How to Recover When Your Golf Ball is in the Trees

Most golfers have a deathly fear of water hazards and sand traps ..but a ball in the trees can present even bigger problems.

There are a number of ways to escape the woods depending on where your ball sits. Even with a clear swing and a path through the trees, discretion is the better part of valor. It's usually best to take your medicine and use the least risky path back to safety

When tree-bound, always note overhanging branches between your golf ball and the target. Use a long-iron, mid-iron or even a hybrid to ensure a low enough shot to escape, play the ball slightly back in your stance, and swing with firm wrist to keep the golf ball down. On the other hand, going over limbs may be a better choice if you have a decent lie.

If you've gotten unlucky and find your ball beneath low-hanging limbs, assess your options. If the ball simply can't be hit, take an unplayable lie following USGA rules.

If you can advance the ball, make sure you're able to take a stance and swing without bending or breaking limbs or leaves. Removing obstacles from your swing path – as in breaking a branch on the backswing – carries a one-shot penalty.

If you play at least some of your golf on a tree-lined course, you are going to find yourself in the middle of those trees from time to time.

How to Recover When Your Ball Is in the Trees

Despite your best efforts to keep the ball in the fairway, a drive or two is sure to get away from you on occasion. When you do lose your way and wind up in the woods, you need to have a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. Hitting your ball into the trees has the potential to cost you several strokes on the scorecard, but it doesn't have to end that way. Make smart decisions, execute your recovery shot, and keep the damage to a minimum.

In this article, we are going to offer some advice on how to get out of this situation successfully. There are a number of variables at play anytime you find your ball in the trees, since no two situations are exactly alike. The golfer who fares the best in these spots will be the one who is willing to be creative and patient at the same time. You can't just close your eyes and swing hard in order to get out of this kind of trouble. You'll need a smart plan, and we hope that the information offered in this article will help improve your ability to craft such a plan.

All of the content below is written from the perspective of a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

The Basics

The Basics

There are a few basic concepts that you should have in mind when you hit the ball in the trees. In this section, we are going to highlight these points, and they should serve as the groundwork for your thinking when you head into the woods to play a recovery shot. You'll always want to have an open mind, of course, as you never know exactly what you will face in this type of situation. However, as long as you keep these concepts in the back of your mind, you should be on the way toward a successful conclusion.

  • Calm down. The first rule of thumb to follow when your ball is in the trees is to calm down and think through the situation rationally. When you first see your ball head into the woods, you are going to be frustrated – or even angry. Obviously, you weren't intending on hitting your ball into the trees, so you've made some sort of mistake to wind up in this predicament. Many mistakes made in the trees stem from the fact that the player has not yet calmed down and focused on the task at hand. It is natural to get frustrated when playing a game as difficult as golf, but you've got to get your mind back on track as soon as possible. Before you arrive at your ball, work through the frustration of the poor shot and put it behind you. With your temper set to the side, you can focus on nothing other than playing the best possible shot given the situation at hand.
  • The top priority is getting out. Everyone loves the thought of playing a brilliant shot from deep in the woods. You may have visions of the ball zooming out of the trees, missing all the branches, and landing softly on the putting surface. Is that possible? Maybe – depending on a number of factors, including your lie, the path you have to the hole, the length of the shot, and more. However, no matter how badly you want to pull off an incredible shot, your first task is simply to get the ball back on the short grass. That might mean going for the green, or it might mean just pitching out to the fairway. When in doubt, opt for the safer shot so you don't put yourself in even deeper trouble. Playing it safe and pitching out might not be the most exciting option in the world, but it is often the best bet.
  • Need more than a 'window'. Many golfers get themselves into trouble by aiming at a small 'window' of an opening in the trees that wait between their ball and the green. While it might be technically possible to squeeze the ball through that opening, is it likely? Not so much. It is tremendously difficult to hit a small opening in the trees with a golf shot, as there are countless things which could go wrong along the way. Judging both the height and direction of your shot is a serious challenge under the best of circumstances, and that doesn't even take into account the pressure of pulling it off when even a slight miss will lead to an ugly result. You should be looking for large openings when plotting your path out of the trees.
  • Take the conditions into consideration. If you are playing on a dry and firm golf course, playing the ball out of the trees using a low path is probably going to be your best bet. With any luck, you'll be able to get the ball down on the fairway and let it run up toward the green. Of course, when the course is wet and soft, that really isn't going to work. The fairway won't offer much run out, meaning your punch out isn't going to make much progress. You can still take the low path, if it is your best bet, but you shouldn't expect to see the run out that you would see when the course is dry. The high option is far more desirable in soft conditions, assuming it is available. This way, you can cover maximum distance through the air, and you can trust the ball to stop quickly when it lands (giving you a bit more control over the shot).
  • Develop your own style. While you should always err on the safe side when trying to get out of the trees, you should also feel welcome to develop your own style on these shots. For instance, some players love to hit low punch shots through the trees and back to the fairway. Other players will look high whenever possible, preferring to loft the ball over the branches and back to the short grass. Also, some golfers are naturally more conservative than others. You might find that you prefer to just pitch out in nearly every circumstance, or you may find that you are comfortable going for the green with the circumstances line up just right.

Patience is an important word when you find your ball resting amongst the trees. It is easy to get annoyed at yourself for finding this situation in the first place, and that frustration can lead you into some poor decisions. Take a deep breath or two, calm yourself down, and be patient with your plan. You might not like playing the safe shot but doing so will probably be in the best interest of your overall score.

Learning Some Valuable Shots

Learning Some Valuable Shots

Making good decisions is a big part of successfully getting out of the trees in a single swing. However, you can't succeed on decision making alone. Once you decide how you are going to attempt to get back to the short grass, you still have to execute the shot. If you fail to execute, all the brilliant planning in the world isn't going to be worth anything in the end.

In this section, we are going to highlight three valuable shots you can use to move your ball out of the woods and back to the fairway – or even up to the green. It is easy enough to practice these shots on the range, even though you won't be playing from the trees in that setting. Learn how to manipulate the flight of the ball in practice and you'll have more options available to you when on the course.

The points below highlight the three main kinds of shots you'll want to have available when you have to play out of the trees.

  • A low punch. This is where it all starts. Many of the shots you play to get out of the trees will need to be hit low in order to avoid branches. This type of shot will fly very low – maybe even just a few feet off the ground – before landing and running the rest of its distance. To play a low punch, you will need to make a couple of key adjustments. First, you will choke down significantly on the grip at address, in order to shorten the length of the swing. Then, you are going to move the ball well back in your stance. Roughly halfway between your right foot and the center point of your stance is a good rule of thumb. When you combine these two adjustments with a low-lofted club – something like a three iron or four iron – you will be set up for a beautiful low punch. As far as the swing itself is concerned, your job is simple. You are going to stay balanced, make a short backswing, and hit down through the ball with confidence. A clean strike is crucial here, so make that your main objective.
  • A high escape. On the other end of the spectrum, you may need to use a high shot from time to time to get out of the woods. The kind of high shot you will want to hit from the trees is somewhat different from the kinds of high shots you may hit from the fairway. Thanks to the high spin rates offered by modern golf balls, it is possible to hit shots that start low and gradually climb until they wind up quite high in the air. Those shots are excellent from the fairway but are usually not very useful from the trees. If you need to get over some trees, you will want to hit a shot that launches high right from the start. To achieve this goal, move the ball up in your stance and open the face of your club slightly. Then, as you make the swing, be sure to stay back with your body so you can swing through impact on a level plane. It takes skill to execute this kind of shot, but it's not impossible.
  • A dramatic curve. In some cases, you may need to hit a sharp hook in order to get out of the trees while keeping the ball on the right path. In other cases, it will be a big fade/slice. Being able to snap the ball in either direction is a great advantage when you are trying to get out of the trees while still moving the ball up toward the green. If you would like to attempt some major hooks and slices, start by making a change to your stance. As a good rule of thumb, you are going to point the club face in the direction that you would like the ball to end up, and you are going to set your feet in the direction that you want the ball to start. As an example, for a shot that you want to hook out of the trees and up to the green, you would aim the club face at the green and set your feet on a line that takes you away from the trees and out toward the fairway. Then, you swing along the line setup by your feet, and hopefully a hook is the result. This is a risky shot, of course, because if the ball happens to fly straight instead of hooking as desired, you will end up way off course.

You are going to struggle to get out of the trees successfully if you don't have at least a couple of the shots listed above at your disposal. Making your standard swing just isn't going to work in all situations, and that is particularly true when you are in the middle of the woods. Take some time to practice these shot variations during an upcoming range session and you'll be better prepared for the next time you find the trees off the tee.