Let the Birdies Come to You
It’s fun to think about the best golfers in the world taking aim at the flag stick and stuffing their shot to tap-in range, but that’s not reality. In truth, the smartest, best golfers aren’t hunting birdies, they’re letting the birdies come to them. Read this lesson to take a page out of their playbook.
This Lesson Is For You If:
You want to shoot lower scores
You find yourself in too many hazards
You don’t hit enough greens in regulation
“There Are No Birdies in Bunkers”
This distilled version of today’s lesson was driven home during my last round of 2019. I was playing one of my best rounds of the year when I walked up to a short par 3. The pin was no more than three paces from the front edge, just over a bunker. I played the pin yardage and came up four yards short, right in the sand.
As I walked up to the bunker shot, I had to laugh at myself. There were twenty yards of green beyond the flag! Even though the green was tilted back-to-front, any putt would have been better than being in the sand. Rather than making an easy par or possible birdie, I was going to have to struggle to keep a bogey off my card.
Get Lots of Lotto Tickets
Making putts is hard. On the PGA Tour, 2019’s very best putters made less than 30% of their GIR putts from 15-20 feet. Major champion Francesco Molinari made less than 9% from that range.
Let me put that a different way. You can aim directly at the flag, hit it to 17 feet (an awesome shot, by the way), and, if you putt like the average PGA Tour Pro, you’ll have an 18% chance of making the birdie.
The takeaway is this: you need to give yourself a lot of birdie putts if you want to make birdies, because making putts is hard. The way to give yourself more birdie putts is to hit more greens in regulation.
How do we hit more greens in regulation? Stop aiming at the flag. Aim at the middle of the green. Get the ball on the putting surface and give yourself a chance. Aiming at the flag is fun, but in most cases it raises your average score by bringing more hazards and missed greens into the equation.
Make Smart Decisions Easy
If you’re going to create the habit of making smart decisions, you need to stack the deck in your favor (more on that HERE). One of the easiest ways to do that is to swap your laser rangefinder for a GPS watch.
Consider this: if you use a rangefinder, you get a yardage to the pin. To make a smart decision from there, you need to calculate (or more likely, guess) how the flag yardage relates to the center of the green and then play to that. You’re asking yourself to remember to play smart, ignore that enticing pin yardage, plus you’re adding in the randomness of guessing how far the flag is from the middle of the green. None of that skews the odds in your favor.
With a GPS watch, smart decision making is easier: look at the center number, play to that. If the green is huge and the flag is way up/back, maybe you adjust that a bit, but the smart yardage is staring you in the face.
There’s a reason that greens in regulation is the one statistic that best correlates with total score: it’s the easiest way to make birdies and avoid bogeys. If we know that, then it’s only logical that we choose a strategy that maximizes our GIRs. You’ll have far lower scores when you stop chasing birdies and let them come to you.
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Very true indeed. I had a net score of – 15 in the club championship 2 years ago largely because my strategy was to just get on the green. As a player with a poor short game, I am happy to be anywhere on the dance floor because my putting usually is ok. So I may not necessarily go for the middle of the green as you suggest here (and I don’t have a golf watch) but just anywhere on it will do. I am 23hc so going for birdies is not my game anyway, would be happy to be a bogey player
Wise words…as always Matt!
So true. Always good to be reminded of.
Keep it simple and see what you get, two putts for par would be very good advice for large majority of amateurs. And if you sink it, happy days!
Truly enjoy your reviews and insights Matt! When in doubt I play for 3 to 5 steps from the front of a green and am happy to be a bit short. I practice chipping a lot and long lag putting. My scores improve when I think par or bogey at worst! By the way my email is wedge backwards and I practice the low wedge shot all the time too!
Had a similar enlightening two years ago playing with my friend who was club champion at the time. I made a par. Hadn’t made a bird through 12 holes, and was frustrated. He simply said “pars are good” and walked off the green. I’ve taken 5 off my handicap since that moment and my score distribution has gotten so much tighter.
Love your website and the advice against hunting birdies. I find that the ‘make percentages’ help manage expectations and understand that par is a good score when you’re playing off a handicap.
However, I disagree with your comment about the rangefinder vs GPS watch. I use mine to measure to various points (upslopes, bunker lips, mounding) around the green and then determine where is the appropriate miss. It’s also useful off the tee on short par 4’s, doglegs and par 5’s so you can work out the best distance to lay up.
If used sensibly, I think it’s far better than a GPS – like a yardage book, for example. That’s my 2c.
I’m with you on this one Matt – 100%. Though I might suggest you call the article “Stop Chasing Pins”. I did exactly what you suggested in this article a few years ago. I put my rangefinder down and went with the gps watch and it changed my game entirely.
I had been keeping stats for each game and analyzed that game after I entered the numbers into an app, and also analyzed my trends. What I noticed was that my GIR numbers were less than ok, but they weren’t great, better than the typical amateur, but I was pressuring my short game way too much. I was chipping or trying to get close from a bunker (both skills I had worked on considerably) but I wasn’t putting for birdies. I kept that in mind when I played, but couldn’t seem to correct it. I’ve always been able to get my ball in the fairway, but I was just not hitting the greens. I was puzzled by this because I love playing my irons and my shot making is confident and sharp. It turned out, as you suggested, that I was going after the pin. I was using my range finder which set my entire process into focusing on the flag. And unless that flag is set up in the center of the green (rarely), the likelihood of missing the green was significant.
But once I went to the gps and finally understood why the TV announcers and the likes of Rory and Tiger kept saying it was smart to go for the center of the greens, I put it into play. No, it’s hardly sexy or exciting but it’s still a challenge. The bigger challenge is to not focus on the flag beckoning at me to go for it. And once on, ok, if I miss the 1st putt, I am tapping in for par in lieu of chasing pars from a chip or bunker shot. Now that stat of 1.7 putts per hole is translating differently. Yes, pars are good. But when the putter is really fired up (and we all have those rounds), the birdies are imminent and bogies seem just a little further away from the mind.
It’s a very different game this way, in fact it’s predictably redundant. “Fairways and greens” is my mantra. It’s so hard not to focus on the pin – especially on the par 3s. It takes so much more discipline to hit the center of the green when everything in your body and mind is screaming “PIN!” Look at the center of the green number on the GPS and set your mind and body to that number. Yeah, if I know the pin is a little more towards the back or the front, I’ll club up or down to reflect it, but I’m not attacking the pin anymore – ok I’m still human. Sometimes it’s just irresistible and I have to go after it. What’s the difference you might ask, well since that change, I went from a highly respectable 3-5 HCP that I held onto for years, down to a deadly +2 to +4 HCP.
Fairways and Greens. Fairways and Greens.