When standing on the tee of a short par 4, do you:

  • Automatically grab the driver and try to hit the ball as close to the green as possible?
  • Always opt for less club, like a hybrid, aiming to get the ball in play knowing that you'll still have a short approach shot?
  • Assess the situation before deciding your strategy?

If you answered 1 or 2, you may be cheating yourself out of opportunities. Hitting driver could land you in trouble that's easily avoided, or leave an approach from an uncomfortable distance. Conversely, you might be playing it safe when there's no danger in hitting driver. In effect, passing up a potential reward for fear of non-existent risk.

Taking approach No. 3 will help you maximize the opportunities these holes present. Next time you face a short par 4, consider the following factors before choosing a club:

  • Is there trouble around the distance I usually hit my driver, or can I hit it beyond/short of the danger?
  • Could a “safe” shot actually bring hazards into play?
  • How severe is the penalty for an off-line drive? What about a layup that misses the mark?
  • Is there an advantage to driving it close to the green, or is it difficult to get the ball near the hole from a short distance?
  • What part of my approach game is working best right now? Shots from inside 100 yards? Full swings from farther back?

Most of the answers will be obvious with just a moment's study. Spend a few extra seconds strategizing and you may shave a stroke or two from your score.

Short Par Four Strategy – Lay Up or Let It Rip?

Short Par Four Strategy – Lay Up or Let It Rip?

Short par fours might be the most exciting holes in all of golf. With just about any score possible – from an eagle on up to a double bogey or worse – there is a lot that can happen over such a short distance. Golf Course designers often like to include one or two short par fours within the design of a course in order to break up the repetition of consistently long holes. If you are playing the correct tees for your skill level, a short par four should be right on the edge of your distance capabilities – making it a perfect risk/reward proposition.

Of course, when you get to the tee of a short par four, there is only one question that comes to mind – 'Should I go for the green'? That is the question that the course is asking you at this point in your round. Basically, you have two options on a short par four. You can go for the green and risk hitting your ball into trouble along the way, or you can take the safer route and choose to lay up. It is important to understand that there is no right or wrong answer in this situation. An argument can usually be made in both directions, so it will be up to you to weigh all of the factors in play before reaching a decision.

Unfortunately, many golfers don't really take the necessary time to think through this decision properly. Out on the course, the majority of golfers go one of two ways – either they always go for the green, or they always lay up. Inevitably, this kind of 'one way' thinking leads to bad decisions. You should always be open to both options based on the design of the hole in front of you. Some short par fours will set up nicely for you to be aggressive with your driver, while others are just waiting for you to make a dumb mistake. Only when you are willing to think about how your game matches up with the design of each specific hole will you be able to reach your scoring capabilities.

In the content below, we are going to take a close look at a number of various factors that should influence your decision making when you reach the tee on a short par four. It is important in golf to be completely confident in your choices before hitting any shot, so the thought process that goes into your approach on a short par four is critical. As long as you have thought about all potential outcomes, and you are fully convicted in your choice, you should be able to make a good swing. Your bad swings will usually come when you aren't quite sure of what you want to do – those doubts in the back of your head are often manifested as poor swings. Golf might seem like a game that is decided by how well you swing the club, but the mental side of the sport is just as important as the physical.

All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

Getting the Numbers Right

Getting the Numbers Right

The first thing you need to assess when you reach the tee on a short par four is the distances that are in play on the hole. It is important to note that 'distances' is plural in this case – that is because there is more than one yardage you need to consider while making your choice. To start, you will need to identify the yardage from the tee box you are playing to the location of the hole on that day. If you have a laser range finder along with you, that tool should make quick work of this job. If not, you will have to estimate the yardage to the hole using a GPS unit, or simply by using the markings on the course.

Once you have a number that you can use for the distance to the hole, you then want to figure out how far you are standing from the front edge of the green. In many ways, this number is more important than the yardage to the hole when playing a short par four. As long as you get the ball on the green with your drive, you can obviously consider the shot a success. After all, any putt for eagle is a good putt for eagle. So, use the information available to you to determine a yardage that you can use to serve as your distance from the front edge.

On some holes, those two yardages will be the only ones you need. However, in some cases, you might need to calculate a third number. This will be the case on holes that have a forced carry in front of the green. For instance, a hole that has a water hazard or a large bunker which protects the green is going to require a little extra math. You need to know precisely how far you will have to hit the ball in the air in order to clear the trouble before you decide whether or not to go for the green. Since the last thing you want to do is hit your drive into the hazard, you must make sure that you can easily clear any trouble if you do decide to let it rip in an effort to reach the green.

Once you have collected all of the important numbers for the hole in front of you, it should be pretty easy to get a general idea of what you are going to do. If you find that the numbers are well beyond your capabilities with the driver, you are obviously going to need to lay up. Or, if you find that you can easily reach the green with your driver and there are no notable hazards to speak of, then it will be an easy choice to give it a go. Of course, most of the decisions you face are not going to be this easy. Usually, the yardage will be right on the edge of your capability, and there will be some form of trouble to consider. When that is the case, you will need to use the points highlighted in the following sections to make your choice.

Conditions Are a Major Factor

Conditions Are a Major Factor

You should constantly be evaluating the playing conditions that you face anytime you are on the golf course. The same course can play dramatically different from one day to the next due to changes in course conditions, so this is a point that should always be on your mind. Not only does this point relate to playing a short par four, it actually relates to every single shot you hit as you go through your round. You are only going to be able to score your best if you are able to assess the conditions of the course (and the weather) and respond accordingly.

The first piece of the conditions puzzle to assess when facing a short par four is the wind. If the wind is into your face the hole is obviously going to play longer than it would otherwise. Or, on the other side of the coin, a downwind hole is going to play shorter than expected in calm conditions. So, after factoring in the wind, you will need to look again at your yardages and adjust them as necessary. For instance, a 280-yard par four may be well out of reach for you when playing into the wind, but it could be a relatively easy shot if the wind is at your back. Many amateur golfers make the mistake of underestimating the wind when planning their shots – don't put yourself in that category. Before making the final decision on how you are going to deal with a short par four, be sure to weigh the influence of the wind properly.

Another conditions point that needs to be taken into account is the firmness of the turf. Turf firmness is something that is affected by weather (more rain generally means softer turf) as well as the specific location of the course (courses on sandy ground tend to remain firmer). So, is the ball bouncing and rolling out on the course you are currently playing? If so, you might be able to reach a green that would have been out of range on a soft golf course. Just as you have to factor wind into the equation when calculating your total distance, you also need to think about the bounce and roll that you expect to get out of the shot. Even if you are only able to hit the ball 250 yards in the air, you might be able to reach a par four that is 300 yards or more if the conditions are right.

The wind and the firmness of the turf are the two main considerations that you need to pay attention to when it comes to course conditions. However, there are some other issues in play as well, such as air temperature. The ball isn't going to fly as far on a cold day as it will on a warm one, so think about that point as well. Other conditions may be in play as well that are specific to the course you are playing, so keep an open mind and be as observant as possible. Only when you have thought through all relevant conditions and how they will affect your shot can you really be confident in the shot selection that you are going to make.

Matching Up Shapes

Matching Up Shapes

A big piece of the puzzle is going to come down to how the shape of your ball flight matches up with the shape of the hole you are playing. While a short par four is unlikely to have a dog leg, most driveable par fours are going to have some kind of shape as defined by a tree, a bunker, or some water. Therefore, you need to take a careful look at the shape of the hole before deciding if you are going to let it rip in an effort to knock the ball on the green from the tee.

Naturally, the first thing you need to think about is the standard trajectory that you are able to produce with your driver. Do you normally hit a draw from right to left, or are you typically going to cut the ball from left to right? Right off the bat, this is going to make up a big part of your decision for you. For instance, if the hole is calling for a cut but you really only can hit a draw, you should probably lay up and hit a wedge into the green. It would be a mistake to try going against your natural ball flight in this situation, as attempting that type of shot is likely to end badly.

So, as you are standing on the tee, take a look down the fairway and decide if your shot shape is going to be able to place the ball on the green (or near the green in a good position). If not, you will want to club down and just get the ball safely in play. However, if you like the way the hole matches up with your trajectory, you can continue to weigh the idea of going for the green. However, the shape of your shot isn't the only thing you need to consider – the height of your average drive matters as well.

Does this short par four demand that you carry some form of hazard, or it is all short grass between you and the hole? If you need to carry an obstacle, you will need to be sure that your ball flight is going to be high enough to keep your ball in the air for the full distance. If a large portion of your distance usually comes along the ground, you might have trouble clearing everything that is in your way.

This is a good point at which to stop and discuss the overall strategy that should be in the back of your mind while playing a short par four. When you are presented with a short par four by the golf course designer, you can think of it as something of a gift. You are being given an opportunity to make a good score without having to work too hard (in most cases). Many par fours come in at 400 yards or longer, so playing one that is around 300 yards should be seen as a golden opportunity.

With that in mind, what is the last thing you want to do with a golden opportunity? Waste it. It would be a shame to make a bogey (or worse) on a hole that was intended as a scoring chance. Therefore, as you are making your strategy choice on the tee, you should keep in mind that you at least want to set up a makeable birdie putt if nothing else. Whether you try to drive the green or you opt to lay up, the goal should be the same – position your ball after two shots in a spot that gives you a real chance to make a three. Sure, it would be great to make an eagle, but that is going to be a rare occasion – focus instead on doing everything you can to set up a birdie.

As you certainly are aware, there is more than one way to make a birdie on a short par four. Yes, you can drive the green and two putt for your birdie, but you can also lay up, hit a great wedge, and knock in the putt. There is no difference between those two routes on the scorecard, so it is up to you to decide which is more likely to succeed. However, when the decision is close between laying up and giving it a rip, your default should always be in favor of the lay up. Why? Because there is less chance of something going wrong when you lay up. If you go for the green and hit a bad shot, you could quickly turn a short par four into a big problem on your scorecard. To avoid that outcome, most players will be better off favoring the lay up unless the circumstances are perfect for being aggressive.

The previous paragraph isn't meant to say that you can never go for the green on short par fours – it is simply meant as a warning to make sure you don't waste shots on holes that are meant to be easy. Making a bogey on a short par four can feel like making a double, and it can make it difficult for you to recover your score before the round is over. You should feel free to give it a go on a short par four when the circumstances are right, but never be afraid to lay up when you think that being conservative is the smart choice.

Keep Your Decision in Context

Keep Your Decision in Context

Each hole that you play should be dealt with in the context of the round (or tournament) as a whole. That means that the strategy you employ on the first few holes of a round might not be the same strategy that you will want to use later in the day. This is a line of thinking that certainly applies to short par fours. What might be as silly decision early in a round could be the right choice later, depending on the situation and what is on the line. This is the last piece of the puzzle when making a club selection choice on the tee of a short par four – the context of the round and what you are trying to accomplish.

Without even getting into the idea of how your decisions should be made in a tournament, we can highlight this concept simply by thinking about a single round. If you encounter a short par four early in the day – say, on the second hole – you might be more willing to take a risk and go for the green, since you have the rest of the round to recover if a mistake is made. Or, on the other hand, you might decide that you like to play conservative early on while still getting into the flow of the round. The choice is yours, of course, but it is important to think about how the status of your round affects your thinking.

When a short par four comes along late in a round, you will want to base a large portion of your choice on the score you have going. If you are playing well and would be happy to simply par the final few holes, lay up with your tee shot and focus on hitting a great wedge. However, if you are hoping to make a birdie (or even an eagle) before finishing, you might decide that the time is right to take a risk and let it fly. Again, this will all need to be based on your own personal feelings and the way the hole looks to your eye as you stand on the tee.

Playing a short par four can be very exciting – unless you find your ball in a bad spot off the tee and you wind up making a bogey or worse. Since short par fours can offer up both good scores and bad ones, you need to be sure to make a smart decision while standing on the tee. The lay up shot is likely to serve you best most of the time, but there certainly are occasions when you can justify going for the green. Weigh all of the various factors, trust your gut feeling, and make a great swing regardless of which path you choose.