There is a quiet beauty to playing golf in the mountains that every golfer should experience. Watching a soaring tee ball rising against a majestic mountain backdrop seeming to fly forever before dropping from the sky is a subtle joy of the game. But while pretty to look at, that drive might not land where you had planned since there are more things to consider when hitting from an elevated lie than simply grip it and rip.
The first time you see one of those towering drives from an elevated tee, you may think it is an optical illusion. But then you see where your ball comes down to earth and you quickly learn that the height of the elevated mountain drive can give you more length off the tee. So, we asked an expert how to play those shots to help relieve some of our high anxiety.
Mike Steele is in his 8th year as the head golf professional at Champion Hills, a private golf club and community, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountain range of Western North Carolina. Champion Hills has 14 mountain holes that require shots traversing down into a valley, so Steele is quite familiar with elevated golf shots. He says the most important factor in making a good shot from an elevation is club choice.
“We do have holes where you are teeing off from an elevated tee shot,” Steele says. “For example No. 9, which is a par 3 with the green about 180 feet lower than the tee box. The tee box will say 175 yards, but you are going to have to play 155 yards on a calm day. On the opposite side of things, when you have the uphill shot, say on No. 6, you actually have to add two clubs.”
It can be a guessing game when it comes to adjusting to elevated, downhill shots—but typically one or two clubs is the metric. Experience playing a hole can be helpful, although weather conditions often change. Watching your playing partners is one way to gather some intel, or using a range finder with slope adjustments can help you understand how far you hit the ball at certain elevations.
It is important to note course elevation in general before you even reach an elevated tee, as thinner air will exert less drag on a golf ball and allow it to travel further. Champion Hills is at 2,500 feet above sea level, and according to Steele, that elevation has little to no effect on the golf ball. But he says if you are playing in greater elevations, such as in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, they use a “10 percent rule” for determining how much farther your golf shots will travel. (The ball will generally travel 10 percent further at 5,000 feet of elevation.)
Knowing how different clubs react in higher elevations is also a part of the distance equation, ProbableGolfInstruction.com has a Distance Calculator, which is worth a look prior to getting to a known elevated tee. Golf clubs have different ball flight trajectories—a driver has more than lift than a 3 iron, for instance, so it is important to recognize how much distance each club hits the ball from an elevated lie.
The next key is to pay attention to your surroundings. Note the wind, which could help or hurt, and choose a club—not just for distance but spin, as well. Are there hazards short or long? As they may factor into you club choice. How protected is the tee shot from current conditions? And finding the distance to the center of the green as well as to the pin can aid the decision-making process.
Steele suggests the following tips (for a right-handed player) in an elevated shot:
- At address – Ball position forward (inside left heel) and teed up slightly higher than normal, tilt more to the right side with the upper body only (otherwise known as right side bend).
- In swing – Focus on staying behind the ball longer through impact. This will allow you to hit up on the ball promoting longer carry distance.
And finally, put a good typical swing on the ball. The natural tendency in a severely downhill shot in which you are clubbing down for the distance is to overswing since that bigger number on the tee box is in your head. It can be fun to hit a downhill shot—and deceptively easy—but you have to be careful not to overswing.
“When I played Champion Hills for the first time after growing up golfing in South Florida, at that time it was fun,” Steele says. “But now it is so in my head. The ball spends more time in the air, so the more spin you put on it the more curvature it takes and it can get offline more than if you were just standing on a level hole.”