(John Rathouz caddies for Seamus Power of Ireland on the PGA Tour pictured above)
Helping my player to select the right club is one of the most important parts of my job. Many times the choice for him is obvious and I reply with
an emphatic “yes” or “perfect” but there are times when it feels like we’re solving a complex riddle. I’d like to share with you some of that thought process so you can make wiser club choices during your rounds and putt for more birdies and walk off the greens with more pars than bogeys.
It’s important to determine where you want to “leave” your golf ball relative to the hole location and also keep in mind where the best place to “miss” the ball is. Jack Nicklaus and others have noted that “golf is a game of misses” and that’s essentially what we do on Tour as caddies regarding club selection and strategy – manage misses and give our players the best opportunity to make birdies and pars.
I’ll give you a great example of that from our last tournament at the Valspar in Tampa. The 9th is a medium length uphill par 4 at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, a really enjoyable and difficult test of golf if you ever get the chance. My player, Seamus Power, had driven it barely into the left rough about 290 yards off the tee and the pin was cut 12 paces on the green and 5 off the right with a deep bunker guarding the right portion of the green. The shot plays steeply uphill so we calculated the total yardage to be 125. There was an additional 10-15 yards of green behind the hole but the green is banked steeply from back to front so any leave long of the hole will leave a tricky fast chip or putt and with his ball in the rough it was going to be difficult to get it close so he would be conceding a par at best, which is never a bad score! I also knew that Seamus is one of the best bunker players in the world right now, and even though it would be a disappointment to end up there, he would have good odds to get it up and down. So, I read it as a good spot to stay aggressive and try to get the ball close, but with which club?
The wind was mostly off the left but we figured it was hurting too. Now, here’s where we have an advantage on Tour that you might not have at your course unless you’re very familiar with the holes. If you ever see a caddie in the background at a tournament wandering around the greens looking for something it’s because we’re trying to find a little white dot the officials put out indicating the hole location for the next days play so that the greenskeeper knows exactly where to cut the hole early the next morning. This was Sunday, so on Saturday I noticed that this particular pin was cut 5 paces over the front right portion of the green, the “cover” number onto the green, and there was an additional 3 paces of short rough on top of the bunker, and wrote that down in my yardage book just in case. The pin was essentially 8 over the bunker even though it looked like it was in the bunker from the fairway.
Seamus just switched to having 4 wedges in his bag this season and it’s made a tremendous improvement in his accuracy because he’s no longer “stuck” between yardages. This might be good for you too. After all, you’re bound to hit more wedges than 3 irons in a typical round. To make room for the new wedge he simply strengthened the loft on his 5 and 4 irons and ditched his 3. Now, he has a traditional pitching wedge, 50, 54, and 58. His 50 goes 128 and his pitching wedge goes 140 so this shot screamed of a perfect 50 and if we were in the fairway it would have been an easier choice, but the rough complicated things a bit. Let me take you further down the rabbit hole and explain that when you hit a club “full” it maximizes the spin of the golf ball and therefore will stop faster when it hits the ground verses a shot that’s “flighted” or hit less than full strength. Of course a ball with more spin also gets impacted more by a hurting wind. That’s why it’s great advice to take more club in the wind and hit it softer because the ball will knife through the wind more. But it will also run more once it hits the green so if you can get the flight with the lesser club just right you can still get it close. Got it!
In this situation Seamus had two choices. Hit the pitching wedge less than full or hit the 50 full. We decided on hitting the 50 full and as he was over the ball a gust of wind popped up and suddenly the hurting wind from the left was a bit stronger. He backed off the ball and I could tell he was questioning the play, thinking could the ball actually get to the pin or is it going to get swallowed up by the wind and end up in the bunker? He said, “Do you still like this?” Now, knowing all that I knew, I took one step in and assured him that I still thought it was the right club and to his credit he trusted me. Keep in mind that this all happened from start to finish in about a minute. He hit the ball solidly and immediately doubted it, and to tell you the truth, I did too. I was prepared for the ball to end up in the bunker and for me to get an earful from my boss, but then we watched as it covered the bunker and the crowd erupted in applause and when we got up to the green noticed he had hit it to four feet, taking one small hop forward. He walked off the green with a birdie 3 and it was part of a run of 3 birdies in 5 holes to move up the leaderboard.
This is a great example of what goes on between players and caddies every week on Tour and I’d be lying if I told you we got them all right but that’s our goal. Now, keep in mind that there’s probably two to three different clubs you could hit on any one shot and oftentimes your first instinct is correct so trust your gut and manage the situation. Is par a great score? Play safe and two-putt. Do you need to make a birdie and think you might be able to pull off the shot? Go for it and be aggressive. After all, golf is a game, not a video game, and we’re humans, not robots, so enjoy the challenges and vagaries golf presents. There’s a hundred ways to skin a cat and there’s no pictures on the scorecard.
Most golf courses you play have red, white, and blue flags to indicate where the flag is on the green. Red for front, white for middle, blue for back. Use your yardage device to get the number to the pin and gauge how many paces you may have in front or behind the pin before you pick your club. Obviously the elements impact your choice too. Generally speaking, keeping the ball “in front of the hole” is a good rule-of-thumb since most greens slope from front to back. An uphill putt or chip is usually much easier to navigate than downhill. The front yardage is a very important number that I never paid attention to until I was a caddie. Many times, if you can cover the front of the green you’re in a great spot to at least make par. Likewise, it can be helpful to know the back of the green number. When I caddied for Brett Wetterich on Tour, when the pin was in the back half of the green he would want to know the pin number and the back number, so I’d say something like “177 hole, 183 back edge.” His strategy was then to select a club that he knew he couldn’t hit 183 yards in that situation, thus leaving himself in a reasonable spot on the green. Sometimes it was 3 feet, other times 30, but he always knew he wasn’t going long and that allowed him to stay aggressive. The middle of the green is never a bad spot to be!
Hopefully some of this information is helpful in navigating the red, white, and blue flags at your golf course and remember to keep your pace of play on the speedier side versus being slower. You can do many of your calculations in your head as you ride or walk up to your ball or while your playing partners are taking their turn. Good luck!