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The myth of playing to your handicap, and why it’s ruining your expectations

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When was the last time you came in from a round of golf, shooting four or five strokes higher than expected, and said, “Huh, that’s fine. Maybe I’ll do better next time.” For most of you reading this article, this rarely (if ever) happens. Why? Because you love golf, you’re competitive, and you expect to shoot a certain score every time out.

For many golfers, that score is defined by their handicap. As a fellow golfer, I can sympathize with lofty expectations, but where we need to look is the basis of your expectations and why typical thinking could lead to regular disappointment in your scoring.

You Are Not Your Handicap

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard players say, “I didn’t play to my handicap,” therefore insinuating they had a bad round. What does “playing to your handicap” actually mean, though? Well, if your course handicap is 10, then it means shooting 10 strokes over the course rating.

Take a course that’s a par-70 and has a course rating of 71.0. Playing to your handicap means shooting 81. Pretty simple. Now, keep in mind that the USGA handicap system uses the 10 best scores out of your last 20 to determine your current handicap. Therefore, the scores used to make up your handicap are a picture of your best golf. It does not take into account the times you had one of those days.

Imagine being a salesman and being evaluated on your best six months in the last year. That might be nice, right? But is it a picture of who you truly are as a salesman?

You Are Your Average

With an in-depth look at your score history, you can gain a clearer picture of where your game truly stands. In the real-life example below, I plotted a 10-handicapper’s scores on a course with a rating of 71.0. He had a range of scores from 76 to 90 and an average of 83.85.

This player’s score history is very typical of the majority of regular golfers out there. Most will have a spread of 12-15 strokes (better players usually have an even wider spread) and have roughly two thirds of their scores within 3-5 shots of the average.

Table 1

Notice that this player has only played to his handicap five times! He has, however, scored average or better nine times out of the last 20 rounds and a fraction above average (84) three additional times. If his expectation is to play to his handicap or better every time out, he’s going to leave the golf course disappointed 75 percent of the time. With a better understanding of his average score, he’s more likely to accept an 83 or an 85 as it’s a more realistic expectancy of his game at this point in time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that players shouldn’t intend to play well. Having a clear intention of playing great golf is a fantastic way to begin any round. However, expecting to play our best and not accepting anything less can create a constant sense of frustration and actually keep players from playing to their potential more often.

Dr. Rick Jensen, a sports psychologist who has coached multiple men’s and women’s tour professionals to major championship victories, categorizes this as a “focus of energy problem,” which is often highlighted by unrealistic expectations that lead to anxiety and frustration.

“You can only play better than average half the time,” Dr. Jensen points out, which highlights an important fact. Your average score is the truest picture of your game. Don’t be the player who hides from the facts. Instead, put together a plan to improve.

Be Realistic and Look for Opportunities

An honest look at your scores can lead to an evaluation of why you’re shooting the numbers you are and where you have opportunities to shave off some strokes. Start viewing your average as the number you want to lower instead of your course handicap or handicap index. I recommend using a stat -tracking program, such as ShotbyShot.com, which will prioritize the area(s) where you need to focus in order to improve your average score.

If you choose to track your stats on your own, be sure to consider the following:

  1. All missed fairways are not the same, as just tracking fairways hit or missed can be misleading. Are you driving it 3 yards into the rough or behind trees and into hazards? If you’re driving it in play, just not always in the fairway, then your driver may not be the problem.
  2. Hitting greens in regulation is critical to scoring, but not the whole picture. Driving the ball in play should give you opportunities to get the ball on the green, but how close are you hitting it to the hole when you have the chance? If your approach shots are too far from the hole, it will lead to more three putts and higher scores.
  3. We know that having a good short game is a quick recipe to shooting lower scores, but merely tracking up and downs may not provide enough information. Be sure to keep track of how far you’re chipping and pitching the ball from the hole. Leaving yourself 12 feet every time for par or bogey will not lead to consistent saves. If you’re chipping it to 5 feet and missing the putts, however, then your short putting needs to take priority.

Most of us can agree that players with negative outlooks on their golf game rarely play to their potential. Only evaluating yourself based on your best scores leads to a constant grind to play your very best, which we know is not going to happen every time we tee it up. Make sure to appreciate your best golf, and have a clear intention to play great whenever you play.

Be realistic with where you are as a player, however, and use the numbers as a way to evaluate your improvement over time. Work on the areas of your game that will positively influence your scoring, and enjoy the process. You’re more likely to walk off the course happy… and maybe even with a couple of your friend’s dollars in your pocket.

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Dean Kandle is a PGA Head Golf Professional and fortunate to have the opportunity to help the members of St. Davids Golf Club in Wayne, Pennsylvania, improve and enjoy the game of golf. He has been teaching the game to players for more than 15 years and also founded the website, mygolf180.com. My Golf 180 is dedicated to sharing ideas and methods to help players experience lasting growth and improvement in their games. During his career, Dean has been the Head Professional at multiple “Top 100” clubs, been mentored by top coaches and instructors, and has been successful in building innovative and effective player development programs for players of all abilities at each step of the way. Find more info at mygolf180.com or connect with Dean, [email protected] or @deankandle.

28 Comments

28 Comments

  1. Steven

    Oct 20, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Great article. This also illustrates many sports psychologists points that focusing on score isn’t what leads to success. Goals should focus more on the process. Count how many times in a round you made the smooth swing you worked on or something like that. Focusing on the process of getting better is what actually leads to success (decreased handicap).

    • Dean

      Oct 27, 2016 at 7:18 pm

      Agreed! Process will produce results more often than focusing on score. Focused practice that addresses your needs will help scores come down quicker.

  2. mat

    Oct 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

    maybe trying to have other expectations than lowering your handicap will make you a ( better, happier) golfer?

    • Dean

      Oct 20, 2016 at 7:21 am

      Well, happier would depend on the person but lowering your handicap would mean lower scores and therefore becoming a “better” golfer!

      • Double Mocha Man

        Oct 21, 2016 at 11:41 am

        I think it’s time for Smizzle to post his own picture.

  3. BD57

    Oct 18, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Truth be told, you “play to your handicap” in the neighborhood of 25% of the time.

    A handicap is based upon best 10 of 20 scores, and ‘averaging’ is involved, which (in very rough terms) means 1/2 of those 10 scores will be ‘better’ than average and 1/2 will be worse.

    So if you start “playing to your current handicap” – at least, as most people mean it when they say it – your handicap is going to be GOING DOWN.

    And you won’t be playing to it any more. 🙂

  4. Ron

    Oct 18, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    Don’t forget about equitable scoring. My handicap would be a lot closer to my average if I was allowed to post the occasional snowman or worse that I take. Since I’m limited to no more than a 7 on any hole, my handicap is artificially low.

    • Dean

      Oct 20, 2016 at 7:23 am

      Great point Ron and even more evidence of why your handicap is not the best reflection of your game. Track your scores without adjusting for equitable stroke control and that’s going to be the most accurate picture of your game.

    • KK

      Oct 20, 2016 at 7:54 pm

      You limit yourself to no more than a 7 on any hole. That’s called cheating. Not everyone cheats.

  5. Pingback: The myth of playing to your handicap, and why it’s ruining your expectations | Swing Update

  6. Sean

    Oct 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Well said Dean. You raise a good point, one I never was really cognizant of.

  7. Nick

    Oct 17, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    I wish the handicap system would be more around an average or like you middle 50% of scores, I feel like it may help lower handicap players compete against higher handicap players.

  8. Tom D

    Oct 17, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I never thought of my handicap index as an average. I do know that the only way to lower my index is to score lower. That’s why I use my index as the target score for each round. If I shoot under, my index will eventually go down. If I shoot over, my index will eventually go up. I want a little challenge when I start a round, to push me to play better and/or practice better. I couldn’t really tell if the point of the article was “Don’t feel bad if you shoot over your handicap” or “Don’t try to shoot your handicap, it’s too hard and you need less challenge in your golf game.”

    Since I don’t make living from playing golf, there really isn’t any pressure on me to play better or score lower. Using my handicap index as my target score gives me at least a little pressure in an otherwise meaningless round.

  9. Dave r

    Oct 17, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Good article and right on , But this still does not take care of the baggers but then that’s another topic ,and how do you control it?

    • Egor

      Oct 17, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Sandbagging a handicap should be hard to do (it’s not, but it should be) and the handicap system makes provision for that.

      1st, The 10 highest of the last 20 scores are thrown out.
      2nd, scores are supposed to be attested whenever possible. USGA requires 3 scores per year to be attested or the player should have NH next to their index.
      3rd, T scores according to 10-3 can reduce the handicap accordingly
      4th, the handicap committee has the *responsibility* of adjusting a player’s handicap if it is determined their handicap is not reflective of their playing ability.

      If your handicap chairman is not doing his job or the handicap committee of the club isn’t, they should be corrected or the USGA made aware so that corrections can be made. A handicap is only as accurate as the player posting scores and then the committee reviewing the scores and playing along with the player in question.

      It’s not perfect, but if the handicap committee follows the rules the USGA has worked out, it should be more difficult for someone to sandbag. It’s not impossible and if someone wants to cheat, they will.

  10. Double Mocha Man

    Oct 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Somewhat on topic… related. For all of you out there who think you hit the ball longer than you actually do (most of us) jump on your computer and make a chart showing how far you hit each club. Print it out. Carry it in your bag.

    Now, through the magic of word processing on your computer, go back and TAKE 5 YARDS OFF every club distance. Print it out, carry it in your bag. Use that one on the course. Use the other one to blow your nose. Watch your scores improve.

  11. Paul Dunn

    Oct 17, 2016 at 11:41 am

    I’ve always worked on the basis that you should only really play to your handicap or better every one in five rounds. Doing so more than that will most likely result in a handicap cut, and rightly so.

  12. Chris

    Oct 17, 2016 at 11:01 am

    This article is spot on. Just this morning on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive, they were perpetuating the myth that your handicap is your average in their bell curve segment. Ironically, the intent was to illustrate that your scores have scatter.

  13. AJS

    Oct 17, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Good article. If scores are normally distributed, the difference between the average of your last 20 stroke differentials versus the average of your 10 best is the standard deviation of your scores, probably about 3 strokes. And don’t forget about the impact of slope when going from handicap to “expected” score. Even for a scratch/plus player this could add 1 stroke.

    • Dean

      Oct 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

      Yes, for the players I’ve tracked, I’ve found a typical standard deviation of 3-4 strokes,

  14. Egor

    Oct 17, 2016 at 10:37 am

    I use two things to analyze my game – TheGrint.com for free handicap and ArccosGolf.com for tracking what I’m actually doing on the course. After 60+ rounds in Arccos, I know where some of my weakness is – driving in the fairway – so I’ve devoted some time to fix what I’m doing wrong with my driver. I’m getting better at putting it 250-270 in the fairway with my driver.

    TheGrint gives me a free real handicap that I can use for tournament play (I don’t.. ever ..) but it also let’s me know that I float between 11.5 – 13.5 depending on my rounds.

  15. Mr. Wedge

    Oct 17, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Article is spot on. Most people simply do not understand the USGA handicapping system and inadvertently equate it to their “average”. I try to educate and simplify by telling people it’s what you would expect to shoot if you are having a really good round.

  16. Eric C O'Brien

    Oct 17, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Expectations ! Why is that so often one scores best on the day that one’s expectations are low ?

  17. Double Mocha Man

    Oct 17, 2016 at 10:19 am

    I don’t let my score, up or down, frustrate me. I’m looking for a certain quality of shots that I expect to execute based on past performance. And I’m looking for consistency. I can have a higher score and leave the course elated. Or I can have a lower score and exit the course puzzled.

  18. Paul

    Oct 17, 2016 at 10:11 am

    I also think people tend to over estimate their handicap which tends to let them down. Ive heard a lot of guys say, “Oh I’m a 10.” And they’ve never shot below an 90 in their life. If people were honest about their handicap they would enjoy them game more. I worked hard for my 22 handicap!!!! LOL

    • Tom.

      Oct 17, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      honesty in this sport is rare. But I do agree.

  19. Philip

    Oct 17, 2016 at 9:42 am

    I think of my handicap as a target to beat – nothing more. I usually play to my average which tends to float close to my handicap.

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19th Hole

Vincenzi: 2024 Genesis Invitational First Round Leader picks

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The Genesis Invitational begins on Thursday, and while all eyes will be on the return of Tiger Woods, there are plenty of intriguing storylines this week. The event marks the first limited field “signature” event, that will also feature a cut. Of the 70 players, the top 50 players as well as any player within ten shots of the lead will make it to the weekend.

In the past five editions of the tournament, there have been six first-round leaders or co-leaders. Of the six, all six have come from the morning wave. There were co-leaders from the PM in 2018, but there does seem to be a real advantage for AM starters at Riviera.

As of Tuesday, the wind doesn’t look as if it will play a factor during round one. It will be about 58 degrees and sunny for most of the day.

Wind such a small field this year, most of the golfers will be going out at roughly the same time, so I wouldn’t be too concerned with looking for a tee time advantage.

This week, I used the Betsperts Rabbit Hole to see each players floor/ceiling.  You can sign up using promo code: MATTVIN for 25% off any subscription package (yearly is best value).

Genesis Invitational First-Round-Leader Selections

Cameron Young +4000 (BetRivers)

First-Round Tee Time: 8:44 a.m. Local Time

Cameron Young was one of the players I considered adding to my outright betting card but ran out of room. Last year, Young finished in a tie for 20th at the event. Two years ago, he got off to a blazing start, shooting 66 in round one and eventually finishing in a tie for 2nd place.

At TPC Scottsdale last week, Young gained 4.0 strokes off the tee, demonstrating once again that he’s an elite driver of the golf ball. That should serve him well this week at Riviera.

Hideki Matsuyama +6000 (BetRivers)

First-Round Tee Time: 10:42 a.m. Local Time

Matsuyama is one of the players who has an incredibly high ceiling when things are going well. He finished 13th at Torrey Pines this year and 22nd last week in Phoenix, so he’s shown some signs of playing well early in 2024.

‘Deki finished 9th and 5th in two consecutive starts in 2019 and 2020 and is clearly a fit for the golf course when he is healthy. He also loves soft conditions as he showed in his 2021 Masters victory.

Emiliano Grillo +6600 (BetMGM)

First-Round Tee Time: 7:56 a.m. Local Time

Emiliano Grillo has finished in the top-22 in all three of his 2024 starts on the west coast. Last week at TPC Scottsdale, the Argentine gained 6.0 strokes on approach, which was his most since the Mexico Open in April.

Grillo is an excellent long iron player who should be able to take advantage of the par-5’s and drivable par 4 at Riviera Country Club.

Tom Hoge +8000 (BetRivers)

First-Round Tee Time: 8:08 a.m. Local Time

In his past two starts, Tom Hoge has finished 6th at Pebble Beach and 17th at TPC Scottsdale. He gained 3.7 strokes on approach in both of those starts and is one of the more consistent iron players on the PGA Tour.

Hoge hasn’t been great at Riviera in the past, but last season he finished 14th, which shows he could have figured something out. The 34-year-old shot a 67 in round one. Another strong start this year will put him in the conversation for the first round lead with the way he’s currently hitting it.

Taylor Moore +9000 (BetRivers)

First-Round Tee Time: 11:18 a.m. Local Time

Taylor Moore struggled early in the year but may have found some form last week at TPC Scottsdale. The Arkansas product gained 3.8 strokes on approach and 4.0 strokes around the green. He was horiffic on the greens, which caused him to fall to 38th on the leaderboard, but the way he hit the ball was encouraging.

Moore finished 21st at Riviera in 2022, shooting in the 60’s for the first three rounds.

Adam Svensson +10000 (BetMGM)

First-Round Tee Time: 8:32 a.m. Local Time

Adam Svensson finished 9th at this event last year, and though it’s been a slow start to his 2024 campaign, a return to Riviera may be what Svensson needs to get things on the right track. Svensson has some of the longest odds on the entire board this week which is enough for me to take a shot given his 2023 performance at the course.

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19th Hole

Vincenzi’s 2024 Genesis Invitational betting preview: Stage set for elite ball strikers to shine at Riviera

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The PGA TOUR’s West Coast swing makes its final stop to play a $20 million signature event at historic Riviera Country Club. The 2024 Genesis Invitational always delivers as one of the best tournaments of the year at one of the most iconic golf courses in the world.

Riviera Country Club is a par-71 that measures 7,322 yards. The fairways and rough consist of Kikuyu grass, and the greens are Poa Annua.

The Genesis Invitational field will consist of 70 players with the top-50 and ties making it to the weekend. 

Tiger Woods will also make his 2024 debut at Riviera this week. 

Past Winners at The Genesis Invitational

  • 2023: Jon Rahm (-12)
  • 2022: Joaquin Niemann (-19)
  • 2021: Max Homa (-12)
  • 2020: Adam Scott (-11)
  • 2019: J.B. Holmes (-14)
  • 2018: Bubba Watson (-12)
  • 2017: Dustin Johnson (-17)
  • 2016: Bubba Watson (-15)
  • 2015: James Hahn (-6)

In this article and going forward, I’ll be using the Rabbit Hole by Betsperts Golf data engine to develop my custom model. If you want to build your own model or check out all of the detailed stats, you can sign up using promo code: MATTVIN for 25% off any subscription package (yearly is best value). 

Strokes Gained: Ball Striking

This week, I find ball striking to be especially important. Riviera requires golfers to play well in all facets of their game.

Ball striking includes both off the tee and approach, as one or the other will not be enough this week. Golfers will need to excel with both the driver and irons this week if they want to contend.

Last year Jon Rahm gained 12.5 strokes ball striking. In 2022, Joaquin Niemann, gained 9.1 strokes ball striking.

Total Strokes Gained: Ball Striking in Past 24 Rounds (Average per round)

  1. Adam Scott (+2.08)
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+1.97)
  3. Xander Schauffele (+1.54)
  4. Justin Thomas (+1.30)
  5. Chris Kirk (+1.18)

Strokes Gained: Off the Tee

While off the tee is included in the ball striking stat, I am double-dipping here by incorporating SG: Off the Tee. Driving distance is very important, as the course is long, and there are many fairway bunkers that require length to carry.

Driving accuracy is also important because the Kikuya rough can be quite penal.

SG: OTT Round in Past 24 Rounds (Average per round)

  1. Kevin Yu (+0.98) 
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+0.79) 
  3. Rory McIlroy (+0.78)
  4. Byeong Hun An (+0.67) 
  5. Cameron Young (+0.62)

Strokes Gained: Putting (West Coast)

Riviera’s fast and firm greens are notoriously difficult. Putts from 10 feet and in are far from a guarantee, and this is an area where we will see many golfers struggle this week.

SG: Putting (West Coast) Past 24 Rounds (Average Per Round)

  1. Nick Taylor (+24.2)
  2. Brendon Todd (+23.1)
  3. Sahith Theegala (+18.7)
  4. Sam Burns (+18.5)
  5. Taylor Montgomery (+17.7)

3-Putt Avoidance (West Coast)

Poa can get really bumpy late in the day, making tough par saves late in the tournament even more difficult. Average three-putts per round are much higher at Riviera than the TOUR average. 

3-Putt Avoidance: Gained in Past 24 Rounds (Average Per Round)

  1. Sam Burns (0.8)
  2. Kurt Kitayama (+0.8)
  3. Keegan Bradley (+0.8)
  4. Nick Taylor (+1.0)
  5. Dabis Riley (+1.1)

Strokes Gained: Around the Green

This event will be far from a birdie-fest. As mentioned, Riviera is a true all-around test.

With fairways relatively difficult to hit, playing out of the rough will create a lot of missed greens. Golfers will need to make some tricky up and downs to get away with par at Riviera.

SG: ARG: past 24 rounds (Average per round)

  1. Justin Thomas (+.78)
  2. Russell Henley (+.76) 
  3. Hideki Matsuyama (+62)
  4. J.J. Spaun (+.57)
  5. Beau Hossler (+.56)

Course History (SG: Total) (Average per round)

  1. Cameron Young
  2. Adam Svensson
  3. Mac Homa
  4. Viktor Hovland
  5. Patrick Cantlay
  6. Collin Morikawa
  7. Adam Scott
  8. Xander Schauffele
  9. Will Zalatoris
  10. Rory McIlroy

Statistical Model

Below, I’ve compiled overall model rankings using a combination of the five key statistical categories previously discussed.

These rankings are comprised of SG: BS (28%), SG: OTT (24%), SG: Putting West Coast (17%), SG: ARG (17%), Course History (7%) and 3-Putt Avoidance West Coast (7%).

  1. Sahith Theegala (+3500)
  2. Max Homa (+1600)
  3. Justin Thomas (+2000)
  4. Xander Schauffele (+1400)
  5. Collin Morikawa (+1600)
  6. Scottie Scheffler (+750)
  7. Beau Hossler (+1800)
  8. Adam Scott (+4500)
  9. Viktor Hovland (+1200)
  10. Luke List (+15000)

2024 Genesis Invitational Picks

Justin Thomas +2500 (Bet365)

Justin Thomas was my headline bet last week, and I’ll be going back to him once again at Riviera. Although it wasn’t a spectacular performance, JT played well enough, finishing in a tie for 11th.

Statistically, Thomas didn’t play extremely well, however, he was solid in all facets of his game, which is a key at Riviera. He gained strokes off the tee, on approach, around the green and even putting. After making a putter switch after the first round, the two-time PGA Champion was positive on the greens for the rest of the week.

Thomas has had a great deal of success at Riviera, and history has shown that players who have a strong track record at the course are more likely to have a repeat performance. In his past six starts at the Genesis Invitational, Thomas has three top-10 finishes, including a second-place finish in 2019. In that event, JT lost to J.B. Holmes on a windy Sunday when he played 36 holes. He finished 20th last season. 

Although he’s yet to get in the winner’s circle since the 2022 PGA Championship, JT has finished 3rd, 6th and 12th in his three 2024 starts. I believe the win is coming, and one of his best chances of the year will be this week.

Tony Finau +3000 (BetRivers)

Despite not finishing extremely well, Tony Finau once again hit the ball great at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He gained 5.8 strokes ball striking, which should provide him much more of an advantage at a course like Riviera as opposed to the shorter track in Pebble Beach. Finau was also excellent at Torrey Pines, finishing 6th and gaining 7.0 strokes on approach, which was good for 2nd in the field.

Finau has a strong track record at Riviera. In 2021, he lost in a playoff to Max Homa and in 2019, he finished runner-up to Bubba Watson. He ranks 14th in the field in Strokes Gained: Total per round at Riviera. The 34-year-old has finished in the top-20 of the event in three of his last five tries.

It’s been a slow start for the bigger names at the top of the leaderboard this season, but I believe a player like Finau can get it done this week in a signature event.

Sahith Theegala +3500 (DraftKings)

This season, Sahith Theegala is playing like one of the best and most consistent golfers on the PGA Tour. In his past two starts, he’s finished 20th at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am and 5th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Last week at TPC Scottsdale, Theegala gained 5.6 strokes on approach and 2.6 strokes off the tee.

In addition to the strong recent ball striking, the former Haskins award winner is an excellent putter on West Coast POA, ranking 3rd in the field in the category only behind some fantastic putters.

Theegala has proven that he’s extremely comfortable playing on the West Coast where he grew up and went to college at Pepperdine. He won the Fortinet Championship in the fall and can be another player, similar to Max Homa, who wins at Silverado and Riviera.

Adam Scott +4500 (FanDuel) 

This number is a little shorter than I was hoping for, but Scott’s combination of recent form and course history at Riviera is too difficult to ignore this week.

Last week at TPC Scottsdale, the Australian gained 6.5 strokes on approach, which was his best performance in the category since June of 2022. Scott has started his 2024 season finishing 20th and 8th in his two starts and a recent iron switch seems to be working out beautifuly for the veteran. He switched from Miura irons to the Srixon ZX Mk II (3, 4), Srixon ZX 7 Mk II (5-9), which are more of a cavity backed iron. He also switched to a TaylorMade driver and has gained 1.8 and 1.7 strokes off the tee in his two starts this season.

Scott’s history at Riviera is remarkable. In his last eight trips to the course, he’s finished in the top eleven five times, including a win (2020) and a runner-up (2016). In the field, he ranks 7th in Strokes Gained: Total at Riviera.

At his best, Scott can compete with all of the top players on Tour despite being in the back nine of his incredible career.

Hideki Matsuyama +8000 (BetRivers) 

This is simply a “bet the number” play for me this week. Hideki Matsuyama has been a tough man to predict since his 2021 Masters victory and he’s been relatively inconsistent to kick off his 2024 campaign. In between some mixed results, the Japanese star has finishes of 13th at Torrey Pines and 22nd last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

In the past, Matsuyama has played great at Riviera, however the results haven’t been as strong in the past three seasons. He has finishes of 4th (2015), 9th (2019) and 5th (2020), so he clearly has an eye for the layout.

Matsuyama is great with his long irons and is always one of the best players around the green, which are two of the most important factors at Riv. If Matsuyama can keep his driver in play, I think he will be around over the weekend.

Other Considerations

I decided to add this blurb this week of some players that I strongly considered but couldn’t fit on my card. If you need a break from some of my stalwarts such as JT, Hideki or Scott, a bet on one of these players looks great.

Ludvig Aberg +2200: Riviera should be a perfect course fit.

Sam Burns +2500: Playing extremely well at the moment and figures to be in the mix.

Cameron Young +4000: Played great here last year and seems to be finding some form. Driver can be a weapon at Riv.

Will Zalatoris :+5500: Still working his way back from injury, which is my concern, but Riviera is a golf course that will suit Zalatoris for the next decade plus.

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19th Hole

The biggest golf resort you never knew (but should)

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As a Korean-Canadian and an avid golfer for over 35 years, I am fortunate to have played on many beautiful golf courses in the West and the Far East. I still have a boatload of courses like Pebble Beach and St. Andrews on my bucket list, but I came to learn that Asia had plenty of such places to visit as well.

I have recently had the good fortune of playing the iconic Blackstone Golf Club at Mission Hills Resort in China, which is consistently ranked as one of the best courses in Asia. Blackstone is particularly famous for hosting the Tiger Woods vs. Rory McIlroy exhibition ‘The Match at Mission Hills’ in 2013. The event brought international attention to the sprawling luxury resort and boosted the level of interest in the game in the region.

Before delving into my amazing experience at Blackstone Golf Club, here is a little bit of information about the best golf resort you may never heard of.

Tiger and Rory faced off at the very course I was at in 2013. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it by telling you who won.

The Best Golf Resort in The World?

Mission Hills Golf and Resort is located in the southern part of China on Hainan Island, which is about the size of Maine. Often referred to as the Hawaii of China, its tropical location gives the island year-round sunshine with temperatures between 75~90°F in the winter and 60~75°F in the summer. Along with dozens of other notable golf resorts and courses on the Island, the resort is a popular destination for golfers from Asia, Europe, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Mission Hills first opened its doors in early 2010 with the aim of becoming the best resort in the world. I’m not sure if they achieved their goal, but before you smirk at their ambitiousness, Mission Hills is currently listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s largest golf resort with a total of 10 world-class golf courses. That is an astounding 180 championship-class golf holes in one resort! The courses are designed by the talented Schmidt-Curley Design team who are behind some of the best courses in Asia and around the world.

The Blackstone Golf Club is considered the “crown jewel” course at Mission Hills Resort and gets its name from the plethora of black lava rock that is found all over the course as part of its beautiful charm. But don’t be fooled by its rugged beauty, as the monster-long Blackstone has hosted several World Cup of Golf championships (guess who teamed up for the US to win in 2011?) and the annual World Ladies Championships. It also hosts the annual World Celebrity Pro-Am attended by an amazing A-list of screen stars, pro golfers, and elite athletes from around the world.

So yeah, the course is quite good.

On top of that, the resort holds another world’s best distinction, with a total of 168 different hot springs and pools within the resort. Unfortunately, I was too immersed in playing golf to take advantage of a good hot soak, but it will be on the top of my list to do with my whole family next time.

Now, let’s take a close look at what the Blackstone course was all about, and keep in mind that the course descriptions and opinions are all my own from experience and perspective.

The early morning view outside the hotel room overlooking the course and resort is breathtaking

Greens

The green condition was quite superb, albeit a bit slow from Western standards. According to the caddie, the green speed was measured at about 2.9 meters, which translates to about 9.5 on the stimp meter. A speed of 7 is considered to be slow, and the average PGA Tour event is said to be about 12, so for us average folk the greens were rolling well.

The green size is quite large with nearly 5700 square feet average in size with less-than-subtle undulations and big rolling plateaus. The pins were placed slightly towards the front left of the green this day, and the approach shots were challenging for us amateurs to stuff close. The ball rolled straight and true to where it was aimed, and I only had myself to blame for missed short putts.

I don’t know if its an Asian thing, but we seem to have many courses with big greens and sometimes ridiculously big undulations and plateaus on them. We even have bunkers in the middle of the green, sometimes!

Fairways

Unlike many of the Korean courses I’m used to, the fairways are lush and readily yielded nice dollar-sized divots from well-struck iron shots into the greens. The course itself is huge and it was reflected in the long wide fairways stretching from tee to green.

Most of the fairways seemed to be free of readily noticeable trouble areas, meaning that what you see was what you got. However, upon close inspection, there were many subtle undulations which caused the stance to be slightly uneven at address. It wasn’t like St. Andrews level of fairway undulations, but it was there.

Also, the big prominent fairways bunkers often came into play and caused me to consciously aim away from them, which left longer approach shots into the green. We were somehow feeling confident this day and were playing from the blue tees. And for a guy who averages 240-yard drives on my best days, those small detours inevitably added 1-2 clubs more to the next shot.

Fairways were rolling nicely but were still a bit damp due to the sporadic short rain bursts.

Most fairways were quite wide, though it didn’t keep our balls from escaping into the jungle.

Rough

Truth to tell, the rough wasn’t all that intimidating, as it was only modestly long, and the wide fairways pushed the rough back considerably. As it wasn’t tournament season and the course was set up to mostly cater to vacationers, it made sense not to make the rough too punishing.

Beyond the rough was mostly deep jungle-like vegetation, which made it next to impossible to hit the ball out of, let alone find it in the first place.  Thanks to our amateur ball-striking abilities, however, we easily overpowered the hapless wide fairways to appease the jungle gods with our many golf balls.

The rough is almost non-existent from tee to green, except for a little bit around the bunkers and extreme sides of the fairways. The course is very long, so I guess they want golfers to relax and not get high blood pressure?

Fairway and 1st-cut rough

Bunkers

Blackstone had no shortage of fairway and greenside bunkers to daunt the average golfer. The many fairway bunkers were often quite large, and despite the mostly wide fairways, some were placed just at the right (?) places to catch drives that strayed left or right off the tee. Standing on the tees, the presence of so many bunkers was aesthetically pleasing yet intimidating at the same time.

The bunkers were meticulously raked and pristine, with the sand looking visually heavy but being very soft. Maintaining the bunkers to this level of readiness cannot be easy, as there are 10 courses at this resort! Even if there were just two bunkers per hole, that’s still 360 sand traps to rake and prep each day! Add to this the fairways and greens, not to mention the decorative foliage, the level of course maintenance at this level is quite mind-boggling.

I also don’t recall seeing any flat bunkers, as most seemed to have a healthy amount of incline at the front to make it harder to move the ball forward a long way. The greenside bunkers were also deeper and usually presented an upslope lie, and the shots had to have some climb to escape from them. If you have trouble hitting the ball straight, be sure to sharpen your bunker play when you visit Blackstone.

With the frightening number of bunkers at Blackstone, I only managed to get into two of them. I even managed to get up and down on one of them.

Bunkers and blackstones aplenty.

Despite being only the second time in a bunker, this one on the 18th cost me a devastating double bogey.

Tee To Green

Blackstone’s monstrous 7808 yards should satisfy most golfers’ urge to go all out on their shots. From the blues, it was still a challenging 6722 yards, and I don’t mind saying it felt longer than that all day.

Most of the pins can be seen from the tee box, and despite some slightly rolling fairways, Blackstone is a mostly-level parkland course without any significant drop or rise in elevation. Sprawling over a huge area of land, the holes do not double back in parallel but stretch forward through dense foliage, making for a scenic ride in the golf cart. One thing I also appreciated was the leisurely pace of play. The group ahead and behind were not visible for nearly the entire round, despite our less-than-quick pace of play.

From tee to green in its entirety, the course was in amazing shape and condition. The unexpected tropical golf experience was nothing short of amazing, and if I had to make a comparison to some of the other memorable tracks I’ve visited, the Hoakalei Country Club and Turtle Bay Resort (Palmer design) in Hawaii come to mind, along with Korea’s own Haesley Nine Bridge Club, which consistently ranks as one of the best courses in Asia.

The pictures below don’t do justice to the course, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.

The sky was particularly blue and the course beautiful; so much so that my foursome didn’t seem to mind carding doubles and triples over and over again. What a joy.

For us short-hitters, we had to aim for the middle of the many bunkers and hope for the best.

If I had a dollar for every time one of us wished we owned a penthouse in one of the many condos dotting the resort…

Many holes are carved right through a lush jungle with a huge modern condo looming in the background.

Cluster bunkers are to be avoided at all costs.

The view from the 1st hole tee at Blackstone.

Looking like a pro in front of the picture board at the 18th tee… then promptly topping a drive 100 yards out. At least I looked good on camera.

Caddies & Carts

Unlike most courses in the West, golf clubs in Asia require each golfer to play with a mandatory caddie and golf cart. Also, if you each decide to have an additional caddie to help hold the umbrella, it can make for a sizeable group of 12 (greens keepers would be tossing in their beds in the west)! So how do the caddies move if you’re driving a power cart, you ask? They simply hop onboard the back of the buggy.

On this day, we ‘only’ had four caddies to attend our play, and they were fantastic. Despite my initial concerns, the language barrier was not an issue as they were conversant in all the needed terminology in English and Korean. This was a pleasant surprise, as I was able to ask more about the course to help my play, and there was always Google Translate.

The caddie fee was 500 yuan each, which is about $70 US. They were highly professional and quick on their feet, and I could tell that the resort had gone to good lengths in training the caddies (said to be 2000 in number!) to make the golfing experience enjoyable for their international guests.

Each foursome of caddies had a ‘master caddie’ that led the other three and acted to translate longer dialogues as needed. They had a good knowledge of the course and general breaks on greens. But don’t expect them to be like the actual caddies like for the pros. They are mostly for offering simple advice on reading greens, cleaning and handing over your clubs, and helping you to find your balls.

Not gonna lie… having a personal caddie wait on your every shot was nerve-wracking at first.

Resort & Facilities

Mission Hills Haikou has a 500-room hotel with several fine-dining restaurants and high-end boutiques within the main wing and the adjoining annex. They also have a shopping mall within the hotel featuring global brands like Taylormade, Adidas, and Skechers, along with a slew of high-end golf brands to luxury watches and whiskies.

The view from my room on the 9th floor was something to write home about, along with the impeccable services. Truth to tell, I had previously heard several horror stories of less-than-friendly services which led me to refrain from visiting China prior. That must’ve been a different country, as Mission Hills pulled out all the stops to impress and awe its visitors, and it certainly worked on me. We were treated like kings on and off the course, and the hotel personnel was on hand to assist us everywhere we went.

The entire resort complex was like a huge labyrinth of spas, pools, shops, and golf courses. They nearly had everything, including an incredible hotel buffet and several ethnic cuisines, a nightclub and karaoke, and an entire museum-like wing dedicated to the many celebrities and pro golfers that have played here. I could have stayed for hours simply looking at their vast collection of golf memorabilia. My golf buddy called it a golf heaven on earth, and I couldn’t agree more.

Again, the pics won’t be able to fully capture the experience, but they’ll give you an idea of the enormous size and quality of the place.

Spic and span to receive guests after a long hiatus during COVID-19, I bet.

I stayed in a nice-sized suite on the 9th floor with a good view overlooking the resort and course.

The tub is actually quite big and probably could fit three of me in it comfy.

The hotel service had complimentary ramen and beers, along with the local fruit.

Early morning view out the window showed the course shrouded in ground fog.

I wasn’t planning to do any swimming when I initially packed for the trip. Next time.

The pool behind the main hotel had sandy beaches!

A huge maze of trails and covered walkways branching off to a vast number of pools, hot springs, and saunas.

The morning buffet was one of the best I had in a while, with a full line up of both Asian and Western foods.

A sign at the entrance of the buffet showed the daily condition of the 10 golf courses.

Hotel Shops & Amenities

The shops inside the lobby were all high-end as well as ones I didn’t think to expect like the NBA-themed shop, Hennessy whiskey and Tabasco hot sauce shops!

Then there were dozens more shops in a whole other building next to the hotel, lined with the palm prints of celebrities and stars. The sheer size and scale of Mission Hills was outrageous.

Trip Overview

Hainan is a tropical Island in the South China Sea and can get quite hot and humid during the summer monsoon season. By plane, it took 4.5 hours from Korea to Hainan.

Interestingly, Hainan Island is designated as a tourist zone by the Chinese government and does not require a visa prior to arrival. It is issued when you arrive at the airport and go through customs.

During the end of 2023 when the trip took place, COVID-19 restrictions were largely over and there were the simplest of checks (1-2 minutes) using a machine to detect any virus before entering and exiting the airport.

The resort itself was only about a 15-minute bus ride from the airport. For those who travel often to Asia, they’ll know that courses and resorts can be up to two hours from the airport.

A brief warm-up on the range and armed with complimentary golf balls, we were off to the first tee.

True to its name, the course had stone walls and fences made from the igneous black lava rock.

Except for the absence of the sound of waves, the ambiance reminded me of courses in Hawaii.

Loved the open skies and the awesome panoramic views!

Be sure to pack some strong sunscreen and sports drinks or salt candy. The tropical climate can get quite hot and humid at midday.

Blackstone plays to par 73 and 6722 yards from the blue. I was happy with the score especially when the caddies told me it was the best they’ve seen in a while, LOL!!!

It looked like they were planning to build even more courses and condos. These folks sure like to think big.

Wall-to-wall memorabilia on display from past majors, champions, and legends of the game. So this is where all those signed Masters flags were!

The three-day stay went by all too fast… (T^T)

As part of the package, we were also shown to the largest duty-free shop in Asia. These guys have a thing for being the biggest, grandest, and most opulent; and it was awesome.

It seemed as if every brand of luxury was represented here, and it would’ve taken hours to see it all. If your partner is into this kind of stuff, leave them at home in case they get in the way of your golf.

A final meal at a popular restaurant before heading to the airport. Can you guess the menu? Yup, Chinese, but like nothing you see in the West. It was all delicious to boot.

Met a new friend while waiting for the limousine bus to take us the rest of the way. Even these guys were BIG.

After a rather simple and quick immigration and boarding process, we were safely on our way home to Korea. I have to give credit to the authorities for making the immigration/airport customs process simple and quick. Sometimes everything can be great, only to be ruined by a last-minute glitch or hold-up at the airport, and there were none.

A short nap and back in Seoul. I can’t wait to go back again soon with the whole family to jump in the hot springs. Now if I can only find a way to go visit Pebble Beach and St. Andrews similarly, I’m set. Wish me luck.

 

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