Course Management 101: When to Attack and When Not To

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Published: February 16, 2014

Now that you've learned how to work the ball a little bit, let's talk about course strategy.

  • Where should you have the starting line?
  • Which way should you curve the ball?
  • Where should you put the "wall" we're always talking about?

Below we have a diagram of a fairly traditional hole. You can see the green at the top, with the pin tucked on the left.

Hole DiagramHole diagram

This is what we call a sucker pin. They call it that for a reason, so don't be a sucker! You definitely have to play away from this pin, and we'll explain how.

We have the fairway, then some water to the left. This is a pretty traditional green shape. You'll see this kind of thing a lot on holes with water. One side usually has a bail out area, and the other side has a lot of trouble. They love to stick the pin on the side with the trouble, to try and lure people to attack that sucker pin.

Simply put, with the pin over there this just isn't a birdie hole. Most of your birdies are going to be made on the par 5s or easier holes. In fact, probably 70-80% of your birdies are going to be made on a small number of holes on the course.

For the rest of the holes we want to give ourselves mid-range birdie putts and easy pars. Most importantly, we want to eliminate the doubles and triples.

So What Should You Do?

Let's assume you've hit your drive to the X at the middle or left-center of the fairway on this hole. You want to hit to the green, but you've learned not to go for the sucker pin, so where do you want to lay up?

Perfect shotPerfect shot

The answer to that is going to depend on the distance.

If you're 190-200 yards out, you may want to go way over to the lay-up area on the right. If you're closer - let's say this is a 150 yard shot - you can be a little more aggressive without being a sucker.

If this is a 150 yard shot, you'll start it maybe 35 feet to the right of the pin. Say this is a pretty narrow green. It's going to be tough to get it to land on the green and stop by the hole if you go all the way over to the left.

In this situation, a perfect shot would be a draw, as shown above. You're playing from the large X with a starting line toward your target at the small x, and then drawing to the left. That's the perfect shot for this hole.

Use the Wall for Greater Control

We're always talking about this "wall" that you never cross. How should you use that on this hole?

WallWall on the edge of the trouble area

The wall goes right on the edge of the trouble, in most scenarios. In this case, you're going to visualize your wall just on the edge of the water.

If you get to where you can hit every shot on one side of the wall or the other, you can eliminate practically all the trouble areas from the course.

In this example our perfect shot starts about 35 feet to the right of the pin. You're drawing it back maybe 15 feet - 20 if you're lucky - leaving yourself a 15-20 footer or so for a birdie. That's all you're looking for on a hole like this. You want to give yourself a chance at a birdie, and bail out to the right if you mess up.

Take a Look at the Misses

Let's look at some dispersion patterns to see where your misses are going to land.

Dispersion pattern - DrawsDispersion pattern (draws)

Let's say you hit it straight instead of a draw. You're going to end up over on the right-center of the green.

If you hook it a little too much and barely cross your line. You're still not in trouble - you're actually in a good spot for a pretty close birdie.

If you hook it a whole lot and go way farther to the left than you intended, you're still OK. You're still not in trouble. You would have to hook it even more than that to actually land you in trouble over in the water.

Now look at misses the other way. As you get better and better at this, you're probably going to be able to get the ball to shape a certain way pretty reliably.

Full dispersion patternFull dispersion pattern

If you're trying for a draw, you're probably going to get to where you can hit a draw almost every time, but you may still miss a few to the opposite side, so let's see what happens when you do.

You'll get the same kind of shot dispersion as you did for the draws. As we mark those onto our diagram, you can begin to see why this is a good strategy.

Out of all these possible misses, only one is really in trouble. The rest are over to the right on a very easy spot to get up and down, or leave you an easy putt. It may be a slightly longer putt than you want, but it's still an easy par; just a two putt up to the pin.

What if You Aim for the Pin?

Aiming at pinAiming for the pin

Now look what happens when you take this same diagram and just shift the target so you're aiming right for the pin.

Half of the missed shots are in the water and the other half are on the green.

The ones that are 30, 40, or even 50 feet away on the green really aren't going to be that different than if you were on the edge of the fringe or anywhere else over to the right.

You're probably going to make par most of the time anyway, but the ones in the water are really going to hurt. That's why you need to play away from trouble, then work the ball back in.

On-Course Perspective

Let's take a ground-level view of this same setup for more of an on-course perspective of how this would work and what we mean when we tell you to visualize that wall.

Ground level viewGround level view

This diagram represents the same hole as it might look to you from the fairway. You can see the green beyond the fairway, the bail out area to the right, and water to the left.

Again, we're 150 yards out or so, so you want to play a pretty conservative shot. You want to aim about 35-40 feet to the right of the pin, depending how you're feeling that day.

A perfect shot will draw back to where it's nice and safe. It's going to start in the center of the fairway, fly up through the fairway toward the middle of the green, and then draw back a little leaving a 15-20 footer or so for par.

That's a nice, conservative shot. Again, you're not looking to make birdies in these situations. You may occasionally birdie a hole like this, but not enough to where it's really going to make a difference in the round.

Use the Wall and Play Like a Pro

PGA Tour players don't make as many birdies as you think. They're not going out and birdieing 8, 9, 10 times a round. They're usually making 4 or 5 birdies in a round, but what they're doing is minimizing their bogeys, and definitely eliminating their double or triple bogeys.

WallVisualize the wall

The wall can help you do the same thing.

As we saw earlier, you're going to play this hole with a little bit of a draw. Visualizing the wall is a great psychological tool as you play.

On this hole, you're going to picture the wall right along the edge of all the trouble to the left. The wall blocks out the whole left side.

From this ground level perspective it's easy to see why that wall is important. It's blocking out all the trouble.

Once you put that wall there, all you have left is plenty of nice green space over to the right where you can make a whole lot of pars, and maybe a birdie if you're lucky.

You're mentally blocking out all the bad stuff you don't want in the shot.

The Line You Never Cross

The wall is the line you never want to cross. If you don't cross the line, it's going to be all birdies and pars; maybe the occasional bogey every once in a while, but few and far between.

When you start crossing over the line, that's when you run into trouble. You can go long in the water, short in the water, left in the water. It's bad news.

Ground level viewGround level misses

If we draw a few shots into the diagram, you can see that even if you miss a little too far to the left, you're still in great shape.

If you start to miss to the right or right center of the green, there's no problem. Just off the right edge of the green, that's still no problem. You're going to make a lot of pars and a lot of birdies on this hole.

From this angle it's even clearer that if you start aiming toward the pin anything to the left is going to be in the water and you're going to make tons of double bogeys.

Save your aggressive shots for the easier holes, where you're inside 100 yards and you can go for the pin. It can make a big difference on par 5s where you can get up close to the green.

If you go straight for the pin 100 times in a row on this shot, you're not going to birdie it often enough for it to really matter, so do the smart thing and play the conservative shot.

Be aggressive to conservative spots. Use the wall to block out your "view" of some of the trouble spots, and then wait for those good holes - the ones that are short, sweet, and wide open - to knock down the pins.

The Distance is the Difference

Let's take a different example. In this one, you're in the middle of the fairway again, and again there's water to the left of the green, with the pin tucked on the left side. The difference is you're only 80 yards out.

80 yard example80 yard example

Where should you go on this green to maximize your birdie opportunities and minimize any bogeys or worse? It may not be what you think.

In this situation, you want to go right at that pin. Knock that pin down.

You're only 80 yards away. Even though there's water to the left, what are the odds of missing 30 or 40 yards to the left - or even 20? Let's say the water is 20 yards to the left of the pin.

If you're feeling good, you're going to knock this pin down. If you're having a really bad day you may want to aim a little farther to the right, but for the most part you're going to be aggressive with this pin.

Not Always Conservative

Course management is not always about being conservative. It's about knowing when to be conservative and knowing when to be aggressive.

Aim right at the pinAim right at the pin

On this 80 yard shot you want to aim maybe two or three yards to the right of the target - or the left, it doesn't really matter in this case - then just knock that pin down. Your ball is going to come right in on top of that thing.

Here again, you want to use the wall to visualize a good shot and block out some of those negative thoughts.

You're going to put the wall over on the left and use that visual to frame in this hole in your mind and eliminate the left side.

Put up that wall in your mind and grab your lob wedge. Hit a few feet to the right or left of the pin, and either draw it or fade it a little, whichever you feel gives you more control. Our example here is a draw.

80 yard with wall80 yard shot with wall

You would actually put the wall on the right if you were going for a fade, but either way is fine. You're close enough here to be aggressive.

Basically, course management comes down to knowing how to pick your battles. Go aggressively at the holes where it's going to make a difference.

You can knock it close enough from 80 yards to make a difference and make a birdie. If you're 150 yards out to a sucker pin, you're probably not going to birdie enough of the time to make it worth the risk.

Probably 70-80% of your birdies happen from within 120 yards. Be aggressive to conservative spots, pick your battles, and you'll definitely start shooting some better scores today.

Checkpoints for Practice

  • Course management is not about being conservative, but judging which risks are worth taking
  • Most of your birdies come from just a few holes on the course, and from shots of 120 yards or less
  • Draw or imagine the shot dispersion pattern on a longer shot - are you looking at a sucker pin?
  • Save the aggressive approach for closer shots and knock down the pin when a miss is unlikely to be catastrophic
  • Use the wall to eliminate the trouble on one side of any shot

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