You just hit the drive of the day, and it couldn’t have come on a better hole. Your ball caught the hill and rolled all the way down to a flat spot in the fairway. You’re now within striking distance of the front of the green on this short par 5, so it’s go-time, right? Well, maybe not. Just as you reach for a fairway wood, a gust of wind hits your face. You look up and notice the ripples on the pond that guards the front of the green. Then you look down at your ball and notice it’s got a dab of mud on it. Meanwhile, your partner just put one in that pond, and your opponents, who are 2 down, are goading you to go for it. Taking everything into consideration, do you still go for the green in two or do you lay up?
“You would think it would be as simple as, well, I know I can hit the ball far enough to get it there,” says PGA Tour pro Tony Finau. “But if you play golf, you know that’s not how it works.”
It’s true that yardage often is the most important determinant in taking on a forced carry. (Finau says his max carry is 305 yards. Wow.) But there are plenty of other elements to consider—physical and mental.
Things such as the lie, the weather, what’s to gain or lose if it’s a success or failure—they all matter. But the first thing to think about, says tour pro Luke Donald, is, Do I feel comfortable pulling off the shot?
“What goes into making me feel more comfortable?” Donald says. “How I feel I’m swinging that day. Do I have a good yardage? Which direction is the wind? Is this a strength of my game, or am I more suited to laying up and having confidence in my short game? That’s what goes through my head.”
Though you don’t want the situation to feel more momentous than it is—going for it in a Saturday morning four-ball is a lot different than trying it on the back nine with a lead on a PGA Tour Sunday—sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella cautions not to be impetuous in your decision-making.
One way of assessing the risk, he says, is considering how many times you would be successful in 10 attempts on an empty golf course. Also, consider how many shots it would set you back if your ball didn’t clear the hazard.
Another thing to think about, Finau says, is that getting over a forced carry doesn’t automatically mean a birdie or better.
“Are you just looking at the green or looking at everything that’s on the other side?” Finau says. “It’s really frustrating if you clear the hazard but end up in a situation where you’re struggling just to make par.”
So let’s say you’ve assessed everything from your swing, feeling as if it’s on autopilot (thank you, Mr. Transfusion), to that little tuft of grass practically teeing your ball up. There’s no changing your mind; you’re going for it. So what’s the plan?
If you’ve got more than one club capable of reaching the other side, opt for the longer one so you have a little more margin of error on a mis-hit. And don’t go pin hunting unless you’ve got plenty of green to work with, Donald says.
Adds Mike Bender, one of Golf Digest’s 50 Best Teachers: “Unfortunately most golfers focus on where they don’t want the ball to go, and that creates pressure. Pressure in golf causes players’ muscles to tighten, which restricts movement and changes tempo.”
Instead, Bender says focus on a good swing thought like, Pound the ground.
“Swinging aggressively down helps a player stay in posture and accelerate into the ball,” he says. “Normally, players are anxious to see the shot and rise up. That causes mis-hits.”
Seeing the shot in your mind and committing to it is key, Rotella says. “And you need to know that it’s not going to ruin your day if you don’t pull it off. Be prepared to live with the consequences.”