2002: Golfweek Preferred - The aim game: Shoot for low numbers, not flagsticks

Farmingdale, N.Y.

Here’s an idea for relaxing during a round of golf and perhaps even scoring better. Forget about the flags or hole locations, and just play for the center of greens. Don’t bother with trying to get the ball into the hole until you are close enough to putt or chip to it.

As so often happens, I stumbled upon this insight. It occurred while playing a course that was closed to the public and thus devoid of flags for the day. It was Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, on a miserable Monday in late April with a rainstorm moving across Long Island. I was there to do a U.S. Open preview and had plans only to walk the course after spending the morning with superintendent Craig Currier and architect Rees Jones. But the rain was clearing, sort of, and as I was parked by the maintenance building, I simply headed off to the nearest tee, the par-3 third hole, and played my way around until I returned to the area at the 14th green.

It had been a decade since I had been there, and I well-remembered how hard and relentlessly demanding the holes were. But as I stood there on the tee of the 180-yard third hole and prepared to play, all I saw were yawning bunkers and a hint of a green surface, no flag. So what, I told myself, just hit a shot that looks comfortable and figure out the rest later.

And that’s how I played those 12 holes that day – forgetting about the flag and playing for the fattest, most receptive part of the putting surface. I did this on full approach shots, 70-yard lob wedge shots, even on recoveries from greenside bunkers. And so I kept playing for areas of the green that looked big enough to hold my shot. Note: I carry a 12.7 index, and while I’m no threat in a stroke-play event, I actually can play shots, though not with a lot of spin. So I need room around my intended landing area, especially behind so the ball can run out when it lands.

The average U.S. golfer is an 18 handicap. My guess is that your standard male golfer hits about three greens in regulation per round. Even your above-average 80s shooter probably doesn’t hit more than six to eight greens in regulation per round. And yet most golfers play as if they were competing for a U.S. Open. They step off the exact yardage. They pull out a pin sheet and calculate accordingly. They play for hole locations they have no business playing for. They attempt shots they can’t usually pull off because of the simple psychological reason that they are ego-driven and are pretending to be more than they really are. No wonder they don’t score as well as they can. Why? Because most golfers don’t manage their games properly.

Forgetting about flags and playing for the center of greens would have a major impact on play. For one, it would speed up play, as golfers could forget about those pin sheets and the ensuing mathematical calculations. PGA Tour players play to exact yardages – plus or minus 1 yard on every mid- or short-iron approach. But to the vast majority of golfers, distances conveyed in anything less than units of 5 yards (160, 165, 170) are meaningless. The same goes for those facilities that sport red-white-blue flags, colored according to their respective depths on the green. So much for the game being a test of your senses. All this move achieves is to encourage players to think like pros when in fact they can’t play close to that. Let’s get real. Let’s have golfers play within themselves.

Playing for the center of greens makes good strategic sense. If you figure that greens are, on average, 80 feet by 80 feet, being in the center means you’ll never have a first putt of more than 30 feet – and that you’ll also have a lot fewer bunker shots or recoveries to play from the short side of the putting surface. More important, it will take pressure off your game and allow you to relax because you will be playing to more accommodating areas of the putting surface. Plus, you probably will play better and hit more quality shots because your body and mind will lighten so that you actually can swing the club rather than steer the clubhead.

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