The Long Ball

Distance Versus Course Management

September 29, 2004

I remember a story about Tommy Armour, the great player and golf teacher. Several members at his club turned their lounge talk into a significant wager on one of the prominent businessmen in the group-the question was whether this guy could break 90. One concession was made along with the bet: the businessman could take along Armour as his caddie and coach during the round.

Right from the first hole, Armour talked the member into smarter, more conservative shots, like choosing an 8-iron lay-up from the rough rather than trying to attack the green with a 5-iron. This kind of coaching continued all the way around the golf course. Eventually the businessman came in with a 79, winning the bet with room to spare.

quote-longball-aThe moral of the story, clearly, is the importance of course management when trying to score. As a teaching pro, I see the mental failures of golfers all the time (including my own), and one of the most common problems is when golfers give in to the desire to hit the ball as far as possible.

Obviously we all enjoy hitting the ball a long way (especially us hunter-gatherers, whose testosterone makes us forget about any number other than the number of yards we hit the tee ball). For many golfers, hitting the driver, and hitting it hard, is the primary goal out on the links. Why else do drivers cost four times as much as putters when we use them about one-third as often? We shell out the big bucks-give me graphite, titanium, inserts and offsets, whatever it take–to hit it past Mr. Hairy Knuckles, my weekend opponent.

Unfortunately, this attitude does not usually help the score. One member at Lakeview comes to mind. This fellow averaged about 105 strokes per round. We had a few playing lessons during which I made his club selections. I did not let him take the driver out, and we divided the holes up into shorter, more conservative shots. During the next few weeks this golfer reported back to me with a couple of rounds in the 80s. He was clearly excited about these lower scores.

But then I saw a few tournament scores posted by this man, and the numbers were back into the hundreds, one score over 120. A friend of his, who knew about our lessons, explained-he could not stand to go without the driver. In one match, the golfer teed off with his driver and hit it out of bounds. Teed it up again, and hit it out of bounds. His buddy asked, “What would John have you do?” So the golfer went back to his bag, pulled out an iron and hit another miserable tee shot. When his buddy asked what he hit, he replied “Two-iron”, which would be better used as a tomato stake in his garden.

In the end, some golfers would rather hit the ball hard than shoot a good score. I do not really have a problem with that decision, if that is what they enjoy about the game–until they start complaining about their scores. And even when they realize that the driver is the wrong choice I hear, “But I’ve got to learn how to hit it.” To answer this, I try to convince golfers that practice belongs at the driving range, or on the course only if no score is recorded. Trying to “learn” the driver while playing is almost a guarantee of higher scores.

quote-longball-bEven lower handicappers get themselves into trouble by insisting on hitting the tee shot as far as possible. Many times on a par-four hole, a good drive will leave a longer hitter with a “flip wedge”, one of those tricky pitch shots that require so much finesse. Most players are better off at 100 yards with a full swing than 40 yards out with a half shot. But there is that beautiful $450, 400cc club with the two-tone shaft hiding under the oversized headcover. It is calling. The seduction is relentless.

The average male golfer shoots almost 100 in eighteen holes, though. It is him that really suffers when the Inner Killer comes out. So I try to convince him with a little math.

For example, the holes played from the white tees at Lakeview (Peak-Lake Course) total 6,153 yards. If a golfer can average two putts per hole, which is not very difficult even for a higher handicapper, he would have 36 putts. If he wanted to shoot 90 (almost ten shots lower than his average), and we subtract the 36 putts, he would have to cover the course in 54 shots. Dividing the length of the course by 54 shots gives a surprising number-113.94 yards. In other words, all it takes to shoot 90 is 54 shots of 114 yards and 36 putts. Most golfers could do this with just a nine-iron or wedge and a putter.

But out comes the sledgehammer. Four lost balls, three OBs, and a few mulligans later, the golfer writes down a 98. Of course, when he is buying a round after the match, he is likely to say, “Man, did I kill that drive on the fifth hole today.” To each his own.


  1. Kevin Sullivan says:

    Gee John,

    Now I think I know why you seemed frustrated with me at our last evening lesson.


    • John Rogers says:

      Never frustrated; especially after you told me about making a par on Spring #2 with only a nine iron and putter! See you for our DRIVER lesson this week!

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