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Course Management Basics – Part 4

Never Lay Up…Right?


While always going for it can be fun, it’s not the best way to shoot low scores.  In this lesson, I’ll help you decide when you should swing from your heels and when you should play it safe.

This Series Is For You If:

You want to shoot lower scores with the swing you have

What to Consider


The distance at which your palms get a little sweaty is going to be different for every player.  Whether that’s your 3W or your 5I, every player knows that some clubs are solid and some clubs are hit-and-hope.  When you’re outside of your confident zone, it’s time to consider these other factors.


When you’re caught up in the moment, it’s easy to forget about the conditions, but doing so can lead to big problems.  Sure, you can carry your hybrid 200 yards, but what about that breeze in your face?  What about the fact that it’s barely above freezing, so you’re not swinging as freely as you do when it’s 70 degrees?  Make sure you’re factoring the weather into your distance calculations.


We established in Part 2 of this series that to shoot good scores we need to avoid stroke hazards – water and OB.  If either of those are present, we need to proceed very carefully.

The other major hazard is sand.  How seriously you concern yourself with sand will depend on your skill playing out of it.  For some players, hitting a shot into the sand spells disaster for that hole.  If, however, you know you can get out of the bunker and onto the green in one swing, the sand can be a welcome result.

Subtle Hazards

While it’s not the kind of thing that draws your attention from 200+ yards out, the slopes and rough around a green can be important considerations in going for it.  If everything is tightly mowed and fairly flat, bomb away.  If being 5 yards off the green means pitching from a down slope in ankle-deep rough, it might be time to pull an iron.

Worst Case Scenario

I’m using the term “worst case” to mean “worst outcome that has a reasonable chance of occurring.”  In theory, any of us could miss the ball entirely, but that’s not likely (I hope).

Your worst case scenario is going to depend largely on your ability.  If you’re a 5 handicap, you probably don’t have to worry about topping a 3W into the creek that’s 20 yards in front of you.  If you’re a 25 handicap, however, that creek should be a major concern.

Players of all abilities need to consider their shot pattern and how that fits with the hazards.  For example, I never hook my 3W.  I can hit it off the planet right, but it never goes left, so even a huge stroke hazard left of my target is of minimal concern.  If there’s water on the right, however, I’m probably laying up.

If your worst case scenario doesn’t involve stroke hazards, you’re much closer to getting the green light.  When stroke hazards are present, and the chances of finding them are good, consider the lay up.

Best Case Scenario

“Holing it for double eagle!”  Unless you’ve got Louis Oosthuizen’s sweet swing, that’s probably not realistic.

Here are some questions to consider.  Do you need every yard of your total distance to get the ball on the green?  If so, is there an area where you can run the ball onto the green?  If you can carry the ball to the green, ask yourself how much the club you’re hitting typically rolls out and if there’s room for that on the green.  You should also consider the shape and contours of the green.  If the greens are huge and multi-tiered, can you put yourself in a position to make a putt or is the best case a 75-footer up a tier with a massive right-to-left break?

Hitting a par 5 in two feels great, but if there’s no real chance of birdie or eagle, there’s no sense in bringing big numbers into play by going for it.


Above is the green at the par 5 second hole at The Landing at Reynolds Lake Oconee.  Only 490 yards from the tips, this is not a long hole, but the second shot is rife with danger.  There is absolutely no room to miss left or short.  You can also see the bunker behind the green.  What you can’t see is a dramatic slope to the right – any shot off the green to that side will be followed by a pitch from a steep downslope or from the top of a hill.

To me, this is the perfect example of a hole where you need to lay up unless you’ve absolutely mashed your drive.  The green is average sized, so I would go for it with a 4I or 5I.  My hybrid, however, has too much potential for either going left or not being struck perfectly.  Even if I did hit it far enough, I wouldn’t be confident that it would land softly.

Now we’ll take a look at the stunning twelfth hole at Quivira.  On this hole, water and OB are not in play.  What makes this approach challenging is the angle of the green.  Unless you’ve taken a hyper-aggressive line off the tee or hit a running cut down the fairway, you’re hitting into the shallow dimension of the green.  In your favor, however, is the elevation: the shot plays significantly downhill.

If you’ve hit a great drive, this is a green to go for.  There are no stroke hazards (finding a ball in the sand isn’t too tough), and you have the benefit of hitting from elevation.  Also, the area around the green is fairy flat.  Most importantly, this is an epic hole and making an eagle would be awesome.

Go For It Guidelines

Follow the 80% Rule.

If you can’t pull off a shot 80% of the time on the range, don’t hit it on the course.  Whether that means not attempting a high, cut 3W or  throwing out the 3W altogether, this is one of the best rules for course management.

Avoid stroke hazards

This can’t be overemphasized.  If water and/or OB is in play, stay away.

Don’t overestimate your short game

“At worst I can just pitch on from over there” are the last words of many would’ve-been-great rounds.

Matt Saternus
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  1. Matt,
    Great post and really solid advice. If only it was always that easy to play the right strategy. Unfortunately, most of us give in to our ego telling us “today is the day we finally pull off this hero shot. Go for it! Don’t lay up!”

    I have found that at the courses I play regularly, on holes with the huge risk/reward shot, I have to make the decision to play the safe shot before I ever get out on the course. It’s hard to talk yourself out of the hero shot when you hit a good drive and the adrenaline is pumping. But if I’ve already decided to play the safe shot well before I’m standing over the ball, it’s much harder to talk myself into the riskier play.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Angel Matos

    Bomb away always! (sometimes a bit conservatively)

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