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Think smart, play well

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Despite its influence on the quality of your golf, the art of course management is underused and misunderstood. PGA pro, Alex Nicolson discusses its image problem and how a new perspective can have a positive effect on your game. (Article first published Golf Monthly, 2014)

Picture the scene. A swanky Soho PR office, lime green floors, glass walls and giant lego bricks with cushions in lieu of chairs. On one of these a forlorn figure perches uncomfortably as he awaits his appointment.

In walks an outrageously trendy young executive wearing designer glasses and a bright red T-Shirt bearing the slogan “Noise is silent”.

“You must be Mr Course Management. My name is Jasper. Would you like a mango and nettle infusion?”

“Er...thanks, but not this time.”

“So, tell me how we can help.”

“Well, I seem to have an image problem which I hope, being the best PR agency in London, you can help me fix.” Mr Course Management explains - he’d noticed Ed Miliband leaving earlier bearing a look of optimism, so was feeling confident this was the place to be.

“Sure sure.” proceeds the exec. “Tell me, what makes you think you have an image problem?”

“Well I can be really helpful, but I don’t get used that much, even though my service is free. Also, golfers are constantly bleating about how they hit it, but they never mention the decisions they took. I just don’t get any recognition and, to be honest, it’s getting me down... maybe I’m just not sexy enough”.

Jasper nods sympathetically. “And why do you think it is that you’re not used much?”

“Hmm... I guess there’s a perception that I’m only useful for the best players - ‘what’s the point in trying to plan a shot when my swing’s not consistent?’ - that kind of thing. Also I get the impression everyone thinks I’m just about playing conservatively, so they regard me as a bit dull - a bit Captain Sensible, you know?”

“And this isn’t the case?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Okay, so we need to get the message across that you benefit all abilities and aren’t some kind of nanny-state, risk-averse fun-spoiler?”


“Right, well the first thing that’s got to change is the name. Course Management? That just isn’t sexy.”

Course management

Basically, course management is the art of decision making during a game of golf. On a shot by shot basis it means taking decisions like what club to use, where to aim, and how hard to hit it, among others. There are always multiple ways of playing a hole or shot.

Good decisions benefit all levels of player

Although golfers generally blame their swing technique or strike after a bad shot, very often the triggers for their worst shots are indecision and doubt. Good course management demands a clear decision, based on accurate information, prior to each shot. The intent and sense of purpose that comes from having a clear goal can nourish and direct the swing. Thus, course management is of equal benefit to high and low handicap players.

Course management does not mean playing conservatively

Taking an iron off the tee isn’t necessarily better course management than hitting your driver. Course management should be about making the decisions that lead to more pleasure or less pain while playing the game, whatever they are for you.

Enjoyment-inducing decision-making:

  • Why are you out there? - the context of a game affects the choices you make on the day. Picking days to experiment and stretch your limitations can free up the swing and help you learn new shots. Formats like 4-ball better ball are also quite conducive to “having a go” at certain shots. Conversely, if it’s a day where the cumulative score is of most importance to your enjoyment, select your shots accordingly. To develop as a player you need opportunities to try both.

  • Notice the surroundings - paying attention to the lie, the direction of the wind, the distance between you and the target, and the undulations on the landing area enables your brain to start solving the challenge each shot poses.

  • Know the facts - I meet lots of golfers who know their best carry distance, but golfers who know their average carry distance pick the right club more often. Know how far you’ve got - from course planners to range finders, the more quickly you can get accurate information the better.

  • Consider the options - every situation offers a choice of strategies, clubs, landing spots and more. In the heat of battle, pick the shot you feel most comfortable playing, but use practice to stretch yourself and widen your repertoire.

  • Pick your moments to play aggressively - whether you are naturally a defensive or an aggressive player, if the score is important to you, learn to pick your moment to attack. For example, if your stock shot is a fade, right hand pin positions will offer the best opportunities to be aggressive, whilst those tucked on the left might require a more conservative strategy.

  • Make a decision and commit to it - it’s better to be decided than right. (Both would be ideal!)

  • Learn to recognise when shot selection was the key culprit for a bad result. If there is immediate learning, and some pain attached to the mistake, you can instinctively improve and make future enjoyment much more likely.

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