Most golfers like us play the same 18 holes to get our membership money’s worth. But how do you approach your game when you visit a new and unfamiliar course with no local knowledge?

The 7 P’s

You’ll probably remember the adage, proper planning and preparation prevents p**s-poor performance. It’s so true when playing a course for the first time. Last month I visited four courses all new to me. I thought I was properly planned and prepared. I was wrong.

I had a wealth of data available to me on the courses and conditions. Maps on GPS apps showing distances and hazards and old-school shot saver books all provided insights into unfamiliar terrain. I had weather forecasts for wind speed and direction. I could even look where I’m going. What could possibly go wrong? And then I made four basic mistakes.

Mistake #1 – I didn’t read the map properly

The app showed me it was a dogleg right 440 yard hole. I chose to fade a drive around the corner just like the pros do. However, on my app, I hadn’t noticed the clearly marked stream running down the right edge of the fairway or the left-to-right wind direction. Lost ball. The sensible shot was straight over the line marker using up the width of the fairway bend as insurance and let the wind do the work. I forgot to pay attention to detail on other holes too and paid the price. Not clever.

Mistake #2 – I didn’t look where I was going

Many years ago, I was sitting in the back of a new 747-400 simulator as two seasoned pilots got familiar with the big LCD display screens that had replaced the cluster of round dials. Noticing the pilots were fascinated by the tech, the instructor had important advice: “I suggest one of you looks out the window”. To prove the point he moved the runway 50 yards to the right while autolanding in fog. The instrument displays were indicating all was fine. The view out the window was very different. The lesson was clear – don’t always rely on data alone.

At the top of this blog is a view of the Macdonald Hill Valley Emerald course 18th hole in Shropshire, looking back up the fairway. Above is the same hole on my app. Where’s that huge tree guarding the green?

The simplified graphics on maps and GPS apps often don’t show the ups and downs or sideways slopes of the terrain. Well hit shots can just kept rolling into trouble. More than once on my travels, I relied on my app and failed to look at the lay of the land right in front of me.

Mistake #3 – I didn’t read the greens

We know our home course greens, and that familiarity can dull our green reading skills. It can take time to adjust to a different turf and green speed. But after hitting woefully short putts on the first three greens, you’d think I’d get the message about speed. On one green in Carmarthenshire, all four of us were fooled by a short hillside par 3 with a stream well below the green. It should all slope in that direction. But the green really looked like it sloped the other way. A collective 12 putts later the lesson was learned. Looks can be deceptive, but all the clues were there.

Mistake #4 – I had great expectations

I played the Emerald championship course for the first time last month and shot 7 over par. How good am I? Full of confidence, I was sure I’d do the same the next day on the shorter Sapphire course. I was plain awful.

It started well. Pars on the first few holes supported my naïve belief that I was invincible. In truth, I’d become lazy. I was over-confident and forgotten about mistakes 1-3.  I lost concentration, five balls, and the ability to count beyond 90.

I played well on day 1 because my expectations were low. I played cautiously, studied the data in detail, opened my eyes, had a bit of luck, and shot a great score as a result. Attention to detail had compensated for my lack of local knowledge. The next day my, ego replaced common sense and my mistakes piled up.

Lessons re-learned

I really enjoy visiting other courses. I think a change of scene helps me learn and improve. And my recent travels reminded me of some basic lessons for playing a different course for the first time:

  1. Study the details on maps
  2. Look harder at the terrain
  3. Read the green, don’t skim it
  4. Set expectations low and play the percentages

Enjoy your golf travels this autumn and play better than I did.

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Paul Hart is a founding director of PuttBANDIT Ltd, co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT Ball Marker and enthusiastic improver.

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