How to play a really hard course

May 07, 2008

When I heard that Golf Digest was picking an "average Joe" to play at Torrey Pines with three celebrities the week before the U.S. Open, I had to chuckle.

Those poor guys have no idea what they're getting themselves into.

A U.S. Open setup is much harder than even the hardest PGA Tour layout, which at Torrey Pines will mean fairways about 30 yards wide, punishing rough and green speeds faster than almost anything outside of Augusta National.

You might never have the chance to play under major-championship conditions, but I'm sure there's a course in your rotation that beats you up every time. By using the same strategies I'd give the average golfer who'll be playing Torrey Pines, you can tame your toughest course the next time you play it.

The biggest battle a tour player faces at a U.S. Open is against the mental wear and tear that comes from grinding over every shot. It's the same for you when the fairways get narrow and it seems like there are hazards everywhere. No piece of swing advice I could give is as important as this "golf psychology" tip: Stay strong and positive, and don't let a bad break cause you to lose your composure. You can hit what you think is a good shot, but the ball kicks into a place where you're going to be lucky to make bogey. It happens all the time. The guys who rage against the unfairness of it -- like Sergio Garcia did when his tee shot hit the flagstick and bounced away during the British Open playoff last year -- lose focus on what's really important, which is staying out of big trouble and avoiding big numbers.

Any really hard course rewards a golfer who takes a more calculated approach. You don't have to be the best player, or even the best ball-striker. You need to have the best strategy, and check your ego at the starter's shed.

First, accept the fact that you aren't going to hit many greens in regulation. Torrey Pines can play more than 7,600 yards for the Open. From the back tees, many of today's toughest private clubs or high-end daily-fee courses push 7,300 yards.

On a penal course with difficult rough, your primary mission is to play from the fairway as much as possible. That means treating all the par 4s like short par 5s. Leave the driver and 3-wood at home, and use the longest club you know you can hit straight, even if it means getting only 160 or 170 yards off the tee. If you can hit a pitch shot from fairway grass for your third on a par 4, you have a fighting chance to make bogey -- and bogeys are your friend. If you shoot for bogey, you're intentionally steering away from risks that can lead to triple bogey and leaving yourself in position to make a lucky par or two if you hit a good pitch or make a putt.

The two other hallmarks of really hard golf courses are long, thick rough and difficult green complexes. The danger with both is compounding the mistake of getting out of position by trying a risky shot from trouble.

If you hit into deep grass, don't even worry about the green. Find the 175- or 150-yard marker and plan a shot with that spot as your goal. If you can hit it to there, you have an opportunity to get on the green with your next shot.

The rule about first getting back into position is true for green complexes, too. On any chip, pitch or sand shot, your main goal should be to get the ball on the same tier as the flag, even if you're 30 feet away. A chance at a two-putt is always better than a second chip from the same nasty lie, or from someplace even worse. If you're playing one of those once-in-a-lifetime courses, like these guys will be at Torrey Pines, I know how tempting it's going to be to try the hero shot. Who wouldn't want to stuff a 6-iron tight to a pin set right over the edge of the pond on the par-5 18th for a chance at a closing birdie?

But if the goal is to break 100 (or 90, depending on your handicap), the boring stuff -- conservative shots off the tee, simple pitch-outs from deep grass and straightforward pitches to the correct tier on the green -- is what will win that race. And that's just as true at the hardest course in your state as it is at any U.S. Open venue. Just look at the list of past Open champions. You won't find many go-for-broke riverboat gamblers with their names on the trophy. There's a reason Ben Hogan won four of them.



1. Take your practice swing to the depth of the ball

When you have a shot from the rough, don't just take a mindless practice swing hack. Find a similar area of grass, and practice your swing at the same depth your ball sits. Then, if the club grabs or slides through easily, you can calibrate for that on the real shot.

2. Play your bunker shots to the same tier as the flag

On every bunker shot, look to see where the most dangerous place to end up is. For example, if you were playing to a flag on an upper tier and you had to angle a shot up to that tier, leaving it short could send the ball rolling back off the front of the green into a collection area. Aim for the fattest part of the tier where the flag is, even if you're not aiming at the hole.

3. Loft your greenside shots instead of bump-and-running them

On really fast greens with holes cut close to the edges, you can't get away with hitting "safe" running chips. You need to use your L-wedge to hit pitches with some spin so they check up and trickle to the hole. Keep your weight left and your nose over the ball, and practice making crisp contact with the ball first, then the grass. Gouging a giant divot doesn't produce backspin.

4. Translate the green speed before every putt you take

When greens run 13 or 14 on the Stimpmeter, it's easy to blow a 12-footer 10 feet by the hole. On the practice green, place another ball halfway to the cup, just outside your line, and pretend the hole is even with the second ball. This will help you calibrate your speed. Then, on the course, visualize that ball on every putt.


Torrey Pines' fourth hole, a 488-yard par 4, is certainly representative of what the course is all about. There are no tricks here: It's a long, straightforward hole that runs along the cliff to a green on a shelf overlooking the ocean.

To play this hole successfully, you have to stay away from the left side, because of the world's largest water hazard and the prevailing winds, which come off the ocean. The best play off the tee is to aim for the second bunker on the right (1). It's 275 yards to reach the sand, so a fairway wood might be a good call.

At a U.S. Open, you want to hit as many approach shots as you can uphill and into the wind, because those conditions will help you stop the ball on the greens, which are going to be extremely firm. The best second shot is 175 yards or so to the fairway just short of the green on the right (2). That leaves a pitch directly up the hill and into the wind (3). The Sunday pin will basically be falling into the ocean on the front-left lobe of the green. If you miss the green long, you're in deep trouble, because you have to chip downhill and downwind, to a green that's tilting away from you. The green is pretty flat, but that tilt makes it hard to judge speed. You have to be careful not to race the first putt way past.


Golf Digest 50 Greatest Teacher Dean Reinmuth is based at the Santaluz Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He has taught more than 50 tour players.