole.
Remember, golf isn't just an aerial game. Keep your eyes on the ground for potential built-in advantages.
Note what's around the bend
On courses where hills, woods or bushy wetlands are prevalent, portions of fairway are sometimes hidden from the tee. A tiny-looking target might actually prove quite roomy once you've got a clear view.
Other times, the available space is tighter than you thought. On sharp doglegs, for example, it's easy to drive the ball through the fairway. Knowing this prepares you to take less club next time.
Pay special attention to your very worst shots. It's amazing how often a huge slice or unstoppable hook ends up in better shape than expected. Occasionally, as on a big or blind dogleg, a drive that looks terrible ends up perfect. Having such info stored away can pay big dividends in future rounds.