There is often a lot made of the idea of knowing all of your carry distances and how far you hit your ball.
While this is important to have a grasp of, the more important skill is to understand how to adjust those numbers based on the conditions.
If you always pull out your 7-iron when you are 135 yards away, regardless of conditions, then you may as well not bother knowing how far you “normally” hit that club. I could count on one hand the amount of shots per round that I am actually trying to hit to a stock yardage.
The idea of reading the conditions is to determine a ‘playing yardage’. This is the yardage that you should actually have in mind when hitting the shot, the yardage to the pin is very rarely the correct yardage.
The conditions that you face in golf are ever-changing and have a much greater impact on your shots than most players seem to account for.
There are a whole host of conditions to take into account, but the main ones which I will discuss in this post will be temperature, rain, wind and lie.
Far more players get caught out with coming up short on their approach shots than going long. There are a variety of causes for this, but one of them is not taking into account that the ball will travel different distances in different temperatures.
When somebody asks you how far you carry your wedge, you’re probably not telling them how far it travels in November are you! People tend to take their longest carry as the one which they use as a benchmark, when we are rarely playing in conditions that allow for that result.
In order to illustrate just how big of a difference there can be, I’ll give you an example from my game.
- Earlier this season I was playing a tournament in Austria and I had an early start in the first round, starting on the 10th tee. The 11th hole was a strong par four, and I reached this hole at about 8:30am with the temperature somewhere around 8 degrees Celsius.
- On this morning, I hit my drive in the fairway and had 182 yards left, which I would normally be able to reach with a 7-iron.
- On this occasion I went to a 6-iron and still came up only on the front edge of the green. Based on my yardages that ball traveled 19 yards shorter than usual, nearly 10%!
- The following day I began at 1pm, starting on hole 1, so I reached the 11th just after 3pm at one of the warmest times of the day.
- My drive got me further up this time, to 152 yards, and I was able to hit a smooth 9-iron the correct distance. That was pretty much spot on with my “stock” yardages.
First and foremost you should learn that my ball was traveling nearly 10% shorter in those single digit morning temperatures than it was with a mid-teens afternoon temperature. But I also want you to be able to analyze your tee shot distance as a tool for determining what the conditions are doing to your ball.
For example, during that morning round, the temperature is rising quite considerably, so early on I could see that my driver was still traveling shorter, and I could use that to confirm that my next shot would still need an extra club.
As I got closer to the middle of the day, I began to see that my driver was reaching my usual distances, so by the end of that round, I used my 6-iron on a 202 yard par 3 and it was the correct club. Being able to take this information on board and adjust your decisions accordingly can save you multiple shots per round.
The importance of choosing the correct club is grossly underestimated. You could hit two perfect shots, but one club goes close to the hole, and the other ends up plugged in the front bunker, so don’t neglect your club decision making!
In my experience there are a few things that I adjust when the course is wet; the ball will travel shorter distances throughout the bag (an extra 5-10% shorter from a rough lie), the ball will skid through a little more, and I play less break on putts because I am hitting the ball harder to travel over the wet, slower surface.
Rain will slow down the golf course in terms of bounces and how far the ball will run out, so this makes me feel comfortable to take one extra club to allow for the rain (probably colder temperatures also) because those slower conditions give you a greater margin for error if you did go long.
To be honest, I tend to play a bit more aggressively when it is raining because of the softer conditions. I also feel that putting becomes easier as we are able to hit the putts firmer and play for less break.
I think that many players dread playing in the rain, but I would encourage you to change your approach to it if you also feel this way.
The conditions can be favorable to scoring, but a lot of the issues come with keeping your equipment dry and rushing around trying not to get wet. You’re already outside in the rain, so what if you get a bit wet, at least make a good score doing so!
Judging the direction of the wind is pretty easy, judging the impact of it can be a bit of a lottery! If you are playing downwind the ball will go further, and vice versa when playing into the wind.
Having said that, it is worth taking into account what type of ball flight you normally play. If you have a low ball flight then your ball is impacted less into the wind and you don’t get to maximize distance downwind so much.
This type of player will have a smaller dispersion between their into the wind and downwind shots. A high ball flight player will have the opposite, needing to deal with a far greater range of distances depending on the wind conditions.
- When it comes to judging exactly how different your carry will be, there is no formula unfortunately, it does come down to feel and a little bit of luck (wind is constantly changing, with gusts impossible to predict). However, you can make some decisions that allow you to have some more control.
- For example, the higher you hit the ball, the longer it will be in the air and greater the impact of the wind. There is a saying that “when it’s breezy, swing it easy”, and this absolutely rings true into the wind, you want to lower the spin on the ball as much as possible so that you can keep that ball under the wind.
- An easy way to do this is to take more club than you need and hit it with less power, this will allow the ball to travel the necessary distance, but with less speed involved it will not rise up into the wind.
- Down-wind I do not think that saying is of much use to be honest, in fact it can be quite detrimental. If you are playing downwind and you hit the ball too smoothly, then the wind can actually knock the ball back down before it reaches its apex.
- This prevents the ball from traveling its full distance. Consider that the effect of the wind is a percentage, so if you increase your ball speed, then you are going to increase that gap even more so. If you are using your driver and you want to maximize the impact of that wind, then consider teeing the ball higher or moving it slightly further forward in your stance.
- This will help you to launch the ball higher and get the ball in the air for a longer period of time.
Something worth considering about extreme conditions is whether to “use” the wind or hit a “hold-up” shot. This relates to cross wind shots. Hitting a hold up shot means that you will effectively try to hit your ball with spin that goes against the wind, so if the wind is from right-to-left and you hit a shot with left-to-right spin, then this is a hold-up shot.
When you hit the ball against the wind like this, you might have more control over the accuracy of the shot, but you will likely lose some distance. If you use the wind, then your ball is going to move considerably further sideways in the air, making it quite difficult to judge where you need to aim, but you will not be fighting the wind as much and therefore gain a little distance.
I tend to try and use the wind on my tee shots in order to gain that distance, while holding it up with approach shots so that I can be more precise with my aim.
When the wind is very strong (let’s say above 25 mph), I would suggest that it is better to use it than fight against it, simply because you will lose a lot of distance if you fight against it, plus if you get it wrong the wind will take it a long way away. If you are already aiming to allow the wind to move your ball, then it is not going to take it in the wrong direction.
When we refer to different “lies” in golf we are talking specifically about where the ball is and what the conditions surrounding the ball are.
For example, if you are on the fairway, then you will have a good lie because there is no excess grass around the ball and you will be able to achieve easy access to hit the ball. However, if you are lying in thick rough, then there will be grass between the club and the ball.
The ability to understand what a particular lie will do to your ball will give you more confidence during your round and improve your chances of getting out of some tough spots!
This sort of knowledge could often be referred to as ‘Golfing IQ’ as it is very specific knowledge and it requires a slightly deeper level of thought than most golfers access during casual social play.
Into or down grain
I am starting with this because it prefaces almost any lie that you look at, the longer the grass is, the greater the impact of the grain. You may not notice it very often, but I promise it has a surprisingly big impact on how your ball will react.
When your ball is sitting “against the grain” (the grass is growing against the direction that you want to hit it) it is harder to get as much distance as usual as you have to fight through this stronger grass. This is especially important around the greens and you will need to hit it considerably harder to get a solid connection and have the club moving through the grass.
When the ball is sitting “with the grain” then it will come out of this lie much easier, and if the grass is dry and thin it is likely to lead to a “flier” which means the ball will have less spin than usual, leading to it traveling further in total. Generally speaking, the more obvious the grain is, the more impact it will have, and you can read it by following the direction of the grass. Into will mean shorter, down will mean further, across will push it in that direction off the face.
Different grass lengths
The biggest advantage from hitting a fairway is that you will get a clean lie which means that, more than other lies, the ball will react consistently and as expected. Generally speaking, the fairway is a ‘tight’ lie, meaning there isn’t a great deal of grass underneath your ball. This encourages control because we can impart more spin on the ball.
Some players can feel nerves about fairway shots because that tight lie can look a little daunting at times, if you struggle with a lot of side spin then you may also feel this way because the greater the spin, the greater the sideways movement will be on your ball.
When you are dealing with thicker lies (ie. Rough, plenty of grass surrounding your ball) then you can often counteract this by hitting with a bit more speed and also hitting down on the ball a bit more. You may have experienced that shot from the rough where you feel like you made good contact, but you look up and the ball is scuttling through the rough ten yards in front of you.
This is because the ball didn’t have enough height or speed to get up and out of the rough. Playing from a thick lie is yet another example of it being totally unproductive to try and “lift” the ball. Whenever you feel like you want to get the ball up faster, I would recommend hitting it harder and trying to hit down on it more, if anything.
One of the hardest aspects of playing on a golf course compared to the driving range is that we suddenly have to deal with ground that is not flat on every shot. I was playing with a beginner recently and that was his first observation on the course, that he was finding it so difficult to get comfortable because his body and the ball did not feel like they were in the same place as usual.
When we talk about sloping lies, we are considering downhill, uphill and side hill, sometimes these can be combined to make a shot even more tricky. Thankfully there are a few tricks to deal with each of these lies, it is just a case of understanding the effect that you will see on your ball.
The most common mistake that I see in this area is that players will attempt to work against the slope. For example, on a downhill lie I will see players trying to lift the ball in an attempt to get it in the air, but they are making it more difficult than it needs to be.
A good piece of advice that you can pretty much always rely on is to try and match your body angle to the slope that you are on. So if you are on an upslope, don’t try and lean into the slope, rather try and feel like your upper body and shoulder angle is more of a match to the slope that you are standing on.
What you will find is that this creates a situation far more reminiscent of a flat lie shot, so now you don’t have to do anything too different, you can simply swing. The area that you can change is your club selection. So on an upslope you should just accept that the ball will go higher than normal, but if you were to take one more club and hit it softer, then you can counteract that slope.
You might find then that your soft 7-iron from an upslope has a very similar flight and distance to your normal 8-iron from a flat lie.
Another condition worth considering is your aim with these shots. Many players find that, when playing a shot from an uphill lie, the ball will come out with a slight ‘pull’ on it (right for left-handers, left for right-handers). I tend to agree with this and generally will aim 5-10 yards left of my target (I’m left-handed) to allow for a slight pull.
On a downhill lie I find there to be less of an impact, but still something there in the form of a push (the opposite). For now I would recommend that you get out on the course and just practice this technique first, keeping an eye on what the patterns are when you hit a good shot. Did it pull a bit from the uphill lie? Then incorporate that into your aim during competitive rounds.
I use this tactic almost every time that I am dealing with an uphill or downhill lie (for downhill I might take one less club and hit it harder), but it can be more situation dependent when we are looking at side hill lies.
If the ball is above your feet, then it will encourage you to pull the ball, if it is below your feet it will encourage you to push the ball. I think that the best way to handle this is to simply adjust your aim and perhaps be a bit more conservative from a lie like this. If you hit a fade, then you may actually enjoy it when the ball is above your feet because it can straighten out your shots. The same if you draw it from a lie that is below your feet.
The ability to read your lie is also dependent on how hard you are going to hit a shot, which means that the impact of the grass is going to differ for your short game shots. A thick lie around the green might be more appealing to some golfers than a tight lie, whereas the opposite would be true for a longer shot.
The benefit of a thick lie, where there might be a lot of grass around or under the ball, is that you can hit it harder as the grass will get between the club face and ball. Many amateurs will prefer this to a more delicate shot from a tighter lie. A big part of this is mental, we feel more embarrassed if we miss hit one from a seemingly perfect lie, whereas there is an excuse if the lie is bad anyway.
That mental aspect is not something I will touch upon here, but I will give you a few tips to understand what you need to do for the different lies you might find around the green.
If you have a tight lie around the green then remember that the ball will come off the face with more speed, but you can also get more spin if you hit it correctly as there is no grass between the club face and ball. Players will often leave these shots short when they actually strike it well because they’re scared of that speed off the clubface.
There are many sports in which you will be given the advice of committing otherwise you can get hurt (ie. Rugby tackling, catching a cricket ball). Although you won’t be physically hurt in golf, if you don’t fully commit to your tight lie shots, you’re going to look pretty silly.
So my best advice is that, if anything, you should practice hitting these shots too hard and seeing how much more spin you can get. This will give you more freedom when you see that you actually didn’t go that far long, and stop those frustrating well struck chip shots that still end up ten feet short!
As for the thick lie short game shots, you’ve got a free licence to give these some speed! Keep the speed up and don’t look up too soon, then you will see the ball pop up with more height and stop faster.
A huge part of dealing with the different conditions that we face in golf is to have a plan for how to deal with them. ‘Hit and hope’ never ends well in golf, so taking some more knowledge onto the course is an effective way to improve your scores and confidence during those tougher moments on the course.
This is a content heavy article and there are a lot of condition aspects to take into account. It may seem like too much to begin with, but as you start to practice these things on the course you will see that it becomes much more natural to read the lie immediately, then make decisions after that.
Simply having more knowledge on this subject will allow you to make better strategic decisions and understand when to be aggressive and when to remain conservative.