Develop solid course management skills from effective observation and calculated discipline

By Jon Levy

golf course management
Hole #16, Colorado Golf Club

The term “course management” in golf, which defines how a player manages on-course strategy and decision making in an effort shoot the lowest score possible, is often thrown around loosely.

Because many of us – from 30 handicaps to plus 3s – feel we employ decent course management in our own games. But when faced with the possibility of “going for it” or choosing the safe layup down the fairway … more often than not, we all know how that one goes.

Yes, golf is a funny game.

I say that as one who’s played A LOT of it for over 30 years, with A LOT of context behind that.

Part of what makes golf so “funny” is we often know we should hit the smart shot or club, but that little devil inside rewires our cognitive awareness to lead everywhere but to a smart decision.

So, it’s time to play devil’s advocate and finally manage our games like we should through effective observation calculated discipline. Or, more simply stated, by mapping out when the situation is “Red,” “Yellow,” or “Green.”

With that in mind, there are three different scenarios below regarding the second shot on a reachable par 5, all positioned just a few feet apart.

The first is buried in the deep rough, second in a “so-so” lie in the intermediate cut, and third is in a perfect lie in the fairway.

RED: Don’t even think about it – play for safety, nothing more

Course management - play it safe

As you can see with this hole, trouble is everywhere. In the distance by the green there’s a small bailout area left, but anything right and short are dead, and the meandering creek makes even a layup no picnic.

If you read our recent article about how to handle the deep stuff like this, you know this is NOT the time to pull the 3-wood and go for the green, even if it is reachable from this distance and your pal in the fairway is ready to gun for glory. And a mid-to-short iron is also questionable because of the creek and uncertainty of the lie, so the only smart play is to pitch out with a high-lofted wedge into the 80-yard runway of short grass ahead.

As detailed in the aforementioned article, a key to remember here is that thick grass tends to shut down the heel of the club (meaning the ball goes left) and distance won’t be as predictable.

So, this means that while, yes, pitching out is the smart choice, be smart within this choice and don’t get too greedy by trying to max out your layup. Because the ball could easily go into the creek left or through the fairway long, into even thicker stuff.

YELLOW: Proceed with caution – play aggressively conservative

Course management - play aggressively conversative

The ball here is only a few feet from the fairway, but sitting down just far enough that decent contact with a 3-wood is anyone’s guess.

The fact that you’re not totally sure what’s going to happen – a great swing and contact could get you to the green, but a less-than-perfect pass could send the ball anywhere – is the answer in itself. So, if you don’t know, then don’t go (for it).

I’m instead setting up to an 8-iron, which has a good enough lie from which I’m confident I can advance the ball over the creek, 150-160 yards into the fairway.

This is still a safe, conservative play, but let’s call it “aggressively conservative” because it maxes our option to position a short third and chance for birdie. And it won’t lead to the big number from choosing the lumber either, if things don’t go as planned.

GREEN: DO IT! Give it a go, but play conservatively aggressive

Course management - when to be aggressive

Finally, the one we’ve been waiting for: Great lie in the fairway, easily reachable and extra bailout room by the green. A GO on all fronts.

But exhibiting truly effective course management and calculated discipline – knowing left of the green is OK and right is dead – means tempering your pin-seeking thoughts and playing for the left edge of the green, so you’re still OK just in case you flair one a tad right.

While this “conservatively aggressive” approach may seem obvious, it’s always surprised me how even high-level tournament players often get tunnel vision toward the flag, and subsequently hit good shots into trouble because their strategy of target was off in the first place.

Solid course management = adjusting with every shot you hit

These three examples are just a small sample of a the many situations and choices a golfer makes during a given round.

And, it should of course be noted that players of varied abilities should manage their games differently – meaning what’s “a go” for some is not for others.

The bottom line, though, is that every shot hit from tee to green requires a course management decision.

So observe your lie, plot your best options and stay disciplined with the smart shot instead of the more appealing one. And your scorecard will immediately thank you for this marked improvement in “course management.”


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