You say you can drive it 300 yards, but the last time you did it the hole was downhill, downwind and the ball caromed off the cartpath. You say you shoot in the low 80s, but you haven't carded an 85 or better without two mulligans and a few generous gimme putts in about four years. When the question about what tees to play is asked, you're already walking back to the blues or blacks. See where this is going? When it comes to this game, many golfers aren't exactly honest about their current abilities—especially when assessing their next shot.
A common mental block is how best to play a dogleg hole with real trouble on either side of the fairway, says instructor Sean Foley.
"The ball tails off to the right for most of the golfers I see, so does it make any sense for them to stand on the tee box of a dogleg-left hole and try to curve their drive in that direction? No, but a lot of times they still try," says Foley, a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher. "What they should be doing is thinking of how to play the hole to the best of their abilities. In many cases, that means taking a shorter club, one that doesn't peel off to the right as much, and just getting something out in the fairway.
"The reality is, sometimes the best you can do is give yourself a chance at a one-putt par. You have to accept that your game isn't designed for certain holes, so your planning should change from How do I get home in regulation? to How do I avoid making double bogey?"
That's good advice, says sport psychologist Bob Rotella. Too often a visually intimidating hole, one that looks like it necessitates a specific type of drive, can cause golfers to divert from their strengths. Bad move.
"Mentally, you've got to stick with your game. Don't let the shape of a hole solely dictate your strategy," he says. "I wouldn't try to hit a shot I didn't know or usually play. If a driver doesn't fit the hole, hit a 3-wood. If a 3-wood doesn't fit, hit a hybrid, and so on. Do whatever it takes to put the ball in play. But be clear and commit to whatever shot you decide."
If you can't curve the ball to match the hole's shape, another option is to use driver, but play for the "best miss," says Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson. If you analyze a hole carefully, that miss should be evident.
"When curving the ball away from the dogleg, the fairway becomes a smaller target," Watson says. "The golfer must then think about where it's best to miss the fairway, and this involves a lot of criteria such as length of the rough, where the flagstick is located, etc. For example, shortening the hole by missing in the interior rough sometimes can be a good option when planning your tee shot, but not on Pine Valley's par-4 sixth, the hole you see here."
If you're skilled enough to be able to shape your tee shot with the dogleg, then consider how much of it you want to take on, Watson says. An accurate distance measurement to the part of the fairway you want to hit is key, but so is that whole thing about being honest with yourself.
"Knowing how far you have to carry the ball to clear a dogleg's interior rough or interior bunker is not usually thought about by most golfers, but it's critical," Watson says. "That being said, most golfers don't know how far they carry the ball with a driver, which is important in deciding the line to take when cutting the corner on a dogleg."
That's why it's best to be generous with your target line, Foley says.
"If it's a 200-yard carry and your best drives carry about 210 yards, you probably want to take a less risky route," Foley says. "Better to be farther back in the fairway than trying to recover from being too aggressive with your line. The penalty for not making it on a dogleg is usually pretty severe."