Yes, golfers want to play well everywhere, but it's playing well on your home course that matters the most.
It's your home course, after all. That's where you're playing most of your golf. Where you're taking on some high-stakes money matches. Where you're competing in tournaments, and can boast bragging rights over your buddies.
My home course, Tamarack Country Club in Connecticut, just hired a new head pro: Michael Ballo Jr.
Mike is something of a local legend within the Metropolitan Golf Association. He's the son of two PGA of America members, and played college golf at St. John's University alongside PGA Tour player Keegan Bradley. He won the New York State Open at Bethpage Black, and his brother, Peter, won the 2019 Met PGA Championship.
Settling into his new role at Tamarack after stops at Winged Foot Golf Club and Westchester Country Club, I sat down with Mike to glean some insider information; his best advice about how I, and other golfers, can play their home course a little better...
1. Play aggressive—then dial it back
The foundation of playing your home course well means understanding all of its nooks and crannies—both good and bad. Where you want to be and not want to be on each and every hole, which varies depending on each player.
Which is why Ballo says when he's getting to know a course, either for the first time or at the start of each season, he'll dedicate a handful of early rounds to playing very aggressively. That may mean aiming at more pins, and being more aggressive off the tee.
"When I'm getting to know a course, my dad always taught me to hit driver on every single hole, because once I know where my driver is going to be, I can feel where every other club is going to go," he says. "I always start at my most aggressive point and then work backwards. If you do the opposite, you're never really sure where your driver is going to go."
It won't always work, but that's the point. Landing in the occasional bad spot is worth the trade in the long run.
2. Play to the elements, not to the hole
A course like Tamarack is designed to be open and exposed to the elements, which means the wind can whip through it, and make each hole play very differently from day to day. Knowing that is crucial, Ballo says. The elements are the key factor.
"The first hole [at Tamarack] is a great example. Downwind I may be able to carry the bunker in the middle of the fairway; into wind I may not be able to reach it at all," Ballo says. "It's a completely different golf hole. Courses that play to the elements like that can have a ton of different variations. Embrace the fun of figuring each new one out."
3. Manage your club selection expectations
In the same vein, sometimes you may play a hole that's downwind, with dry ground conditions, with the pin at the front of the green. You may hit a 9-iron that day, and it'll be a nice feeling. But just because it happened once, doesn't mean it's the new normal. Don't get used to it.
"You get downwind to a front pin, and the next day you get into the wind to a back pin, and the charm of a course with big greens that's exposed to an element is that it could play 80 yards differently," he says.
4. Understand the architect's intent
The genius of golden age golf course architecture and their practitioners is that they designed golf holes with a variety of options for all golfers.
Ballo grew up playing courses designed by the likes of Seth Raynor, Charles Banks, C.B. Macdonald, and A. W. Tillinghast and learned that the more he appreciated their architecture, the more he learned how best to play it. Those concepts influenced the wider game and are present in every golf course around—whether the course you're playing was designed by them or not.
"When you learn about the different template holes, for instance, you'll learn that a good redan golf hole will offer you a 50 yard wide area to hit your ball so it funnels towards where the hole is," he says. "Understanding how the ground works, the features of the hole, means that all of a sudden you'll play it and think: 'wow, it's not as intimidating as it looks."
5. Find a good flow with your group
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to playing great golf at your home club means getting comfortable. For Ballo, that means getting into a good "flow" with your playing partners. Slow play, or not engaging with the rest of your group, will often disrupt that flow.
"Paying attention to the flow of your round means saving the conversations for as you're walking down the fairway, and being ready when it's your turn to hit," he says. "If you're mindful of the golfers you're playing with, and those playing behind you, gets you into a good rhythm of the round.
Engaging with your fellow golfers on the course relaxes your mind, body, and swing. That gives you an added sense of comfort on your home track, which puts you on a path for success.
"Everyone's goal when they get on their home golf course should be to enjoy their day," Ballo says. "That's how golfers play their best."