2004: Architecture - The psychology of target golf

There’s a close, if unexplored, relationship between golf course architecture and psychology. Thus far, only two kinds of people know this – sophisticated golf course designers and professional tour caddies. It’s time to make public this insider’s knowledge. Golfers everywhere will benefit. By playing smarter they’ll play better. Or at least by not playing so dumb, they’ll have a chance to play up to their real skill level, regardless of how refined or mid-range that might be.

A lot of golfers I see fall into one of two categories. Either they play scared or they play (and talk) over their heads. In both cases, they spend their time on the golf course caught up in an identity crisis. The result is a round of golf that looks and feels like an out-of-body experience and is less enjoyable (and less successful) than it could be.

Nobody who plays scared can play well or enjoy it.

A few lakes here, some sand scattered there, add in the occasional forced carry and some devilish hole placements. It doesn’t take much for a course architect to exploit a fragile ego. Next thing you know, the golfer is aimed away from all of the dominant hazards, and instead of playing golf with positive thoughts, he is turning every swing into a “don’t.”

There’s nothing wrong with occasionally playing defensively. In the 2001 PGA Championship, David Toms parlayed cautious play on the 72nd hole into a major victory when he laid up on a par-4 and sank a winning 10-foot par putt.

The problem creeps in when instead of playing smart or strategically you end up with nothing but negative thoughts, as in “don’t go left” or “don’t be short.” A basic rule of the golf swing is that the motion can’t be made efficiently or confidently when the dominant thought is what not to do. The physics of the swing and the speeds required for your body to execute the motion do not admit to creeping doubts or reminders along the way about all the things to be avoided. The swing works best when it’s guided by a simple directive of what to do. In golf, this advice boils down to a crisp adage: “think positively.”

Consider a tee shot. You’re on a par-4 with water down the left side, let’s say the 18th at TPC at Sawgrass’ Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Obviously, you don’t want to hit it left, but if that’s your swing thought, anything could happen. A good trick when you have a dominant hazard on a tee shot is to start off as close to the hazard as you can get and then play away. By teeing your ball on the left side of the markers, you have more room away from the hazard to face and thus more leeway than if you teed up from the right.

There’s a rule of thumb of putting that’s applicable to positive shotmaking of any length. Let’s start with the obvious truth that putts that come up short don’t go in. If you roll the ball just to get to the hole you’ll likely come up short or lose the line because of break or grain. So it’s a good, positive thought while putting to target the back of the hole.

Now for a revolutionary idea. The same holds for iron shots. Instead of trying to get the ball onto the green, why not make a freer, loser swing with the intent of getting the ball to the back of the green?

Watch play at any par-3 hole on your average golf course and you’ll see player after player come up short or barely get to the front. That’s because the majority of golfers overestimate their ability to hit irons and play for their best effort when on average, they don’t actually hit the ideal shot. Nor, by definition, do they normally play up to their potential. They might occasionally, rarely, but not on average. This gives rise to the statistically odd, if psychologically plausible, phenomenon of the golfer who never plays his “normal game.”

Most golfers play below their norm because they overestimate their capability. They know they can hit a 7-iron 160 yards, so on a 160-yard hole they swing a 7-iron. Yet they tend not to distinguish how much of their ideal distance is achieved via a carry and how much additional accrues from roll. Nor do they provide themselves with a plus/minus margin of error.

Architects make a living on this hubris. They get reputations for placing difficult hazards in front of greens or for creating inaccessible pin placements. In fact, all they are doing is assuming that most golfers are egotistic and greedy.

A good way to thwart this kind of design is to select clubs and make swings based upon the principle of positive targeting. Instead of planning for optimal success, plan for likely success. And instead of trying just to carry a hazard, why not select a target that’s well behind the trouble and swing freely through the ball? In other words, don’t play golf as if it’s all or nothing. Play it realistically, play it for likelihood, and play it in such a way that you’re able to swing freely through the ball rather than trying “not” to do something bad.

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