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Game Improvement: Smart Course Management Easier Said Than Done



Teeing off at No. 1 at the Pittsburgh City Amateur. (FIRST TEE PITTSBURGH)

PITTSBURGH — Last week, I was prepared to write about the final round of the men’s U.S. Open.

I wanted to commend first-time major champion Jon Rahm as being the most patient man at Torrey Pines, and lament how foolish it was for the likes of Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka to lose mental discipline over the final few holes.

Don’t these guys know that conservative is best — especially when you don’t know what number you need to shoot? Give yourself a chance by limiting risk on tee shots and hit the ‘fat side’ of greens. You’re more likely to roll in a long-ish putt for birdie than you are to stuff an approach to five feet.

Sure seemed like Rahm figured it out, huh? He even played away from the pin out of the greenside bunker on the par-5 18th, since he was hole-high in two and it wasn’t worth it to bring the nearby pond into play.

No, you’re not going to make 20-foot sliders on every green, but Rahm followed to a ‘T’ the methodical brand of course management espoused by Scott Fawcett, creator of the DECADE system, and the app by the same name.

An early advisor to Bryson DeChambeau and longtime mentor to Will Zalatoris, Fawcett’s standing in the sport is growing as quickly as his stable of touring pros. His ‘product,’ as it were, is built on the back of both Mark Broadie’s Strokes Gained metric and Google Maps satellite imagery.

In short, through a little math and amateur surveying, any player trying to make better decisions on the course can do so. DECADE is both an acronym (Distance, Expectation, Correct target, Analyze, Discipline, Execute) and a play on words, as in Fawcett’s data-based approach is worth 10 years of competitive experience, give or take.

As someone who has long felt preparation to be my weak suit, the prospect of using big-data odds to develop a game plan was very appealing. As such, I’ve feasted on the free version of the DECADE app Fawcett makes available, mostly in the form of short seminar-like videos.

My main takeaways from this sampling is that I was picking out targets out of whack with my ability level. Namely, I’ve often been too aggressive with my approach shots to greens, not sufficiently factoring in hazards like bunkers and heavy rough in my decision-making.

But I don’t feel too bad about this. After all, according to Fawcett, touring pros do the same thing. And if the best players in the world should be aiming for the middle of greens more often, you better believe I should be, too.

One of Fawcett’s main mantras is ‘stop trying to make birdies,’ because the majority of score variance boils down to avoiding bogey or worse. This is the case at the PGA Tour level, but it’s even more so in amateur golf.

So when the time came to prepare for the Pittsburgh City Amateur, I was all in on using DECADE to tighten up my mental game — and hopefully turn last year’s fifth-place finish to a victory.

If you’ve never played the Bob O’Connor Course at Schenley Park, quirky is a good word for it. While it’s a par-67 with no par 5s and just three non-drivable par 4s, the severe topography, intrusive trees and precipitous greens on the property make it the kind of place where both mid-60 and mid-80s are in play for a single-digit handicapper.

Through 13 holes last Saturday, I was one my way to posting a score in the low end of that range. I made three birdies and six pars on the front nine, following my game plan of aggressive swings to relatively conservative targets.

For instance, on the 260-yard eighth hole, I hit off the tee a 3-iron instead of a 3-wood, the latter of which was probably the club if I absolutely wanted to reach the green. But 3-wood also brought out-of-bounds behind the green into play, and a miss left could’ve easily skipped into the woods, too.

Turns out it was the perfect move, because the shorter, slightly more compact shot dispersion of a 3-iron saved me when I hooked the tee ball into the rough off the ninth fairway. Not a great position, but better than hitting three off the tee.

(The choice got even better when I pitched it to a foot and made birdie. That’s a bonus, though. The greater point was that I took bogey or worse out of play by keeping the 3-wood in the bag.)

But it’s much simpler to follow the game plan when things are going well. I made a couple of bogeys on 10 and 11 as I continued to fight a creeping case of the lefts. Better than missing right into big trouble, but Pennzoil was starting to leak onto the pavement.

The 6 looks like the big mistake, but the round went sour two holes later. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

After a successful scramble at the 13th kept me at 1 under for the day, I lost my ball on the par-3 14th in the middle of an open field of soggy rough. Since I didn’t see it land, I couldn’t prove that it plugged, so it was back to the tee for me. A triple-bogey 6 put me behind the 8-ball, so I thought.

That’s when I made the biggest mistake of the day. The 16th is another 260-yard par 4, this time with not a lot of trouble deep, but left there’s heavy fescue and a steep drop-off to Circuit Road. Another hole where aiming short and right is the correct play.

The reward of hitting the green was minuscule, too, since it would be tough to stop it on the surface if I caught it flush. (Maybe a case for adding a 5-wood or hybrid to the bag, but that’s a discussion for another time!)

But I figured I probably had to make at least one more birdie, if not two, over the final three holes to have a chance at winning the thing. And, if I’m honest, I was still ticked at my bad luck a couple of holes back.

So, instead of hitting another 3-iron about 20-30 yards short of pin-high and trying to pitch one on and make a putt, I went for the more ‘aggressive’ play and tried to bang one out there.

You can guess what happened next. I smacked another hot hook that I was fortunate to find in the hay. I managed to hack it out to the fringe and saved par, but I cost myself almost a sure look at birdie because I wanted to press the issue.

I finished birdie-bogey for a 2-over 69, missing a possible playoff for the trophy by one stroke. Suddenly I felt less excited about spitting that hot take about Oosthuizen forcing a aggressive drive that ended up in a canyon, or Koepka shooting at an impossible pin placement.

Obviously, Oosthuizen or Koepka could’ve easily won the U.S. Open if their go-for-broke shots panned out at Torrey Pines, just like Rahm could’ve easily missed either one (or both) of those final two birdie putts. I certainly could’ve flagged that 3-wood, made eagle and claimed the City Am outright.

The suboptimal decision doesn’t always lead to bad results, but if you’ve decided to play the odds, you have to play them every time — or else you’re not really playing the odds.

Easier said than done, though, in the heat of the moment. I don’t know what was going through the heads of Rahm, Oosthuizen or Koepka two weekends ago, but I can say that I let my frustration about that lost ball and subsequent big number cloud my thinking.

The bottom line is that I didn’t have perfect information of what number I needed to post to win, so it wasn’t time to bail on the DECADE-inspired game plan. Now, if I knew I needed a miracle, perhaps 3-wood is the prudent play, but I had no idea that 68 would be the lowest score of the day.

All it took was one moment of frustration-clouded thinking to spoil a pretty good day at The Bob.

As Mike Tyson once said, everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Like a lot of golfers, I guess I have some work to do.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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