Like any sport, golf tests the ego. The temptation to play a “hero shot” is ever-present, while the urge to keep pace with a big-hitting buddy can prove irresistible – even when we know better.
Because a too-aggressive approach is rarely rewarded, managing the course based on your strengths and weaknesses – playing “within yourself,” as they say – is critical to playing your best golf. And nobody does it better than Steve Stricker.
The only golfer to twice earn the PGA Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year award, Stricker has thrived during the “bomb and gouge” era despite a lack of major-league length. (He tied for 99th in average driving distance in 2011 at 281.6 yards.) How does Stricker overcome this disadvantage?
By staying true to his own game.
Knowing your personal tendencies is the most important aspect of course management. This starts with learning how far you hit each club, on average. For example, if your average driver shot travels 225 yards, you’ll need to gear down to a fairway wood or hybrid if a hazard crosses the fairway at 215. The same applies to iron shots.
It’s also crucial to learn which way your shots usually curve (left or right), and any clubs that give you trouble. You might have a tendency to hit your pitching wedge fat, for instance, or your hybrids a little thin.
Finally, make an honest assessment of how you react to pressure. Many golfers hit the ball farther when nerves kick in; others tense up and hit it shorter, or to the right. The more you know about your own game, the better prepared you’ll be for golf’s infinite variables.
What Stricker Does So Well
Now in his 40’s, Stricker is surrounded by younger players who bomb the ball miles past him with the driver. Not only is he unfazed by their power, he beats them all on a weekly basis.
It helps to be a great putter, and Stricker ranks among the world’s best with the flat stick. He’s also a sensational wedge player (No. 2 on Tour in approaches from 75-100 yards) with a deadly overall short game (No. 2 in scrambling).
Most importantly, Stricker relies on his strengths to negate his disadvantage off the tee. He doesn’t try to match the youngsters in “driving for show,” leaning instead on his ability to “putt for dough.” Stricker never overswings with the driver, and doesn’t fret when he’s hitting a 7-iron into a green when his counterpart has only a wedge. He’s not prone to take big risks on par 5s, knowing his wedge prowess gives him a good chance for birdie from 100 yards and in.
A player with a different skill set from Stricker’s would attack the course differently. A long driver who’s less adept around the greens – Bubba Watson is a good example -- will try to overpower par 5s and short par 4s. If he finds major trouble around the green, playing safely and accepting bogey is a better option than attempting a miracle recovery and creating disaster.
Apply It to Your Game
First things first: Figure out how far you hit every club in the bag. There are several ways to go about this, the easiest and most accurate being to get tested on a launch monitor. Contact your local PGA professional or clubfitter to arrange a session.
Next, keep track of your stats over several rounds in these categories:
- Percentage of fairways hit from the tee
- Percentage of greens hit in regulation (1 shot on a par 3; 2 shots on a par 4; 3 or fewer shots on a par 5)
- Number of putts per round
- Number of three-putts per round
- Average distance of putts holed
- Percentage of up-and-downs made from off the green
These stats will tell you where your strengths and weaknesses lie, allowing you to tailor course management strategies around what you do well. (And telling you where your game needs work.)
In golf, as in life, it’s best to simply be yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not – a big hitter, say, or a brilliant chipper – and you’ll get the most from every round.
Steve Stricker is living proof.