Lance Armstrong lost the Tour de France last week—and no, this blog has not suddenly become about bicycling. I bring up bike racing because it is one of the few other sports that is so concerned with terrain as golf, and though Armstrong only officially lost with the end of the race, he actually lost it two weeks ago at a place called the Col de la Ramaz, the “Gateway to the Sun,” the first Alpine stage in this year’s Tour. Steep climbs and descents, in other words, make the distinctions between riders more explicit—the peloton is bunched in the flats but becomes a long line in the mountains. In golf too, matches are often decided on holes with large changes in elevation—and most golfers, unlike most bike riders, are unaware of the point.
In bike racing, that is, the theory that elevation plays a crucial role is something of a given; there’s actually a well-known book entitled The Tour Is Won In The Alps, about the role of the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. In 2004 Armstrong won an epic time trial up the Alpe d’Huez, catching and passing one of his rivals, Ivan Basso, despite starting two minutes behind. The Alps was where he lost it this year when he could not keep pace with the leaders, losing time to Contador and others.
There isn’t a track in golf with anything like the elevation changes of the Alpe d-Huez or the Col de la Ramaz of course, because that would be crazy (imagine the golf carts!). But as a caddie I’ve noticed that it isn’t unusual for a friendly golf match to come down to who could club better on some elevated par-3 late in the round. The correct choice often leads to a tap-in par that can either seal up victory or signal a late charge from the underdog, while conversely an incorrect choice may end with a disastrous double-bogey.
Yet golfers, unlike bikers, are for the most part ignorant of the role of elevation, just as they are with most other environmental factors like wind. It’s quite usual for me in my job as a caddie to get golfers who automatically reach for the same club upon hearing the yardage—no matter that hitting that club from the same yardage, downwind, sent the ball over the green on the last hole or that the same club from the same yardage, on this upwind hole, will not even reach the green.
That probably isn’t an accident; most people are probably more familiar with sports that are more or less environmentally-independent, like basketball. Even baseball and football, outdoor sports, are still played on fields that are more or less standardized—and most people spend almost the entirety of their days indoors now, in their air conditioned cars, offices, and homes. So it isn’t any wonder that most golfers ignore wind or height: when have they ever really encountered those particulars of the earth before?
Golf architects though are well-aware of the effects of elevation. It isn’t coincidental, for instance, that both Medinah and Chicago Highlands, my courses this summer, feature a shortish downhill 3-par 17th hole deviled by wind. Both holes are designed to have a huge impact on the golfer’s round: an exhilarating birdie or par, or a despairing double-bogey or worse. Many matches I’ve caddied on have been decided at these holes: that’s what they were designed to do, to have a large impact on the outcome of a game.
So how do you decide what to do when facing one of these holes? The magazines and the instruction books always will say to take more club than you think you need, in order to prevent a mishit from becoming part of the water hazard in front of the green for instance. Or to figure a club difference for every 5 yards’ difference in elevation. Or to figure a club difference for every 8 miles-per-hour difference in wind speed. These are all, sure, good guidelines to begin thinking about what club to pull. But all are really just rules of thumb—it would be great if every golf hole told you which set of guidelines to pick when selecting a club to play, but every hole is different each time you play it. Wind and elevation are constantly interacting with each other in a chaotic stew.
All of that might lead you to think that those factors are the first things I think about when clubbing a golfer. That however isn’t true. What I first think about is what I think about first on every approach to the green: how I want the ball to land. Do I want the ball to land and stop dead—say, because there’s a hazard the ball needs to carry or be short of? Or do I want the ball to run a bit after impact—because there’s no obstacles in front of the green so I can afford to land the ball short and roll it up? Or, as at the 17th at the Highlands, do I think I can get away with running it because the green is so steeply banked that it will effectively slow any ball hit into it? In other words, first I think about the shape of the shot.
After figuring out the shape is when I start consulting numbers—but generally these aren’t the yardages to the flag. What I want to know is what the distances are to the front and back of the green, in order to determine whether the green can take the shot I want to hit to it. In short, how much room for error do I have? Only when I have those numbers can I start to think about the effect of wind and elevation: the shot-shape and the front and back yardages have effectively defined the possible solution, generally within a three-club or even two-club range. By the time I’m thinking about elevation, in other words, I’ve already eliminated much of the bag.
At the 17th at Medinah, for instance, the flag can either be at the front left or the back right, or somewhere in between. The back right location has almost no room to land the ball, so if my golfer is trying to get there—not something I’d advise normally—the flight has to be high in order to get the ball to stop. At that point I can think about the distance, which is usually around 175 yards from the middle tee box. That means that my golfer is usually trying to hit a full, high 6-iron into the green; that’s possible if the wind is behind, but not so much if the wind is against.
Wind can interact differently depending on the particular hole, too. Medinah’s 17th, like Augusta’s 12th, is protected by a hillside stocked with a strong stand of tall trees. Hence, on a front left pin where there’s more room for the ball to run, I might actually ask the golfer to hit less club than the wind might indicate, because it’s possible to hit a low-flighted ball that stays below the treeline and is thus protected from the wind. Such a ball might roll out a bit, but because there’s room to run it out it might be a better shot than a fuller shot with more club, because the full shot would rise above the treeline and be buffeted back to earth.
Most golfers get this backwards: in effect, they pick the club first and then think about what kind of shot they are going to hit with it. But this is ineffective; it’s like looking around for nails because the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, as the saying goes. As I’ve said before, yardages are, if not irrelevant in the final analysis, at least merely one factor; Sam Snead, it’s often said, could hit any club in his bag 50 to 200 yards. The point is that what club you hit into a given green is something that you should determine at the time, in the conditions you find there—if you find yourself always hitting the same club into a given green, either you’re playing too easy a set of tees or you’re kidding yourself.
What I’m suggesting is that if there’s a big elevation change on some hole on your course consider it a personal Col de la Ramaz. Instead of dreading it, though, you should welcome it, because it’s your opportunity either to deliver a knockout punch to your opponent if you’re up—or get back into the game if you’re down. It’s an opportunity to use what Bobby Jones considered the most dangerous 6 inches in golf—your mind.