The Lay Up Shot
August 24, 2001
Should I go for it?
Golfers often ask themselves that question when facing a long-yardage, low percentage shot.
When a hazard or two also lies between the golfer and the green, the shot beckons with the possibility of brilliance and the probability of disaster.
There’s always the lay up shot. The golfer can make two short iron shots and avoid the hazard. The question is which option is the truly smart move.
This past weekend’s televised golf coverage gave a few examples that are worth considering.
In the third round of the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Japanese tour star Shingo Katayama had well over two hundred yards to carry over a pond to the 490-yard par 4 18th hole.
As his playing partner, David Toms, watched intently, Katayama swung his fairway wood out of the light rough.
The ball took off on a low trajectory. The greenside crowd began to moan as the ball started to dive toward the pond.
Suddenly the ball splashed the water a yard or two from the stone-faced pond edge, and bounced up onto the rough near the green. The crowd roared, and Katayama avoided a disaster.
In the final round the next day, Toms faced an even more difficult second shot on the same hole. He had a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, whose drive lay in the fairway several yards past him.
Toms’ drive landed in the bermuda rough on the right side, about 210 yards from the hole, on a downhill, sidehill lie. The 34-year-old LSU grad kept a hand on his 5-wood while he and his caddie discussed his options. Dozens in the crowd urged him to go for it.
An audible groan of disappointment arose when Toms pulled out a wedge and put his second shot 88 yards from the hole. Mickelson then landed his second shot within 25 feet of the hole. He could tie Toms with a birdie, and win his first major if Toms failed to make par.
Toms then fired a great sand wedge shot. The ball came to rest less than 12 feet from the hole.
Mickelson’s birdie try stopped just inches from the hole. Toms then calmly rapped in his par putt for the win.
The crowd’s prior disenchantment with Toms’ course management was quickly forgotten in the raucous cheering for the new major champion.
CBS returned to this little golfing problem that same night with their broadcast of Tin Cup, one of the better golf movies (though that’s not saying all that much).
Kevin Costner played Roy McAvoy, a daredevil but mostly burned-out Texas driving range pro. McAvoy manages to qualify for the U.S. Open, in hopes of gaining the affections of Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo), the therapist-girlfriend of his arch-rival, PGA Tour player David Simms (Don Johnson).
In each of the first three rounds, McAvoy dumps his second shot on the long par-5 18th hole into the pond just short of the green. He nonetheless makes it to the final pairing for the last round. As he explains to the wondering press corps, “You think a guy like me bothers to worry about the percentages?”
In the movie’s climax, McAvoy attempts to make the same green in two, even though all he needs to force a playoff is a simple par. The ball lands on the green, and then rolls down the slope and into the pond.
Tin Cup tries again and again, with the same result. Finally, he manages to hole out with his twelfth shot.
McAvoy thus earns a bit of immortality, if not the championship.
Somehow the CBS crew didn’t notice the contrast between their Sunday night movie and the tournament they broadcast the same day.
David Toms knew the risks, and knew what he needed to do to win. He earned both immortality and the PGA Championship, by taking advantage of the full range of his golfing skills.
That was smart.