course management part 1 p1

Golf’s major equipment makers spend much of their marketing budgets selling drivers. So it’s no surprise that new drivers are by far the most expensive clubs – or that most amateurs reflexively reach for the big stick on every par 4 and par 5. 

For all the distance gains brought about by modern technology, accuracy – not length – remains the most important driving skill. That’s especially true for amateurs, who lack the prodigious power that lets professional golfers smash the ball past trouble spots. 

But the pros recognize there are times when hitting the driver is either too risky or simply unnecessary. That’s when they’ll choose a fairway wood, hybrid or even an iron to position the ball in the right spot on the fairway. 

Pros don’t always hit the longest club for their second shots on par 5s, either. Nor do they aim at every flagstick with their irons, or always attempt a miraculous recovery from trouble. Instead, they plot their way around the course, attacking when the odds are favorable and playing safely when risk outweighs reward. 

Course management is a subtle and overlooked but vitally important part of golf. Learn the pros’ strategy methods and you’ll save strokes without making a single swing change. In part I of this two-part feature, we’ll study how pros manage the game from tee-to-green. (Part II focuses on the short game and putting.) 

Why It’s Important: 

course management part 1 p2

Nothing adds shots to your scorecard faster than hitting the ball into a hazard, the woods or out of bounds. Sometimes these mistakes are a matter of execution; perfect strategy is often undermined by a bad swing. Other times, steering clear of disaster is as simple as picking the right club. 

Practicing sound course management can greatly lower your stress level, too. Most golfers tense up over risky shots, decreasing their chance of success. By limiting the degree of difficulty, you’ll relax and swing more freely. 

Who You Should Watch: 

In historical terms, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus rank among the greatest at managing the course. Among today’s pros, Tiger Woods has flashed strategic brilliance on many occasions. Zach Johnson’s tactical approach helped him win the 2007 Masters despite never reaching a par 5 in two shots. 

Generally speaking, professionals are highly adept at this aspect of the game. Here are a few things to study when viewing tournament golf: 

  • Their club choices on tight par 4s. Unless the hole is exceptionally long, most pros will hit a shorter club than the driver to better avoid water, thick rough or other obstacles
  • How they play away from difficult pin placements: Few pros will play directly at a hole cut close to a deep bunker or water, aiming instead for the center of the green. The exception is when they’re hitting a wedge, which delivers greater accuracy, height and backspin than longer clubs. 
  • When they go for it on par 5s: Assuming they’ve got the power to reach the green, two things will discourage a pro from giving it a go: a hazard requiring a long carry, or major trouble very close to the green’s edge. In general, pros play par 5s as aggressively as possible. 
  • Where they lay up: On par 5s, many amateurs automatically reach for the 3-wood for a second shot that has no chance of hitting the green. Pros prefer to lay up to a distance that gives them the best chance on the next shot. For example, if a pro hits a full sand wedge 100 yards, he’ll lay up using the club that reaches that spot. The same goes for a short par 4 where driver isn’t necessary. 

Apply It to Your Game 

Follow these tips to manage the course like a pro: 

  • Don’t hit driver if a hole is very tight, unless you are extremely accurate with that club.
  • Play aggressively whenever possible on par 5s and short par 4s. If the penalty for a missed shot is light, go for it.
  • When laying up, determine how far you need to hit the ball to present the best opportunity on your next shot. For example, if you’re 260 yards from the green and want to be 100 yards for your next shot, pick your 160-yard club for the lay-up.
  • On approach shots, aim for the middle of the green any time there’s trouble near the flag.
  • When the pin is placed near the edge of a green, play to the wider side. For instance, aim to the right of a pin that’s close to the left edge.
  • Limit the damage when shots go astray. Pitch back to the fairway from trees or deep rough.