Every round, no matter how low your handicap may be, you and every other golfer out there will make some less than perfect swings, miss some fairways and greens, and hit some really bad shots. I remind you of this because one of the wonderful parts of the game we play is that sooner or later, we all face recovery shots from the trouble our poor shots happen to find.
The trouble I'm talking about isn't necessarily the often incredibly difficult situations that PGA Tour pros find themselves in. I'm talking about the rough, mounds, trees, slopes and sand found on the courses that the rest of us play every day. For us, these bad lies are just as daunting as what the pros face. But what separates truly high-handicap golfers from low-handicappers and pros is how each group deals with these trying circumstances.
Most amateurs spend a big chunk of their practice time on dead-flat practice-range tees. They seldom practice from long greenside rough, sand bunkers, side-slopes or uphill and downhill lies. And I understand that. Why practice from difficult lies when you can't even hit good shots from good lies? But if you can learn to see the golf course in a slightly different way, and learn to choose more appropriate targets when you're hitting from trouble, you can eliminate the majority of disastrous blow-up holes that inevitably find their way onto your scorecard.
First, take a look at the sketch of a typical golf hole rendered in normal colors in the image above on the left. Then look at the same hole depicted in "shotmaking difficulty" colors on the right, which is how I see the holes I play. This system allows me to recognize at a glance the difficulty that a particular hole actually presents to me during a round.
The lie conditions worsen as you go from green ("safe") to yellow ("marginal"), to orange ("frying pan") and then to red ("fire"). This means your ability to hit accurate escape shots, or even make solid contact, will be increasingly challenged as your lies progressively degrade.
Once you've established how much danger is inherent in a particular lie, you can develop the proper "smart" mindset for that particular shot, which will go a long way toward at least minimizing potential disaster scores. Here are a couple of reliable tenets for smart trouble play:
• Always escape from trouble on the first try—always!
• Escape into a better position than you would have been in had your previous shot not found trouble.
It's important to remember that the target for your recovery shot is as important as how well you hit it. If you can escape back to the fairway to a spot closer to the green than you would've been in had your previous shot been perfect, it means losing less than one stroke. Smart scoring means eliminating the disaster holes that raise your handicap. And smart scoring requires smart target selection. Take this to heart and you'll become a better player.