Thursday, November 15, 2012

Distance Management

Continuing the theme of course management, I will now touch on the topic of managing your distance. Many of the greatest players will agree with me when I say that managing how far you hit your clubs is one of the most important elements to a great golfer. There are many technical elements to distance control, but this will deal with how to manage your strategy to maximise your chances.

If we take an example below, we see a green protected by a bunker at the front, a typical scenario on the golf course. The pin is also at the front, enticing you to take it on. Whilst the strategy should be individualised for every person, I have listed what I consider the best strategy for both a good player (single figure handicap) and an average player (above 10 handicap).

Average player

For the average player, the main aim is to avoid going in the bunker, as this generally results in a dropped shot most of the time. It would be better to be at the back of the green and putting from 60 feet than coming out of the bunker, statistically. Add to that the fact that, even if you did knock it to 10 feet, the chance of converting that to a birdie is probably lower than 25%.

Therefore, the best strategy would be to aim to the middle of the green and pick a club which will get there with an easy swing. E.g. If it is 140 yards to the flag, play it like it is 150 yards. On top of that, if your normal 150 yard club is a 7 iron, use a 6 iron instead and swing it easy.

By using this strategy,
  • If you are to get the yardage you want, it means you will only be 10 yards away from the flag
  •  If you are to accidentally hit it a little too hard and pure it at the same time, you will still be on the back of the green, or at the back edge, where it will be an easy ‘chip and run’ style up and down.
  • If you mis-strike it a little (quite likely at your level), you will actually end up closer to the flag and may have a birdie chance.
  • You will only end up in the bunker if you really mis-strike it, but this is less likely due ot the fact you are swinging easy.

The better player

For the better player, strike quality is generally much higher, therefore distance control is also better. For this reason, a similar but slightly different strategy can be more optimal. The things we have to remember with the better player is that a ball landing in the bunker is generally going to cost only half a shot each time (with a 50% up and down rate), and that they are more likely to take advantage of a shot knocked close, due to their better putting skills. This allows for a more aggressive strategy, without compromising risk/reward percentages. This translates into a strategy of aiming 10 yards past the pin (see below).

However, for the better player, the strategy would be to use a club which would require a ‘hard swing’ to get there. For example, if the flag is 140 yards away, play the club which would give you 150 yards if struck nicely with an aggressive swing. This would usually be your 140 yard club hit hard in most cases.

The reasons for this are
  • If you happen to crush the ball, it may fly 10 yards past the pin, but it will usually have a higher flight and have more spin (from the good contact and higher swing speed), resulting in a ball that spins back towards the flag, or stays in a safe place on the green at worst.
  • If you hit the ball just a fraction poor, it will just land closer to the flag, and there is a good chance you will suffer a slight mis-hit when you are swinging aggressively.
  • You will only go in the bunker if you really screw up your strike, but as your ability is higher, this should not happen too often. Even if it does, you are likely to not suffer too many dropped shots, and the reward (more birdie chances) outweighs the risk (occasional bunker shot).

Extra note

Don't forget to adjust for the wind. Similar to our direction management talked about in the last post, we must adjust for the effect of the wind. If, for example, the wind is into our face, it will knock the distance of your shot down. The simple strategy change for this will be to aim 10 yards further (if the wind is a 10 yard strong wind) by adding an extra club (hitting a 6 iron instead of a 7 iron, for example). 

Take home message

When you look at the patterns of almost every player, they are very unlikely to hit it further than the yardage they wanted. At least half, it not all of shots end up finishing short of the intended distance. For this reason, the general strategy is to aim further than the flag, allowing your mistakes to work for you. This is not only practically efficient, but psychologically. A player who aims past the flag and then executes their shot perfectly will not be disappointed. Also, average mistakes will result in a better shot, so the player will not be disappointed either. Who can be angry with themselves for knocking it close? This is contrary to what you see on the golf course from day to day – players making small mistakes and getting punished big time. Imagine how many shots you could save per round, just by playing the percentages.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Where to aim

Last article, we looked at where our target should be in a specific example. Now, we will look at where we should aim; there is a big difference between the two. Our target is where we want the ball to FINISH. Our aim is where we need to align in order to get the ball to our target.

It would be amazing if our swings were so efficient that we were like guns, hitting the ball wherever we lined our bodies up to. But not only is this an un-achievable task in reality (although plenty of people still try to achieve it), but it is not necessary in order to play good golf. Far more important than hitting the ball as straight as an arrow, is the ability to repeat what you do, EVEN IF IT IS A MISTAKE.

Let me elaborate. In the early part of my golfing career, I hit about a 20 yard draw shot with a typical 6 iron. The ball would start about 5 yards right and then curl 20 yards, finishing 15 yards left of where I aimed on average. So it looked something like below;

The red cross being where I am aiming, the dotted line being the line from my ball to the target. The white dots are where my golf balls would finish (between 5 yards and 25 yards left), and the circle around them represents the shot pattern.

Obviously, not hitting where I was aiming can be seen as a fault. But if we are intelligent enough, we can make our faults work for us. Below is a picture of where I would aim (the red cross).

This would allow me to get my shots to land within my shot circle, which is positioned in a safe place on the green (as discussed last time). So I would almost ALWAYS aim about 15 yards to the right of where I wanted my ball to finish, as my pattern was to hit 15 yards left of where I aimed. Make sense?

Further Adjustments

So we have looked at picking an acceptable target last week (which may not be the Flag), we have looked at adjusting where we aim to allow for our shot pattern. There are other things we may have to take into account. The first thing which springs to mind is the wind.

Obviously, the wind will blow your ball around in the air and change the direction of the flight of your ball. If the wind is moving left, you are going to have to aim further right to compensate. How much further right? This is where experience comes in to try and judge the effect the wind is going to have on your ball. It is such an individual thing, because different people hit the ball different heights and distances and shapes. It would be too general to say that a 10mph wind will move your ball 10 yards.

We shall now look at our above example, but add in a right to left wind. The wind is strong enough to move the ball 10 yards to the left, so this means I have to shift my red cross (my aim) 10 yards more to the right. If the wind is gusting, it may be beneficial to add a ‘fudge factor’ in and aim a further 5 yards right, just in case an unexpected gust happens after the ball has been struck (it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when the alternative is a water ball which was out of your control).

So now have a look at the example. You can see that my aim is not even on the green. I have picked a target which is maybe 7 yards right of the flag, due to the danger to the left of the flag. I then aim a further 15 yards right to allow for my normal shot pattern, and add another 10 yards for  the wind, finally dropping another 5 yards as an assurance against gusts. This puts me aiming a whopping 37 yards right of the pin - aiming in the trees.  

This is a relatively extreme example, where there is danger on the left, a player with a predominant mistake of being 15 yards left, and a wind pushing the ball further left. All these factors require a lot of compensations. But the player who is unwilling to change their strategy will end up in the water more often than not. It may not be ideal to aim into trouble, but you have to play your golf based on where your ball finishes normally, rather than on what route it takes. For example, When I played this big draw shape, I could hit 100 balls and only have maybe 2-3% finish to the right of my target. So, for me, it was easy to aim at trouble on the right, as I knew it would be coming back 98% of the time. If it didn't, I could deal with that 2-3% mistake.

Even if I were to aim 37 yards right like this, then happen to hit one of my straighter shots and the wind dies down to a breeze, I should still hit the right side of the green. At worst I will be left with a shot from the safe side of the green where we have lots of green to work with, so I could hit an easy low running chip shot.

Where do I look – visual aim

You may read in magazines not to compensate for a hook or a slice by aiming further right or left. Whilst there is an element of truth to this (in the long run, you should look to minimise what is causing the hook or slice), course management deals with creating a strategy which fits your current game. In truth, every top professional golfer plays some level of shape. Rory Mcilroy plays a rather large draw shot, Jack Nicklaus was known for fading the majority of his shots. Therefore, the best players all compensate by aiming away from their target to some level. This is not a mistake, as it is sometimes seen, but a necessary prerequisite to good golf.

The biggest change you are going to have to make with this is your visual alignment. When you aim 40 yards right of the flag, as in our example, you should be visually looking 40 yards right of the flag. This sends the message to your brain that this is your target. From there, your normal pattern, plus the wind, will bring it back to your actual target.

If you were to make the mistake of aiming physically 40 yards to the right, but then directed your gaze towards the flag, your brain may sense that it needs to hit towards the flag, resulting in a big pull/hook which drops in the water.

Take home message

After you have identified your target, you need to work out how to get your ball there. Take into account your normal shot pattern, the wind and even other factors, such as the lie of the ground. Compensate for these by both physically and visually/mentally aiming to a place which would allow you to hit your target.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Adjusted Targets

I would consider this idea one of the most basic in course strategy. Yet the more I coach, the more I am amazed at how even some of the more elite players I have coached don’t understand (or at least don’t use) this. I played for many years with a 25 yard hook, yet it never stopped me getting down to scratch. Yet I see players with 25 yard slices who complain that the reason they can’t lower their handicap is due to their banana ball. Well, if I could curve the ball 25 yards and still get the ball around in par, why are these people struggling to even break 100 sometimes, with the same amount of curvature? Obviously, many factors contribute to the overall score of a player, but one of the consistent mistakes I see is in the strategy, which I will address here. This topic could fill a book (trust me, it will), but I will just take one example here and highlight it.

The strategy concept I am talking about refers to where you should want your ball to land in order to balance out the risk and reward – your target.

What is your target?

This is what we would describe as a ‘sucker pin’. If you have poor course management, it is likely that you will answer this with question by saying “The flag”. But in a lot of cases, this is the worst target you can have. It is often too aggressive a strategy to allow for consistently good golf. It may offer more birdie chances if your game is firing on all cylinders, but if you are playing average golf (which, by definition, you are more likely to be playing), it will cost you more shots than it earns.

You have to be realistic about what is achievable with your shots. Even a top professional golfer averages around about 10 yards away from the flag with their approach shots. This could be 10 yards left or right, giving a 20 yard circle. So even the top guys don’t hit their target all the time, they just get ‘around’ their target more often. For this reason, you should think in terms of your shot circle. Below is the same flag, with a 20 yard shot circle overlayed.


By going aggressively at the flag like this, a player believes that they are going to make more birdies. But even for a top professional golfer, if they manage to pull off a great shot and knock it to 7 feet, there is still only a 50/50 chance they will hole the putt (based on tour statistics); a shot in the water costs them a whole shot. The risk outweighs the reward.

Imagine playing this hole 10 times. If you were to hit half of the shots in the water, it would cost you 5 penalty shots, not to mention you would have to get it up and down from wherever you dropped it; this is a big risk. And the reward? The other half of your shots would land on the green and be relatively close. But when you consider that the average player is not going to hole many of those putts for birdie (even if they are around 10 feet from the pin), the reward is too small. You may get 2 birdies at best, but at the cost of 5 penalty shots and 3 extra shots trying to get it up and down (taking into account the average short game stats).  The math doesn’t add up, and on average you will end up worse off.

Yet people continue to use this strategy because they chase some kind of idea that this is what the pro’s do. Yet, often times when you see a professional stiff it close when the pin is positioned like this, it is either due to them being on their best form that week – or it is simply a mistake. Professional golfers do not play this strategy all the time. People also hold on to the memory of the times when they have succeeded with this strategy and made a birdie, and then continue to play this strategy with no awareness of risk/reward or appropriateness (believe it or not, there are some times when this mentality is beneficial). 

A better option

Now let’s overlay a more appropriate strategy onto the green.

In the above picture, our target is to the right of the flag (the centre of the circle), taking the water out of play (barring anomalous poor shots). Now, not only do we almost eliminate penalty shots, but we still have good birdie chances when the ball creeps into the left portion of our shot circle. Sure, aiming away from the flag is not the most exciting way to play, but your scorecard will thank you. You can still make birdies this way, and a lot less bogeys and doubles.

Take home lesson

The flag is not your target. Greenkeepers will put the flag in silly positions to ‘sucker’ the aggressive players. A good player has the ability to swallow their pride, pick a target which is away from the flag and toward a more appropriate position which, if they were to repeat 10 times, would maximise their performance in terms of score. Pick a target which suits your shot circle; the bigger your shot circle is, the further away from the flag (and water) you target should be. In extreme cases, it may even mean having a target which is off the green, such as a safe run off area from the green.

Next article, I will address where to aim. And yes, this is different to what we have discussed. 

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Currently working for the World famous Turnberry Resort at the Golf Performance Academy. I am a golf coach who specialises in not only what to learn, but 'how' to learn. I am always looking to further education of myself and others, and improve knowledge and understanding so that we can be better golfers and coaches