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I've been playing golf for almost 25 years now. As I learn more and more about the game, there are lessons that "remain in plain sight" that I wish I knew when I first started the game.
In this article I would like to explore a concept that eluded me for a long time. While I now understand its meaning, it is not something that I am perfect at. But like everything else in golf, I want to get better little by little over time. I think this basic framework can be of great help to you.
When we play golf, countless moments feel connected. As you add up your score, you can't help but think how the tee shot on the 3rd hole really changed the day. Even when you're in the thick of it, it's hard not to think about what happened in previous holes, or how the current shot could affect future results.
Without getting too philosophical, this game pulls your brain from opposite directions. The past and the future want to influence your decisions. However, I have found that it is best to judge this game as a series of independent decisions .
Fighting the Past
Every time you approach the ball on the golf course, there is a new situation that must be assessed. Even if you've played the same course 100 times, the wind, temperature, turf conditions, and how your swing feels that day are all variables to contend with. That's the beauty of golf – every day is different.
Once your round has begun, your mind begins to fight the past. When things go bad, your negative emotions can pass. Maybe you get a bit more aggressive with your line off the tee, or you start chasing a pin that you know has nothing to do.
Conversely, if you get off to a hot start, your brain can start playing various tricks with you. To keep your luck, you may be playing a little too safe and even start changing your technique.
Regardless, no matter how strong your mental play is, previous results can weigh heavily on a golfer's mind in evaluating the shot at hand.
Controlling the Future
Since it is about strategy, golfers often let the future influence their decisions. One of the hardest things to do is not to make decisions in the present that are influenced by "wishful thinking". of your future self. To illustrate what I mean, I'll run through some scenarios involving tee shots and approach shots.
Chasing Tee Corners
Golfers often try to prefer one side of the fairway to get a better "angle" to the green based on pin position. I have subscribed myself to this belief for a long time. As I learn more about the game and see top-level stats of all skill levels, I have yet to find another compelling argument as to why it's a good idea.
To start, take a look at this image compiled by Lou Stagner:
The image is a visual representation of approximately 90,000 shots during the PGA Tour with pins on the left side of the green and on the right. The numbers indicate whether players take or lose strokes by landing the ball in certain areas of the fairway or roughly based on pin position. For example, from 125-149 yards, a player who lands the shot in the right rough to a pin on the left side of the green loses 0.07 hits to his competitors (indicated by the negative number).
While the image may be a little confusing for some of you, let me summarize some of the main findings:
The biggest gain in scoring is landing the ball in the fairway regardless of its position . It's about a 1/4 of a hit advantage over being rough.
There were no apparent score changes on an approach shot from the other side of the pin position. Angles didn't matter.
So if PGA Tour players can't take advantage of a better angle in a pin, why would you? Wait, it gets better …
You can't win the corner even if you try
A typical tour player with his driver has a dispersion pattern of 65-70 meters wide. In my own testing, I saw the same spread, which you can view in this article. With a bulkhead that wide and a typical fairway of about 30-32 yards on tour, how could they keep it to one side on a regular basis?
A visual representation of my driver's spread – looks like I can place the ball where I want?
For golfers who do not hit the ball that far off the tee, their dispersion patterns begin to narrow. But it's nearly impossible for any golfer on the planet to land the ball consistently on one side of a fairway (let's say a 10-15 yards goal). As my friend Scott Fawcett says, you're not there with a sniper rifle; you have a shotgun in your hands. Don't expect precision off the tee (or pretty much anywhere else).
Returning to my original point – if you're going to worry too much about your approach shot (the future) before even hitting a tee shot, you're probably going to make some mental mistakes.
My basic strategy off the tee, which is based on many of the statistics I have analyzed, and my own data, is that you should try to hit the ball as far as possible without avoiding major problems . That basic framework can help you lower your scores.
A concept like playing for the better angle of your approach shot can make theoretical sense. But it's next to impossible to get long-term strokes because every corner you win is likely to be in trouble. Even worse, winning the corner isn't much of an advantage! As I said before, it doesn't work as a gambler on the golf course.
That's why, every time I tee it on a hole, * (I'm not perfect) I try to take away the allure of taking a favorable spot on the fairway and not thinking about the future.
The myth of birdies and approach shots
For those of you who have read Practical Golf for years, you know my belief that pin hunting is a losing strategy. This is another battle between your "current self" and your "future self" on the course.
I know what you want and I want it too. It's a great feeling to watch your approach shots float on the pin and then drain that bird putt. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect.
Similar to chasing corners of the tee, trying to land the ball close to the pin doesn't work for two reasons:
Your dispersion patterns with your irons make it impossible
The birdie payout does not exist because putting is very difficult
I have often quoted this statistic from the PGA Tour, and it is always worth repeating. In the fairway of 100 – 125 yards, tour players average about 6 yards from the hole . Despite what announcers tell you, even they cannot place the ball next to the pin.
On average, a tour player makes only 15% of his putts from 20 feet. A golfer with an average of about 90 will be about 6%.
This combination of proximity with approach shots and difficulty is why birdies are not very common. The average PGA Tour player made 3.69 birdies per round in 2020. For recreational players with handicaps outside the low single digit range, there are almost no birdies (sorry to burst your bubble).
Birdies per round at handicap level (source: Shot Scope)
All in all, longing for those short birdie putts puts your current self in a bad situation. That's exactly why I tell almost every golfer that this boring strategy will lower your handicap.
Approach each shot as an independent decision
Simple concepts that are almost too good to be true often raise eyebrows, and what I am discussing in this article is no different. Of course, nothing I've said here is difficult to understand (or at least that's my hope). The cutoff value in golf will always be discipline and execution.
If you can get better at not allowing the past and future to influence the decisions of each shot, you will become a better golfer. However, it is worth noting that you will often fail at this, even if you adhere to this philosophy. I still do.
While I have only discussed a few scenarios, it covers all areas of the game. Recovery shots, wedge play, putting – these are all tests. When you hit a wrong tee shot, are you letting the disappointment (past) and the desire to save par (future) affect your target and club selection? Or do you analyze the situation without emotion and choose the optimal decision for the current shot .
I want you to think about this concept and think about how it applies to all of the situations you have faced in recent rounds. I also encourage you to continue the conversation with other golfers in this thread in our community. I think this is a problem we can help each other solve.