Course Management Lessons from The PGA Tour

In Viktor Hovland’s interview after winning the FedEx Cup on Sunday, he mentioned 3 things that have helped transform his game over the past year and make him one of the World’s best players, and one of them is better COURSE MANAGEMENT.
After a review of his stats with Eduardo Molinari, Tour player and part-time data analyst, they concluded that Hovland was being too aggressive with his approach shots and short-siding himself too often. Viktor also said in his interview that he wanted to play more like Tiger in his heyday, who would comfortably shoot -3 or -4 in each round of a major, with a superior course strategy to most of the field. Tiger said he would make sure he birdied most of the par 5s, throw in a couple more birdies and then avoid mistakes with conservative strategy.
I’ve worked with plenty of Tour players over the years, who on the face of it don’t look all that impressive, until you see a 66 on their scorecard at the end. They’ve successfully plotted their way around the course to limit mistakes, and give themselves enough scoring opportunities to make 4-5 birdies.
In this week’s lesson I’m going to give you some insights into the Course Management of A Tour Pro, that can help you lower your score in your next round.


A big factor in lowering your scores with a better course management is knowing your shot patterns. I.e., If you were to hit 30 balls with a 5-iron, what would the grouping of the balls look like around the intended target? Even better, what is the grouping of the last 30 5-irons you hit on the golf course?
By finding out how wide your shot dispersion is (which you can do with a launch monitor or stat tracking apps), you will know what is reasonable to expect when you hit your next 5 iron on the course. If you pick a target that is the center of your shot pattern and hence will allow for 70% of the balls within your normal shot pattern (which excludes outliers), you can expect that you will not be in positions that will lead to big numbers. Afterall, the goal of a better course management is to reduce bogeys or worse, rather than to increase birdies.
This won’t only affect the outcome after you’ve hit the shot, but before it too. If you’re standing over a shot and you know your strategy allows for almost all the possible outcomes with that club, you’re going to swing a lot more freely.


Good golf courses are designed to challenge you mentally as well as physically, and one of the ways they do that is to make you think there is less room than there actually is. With aerial views, you can see the size of the area you actually have, not what the designer wants to trick you into seeing from ground level. Knowing that you have plenty of room to fit your shot pattern into will help you swing more freely, rather than let the golf course designer succeed and get into your head.
The players I work with make good use of yardage books and Google Earth imagery as part of their Pre Round Routine for golf to get to know the course from above before they play it.


For every shot you play, there is a good miss and a bad miss. Clearly, you’re going to save strokes each round by avoiding the bad misses, such as being short-sided, or worse being out of bounds. Scott Fawcett’s DECADE system helps players assign a negative value for each “miss” so the player can move their target for each shot to reduce the negative value as much as possible for each shot.
As part of your preparation for a round, you should know where you can safely miss and where missing the target will likely result in high numbers. Use this analysis to mark where you want to aim in your yardage book, to avoid these penalties.


For your approach shots, the center of the green is always the best target for better course management. Even the best players in the world say that they do this for every club longer than a 9-iron.

Despite what you might think from watching the TV coverage, they rarely aim at pins. When you see those shots that land close to the pin, it’s usually because they got lucky and hit it to the very edge of their shot dispersion. Their actual target was probably the safe side of the green to avoid being short-sided or bring a big number into play.

Know the distance from the green that you can start moving your target towards the pin.


On some days you will have your “A game”, where you are more in control of your ball, but on others you might have your B, C or even D game. On any given day, you don’t know what game you will have.

I speak with a lot of golfers each week in my 1:1 mental coaching sessions and I hear about many players trying to force birdies to catch up when they aren’t playing well, which usually doesn’t pay off and leads to more mistakes.

Even though there are rules to a good course strategy (the 4 points above), there are times where you feel like you can take on a little more risk and times where you should take less risk. Part of a good course strategy is being able to assess your chances of pulling a shot off given how you are playing, and if needed, assume a wider dispersion and safer target. You don’t want to add pressure by trying to force yourself to play a game you don’t have that day – you’ll increase tension, frustration and make it worse.

Some of the players I work with will assess a shot based on a “Green, Orange, Red” risk level, based on how they feel about a shot. If they are playing well and feel confident, they can take on more risk and it’s a green light, but if it’s a day where you aren’t playing well, then it would be a red light and a safer target.

After your next round, evaluate your course strategy. If you can do the 5 things above, I’m confident you’ll save yourself several strokes.


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David MacKenzie

is a mental golf coach and lives in Washington DC. He is the founder of Golf State of Mind, a teaching program designed to help golfers condition their minds to overcome fear and play with confidence.

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