Strategies on Playing a New Course
By Bradley Turner Keiser University College of Golf
Director of Online Golf Instruction, MBA, PGA
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play a very nice private golf course for the first time. The Country Club of Sapphire Valley is a beautiful mountain golf course in the western North Carolina mountains. The Head Professional was a great host for our group, providing everything we needed to prepare for our round. We all warmed up on the practice range, hit some pitch shots in the short game area, and finally tried to adjust to the fast and true greens. Looking out onto the first fairway from the tee box, we were all excited to test our skills on such a fine layout.
New Course Expectations
For most golfers standing on the first tee, their expectations for a good day are often at their peak, especially when playing a great golf course. As the round unfolds, high expectations for a great day of golf can sometimes tumble down into a day of frustration and what-ifs. I have been on the first tee many times, thinking, “today, I am going to play great.” I would estimate that nine times out of ten, I never played great but rather played to my normal skill level. The few times I have shot some of my very best rounds of golf, I did not know that a great round was about to happen. I once started out with seven straight birdies on a course I had never played before. I struggled a bit with my game and was advised to keep my grip pressure constant during the swing. This was a new swing thought for me, and my expectations were rather low as I started the round. Somehow, everything worked that day for me as I birdied nine of the first twelve holes and ended up matching Gary Player’s course record of 64. Waking up that morning, I hoped to play a normal round of golf and ended up with a course record. Such is the game of golf!
As we began our round at Sapphire Valley, I started to see some of the strategic mistakes I have made many times before. The great benefit of playing experience is that you most likely have made thousands of mental and strategic mistakes in your golf career. Making a strategic mistake is normal for most golfers. Making the same strategic mistake over and over is simply a golfer too stubborn to recognize that their strategy does not match their skill level. Just because it is possible to execute a golf shot does not mean that a good outcome is probable! Here are a few simple strategies to incorporate into your next round on a new golf course.
1. Play to the Middle of the Green – This is something you have certainly heard before. But playing to the middle takes mental focus, as too many good amateurs like to aim to the flagstick. I am guilty of taking on too many flags in my career. Knowing you can hit a shot tight to the flag does not mean you should attempt the shot. What is the probability of an acceptable outcome? What is the consequence of a poor strike? Gary Player once said he likes to split the difference between the middle of the green and the flagstick; that is where he wanted to hit the ball. The only time he would take dead aim at a flagstick was with his wedges or when he was in total control of his golf ball. Why do many of us attempt to hit at the flag when the great Gary Player would not?
On the very first hole at Sapphire Valley, one player in our group attacks a back-hole location. He hits a nice-looking wedge shot that bounces over the green. As we look at this lie and the shot at hand, my thought was “no chance” to get this up and down. The greens were too fast, and the slope was too severe for a realistic opportunity at par. He makes bogey on the first hole, but he could get that back on the par 5 second.
2. Keep it Below the Hole Location on Fast Greens – The general rule of golf course strategy is to keep the ball below the hole on fast greens and avoid hitting approach shots over the green. Most greens are tilted from the back of the green to the front of the green. This helps to keep an approach shot from bounding over the green. Jack Nicklaus believed that hitting the ball 15-20 feet below the flag was just fine. Putting uphill on fast greens allows a player to be a bit more aggressive, while putting downhill puts golfers on the defensive.
On the second hole, the same player makes the same mistake with another well-struck wedge shot that goes over the green. This time, he pitches the ball back down the hill and misjudges the speed of the greens, and the ball rolls 40 feet past the cup. Four putts later, and he makes a triple-bogey eight. Two simple wedge shots to the middle of the green, and he would be even par after two holes instead of walking to the third tee four over to start the round– the “what ifs” have begun as we walk off the second green.
3. Always to the Middle of the Fairway – The middle of the fairway is always a good strategy. However, when you have played a golf course numerous times, you can learn to take advantage of preferred locations in the fairway. But when you are playing a golf course for the first time, it is very difficult to ascertain the right play off the tee by visually assessing your options. Range finders and golf course apps can really help you determine the distance to fairway bunkers and hazards, but it still will take a golfer a few trips around the golf course to understand the best strategy off the tee.
Remember, a great golf course architect can camouflage various aspects of a golf hole. This is designed to challenge a golfer’s mental and strategic skills. At Sapphire Valley, there were a number of dogleg holes that tempted our group to cut the corner of the dogleg. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that cutting the dogleg looked good from the tee but bad for the approach shot to the green. On a reachable par 5 dogleg to the right, I scouted out the hole and noticed a small creek about 50 yards short of the green. With a good tee shot, the creek would not be an issue on my second shot. I hit a perfect tee shot down the right side of the fairway, shortening my approach shot to the green. When I got to my ball, I noticed that an enormous pine tree guarded the right side of the green complex. The range finder indicated it was about 60 yards short of the front of the green. I was certain with a good strike that I could carry the ball over the pine tree and have an eagle putt. Unfortunately, my second shot caught the tree, and the ball bounced into the creek. From the tee, I was certain the creek wasn’t in play, but I was wrong. From the fairway, I was certain that I could carry the pine tree, again I was wrong. No matter how long golfers play the game, a well-designed hole can tempt you into trying something that may not be the right play for your skillset. The next time I play that hole, the strategy will be different.
The Next Time
The next time you get to play a new golf course, start with managing your expectations for the day. There could be hidden hazards, sloping greens, and big pine trees that will swat your ball away from its destination. Strive for the middle of the fairway and middle of the green. If the greens are very fast, keep your approach shots well below the hole. With these simple strategies, you will increase your chances of posting a good round on the new golf course. Jack and Gary were champions for a reason, and managing the golf course was a big key to their success. If the above suggestions work for you, it may be prudent to try the same strategy on your home course as well!