Improving your game with swing changes, equipment and range practice are often thought of as the only avenues for lowering your score on the golf course, but there is another path that may be the most influential of them all: Changing your strategy so you can golf smart.

Most golfers don’t have a plan. They immediately grab driver when they come to each hole that isn’t a par-3. They find out what their yardage is to the flag and choose the club that matches the yardage. And most of all, they choose how to play a hole based on what they wish would happen, and not what is most likely to happen. 

All of this means that most golfers throw away several shots per round, not because of a poor swing but because they have no plan. 

You wouldn’t expect to have success in any other endeavor without a plan. Why would golf be any different? No matter what handicap or skillset you have, every player can come up with a strategy that makes the most sense. 

So how do you formulate a plan? For some this part may sound too intimidating, but there is a very simple method that even beginners can use. This is at the heart of the golf smart concept, a more detailed, understandable and effective method for thinking about the way this game is played at all levels. 

Assessing What You Have

The first step in golf strategy is assessment. In other words, who are you as a golfer? Write down where you are most comfortable and uncomfortable on the course. The more specific, the better. 

A novice may start by noting that they are more confident on the green than hitting a driver, or that a 6-iron is their favorite club. 

The more experienced you are, the more details you can write down. For myself, I would say that I am most comfortable hitting a driver on holes that bend right-to-left, using short irons (8-iron or less) when I can make a full swing and making short putts within five feet of the hole. From all of those areas, I am very confident. I don’t mind when there is a daunting hazard on the left side of a hole, but it makes me queasy to see one on the righthand side. My bad shots tend to go more to the right than the left. My least favorite shots are in the range of about 30 to 50 yards from the hole, but I am more comfortable from 100-120 yards away. 

Gather the observations you have. If it’s only a sentence, start with that. You can build along the way. 

Gathering Vital Analytics

The next step, and arguably the most vital, is to know the average of each of these: 

  • How far you hit each club
  • Where you are most likely to miss with each club
  • What your range is in terms of being offline from your target

This is where an analytics platform like Graff is key, because this information, paired with your likes and dislikes as a player, will form your strategy. 

Managing Expectations

You should not plan for hitting a shot perfectly. What the experienced player plans for is the 50th percentile of all of their swings. If a well-struck 6-iron goes 165 yards but the average of all your 6-irons is 156 yards, you should plan for it to go 156 yards, all other variables being equal. If the trend throughout most of your clubs is that you hit it short and to the right, you should plan for that possibility. And if you hit your driver an average of 30 yards offline compared to your start line, you should know that not every hole — a lot of holes, actually — will be receptive to that.

A lot of golfers get tripped up here. They visualize their best shot and plan to hit it, but the reality is that golf is a very hard game. You are far more likely to hit your average shot than the ideal one you are visualizing. This applies even to the best in the world. 

You have to manage your expectations while playing to the strengths you’ve identified. 

Once you have created a profile — your likes/dislikes paired with the hard data of who you are as a golfer — it’s time to take that information with you to the course. If you only have limited information, take whatever you have. 

Golf is a severely misunderstood game from a strategy standpoint, but understanding it doesn’t have to be complicated. At the core of the golf smart concept is the ability to take a lot of information and pair it down to its simplest form.

Choosing Clubs Off the Tee

You stand on the first tee of a narrow par-4 that is 350 yards. On each side of the hole, there are dense trees. In between, there is what you estimate to be a 40-yard window. On average you hit your driver 260 yards and are offline an average of 30 yards from your start line. If you hit a perfect driver, you would be left with a 90-yard shot in the fairway. 

The thing is, that is less likely to happen than your average. Your average driver, which only fits in a 60-yard window given the 30 yards on each side of your target, will put you in the trees. You are taking on far too much risk, all for the reward of hitting a 90-yard wedge shot that you may or may not be comfortable with in the first place. 

You look at your 3-wood, which goes an average of 220 yards while being offline by an average of 18 yards. This would leave you 130 yards, but your average shot will put you within the 40-yard corridor between the trees. 

Maybe your favorite club is an 8-iron, which you hit 150 yards. Taking a driving iron, which travels 200 yards on average and is only offline by 13 yards normally, will leave you at your favorite distance while taking on even less risk than a 3-wood. 

That is golf smart. It’s not about playing conservatively or aggressively — it’s about having a reservoir of data behind you, looking at all of your options and picking the one that makes the most sense for you. 

Changing Your Approach to Golf Smart

Picking clubs off the tee is one part of the plan. The other is approaching the hole. 

Most golfers use a rangefinder or GPS to find out how far away the hole is, but this is just one data point and often a misleading one. The golf smart concept wants you to look at playing golf a different way.  

The question is not “How close can you get to this target?” 

The question you want to be asking is “Where do I want to hit my next shot from?” 

If you are playing to a hole that is on the back of the green and you laser that it is 140 yards away, it’s likely that you don’t want to plan on a 140-yard shot. This is a flawed line of thinking. 

For every club you hit, there is a shot dispersion where you can draw an imperfect circle around your target. That imperfect circle needs to include as much of the green as possible, eliminating as much of the circle that falls outside of the green.

Prioritizing Greens Hit

We know from many years-worth of data that, for the average golfer, being on the green is the biggest indicator of shooting the lowest score possible. That may sound obvious, but most players are not planning for their average shot to hit the green. They are playing to get as close to the hole as possible, visualizing their best shot and not their average shot. 

So that 140-yard shot to the hole location in the back part of the green is not really a 140-yard shot for most players. It’s probably 130 or 135 yards, the shot that allows the greatest probability to hit the green. 

When you add in particular trouble around a hole — water to the left of the green, let’s say — this is where it pays to know all of the information we have talked about. If you tend to miss approach shots to the left, you need to move the circle further right. 

You are not a sniper. It’s more like you are operating a semi-accurate cannon. 

Of course, golf is not a game played purely by numbers. It’s played by humans. If you are not comfortable with a decision, or you feel particularly confident, those are decisions that can be made within your game plan. 

But at the end of the day, the golf smart plan asks you to assess who you are and give yourself the best chance to make the lowest score. 

That’s all any golfer wants to do. 

We will have more detailed articles on strategy coming in the future, but hopefully this provides the basis for how your profile and analytics combine to form a game plan. Check back with The Club shortly for more updates.