Golf Course Management – Developing a Strategic Approach to Golf

Course Management Techniques.

The better you get at golf, the more important the strategic aspects of the game become. But during your development and while you are working to improve, you should start exercising your golfers eye to look for opportunities to improve your play and ultimately your score. An often overlooked aspect of golf is course management. Course management is simply working your way around the golf course in a manner that avoids risks and focuses on playing high percentage golf. Much like the pool or billiards player, the ideal strategy is to execute a game plan in such a manner that you never leave yourself a difficult shot. A difficult shot in this context is a shot that provides high risk for a low reward or forces you to hit a shot that you are not comfortable hitting. Or more to the point, the goal is to never leave yourself a shot that you haven’t practiced before and are therefore not confident that you can pull it off. I acknowledge that this is easier said than done for most if not all of us. All the more reason to have a plan you are attempting to follow.

What Is The Relative Importance Of This With All The Other Golf “Stuff”?

You don’t hear much about golf course management, though, so how important is it to scoring? Ben Hogan was quoted as saying that an average swing and a disciplined approach to course management are enough to play pro golf. When combined with a good swing, it was possible to play winning golf! Hogan assessed at one point in his career that hitting the ball accounted for 20% and course management or the planning part of the equation an astounding 80%! In fact, reading between the lines of Hogan’s recommendations and beliefs reveals that he considered a bad shot not one which is mishit, because that is bound to happen during the course of a round. A bad shot to him was a shot that even if hit perfectly, would be no good because of the leave or the difficulty of executing the next shot. Hogan should know, as among the changes he credits with contributing to his success on the pro tour after nearly going broke for a third time was a disciplined course management approach. This approach transformed him from a struggling pro through early 1938 to its leading money winner for several years and a record of some 117 straight finishes in the money before being interrupted by World War II. Hogan rode course management hard until he achieved the breakthrough with his secret in 1946. Tom Watson considered it so important that he wrote a book dedicated to it. Finally, I should add that not every golfer believes in strict adherence to strategic play or adopting a relatively “dogmatic” approach to this element of the game. Ray Floyd obviously played strategically, but he did not like developing a set game plan ahead of time to attack a course, preferring to pick his spots based on his execution and to derive a strategy on the spur of the moment. His reluctance to do so was a temperament or personal issue. He knew his game very well and it “scrambled” his brain if he failed to execute according to his plan, having and adverse affect on his confidence. There are not many Ray Floyd’s out there, however, so if you reach this point in your development, congratulations. The rest of us should read on!

What Is Golf Course Management?

Have you ever played a golf course and taken note of where the bunkers or other hazards are in relation to the green? Of course you have, and you’ve probably also looked back from the green and noted that there was an easier way to play the hole from the perspective of the green. Maybe that view was not discernable from the tee. Or similarly, looked back from your tee shot and realized there was a lot more room than the architect disclosed from the tee. In simple terms, that is golf course management, e.g., the deliberate planning or approach and placement of your golf shots in consideration of the best way to play each hole. Note that there is almost always a best or easiest way to play most good golf holes. This is an element of the golf course design and often comes into play given the risk reward of a particular shot. Note well that this must be mitigated somewhat in consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of your golf game. For instance the Stonewall Golf Course in Gainesville is an excellent course with a great strategic design. The 18th hole, a par 5 of some 517 yards is best played from the tips by playing down the middle or short of the left side bunker, providing a good angle to the green and the option of playing safe over the water with a hybrid or long iron to the left side of the green and playing a little pitch or chip to the green. But there is a bunker on the right side of the fairway that keeps slices out of the water and if you can carry it about 265 yards or so you can blow it over the bunker and have no more than a 7 or 8 iron to the green. The par 5 5th hole is similar in design, but at 558 yards you have a bit of a challenge with a hybrid or long iron to a shallow green with water fronting the green. The risk reward calculus of the 18th hole is markedly different than the choice at the 5th hole, where the character of the round is likely still in question. Most players go for the 18th hole from just about anywhere, as the course has already eaten their lunch by this point in the round!

How Come I Haven’t Heard Much About Golf Course Management And What Are The Elements I Should Consider?

There are scores and scores of books about the golf swing and the elements of the swing, like putting, the short game, etc., but very few books on golf course management. Making golf course management a part of your golf “kit bag” can be as simple as making note of where the bunkers and other hazards are and simply avoiding them. But there is a reason the golf course architect put those bunkers there in the first place. In some cases the bunkers protect an errant shot from going out of bounds or getting into worse trouble. The most obvious bunkers protect the green by collecting errant shots left, right, short and long. The less obvious or more subtle bunkers protect the best approaches to the green. The best position to approach from is often referred to as the “A” position, or the “green” position, with the context of it being a green or go flag to shoot at as opposed to a yellow or caution flag or a red flag. Meaning a flag you would not shoot at without regard to your position in the fairway. On better courses you will likely find the so called “A” or green positions protected by a strategically placed bunker or protected by out of bounds (OB) or some other lateral hazard intended to catch wayward or aggressive shots played to open up the green . Some examples of the former type of bunkers include the stretch along the seawall on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, where the bunker helps prevent balls from heading into the water. The 12th green at Augusta National has a bunker that protects the middle green approach, which narrows the green considerably because of the back greenside bunker and the speed of the green (as well as the wind and the pressure). Much like on holes 11 and 13, water and Rae’s creek provide natural protection that dramatically limits the options for approach shots. With the architectural changes done to Augusta in recent years, the best approaches to most greens are guarded by myriad bunkers positioned to catch the ideal tee shot. Laying up short of these bunkers forces the player to hit a longer iron that is difficult to hold on the fast greens and also difficult to hit to the best green positions. Flirting with the bunker risks a second shot that can’t reach the green because of the severe lip of the bunker. The 13th hole favors a draw off the tee, but overcook the tee shot and you face overhanging trees, pine cones, Rae’s Creek and an uneven lie with a narrow angle of attack to the green, which is compensated for somewhat by the shortened length along that angle of approach. The 6th at Carnoustie is a famous risk reward hole at 578 yards, with the “A” or green position a flat space on the left side of the fairway dangerously close to OB. Although he only played Carnoustie in the 1953 Open (British), the 6th is still known as Hogan’s Alley for the way he famously threaded the needle and hit the same area every day of the tournament and went for the green in two.

How Do I Make This Work for My Game?

There is nothing inherently difficult about implementing golf course management or strategic play in your own game. The key is to think differently about how you play holes that you may have played so often that you now hit shots without even thinking about strategy. Or maybe you don’t have sufficient control of the golf ball, so you feel it is not an element that would work for you. All the more reason to think strategically, as the judicious use of your limited strengths and the deliberate avoidance of your weaknesses could by itself improve your scores and make you a better golfer. A caution up front here is that nothing I am advocating should slow down the pace of your play: you should do most of the thinking prior to getting behind the ball and triggering your pre-shot routine. Do you have trouble hitting the ball different directions on demand, or do you favor a draw or fade as your predominate shot? You should have a default shot you can hit on demand with a preference or comfort level with one or the other type shot. Strategic play would be planning your shots in consideration of your predominate ball flight. So let’s say you are on the tee facing a 420 yard hole with bunkers left and right, out about 235 to 260 yards or so and the pin is in the back right narrow part of the green, protected by a deep bunker. All things being equal (e.g., wind, conditions, etc.), if you have assessed the hole properly, you likely took note of the “A” or green position just beyond and protected by the bunker on the left side. A good player would likely blow a wood over the left bunker to get the angle to the pin from the far left side, where a fade will then open up the green. A decent player might try to sling a driver or wood in from the right side, past the bunker, to leave a short iron or wedge with a good angle to the green. An alternative would be hitting a hybrid or 3 iron up the left side short of the bunker and then hitting a short iron (7 or 8 iron) to the middle of the green, playing a fade but taking the bunker out of play. What would you do? I can’t tell you the number of times over the years I have played with a golfer who in this situation hit a driver up the right side without even a second thought (because we were on the tee). Thus ensuring the worst approach to the green and bringing the bunker and the narrow part of the green into play. Even with the best tee shot given the circumstances, this play has managed to hit to the red position, e.g., a position from which you should not go for the pin. Tom Watson noted in his excellent book Tom Watson’s Strategic Golf that the golf course architect should require or dictate no more than about 5 heroic or challenging shots over 18 holes of golf. Watson was talking about challenges for the expert player and he was referring to the design of the course, not the position that players hit to voluntarily. In our above example, the non-thinking golfer who is not applying strategic play has managed to inflict a heroic or challenging shot on a golf hole that the architect likely believed was free from such challenges! Put a different way, the golfer has managed to play the hole in the most difficult manner possible! It is easy to see how such callous play can lead to frustration, bad shots and high scores. The player in our example likely bemoans the bad luck of hitting a great shot but ending up in a position from which it is impossible to attack the pin. Bad luck has nothing to do with it, as the play meets the criteria Hogan described over 60 years ago, namely, a shot that no matter the outcome was doomed from inception to be bad. How many times in a round do you take a club other than the driver off the tee to lay up to your favorite yardage? When is the last time you have considered the best approach to the pin before hitting your tee shot and adjusted accordingly? Finally, do you assess pins to determine whether you should be shooting for them or do you just aim at any old pin from any old place because that is how golf is played?


This article is a bit lengthy but touches on some important points about course management and strategic play. Look over the golf course the next time you play and see if you can discern how the course architect intended the hole to be played in consideration of the green, yellow and red approaches and corresponding pin positions. Prior to your next round, assess your play on a course you know well or the course you are about to play and think through your plan of attack to see if it is congruent with the challenges presented by the hole. Find the easiest path to the pin, or better yet, play with better golfers and watch them or ask them how they play certain holes. Take a playing lesson from your pro and pick his brain on this same subject. If you find that you are making holes harder than they need to be like our friend in the above example, map a strategy to change the way you play the hole. Finally, no article can help you with variations for every instance of play. I highly recommend the book above by Tom Watson as a primer to help think through approaching golf as a strategic game. There are a number of other good books that touch on the topic by Johnny Miller and Ray Floyd, among others.

Good Golfing! Mark Choiniere