Don't Steer the Golf Ball when Fairway is Tight

Here's one of golf's many small ironies: The harder you try to drive the ball accurately on a tight hole, the worse your chances of hitting the fairway.

Why? Because narrowing your focus to a small area causes you to tense up and steer or guide the ball, rather than making a free-flowing swing in which your parts work in unison. Golfers anxious over the shot's result will often pull up and out with their left (lead) side, yanking the club across the line and producing a weak, thin slice.

Does that mean you should grip it and rip it no matter how slender the fairway? Not exactly. That mentality rarely delivers great accuracy. You do, however, want to make a full, forceful swing. Here's how:

  • Set up to play your natural shot shape (fade or draw). This will boost your comfort level and confidence.
  • Position the ball 1-2 inches closer to the center of your stance than usual.
  • Grip down an inch or so on the club.
  • Make your normal full swing.

By playing the ball back and choking up, you'll automatically shorten your swing and add control. That frees you up to give it 100% power, which keeps the upper and lower body working together.

Don't Steer the Ball When Fairway is Tight

Don't Steer the Ball When Fairway is Tight

Stepping up to the tee and seeing a tight fairway stretched out in front of you is an intimidating experience, to say the least. All golfers love to see a wide fairway waiting to receive their drives, but that is not always going to be the case. Sometimes, you will come across a golf course which is tight all the way from the first hole to the last. In other cases, you'll play a course which is generally wide, but presents you with one or two tight holes along the way. When you do reach these narrow holes, it is important to have a plan.

In this article, we are going to cover a variety of strategies which we hope will help you hit more narrow fairways. It is a great feeling to stand on the tee knowing you can hit even the smallest of fairways, but that feeling doesn't come free. You have to earn it, through a combination of smart decision making and plenty of physical preparation. Remember, even the best course management strategies can't make up for a poor golf swing. Only when you blend a solid swing with the right choices will you be able to find your ball in the short grass time after time.

As mentioned in the title of this article, one of the common problems faced by amateur golfers – and even some professionals – is trying to 'steer' the golf ball when playing to a tight fairway. In other words, the player will attempt to guide their ball into the fairway with a careful swing, rather than moving the club head through the ball aggressively and with confidence. When you are hitting the shot, steering the ball might feel like the right thing to do. You'll feel like you have more control, since you aren't releasing the club at full speed. Unfortunately, this type of swing does not actually help you hit more accurate shots. If anything, your accuracy is going to be harmed when you steer your swing, as the club face will not rotate into a square position freely, as it does when you just relax and let it go. Most of the time, attempting to steer the ball into the fairway is only going to lead to disappointment.

So, does that mean you should be swinging as hard as possible? Well, no, not quite. In the end, we should be looking for something in between those two extremes. You don't want to guide the ball down the fairway, but you don't want to swing so hard that you feel like you're going to fall over, either. The ideal swing in this situation is the same as the ideal swing for any other tee shot – you are going to attempt to make a solid, repeatable swing which features great balance and produces a predictable ball flight. In the end, sticking with your standard swing is the best bet to hit a narrow fairway.

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.

What Makes a Fairway 'Tight'?

What Makes a Fairway 'Tight'?

When you picture a tight fairway, you probably have visions of tall trees running the length of the hole, from tee to green. And, to be sure, that is one form of a tight fairway. However, there are many other ways in which course designers can make a fairway tight, even when there are no trees in sight.

In the points below, we are going to outline a few ways in which a fairway may be made to feel tight.

  • A narrow fairway width. Quite simply, a fairway can feel tight just because there isn't very much short grass available to find from the tee. There really isn't an 'average' fairway width, since courses vary so wildly, but it's pretty common to see something between 35 – 50 yards, depending on the style of course you are playing. So, if you get down under that 35-yard width, you are starting to deal with a tight fairway. Conditions play a role here as well, since a 35-yard wide fairway which is firm and fast will feel much tighter than a 30-yard wide fairway when conditions are soft. Most public golf facilities tend to keep their fairways on the wider side to promote good pace of play, but your experience is sure to vary from course to course.
  • A row of trees. This is the situation mentioned above, and it certainly can be intimidating. If you look down the fairway to see a thick row of trees on each side, you will know that you can't afford to make a mistake with your tee shot. Even if the fairway is relatively wide from a yardage standpoint, it is going to feel narrow because of the presence of the trees. To succeed in this situation, it is important to 'ignore' the trees while simply focusing on the task at hand. As long as you do your job and make a solid swing, the trees shouldn't come into play at all.
  • A collection of bunkers. Another way for a course designer to put pressure on your tee shot is through the use of fairway bunkers. Usually, one bunker is not enough to make a fairway feel tight – but a collection of bunkers can certainly do the job. It is a significant penalty to find your ball in a fairway bunker, as reaching the putting surface with your next shot is sure to be a challenge. Bunkers might not get quite as much attention from the tee as a water hazard, but they can be just as damaging to your score in many instances. When you see a group of bunkers waiting near the landing area for your tee shot, it is easy to get tight and make a poor swing. Just as was the case with a tree lined fairway, you are going to need to put the threat of the sand out of your head while focusing on the execution of a great shot.
  • Water hazards or out of bounds stakes. Finally, we get to the topic of course designers using penalty strokes as a way to intimidate the golfer. If you see a water hazard near the fairway, or if you see those dreaded white out of bounds stakes, you are sure to think twice about the shot you are going to play. There is nothing subtle about these kinds of situations, as you know exactly what you are in for if you make a mistake. Hit your ball in the water, or hit it out of bounds, and you are going to be adding strokes to your score automatically. You might be able to recover from finding a fairway bunker, but no recovery is possible when your ball is out of bounds – you simply add a stroke and try again. Even a wide fairway can suddenly feel tight when it is guarded by a pond or a row of out of bounds stakes.

As you can see, a fairway can seem tight for a variety of reasons. Another possibility not listed above is the presence of wind, which can make even a big fairway feel tight when it is blowing in the wrong direction. In the end, you are going to need to have a strategy in mind that you will use when playing to a tight fairway, no matter what it is that has caused the fairway to feel tight in the first place. The rest of this article is going to be focused on helping you find the short grass in these difficult situations.

The Club Selection Process

The Club Selection Process

Before we can talk about how to make sure your swing holds up under the pressure of a tight fairway, we first need to discuss club selection. Picking the right club might not be quite as important as making a good swing, but it isn't far behind. By selecting the right club, you can give yourself some margin for error in case the swing doesn't come off quite as expected. Most amateur golfers reach for their driver automatically when they arrive at a par four or par five, but you can improve your overall play if you are willing to consider other options.

When trying to decide which club is going to be the best option as you try to hit a narrow fairway, keep the following points in mind.

  • Distance may not be your priority. It is easy to get caught up in the idea of hitting the ball as far as possible off of every tee. However, in many cases, distance is not going to be your main concern. This is often the case when playing to a narrow fairway. It is common for course designers to use narrow fairways as a form of protection for short holes, so you will usually find a narrow fairway combined with short overall distance. That means you may not need to use your driver in order to position your ball for a comfortable approach shot. Unless you happen to be playing a long hole that is also narrow, you can usually afford to sacrifice distance in favor of control when you encounter a tight fairway.
  • Identify an ideal landing area. In many cases, the width of the fairway will vary as you move up closer to the green. For instance, the fairway may be just 30 yards wide at 200 yards from the tee, but it may widen to 35 yards at 225 yards off the tee. In such a case, you may want to consider hitting the ball approximately 225 yards, to give yourself the advantage of a wider landing area. By thinking about the best spot in the fairway to land your ball, it should be pretty easy to determine which club will take your tee shot into that distance range. This is a particularly important strategy when trying to avoid a hazard, like a pond. If the pond doesn't start until 250 yards from the tee, you can simply use a club which won't reach that distance, and the hazard will effectively be out of play.
  • Trust is a factor. Is there a club in your bag that you simply trust more than the rest? If so, you will want to give that club extra consideration when trying to hit a tight fairway. Confidence is going to be hard to come by in this situation, so using a club that gives you good feelings is a smart move. Of course, the club will still have to make sense given the situation at hand, so you can't always base your club choices solely on your level of confidence with each option. Instead, you can think of this point as a tiebreaker – if you are stuck between two clubs for the tee shot at hand, go with the one that you trust more than the other.
  • Think about the next shot. We touched on this topic a bit earlier, but we need to expand on it here. When hitting any tee shot, your main concern should be to position your ball as nicely as possible for the next shot. Where would you like to play your approach shot from? Determine the answer to this question, then figure out how to place your ball in that position. Sometimes, it is okay to accept a longer approach shot, as long as it makes your tee shot easier. In other cases, you'll want to move your ball up as close to the green as possible, which will mean using your driver from the tee. No two holes are exactly the same, so consider all of your options before deciding where you are going to attempt to place your ball for the next swing.

For every shot you play throughout a round of golf – with the exception of your putts, where the club selection process is easy – it is important to think critically when picking a club. This is particularly true on the tee, where it is all too easy to be sucked into the pattern of just swinging your driver over and over again. There are plenty of clubs in your bag capable of hitting tee shots, so don't make the mistake of defaulting to the driver. Evaluate the hole in front of you, pick out an ideal landing spot, and then choose the club that is going to be able to do the job.