A Lesson Learned: Secret to going low is to Play it Forward

Carl Pettersson at the RBC Canadian Open
Photo: Getty Images
Carl Pettersson was all smiles on his way to a third round 60 at the RBC Canadian Open.
Brady Wilson, PGA

Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Sunday, July 25, 2010 | 9:17 p.m.

Carl Pettersson did something unusual this week - as you probably already know. Yes, he shot an amazing 60 on Saturday, and then followed it up with a 67 to win the RBC Canadian Open, but that's not what I'm referring to - not exactly.

Many golf architects will tell you the best way to play their design is to walk the course backwards before you actually play it. By doing so, you'll see where the holes open up for the best approach shots and what, if any, hidden dangers may cause your score to stumble. Just because a hole is 420 yards doesn't mean a driver is the right play off the tee, not if there are multiple hazards or a narrow fairway in that landing area. Some holes are quirky enough to require a five iron, five iron shot rather than a driver, wedge. And thus, most top players know that the best way to score consistently is to play the course backwards. In other words, think about where on the green you want to be, then where the best spot on the fairway would be to make that approach, and then from the tee, how to you get to that spot.

But Pettersson was in a bind when he woke up Saturday morning. He had barely made the cut and was well back of the leaders, hardly any reason to think he may contend this week - much less, win the tournament. So Carl did something that most top players and teachers will tell you to avoid. He forced the issue. He took aggressive lines, he went for power over course management, he made sure his putts got to the hole rather than finessing them up to tap-in distance. In other words, he played the course "forward."

His decision making started from the tee box where he wanted to make sure he put scoring clubs in his hand (typically for pro players, an 8-iron through the wedges) rather than the more conventional options on each hole. So how'd that work out for him? All he did was set a course-record and become almost the 5th golfer ever on the PGA Tour to shoot below 60. His birdie putt for a 59 grazed the cup on 18!

The PGA Tour has seen a flurry of low scores this year, and I don't believe it has to do with making the courses any easier or even the talent getting much better. I think that players are changing their mindset from time to time based on their standing on the leaderboard. There are two ways to go really low. Either you can make putts from all over the green (and off the green) like Paul Goydos and Steve Stricker did in the first round of the John Deere a few weeks back, or you can give yourself a plethora of makeable putts by being aggressive off the tee. This is what Petterson did this past week.

So what's the lesson here? This week's 'A Lesson Learned' is that sometimes, you have to go for it. Sometimes, the driver is the club, no matter what the trouble is down the fairway, because if you want to move up the leaderboard, you're going to have to take some risks. The reachable par five now demands you go for it in two - and this means knocking it down there, no matter the percentage play. The 20 foot birdie putt? Better to be three feet past the hole than one inch short of it. Again, this in only when you have nothing to lose and ground to make up.

I would never tell a student to do this in round one. But if it's round three and you're already near the bottom…why not? If you are playing in a multi-round tournament, and you find yourself near the bottom of the grid after the first round or two, what better time to find out if you can catch that lightning in a bottle? Of course, taking this tact brings in all kinds of trouble, with hazards, OB, and trees that can wreck your round. That is why this is not a mindset when you are having a casual round or a single round match. But if you need to make up some ground, don't rely on making a bank of 50 foot birdie putts to get you low, go after the birdies from the tee box.

Many teachers will not agree that players should stray from the high percentage play each round. I think that circumstances sometimes demand high risk, high reward attitudes. And I bet if you ask Carl Pettersson, following his fourth PGA Tour win, he'd probably agree.

Brady Wilson is the PGA Director of Golf at The Classic Club in Palm Desert, Calif.

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