A Lesson Learned: When you need a birdie, find the fairway

Rory McIlroy at FedEx St. Jude FedEx Classic
Getty Images
Rory McIlroy waits to hit his third shot after hitting his tee shot into the water on the final hole of the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Gary Koenes, PGA

Problem Area: Off The Tee
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012 | 7:37 p.m.

What a great finish to a great tournament in Memphis! Congratulations to Dustin Johnson, what a way to comeback from his injury. His ball-striking and touch around the greens showed that he is not only fully recovered, but has to be among the favorites for next week's U.S. Open.

But the outcome wasn't decided until the very end - when three of the final four players who had a chance to catch Dustin, all needing a birdie on the final hole, hit their respective tee shots into the water. One of the most exciting things in golf is the birdie putt on the final hole to get into a playoff. And one of the most disappointing things in golf is watching your chance to tie or win, disappear off the tee into a watery grave.

The thing about birdies is, on par 4s and par 5s, they are typically the result of approach shots. Not necessarily because they are hit close, but because they give you a chance to putt for birdie. In other words, you have to give yourself a chance make birdie and you can't do that from the water or deep in the woods.

So rule No. 1 when you have to make a birdie is - Find the Fairway. Does that mean you automatically go for the 3 wood instead of your driver? No, absolutely not. But it means, what do you feel most comfortable with at that moment? You've played most of your round at this point, have you been finding fairways with your driver? If so, sure, go ahead and hit it. But if not, why are you automatically reaching for it on this critical hole? Even the world's best players know they don't hit it the same from day to day. If you are having a day where your driver is not finding the short grass, perhaps it's not a great play when you really need it to go straight.

I've seen too many golfers think that a birdie means they have to have a short iron in their hand and thus, they swing their driver as hard as they can - and end up with their worst tee shot of the day. I promise you, a 7 iron or 5 iron or even something longer from the fairway is easier to hit on the green than a pitching wedge with your ball deep in the woods or even worse, unplayable.

And rule No. 2 is, do NOT vary from your routine. Trust your swing and go through your preshot steps, don't dwell on the enormity of the moment.

I've been watching some basketball this week and the NBA conference finals. Have you ever thought about the similarities between a free throw and a golf swing? There's no defense being played, if you execute correctly, the ball has no problem finding the target. But successful basketball shooters don't think about mechanics (what angle is my elbow holding, how quickly am I raising the ball, etc...) and they certainly don't (at least, do not want to) get caught up in the pressure of the situation. They focus on their routine when at the line. Many take a few dribbles, spin the ball, exhale, and then shoot. Just like that.

Your tee shot, especially under pressure, should go through the same process.

Gary Koenes is the Director of Golf at Springbrook Golf Course in Springfield, Michigan and current President of the Michigan PGA.

Try this ...



Q : How many Irishmen does it take to screw up a round of golf.

A : One. Rory McIlroy.