The Smart Way to Play Smart

By Shannon Gazze, Contributor

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as is the path to a lousy golf score, it seems.

Technique is important, but you also need the mental game.
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If you're a weekend golf warrior like me, you've probably fallen into this pitfall a time or two:

You're on the 12th tee and you've just about lost all faith in your driver after smacking the last two out of bounds. You'd like to hit your three wood but there's a fairway bunker out there just calling your name.

Once you've selected the smart play, forget about playing smart.

You remind yourself that bogey golf is the name of the game, so you decide to "play it smart" and hit an iron off the tee.

If this is sounding familiar at all, you know what comes next. You step over the ball with proud confidence for having chosen the safe club, then proceed to power fade your three iron right out over the white stakes and into oncoming traffic.

While you're hustling off the tee box trying to look innocent, inside you are kicking yourself. That was supposed to be the right play. You were practicing discipline. You should have been rewarded, not penalized.

"Forget it," you say to yourself. "If that's playing smart, I might as well hit the driver."

Trust me, I feel your pain. I've fallen prey to exactly this pattern of play for years. It really hit me last week when I actually hit a successfully smart shot. I had an approach shot of 156 yards - usually a true seven iron for me - into a green that sloped pretty strongly back to front.

I looked up at the trees blowing in the wind and thought about all the greens I had missed that day, and pulled out a six. I choked up a bit and hit a perfect arching and biting ball that took one hop and stopped about seven feet from the pin.

My partner had seen me club down and exclaimed, "That was a rare meeting of thoughtfulness and execution!"

I agreed, and it got me thinking about all the times I had utilized one without the other and why. I came up with lots of ideas, so let me give you some advice that might save you some frustration and hopefully a whole lot of golf balls.

Don't give up on strategy. Chances are you did make the right call. But just like any other golf shot, you've got to practice the "smart" shot and execute it with form and confidence.

The number one mistake golfers make when they adjust their shot to avoid trouble or set up the next one is that they "let up." I know this because I do it myself.

You know you want to maintain control and not swing too hard. Plus you've usually got a different club in your hand than you're used to swinging at this distance, so you figure you've got to compensate in order to make the club you hit more like the club you'd usually hit.

The result, almost invariably, is that you baby the club, thinking more about why you're playing smart than about making good, solid ball contact. You end up "letting up" on your concentration and execution and fail to swing through the ball.

That's how your club face winds up open at the point of contact, causing that wicked slice with the three iron. Or worse, you aren't able to come through on the same plane as your backswing because you slowed down your takeaway or let up on the shot.

That's how you end up taking more ground or air than ball. A hundred-yard roller, though safer than a full fairway wood, is rarely the shot you're looking for.

Once you've selected the smart play, forget about playing smart and think about the shot ahead of you. It's OK to hit a lighter shot because you've got a little extra club, but do so by choking down or by taking a three quarter swing, not by changing your tempo or your swing mechanics.

And whatever you do, don't "let up" mentally. If you're playing smart, chances are there is trouble on the hole and you need to be at your highest level of concentration. If it's late in the round, automatically figure that your concentration isn't what it should be and check everything twice.

Do you have the right yardage? Is your grip secure but relaxed? Are your feet lined up to the target? Is the ball positioned correctly? Is the club face opened or closed? Are you bent over at the hips enough? Is there an uphill, downhill or sidehill lie?

Any or all of these factors can turn a well-intentioned shot into a bad one. Once addressed, though, forget about them and go ahead and hit the shot just as you would any other.

Here are some other things to consider when playing a "smart" shot:

• Don't hit a club you haven't hit all day. If you like to hit fairway woods, than don't pull out a three or four iron off the tee and expect it to go straight.

• If you regularly hook or slice the ball, factor that into your safe shot. Don't expect to straighten out your slice just because you've got a different club in your hands. However, you should try to avoid aiming directly at trouble. There's always a chance lightning will strike and you will hit it straight. If you alternately hook and slice the ball, this can be more disastrous than either one alone when playing safe shots. If at all possible, practice taking a strong or hooded grip and aiming your hook up the safest side of the fairway or away from trouble. It's easier to control a hook than a slice.

• If you hit an iron off the tee, tee it down. This goes along with not hitting shots you haven't hit all day. Consider teeing the ball a ways to give yourself a perfect fairway lie and hit it just like you would in the fairway.

• Consider the next shot you will need to hit. If taking less club now will give you a very long shot into the green, then re-consider whether it's the club or your swing that you don't have confidence in.

• If you lack confidence in your pitching game, go with more club and plan on a lower trajectory. It can be hard to lift a wedge softly up onto the green, especially in less-than-perfect conditions. A two-hop nine iron might accomplish the same feat.

• Last but not least, practice. When you hit the range, you should include a series of three-quarter and half swings in your regimen, as well as a few controlled hooks or fades.

Remember, some of the worst scores in golf occur on the first hole and at the end of a round after the course has beaten you down. Playing smart is a great way to avoid those snowmen on the scorecard (after all, isn't avoiding snowmen what most of us came to Arizona for in the first place?). Just remember to be smart, or rather aware, when you play smart.

And just in case you think I don't practice what I preach, tomorrow morning I'll be playing my third round of golf with the same ball.

Shannon Gazze, Contributor

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