Good golf starts with frequent visits to the fairway

Golfers talk all the time about seeing the ball going in the hole, and that makes sense. It’s all about getting the ball in the jar.

But it sure helps when you can visualize the ball going in the fairway.

That was my No. 1 takeaway from watching The Open this weekend. Miss a fairway at Royal St. George’s, and you’re probably going to make at least a bogey from the tall stuff that surrounds every hole.

Sure, you’ve got to be able to chip and putt on those greens. But if you don’t keep your tee ball in play, you’ll be chipping and putting to avoid a disaster.

I walked that course for three days in 1985 and was amazed by how intimidating it is despite the almost complete lack of trees (there’s only one).

I normally hit about half of the 14 fairways in a typical round. At that place, I probably would be able to count my fairways on one hand and have at least finger left over.

And that brings to mind what I see so often in young players when I’m paired with them: They don’t want anything to do with playing conservatively. They want to see how far they can hit it.

It’s like what has happened in basketball. Thanks to Steph Curry and other 3-point specialists, youngsters want to bomb away and see what kind of range they have. Jump shots from inside 15 feet are boring to them. Layups are downright silly to practice.

I was just like that on the golf course back in the day. I loved it when I hit one on the screws – for those of you under the age of 40, the woods had screws back then. I wanted to impress people with my length. How foolish. If only I had cared about impressing them with my ability to make pars and birdies.

My mindset has changed dramatically in recent years. My main concern is keeping the ball in the ballpark. I’ll hit anything – even a mid-iron – if that’s what I need to do to have a look at the green. I hit driver about half the time unless the course is wide open.

But even that approach is no guarantee that I’ll be successful. There’s nothing worse than trying to lay up and hitting it into trouble.

Just as I typed this, I watched Marcel Siem hit iron off the tee at the par-5 14th at Royal St. George’s (maybe the scariest hole I’ve ever seen) and slice it out of bounds. I know the feeling. Boy, do I know the feeling.

There is one good thing about all the trouble I’ve put myself in off the tee: I’m extremely comfortable hitting shots out of trees, dirt, junk and whatever else I can find out there.

As bad as it feels to hit a bad tee shot and have to scramble, it feels like such a victory when you follow a mistake with a stroke of brilliance.

It’s yet another example of the way our great game keeps us coming back. Sure, we feel great when we make a long putt for birdie or par on No. 18. But don’t lose sight of what it takes to have that opportunity.

Your chances of doing something great start with keeping the ball in play. First things first.

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