January 5, 2010

10 Rules For Owning The Par Fives

1. View par 5s as survival tests. I'm not a long hitter, but like most tour pros, I view par 5s as really difficult par 4s: If I don't make birdie, I feel like I've lost a shot to the field. The problem with some amateurs, especially some double-digit handicappers, is that they see the par 5s the same way pros do. That's a mistake, because 530 yards is a lot of ground to cover without hitting a bad shot, which can lead to more bad shots. This is why the par 5s are ranked tougher handicap holes than the par 3s: They present more opportunities for disaster. Most amateurs would be better off playing them conservatively, focusing on keeping the ball in play off the tee, not gambling with the second shot, not shooting at tucked pins on the third. The goal is to survive. It's tough to shoot a great 18-hole score if you make a mess of the par 5s, so treat them with caution.

2. Give trouble a wide berth. The par-5 18th hole at Royal Oaks, my home club in Dallas, is similar to the par-5 13th at Augusta National in that a creek runs along the left side and water sits in front of the green. Both holes are reachable in two if you bomb a drive. What's interesting is, at Royal Oaks you'll find a lot more balls in the creek to the left than in the water fronting the green. At Augusta during the Masters, it's the water by the green that draws more errant shots. The difference is, tour players make sure they drive the ball safely, because we know you can't make a birdie with your tee shot alone. The members at Royal Oaks, on the other hand, stand on the tee thinking about reaching the green in two, and that leads to overswinging and pull hooks into the creek. On par 5s with trouble down one side, don't gamble with your tee shot. It brings double bogey into the picture before you even walk off the tee.

3. Embrace your playing style. At the Presidents Cup back in October, I played with Phil Mickelson in a four-ball match against Retief Goosen and Adam Scott. I liked that Phil is much longer than I am, less accurate maybe but with great touch around the greens. On the first hole, a par 5, I hit a good drive, a lay-up second and a wedge to 10 feet. Phil killed his drive, catching the rough, and went for the green, which he missed. He flopped it to eight feet, and there we were: Two tries at birdie, but completely different ways of getting there. We won that match, and the fact that Phil's game is the opposite of mine played a part. You want to throw different looks at your opponents, have a mix of steadiness and explosiveness. So if you're a short hitter, choose a bomber as your partner, and vice versa.

4. Respect the hole locations. When I get out to my tee shot on a par 5, one big factor in deciding whether to go for the green is hole location. I'm more likely to try to get there if the flag is in an accessible area, like in the middle or back part of the green. I'll have a lot of green to work with if I come up short. When the flag is in a difficult spot, like right up front or tucked to one side, I'll usually lay up. It's easier to wedge it close from well back than when you're short-sided. It's also a good idea to consider the hole location before you hit your lay-up, so you make sure to leave yourself a comfortable shot into the green. Advance planning like this doesn't help just your strategy; it makes you feel prepared, which can really fuel your confidence.

5. Become a great lay-up player. The 16th at Firestone, where we play a WGC event, is one of the longest par 5s we face, stretching more than 650 yards. It's obviously a lay-up for me, and an awkward one at that because the second shot is downhill to an area that is also downhill. In the first round last summer, I laid up to about 100 yards. The second day, I laid up again and noticed my divot from the day before -- three feet away. I got it right on those lay-ups: They left me a fairly level lie for my third. Although I don't fixate on leaving myself a favorite yardage, laying up to a wedge distance you like is a way you can get an advantage over other players. Learn to pick out landmarks, such as trees, bunkers and, of course, yardage markers, in your lay-up zone. And if you have a GPS device, use it on lay-up shots.

6. Be ready to take a chance. In the final round of the 2008 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, I came to the par-5 18th around the top 10, but too far back to win. My drive left me 240 yards from the green over water. It was right on the edge of my go/no-go zone, and my caddie, Brian Smith, asked me: "Do you feel comfortable going for it?" I answered, "No, but I'm going for it anyway." I knocked it on and made birdie. The lesson here is twofold: First, try a shot you aren't comfortable with only if there's not a lot at stake. Second, hit the hard shot now and then. Golf wouldn't be fun if you never took a chance.

7. Drive the big hitters crazy. Playing a match against a guy who drives it 50 yards past you can be discouraging, if you dwell on it. Because I've been a short hitter, comparatively, going back to when I was 6 years old, it has never bothered me. In fact, I like it. My mind-set is, I'm going to drive this guy crazy by not making mistakes. I'm going to hit every fairway and a ton of greens, and when I miss, I'll get up and down. I'm going to wedge it close on the par 5s. I won't go away, and I'll never give up. It's amazing how perseverance can put the pressure back on the long hitter.

8. Soft grip pressure, always. If any par 4 ever played like a par 5, it's the 18th hole at Carnoustie. Standing in that fairway in the final round of the 1999 British Open, I was a few shots behind but felt I had a good chance to win if I could somehow make a birdie. I had about a 20-percent chance of hitting the green, but those chances quickly turned to zero when I tightened my grip at the last second. Tight hands made my arms tight, which made my shoulders tight, which shortened and quickened my swing. I hit the ball in the water and made bogey, which amazingly got me into a playoff when Jean Van de Velde played the 18th even worse. Since then, gripping the club lightly is my last thought on every important shot.

9. Eliminate worst-case scenarios. The best par-5 player I've ever seen is Jose Maria Olazabal. He can reach a lot of par 5s in two, but more important is how well he controls the outcome if he misses the green. Jose's short game is so good, and he's so smart at favoring areas where he can get up and down, that birdie seems automatic even when he doesn't knock it on the green. He has a way of playing aggressively while eliminating downside risks. By knowing your capabilities and using good strategy, you can reduce the number of those worst-case scenarios we all experience once in a while.

10. Perfect the partial wedge. I've never feared the 30- to 60-yard wedge shot, because I've practiced it my whole life. But for amateurs, that shot is a nightmare. They don't spin the ball enough, don't shorten their swings effectively, and they try to help the shot too much. Considering how often you have to face these shots, either after pitch-outs or careless lay-ups, you could probably trim a couple shots off your handicap by devoting 30 percent of your practice to them. That's no exaggeration. The biggest fault I see is quitting on the shot, so try making a shorter backswing and accelerating through. Wear out your wedges on the practice area, and you'll lose your anxiety on the course.