Approach Shots in Golf

Trying to Hit the Putting Green with a Stroke

Lydia Ko plays an approach shot into the green during the LPGA's HSBC Women's Champions tournament in 2015
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

 When golfing, the goal is to get the ball as close to the hole and surrounding putting green in as few strokes as possible in order to earn the lowest score, but when a golfer intentionally is hitting the ball toward the putting green on his or her second or third stroke — typically from the fairway — this is called an approach shot.

An approach shot in golf is any stroke that a golfer plays into the green on a par-4 or par-5 hole or any shot played with the intention of hitting the putting green, but this nomenclature isn't typically used on par-3 holes because the golfer expects to hit the green — or is at least trying to — with the tee shot.

Golfers often shorten the phrase to simply "approach," as in "she is using a 5-iron for her approach" or "he is approaching the 5th hole's green with a 5-iron." Commentators and golf fans alike can use this terminology to help explain the intentions and styles of strokes a golfer is making.

Identifying an Approach Shot

Any shot played into a green is, technically, an approach shot, But modern golfers usually understand the term to mean strokes played with a full swing: A hybrid or mid-iron or short-iron from the fairway or rough; a pitch shot from 100 yards on which the golfer makes a full swing.

A half-swing pitch from, say, 40 yards; or a chip shot from 20 feet off the green isn't usually called an approach by golfers today, but up until the early parts of the 20th century, any shot from off the green to the green, even short chips from the fringe, would be referred to as "approaching the green."

Any stroke — the second, third, or even 13th — yikes! — can be an approach shot so long as the player is attempting to hit the ball to the green and the swing is not a short chip shot but rather a full swing.

Ideally, though, golfers hit approach shots on their second shot into a par-4 green and on their third stroke into par-5 holes; a long hitter might hit an approach on his second stroke into a par-5 while that would be a lay-up shot to a part of the fairway farther up the hole for a short hitter.

Using Approach to Describe a Part of the Course

The word approach does have an alternative definition in golf, which is often used by golf club organizers and seasoned patrons alike, the wherein approach is used to describe the physical design of a golf hole where the fairway runs up to the putting green.

Golfers use this definition of approach to discussing how difficult or easy a courses second or third stroke is to hit — whether or not a full swing is required on the third stroke on a par-4 hole, for instance, would be determined by how long the hole's approach to the green is.

A golfer might say "the approach on this hole is very tight" or "this hole was designed with an approach that allows golfers the option of running a shot onto the green rather than flying it all the way there." Still, when the golfer is physically hitting the ball down the fairway, he or she may use the word to mean both the stroke itself and the course's design.