Ask the Top 100: How to play a course for the first time

Ask the Top 100: How to play a course for the first time

Dear T.J.,
What’s your advice for playing a course for the first time?
John S., Hartford, Conn.

John, you need to play in a foursome along with your three best friends: The scorecard, a local and common sense.

When playing a new course the scorecard is your best friend. Often the
course layout is diagrammed along with the yardage markers. But yardage
can be deceptive and since the most important decision you make all day
is your choice of tees, the yardage requires a closer look. If the
course has a high slope rating, choose a comfortable yardage. You may
be used to playing 6,500 yards, but if your home slope is 120 and the
new course is 135, you should drop down to a shorter set of tees.
Your next best friend is the club pro behind the counter. Ask about any
“rules of thumb” such as “everything breaks to Pinnacle Peak.” Also ask
if there are any optical illusions out there, such as “the creek on the right
of No. 4 cuts into the fairway more than it looks.” Jot down what you
find on the scorecard.

Now comes your major focus: the greens. For your pre-round warm-up,
make sure to find out if the surface of the practice green is the same
as the greens on the course — ask about speed and grass type, are they
the same? — and then practice accordingly.
When I was just starting in the business I was fortunate to talk with
Lee Trevino and I asked him how to judge if a player could make it on
Tour. Trevino said that a good test was to take the player to six
different golf courses and play from the tips; if the guy could average
par, he had a chance on Tour. This surprised me (I thought it would be
a much lower number), but Trevino explained that to be a successful
player you must be able to adapt to the slopes, grass and subtle
contours of a new course each week. If you can’t do that, you won’t
score—no matter how well you strike the ball.
Adaptation is one reason amateur players who come to Florida during the
winter on vacation shoot on average 5 to 8 shots over their handicap:
they play the wrong tees and are baffled by the greens.
Your last friend — common sense — tells you to aim for the center of
every green regardless of where the pins are. This helps you to avoid
pitching, chipping and hitting sand shots to greens you don’t know.
So here’s your summary blueprint of how to play a new course: 1.) Play
the correct tees; 2.) Ask about the course’s “quirks”; 3.) Check out
the type of grass; 4.) Aim for the center of the greens regardless of
where the holes are cut; and 5.) Lower your expectations. Oh, and don’t
forget to have fun while all your buddies are freezing up north. Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher T.J. Tomasi, Ph.D., a Class A PGA professional, teaches at the Nantucket Golf Club in Massachusetts. You can learn more about TJ at

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