Knowing Your "True" Distances

Knowing how all kinds of lies, winds, and elevation changes will affect your shot length is important to playing consistent golf.

How many of you have struck that perfect 7 iron from the fairway, and watched the ball track towards the pin with complete satisfaction? You're holding your pose, and just waiting for the ball to come down next to the pin. To your utter shock and dismay the ball lands 20 yards short in a bunker. It's the worst feeling in the world.

Wait…what just happened???

Maybe you didn't feel that slight breeze into your face, because the trees were blocking it. Also, you might have forgotten that the green was slightly elevated. Both of these factors lead to that 7 iron flying 20 yards shorter than you anticipated. Part of becoming a better golfer is starting to understand what your true distances are in different scenarios.

The first step of knowing your true distances is being honest with yourself. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can hit that 7 iron 155 yards on average when you know you will need to hit it absolutely perfectly in order to reach that number. Many golfers inflate their club distances because they don't want to accept that they are not long hitters. This will cost you strokes out on the golf course. Step up to each shot with a distance in mind for an average strike, not your best.

Just to clarify, I am speaking about your actual carry distances. Depending on course conditions and your shot trajectory/spin, everyone will have a different kind of release after the ball lands. This is also another part of the game to evaluate, but we'll leave that discussion for another article. So for now we are just talking about how far you can carry the ball.

Let's go through a few scenarios to illustrate what I'm talking about. I'll warn you I am going to bring up almost everything I can think of in order to give you a comprehensive list, but don't let it intimidate you. Understanding these concepts takes time and experience on the golf course.

Tee shots

When we're teeing off on a par 4/5 we are often faced with a decision on where to land the ball relative to bunkers, doglegs, hazards, and fairway width. As I've discussed in my tee shot article, I am an advocate of trying to play the higher-percentage shot. Wind conditions and elevation change need to be factored into this decision as well.

My home course has huge elevation changes, and is located near the water so it can be quite breezy. I am often faced with different club decisions based on the wind conditions, and if I'm playing an uphill or downhill tee shot. The fifth hole is an interesting example of how this comes into play. It is a short par 4 that features an abrupt dogleg to the right that is guarded by trees.

The tee shot is extremely elevated, and I know that it is going to add about 10-15 yards on average to whatever club I am choosing to hit. If the wind is behind me it could increase that number to 20-35 yards. A stiff wind into my face could negate the elevation change completely, or even make the shot shorter than normal because the ball is in the air so long due to the elevation.

I am evaluating this each time I step up to that tee, and adjusting my landing target based on this. Perhaps I am taking a more aggressive line over the dogleg because the wind is behind me, and I know I can clear it easily with an iron. Sometimes if the wind is in my face I am aiming further left because I'm not willing to take on the dogleg.

The point is not to choose the same club/target every time without thinking about these factors. If you have never played a course before, or you know it extremely well, you should be thinking about how this affects your target off of the tee.

Approach shots

OK here is where things get a little more complicated. This is the list of things that I think can affect your carry distance with approach shots:

  • Lie: Is it in the rough? How buried is the ball if it is? Is the lie fluffy, perhaps it will be a flyer and add distance?
  • Green Elevation: Is the green above or below you? Is it a slight elevation change, or a dramatic one?
  • Slope: Do you have a sidehill lie, and is the ball above or below you feet? Do you have a downhill or uphill lie?
  • Wind: What direction is the wind coming from, and how strong? Are trees blocking you from feeling the wind, and perhaps when the ball clears them, will the ball be affected more?

These categories can all affect how far your ball will travel, and based on the specific circumstance, one element might be more important than another. I'm not going to try and give you any kind of solution for determining exactly how much each of these scenarios could affect your carry length. That would be impossible. Developing a feel for each of these factors comes with practice and spending more time on the course.

I thought about going through each of these specifically, but I think that would be best done in separate articles. Let me give you one tip that I think the average golfer fails to do in almost all of these scenarios.

Most golfers do not take enough club.

There are many reasons why I think this is the case. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we think we are hitting the ball more solidly and further than we actually do. This goes back to our obsession with distance, and trying to hit the ball as far as we can in all facets of the game. Please stop thinking like this!

It's OK to take an extra club; it does not make you any less of a golfer. In fact, I think it makes you a better golfer because you are being honest with yourself. So if you find yourself with that nasty lie in the rough, a green that is above you, or a wind into your face…DO NOT TRY TO HIT THE BALL HARDER, TAKE AN EXTRA CLUB!!!

Of course this does not apply to every situation, but I'd be willing to bet that most of you reading this are missing more greens on the short side rather than the long side.

A product like GAME GOLF offers golfers a unique opportunity to find out how far they are actually hitting the ball, which is why I think technology like this is going to help players improve their games.

I'm going to stop here and let you absorb all of this. I will elaborate on each of these concepts further in other articles. If there's one thing you come away with from this article, it should be this:

Be honest with how far you can hit each club, and try to evaluate how your distance might be effected due to wind and various other factors.

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