Approach Shot Strategy: When to Attack

Dan Gold
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Approach Shot Strategy 101

The Importance of Reading the Greens

It’s the 9th hole at your local club. The pin is tucked back on a well-bunkered green. Your approach shot is about 130 yards out. Go for it right? Not so fast.

One of the most important keys to shooting lower handicaps is reading the greens. It is imperative that you understand the break and slope on every hole.

By reading the break and slope you will give yourself the best chance of reaching the hole and two putting for a score of par. Here’s a simple approach shot strategy for understanding how to read downhill and uphill putts.

The bulk of your approach shot distance is between 100-150 yards. The key to shooting lower handicaps is to get it close to the pin. You need to think three putts whenever you’re in the 100-150 yard range.

You need to ask yourself:

  • Does the pin favor a right to left shot that will go into the grain and break back towards the hole?
  • Does the pin favor a left to right shot that will come out of the grain and break towards the hole?
  • Does the pin favor a slight downhill or uphill shot?

Approach Strategy for Long Range Shots

The golf course is a delicate balance of risk and reward.

Each hole is established with a myriad of features such as bunkers, water hazards, hills, trees, tiered green complexes, etc.

Tiger Woods enters the back bunker on the 4th hole during the first round of the 147th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 1, 2017 in Southport, England. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

Everything is setup to strategically test your skill set and to increase the probability of achieving a low score.

There’s no doubt that the primary focus while playing a round of golf is “Hit it close every time”.

However, the reality is, that’s not going to happen.

No one can consistently hit it close all the time.

Instead, the goal is to make the most of the investment you are putting into the shot while recognizing the risk that you are taking with each shot.

Approach Strategy for Mid-Range Shots

Many amateurs never make consistent mid-range shots and I'll bet that many low handicappers also sometimes miss these shots because they don't know the mid-range approach shot strategy.

If you watch the pros play, you'll know that they often have a good look on at least a couple of Par 4's.

Par 4's are usually 400-450 yards and a drive with a 3 wood or a 3 iron leaves a mid-range approach shot that they can play to the middle/front of the green. If you try to hit it 100 yards shorter and 50 yards offline and expect to carry the ball past the middle of the green, you won't carry it past the middle of the green.

When the longer hitter misses on these types of shot, he will usually get a high, floating, top spin shot out of sand and in the bunker, or in the woods.

If you are a mid-range ball striker, and you know that you need to hit a shot 135-140 yards, you should approach the shot alternating with a higher and lower ball flight.

You can also start from a little further back than normal. You will find that you will have to play it two or three yards from the edge of the green.

Approach Strategy for Short-Range Shots

The approach shot is often one of the most difficult parts of the game to master.

You can take more or less club (hit the ball harder or softer) than you would with a full swing, so it’s hard to find a balance between hitting the ball too hard, which could send it sailing out-of-bounds, and too soft, which could result in a frustrating tap-in.

Another factor is that you don’t want to hit the ball so hard that you have trouble getting it on the green, which would require a difficult or impossible recovery shot into the green.

As with everything else on the golf course, there’s no right answer. But this example should give you an idea of how to pick the right club during approach shots.

Approach Shot Strategy for Every Hole

When playing a round of golf, deciding which club to use for your approach shot is crucial to your success.

And the better you are at matching the club with the distance, the better your score will be.

But what part of the green do you aim for?

To make sure that you make the most putts and maximize your chances for a clean, consistent round, it is best to flag down the pin from where you will hit your approach every time.

So you can, of course, use the pin to help pick the golf club you will use. What you need to do is to match up the perceived distance between the ball and the flagstick with the distance the pin is, relative to where you are.

So if you determine that the ball is 120 yards from the green and the flagstick is about 165 yards back from the front edge, you will use a club that will give you the 135 to 140 yards.

That way, you will always be hitting it into the flag.

But if you’re unsure of that distance, here’s a quick way to measure it.

Par 3’s

Par 3’s are one of the most straight forward holes in golf. Despite being a par 3, hole length can vary from 100 yards to over 200 yards. On a par 3, there are two goals: hit the green in regulation (within two full shots of the hole) and avoid bogeys. The latter can happen for three reasons: hitting the ball into the water or out of bounds, missing the green, or hitting the green and three-putting.

Eighty percent of all par 3’s are played within 100 yards of the green. This means that your tee shots more often than not are going to be hit to land on or near the green. We already know that the most important putt is the next one. With the exception of extremely long holes, a good percentage on the first putt is ideal.

Par 3’s allow for a variety of strategies. Take into consideration that you will be hitting the ball a short distance. For that reason, the shot selection is dependent on how the green is set up.

The safest play will be to use your highest lofted wedge or hybrid. If you have one, you can use a sand wedge.

Par 4’s

When the situation is right, you can lay down a good shot at or around the pin!

Your approach shot at a par 5 should leave you with a wedge in for your third shot. So why not take your 3 wood or a hybrid and try to knock the ball close to the pin? It doesn’t happen very often but if you can knock the ball’s pin high into a wind, go for it.

A wedge is also a good tool with the green sloping from back to front and into a hole that is surrounded by bunkers.

Par 5’s

Par 5’s are incredibly tough holes. It is so difficult but a par here is a great moment and one that is extremely rewarding. I see a lot of players get frustrated by the fact that they do not convert them into birdies or better.

A lot of players try make these holes too hard and end up not even giving themselves a chance. They are so tricky that they can easily lead you into thinking you need to hit that 300 yard drive with a five iron.

Now that may work once in a while but it will not happen very often. You want to play aggressive but with good judgement. Most of the time you will be able to hit two drivers on this hole.

You have to be careful not to miss the fairway because once you are off line it can be difficult to get back on track. You can play the second shot earlier than you would if it was a closer hole, but do not just go for one of the bunkers because they just are not worth it. You can be aggressive but make sure that you play smart. Do not give up that easy par just to show you can play hard.

Final Thoughts on Your Approaches

Since the drives are so important on your approach to the green, you want to hit the ball hard and get it to land softly on the green. You want a tight spiral with the ball going upward and landing softly. This may take some practice shots, but it is possible.

If the conditions are windy, you may want to lag your tee shot. This can help you make the green on a par 4 or better yet, get birdie or even an eagle.

Throw the ball at the ground, aim at the hole and you should be okay. Continue to throw the tee shots at the hole to help you gain experience.

The final thing you want to watch for is the green. Watch for undulations so your golf ball does not get stuck in a rut.