Don't drop the bucket! How to prepare for your dream round

Instructors offer their advice on how to game plan and get the most out of your swing and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Playing that dream round at Pebble Beach requires a specific practice plan as well as the right mental mindset.

You and your buddies have just booked a once-in-a-lifetime round at a bucket-list course. Obviously, you want to play well because the last thing you want to do is travel all that way and spend all that money and go out and shoot in the triple-digits. That’s no fun!

So just how do you prepare for a bucket-list round, like Pebble Beach or the Old Course at St. Andrews, and walk away with some lasting memories (including, perhaps, a a nice scorecard) you’ll take to the 19th hole for the rest of your life?

To help with this question, we enlisted the help of two Golf Channel Academy lead coaches who know a thing or two about playing the best courses in the world and also preparing their students to get the most enjoyment out of their own bucket-list experience. They shared their secrets on everything from what to wear to what and when to practice to how to manage your expectations. Here’s what they had to say.

Study the course beforehand

Every three years, Golf Channel Academy lead coach Kenny Nairn takes a group of about 15 clients to his homeland of Scotland to play some of the very best links courses in the world. This past summer they toured the east coast and played such venerable courses as Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, Muirfield, North Berwick and, of course, The Old Course at St. Andrews, the very Home of Golf. St. Andrews just happens to be Nairn’s hometown, too, and he estimates he’s played the course well over 200 times, making him among the most sought-after experts on all things St. Andrews.

“You can do a couple of things before you head over and play,” said Nairn, who now runs Kenny Nairn Golf out of Eagle Creek Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. “You can play many of the courses on a simulator or go to the course’s website and check out the aerial shots and flyovers to familiarize yourself with the sight lines. There are a number of blind tee shots at the Old Course so it really helps to gain some familiarity with the course. Whatever agent or travel agency you booked your trip through will generally send you course information in advance as well. Be proactive and start learning early.”

You also want to be well-prepared for the weather, said Nairn, so go online to see what the average temperatures and conditions are like in Scotland or wherever you’re going for the time of year you plan on playing your bucket-list course.

"The No. 1 question I get asked is, ‘What should I bring?’” said Nairn. "First and foremost, you’ve got to be comfortable with your clothing. If it’s the Old Course, pack a mock turtleneck and bring a couple of layers in case the temperature changes. I tell my guys to bring three pairs of shoes and two pairs of socks with them each day as well, because we’re playing 36 holes every day. You don’t want to get blisters on your feet. It also helps to have a first-aid kit handy with some Neosporin and Aleve. These are things that can make your trip much more enjoyable."

Practice the shots

An evening loop around the Himalayas Putting Course.

Along with his Scotland knowledge and expertise, Nairn has won three Wilson Pro-Ams at Pebble Beach (2010, 2013 and 2018). To get ready for Pebble, he spent a lot of time practicing his short game, as the greens are very small and you need to manufacture a lot of high, soft shots from out of the lush rough and sandy bunkers to save par. For the Old Course, he had his clients play The Himalayas putting course on property prior to teeing off and also had them practice their lag putting and bump-and-run shots at home in preparation for the massive double greens at St. Andrews.

Fellow Golf Channel Academy lead coach Corey Badger recommends game planning and preparing specifically for your bucket-list round or trip about 30 days out. Badger, the Director of Instruction at the Golf Lab indoor training facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, also hosts clients on an annual golf trip each year along with fellow Golf Lab Instructor Tommy Sharp. This November, he’ll be bringing a group of students to Pinehurst Resort where they will be playing the iconic Pinehurst No. 2 course, the host site of the 2024 U.S. Open and three previous U.S. Opens. Over the past few years they’ve also taken groups to Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits.

“In preparation for Pinehurst, we’ll have our students putt or chip from off the green in those tightly mowed collection areas because that’s what Pinehurst is known for,” said Badger. “For Pebble, we had them practicing pitch shots and landing them into spots because the greens there are so small, and for Bandon it was more long lag putts because we knew they’d be putting more than chipping.”

The day before your trip is not the time to start preparing or work on your swing mechanics, said Badger, but he also said you have to guard against over-preparing or making the round seem way too important.

“It’s only one day or one week,” said Badger. “You’re not preparing for an entire season to come. I’m still going to work with the students on their normal game. Tom Watson didn’t really change his game for the British Open. He wanted to hit the ball solid and that’s what worked for him.”

Video: How to 'belly breathe' on an intense golf shot

Play from the appropriate tees

Part of the preparation leading up to your bucket-list round is knowing what tee box you’re going to play from. Before their most recent trip to Scotland each member of Nairn’s group agreed on what tees they’d play from and what handicap they’d play to, so there would be no confusion when they arrived.

"At the end of the day, if I told you I could get you around the Old Course and you can shoot 80, you’d be like, ‘Sure, I can do that,'" said Nairn. “It doesn’t matter what tee box you played from it’s ultimately what did you score? These memories will last you for a lifetime so why not play off a tee box that you know you can handle and not struggle to play to your handicap. At the end of the day it’s all about having enjoyment.”

Keep your expectations in check

Some guys try so hard and get angry if they don’t play well. It’s like, ‘What are you doing?! You just ruined your one chance out on this course.'

If you wind up playing from the back tees, you may be in for a big serving of humble pie. Most of the courses on people’s bucket list have hosted major championships before or have tournament pedigree. The conditions are very challenging, and just because you’re a 5-handicap doesn’t mean you’re going to shoot a 77 at Pebble Beach. Chances are, you’re going to score a few shots higher. In other words, you need to keep your expectations in check.

"I try and make my students understand that, ‘Look, you’re not going to shoot your lowest score ever because your game is not designed for one particular course, it’s designed for your course,’ ” said Badger. “Some guys try so hard and get angry if they don’t play well. It’s like, ‘What are you doing!? You just ruined your one chance out on this course.’

"As soon as you hit a bad shot you need to look up and see where you are,” Badger continued. “You don’t want to ruin your one opportunity. You want to enjoy it. That’s the goal: We play golf to enjoy ourselves. Have a plan in case things start going in the wrong direction. Relax. Take a deep breath, then a practice swing. Get your tempo back."

For the higher-handicap player who might struggle on such a challenging venue, Badger recommends giving themselves something else to play for, so they’re not thinking they have to keep their score on every hole. There are a number of different games you can play with a buddy or group that will enhance your enjoyment of the round.

"We’ll often do match play or skins or have a closest-to-the-hole competition on all of the par 3s,” said Badger. “It gives everyone that one opportunity to hit a great shot instead of just playing for score, and that helps lower their expectations and increase their enjoyment."

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