Why did you hit it over that waste area on thirteen?” Alan Pate asked me after the round. We were playing a mini-tour event on the Emerald Coast Golf Tour in the early 1990s, and Pate and I had been paired together. He was an All-American golfer at the University of Alabama, had played some on the PGA Tour, and eventually became a winner on what is now known as the Web.com Tour.
“I wanted a shorter third shot into the green,” I replied. I had attempted a risky second shot over a waste area on the par-5 13th hole at Shalimar Pointe Golf Club, and was successful in pulling it off, although barely. It gave me an80-yard sand wedge approach to the back pin location, where if I laid up, I would have had about 130 yards left.
“Well, that wasn’t a smart shot,” Pate told me. “You had to hit it perfectly to clear that waste area, and suppose you just missed it. You would have been in that waste area and probably in a lot of trouble.” The waste area back then had a lot of pampas grass bushes and other nasty stuff in it.
“Look, the bottom line is it was going to take you two more shots to hit the green,” he continued. “You have to make sure you have the second shot.”
You have to make sure you have the second shot. No bit of advice on how to play the game has resonated more with me in my long teaching and playing career. It led to my deep interest with course management and how to best make your way around the layout. From what Pate told me, I came up with two absolute tenets of course management that I follow to this day: 1) Never plan your strategy based on having to hit a perfect shot, unless absolutely necessary; 2) plan to avoid the worst trouble.
There are two holes at Boulder Creek Golf Club in Boulder City, Nevada, where we just finished the U.S. and World Golf Teachers Cups, that are perfect examples of course management choices. The first is the second hole on the Coyote Run nine, and the other is the ninth hole, also on Coyote Run. Both holes are par-4s and have split fairways, or two different fairways. On both holes, the left fairway option is riskier but offers a much shorter second shot than does the right fairway.
The second hole has a large fairway bunker that, as measured on Google Earth, takes 228 yards to clear from the tees we played. If successful, the player has a fairway that is 44yards wide awaiting him. If a player cannot clear the bunker, which I can’t, the choices are to play out to the wide part of the fairway right of the bunker, which is 42 yards across, or play down the left side, which is only 24 yards wide and narrows to 12 yards wide with other bunkers coming into play. On all four days of the tournaments, I hit a 3-wood into the wide part of the fairway. I made two pars and two birdies doing so.
I did see a few of my playing partners go left of the bunker into the narrower fairway, even though they couldn’t clear the big bunker. A couple of times they were successful and went through the 12-yard-wide gap, leaving them with flip wedges into the green, whereas I had 6-, 7- and 8-irons. However, how many times are you going to hit a 12-yard-wide gap with a full driver? Not many. I mean, if you have the confidence to hit such a small gap with your driver, fine, but I don’t understand that play at all, to be honest. As for the others who didn’t make the gap? Most of them wound up with difficult bunker shots.
The ninth hole at Coyote Run is somewhat the same but offers one big difference: The riskier fairway is somewhat wider than the one on the second hole. The left fairway on the ninth has a creek running down both sides with a pond 260 yards off the tee on the left-hand side. Short of the pond, the fairway is 48 yards across, while at the pond and beyond it narrows to 35 yards. These seem like generous yardages, but the problem is the fairway is diagonal from left to right, so the playing width is less from a practical standpoint. The fairway is extremely wide going down the right-hand side with an actual and practical width of 45 yards. However, taking this option leaves a much longer second shot into the green, and the difference is dramatic: A long iron or hybrid vs. A short iron, in my case. And I’m sure other competitors faced the same choice.
So in this case, going down the left fairway is well worth the risk, because while I don’t have any analytics to back this up, I think in the long run a player’s scoring average will be less. In my case, again all four days I went down the wider right fairway. I made three pars and a bogey.
Why did I not go left? For me, when I have severe trouble awaiting me on both sides on a long shot, it creates too much pressure to allow me to confidently hit a shot. Going down the right fairway was the correct option for me, even if it meant a hybrid second shot, and that’s okay. The green was relatively large with not much real trouble around it. I reasoned the worst I could make was bogey going this way, whereas if I went left, bogey might be the best I could make.
All of this applies to other areas in course management, including approach shots. One of the worst things to do is short-side yourself, or missing the green on the same side where the hole location is. You won’t have much green to work with, so it’s better to miss to the wider side if you’re going to miss the shot. On short irons, it’s okay to fire right at the flag, but with medium irons and longer, I like to just hit into an area between the flagstick and the wider edge of the green. For example, if the pin is on the right side of the green and I have a 5-iron approach, I will aim for the general area between the flagstick and the left edge of the green.
If a pin is up front on longer approaches, most players, including accomplished ones, will do well to take enough club to reach the middle of the green. That way, if the shot is mis-struck, it will still probably be pin-high, or relatively close.
If you think I favor a conservative game plan, you’re correct. I believe most shots are lost, not because the player failed to play great, but because they failed to not play poorly. That doesn’t mean playing scared or playing not to lose, far from it. There are plenty of opportunities on most courses to play aggressively with little or no risk, and those opportunities should be taken advantage of. But when there is risk, it must be weighed and dealt with accordingly.
Alan Pate made a huge difference in how I approach the game. I’m happy to pass on his wisdom, and I hope you and your students can benefit from his kindness to a then-new golf professional.