When it comes to shooting a score, you’re going to make or break your round on the par 4s. Consider how I played them at the Masters: I was three under for the week—including 10 birdies—and even par in the final round. I wouldn’t have won without playing them so well. Why are the par 4s crucial? Most golfers can advance the ball far enough to make bogey or better on the par 5s, and all you need is one good shot on the par 3s to put something decent down on your scorecard. But the par 4s require strategy and execution to navigate. My first piece of advice is to have a plan from tee to green. Think about club selection, shot shape, where you want to be in the fairway and how to approach the green. You won’t stick to this script exactly, but thinking things through gets you to focus on what you need to do. For more help, let’s play a par 4 together.
DRIVING: KNOW YOUR ZONE
Start by picking a landing area for your tee shot—one you can realistically reach. This area should provide the best chance at hitting the green in regulation. With that in mind, a good driving zone often isn’t just the fairway. For example, on a dogleg-left the first cut of rough on the right is probably a great angle into the green.
Once you have your target, focus on rhythm and tempo. It’s tempting to try to hit the driver as far as possible, but save that for the par 5s. A smoother, more controlled tee shot that finds the target area is going to increase your chances of making a good score.
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What if you hit it wild off the tee? Switch gears, and get into damage-control mode. This is the time to follow the three-shot rule: You never want to take more than three shots to reach the green on a par 4. Use the second shot to get back in a good position, then knock the third on. Anytime you’re putting for par on a par 4, you can still help your score.
IRON PLAY: CONTACT IS KING
If you don’t hit your approach shots solidly, you’re going to struggle scoring on par 4s. Good contact is a function of knowing where your club will hit the ground. My swing coach, Cameron McCormick, likes to call this “low-point control.” If you can consistently make ball-first contact, then take a divot, your distance and accuracy will skyrocket—I promise you.
One key to having low-point control is keeping your head and posture steady. For most amateurs, this means resisting the urge to stand up.
You also need to keep your arms extended through the impact zone. If your arms are bent as you approach the ball, you’re going to have to make some drastic adjustments with your body to achieve any sort of contact. Feel your arms stretching at the elbow joints as you swing down and through the ball.
One more tip: While you’re waiting to hit, make a few practice swings trying to bottom out the swing in the same spot. Pick a mark on the ground to represent your ball position, and try to strike the ground a few inches in front of that mark (above). Then copy those swings when it’s your turn to play.
PUTTING: USE THE FORCE
Assuming you didn’t hit all the par 4s in regulation, you’re going to need to putt well to shoot a good score. This is where something Cameron and I call “force control” comes into play. It’s all about training your mind to hit putts at the right speed (below). You’ve probably noticed me in tournament rounds looking at the hole on shorter putts—during the stroke. That helps me control my line and speed. But whether you look at the ball or the hole, you need to know how much force is needed to give the putt a chance.
Before the round, don’t waste your time mindlessly hitting four-footers on the practice green or thinking about your stroke. Instead, hit 15-footers at various speeds. The first putt should barely reach the front edge. The next one should stop just past the hole, and the next should split the difference. Spending 10 minutes doing this—trying to make these subtle adjustments in distance—will help you lock in your speed for the round. You’ll own the par 4s.