Golf Course Strategy: Complete Guide to Score Lower

When playing a round of golf, your course strategy is one of the big factors that determines how well you play and what score you shoot.

Every golf shot requires taking in information and deciding the best golf shot to play using that information.

Golf course strategy is all about identifying the risk factors and making the smart choice of club to play a shot that helps you get into the best position to score well on the hole.

In this guide we’re going to cover the different things to think about at the various stages of a golf hole starting with the tee box, then the approach shot, around the green, and putting.

Resource: How to Break 80 in Golf (Training Program)

Hitting a Tee Shot Golf Strategy

As you step onto the tee box for each hole on a golf course you’ll want to determine the following:

  • What is the par and total distance of this hole?
  • Are there any hazards to watch out for on the tee shot (bunkers, water, out of bounds)?
  • If I hit my drive ____ yards, how many yards would I have left for my approach shot?
  • Where is the best place to land the tee shot and where is the worst place to avoid hitting to based on the angle to the green for the next golf shot?

By asking these questions you can gather information to help you pick the right golf club to hit the right distance of golf shot to help you get into position for your next shot.

On par 3’s you’ll figure out what club gets you to the green and where to try and land the ball on the green to best avoid bunkers or tough downhill putts.

Make sure your tee height is set correctly for your drivers, woods, and irons so you can get height and distance on your tee shots. Set tee height lower to avoid wind and hit low shots as needed on windy days.

Try to avoid hitting towards trees so you don’t get stuck behind a tree for your next shot.

If water is on the hole, play a club distance that will stay short of the water or play a long enough club that you can easily get past the water. For example, if water is to the right at 250 yards, then reconsider hitting driver since this would be in the landing zone of your driver tee shot.

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Golf Course Strategy with Approach Shots

On par 4 and par 5 holes, even if you hit a bad tee shot that doesn’t make the fairway, you still have a chance to hit the green in regulation with your approach shot. Hitting the green in regulation then gives you an opportunity to make a birdie putt or two-putt for par.

Therefore, approach shots should take lots of focus and strategy to make sure you give yourself a high percentage chance of hitting onto the green.

How’s Your Golf Ball’s Lie?

Start off by assessing your lie. You may be in the fairway, the rough, the bunker, or possibly in an old divot.

If the ball is resting in the rough, then you’ll need a little extra swing speed to get the club through the thicker grass since it tends to grab the face of the club and slow it down.

If you’re in the fairway, then pick a club that will hit the ball the right distance to land 3-5 yards short of the hole so the ball has some room to roll once it lands.

If you’re in someone’s divot, try playing the ball back in your stance a little bit so you can pick it clean out of the divot and reduce the chance of chunking the shot.

When your ball happens to be in an awkward lie, then take note of the following strategies:

Ball Above Your Feet (uphill slope) – Play the shot more forward in your stance to help you make better contact and expect it to fly with a higher flight to the green. This may produce higher backspin so the ball lands softer with less roll on the green.

Ball Below Your Feet (downhill slope) – Play the shot more back in your stance so you catch the ball at the right point of the bottoming of your swing relative to the slope. This will hit a lower golf shot so anticipate lower flight and more roll.

Side Slope Above Feet – Expect the ball to want to curve back toward you in the air with slight draw. So if you’re hitting on a side slope where the ball is above your feet, then it will want to go a little left (draw) in the air so aim more right of your target.

Side Slope Below Feet – Expect the ball to go away from you in the air (cut / fade / slice). Aim a little more left to adjust for the ball wanting to fly to the right with a fade curve.

What’s Your Angle to the Green?

Next, look at your balls angle to the green. Do you have a clear line to the green? Or is there an obstacle in the way such as a tree or bush? If there are bunkers or water along the line to the hole, can these be easily avoided or is there a chance the ball lands in them?

If you find that you have obstacles in your line to the green, then you may have to play a different line. The goal will be to get the ball as close to the green as you can, but you’re anticipating needing to hit another shot still after, to get onto the green.

For example, maybe you have to hit a punch shot to get out from behind a tree and back into the fairway, but this will leave you 60 yards from the green still. Then you’ll try to hit your 60 yard shot as close to the pin as possible to still save a par.

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Is There Wind?

Think about the wind as well when hitting approach shots. If there is wind, determine which way it is blowing by picking some grass and holding it in the air, releasing it so that you can see where the grass flies.

When wind is behind you, blowing toward the green, then take less club or swing 90% to factor in that the wind will help the ball fly farther than normal.

When you are facing the wind coming at you, take more club or swing a little harder to get the ball to fight through the wind. You can also play a less lofted club that helps hit a lower shot to get through wind easier than hitting a high shot.

Side winds can be adjusted for by aiming a little more left or right depending which direction the wind is blowing.

Golf Strategy When Putting

Once on the putting green, now it’s time to focus on making your putt and getting off the hole in as few strokes as possible. If you have a tendency to three putt, then you may need to adjust your putting routine and focus more on speed control.

Read the greens for slope / break

Start off with reading the green. Which way does the green slope and how will that affect the golf ball as your putt is rolling towards the hole.

How far of a putt do you have?

If you’re outside of 10 feet, you should probably focus more on speed control and just try to get the putt close to the hole so you have an easy 2nd putt into the cup.

If you are less than 10 feet away from the hole, you should try to make the putt. Determine if there is any break in the green and align your putt to adjust for this break. Hit the putt with enough speed to get it to the hole and give yourself a chance to make the putt, but don’t hit too hard that the ball rolls more than 1-2 feet past the hole

Uphill or Downhill?

When putting uphill, give the ball a little extra power since you’re fighting gravity and the ball is rolling uphill.

On downhill putts, gravity will help the ball down the hill so you don’t need to be as powerful with your putting stroke.

It’s ideal to face an uphill putt as opposed to a downhill putt. Uphill putts are usually easier to make since you can give the putt a more firm stroke and not risk hitting it too far past the hole since the uphill slope slows it down easier as compared to downhill.

Try to leave your approach shots and chip shots on the side of the hole that will give you an uphill putt if possible.

Golf Course Strategy Mistakes to Avoid

#1: Tee Shots – Golf Course Strategy

If you have a swing tendency such as a slice or hook, then it’s important to account for it when setting up to hit golf shots during a round of play.

Don’t line up straight at the center of the fairway if you know you’ll have a big bending slice to the right.

Instead, align your feet and body to aim slightly left of the fairway to help counter the slice so you start the ball left, and then the ball curves back right to the fairway.

The time to work on fixing your slice or fixing your hook is on the driving range.

But during our golf rounds, we want to score our best so we have to play with strategy and this means anticipating our swing tendency when we set up and align ourselves to hit a golf shot.

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#2: Going for the Green

Knowing when to go for the flag stick and when to go for the center of the green takes discipline. In most cases, you’ll score a lot better scores if you consistently just try to get on the middle of the green and not be aggressive aiming at flagsticks.

Observe the green and find any obstacles that could cause you to lose strokes.

For example, if you know you can’t hit well out of the bunkers, try to avoid them by aiming far away from bunkers. Going into the bunker could cost you several strokes to your score if you struggle to get the ball out of the sand.

Also think about where you’ll want to play your next shot from. Would you rather be chipping uphill or downhill if you miss the green? Would you rather be putting uphill or downhill? Left break or right break?

Think about where the ball might end up and how it affects your next shot and this will help you plan accordingly to aim yourself where you want to be for an easy next shot.

#3: Cutting the Corner on Dog-Legs

Yes, it’s very tempting to try and cut the corner on a dog-leg hole on the golf course. Who wouldn’t want to shave off 50-75 yards on their next shot?

But there usually comes risk with doing this!

In most cases, dog legs are bending around a bunch of trees or some type of hazard. If you aren’t successful at getting the ball to fly on the direct path you’re aiming for, this could lead to trouble.

Usually, a lost ball, or a ball going into the trees and leaving a difficult punch out shot.

Therefore, be careful with getting too aggressive on dog-leg holes on the golf course. Take the safer play and hit the ball towards the big wide open fairway that’s straight ahead instead of taking an angle to cut the hole shorter.

#4: Trying to Hard to Make Birdie Putts

One of the mistakes golfers make when putting, is aggressively going after birdies.

If you play enough golf you should have some self-awareness about your game. You should know if you can make birdie putts from certain distances and if you never make birdies from other distances.

Use this self-awareness to know when to be aggressive and try to make the birdie versus dialing it back and hitting a safer putt focused on speed control.

Most golfers forget about speed control when trying to make birdies and they end up zooming the golf ball way past the hole when they miss the birdie putt, leaving them an almost unmakeable putt coming back for par.

Walking off the green with a 3-putt bogey instead of birdie or par is not fun! Trust me. I know.

If you are putting from long distances away from the hole, you shouldn’t be trying to make a birdie anyway. Instead the goal is to get that first putt as close to the hole as possible so you have a second putt from very close to finish the hole.

Two-putting is a much better outcome than three-putting. Have some rules about when you’ll go for birdies and when you’ll settle for two putt pars. And then stick to that golf course strategy.

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#5: Putting vs Chipping Off the Fringe of the Green

When the ball ends up on the fringe, it can be a tough decision whether to putt from the fringe or pull out a wedge and chip the golf ball.

Start by assessing your golf skills. Are you typically better with a putter in your hands or chipping wedge when you need to get the ball to roll a certain distance? Go with the higher percentage play.

For most golfers, putting may be the easier option.

However, make sure to assess how much fringe you have between your ball and the green surface.

Too much fringe, requires a lot of power on the putt to get it to roll across the fringe. Most golfers will give too much power, causing the ball to end up soaring across the green and off the other side into the rough.

In these cases, consider chipping with a wedge or perhaps a fairway wood / hybrid to bump the ball onto the green since these clubs have a flatter face like a putter, but still get some lift on the ball like a wedge.

The goal however, should be to get the ball onto the green on the first try, regardless which course strategy you go with.

Hitting a chip shot or putt across the green and into the rough on the other side is a wasted stroke as now you face another chip shot coming back instead of being ready to putt.

#6: Not Giving Enough Break on Your Putts

A common mistake I see so many golfers make is under-reading the break of the putt. In other words the golfer doesn’t aim the ball far enough outside the cup to account for enough break back to the hole.

The putt ends up breaking too much and missing on the low side of the hole.

Remember, break is caused by the hole not sitting level. One side of the hole is higher than the other and the ball will break from the high side (uphill) to the low side (downhill) due to gravity pulling the ball.

If the putt was level and flat, there would be no break occurring.

Practice reading the green and learning how severe of slope you see to judge how severe the break of the putt will be.

#7: Putting Tempo

Another mistake many golfers make is not hitting putts with good tempo! I see a lot of short, stabby putting strokes instead of smooth, controlled motion through the swing.

Work on tempo by just hitting putts on a practice green without aiming at a hole or worrying about makes and misses for a change. Focus instead on feel as you swing the putter in your hands.

Find a calm, reliable tempo that feels good and hits the ball the right speed to get it to travel the right distance to the hole.

#8: Looking Up to Early on Putts

It can be exciting to look  up and see the putt tracking to the hole and going into the hole for a made putt.

But looking up to early, can cause the arms and shoulders and hands to adjust during the stroke and make improper contact with the golf ball. These slight movements too early can affect the putt and cause you to miss.

Commonly, we see it causing pulled putts or pushed putts and you know when it happens. Immediately you can tell you just pulled the putt. You had the right aim and line but the stroke errored and resulted in a missed putt.

Instead, focus on the ground where the ball sits. As you hit the putt, keep your eyes down, looking for the little strand of grass that sits underneath where the golf ball just was. Give it a second, and then you may look up now that the ball has been well on its way for a few seconds.

On short putts from just a few feet, looking up to early is even more common. Instead, hit the putt while keeping your head down and eyes glued to where the ball was just sitting. Use your ears to listen for the sound of the ball in the cup rather than glancing over with your eyes.

Golf Practice System for Lower Scores

Learn the exact golf practice routines thousands of students at Foy Golf Academy are using to lower their golf scores.

Follow these step by step practice plans and watch video lessons to learn how to improve your golf swing, chipping, and putting fundamentals.

Get access to hundreds of golf drills to practice as well as content on the mental side of golf, fitness plans, worksheets, and many more resources. This is a complete golf practice system.

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Nick Foy, Instructor

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