Should You Ever Lay Up? – Golf Myths Unplugged

Go For It!

Par 5s are typically some of the most compelling holes on a golf course because they give us an exhilarating question: lay up or go for the green?  For generations, this decision has been dominated by conventional “wisdom.”  We hear that laying up is the smart play or that you should leave yourself a full shot into the green.  But we don’t need adages in an era of shot tracking and analytics.  In this edition of Golf Myths Unplugged we bring you the data so you can shoot lower scores.

The Myths

Myth #1: Hitting 3W off the tee on a par 5 is good strategy

Myth #2: Laying up is good strategy

How We Tested

This myth, like our recent Should You Always Hit Driver? test [find it HERE], is powered by Shot Scope.  Rather than gather a group of testers to hit shots for us, we asked our friends at Shot Scope to mine their library of tens of millions of shots to find the answers.  The data in this test comes from the users of Shot Scope and the shots that they hit on the course.

The Results

We covered this one in its own Golf Myths Unplugged [find it HERE], but it’s worth restating.  Shot Scope tells us that golfers give up an average of over 20 yards by hitting 3W vs. driver.  In exchange for this massive distance gap, they’ll hit 1% more fairways.  You don’t have to be a math guru to know that’s a horrible trade.

On average, hitting 3W off the tee vs driver costs 0.3 strokes.  That’s the same penalty as hitting it into the rough vs. the fairway.  The difference is, you have total control over which club you pull out the bag.

I usually try to dissect these concepts into smaller myths, but this one begs to be taken down whole.  Laying up is not the smart play; getting as close to the hole as possible is.

Let’s start with the first objective: hitting the green.  Shot Scope shows us that for every 20 yards closer from 130-190, golfers hit the green 10% more often.  Said another way, you’re about 10% more likely to hit the green from 150 as you are from 170.

We should also address the fear of the rough.  Shot Scope shows us that you are more likely to hit it close if you are closer to the green.  Golfers will have the same proximity to the hole from 80 yards in the fairway as they do from 50 yards in the rough.  From 80 yards in the rough, golfers actually hit it 6 feet closer than golfers in the fairway at 110 yards.  Thus, if you’re hitting your second shot with a 7I or 8I in the hopes of keeping it in the fairway or hitting a “favorite number,” you’re likely costing yourself proximity (and strokes) compared to hitting a long iron, hybrid, or fairway wood.

Here are the closing numbers: 4.8 and 4.2. In the thousands of rounds that Shot Scope has tracked, players who go for it average 4.2 strokes to finish a par 5 after the drive.  Players who lay up average 4.8 strokes to finish.  Over a round of golf, the average golfer will lose over 2 strokes by laying up!

Before You Comment, Read This

For the “well, actually” types and other people who are super fun to be around, let me be explicit about what should be obvious.  You should lay up if going for it means you’re likely to hit it OB or in the water.  Further, no, you should not hit 3W if you consistently chunk your 3W twenty yards (if this is the case, you shouldn’t be carrying a 3W, as I explain HERE) but that doesn’t mean you should hit a 7I.  Hit the longest club you can hit well.

For those that are simply convinced that they need to hit their approach from a certain yardage, I’m not sure what more you need to see to change your mind.  There is total unanimity among those that study golf statistics for a living that getting closer is better.  Are there golfers who are exceptions?  Perhaps, but I think it’s much more likely that their beliefs are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Takeaway

Typically these myths end with some kind of nuance, but this one doesn’t.  Get as close to the green as fast as possible.  It’s really that simple.  Stop laying up to “favorite” yardages, stop being overly afraid of the rough or bunkers, stop bunting it off the tee, and go make some birdies.

Matt Saternus
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23 Comments

  1. Matt,

    The idea of not trying to lay up to a specific number is something that’s helped me since I’ve incorporated it.

    Does PIG have the resources to conduct a test on this? Would be neat if you could get several golfers to play a reachable par 5 six times – three times hitting 3-wood, then laying up, then finishing; and three times hitting driver and going for the green. (I’m asking because presumably Shot Scope can’t determine the difference between someone laying up and someone going for it but mishitting and ending up in the same location.)

    Thanks,
    Dan

    • Matt Saternus

      Dan,

      Shot Scope is pretty sophisticated in how they can parse their data.
      As for conducting this ourselves, it’s something we could do, but I’d rather use Shot Scope’s massive data pool vs. a test with a handful of players.

      Best,

      Matt

      • Interesting. I kind of believe in the hit big, miss big concept and have played a few rounds without a driver recently, either using 3w or 3h as longest club. Sure, I still miss the fairway often enough but more often than not by a few yards rather than needing hunting dogs, a machete and a torch to find my ball…

        So maybe the data says only 1% more fairways hit but my personal experience says my misses with a wood or hybrid are easier to recover from. Which means I can go for it with my second shot instead of punching it out back on the fairway.

        I have not tried laying up to a favorite distance into the green, though I see plenty of videos of players doing just that. I don’t argue that data though, I miss the green as often from a “favourite ” pw distance, as I do from a nasty half swing 60m or so distance

  2. The problem with this data is that it makes the assumption that the player always has the a choice to layup or not. If a player hits a poor drive into a situation that they can’t “go for it” ( in trees, behind trees, bad lie, in a bunker, etc.), their usually poor scores gets lumped in with the people who choose to lay up – skewing the lay up data to the negative. You see it every week on PGA tour coverage when they have their “risk reward” hole – they give similar statistics to the above study – that show layup scored average worse – then they show all the dots on the hole diagram where people layed-up from (red dot) and those that went for it (green dot) and what do you know the red dots are in the trees, the bunkers and the often thick PGA rough. So obviously they didn’t have a choice to lay up because the were punching out of the trees, trying to get over the bunker’s lip or gounging it out of the cabbage – and obviously the red dots are going to score worse on average – not because they choose to lay up, because they hit bad drives.

    Don’t get me wrong, if you’re in a good position on a par 5 most people are much better off to get as close as possible to the green. But a smart golfer will take each situation and make the decision that best suits his game. I will try to get as close to the green as possible unless I know that I might end up with an in between distance hitting a partial wedge (usually 40 to 70 yards for me). Another golf may be really good at those distances, so they should not have that concern. Everyone’s different and you have to play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses – that’s just smart.

  3. Interesting stats but how does it equate to the dispersion of Am’s (even decent ones) hitting fairway woods or long irons in the woods or water or duffing them all together. Seems this analysis assumes decent contact and keeping the ball in play. I caddied for 4 years and never let my guys go for greens unless they were legit 70s players because reloading is far more costly than losing .3 shots or 6 feet of proximity.

    • Matt Saternus

      Charlie,

      The analysis does not assume anything. It compares players of all handicaps hitting, for example, a 3W for their second shot on a par 5 vs. hitting a 7I or 8I.

      -Matt

  4. Glen’s comments are spot on. The numbers are from the landing area in, but do those numbers reflect the mis-hit in the fairway or rough trying to get that 3 wood or 5 wood as close as possible or into a penalty area. I doubt it.
    I also find that 130 to 150 to 170 to 190 is not the right distance bracket when comparing laying up on a par 5.
    They should compare less than 10 yards, 10 to 40, 40 to 90, and 100 to 125 yard scoring averages and then factor in handicap in the decision making.
    I know more people struggle with the 40 to 70 yard shot than the 100 yard full shot from an equal location.

  5. The key comment in the article is “hit the longest club you hit well.” I golf with a variety of golfers of different ability and a common mistake I see is players pulling out the 3 wood for their second shot when they might hit it good every 5th time they swing it. They’re not going to reach the green even if they do connect well with it and now they went from playing for par (or birdie) to hoping for no worse than bogey. And more likely they will compound the problem by using the 3W again for the next shot because they are so far back after chunking it the first time.

  6. “stop bunting it off the tee, and go make some birdies”
    Exactly!
    That, and “play to the middle on par 3s” is transformative.

    • Matt Saternus

      Joe,

      Amen!
      I’ll go a step further: play to the middle of every green. As Scott Fawcett says, “It’s a shotgun, not a sniper rifle.”

      -Matt

  7. Brian Parkinson

    I’m kind of not sure what this article is saying. If there’s no hazard or penalty, then get it as close as possible? That doesn’t seem like much of a revelation…

    But if there is a hazard or penalty then you need to do some analysis? Every par 5 I have ever laid up on has a penalty area or narrowing of trees that is effectively as hazard. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the time you need to be successful in challenging a hazard before it pays off. For instance, a drive on a par 5 over a ditch that has to carry 230 and OB right. Reward – 2nd shot in the 250yd range at a green protected by sand. Verses a hybrid lay-upi n the 300 yard range – fairway wood for second shot to the 100 yard range. How many extra birdies does the drive to 250 get you verses the extra OB/water penalty.
    Or for a par 5 with a 2nd shot though a narrow gap of trees from 125-75 yards of the green. Is it better to lay up with a safer iron at the 125, or pull fairway wood which is typically more errant and get stuck in the trees and have to chip out.
    That would be a cool analysis.

  8. Agree with this. Using myself as an example I now always try to get as close to the green as possible. Only exceptions are if a 2nd shot miss will result in extreme punishment.

  9. Tom Forsythe

    I started hitting more drivers and find it works great even on some very tight holes. I wrote a bunch of anecdotal examples, but deleted them as superfluous. Just try it. You’ll like it.

  10. Interesting story. my club recently held a 3 club plus putter day. I choose 5 iron, 8 iron and wedge. (Our course is short at 5000m and 9 par 3’s). Since that day I have changed my strategy on the par 5s I found it easier to score more consistently on the long holes by playing irons rather than driver. On a par 5 (450m) I have dropped the long clubs and now hit 4 iron, 8/9 iron, 8/9 iron and most times end up with a putt for birdie. Admittedly the fairways are relatively narrow and tree lined for the entire length of the hole but I’m saving at least a shot a round by keeping it in the fairway with the irons. Maybe it says something about my driving ability (I only use it 4 times a round). So I’m stuck in the lay it up club.

  11. I don’t lay up on Par 5s. I just can’t reach any of them in 2 shots.

  12. dave hankla

    I’m obviously not in your data base. Your laying up scenario ignores the most difficult shot in golf, the 30-50 yard partial swing wedge. This shot, for non-pros, is often impossible. I don’t know anyone who is good at it. ZERO people. It often leads from one 10 yard chunk to the next followed by an anger infused 3 putt.

    If you suck with your short irons, by all means go for it. Enjoy playing the lottery. But if you are good with your short irons and you can’t hit it close enough to safely chip, lay up to a flat spot in the middle of the fairway between 80 and 110 yards and turn the hole into the easiest par 3 on the course.

    • Matt Saternus

      Dave,

      I’m going to make the assumption that you’re interested in learning and respond with that in mind. If my assumption is wrong and you’re just an internet warrior trying to show me that you’re smarter than I am, more fool am I for assuming the best in people.

      You’re suffering from the same misconception as many other golfers, and it relates to your expectations. From 30-50 yards you think you should be dunking half your shots, so when you hit one fat, it causes more psychological pain and you remember it more. On the other hand, when you chunk a 110 yard shot, that’s just part of the game, forget it and move on. On the other hand, when you hit one close from 30-50, you think, “That’s what I should do” and forget it. When you stuff a wedge from 110, it’s exciting and you remember it.
      The reality is that your dispersion from 30-50 and from 80-110 is worse than you think. That’s not an insult – everyone’s is. Tour player’s dispersion from those ranges is WAY bigger than most people realize. You’re going to miss the green from 30 yards sometimes. Golf is hard. It’s still the better, higher percentage play.
      The simple fact of the matter is that if you are actually better from 80-110 than you are from 30-50, you are the most extreme of outliers. But I’d challenge you to gather the actual data over a large sample size. You’ll see that I’m not wrong.

      Best,

      Matt

    • Ferrell Katz

      Practice those shots! I started playing last year and I can get on from 30-50 yards rather easily now. I also practice my short-game from 50-yards and in daily, so I should be able to do it.

  13. Data > Anecdotes all day, every day. It’s just logical. “Oh those 30-50 yard shots are harder than 100 yard full wedge shots”. How? If you have an abbreviated swing to hit a 30-50 yard shot there is less that can mechanically go wrong in the stroke, hence you are going to hit it closer than 100 yard which requires more of a fuller swing for most amateurs which brings more contact and face control issues into play. It’s mind boggling that people can’t accept this and at least try to see if it makes a difference in their scoring over their next 5-10 rounds.

  14. Skeptical Mind

    I think to be compelling, we need more information regarding this data. How many of the people who go for it in 2 on a par-5 are single digit handicap players? How many are 20+ handicaps? Those who do go for it in 2, I’m guessing, are generally longer and more accurate players who benefit from the aggressive strategy. So those scoring averages are weighted by the caliber player. I’m also guessing that a single digit player is still a single digit player if they always layup. And a 20+ player is still a 20+ player even if they always go for it.

    On the “favorite club” data, none of your data compares any golfers “favorite club” to other clubs around it. Just because the general population is better from 100 than 120, doesn’t mean someone who favors their 120 shot will be better from 100. So much of golf is mental and about making a committed swing. A full commitment shot from 120 will always be better than a halfhearted 100 shot regardless of your favorite club. I find the issue with laying up to your favorite club is that strategy only works if you can accurately layup to a yardage. Any time I’ve tried to layup to a specific club, I always end up one club more/less which invalidates the strategy. This can also backfire in that you now have in your mind that you’re not hitting the club you wanted. Bad mental ju-ju on the swing. Whereas trying to hit it longer, you accept the club you are hitting without the negative thoughts.

    • Matt Saternus

      We should not label as “skepticism” that which would more accurately be called “lack of reading ability.”
      As is clearly stated in the article, this is pulled from TENS OF MILLIONS OF SHOTS. All levels of golfers are represented here.
      My conclusion is also the exact same that everyone who has studied the game (data, not anecdotes) has come to.

      To your second overly long paragraph, you undermine your already weak argument when you point out that there is tremendous difficulty getting the ball to that specific “favorite number,” thus the advice of everyone who has studied this: get closer to the green.

      And once more to your lack of reading ability, this is direct from the post: “Are there golfers who are exceptions?  Perhaps…”

      Matt

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