Explaining the 'Lay Up' Shot in Golf

Water hazard in front of a green
Not sure you can fly your long approach shot to this green? Better hit a lay-up short of the water, then. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

A "lay up" is a golf shot that is played conservatively in order to avoid trouble ahead on the hole. For example, you might be able to clear that water hazard up ahead ... then again, you're not certain. Go for it? Or play it safe? If you play it safe, you'll hit a lay-up shot short of the water hazard that removes the possibility of going into the water and incurring a penalty.

A golfer "lays up" on a hole when the risk outweighs the reward, or when the golfer knows that hitting a shorter shot is really the only option.

"Lay up" as a golf term is an old part of the golfer's lexicon, dating to the 19th century at least. In an 1800s example of its use, cited by The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms, a writer states, "There is a running stream between you and the green ... If you were playing a medal round you would lay up in two, be safely on the green in three." ("Medal round" is a reference to stroke play.)

Key Takeaways

  • A lay up, or lay-up shot, is one that a golfer intentionally hits shorter than they are capable of hitting in order to avoid the risk of going into a hazard or hitting an obstacle ahead.
  • Lay-up shots are played by golfers of all abilities with regularity — they are part of what is known as good course management.

Laying Up Is Smart, Not Wimpy

Knowing when to lay up is part of what's called "course management," and good course management - essentially just making good decisions as you play your way around the golf course - can save you strokes.

Of course, going for it is fun! Everyone wants to hit the "hero shot." Which is why golfers who enjoy teasing one another might try to goad a golf buddy who's considering a lay up. (Top-Flite once built an entire marketing campaign around the phrase "never lay up.")

And if you are out with a group of friends just having a good time, then "good course management" is probably not something you're too concerned with anyway.

But knowing when to lay up - making smart choices - is an essential part of golf when you are playing for score, such as in a tournament or during a handicap round, or during any round when you are taking the rules and your score seriously.

Strategy Matters With Lay-Ups

Let's say you hit your tee shot on a par 4 and you have 200 yards left to get to the green. But there's a creek running across the fairway right in front of the green. You can try to hit your ball over the creek and onto the green, but you're just not sure you can carry the ball far enough to clear that water.

So instead of attempting that risky shot, you decided to lay up in front of the creek. Rather that taking a long iron or fairway wood for that long approach shot, you might choose instead to play a short iron or wedge and hit the ball around, say, 130 yards. That lay-up shot would leave you a very manageable 70 yards to the green, a short shot that likely takes the water out of play.

What's the strategy in that scenario? There's the initial decision to play a lay-up shot, rather than going for the green. But there's also the decision on how short of the creek to leave yourself. You want to hit your lay up far enough that the distance remaining is a distance you are comfortable with. Is 70 yards an uncomfortable distance for you? Between clubs, maybe? Then hit a shorter lay up, and leave yourself 100 yards. Or whatever distance lets you hit a club and yardage you are confident in.

Another example: You're playing to a green where the flag is tucked in the front right, behind a bunker that guards the right side of the green. You're not sure you can reach the green, so you decide to lay up. Play your lay up to the left side of the fairway, because that takes the bunker on the right out of play on your next shot, and gives you an angle at which you can fire at the pin.

So don't just casually whack the ball on a lay-up shot. Think about where you want to be on the next stroke, and play to that location.