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Ben Hogan, arguably the greatest ball striker of all time, once said that he was happy if he hit two shots per round exactly the way he had intended. So, with that thought in mind, let’s discuss how to hedge our bets by knowing where to miss.
“Golf is not just a game of great shots. It’s a game of bad shots too. The champions are the ones who hit the fewest bad shots and who are smart enough to keep their bad shots from being terrible”
Good players always have a bail out spot in the back of their mind, which is a place they can go if they’re unsure of the shot they want to hit or going for the flag is too dangerous.
I remember hosting a clinic with David Duval shortly after he shot 59 in the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Duval was discussing approach shots and told the crowd that any time he was unsure of a shot, he would choose a club or two less than he needed and would aim to the front of the green or short of the green.
From that position, he could ensure an uphill chip or putt and a decent shot at making par as most greens slope from back to front. If he was too aggressive, or played a shot he wasn’t entirely committed to, or missed badly, he could find himself in an impossible position and facing a sure bogey. By choosing to play more conservatively and hit to a safe zone, he would constantly take the potential for a big number off his scorecard.
In her book, Golf Annika’s Way, hall of famer Annika Sorenstam wrote, “Golf is not just a game of great shots. It’s a game of bad shots too. The champions are the ones who hit the fewest bad shots and who are smart enough to keep their bad shots from being terrible.”
This is great advice. If every time you missed the green you left the ball in a spot where you still had the opportunity to chip close and make the putt, you’d eliminate the big number and keep your scores low. You’re going to miss many greens in your lifetime, but how well you manage those misses is very important.
So let’s take a specific example of a situation at Pebble Beach Golf Links to clarify this thought process. The 8th hole is one of the greatest par-4s in the world. It requires a solid tee shot to the middle of the fairway and then a downhill approach over the ocean to a tiny green perched on the edge of a cliff.
Let’s say your tee shot has left you 200 yards to the green. How should we play this shot? Should we go for the green and the glory?
The first step is to establish your chances for success. For me personally, if I cannot visualize success at least 5 out of 10 times, I rule out the shot. In this case, I am quite confident from 200 yards and I will be going for the green, but you may not be. Your chances from that distance may be 1 out of 10. If the odds are against you in your mind, it is time to consider the alternatives.
The beauty of Pebble Beach’s design is that there is always an option for you. In this case, a safe 125-150 yard shot left and short of the green eliminates the threat of the ocean and leaves you a chance to pitch and putt for par. You have taken the threat of double bogey or more off of your scorecard! Well done!