While functional technique, a good short game, mental strength and hard work are all necessary to shoot lower scores, possibly one of the most overlooked aspects of reaching personal potential in golf is perfecting the art of course management.
Yes, art. Golf is an artistic game. There is truly no right or wrong way to go about playing it.
Too often I see players make major course management decisions based on what they perceive is right or wrong, what they think PGA Tour players would do or what the three other players in the foursome do, rather than what their gut tells them. Such dysfunctional mental processes cause them to freeze over the ball for a seemingly endless amount of time. Indecisiveness and doubt consumes them. Eventually they end up pulling the trigger because the thought of backing off, putting the club back in the bag and starting their pre-shot routine all over again is simply too much to bear.
This is why individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking is so important in golf. You must have no doubt while standing over a shot that you will trust your swing and commit to the shot. The next time you play golf, listen to your gut. Don't start your golf swing unless you believe in the club in your hand and the target in your mind's eye. For instance, if the thought of hitting your driver off the tee brings about feelings of negativity and anxiety about where the ball may go, don't hit the driver. If you're still not confident even hitting 3-wood, don't hit it. Heck, pull 5 or 6 iron if you have to. The consequences of losing yardage pales in comparison to the consequences of losing a ball or taking a drop from a hazard.
While confidence and trust are paramount in good course management, I do have three general principles that I believe are significant and applicable while maintaining individuality in your game.
1) Play to your strengths: Take an inventory of your game and identify the aspects of your game in which you find the most success and aspects that give you the most trouble. Zach Johnson in the 2007 Masters is a perfect example of this principle. Rather than conforming to how the rest of the field was attacking the par-5s at Augusta National, Zach chose to play to his strength (his wedge game) by laying up to his favorite yardages to set up birdie opportunities. Zach won the tournament, in large part, due to the fact that he played the par 5s that week in 11 under par. This coincides with the idea of playing golf with total trust and conviction. If you love a certain aspect of your game, does it not make sense to trust it? Below are several examples of ways to play to your strengths:
2) Do not let one poor swing beat you twice: Bad swings happen to everyone. You cannot prevent them from happening regardless of how much you trust your swing, the club in your hand and the target in your mind's eye. The fact that they happen is not nearly as important as how you respond to them. You can choose to either let the bad swing affect the next shot by lingering in your mind and clouding your judgment, or you can treat it as an opportunity to show off your patience and mental strength by accepting it and moving on. The history of golf is filled with examples of players making seemingly devastating mistakes, only to recover victoriously by remaining focused on the task at hand and trusting their routine.
3) Consider my 2/3 rule: When faced with a decision on whether to take a risk on the golf course, three main requirements determine whether or not I will attempt it. If the shot meets at least 2 of the 3 requirements, I generally decide to go for it. The requirements are as follows:
Improving course management is one of the quickest ways to shave strokes off your handicap. Good course management can turn a bad round acceptable, an acceptable round good, and a good round great.