Rory McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots.
Kevin Murray/Golf Monthly
Thursday, November 10, 2011

A well-designed golf course will present you with a rich variety of challenges. From reachable par 5s that offer good birdie chances to long par 3s that require a strong nerve and a crisp strike, the nature of each individual test will determine how aggressive you are. So the key to scoring your best is knowing when to attack and when to defend. Here, I’ll explain my thinking in three typical situations: (1) staring down a short-but-dangerous par 4; (2) in the fairway and within easy scoring range of an accessible pin; and (3) on the tee of a long par 3. I know that if I get my tactics right and make a series of solid, committed swings I can get through these crucial scenarios under par. What follows is my simple guide for how every golfer—no matter what handicap—can devise a successful strategy by knowing when—and how—to attack, play it safe and defend.


SITUATION No. 1: Tough Tee Shot
MY STRATEGY: Play it safe!
Rory McIlroy, Tough Tee Shot

On tough holes you should know that only a good drive will set up a realistic birdie or par chance. But I understand how difficult it is to block out hazards, like the water on this hole. Obviously there’s no future going left here. You need to face up to the trouble and think of the best way to avoid it. In dead calm conditions I’d aim at the left edge of the fairway and try to hit a gentle cut. This way, I know the ball will be moving away from the trouble. However, if the wind was coming off the right I’d aim at the right edge of the far bunker and let the wind drift it toward the fairway. Here’s my advice:

1. Set up on the left side of the tee to create an advantageous angle. This means aiming away from the most significant danger.
2. I know it’s hard to block out the water, so what you have to do is pick a specific target. Say to yourself, “Right—that’s where I’m going to hit it.” That’s what the pros do, and it helps set a positive outlook. Avoid choosing vague targets—be as specific as possible on the tee.

SITUATION No. 2: Short approach
MY STRATEGY: Attack the pin!
Rory McIlroy, Short Approach Shot

For any hole under 400 yards, getting the ball in the fairway should mean that it’s green lights all the way home. Unless the pin is tightly tucked in either one of the four corners of the green, throw on your game face and take dead aim. Success here is all about controlling flight and spin. In this instance, I’m left with 99 yards. I don’t work to specific yardages—for me, the closer I am to the green, the better. The only exception to this is if I need to generate plenty of spin to get the ball close. But in this instance, the pin is on the top of a slope, so you definitely don’t want too much spin. Two ways to play it:

1. Aim right of the pin, fly it all the way and get it to stop quickly, but not spin back.
2. Hit something a bit lower and try to run it up close to the hole.
Regardless of your strategy, have a vision of the ball’s flight, where it will land and how it will react once it hits.

SITUATION No. 3: Long Par 3Rory McIlroy, Long Par 3
MY STRATEGY: Play defense!

Not only am I facing a 220-yard shot to a well-guarded green, the wind is into and slightly off the left. You might think this is all the information you need to pull the right club out of the bag, but on a difficult hole like this, you really need to think about where to miss. You don’t want to be too negative, but getting up and down from short right shouldn’t be too hard. So you have to play it smart. Don’t try to be a hero. I’d be really happy with a three here, and a two would be a massive bonus. So for most amateurs, it’s all about giving yourself a chance of to make par, and the reality is you won’t lose ground on the field by making a bogey on a really tough par 3 like this. My advice:

1. Make your goal simply to get the ball near the green. Leave the pin alone.
2. Search for a safe area that will allow you an easy chip. You’ll make par more often this way than if you try to hit a long iron or hybrid close enough for a two-putt.

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