Captivated by the Challenge of Championship Courses

In golf your strengths and weaknesses will always be there. If you could improve your weaknesses, you would improve your game.

Harvey Penick

As I dip in and out of watching the early rounds of the Farmers Invitational, I know that it has been something of a desire for many to play our local Torrey Pines course. I know the familiar coastal views and the lush green fairways appear even more majestic now that we cannot travel in hordes of rowdy fans trailing Tiger, DJ and Brooks to rival our Phoenix Open golf bros with this COVID-19 fan restriction, but the course still appears to be challenging from what I have seen on TV so far. All those in contention for the lead (or even a share of the lead at the least) have one thing in common: they’re all playing the same course and facing similar challenges.

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The Course is Both Challenger & Competitor

I see the course as both challenger and competitor. It has been designed to not simply offer too many “gimme” holes in the form of easily reachable in 2 par 4s or simple par 5s that are just a mere 15 to 20 yards longer than the longest par 4 on the course. Course design of late has seemed to taken a less is more approach that somehow leaves most Saturday and Sunday golfers seething with some sort of sadistic sensation of seeking more as their course designs dumbfoundedly develop desires as they both defeat and dissatisfy the average duffer at the same time. In other words, plenty of folks are not getting plenty of pleasure out o these course designs but they keep coming back for more like gluttons for punishment.

It is simply by design now and more apparent when we see championship courses that might have boasted of a challenging par 5 last year that the tournament committee has unanimously and hilariously opted to convert to an extensive par 4 for this year’s tournament. Course design typically pits a full roster of FedEx Cup chasers against the course and its course designers and groundskeepers. Those pin placements are so intricate and whatever clipping or trimming level that they are using for these greens with this mixed in sand are enough to keep your head spinning from day to day. But whoever created island greens or bunker-guarded greens just plain has some aggression issues that need to be worked out. I can only imagine what it does for these guys seeking FedEx Cup points who have braved courses from Dubai to Mexico in the off season, only to face the return of the PGA Tour season with a kickstart in Hawaii and the newly-COVID-cleared West Coast Swing kickoff at Torrey Pines (and we’ll see from there).

So what does that mean for us so-called regular golfers?

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Past Championship Courses Still Present Challenges

I played Carlton Oaks many times before I realized that it had hosted PGA and Canadian Tour Qualifying Tournaments, NCAA Western Regional and Championship events, Junior World, The American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) and many other professional, collegiate and amateur events. One guy remarked when I got my first par on the course a few years ago that scoring well on that course and keeping it in the low 90s is feat within itself for a weekend golfer. I shrugged it off, but then later I began to realize how much playing practice rounds and multiple tournament rounds does to a golfer’s advantage within a week.

I guess if a few of us played the same course again and again, even something like Carlton Oaks, we should see some marked improvement over our scorecards, too. Some would get a better feel for the course in general, other would hone in on those special touches around the green to get that to work for them. In other words, we would have time to tackle the course based on past and present experiences and make note in our own little yardage books that very same hole where the fast greens veered to the right now have a sudden speed drop within 2 inches of the hole.

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Chisel the Course into Chunks

Armed with that knowledge, I would probably shave a few strokes off here and there. My problem is that it took an article in Today’s Golfer to open my eyes to what a round of golf really come down to in terms of strokes. “Golf’s Most Wanted Shots” opened my eyes like I said to how much short game focus would be required to shave strokes off the scorecard quickly and repeatedly.

Golf Shots as Today’s Golfer expertly broke down

The main shot of any round is putting. Say what? Every hole doesn’t require a drive off the tee. Every hole doesn’t require an approach shot or layup. But each and every hole requires you to putt. So, if that’s the case, improve your putting skills and start to improve your scores. Combine wedge shots, chip shots and bunker play and you have another 13 strokes or so added to 35 putts which makes for 48. Well, man, I shot that on the back 9 alone a few times on a good day.

What I am saying is that we look at the game from the wrong perspective. We tend to rally behind DJ, Brooks, Tiger and a few others because they crush that ball off the tee and send us into a frenzy over what is not even a major factor in the scoring calculation of a full round. Driving counts. It just doesn’t count as much as we make it seem like it should.

If you are serious about your game, sooner or later you’ll play Ben Hogan.

If we chisel down the course into chunks, then we can approach each hole with analysis and anticipation. We can design a strategy (Plan A) for if we take care of business and launch a solid tee shot into the fairway at approximately 200+ yards. But, if need be, we have a recovery strategy (Plan B) where we select a long distance hybrid after a weak tee shot landed us at an odd angle 180 yards from the green and just off the fairway in the early signs of the rough that our fairway woods won’t be able to cut through at all. That way we keep the emotions out of it. That way we don’t lose it and toss clubs into lakes or trees. We simply assess the results of our last attempt and make an adjust prior to taking action with our next attempt. Other ideas on how this can help lower scores are out there in the blogosphere.

Conquer the Course: Hole by Hole

If we could do that for every hole, review and revisit it as we play, and remain calm enough to continuously refer to it, then I believe that we could see results trickle in over time. It’s just like that elephant that the consultant spoke about during your last strategic planning session or team training that you attended. You’ve got to take it one bite at a time, so chunk that 18 holes into sets of 3 holes. See each hole within that set as a separate attack plan with a sequence of anticipated actions in mind.

I have included part of my process for planning my play that i used in 2017 and 2018 as I began to approach golf with a different mindset. These are visuals that I use based upon the current scorecard available on www.greenskeeper.org and most discount tee time sites. This process helps me develop my attack plan hole by hole in a planning mode that I try to translate onto the course without losing my way or getting too cocky if it’s going good. Much like other golf bloggers out here, I can admit when I lose sight of the goal or focus on the immediate action in the moment.

As I continue to work on my game, I am going to watch Brooks and DJ clobber those tee shots. I am going to shout and howl when that titanium plate makes contact with that dimpled synthetic ball, sending it to heights and distances that even send the most popular golf shot trackers out of orbit. But I will know deep down inside that I need to watch those putting techniques from the types of John Rahm, Patrick Reed, Kevin Na and Webb Simpson

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Playing a Par 3 to Strengthen Short Game

If you visit Colina Park Golf Course, you will come face to face with a sculpted bust of Ernest H. Wright, Sr., the founder and chairman of Pro Kids Golf Academy & Learning Center. Pro Kids was founded in 1994 by former AFL/NFL player Ernest H. Wright, Sr. and a group of community leaders, who saw the game of golf as a way to help underserved youth develop the character and life skills required to find success in school and in life. In addition to the course and training center in central San Diego, there is a Pro Kids-First Tee center in Oceanside in North San Diego County.

Scorecards at Colina have 1 of the 9 healthy habits of Pro Kids-First Tee on each hole
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Working on Wedge Shots

Have you ever overpacked for a trip? Or, you have at least traveled with someone else who does it? That’s how I felt armed with 3 wedges and a putter on a par 3 course the other day. It was like I had overpacked and I was toting an extra load.

Solution: pick one wedge and work that the whole course. For this course in particular, with hole yardage spanning an average of 60-80 yards, you could work on any of a variety of wedges to your heart’s desire. Think of trying varied ball placements in your stance as well as different levels of swing adjustments such as a half swing or three-quarter length swing rather than a full swing. I would also to be sure to consider the bounce and roll or the bump and run effect. Some people work on Phil Mickelson-type wedge shots such as the famous flop shot using a lob wedge or higher degree club. I would like to think more along the lines of Lefty’s handiwork on distance control with wedges coming in handy for this type of course along with his basic steps on chipping shots. Beyond Dave Pelz’s short game instruction, Lefty’s demonstrations on wedge shot lessons are remarkable.

Scores Tell Some of the Story

So +7 on a par 3 sounds good, especially when your last words before stepping up to the tee box are: “Let me see what happens if I . . .” You have a few surprises and head scratches, but you know that you should have had more greens in regulation (GIR) and par holes. There’s a story that goes along with that.

  • At least 2 holes I shorted the shot. I don’t have any other excuse except that I can barely guess the yardage of my gap wedge in the middle of my stance when using a half swing.
  • I overshot the green 4 times as I toyed with somehow controlling my pitching wedge on 3 holes on the front and my gap wedge on the 12th hole. My pitching wedge was dead weight after the front nine.
  • Switching back to the Callaway Super Soft was beneficial for my putting in general. My major issues with putting tended to stem from fast greens on the front nine which would have saved me at least 3 strokes.
  • Tee boxes are turfed mats so there were no divots as I chipped and pitched my way from hole to hole.
  • Upon check-in, they provide you with a divot tool to repair the ball marks on the greens.

Anticipating Playing Eastlake Wednesday

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Having prepaid for what seems like my final round of golf for winter break, I am eager to loosen up, check in, and attack the course. Playing Colina Park helped me discover the shortcomings of my short game. With six holes that were misjudged, that’s 1/3 of the course and you can’t help but to expect that to translate into some lost strokes. Unless you pick up some strokes with some miracle putts, that’s just natural outcome.

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Can I squeeze in a weekend round before everything officially starts back? I am hopeful, but I am not banking on it. I realize that I can stretch my frugal dollars a little further if I simply take the time to plan out my play in advance and find some of the hot deals and the bargain discount tee time available out there. Some sites and courses allow you to book up to a week in advance, so if the price is right, then the early bird might just get the biggest worm in the bunch.

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More Lessons Learned Playing Golf During the Pandemic

According to data from the National Golf Foundation, only 26 percent of all golfers shoot below 90 consistently on regulation 18-hole courses; 45 percent of all golfers average more than 100 strokes per round. A player who shoots 85 is doing better than nearly three out of four of his golfing peers–a good score. (Golfweek)

That being said. . .

New Year’s Day at Pala Mesa Resort

I got to sneak away up the freeway to one of my favorite golf getaway spots in SoCal- Pala Mesa Resort. I used to eyeball this resort from the freeway on trips between Riverside and San Diego, dreaming of the day that I would get a chance to play there and see what this picturesque course was like. I have been here a few times in the last 2 years. I usually get to go there and play at least twice a year.

It is a beautiful course and resort that is nestled within a residential area and includes some holes that chiseled out of the rocky hillsides and sloping landscape of the area. The hole designs have you navigating doglegs with skillfully-placed sand traps and multi-tiered greens with some unforgiving slopes even on their fringe. If nothing else, I love the challenge of the layout.

Playing Lessons Learned at Pala Mesa Resort

I definitely found myself scrambling for bogey and double bogey at times, wondering what went wrong with that last shot as I tried to make up lost ground and time with some off shots. I was thinking that my better work had been around the green, but even your short game gets tested when the fast green let your simple chip turn into a rolling runaway down a slope of the fringe. Despite eating away at all sorts of parts of my ego, the course offered some real playing lessons for me as I endured the challenge and had me some fun giving it a go again.

Scorecard courtesy of Garmin Golf App

Pace of Play

I was teamed up with a group of 3 other golfers and we decided to play from the blue tees. I had just come off walking 2 rounds of playing from the white tees (I ain’t killing myself; it’s a leisure sport), so I was game for extending the course a bit. Our foursome made for a fairly good match with everyone having their own ups and downs here and there, but we kept a good pace. When there’s a holiday crowd and there are holes just backed up like crazy, you keep the pace moving steady. Learn to know when to either pick up the pace or just pick up your ball. You don’t have to putt out every hole if there’s no wager or if others a willing to give you credit for it. Pace of play makes a big difference in your experience. The longer you’re waiting on the foursome ahead of you to get off the green or even out of the fairway, the more thoughts get in your head and the more loss of focus you tend to experience. (At least that’s how it works for me) Give up on some of the kneeling and squatting to gather a read on the potential pathway of your putt and pick it up if it is within four to six feet if the pace is pressing on you and the sun is on its steady descent to where you might not finish your round before sunset.

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Play Ready Golf

I am a respecter of golf etiquette and the gentleman’s rules, but I am also considerate of the group behind me pressing to get their round in, too. Nobody has to get the honors of teeing off first unless it’s a big deal birdie or eagle on the prior hole. Get off the green, get to the next tee box, and if you are ready, tee it up and let it fly. It’s really that simple.

If your playing buddy can’t find his ball and you are ready, take your shot while he and another player give it a decent search. If he is still looking and lagging, suggest that he drop a ball and get on with it. We’ve got golf to play and not all day to get it in. Play ready golf and that promotes a steady pace of play.

Play Your Own Game

As golfers, we tend to live in the competitive zone. Egos are bruised at both the tee box and the putting green. We have to learn that are true competition is not any member of our foursome or any player on the charity tournament slate. That’s gotten into our heads and we need to crush that thinking altogether. What we are really competing against is the course itself. We are up against the intricacies of the course designers and their intricate layout of signature holes and challenges along with the course management’s pin placement for the day.

Hole by hole, we have to play our own game not get caught up in the yank out the driver for this baby and let it rip mentality when a 3 or 5 wood for less yardage and more accuracy might be the elixir for those wayward shots in the first place. Drop the idea of competing against your friends and family unless you have a list of folks like mine who talk enough trash and needle you just enough to get you to go there every so often. But once you have gone there be sure to get back to where you play the course strategically and selectively as you seek to conquer each hole stroke by stroke.

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Recognize What’s Working (And What’s Not Working)

As golfers, we could simply run down a full list of items to check here and we wouldn’t be far off from most of us statistically. Why? Because the common factors in golf remain the same if you think about it. If we play an 18-hole par 72 course, everybody has to face 18 tee shots and 18 putting surfaces with a whole lot of green grass to cover in between and we might want to appreciate the “little things” like a par or better as Lydia Ko said in a prior interview. But we don’t tend to prepare for that with our time on the driving range like Nick Foy suggests. You hear a lot of driver action on the driving range with soaring shots launched skyward like missiles, but the range has targets from within 100 yards to way back at 300+ yards as well as plenty of things in between both. Just like those targets we need to spread the range of our practice on the range or a decent walkable 18-hole par 3. Why not walk amid the morning dew, armed only with a handful of irons and a sleeve of Callaway Super Softs? I mean when the scorecard says that the yardage on the longest hole is just over 140 yards that’s better practice for you at $15 to walk than standing on a turf mat and swinging away at a bucket of 100 or so gnarly range balls.

Your play will reveal what’s working. Simply adjust when necessary and where necessary. I was getting some good drives in at around 185-190 yards on average, but I was missing the fairway plenty of times. Switching to my 3 wood on a few narrow holes gave me a more accurate drive with a little less distance, but it set me up for a decent approach shot and some work around the green. My chipping with the gap and pitching wedge was not getting enough roll to run across that thick grass guarding the green from about 50 yards out, so I modified my swing with an 8 or 9 iron to get things going again. It might have cost me some strokes along the way, but it paid me dividends in providing for less frustration as I kept battling the course. Your play will let you know what’s working and what’s not working, so remain open minded and observant as you play hole by hole.

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Embrace Change and Enjoy the Game

Like I said, I was paired with 3 other golfers at the first tee. They were not the 3 golfers that I was supposed to play with according to the starter, but they were the three that he was going to put me with once he realized this other group of folks were a no-show. So be it! I still get to play within my tee time and these guys got bumped up to start a little earlier than their expected tee time. There’s a lot to be said by just showing and being ready.

Take whatever you got from your time on the driving range or the putting practice surface and apply it where you can and how you can. This isn’t the time to go experimenting with your game. My late cousin and I used to play religiously when we lived together. He was a recovery shot machine. I mean out of all sorts of nasty situations, he could needle a punch shot with a fairway wood off of a bed of pine needles or lob a wedge shot over a willow tree’s canopy of drooping branches and leaves for a soft roll onto the green. That guy would experiment to the point where you could get high blood pressure just watching him work his way out of trouble. That worked for him, but that’s not what most of us need to do. Most of us need to tackle the course with our best game and have some fun while doing it. That’s the way I see it.

Thank you to all golf writers and bloggers featured, mentioned and linked here. You add to the life of other blogs with your content. However, this post contains 2 of my favorite golf bloggers to quote/ link: Brian Penn and the Grateful Golfer with a post on putting what you see that I linked where Brian is mentioned by the Grateful Golfer, What small blogosphere we live in.