How to Play on a New Golf Course for the First Time

VD July 07 2021

When you play at your home course, there is comfort. You know all the tips and tricks, and almost always play a few strokes better than you hit the ball that day. When you play on a new golf course for the first time, things can go really bad, very quick. The more often you play road games, the easier it becomes. Experienced golfers have built a bit of a guidebook for playing a new course the first. Today, we’re going to share ours with you.

Before you arrive

One of the best parts of the internet and golf today is the number of reviews left for every course in America. Most people take to the internet to complain about slow play and things of that nature, but there is good feedback sandwiched in there. Read for good information such as hidden bunkers, where to aim on tee shots, and when to layup vs not layup. These reviews can give information like how hilly a course is which might sway you to take a cart or not.

While you’re online, head on over to the course’s website. Nearly all courses will have a map of their holes and yardages. The better websites will have in-depth guides on each hole with specific measurements. Take a few notes on tricky holes and you’ll have an idea of what you want to do once you step onto the tee. If you happen to be heading to a course with drone flyovers, compare the short videos to the course map and you’ll have a great 2D view of what lies ahead.

Before the round, at the course

First stop you need to make at any new course is the pro shop. Yes, you usually need to pay the greens fees before using any of the facilities, but there can be hidden gems in there. At courses everywhere, old-timers and regulars hang out by the register. If you say it’s your first time at the course, they’ll almost always offer an unsolicited tip. As long is it's related to the course, and not your swing, it's usually pretty good intel.

Before leaving the pro shop, grab a scorecard. You’ll need this once you start playing (one will be on the cart too), but read it beforehand. Scorecards hold local rules, hazard information, and the occasional helpful bit of knowledge. It only takes a minute to read, but can save a stroke or two.

Unless you hit balls on the range, the last stop you should make at a new course is the putting green. If you skip the putting green, you lose strokes on the course. By spending even just 10 minutes on the putting green, you will adjust to the speed of the course.

On course tips

Pro golfers use caddies. Typical weekend golfers do not. Yet, this does not mean you cannot find a resource like a local caddie. If you are playing as a solo or anything less than a foursome, always say yes to being paired up by the starter. It might be awkward, but the chances of it being your new friend’s first time at the course are low. Make conversation, take in their knowledge, and be ready to put into play the insight they offer.

If you want to maximize your experience at a new course, you need to be engaged at all times. If you’re driving down a fairway and there’s a hole you haven’t played yet next to it, take a look at the green and pin placement. You might not know the hole number, but you’ll recognize it when you see it again and be aware of any greenside bunkers and false fronts. This advice can even work at courses your familiar with. Pay attention to your surroundings as you pass holes and there will be less guesswork later on.

The scariest tee shots at a new course are the ones that are blind and partially blind. Even when you execute the shot you want, there is a chance you land in trouble. Rather than take that risk, hit the ball where you can see it. If that means a 180 shot in instead of a 150, you kept yourself in play and (theoretically) eliminated the possibility for 7 and 8.

As a general rule, playing from the fairway gives you straight shots into greens with minimal obstacles in the way. This goes off the previous paragraph about hitting it where you can see. If you’re able to keep it in the fairway by clubbing down to a wood or hybrid, you lower the number of shots that flirt with trees and require long carries over the rough.

When deciding between two clubs on approach shot, the safe choice is the shorter club. There is a chance you come up a couple yards short of the pin, but the risk is not always worth the reward. If a green is protected by traps, you know it. If there is a steep drop off or only a yard or two of room, you don’t always know. Even worse, sometimes this distance is hard to judge. Making a mistake by going 5 yards long can be much worse than 5 yards short. When in doubt, take the shorter club.

If play is slow, and it always seems to be, keep tabs on the group in front of you. Watch where they play their second shots from to help you determine strategy off the tee. Once off the tee, see if they all consistently end up in the same spot around the greens. There might be a reason everyone misses the green left, and it’s not always because of skill.

Lastly, use your rangefinder as much as possible. Many of the uncertainties we talk about are solved by a rangefinder. On doglegs you can tell your distance for clearing the opening and maximum miss. You can shoot trees behind greens to get an idea of room beyond the putting surface. If you have slope, you’ll even have an idea of how strongly hills play. The more information the better, and rangefinders offer this quickly and easily.