Hone Your Mental Game on the Golf Course

Plenty of us chase our ball up and down the course, but the skilled golfer knows there’s a better way. For our area pros, it starts with the right mentality and a good strategy.

The great Yogi Berra once quipped that 90% of the game is half mental. Of course, he was talking baseball, but he might as well have said golf.

There are so many things that can go right or wrong on the course, and your mental state is a big factor. Sure, you need self-control, but you also need a winning strategy. As the game’s true legends know, it’s important to envision your every move – obstacles and options – before you tee off.

To help you hone your mental acuity, we caught up with the pros at some of our region’s top courses for an inside look.

(Pinecrest Golf Club photo)

Pinecrest Golf Club

The fairway is your friend at this parkland-style course in Huntley. Narrow, tree-lined fairways, steep slopes and well-placed water hazards can get you into trouble in a hurry. In the risk-reward equation, playing it safe is more likely to get you success, says Rick Walrath, Pinecrest’s general manager and PGA professional.

“You want to take the shortest club you can hit straight,” he says. “You’d rather hit that three times and get on the green than be bouncing around the trees for a while.”

Safe shooting is a benefit out of the first hole, where the black tees sit 367 yards, uphill, from a water hazard.

“If you’re walking off the green on the first hole with a par, you’re in good shape,” says Walrath.

Hole No. 2 is a “somewhat reachable” par-5 with another uphill tee shot. A well-placed drive gives you a downhill view of the green, but watch out for two water hazards along the way, particularly the pond guarding the green’s right flank. The 8th hole is all water on a short par-3.

If that sounds challenging, the back nine provides the real test. The 11th hole is a long par-3 with water guarding the green and a tree that threatens your safest approach.

The 12th fairway is blocked by more water, and it brings several bunkers and trees into play. “It’s really a precise drive,” says Walrath. “If you hit it straight, you have a chance of getting right up in front of the green.”

Next, a pair of par-4 holes reward the careful drive with a possibility of birdie. To wrap it all up, No. 18 is a sweeping par-5 with a considerable curve and a good incline toward the green.

Despite its challenges, the course plays well for golfers of all skill levels, says Walrath.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways is that, for a municipal golf course that’s in the moderate price range, people are amazed at how well-maintained the greens are,” says Walrath.

(Fox Valley Park District photo)

Orchard Valley Golf Course

Its name suggests the trees are a serious challenge at this Aurora course, but actually it’s the water that requires your attention.

It first appears at the par-3 No. 2, where the entire right flank is guarded by water. For head pro Joe Fritz, who plays from the black tees, it’s all carry to the green. The average golfer is wise to steer left and beware the sloping fairway. “If you miss to the right, you’re going swimming,” he says.

Holes No. 3 and 4 keep the water in play. Fritz starts No. 3 with less club so he can hit the wide part of the fairway. He starts the next hole, a par-5, with a solid drive over the water to set up a shot into a narrow green.

The next few holes are all about the beach. A giant bunker, which resembles a desert course’s “waste area,” flanks Nos. 5, 6, and 7. Err toward the opposing side on these holes, says Fritz, as the scale of the bunker and its tallgrass islands lowers your chance at par. Hole No. 8 offers more bunkers along a zigzagging fairway before No. 9 lets off some pressure on a long straightaway.

The front nine is where you want to get aggressive, says Fritz. The back nine is all skill, starting with the signature par-3 No. 12, where a smart hit keeps you out of the water. Although there’s a narrow neck of grass to the right, this one’s all about the carry.

“When selecting a club, err on the side of less, because accuracy and placement are paramount,” says Fritz. “If you’re going to miss, go short and center in the fairway.”

Then, there’s No. 13, where water bisects the fairway. It’s OK to think of this one like a par-5, where a good lie before the water will carry you over the hazard with a better view of the green. “Taking a bogey here isn’t a bad score,” says Fritz.

No. 15 requires a similar strategy. On a good day, Fritz might drive the ball over the water to the second fairway, roughly 260 yards away. But it’s a lot of risk for little reward, he says. The smarter move is to hit a shorter club onto the first fairway, where you can get a good position into the green.
Given its many hazards, this is a course that rewards safe, smart shots.

“Take what the course gives you,” says Fritz. “If the course gives you a lot on the front, take it. It does not give you a whole lot on the back nine.”

(Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa photo)

The General at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

Visitors to this Galena resort can take their pick of four courses, representing some 63 holes. For the best taste of Eagle Ridge’s rugged terrain, there’s no better than The General course. In all, it boasts nearly 289 feet of elevation change, with nearly 170 feet alone on a single hole.

To play The General skillfully, pay close attention to your club choice and stance, says John Schlaman, head PGA pro and director of golf. Typically, uphill shots require one or two clubs more. Downhill shots need less club. Also pay attention to the slope, and whether you need loft (going uphill) or distance (going downhill).

“The 9-iron launches higher, unlike a 3-iron, which launches lower and tends to go farther on a downhill shot,” says Schlaman.

The General’s front nine brings dramatic elevation changes, starting with the par-3 No. 2, where it’s about 135 yards from tee to pin, with about a 70-foot drop. A little extra club will help you avoid trouble, says Schlaman.

No. 5 has the most severe elevation change, as you follow a short par-4 that can stretch 345 downhill yards. Expect your driver to carry farther from the tee.

No. 8 starts with a severe downhill and ends with a severe incline. “The second shot is especially uncomfortable because you can’t see the surface of the green, and the green is fairly small,” says Schlaman.

The back nine is less sloping but no less tricky. It starts with some longer, flatter holes where distance is your main objective. No. 14 is a long par-4 where you’re competing with heavy trees guarding the fairway and a ravine that punishes inaccurate second shots. No. 16 is another par-3, but this one’s all uphill for 125 yards. The final hole is relatively flat and straightforward, except for a pair of bunkers guarding it. This hole is best enjoyed from the clubhouse, which offers a prime view of No. 18 and The General’s sweeping terrain.

“This is one course where, if you can get off the tee well, you really set yourself up for success,” says Schlaman. “And for most average players, a bogey here is a good score.”

(St. Charles Park District photo)

Pottawatomie Golf Course

This classic layout in St. Charles might look straightforward, but don’t be deceived. The difficulty here lies in narrow fairways and some wicked designs that put the Fox River directly into play.

On each of this course’s nine holes, ask yourself one question: What shot do I want to make onto the green? You’ll succeed by working backward, says head pro Ron Skubisz.

The opening hole is case-in-point. No. 1 is a long par-5 with a dogleg from the start. It should be an easy three shots into the green, says Skubisz, but many players smash their drive and end up in trouble. When you work backward, a long drive isn’t wise.

“Maybe play it 180 yards off the tee to the trap that’s on the left, and then hit the second shot to the middle of the fairway and hopefully to your favorite distance into the green,” he says.

No. 2 is a straight, narrow hole where your straightest club is your greatest ally, says Skubisz. Then, there’s No. 3, a par-4 that’s roughly 190 yards from the back tee – with a wide stretch of river protecting the fairway. Again, think what approach you want into the green and work backward, he says.

Distance is key on your next three holes.

No. 4 is a par-3 where it’s better to use more club. Too little club causes an overswing that puts you into the sand trap or the water behind the green, says Skubisz.

Then, there’s the tricky No. 7, a par-3 where river separates the tee box and fairway. At 190 yards from the back tee, this is a hole where you need more club to clear the water, says Skubisz.

Surprisingly, the most difficult shots are still ahead of you. The green on No. 8 is surrounded by traps and hard to reach from behind. Again, think about your approach shot, Skubisz says.

The grand finale is a long dogleg left where long drives and power swings will help you to get a good shot at the green. It’s a difficult chip onto this sloped green, so consider your ideal placement before you tee off.

“Try not to get greedy,” Skubisz says. “Play the hole for five, and more times than not you’re going to come out ahead of it.”

(Brian Murphy of WiscoGolfAddict photo)

Hawk’s View Golf Club

The 36 holes at this Lake Geneva course bring out the best of high-end golf, while still keeping the game attainable for all. On one side of Hawk’s View is the par-3 Barn Hollow course, which offers 18 family-friendly holes. On the other side is Como Crossings, a layout that takes full advantage of a former ski hill.

“It is a challenging golf course,” says Jake Bandi, head golf pro and director of golf operations. “But it is pretty fair and relatively forgiving if you make the correct decisions.”

Como Crossings starts with the ski hill on your right, so everything slopes left. Play to the right side of the fairway, says Bandi, and stay below the hole. “If you’re above the hole and you have a downhill putt, it’s incredibly difficult to stop.”

From there, the course becomes a links-style layout where Nos. 8 and 9 are fairly flat.

The back nine starts with a monster par-5 that measures 600 yards from the back tees, where there’s also a dogleg from your drive. Use your third shot to clear the creek and reach the green.
“It’s not a hole where you can go over the creek on your second shot,” says Bandi. “You need to set yourself up for that third shot over the creek.

The trees and ski slope return on No. 14, where a series of bunkers guard the green. When you reach the bunker in the middle of the fairway, play to the left, says Bandi. Though it looks intimidating, it’s a better position.

The signature hole on Como Crossings is No. 17, where the tee box offers a stunning view of the landscape. It also puts you 100 feet above the green in the windiest corner of the course.

“I’ve played it three to four clubs different from my usual yardage,” says Bandi. “The wind can really impact your shot in ways that the rest of the course doesn’t.”

Stunning views continue into the final hole as you take a gentle, downhill par-4 with a view of the clubhouse, which also happens to be the former ski lodge. “You can really see the integrity of our layout and how we tried to incorporate as much of the former ski hill as we could, while keeping it fun and playable for everybody out there,” says Bandi.

PrairieView Golf Club

It’s easy to get lost in the scenery at this Byron course, and not only because it’s maintained by the local forest preserve district. The truth is, this course uses the landscape to full advantage. Undulating topography, mature trees, long grasses – it’s the natural features, not the manmade hazards, that make this course challenging but attainable.

“You get deer out in the fields, a ton of birds and wildlife around, so you can get distracted easily,” says Nic Barnes, head pro. “It’s cool and unique for this area.”

For any golfer, it’s the fast greens and the par-3 holes that require the most precision at PrairieView.

“Don’t three-putt,” says Barnes. “If you can lag putt pretty well and just two-putt you’re probably going to come away with a pretty decent score.”

Hole No. 4 is a short par-3 where the green is surrounded by bunkers. At 150 yards, it’ll ease you into the round, says Barnes. By the time you reach No. 8, you’re looking at 180 yards and a green that breaks “severely” to water on the right. To the left side are hills and bunkers. Get your ball to the middle right of the green, a little short, for an easy uphill look at the pin, says Barnes.

On the back nine, the par-3 No. 13 is all about club selection, because this is a 50-foot drop downhill on the windiest part of the course. Most players use too little club and leave it short, says Barnes. Aim for the middle back of the green for an easier putt.

Barnes believes the final three holes on the front and back nine are the most challenging in each round, and the par-3 No. 17 is proof-positive. The green slopes from the front to the back, in a position that rewards a too-long tee shot. “If the pin’s in front, don’t even try and get cute,” he says. “Just hit it to the middle and try to get away with par.”