Definition: The Forced Carry

In golf, "forced carry" is the term for when a golfer must play a stroke over an intervening penalty area (such as a body of water), bunker or other potential hazard in order to advance toward the green. There is no option to roll the ball through such a shot, or play around the problem area. In other words, the golfer is forced to carry the danger area in order to advance his or her golf ball.

Let's back up a little: What is the golf definition of "carry"? As a verb, "carry" means to clear an obstacle on the golf course: "I carried that pond to reach the green." As a noun, "carry" refers to the distance your shots travel in the air: "How much carry does this shot require?"

All shots have a little roll to them, which along with carry makes up the full distance. Knowing your carry is important in order to decide whether to attempt to clear a water hazard, for example.

So "carry" refers to the distance a golf ball remains in the air, and when a "forced carry" exists, there is no option to advance the ball through roll, along the ground. The golfer must hit a shot that keeps his ball in the air for enough distance to clear the hazardous area.

Examples of Forced Carries

What are some examples of forced carries? Here are a few:
  • A pond or other body of water that crosses in front of the green, so the only way to get your ball onto the green is to hit over that water. A par-3 hole whose green is fronted with water is one of the most common forced carries golfers encounter.
  • Similarly, a green can be fronted by a large bunker or a series of small bunkers that ring around the front of the green.
  • Rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, ditches and ravines that cross the fairway on longer holes (par-4s and par-5s) are more examples of forced carries.
  • And a fairway bunker that fully or partially reaches across the fairway (a cross bunker, in other words) can also serve as a forced carry.
Basically anything that crosses your line of play and that you cannot roll the ball across — forcing you to hit over it — can be thought of as a forced carry.

In such situations (with the possible exception of a bunker or body of water that only juts out partially into the fairway), there is no option to play out to the side of such a hazard, or go around it, or roll a ball over it. The only option is to carry your shot over it. Hence, the term "forced carry."

Course Management and Forced Carries

"Course management" refers to the decisions a golfer makes as she plays her way around a golf course: Knowing which shots you can pull off, which you'd better not try, and in what situations you trust yourself to try them; the best places on a hole to play to, or to bail-out to, and so on.

The big course management question with forced carries is the obvious one: How confident are you that you can hit your ball over what has to be carried?

Scenario: You are 160 yards from the green, but the green is fronted by a pond. If you're a highly skilled golfer, carrying that 160 yards to the green is a no-brainer. But for high-handicaps, many women and senior golfers, many juniors, that's a big carry. Do you go for it?

What if there is a stream crossing the fairway 220 yards off the tee. Can you carry it with your drive? How confident are you? If you aren't confident you can hit your drive over that stream, instead choose a club what will get you close to it without going into it. Then play over on your second shot.

Laying up (or bailing out, if a bail-out area is available) in such situations is nothing to feel bad about. If it's the smart play, then you absolutely should do it. Just because it's a forced carry, don't let it force you into poor course management and potential troubles or penalties.

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