Category Archives: strategy


To have a chance at a par, your shot into the green has to get there. It has to arrive. Where it’s appropriate, for shots you intend to hit the green, be they approaches from the fairway or pitches from closer in, play to hit the ball past the pin. This is the scoring zone.

Most greens are deeper than you think. If you think you have a 6-iron to the pin, hit the 5. That choice guarantees you will fly the hazards around the green, which are usually in front. It allows for hitting less than your best shot, which is the shot we hit maybe 90 percent of the time.

For example, say you can hit your 6-iron 150 yards at the range. But when you’re playing, do you really hit it that far? More likely you hit it 145 yards much more often. That 145 yards, then, is your playing distance, even though it is not all you’re capable of with that club.

If you always play the 6 from 150 yards, you will hardly ever arrive.

True, some greens that are so steep from back to front that hitting the ball past the hole is the last thing you want to do. But that’s an exception.

Vivien Saunders had this to say about arriving:

“… there is just as much space beyond the flag as in front of it. When you watch players approach to green from the side it seems ridiculous that they’re constantly short.

In order to improve, try to pass the flag on every single shot you play. Keep a note on your scorecard. Give yourself a point every time your shot to the green finishes on the green beyond the flag. Professionals find this scoring zone far more often than club golfers. Many club golfers soon discover that they never, ever pass the flag.”*

One time, play a round where all day you pick your club into the green as you normally do, but then use one more club, and see what that gets you.

Hitting the ball at the green, instead of to the right or to the left, will be a problem we face with every shot. Hitting it far enough should never be. Just use enough club. Arrive.

* Vivien Saunders, The Golf Handbook for Women, p. 180.

How to Break 100, 90, and 80

Breaking a milestone scores is a major event in a golfer’s life. It signals improvement and gives assurance that going lower still is a possibility.

There are books written on how to break each of these three scores, filled with technique. If you’re a few strokes away, you already have the technique. Think instead about how you plan your round. It makes a difference.
Breaking 100

If you got a double bogey on every hole you would shoot 108. So you can get a double bogey on just nine holes, a bogey on the rest, and there’s 99.

What is killing your score now is not a lack of pars and bogeys. It is the triples and quads. At your level your job is not to take fewer strokes on a hole, but to avoid taking extra ones.

Do that by shoring up your play at each end of the hole.

First, leave your driver at home. Leave your 3-wood at home, too. Tee off with a hybrid iron, one that gets the ball out there 175-180 yards but in the fairway.

Second, from 50 yards and in, just get your ball on the green in the same area as the pin. Do not get cute and try for the pin.

You’re not that good yet. Just get the ball on the green and take your two putts.

Nine bogeys + nine doubles = 99

Breaking 90

Now you have to start making pars. I would still leave the driver at home. Use the longest club with which you can reliably get the ball in the fairway from off the tee, to be on offense from the start.

You also have to get better around the green. Eliminate down-in-four from 50 yards in. You should be getting down in two from just off the green half as often as not.

Get your pars by parring one of the par 3s, one of the par 4s and two of the par fives.

You might say, if I get four pars that gives me an 86. Yes, but you’re still going to have some doubles and maybe a triple.

Your game is in the middle where you’re capable of making pars, but still capable of making big scores, too.

Four pars + eleven bogeys + three doubles = 89

Breaking 80

Now you have to play well all around. Seven over sounds pretty tough, but that’s more wiggle room than you think it is.

Your goal should be to have a putt for par on every hole. Sometimes that putt will 45 feet long, not two feet, but the ball is still on the green and your putt is for a par.

At your level, par is a reasonable expectation on all but a few holes on your course. For those few holes, go for bogey, but give yourself a chance for par. Don’t go all out for par and end up with a double.

Get your pars on two par 3s, five par 4s, and all the par 5s.

Eleven pars + seven bogeys = 79.

In reality, you have to throw in another par somewhere, because going 18 holes without a double bogey is really hard for an 80-shooter to do. Birdies are still happy accidents at this level.

How to Play Par 4s

A standard golf course has ten par 4 holes. They’re hard. Even the pros average a touch over par on them in aggregate. The key is the second shot, but the first and third shot are right behind in importance.

The tee shot needs to be in the fairway. Colin Montgomery said, “The reason people think I’m such a good iron player is that I’m always playing my second shot from here (pointing to the fairway) instead of from over there (pointing to the rough).”

If the rough is low, if fairways bunkers have shallow lips, if there are no trees to hit into, you still have a chance if your ball ends up in one of those places.

Best, though, to play for the fairway. That might mean leaving your driver in the bag occasionally. Something to consider.

The key, now, is the second shot. The big mistake is hitting short of the green. You either overestimate your how far you can hit a club, or you have the right club but don’t make good contact.

Start out choosing your club based on the distance to the pin. Then take one more club (say, a 6-iron instead of a 7-iron), and grip down about an inch. Put a normal swing on the ball.

A good shot will get you past the pin (always good), and if you don’t quite get all of the shot, you’ll be short of the pin, but still on the green.

In addition, most of the trouble around the green is in front, and you’ll be hitting over it.

When selecting your club, do not forget to consider other factors such as differences in elevation between you and the green, wind, dampness in the air, your lie, and how you’re hitting the ball today.

If you got green-high in two, odds are your third shot won’t be that close to the hole, so you’ll have a longish chip or approach putt left.

This is where chipping practice and long approach putt practice (30-40 feet) comes in. You have to get the ball to three feet or less with your third.

Having gone through all that, the advice that puts it all together is to plan the hole backwards, from green to tee.

If you know the course well, you should know where in the fairway you want to hit into the green from. Now you know where in the fairway you want to put your tee shot.

Finally, some par 4s are just to hard for you. Play those as a short par 5 to keep the double off your card.

How to Play Par 3s

Par 3s are golf without the driver. As from the fairway, the key to a good score is choosing the right club to hit off the tee.

That means, first of all, you have the right club in your bag. I have room in my bag for either a 21-degree or a 19-degree hybrid. I look at the scorecard of the course I’m going to play and take along the one that suits the longest par 3 best.

Base your club selection on the listed yardage plus seven yards. That’s the yardage to play the hole at regardless of where the pin is, unless it’s a deep green. Say it’s a 148-yard hole. Your 150-yard club will be short. Take one more club to get hole high.

Tee up the ball. Never hit it off the ground. The height of the tee should be no more than a half inch. Less than that is better. All you’re trying to do is give yourself a good lie.

The green on some par-3 holes is surrounded by hazards – mounds, bunkers, high grass. Most of that will be in front of the hole or to the side. Forget the pin. Take enough club to land the ball on the green beyond the trouble.

Unless you hit the ball pretty straight, consider deliberately playing short and chipping on if it takes more than 5-iron to reach the green. Such a long par 3 is more likely to be a bogey hole than a par hole, and laying up like this could keep a double bogey off your card.

If the green you’re hitting into has no safe place to bail out to, hit a knockdown shot. Take one more club, and swing it back three-quarters. Think of keeping the clubhead low on the follow-through and continuing straight toward the target after contact. Finish with your hands in front of you.

If there is water in front of the green, find out exactly how long that carry is and take TWO more clubs from there. Grip down halfway and swing normally.

When you miss the green, think carefully about the chip. Start by finding a spot to chip to from where you can easily two-putt, and zero in from there.

Have an overall strategy for the round, too. You can break 90 by parring one par 4. You can break 80 by parring two. (In addition to what you do on par 4s and par 5s, (q.v.).

Don’t leave that to chance, though. Pick the ones you can handle and and go after those.

Final thought: the night before you play, spend some time with a pencil and paper and practice writing 2s. Nice, clear, florid 2s. This is mojo that will pay off the next day.

Three Plans For Playing Golf

I want to ask you to try three different ways of playing golf. They come from a book titled, Golf Is a Very Simple Game, by Jonathan Fine.

The book is a summary of the teachings of the golf teacher Francisco Lopez. I recommend this book to you, and its companion volume, What’s This Got to Do With Golf?

You are going to make three plans for playing a round of golf on a course you know well.

There is likely to be a map of the course on the scorecard. Make three blown-up copies of this map to twice its size on the scorecard.

You can make marks on the maps to show where you would want to play the ball, and which clubs you would use.

1. On one map, make a plan to get onto every green in regulation.

2. On the second map, make a plan to stay in the fairway at all times, and out of rough, bunkers, trees, water, and what have you.

3. On the third map, make a plan to get on the green in one shot over regulation on every hole. No GIRs allowed!

After you have done that, play one round with each plan, following it strictly.

As Fine says, “See what happens.”

How to Play a New Golf Course

Many golfers shoot about four or five strokes above their usual score when the play a golf course for the first time. If you pay attention to a few details, that doesn’t have to happen.

When you’re in the clubhouse paying your green fees, ask about these things:

– how fast are the greens? Are they faster than the practice green?
– are there elevated tees on any par 3s? If so, how much more club should you use?
– for big hitters: are there any par 5s that you should not try to reach in two?
– are there any greens that have big trouble if you shoot over them?
– are there any greens that are sloped so much that you do not ever want to be above the hole?
– are there any water hazards that cross the fairway and can be reached from the tee?

This is a lot to ask, but if you ask succinctly and listen to the answer instead of getting into a conversation, the staff won’t mind helping you.

Get a scorecard and read the local rules. Ask about anything that isn’t clear to you.

In general, tee off to the center of the fairway. Aiming for the 150-yard pole, if there is one, is seldom a bad idea.

When hitting into the green, aim for the center. Aim for the pin only if the approach is wide open and there is little or no trouble if you miss the green on that side.

Chipping can be different from course to course. There can be light rough around the green, heavy rough, or no rough.

The only way to solve these problems is to be prepared for them. Learn how to chip out of varying thicknesses of rough. Learn how to use your putter from off the green.

Learn how to chip up to a raised green when your ball is on an upslope to the putting surface.

Play from the right set of tees! If you can’t reach half the par 4s with a 6-iron or less, those tees are to long for you.

If you know you will play this course again, make a note of what clubs you used on each tee and a note of the one you would use, if different, when you play the course again.

When you get to your tee ball, go over the spot you now see to be the best landing area for an approach to the green. Look back the tee, then turn right around and find an aiming marker for this area.

Make any other notes about where to hit, or where not to hit, the ball on any particular hole.

Play conservative golf. Play our own game and see what happens. It will likely be good enough.

Attack the pin

To revolutionize your scoring without changing your technique on bit, attack the pin. By that I mean to hit the ball from the fairway to hole-high or beyond.

First of all, trouble around the green is usually in front. By having enough club to get to the flag, you’ll take all that out of play. A longer shot that is lightly off-line does not get penalized as harshly as a shorter one.

Second, the only way you can get the ball in the hole is to get the ball to the hole. Do I expect you to start sinking 5-irons from the fairway? No. But I do expect you to open up the possibility, and leave yourself with a makable birdie putt when you don’t.

Even when you’re pitching or chipping, get the ball up to the hole and past it. A chip that stops three feet short is nowhere near as good as one that went three feet past. The second one might have gone in.

One of the problems with the strategy is that it doesn’t look, from the fairway, like there is that much room behind the pin to miss long. There is, but the low angle of view you have foreshortens the green, making the pin look closer to the back than it really is.

Play to the pin and don’t worry about what you see.

If you carry the ball over the green every so often, so what? There aren’t any lions lurking back there to devour you. Just chip on a start putting. Besides, if you do fly the green, you were probably shooting at a pin that was in back anyway, meaning you have a short chip and a good chance for an up-and-down.

How do you do this? From the fairway, figure your distance to the pin and add three yards. Then pick your club. That’s not a big adjustment, but it is enough to set your mind past your target. Too often, if we think about hitting a target, we end up short of it.


How to play a long golf course

There is no reason to play a golf course that is too long for you. Just move up a set of tees. If you are ever in a situation where you have to play from tees that are too long, here is how to do it.

First, realize that you will shoot a score that is higher than you usually do. Accept it and do not concern yourself with your score as you play. Just play golf. Add it up when the round is over.

Second, control the ball. You must get the ball in the fairway off the tee, and keep it there. If a long par four will be a three-shotter for you anyway, make them three easy shots. Let’s say that you don’t want to, or can’t, hit a 437-yard par 4 in two. Back way off and make them three easy shots. You can get there with two 5-irons and a pitching wedge. Leaving your driver home might not be a bad idea.

Third, avoid trouble around the green. Know which is the longest club you feel sure that you can hit the green with. Now add three clubs. If you have to hit that club or more to get the ball on the green, lay up if there is lots of trouble around the green you could hit into.

Fourth, if you know you’re going to use up an extra stroke to get to the green, hit that third stroke from a distance you’re very good at. Let’s say you own the 75-yard pitch. Plan your attack so your second shot ends up 75 yards from the pin.

Fifth, your short game goal is to get the ball on the green. From inside 100 yards, you dare not take two shots to get the ball on the green. Forget the pin; aim for the center of the green. The longest approach putt you might have is 40 feet, and they will likely be much shorter than that.

Finally, since you’re using up extra shots to get the ball on the green, you just have to get down in two putts once you’re there. There are no shortcuts here. You’re giving away strokes in the fairway, you can’t give up any more on the green.

Uppermost, never let the added length lure you into trying to hit the ball farther than you can. Stick to playing your game and be happy with the result.


Challenge the hole

You will hit more greens if you add five yards to the distance you’re going to play the shot to. Most touring professionals say that a major mistake amateurs make is not using enough club when hitting into the green. That’s how to correct it.

Adding five yards builds in a margin for error that we are likely to end up needing.

We never hit the ball as well as we think we will. We might hit a little fat, or a little off center. We need to plan on hitting the kind of shot we hit most of the time, not the best shot we hit some of the time.

The general advice you get is to figure out the club you want to hit and then add one more. I would not recommend you follow that advice. It’s going in the right direction, but it can set up doubt since it is a rigid rule that does not take the course in front of you into account.

Don’t think you run the risk of flying the green. Most greens are quite deep. Walk five paces onto a green, which is where the ball lands most of the time. Now walk ten more paces. That’s one more club. Walk another ten paces. That’s two more clubs from the first spot, and you’re still on the green with plenty of room left.

Only if the pin is in back of the green should you not apply this 5-yard rule, but you would want to play short of the pin in that case anyway.

Another benefit of playing long in this way is that you are encouraged to make a gentler stroke. There is no need to hit the ball hard because you don’t need to. Even with a slight mishit you’ll get the ball to the green.

A third reason why playing long is best is that trouble around the green lies most often in the front. By knowing you shot will carry the ball comfortably over all of it, you can hit your shot with confidence.

Remember, no one is impressed with what club you choose. Rather they are impressed by what you get out of it. Use enough club, hit lots of greens, and they’ll think you’re really good. Nothing wrong with that.

Play to your handicap

A good way to reduce self-induced pressure is to accept that you’re a handicap golfer. You don’t make a par on every hole.

When you try to get a low score on holes that are too difficult for you, you force your game to produce more than it can deliver. You risk taking a high score by pressuring yourself to play better than you know you can.

Professional golfers know on which holes they can attack and on which holes they need to ease off. Recreational golfers need to play golf the same way.

Your handicap gives you an allowance for holes where playing for par, or even for bogey, depending on your handicap, is asking too much.

Take advantage of that. Play to take an extra stroke on the difficult holes. Take what is yours and let the golf course have the rest.

As you improve, you can start challenging the holes that used to challenge you.