When you're first learning to play golf, knowing your distance to the target – such as the green – isn't that important. Most novices don't hit the ball solidly enough to see a big difference in yardage from one club to the next.

But once you're consistently getting the ball airborne and headed in the right direction, it's crucial to know how far each shot should go. This is less important when teeing off on par 4 and par 5 holes, since you're usually hitting driver as far as possible. On par 3s, the yardage to the green is listed on the scorecard and, often, on a marker next to the tee.

Once in the fairway (or rough, or fairway bunker), it's up to you to determine the length of your shot to the green so you can pick the right club. Here are a few different options:

Yardage markers: This is the old-fashioned method. Most every course has markers set 150 yards from the green. Always white, these are typically stakes or disks in the center or edge of the fairway. Some courses have distinctive bushes set at 150 yards on the fairway's edge. Most courses also offer markers at 250 (yellow), 200 (blue) and 100 yards (red).

You may also come across sprinkler heads with yardage numbers attached, signifying the distance from that spot to the green.

If you're between two markers (say 150 and 200 yards), you can either estimate your total distance or step off the yardage to the nearest marker. As a beginner, however, it's generally unnecessary to know your distance to the precise yard, so an estimate will suffice.

While the markers on most courses are measured to the green's center, some measure to the front. The scorecard should tell you which.

On-cart GPS: These monitors display a graphic depiction of each hole, showing the exact distance from the cart's position to landmarks including water hazards, bunkers and the flagstick. Less than one-quarter of all U.S. courses are equipped with GPS.

Handheld GPS or rangefinder: Personal GPS units work the same as cart-based devices, displaying distance to various spots from wherever you're standing. Rangefinders are binocular-like gadgets (but usually smaller) through which the golfer views a target and reads the distance displayed.

How to Determine Distance to the Target

How to Determine Distance to the Target

One of your most important jobs as a golfer is to determine the precise distance that you will need to cover in order to reach your target. Surprisingly, many golfers take this task somewhat for granted. Sure, most golfers will take the time to find out how far they have to the hole when hitting an approach shot, but it is possible – and necessary – to be more detailed than that. If you want to take your golf game to a new level of performance, it would be in your best interest to learn how to accurately determine distance to the target as well as a number of other important locations.

If you have ever paid close attention to golf tournaments that are shown on TV, you will have noticed how carefully a pro golfer works with his or her caddy to decide on the yardage they are going to use. Why is this such a process? Can't they just figure out how far it is to the hole and fire away? Well, not really. There are countless variables in play for any given shot, meaning the raw yardage that sits between the ball and the hole will need to be adjusted prior to actually making a swing. If you only base your shot and club selection on the raw yardage that you are facing, you will be disappointed with the results more often than not.

For example, imagine two shots of equal length – both are 150 yards. If you hit your seven iron 150 yards, you can just pull that club out of the bag and fire away, correct? Not so fast. One of these 150 yard shots is being hit on a day with 80* temperatures and no wind. The other shot, however, is being played on a 40* day with a strong breeze that is coming into your face. Given those varied conditions, you are likely going to use two vastly different clubs to cover the 150 yards in question. On the warm day you might be able to hit an eight iron thanks to the added distance you get from high temperatures. On the cold day with a breeze, on the other hand, you might have to go down to a six or maybe even a five iron to get all the way to the target.

The previous example highlights how just knowing the yardage alone isn't going to do you much good in terms of placing your ball close to the hole. Having an accurate yardage is only valuable when it is viewed in context of the other variables that you are facing. Once you learn how to factor everything into the distance equation, you should be able to pick the right club for the majority of your shots. In the content below, we will discuss a number of the details that you need to understand in order to become confident in your ability to assess the distance between you and the target.

All of the content below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

Getting Your Yardage

Getting Your Yardage

Even though there is more to this picture than just the raw yardage, you do need to confirm that number first before moving on to the rest of the process. Thanks to modern technology, there are now several different ways you can go about getting your number. The method you use for determining yardages is up to you, as each has its own pros and cons. Following is a list of options that you can pick from when deciding how you are going to get an accurate yardage on the course.

  • Use course markings. Every golf course will have some form of yardage markers on the tee and in the fairways, although some courses are better about marking distances than others. Once you find a marker that offers you a yardage to the center of the green, you can 'pace off' the distance to your ball, and to the math to come up with a final number. Of course, this number is only going to give you the distance to the center of the green, rather than to the pin itself. For that number, you are probably going to have to guess. Take note of whether the pin is in the front, middle, or back of the green, and then adjust your initial yardage accordingly. Most likely, this is the way you learned to get yardages when you first started playing golf, and it is a method that still works just fine today.
  • Use a GPS system. You have surely seen the GPS devices that have made their way into golf shops in recent years, even if you have not yet used one yourself. These devices make it quick and easy to get yardages from anywhere you happen to be standing on the course. Various models include different features, but nearly all of them will help you determine the yardage to the front, middle, and back of the green, as well as offering yardages to things like bunkers and water hazards. While the technology of a GPS unit will save you time on the course, they are not able to provide an exact number to the location of the hole on that particular day.
  • Use a rangefinder. A rangefinder uses a laser, rather than GPS coordinates, to determine a yardage for you. The laser within the rangefinder simply bounces off of a target out in front of you, and returns a distance within an instant. You will usually use the laser to check on the distance to the flag, but you can also bounce it off of things like trees, the edges of bunkers, and more. The benefit of a rangefinder is that you can get an exact yardage to the hole location that you are facing, which is something the other methods don't offer. Another benefit is the absence of an ongoing subscription fee, which is something you will likely need to pay to keep your GPS up to date. On the down side, you need a steady hand to work your rangefinder properly, as you have to be able to hit what you are intending to measure with the laser.

There is an argument to be made for each of these three options, so you should think about your own game and which option will suit you best. GPS units and laser rangefinders are both able to provide players with accurate distances, but each will require that you spend at least a couple hundred dollars up front. Using the course markings is, of course, free, but you will have to do a little bit of extra work, and your measurements will not be quite as accurate as if you used modern technology. The golfer who plays at least a couple of times a month will likely get enough benefit from a GPS unit or rangefinder to justify the expense, whereas the occasional player may decide it makes sense to save the money and get yardages 'the old fashioned way'.

Total Distance vs. Carry Distance

Total Distance vs. Carry Distance

So, you have used your method of choice to determine the yardage to your target – it's now time to pick a club and hit the shot, right? Not quite. In fact, there is a still a good deal of work left to do before you can hit the shot with confidence knowing that the right club is in your hands. One of the issues you need to sort out is the difference between your total distance to the target and the carry distance that you need to hit the shot in order to have the ball finish in the right place.

The distance that you calculated when you used your GPS unit or rangefinder – or by walking it off based on the course markings – is the distance that you have remaining to reach the hole. However, that doesn't mean you need to hit your ball that far. Most likely, the ball is going to bounce and roll at least a short distance, meaning you need to adjust your math to account for that difference. On a wedge shot played into a soft green, you might not get much bounce at all – but a long iron hit into a firm green is going to bounce and roll several yards or more. So, thinking about the club you are hitting and the distance you are facing, you need to decide how much bounce and roll you are going to plan on for this shot. Once you have that number in mind, subtract it from your total distance to reach the final 'carry number'. It is this carry number that will guide your club selection.

Failing to understand the difference between total distance and carry distance is a mistake that has led to many bogeys over the years. Going back to the earlier example of a 150 yard shot, your seven iron probably isn't going to be the right club for the job if you carry that club a full 150. Sure, the ball may land by the hole, but it will probably be several yards long – or even more – after it has stopped moving. Under 'normal' conditions, the eight iron might be a better option, as it should land short of the hole before bouncing and rolling up closer. Before you pull the trigger on any swing, make sure you have thought carefully about both the carry and roll portions of the shot.

Of course, golf is a game that is endlessly complicated, so you can't count on the same kind of bounce and roll each time you head to the course. The course conditions, along with the weather conditions, are going to largely dictate what happens to the ball when it lands. On dry courses that have firm turf, there will likely be plenty of bounce and roll. If it has been raining and the course is soft however, the ball may simply plug into the ground right where it lands. As a golfer, it is your job to pay attention to the condition of the turf and plan your shots accordingly. In time, you will get better and better at the challenge of predicting bounce and roll, so you should be able to dial in the carry yardage to match up perfectly with your total yardage.

The Variables

The Variables

Just when you thought you might actually be ready to hit the ball, there is another issue for you to sort out. Well, actually, there are several issues to think about. These are the variables that will affect how far your ball flies through the air. Golf would be much simpler if you could expect the ball to fly the same way day after day, but that just isn't how it works. You have to pay attention to the numerous variables that are in play on each shot that you hit if you are going to correctly predict your yardages. While reading through this list might make golf seem more like homework than recreation, these points will actually get rather simple as you continue to gain experience on the course.

  • Wind. Of course, wind is going to play a large role in how far the ball travels in the air. Generally speaking, the ball will have a shorter carry distance when you are playing into the wind, and it will usually carry farther when you play down wind. It takes experience to learn exactly how much the wind will affect your ball flight, and you can limit the 'damage' that the wind does by hitting shots with a lower trajectory. Pay close attention to how much yardage the wind adds or subtracts from your shots and adjust your approach accordingly as you move through a windy round.
  • Elevation change. Golf courses are often designed over uneven ground, meaning you will regularly face shots that are either uphill or downhill to the target. Just as with the wind, elevation changes can also affect how far the ball is going to carry. All other things being equal, the ball will fly farther when going downhill than it will when heading uphill. A shot that might fly 150 yards over flat ground could be reduced to 135 or 140 going uphill – or it could carry a full 160 or 165 going downhill. This is another point that you are going to have to learn with experience, so take note of the effect that elevation changes have on your shots.
  • Temperature. This is a point that is overlooked by most golfers. The air temperature on the day that you are playing will have a great deal to do with how far the ball is going to fly through the air. Even more specifically, your distances can change during the day as the air either heats up or cools down. Cool air is going to restrict the flight of the ball, while warm air will help the ball fly further than usual. It is common for the ball to fly shorter distances early in the morning while the air is still cool, only for those distances to increase after the sun gets up and warms the atmosphere. Be sure to keep track of how the air feels throughout your round, and expect any dramatic changes in temperature to affect the flight of your shots.
  • Grass. The lie of the ball is another factor that needs to be taken into account when calculating your yardages. Is your ball sitting in a clean fairway lie, or is it down in some longer grass? When in the fairway, you can plan on your 'normal' yardage for the club you are holding. However, when playing from the rough, you should plan on a lower shot that leads to a shorter overall carry. You will generally get less backspin on shots from the rough, which translates to a lower ball flight and plenty of bounce and roll on the end of the shot.
  • Slope under the ball. The last variable on our list is the slope of the ground that is sitting under your golf ball. Are you standing on flat ground, or are you dealing with an upslope or downslope of some kind? When the ground is sloped up toward the target, your shot will likely fly higher and shorter than it would off of flat ground. The opposite tends to be true when playing from a downhill lie – the ball will come out low and it will likely carry a bit farther than expected (with additional roll, as well).

In reality, there are more than just the five variables listed above that are going to come into play while trying to determine how hard to hit the ball. However, these five are the main considerations that you need to make, so they should help you determine an accurate distance in most cases. Don't let this list intimidate you, either – you will get better and better and using all of the information available to you to make smart club selections as you gain experience on the course.

Remember Distance from the Tee

Remember Distance from the Tee

Most players focus on the distance that they are facing on approach shots, but they may choose to forget about this point on tee shots. For instance, when the average player walks up to a 400-yard par four, he or she will simply put the tee in the ground and swing away with the driver. That kind of 'strategy' may work out from time to time, but you can do better. By thinking through the distance needs of your shots off the tee, you can better position yourself for success later on down the fairway.

As you stand on the tee, you should first be thinking about how you can get your ball into the fairway. Which club is going to give you the best chance of hitting the fairway while still putting you within reasonable range of the green for your approach shot? It is important to note that your driver isn't always going to be the best club to hit off of the tee on every par four or five. There will be plenty of chances to use your driver during an average round, but you should also be willing to hit your fairway woods or hybrids as well when the situation calls for control over distance.

In addition to thinking about how you can get the ball in the fairway, you should also be thinking about what distance you would like to leave for your second shot. On a short par four, for instance, hitting driver might actually put you too close to the green – leaving an awkward shot that could lead to trouble. Work backward from the green to the tee in your mind until you figure out how far you want to hit the tee shot. If you like to have 100 yards into the green for an easy wedge approach, you can subtract that 100 from the total length of the hole to pick out your distance for the ideal tee ball. This kind of critical thinking doesn't take much in the way of extra time or effort, but it can go a long way toward helping you post good scores at the end of the day.

Finding distance accurately is one of the key jobs of any golfer. You can't be expected to place the ball close to the hole if you don't even know how far you have to go to reach the target. Take your time to determine an accurate yardage, and adjust that yardage for both the roll that you are going to get on the shot and the variables in play (such as wind, temperature, etc.). With a little practice, getting your distances becomes an easy part of the game that you will complete time after time during each round that you play.