Course Management Basics – Part 2

No More Blow Up Holes

One of the themes that I’ll keep coming back to in this series is: bogeys won’t kill you.  It was one of the main things I learned from my first golf coach, and it holds true.  Your score will only get truly ugly when you’re piling up doubles and triples.  Today’s concept will help you keep those big numbers off your card.

This Series Is For You If:

You want to shoot lower scores with the swing you have

Avoiding Penalty Strokes

There are plenty of hazards on a golf course – rough, bunkers, trees, etc – but only two that are guaranteed to add extra strokes: water and out of bounds.

Even if you’re a poor bunker player, landing in the sand gives you the chance to hit a shot to the green and make a putt for par.  In contrast, if you drown your approach shot, your only chance of maintaining an unblemished card is to hole a shot that still has to clear the same hazard!

Similarly, a drive out of bounds puts you behind the eight ball.  You’re now re-teeing with your third shot and virtually no chance of par.

Off the Tee

According to Scott Fawcett, whose DECADE system is a master class on course management, almost every tee shot has a landing area where there’s 60 yards between stroke hazards (water and OB).  That’s where you want to be.  This gives you ample room to miss without incurring a penalty.

Does figuring out precisely where that landing area is require some advanced scouting?  Yes, and Scott uses Google Earth for that.  Do you need to be that precise?  Probably not.  Look at the hole and see where the stroke hazards are.  If they appear to be less than 60 yards apart, play short/long of them, even if that brings lesser hazards into play.

I know that right now many people are rolling their eyes at how “boring” this strategy is.  I don’t disagree.  But if you want to shoot the best scores, this is the recipe.

Let’s think about an example to illustrate why.  The hole is a par 4, 400 yards, with a wide landing area between 240 and 250 yards but water left and right past that.  Let’s assume 240-250 is your 3W, and your driver goes 275-300.  If you played this hole with a 3W 100 times, you’d never hit it in the water, and you’d have 100 approaches from 150-160 yards.  From there you make par half the time and bogey half the time and no big numbers.  If you hit driver 100 times, your approach goes down to 100-125 yards, which may allow for more pars and birdies, however, you’re making bogeys, doubles, and triples when you hit it in the water.  Even if you hit it in the water only 10% of the time, the math strongly favors avoiding the water.

The Approach

Avoiding OB typically isn’t an issue on your approach shot, so we’ll focus on water.  Of course, no one aims their approach shot at water, but many approaches end up wet.  Why?

One reason is that architects use other hazards to steer you towards the water.  Take a look at the hole above.  The most prominent feature is the bunker short and left.  Players may look at that and take an extra club to avoid it, not realizing that they’re bringing the water into play.  When you look at this hole, the priority is avoiding the water.  Relatively speaking, the sand isn’t a bad spot.

The other reason shots end up wet is because players want to aim at flags.  With a hole like the one above, too many players will use the yardage to the flag regardless of where it is on the green.  If that flag is on the front, you have a very slim margin for error.  If you play to that yardage, a small mishit will be wet.

The same concept applies when there’s water on the sides of the green.  If the flag is on the edge near water and you aim at it, a small error will end up wet.

Here’s the rule: ignore the flag, play to the center of the green.  This gives you some margin for error and will lead to lower scores.

The following two tabs change content below.

Matt Saternus

Founder, Editor In Chief at
Matt is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Plugged In Golf. He's worked in nearly every job in the golf industry from club fitting to instruction to writing and speaking. Matt lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with his wife and two daughters.

Latest posts by Matt Saternus (see all)


  1. Matt, can you confirm if I comprehend this article correctly?
    the “Off the tee” sections suggests that if my landing areas is not 60 yards wide, free of water or O/B, then I should hit elsewhere (lay-up).

    The 1st hole at my course is a narrow, with O/B down the left (road), and a strategically placed pond on the right side of the fairway affecting most players drivers.

    Lets say the distance from the road to the left edge of the FW is 20 yds + 40 yd wide FW + right rough 5 yds. Therefore I have a landing area of 65 yards between left O/B and right Water. Is your article suggesting that since there is a 65 yard landing zone (albeit 20 yds of it is heavy/abundant trees), that I should not lay up?

    Because if I layup 20-30 yards short of my driver, the trees are gone, the water is a non factor. Sure, I understand that water is bad, but even if I hit it left into the trees, I’m punching out, and am approaching the green with my 3rd shot (same as if I got wet). In my mind, the trees are just as penalizing as the pond.

    • Matt Saternus


      I don’t think anyone would consider “in the trees” a good landing area. This sounds like a situation for laying back.


  2. I think the definitive guide to game planning and course strategy is the book Lowest Score Wins. I’ve used it to shave multiple strokes from my game without changing my swing. The Shot Zones and Decision Maps and all of the stuff they have in there are all you need to play your best golf anywhere.

  3. This is awesome to read. Professionally I work with GIS (geographic information systems), just like Google Earth but with better data. I have drawnthe greens on our local municipal courses that I play a lot, found the geometric center of the green, then found the distances 80-140 yards from the center in 20 yard increments. These distances leave me a full swing with a wedge rather than an ackward half shot. This has lead me to use my 3 wood or 3 hybrid off the tee more than my driver. I will buy and Lowest Score Wins ASAP. Thanks for the article.

  4. So true…..and this is one of the main reasons I carry both a laser and GPS watch. Too many golfers (IMO) rely on that exact flag number without being cognizant of the hazards brought into play if they don’t execute a very good shot.

    Great read….always good to see these reminders of what should be common sense for golfers.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *