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From the Magazine

How to make your game travel, no matter the course

March 16, 2022

Photographs by J.D. Cuban

Every course, no matter the pedigree, has certain shots it favors over others. I grew up at a classic Harry Colt-designed course called Betchworth Park in the U.K. Thanks to the non-irrigated turf, summertime meant you had to play the ball along the ground and roll it up to stop it on the green. You probably adapted similarly to your home course, developing your game to suit its style. In other words, you are where you play.

The problem with that is far too many amateurs try to replicate a baseline swing no matter where they tee it up instead of developing a shot-centric skill set that engages the creative and strategic mind. You want to see and execute the right shot for the environment you’re in—not just stick with what works for you on your home course.

I coach several players on the PGA Tour, and we encounter many different styles of courses throughout the year. If they didn’t adapt their games, they wouldn’t stay out there—and I wouldn’t keep my job.

In this article, I’m going to help make your game travel by taking you on a tour of some of America’s most iconic courses and showing you a shot you should play when you encounter any similarly designed course or hole. Now when you recognize these styles, you’ll know how to beat them. —With Matthew Rudy

AUGUSTA NATIONAL FADE IT DOWN THE FAIRWAY

J.D. Cuban

You’re probably not going to encounter the botanical-garden-quality conditions of Augusta National, but you will likely come across holes that demand certain shapes off the tee. Augusta’s 18th, an uphill dogleg that bends to the right, requires a fade from most players. How do you move the ball left to right without turning it into a slice when playing a similarly shaped hole? First, don’t play the ball too far back in your stance Set up with it off your lead instep, and stand a little closer to it than standard. Second, when you swing, feel your head and chest staying right over the ball through impact and then let the club exit low and around you (above).

PINE VALLEY RIFLE ONE LOW AND HOT

Pine Valley is a masterpiece of design that gives you very specific routes to take off the tee. When you face a course or hole that puts a premium on tee-shot accuracy, you’ll want to hit a “bullet drive.” It’s not so much the “stinger” Tiger made famous as it is just a drive with a penetrating ball flight. To execute it, tee the ball slightly farther back than normal (above), avoid swaying or moving laterally, and make a shorter swing with your shoulders more level through impact. Ball position is key, because if you tee it up any farther forward than I am, you’ll likely launch it too high.

ERIN HILLS AIR IT OUT IN BIG BALLPARKS

J.D. Cuban

The modern tour game is played on some big courses, like Erin Hills. Soon, 8,000 yards will be the new 7,000, and raw distance off the tee will be the premium. If you get a chance to play a let-it-rip type of course, think of your tee shot as you would the barrel of a military tank firing a shell. You have to tilt the barrel upward to send it, which means slightly accentuating the angle of your shoulders at address. You also will need to make a full backswing, really loading onto your trail side (above). One more thing: Many players mistakenly try to swing hard at the start of the downswing and end up lurching and lunging, causing poor contact. I want your transition into the downswing to be much smoother. Gather your speed no sooner than halfway down.

PEBBLE BEACH DROP IT SOFTLY ONTO THE GREEN

J.D. Cuban

When tiny greens like Pebble’s are firm and fast, the most reliable way to keep the ball on the putting surface is with a high-fade approach shot. Hitting the ball with a slightly open face will help create that shape and trajectory. The mistake is letting your lead hand rotate in the downswing so that the palm is skyward through the hitting zone. That shuts the clubface and delofts the shot. Instead, focus on keeping the palm facing away from the target as you swing down and through, and finish with this “held-off” look (above).

TPC SAWGRASS HOIST IT HIGH OVER TALL LIPS

J.D. Cuban

Pete Dye drew from the classic sod-faced bunkers in Scotland when he designed obstacles like railroad ties and steep grass faces at the Stadium Course These features demand you play short-game shots that get the ball up immediately. The trick to playing these shots well is understanding how to increase the effective loft on the clubface. You need to open the face before you take your grip, play the ball forward, get into a wider stance and lower your hands (above). This setup puts you in position to crank up the loft, and you can swing with a lot of speed without worrying about hitting the ball too far. It will pop up softly.

PINEHURST NO. 2 DIAL IN YOUR PITCHING

J.D. Cuban

The greens at Pinehurst No. 2 are notorious for their turtle backs and punishing collection areas. That means you need to be spot-on with your pitching, landing the ball in a place that gives you a reasonably good chance to make the ensuing putt. To do that, stand slightly open to your target (I’m using alignment rods to demonstrate) and get the club in this toe-up look on the way back (above) This puts the wedge in a position to glide along the turf, not dig into it. Now that you know how to produce better contact, let’s work on distance control. When you swing, keep your chest moving, not just your arms. You will find the ball comes off at a predictable speed. It’s nice to practice clean contact at the range, but it’s even better if you lay out some towels or headcovers at intervals and try to hit them. You’ll then get feedback on how far your shots carry and roll.

BANDON DUNES RIDE THE WIND

J.D. Cuban

Bandon is America’s version of a links course—few trees, rolling terrain and wind that always should be factored when choosing a club and what type of shot to play. When you’re downwind on a links course, a high draw is a great option. To practice it, focus on these two feels: (1) You need more tilt in your swing Keep the trail shoulder lower than the lead shoulder going through; (2) finish high, with the logo of your glove pointed at the target. I’m making one-arm swings (above) to rehearse the movement and feeling I want to produce that nice, high draw.

TPC SCOTTSDALE CONTROL THE HEIGHT ON YOUR IRONS

J.D. Cuban

You probably won’t experience the infamous par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale like it is during the Phoenix Open—when the surrounding crowd makes it feel like a college football game. That hole’s framing is not unlike the challenge you face on a course where distance control is crucial to scoring (and avoiding penalties). To fine tune your iron carry distances, adjust the inclination of your lead wrist at impact. When your lead wrist is in extension (above) at impact, you will put more loft on the shot, and the landing angle will help the ball quickly stop. When that wrist is in flexion (knuckles down), the ball flies on a more penetrating trajectory and stops as a result of backspin. Tour pros typically flight their iron shots lower because it’s easier to hit them pin-high.

SHINNECOCK HILLS CLIP IT OFF FIRM TURF

Links courses like Shinnecock Hills get running firm and fast in the summer, and that harder turf demands you understand how to get the club to interact with the ground on pitch shots. Most players don’t create enough loft on the backswing and lead with their hands on the downswing, striking the ground first with the leading edge of the club. That makes it easy to chunk it. Instead, get the toe pointing up on the backswing and keep it that way through impact (above). It’s like you’re making a “cut” swing, meaning your swing path cuts across the ball from out to in. Do that and the bounce, or trailing edge of the wedge, will slide along the ground—providing forgiveness. Played this way, there’s really no reason to fear hitting it heavy. Hit too far behind the ball, and the bounce will still glide along the turf and produce a decent shot.