One of the most important decisions a football coach has to make on any given Sunday is the choice of going for it on 4th down - or punting instead. Sometimes, the choice is easy. When it is 4th and 20, the punt is the obvious choice. Likewise, facing a 4th and 1 when you need a touchdown to win is a pretty easy decision to keep the offense on the field and go for the first down. Just like a head coach in football, you need to know when to punt on the golf course - and when to go for it.
Of course, you don’t actually punt the golf ball. The golf version of a punt is chipping the ball back onto the fairway instead of going for the green. If you find your ball in a bad spot after your tee shot - behind some trees, for example - you will have to choose if you are going to be aggressive or if you are going to play safe and pitch out sideways. Pitching out is the safer option, but might mean you will make a bogey on the hole. On the other hand, going for the green could be rewarded with a par or birdie - but it could also be punished with a double bogey or worse.
So how do you make this difficult choice? The first thing to think about is the context of your round as a whole, and where you stand on the scorecard. If you are on the first couple holes, it is usually best to chip out and not do too much damage to your score early on. There will be chances later in the round to be more aggressive if you so choose. However, if this decision comes late in a round and you need a par to set a new personal best, for example, the risk might be worth the reward.
Another important factor is the variables that you are facing on the shot. How many dangers do you need to avoid in order to achieve a good result? Having to get your ball over a tree is one thing - but if you have to get over a tree and then avoid a water hazard near the green, that is likely too much risk to take on. Count how many different ways the shot could go wrong, and if you find more than one or two, you are better off playing it safe. You can’t count on hitting a completely perfect shot - there needs to be at least a little margin for error.
So - do you prefer to go for it, or are you a player that opts for the punt more often than not? Neither one is right or wrong, and there are good golfers that take both approaches. The important thing is that you understand all of the variables in play and make an informed decision - and then be confident in that decision as you hit the shot. Often, your commitment to the decision is more important than the decision itself. Good luck!