Golf Strategy

Course Strategy: How Good Is Your Shot Selection?

Golf strategy is something we can all do better at whatever level of player we are. Whenever I give a player lesson, I invariably see players lose several shots per round by simply picking the wrong target and the wrong shot. The good news here, is that these lost shots can easily be saved by having a smarter golf strategy. And as with most of my coaching on the mental game, it doesn’t require any physical skill to fix, just a change in your mental approach.

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On a higher level, this comes down to not making the pre-shot routine as detailed as it needs to be. And when I say detailed, I’m not saying that you should take 5 minutes to play each shot. All the steps of a good pre-shot routine should take no longer than the 30 seconds each player is allowed to play each shot.

Make golf strategy part of your pre shot routine

During the analysis phase of the pre shot routine, a player should clearly identify a target. But more often than not, this target becomes the center of the fairway or the flag on the green. This is not the way the top players pick their target. As Ben Hogan once said, he only hit 3-4 shots per round exactly as he intended – the rest were good misses. Golf is about how good your misses are. Watch the PGA Tour at the weekend and something you’ll notice is when they do miss the target (which for approach shots is about 1 in 3 according to the Greens In Regulation stats), they miss it on the correct side, so it gives them the best chance for an up and down. The same applies to tee shots – where invariably, one side of the fairway will be the “better miss”.

You might be thinking “well isn’t it a negative thought to think about missing the target”? No it isn’t. What you’re doing here is playing the percentages. If the best players in the world miss their target 33% of the time over the course of a whole season, you can bet with certainty that you will too. So during your analysis phase of the routine, you’re going to allow for that 1 in 3 shots, that will miss the target so if it does occur you’ll miss it in a spot that will still give you an opportunity of par or better. This is called a “Conservative Aggressive Golf Strategy” that most of the top players use. They swing aggressively at conservative targets.

Where is “the good miss”?

So, firstly you’ll identify your optimal target and then you’ll find “the good miss” and make your new target somewhere between them. The distance your new target will be from the optimal target will depend on how you’re feeling that day. By this, I mean some days you’ll be playing better than others and you’ll have a better chance of getting closer to your optimal target. I like to use the analogy of “Red, Amber and Green”. If you’re having a green day, where you’re playing really well, your conservative target, won’t be as far from the optimal target as it would be on a “Red” day, where you’re not playing great.

Let me give you an example:

Let’s say you have water short left of the green and the pin is cut on the left side about 10 yards from the front. Clearly aiming at the pin is a low percentage shot and could easily result in a double bogey or worse. Missing anywhere left is a bad – you’ll either be in the water or short-sided with very little green to work with.

The good miss here is obviously long right. Being right you avoid the water and by being long you open up the green for your next shot (i.e. you have plenty of green between you and the pin).

So the correct target for this shot would be halfway between your good miss (long-right) and the pin. This will mean you need to take a little extra club and aim 10-15 yards to the right of the pin.

Make sure this kind of thinking if a part of your golf strategy. Judging from a lot of the amateur players I talk to, it’s a missing piece and will save several shots per round.

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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.

This Post Has 3 Comments

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    This is something I have to start implementing into my game. I am giving myself no other option but to hit the shot I am playing. My misses are not even currently in my golf approach. Looking back after a bad shot I think to myself, why didnt I play that to this side and give myself an easier putt, or why didnt I hit my drive left to give a better line into the green. I know I can shave multiplr strokes in a round by doing this, but as soon as I get to the course it seems as though all my planning goes out the window and I am thinking back to my old way. I am going to have to start putting a mark on my ball or somrthing else to remind me mid round to look at all my options and chooes the right one. Thanks for the article.

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    Kevin Q

    Pros and even half good amateurs don’t play golf this way. We plan each hole from landing spot on the green to tee shot shape, backwards, this idea of a good miss is silly and such a practice only does irreparable damage to golf longevity. If I need to hit a cut shot past the hole onto a backstop and spin it down towards the hole then thats what I’ll do, I’ll position myself in the fairway to hit that cut shot. The game is played between the course designer and the player/caddie. The designer designs with the idea that I’m supposed to figure out the path I’m suppose to play, but each hole has multiple paths for multiple shot types /skill sets who may play it. The best courses require me to utilize 72 different shots the worst often repeat the design hole after hole or they have features which create to many unplayable shots.

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      David MacKenzie

      Hi Kevin, I appreciate you reading and taking the time to write a comment. However, I’ve worked with many Tour players and top amateurs over the years and if they are smart players, they will always factor in the good and bad miss. Some will shade areas in their yardage book as part of their preparation to indicate this. In fact, one of my players who recently won on Tour, says (about his approach shots), that he thinks to himself, “If I’m going to miss this green, where would the easiest up and down be from?”. That’s not saying that his intention is to not hit the green, but knowing that Tour players miss 1 in 3 shots into each green, there’s a 33% probability he’s going to be chipping with his next shot. Hence he would move his target (on the green) more towards the good miss. Are you saying that if the pin is tucked back-right that you would always play at the pin, knowing that if you miss long-right you are looking at a bogey vs middle of the green with a chance at birdie? Sure, some rounds you have your A+ game and might feel like you can be more aggressive, but on average a Tour pro will play short-left of that pin location. A good course strategy is about using statistics to choose the best possible target. Every shot has a dispersion to it, so to fire at every pin would on average cost you many shots per round.

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