Tiger gives lesson in course management

Here’s a new way to improve your golf game. It has nothing to do with your swing and nothing to do with pumping iron to get fitter. But it has everything to do with thinking your way to better golf. It’s called course management, and Tiger Woods — the U.S. Open champion by miles and miles — provided a series of lessons in the subject.

Exhibit A: the way that Tiger Woods played the 573-yard 14th hole at Pebble Beach in the third round, while on his way to winning by a mere 15 shots. Woods had 257 yards to the front of the green. That’s usually a 3-wood for a powerful player. But wait. There’s a deep bunker short of the green, and Woods felt that a 3-wood could send the ball in so high that it would come down on a steep path and, perhaps, plug in the sand.

So what did Woods do? He removed his driver from his bag, which brought lots of oohs and ahs from the spectators who assumed that choice meant Woods was going for the green. But no, that wasn’t the case at all. He knew he would produce a lower ball flight with his driver, and that at the same time he couldn’t hit a driver high enough to carry that front bunker and get on the green. Still, he felt the driver washe right choice for him.

“I was trying to put the ball in the rough, short of the green or in the bunker,” Woods said. “I felt if I could hit the ball in the bunker, it would roll up the bank and back down and still be on the upslope of the bunker. That didn’t happen. I pulled it a little bit and got underneath [a] tree.”

Woods got up and down for birdie from a difficult position left of the green, but I’m not as interested in what he scored on the hole as in his decision process. Think about it: Woods took a club that was likely to give him the easiest next shot. And that can be construed as the lesson of all golf lessons.

Now, it’s not as if this there’s anything new about picking a shot that will make the next shot as easy as possible. But ask yourself how often you forget to do this. How often do you take chances that even a touring pro wouldn’t take? Why not make life easier for yourself. Take the smart road, not the high road.

Years ago a fellow who managed a golf course where I played put it this way: “I always play a hole from the green to the tee, not the tee to the green. I look at where I’d like to play my shot into the green from, and what shot I need to get there, and so on.”

I’ve never forgotten that advice, not that I always take it. But it’s sound advice, for anybody. I took a pal out for 36 holes of golf a few weeks ago and told him that because he was my guest I was going to do his thinking for him. I’d seen this fellow, who is about a 30-handicapper, try impossible shots. He was far too aggressive a golfer for the level of his ability. Good-naturedly, he told me he would go along with my suggestions.

“We’re going to try to get you on or around every green in one shot over par,” I told my friend. That is, if he were playing a par-4 and hoped to reach the green in two shots — often from an awkward place, given his handicap — I told him to use a club that would put him within wedge distance of the hole. Of if that weren’t possible because he was in trouble then the idea would be to simply get back in play.

Stay away from the big numbers, that is. Or at least don’t encourage a big number by taking ridiculous chances. In my friend’s case, this strategy helped immensely. He got himself around the course for 36 holes without making errors in course management. Sure, he hit some bad shots and got into difficulty. And it’s also true that his short game — what there was of it, since he never practices it — kept him from making more pars and bogeys.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen my friend more at ease on the golf course. “I can’t believe it,” he said after the first round. “I played the 18 holes with one ball.”

So here’s a tip that you should keep close to your golfing mind all season: Use that six inches between your ears to advantage, and play smart. Be cagey. Forget about macho golf. Play tidy golf. Intelligent golf. Lower-scoring, smart golf. You know the kind. It’s the kind Tiger Woods plays. And if it’s good enough for him, why, it should be good enough for every golfer everywhere. After all, we can’t hit the ball like Tiger — even top tour pros can’t, evidently. But there’s no reason we can’t think like him.