The Keys to Playing Smarter Golf


What Is Smart Golf?

Those of you who have read all my instructional posts (Hi, Mom!) may be wondering, “Does this guy have multiple personalities?  One day he’s telling me to leave my driver in the garage, the next day he’s saying it’s the most important club in the bag and that I should hit it on every single hole!”

Rest assured, there is a consistent line of thinking that underlies all three of those recommendations: playing smart golf.  Smart golf, despite what many people think, is not about being conservative or laying up.  It’s also not about reckless 1-in-1,000,000 shots.  It’s about playing the odds.

This Lesson Is For You If:

You’re trying to improve your course management

You’re not sure what “playing smart” means or how to do it

You want to shoot lower scores


Great Execution Make You Look Smart

Ask any coach and they’ll tell you that their intelligence, as perceived by fans, is directly related to the quality of their players.  If a football coach goes for it on fourth down and succeeds, he’s a smart, bold leader.  If the result is turning the ball over on downs, he’s an incompetent boob who should have been fired yesterday.  The same decision can be “very smart” or “very dumb,” depending on whether or not you pull it off.  Golf commentators are among the worst in this regard – hitting hybrid off the tee is a smart play until you hook it OB.

The point is that you can’t judge whether a decision was good or bad based on the result.  Good decisions lead to bad results.  Bad decisions lead to good results.  You need a way to judge the decision on its own merits.


Know Yourself

To make good decisions, you need to know your game.  You need to understand the cold, hard facts of your shot patterns, distances, dispersions, and tendencies.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  Most golfers can’t come to grips with the fact that they don’t drive it 250 yards – how will they accept that their 5 iron is just a less consistent 6 iron?

The good news is, most don’t have to.  The beauty of golf is that you don’t have to play for the lowest score – you can just play for fun.  It’s perfectly OK to say, “My decision making process is, ‘What shot looks like the most fun to hit?'”  That’s a lot of self-knowledge right there.  When I’m not practicing regularly, that’s my mindset.  I think of my caddie from TPC Sawgrass, and I just go for every hero shot available.

However, for those that need to shoot the lowest possible score, you need to start doing your homework on yourself.  That starts with the basics of knowing your distances.  If you can get on the course when it’s empty and hit shots, that’s great.  Working on a launch monitor is another good option.  Perhaps the easiest, though, is using a shot tracker like Arccos or GAME Golf.  These systems are getting better and better in the way that they present data and help you to manage your game.  Arccos, for example, now shows you “Smart Yardages” – the distance you can expect to hit a club on an average shot, which is much more useful than thinking about that one time that your 7I went 190 yards.

Beyond basic distances, you need to understand your shot patterns and tendencies.  This is where launch monitors and shot tracking are best.  You need to know which clubs tend to go right, which clubs tend to go left, and how much of a left-to-right window you need to allow with different clubs.  This information, even more than your yardages, is what will keep you out of the trees, bunkers, and lakes that swallow your balls and your hopes of making a good score.

Finally, if you use a shot tracking system, review your rounds.  If you play a course regularly, figure out what the difference is between your good rounds and your bad rounds.  More often than not, the difference is probably just a few bad holes.  Review the bad holes and see if they were the result of bad decisions or bad swings.  If you made bad decisions, think through what some higher percentage players would be.


Put Your Knowledge to Work

Having information about yardages and shot patterns is only useful if you can put it to work for yourself.  The first step is having the information accessible.  You can make a notecard with your yardages or put a label on each club.  Maybe you want an index card you tuck into your scorecard holder.  Whatever method you prefer, make sure you are taking this knowledge to the course.

Additionally, you can make your round much easier by making a lot of decisions in advance.  When you’re working on analyzing your game, think about how it applies to your home course.  Think about each tee shot and how your shot pattern fits into it.

Finally, when you are on the course, make the high percentage decision and don’t worry about the result.  There will be times when the club that “never hooks” turns left into the pond.  That’s ok.  That’s golf.  Be happy knowing that you made the right decision, move on to the next shot, and don’t let one bad result affect future decision making.


So what’s the smart play when you have 175 yards into the green with water on the right?  There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.  For short-hitting slicers, laying up might be the best decision.  Laying up might also be the right play for the bomber whose 8I tends to leak.  Like everything else in golf, the answers aren’t necessarily easy to come by, but they are worth finding.

Matt Saternus
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One Comment

  1. Great article. I think that this will be the year that I get Game Golf.

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