Practice and prepare at out-of-town golf outings

There may not be a month more exciting for golf than April. The Masters Tournament kicks it off, and people around the world tune in to take in the beauty of Augusta National. Even people who have never played the game before become golf fans for this event.

During Masters weekend, golfers are enticed to make plans to get together with friends for golf trips to different courses. These golf course choices may be on the other side of town, state, country or abroad. One thing is for sure, plans are being made. Like a child putting a lost tooth under the pillow, the excitement fires up a golfer’s imagination on the great things to come.

When a player takes a golf trip and plays an unfamiliar course, there are a few things to consider. First, check with the course’s pro shop to see if it has a yardage book. These books could prove to be valuable as most good yardage books will not only show the layout of the course but also show the shape of the greens. Some even have written suggestions on how to best play each hole.

As a college golf coach, I take my golf team to places where at least half of the players have never played. Before a tournament, we always play a practice round. During these practice rounds, I instruct my golf team members to play the course conservatively, especially in the practice round and early in the tournament: drive the ball to landing areas that they can see, rather than cut corners of doglegs or over drop-offs in fairways.

Over the years, I have found it amazing that in most practice rounds, the younger players will play these new golf courses much better than in the first two tournament rounds when they may become a bit bolder than I had suggested.

On golf trips, I believe players could have much better times if they play the complete round with only one golf ball rather than losing a dozen or so. If a golfer hasn’t played the course before but someone else in the group has, it’s good to ask, “What does this hole do?” Do not ask, “How do you play this hole?” Most likely each person’s game is different.

As a younger golfer playing a course that I was unfamiliar with, the older players would always suggest that I hit the tee shot over the dogleg or in an area that would take my absolute best drive. Of course, on many occasions when I allowed them to talk me into that shot, inevitably it would turn disastrous because I was uncertain of the landing area, and I had doubts about the outcome.

The advice here is to hit the golf ball into areas that could be seen as safe. If the conservative decision leaves a player with a 6-iron approach shot rather than a 7 iron – so what? The ball is in play, and there is still an opportunity to score well on that particular hole.

Before playing on a course for the first time, doing a few pre-round things could improve a player’s game. I suggest arriving at the course early enough to ask the pro shop staff if there is prevalent grain in the greens, and if so, which direction does the grain predominantly run?

In 1996, I was invited to play golf in Japan with a corporate group and to give golf clinics to a company’s staff. During this two-week trip, we traveled and played golf on eight different courses that spanned the country. One round of golf was at the base of Mount Fuji-san. For some reason, all putts broke toward Mount Fuji. On a number of occasions, I had lag putts that after carefully reading the putt, I swore that the putt would break 3 feet to the right. To my astonishment, the ball broke 3 feet to the left – toward Mount Fuji. I have no idea why or how, it just happened. Had I prepped better, I may have saved some strokes.

Before the round, be certain to spend some time on the courses’ practice greens. Become accustomed to the speed of the greens. Notice how far a ball rolls out as it slows down. If possible, hit a number of putts that have some severe break in them, since there likely will be a few of these on the courses.

When doing this, take a quick look and estimate the break and speed for this putt. Hit a solid putt, and watch the ball react. Some putting surfaces will break more or less than what a player is accustomed to at home.

If there is time, hit some bunker shots. The sand texture is often different among courses. The standard bunker shot may possibly come out more quickly or more softly than at a player’s home course. It’s good to keep this in mind during the round.

When playing golf on the road, the courses may have different elevations relating to sea level. This can prove to be a big game changer. If playing near coastlines, the courses will be obviously very close to sea level, and the golf balls may not fly quite as far as they do at home. On the other hand, on a trip to Colorado, there would be thinner air and heights above sea level, so the balls would likely travel much farther.

Hopefully, at each course the driving range offers good golf balls. Here, after warming up, players should bring out their rangefinders to determine the distance balls are flying from what may be usual at home. It could be a difference of 10 percent, more or less, in each shot. This 10 percent could be crucial when playing courses in Florida with a forced carry over water or in high altitude where golf balls may fly over the greens off the cliffs of mountains.

Keep these few things in mind whenever traveling to new courses. If a course offers caddies and players’ budgets allow for this luxury, take advantage of their local knowledge. Most caddies are very sharp, and many are good golfers, as well. They know that their chances for a larger tip often rely on golfers’ positive experiences on the course.

Should a player choose to use a caddy, I advise talking with him before the round. Share your normal (not your Sunday’s best) club distances. Let them know your normal shot shape (fade, draw, high or low shots). In putting, let them know if you are usually a bold or die-in type putter. This portion of shared information is critical when the caddie is assisting you on green-reading. A good caddie will tell you to play more break in your putts if you normally die a putt into the hole as opposed to the firmer putter. You should even share with the caddie the weaker parts of your game. If you have trouble hitting 40- to 50-yard wedge shots, your caddie should advise you to lay up to 100 yards rather than the 50 on the par 5s.

Golfers heeding a few of these tips for their next out-of-town golf outings could have more pleasant experiences on the courses. I can’t make any guarantees about your company – that is your choice.

Enjoy this special time of year. We’ve been waiting for the clouds to go away and the sun to shine. Get off the recliner, and go make the best of this year’s spring golf season.

See you on the first tee.

~ Dave Jennings is the men’s golf coach for Central Alabama Community College.