Tuesday Tips: Disc Golf Course Management [Pt. 1 – No Hard Shots]

Playing great disc golf isn't just about being a skillful thrower.

Nate Sexton at the 2021 Pro Worlds. Photo: PDGA

When I was first playing in golf tournaments, my dad would often tell me before I teed off, “No hard shots.”

What he meant was that I should play to my strengths and hit the shots I knew I could make. I had practiced and developed a game plan, so the goal was to make good choices and “play within my game.” I was never a great natural athlete, so scoring was going to have to come from good course management.

I think course management is the most fun part of the game, but it sometimes seems to be a controversial subject among golfers. Nate Sexton, one of the best and smartest golfers in the world, gets called “Nate Safeton” because some see his game as overly cautious. There is a lot of love for the swashbuckling golfer who risks it all. In the golf film Tin Cup, Roy MacAvoy is seen as a hero for hitting five straight balls into the water to blow up in the US Open and “laying up” is the mark of a shallow pro trying to cash a check rather than chase greatness.

There are great players who don’t think much about course management. Some are just naturally gifted and rip every shot at the basket, make some great shots, make some bad ones, but have so many birdies that they can claw back from mistakes to still shoot great. Their games are intuitive and free – look at target, throw at target. They paint huge curving lines in the sky. Some of these players see “course management” as a straitjacket around their natural games. Some see it as overthinking or even playing scared.

Other players play for the thrill of individual shots – the smashed drive down the middle, the huge putt, the incredible roller that travels 440 feet down a road before hopping the curb back in-bounds at the last second. The fact that four other “smashed” drives flipped OB, the huge putt was for a 6 after a “guys, watch this” thumber went over a hedge, and they three-putted for a 5 after that roller doesn’t really matter. Score is incidental to the fun of taking crazy risks for the possibility they might pay off, par be damned. Every water carry and dogleg around a parking lot is a chance to be a hero.

All of these are, of course, legitimate ways to play and you should play in whatever way brings you the most joy. But if you want to shoot better scores, then course management is the key. It is how to move from playing disc to playing golf. Particularly for new players or golfers who can’t overpower a course, paying attention to course management can lead to better scores and deepen your enjoyment of the game.

The Basics of Course Management

Course management is not playing scared. Throwing risky shots is fine – if the chance of success is there and the reward is worth it. Course management means throwing the shots you throw the best and working the disc around the course in a way that maximizes your strengths. It is thinking ahead so you get to throw the discs and angles you throw best as often as you can. It is being able to weigh shots so that the risk of every shot is balanced by a tangible reward for your skill level. It is knowing when to press and when to back off. It’s accepting that sometimes taking a bogey is smarter than taking a triple trying to throw a hard shot you haven’t practiced.

Key to this process is self-scouting and knowing your game. Set your “number” for a round that will be your metric – I usually go about 80%. In most cases, if I can’t make a shot 80% of the time, then I am going to go with a different shot. I want to know I have the shot in my arsenal, I have practiced it, and I can throw the line and distance required. For example, if I am 260 feet out and need a low forehand into a gap in a tree line, I can make that shot 80% of the time. There is no guarantee that it won’t get a weird skip or kick, but I know I can throw that basic shot shape and distance. It’s a green light.

There are many times I have been on a tee and watched a cardmate throw a perfect thumber over the narrow gap I am going to try to hit. I am always tempted to do the same, but I know I don’t have that shot. Other times I have been told, “the shot is a big backhand roller.” Not for me — my roller is awful. It’s not that I can’t throw them at all; I work on them in the field and I can sometimes throw them well, but I know I can’t depend on them under pressure. My score is better throwing the shots I throw best as often as I can, even if they aren’t always the perfect tool for the job.

It’s not easy to make yourself play this way. Course management takes willpower and brutal honesty about your game. Deciding to play hard shots as seldom as possible is particularly difficult when you are new to the game and every shot is hard. A later article in this series will address the challenges of course management for newer players.

Choosing the Best Shot

There is a series of questions you should ask yourself when facing a shot. The first and most crucial is: “Do I have a dependable shot to put this disc within my effective putting range?” If so, then you are done – that’s your shot. This may be the most common process on most holes – the hole requires a shot you can throw, and you throw it.

The process changes when the answer is no. Then, the next question is: “Is there a dependable shot that will allow me to get to a position to throw the following shot within my effective putting range?” For example, on a 600-foot par 4, the answer for most players is just simple placement golf, throwing a shot to the middle of the fairway that sets up an easy approach. Again, this is straightforward, and this looks less like “course management” than just playing golf.

The real value of course management comes when the answer isn’t clear. Sometimes you could get within your putting range, but the shot is not dependable. When comparing two shots, weigh both the challenge and the cost of failure. If your best throw with your Destroyer is 320 feet and you are standing 340 feet from the basket, then it might be the right disc. But you need to know your miss. If your miss with that overstable disc is short and left, and the basket is in the middle of an open field, then the light is still green. Go ahead and run it, you might throw it great and get there. But, if there is a parking lot to the left and water short, then that light is bright yellow. At best. You never want to need a perfect shot to avoid disaster.

The price of failure is always a part of your calculation, but also consider the payoff of success. If you are likely still going to need two shots to get in the basket from both positions, then minimize the risk. Be skeptical when the very risky shot still doesn’t get you a makeable putt. Don’t throw through a tiny window over OB if it only gets you an 85-foot putt you probably won’t make. That is risk with little promise of reward. Risk is worth it when it definitively changes the chances of a better score. A tight line that offers the chance of parking a hole for a drop-in birdie? Sounds great. Running the same tight line for a somewhat closer upshot? No thanks.

You need to always be wary of “empty distance.” The temptation is to always advance the disc as far as possible, even if the payoff is small. This is a quick way to high scores. You need to be honest about whether that risky shot will still leave you needing to throw two shots to get the disc in the basket. If so, then there is usually very little justification for taking the risk. If a risky shot leaves you 130 out, while the safe pitchout leaves you 180 out, those fifty feet may not make a difference; you will need an upshot and putt from either spot. Unless taking the riskier line sets up a much easier shot (it gets you around a tight corner, for example) then it is a shot that offers high risk and low reward. That’s a sucker play. Don’t fall for it.

Course Management is For Everyone

Course management is not just for amateur players who don’t have every shot. Most pros are using course management to play their best. While Nate Sexton is widely praised (and sometimes wrongly criticized) for playing smart, other top players are doing it as well. And some aren’t. One of the most fascinating disc golf videos on YouTube is one in which Paul McBeth and Simon Lizotte play a round picking shots for each other. McBeth and Lizotte think about the same holes completely differently, and Simon seems legitimately shocked at the easy shots that McBeth wants him to throw (and Paul seems stunned when Simon suggests shots that demand top power and touch when a boring shot could work.)

On the first hole, a 305-foot par 3, Simon suggests Paul hammer his most overstable driver on a sky roller anny line over thick woods. He does, and goes 100 feet long. McBeth, on the same hole, has Lizotte throw a “soft little hyzer” with a mid that lands next to the basket.

At which point, Lizotte says “Oh, no, I parked it. I am questioning my existence right now.”

McBeth, like Sexton, is always managing his game and playing to his strengths. It’s just that his safe choices still look risky to most of us. And, yes, Paul made that “straightforward 100-footer.”

When to Go For It

There are times when the risky shot is absolutely the right call — when caution needs to be thrown to the wind and you bet it all on one throw. In a format like match play, there is much more reward (and much less risk) in playing aggressive. You can change your calculation when you are chasing a win in a tournament and need to make something happen. If you are feeling confident, have shots to spare, or have a chance to close out a match, you can try to drop the hammer with a risky shot.

But “going for it” does not mean abandoning course management. It just means you favor upside and accept more risk. It still means not throwing shots with high risk and low reward; it is just being willing to throw 50-50 rather than 80-20 shots. Some of this is feel and some of this is calculation – if you have a chance to grab a win, it might be worth rolling the dice.

Boring Golf Can Be Good Golf

If you use good course management, you may find that your best rounds are kind of boring. They aren’t necessarily the rounds where you got lucky breaks, threw risky shots over OB, or smashed putts from 80 feet. They are rounds where you just, you know, hit fairways, threw good approaches, and made all the putts inside the circle. The most dramatic holes might be where you laid up to 40 feet from a tough spot and made the putt. You did everything you should do and walked off with a great score in which there just aren’t that many shots to talk about in the parking lot after the round. That’s not boring — that’s sublime.

The next several articles will discuss aspects of course management such as not being bullied by the course, finding the right miss, the psychological challenges of playing smart, and how course management can be particularly helpful for new players.

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart.

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