Last fall, an experimental round I played with tour pro Joel Dahmen was meant to gauge how much easier or harder the game is based on the yardage you play. We did this in a curious way: I teed off from the tips and Joel played my tee shot in from there, while Joel hit from the members tees and I played his ball. The round was a ton of fun—maybe you saw it—but there was also a surprising takeaway.
For starters, there was much to support the central argument that having shorter clubs in your hands helps. On the first hole, I stuffed an approach shot with a wedge to tap-in range for birdie—not quite my standard 11-handicap experience, but still the type of shot we were expecting. More surprising is when the experiment had the opposite effect. On a number of occasions, the mistakes I made were not in spite of having such a short club in my hand, but because of it.
I noticed the same dynamic even more recently. It was a day last month when my oldest son and I hustled to the golf course after dinner and we decided we’d play as many holes as we could before dark from the forward tees. This was something that had been recommended for some time, with the vague promise that it would instill confidence, and even something Bryson DeChambeau referenced after his 58 at Greenbrier earlier this month: as a training mechanism, playing shorter holes allows for wedges into greens, which should equate to more birdie looks.
“It’s probably the best thing you can do when learning how to score,” DeChambeau said.
Maybe so, but even then, I’ve learned, the whole thing is harder than it sounds.
What I found is that a shorter course changes the game not only in the type of shots you hit, but the targets you take. This was an important distinction, and one that you might not even notice without paying more attention.
Where moving up makes the game harder
Let’s back up for a second … in this case, literally. Roughly, a typical drive from my normal tees leaves me with a 6-iron approach. For a mid-handicap, that’s a club I’m thinking about hitting solid, and relatively straight, but I’m also instinctively thinking more about where I don’t want the ball to go than anything else. Justifiably so: According to our new How Do You Compare? interactive that provides a statistical analysis of how golfers of varying abilities fare over different shots, a 10-handicap hits that shot to an average distance of 57 feet from the hole. Given that wide a range of dispersion, flag hunting is not really the play.
But a wedge changes my thinking. A wedge I can hit tight, as I proved on that first hole with Joel Dahmen. If you subscribe to the “Take dead aim” philosophy popularized by the legendary teacher Harvey Penick, a narrow, aggressive target fosters a confident, optimistic mindset. What could be wrong with that?
Well, unfortunately, a lot.
Checking with How Do You Compare again, I can see the average proximity to the hole for a 10-handicap from 75-100 yards is 32 feet. Why is this a problem? Because very often with a wedge I choose a target that, statistically, I’m not capable of reliably hitting.
“I think everyone should be hitting only to the middle of the green unless inside of 50 yards," said Jeff Ritter, a Golf Digest Best Teacher in Oregon. “Playing more forward, I would think would make it more difficult for players to adhere to this strategy model.”
Case in point was my second hole with Dahmen, when I took aim at a back pin, but sailed my approach five yards too long and ended up plugged in a back bunker. From there disaster ensued. At the end of the front nine, I made three birdies but also a quad, a triple, and a double—all in some form the result of a stupid decision.
As Ritter said, playing from forward tees is not just about making the game more fun, but strengthening a muscle many of us neglect. Maybe it’s easy to be disciplined with a long iron. Playing with shorter clubs, however, the risk-reward temptations are more pronounced, and it takes practice to recognize when you can attack a tucked pin, and when, even from 50 yards, the fat part of the green is still best.
And this is the key for players like me who think the path to a single-digit handicap is about making more birdies. In fact it’s more about making fewer boneheaded mistakes. So the next time you want to move up and play from the reds, remember it’s not because you want to make the game less challenging. In one crucial way, you’re making it tougher.