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Opinion & Analysis

Hunt: Breaking down the best players on tour by category

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I’m often asked by my readers what current PGA Tour player’s game I would prefer to have based upon my statistical research. To answer their question, I decided to look at the data and split the game into certain key metrics and base it upon a Tour player’s history. Hopefully for those at home, this will get people pointed in the right direction as to which players to observe when it comes to certain categories of the game.

DRIVING THE BALL

Boo Weekley

Variables to consider:

  • Driving distance.
  • Fairway percentage.
  • Average distance from the edge of the fairway.
  • Percent of times in a fairway bunker.
  • “Missed Fairway — Other.”

Based on those variables, I use an algorithm that determines how effectively a player drives the ball. I call it “driving effectiveness.”

I also consider how well a golfer drives the ball off the tee when he is not hitting his driver. Looking at ShotLink data, I can tell you that most golfers would be surprised how many Tour players struggle hitting a 3 wood off the tee. We also have to consider ball height as in general, as high ball hitters have statistically fitted into today’s modern courses. I believe this is because the modern TPC courses are filled with forced carries.

With that, I would pick Boo Weekley, who has finished in my top 10 in Driving Effectiveness in each of the last three seasons. He’s one of the best fairway wood players in the game as well. He hits it long, accurate and precise.

Honorable Mention: Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan, Graham DeLaet
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth

BIRDIE ZONE PLAY (75 to 125 YARDS)

Steve Stricker

Birdie Zone play (along with the rest of the zones) is based on the player’s average proximity to the cup. What I have generally found is that the golfers who perform best from the Birdie Zone tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact. There are some players who are usually very good Birdie Zone players such as Sergio Garcia. This makes me believe that Birdie Zone play is more about controlling the shaft lean and that the players with less forward shaft lean tend to do the best job of controlling it.

There are quite a few players on Tour that consistently perform well in the Birdie Zone, but I would pick Steve Stricker above them all based on his performance over the years.

Honorable Mention: Brian Gay, Camilo Villegas, Charlie Wi, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel
Top Newcomer: Paul Haley II

SAFE ZONE PLAY (125 to 175 YARDS)

Bud Cauley

The Safe Zone consists of short and mid irons for Tour players. It is also the zone where the most frequent amount of approach shot happens.

There are generally three ways to become extremely good in the Safe Zone:

  • Keep the drive in the fairway a high percentage of time (80-plus percent).
  • Become an excellent player out of the rough.
  • Be a superior irons player from this distance.

For this article, I’m more concerned with the golfer’s pure ability to hit shots from this distance instead of the golfer who consistently keeps his ball in the fairway and ends up having an easier approach shot into the green than the golfer who is hitting shots out of the rough.

Out of all of the players, I would give this to Bud Cauley, as he has been excellent the past two years from the Safe Zone, whether he is hitting it from the fairway or the rough.

Honorable Mention: Lee Westwood, Tim Clark, Luke Donald, Ken Duke, Rory Sabbatini
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth

DANGER ZONE PLAY (175 to 225 YARDS)

Robert Garrigus

There is a misconception that long hitters or excellent drivers of the ball goes hand in hand with good Danger Zone play. The assumption is that a long hitter will be hitting shorter clubs into the hole, and therefore has an easier shot. While that is true, he still has to be able to hit the ball well even if he has a shorter club. And there are plenty of excellent drivers of the ball that cannot hit it from the Danger Zone (i.e. Blake Adams, John Rollins and Bill Haas). Conversely, there are excellent Danger Zones that are terrible drivers of the ball (Mickelson, Romero and Michael Thompson).

One way to “cheat the system” is for players to keep the ball in the fairway when they are in the Danger Zone. I recommend this for ALL golfers when they are facing a very long par 4. Focus on finding the fairway with your driver instead of trying to swing harder in hopes of gaining a few yards.

Like the Safe Zone, I’m more interested in a “pure Danger Zone player” than one who smartly finds the fairway here repeatedly. That’s why I take Robert Garrigus. Most of the longer hitters on Tour hit very few of their Danger Zone shots from the rough because they usually are rarely in the Danger Zone on long par 4’s. Instead, they are usually hitting these Danger Zone shots from the tee box on par 3’s.

Garrigus is one of the exceptions, and he does hit quite a few Danger Zone shots from the rough, which indicates he is fairly conservative off the tee. However, he’s continually one of the best on Tour from the Danger Zone and is ranked first, by a long shot, from the Danger Zone this season.

Honorable Mention: Jim Furyk, David Toms, Boo Weekley, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: D.H. Lee

225 to 275 YARDS ZONE

THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One

This zone is what I call a “volatile” metric, meaning that players rarely perform well from here year after year. One year a player may be one of the best on Tour and then the next year they may be one of the worst. We start to see this distance favoring longer hitters a little more noticeably.

It’s hard to argue against Tiger, since no one has hit more clutch shots from this distance than he has over the years.

Honorable Mention: Gary Woodland, George McNeill, Boo Weekley, Scott Stallings, Michael Thompson
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann

SHOTS FROM THE ROUGH

Phil Mickelson

Shots from the rough are a bit difficult to quantify because rough tends to get longer as the ball is hit farther away from the fairway. While the data suggests that shots from the rough favor players who generate more club head speed, there are plenty of players with less club head speeds that play well from the rough. But, the issue may be that those lower club head speed players are keeping the ball closer to the edge of the fairway and are hitting from shorter rough grass.

Typically, Sergio Garcia has been one of the very best players from the rough over the years. However, I would take Mickelson, who has been practically as good. And if there was ever a golfer I needed to hit an impossible shot from the rough, it would be Lefty.

Honorable Mention: Sergio Garcia, Chris Couch, Dustin Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Ken Duke
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann

SHOTS FROM THE FAIRWAY

Steve Stricker Fairway

Shots from the fairway actually have a far greater correlation to a golfer’s success on Tour than shots from the rough. That’s because most of their approach shots come from the fairway or the tee box. Therefore, shots from the fairway do not favor any style of play other than quality ballstrikers.

For my money, I would take Steve Stricker in a Big Break style contest if every shot was from the short grass. Stricker also finished first in my Shots from the Fairway metric in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Maggert, Jim Furyk, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: Brian Stuard

PLAYING IN WINDY CONDITIONS

Charl Schwartzel

I have been doing some preliminary research on playing into the wind. From what I have researched thus far, it tends to favor golfers whom have a downward attack angle with the driver and are very good from the Birdie Zone. My initial thoughts is that the downward attack angle keeps the ball low, which makes them more comfortable in the wind. I think the Birdie Zone play has to do with having more Birdie Zone shots on the par 5’s and thus, the better wedge players can convert birdies on those holes.

My initial research shows that the best player in windy conditions (13-plus mph winds) is Charl Schwartzel.

Honorable mention: Tiger Woods, Boo Weekley, Chris Stroud, John Merrick, Trevor Immelman
Top Newcomer: N/A

SHORT GAME PLAY (LESS THAN 20 YARDS)

2006 PGA Championship - Round One

Part of short game play is not only the golfer’s skill around the green, but where they leave their approach shots. It is impossible to decipher where exactly the approach shots are left. That would make a strong case for Mickelson. But, I will go with Chris Riley, who has consistently been a top-5 player in Short Game play for years.

Honorable Mention: Phil Mickelson, Brian Gay, Charlie Wi, Ian Poulter, Jerry Kelly
Top Newcomer: James Hahn

PUTTING

Luke Donald Putting

This is based off the metric “Putts Gained.” The research has shown that putts from 3 to 15 feet have the largest correlation to Putts Gained performance. This is in part because putts made from longer than 15 feet are a volatile metric. In fact, the average Tour player makes one birdie putt from longer than 25 feet every 98 holes they play. As I have discussed here before, going low on Tour is about getting the ball inside 15 feet to the hole for birdie on a consistent basis — it is not about making a lot of bombs.

There are a lot of terrific putters on Tour. But, the one player who has stood out has been Luke Donald. Donald ranked first in Putts Gained in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He “slipped” last year falling to third in the metric.

Honorable Mention: Greg Chalmers, Aaron Baddeley, Tiger Woods, Bryce Molder, Brian Gay
Top Newcomer: Russell Henley

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. B MAC

    Jul 13, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Putting brandt snedeker ??

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

      I agree. He’s one of the best on Tour. I would still take Luke Donald over him because that’s how incredible of a putter Luke Donald is.

  2. wayne defrancesco

    Jul 10, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    You mention that from 75 to 125 yards players with less forward shaft lean tend to be better. Less than what? Poor players tend to have none, and so I end up teaching them to get as much as possible. What are the extremes? What is too much and what is optimum? What is the average for all players and what is Stricker’s average? What do you suggest as a goal? Is it different for different types of grass? Do it change for uneven lies?
    As you can see, there are a lot of interesting questions when it comes to forward shaft lean. Rather than saying “less is better” it might be more instructive to be more detailed.

    • John

      Jul 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm

      I think he’s refereeing to your typical good ballstriker, people who can get around a course wit short g
      Ame dictating score, not your average bloke who’s struggling to hit a 9 iron onto a green.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Wayne,

      I try to stay away from actual instruction when doing these columns. I feel that is something best left to the professionals like yourself.

      My comment was in regards to Tour players. The better Birdie Zone players tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact compared to the Tour as a whole. There are some players like Sergio that do quite well from this distance. However, Sergio has shown a lack of consistency from this distance over the years. Some year’s he’s great, other years he’s poor.

      From the BZ for Tour players, it’s really all about distance control. When Tour players hits shots from longer distances, we start to see golfers with more forward shaft lean at impact doing better in these categories.

      That’s why I tend to believe that BZ play is really about controlling the lean and there appears to be a correlation between players with less shaft lean on Tour and their ability to control that lean.

      Obviously, your 20 handicap can likely use more forward shaft lean in general. But, if you have a 5 handicap that has major distance control issues with a wedge in their hand, they may want to develop a wedge swing where they have less forward shaft lean to help remedy that issue.

  3. Tom Miller

    Jul 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Next year you should add bunker shots / sand saves.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Thanks guys.

      Tom – I wanted to do bunker shots, but the Tour’s recording of bunker shots is too vague for my tastes. I don’t like Sand Save % as a metric because it doesn’t really tell us if the golfer is a good bunker player or if they are a good putter.

      They do have proximity to the cup from the sand, but it is for ALL greenside bunker shots. The problem is that the distances on those bunker shots can vary. So a golfer who is hitting it closer may be doing so because they have a shorter shot to begin with.

      I have followed 20 different players for a project I’m doing throughout the year on Shot Tracker. From the limited data I have, I believe that Jason Day is the best bunker player on Tour.

  4. paul

    Jul 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    I love golf stats and read all articles about them. keep it up!

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Opinion & Analysis

I’m practicing. Why am I not getting better at golf?

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We all want to improve our golf games; we want to shoot lower scores, make more birdies and win bragging rights from our friends. As a result, we practice and invest many hours in trying to improve. However, do we improve as quickly as we want to? Is there something we’ve been missing?

“The secret is in the dirt,” Ben Hogan said. And he was right. To date, not one golfer has become an elite player without investing thousands of hours in improving their golf game. And yet, there are thousands of amateur golfers who practice every week and don’t get better. What is the difference? To me, this is a very interesting question. What underpins how or why we learn? Furthermore, how can we super-charge our rate of learning? 

To super-charge our learning, we must first realize that practice itself does not make us better at golf. This is an empty promise. It is close to the truth but incorrect. Instead, practice, when done correctly, will cause changes in our body to make us more skillful over time. This is a subtle, but important difference. There is no magic type of practice that universally builds skill, however, there are a handful of factors that can speed up, slow down or even stop your progress.

Remember: “You are not aiming to hit 50 balls; you are trying to become more skillful.”

There are the two major factors that stop golfers improving. Try not to view them as switches that are on or off. Instead, view both factors as sliding scales. The more you can fine-tune each factor, the faster you will improve your golf.

1) Give your body clear and precise feedback

What is 2 + 2? Imagine if you were never given the answer to this question at school. If you weren’t, you would never know the answer. Similarly, imagine you made a golf swing and the instant you hit the golf ball it disappeared. How would you know what to do on your next attempt to hit a straighter shot?

In both cases, feedback is the missing ingredient. Feedback comes from the shot outcome, watching the ball flight and many other sensations we get during our golf swing. As soon as our body does not have clear and precise feedback our learning will stop.

When we first learn to play golf, the feedback required to improve is simple – did the ball move at all, and did it get airborne? As we progress, we then need more precise feedback to keep developing our skill.

As a 20 handicapper, we need to know if the ball finished 10 or 15 yards right of our target. When we become an elite player, the requirement for feedback becomes even more stringent. The difference between a wedge shot landing 103 or 107 yards becomes important. This type of feedback, known as knowledge of results, is focused on the result of your golf shot.

“If your body can’t tell the difference between two outcomes, you will not make any changes – learning will not occur.”

To learn, we also require another form of feedback, known as knowledge of performance. In essence, your body needs to know what it did to cause “x.” Relevant practice drills, training aids and videoing your swing are all useful ways to increase feedback on performance. The best form of feedback, however, is an internal understanding of your swing and how it causes different ball flights. This is an implicit skill all great golfers master, and a by-product of many hours of diligent practice, refinement and understanding.

Many golfers hit a brick wall in their golfing journey when their practice stops providing the precise feedback they need to keep improving. They may not have enough information about their shot outcome, or they may not understand how the golf swing causes various shots. Both will completely halt your golfing progress.

Next time you practice, think of ways you can obtain clearer feedback. You don’t need Trackman by your side (although this can be helpful), but pay attention to where your shots finish during putting and chipping practice and note these trends. Find landmarks behind your golf range to gauge the lateral error of your long shots.

If you’re working on your swing path through the point of impact, one way of obtaining feedback on your performance is to place a bottle or a second ball on the ground. To put it simply, if the bottle/ball flies, you’ll know you’ve made a bad swing. Another way, if you are trying to improve your iron striking, is to place a towel one inch behind the ball to indicate whether or not you have hit the ground before the ball. These ideas are not mind-blowing, but trust me; they will speed up your rate of learning.

2) Make your practice suitably difficult

When you first go to the gym, lifting the lightest weight you can find is fine. But how much would your fitness improve if you were still lifting that same weight 12 months later? Now think of how your golf practice has changed over the past 12 months. If you were asked, could you explain the level of difficulty of your practice?

The reason many golfers can’t answer this question is they don’t have a good measure of success when they practice. Most golfers don’t have a quantifiable way to say “that shot I just hit was or wasn’t good enough.” Even fewer golfers have a way to say “this week my practice performance was 20 percent better than last week.” If you fall into this category, try the following game the next time you practice your long game.

Structure your practice so that you have set target zones (10 yards and 20 yards wide) with points for hitting each zone (3 and 1 points respectively). Take a set amount of balls (20 balls) and see how many points you can score with a 6-iron and a driver (10 balls with each). Each week, play this game and track your progress. We’ll call this game the “WRX Range Challenge.”

Set a goal for how many points you want to achieve. This goal should be challenging, but not impossible. When you reach this goal, make your target zones smaller and repeat the process. This way you can track your progress over time. As you make the target zones smaller and smaller, your body has to continually refine your swing to make it more effective.

Summary

We all want to improve our golf. We all want to get better at a quicker rate. The two factors discussed here are obvious and yet are not addressed by many golfers when they practice. Next time you head to the range or practice ground, ensure you have clear feedback on your shot outcome and golfing technique. Make your practice measurable, suitably difficult and enjoy watching your scores progress.

If you do try out the WRX Range Challenge, let us know. Post your score and a photo: #WRXrangechallenge @GolfWRX and me @golfinsideruk on Twitter and Instagram.

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The 19th Hole: What it’s like to play golf with a goat caddie

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Live from Silvies Valley Ranch in Oregon for the Grand Opening of McVeigh’s Gauntlet and the debut of its goat caddies (yes, goats), host Michael Williams shares his experiences using a goat caddie. Guests include course architect Dan Hixson and Seamus Golf founder Akbar Chistie.

Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Bobby Clampett: “The 2 big problems with club fitting”

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Four million golfers are still quitting golf in the United States each year. My concern about this trend has led me to write several recent articles for GolfWRX. I’ve shared my thoughts because I believe much can be done to help golfers better understand the game, and most importantly, improve their games in ways that are not being done today.

The high frustration level of golfers is a leading cause of their giving up the game. I’ve talked about how I’ve learned this playing in over 200 pro-ams in my five years on the Champions Tour. I’ve discussed the sources of this confusion: style-based golf instruction with an over-abundance of swing tips, as well as confusing and conflicting swing theories offered on television and internet sources, etc. Another cause for concern that no one seems to talk about involves the way club fitting is typically done in our industry. While there are many examples of how improper club fitting causes issues and frustration, there are two main areas that desperately need to be addressed by fitters and even club manufacturers.

Problem 1: Clubs Designed to Correct a Slice

The first culprit is clubs that are designed to correct a slice. I’ve had several first-time students take lessons with me this season who had been recently fit for clubs from a wide range of club fitters. Some of these students had significant out-to-in swing paths through impact and all were chronic faders/slicers of the golf ball. The clubs recommended to them were “anti-slice” clubs. All the grips were small (standard size), and the woods (especially the drivers) were upright with the sliding weights put in the heel. The irons were “jacked-upright” as much as 8 degrees. All of these adjustments were made for the purpose of building in the ability to hit hooks.

Many of the woods with today’s improvement in technology can be easily altered with sliding or interchangeable weights. Adding weights into the heel slows the heel down through impact and allows the toe to close faster. Thinner grips also encourage the golfer to have more active hands and forearms causing the toe to close faster. While some of today’s adjustable woods do allow for a small bit of upright lie adjustment, it would be good if manufacturers went back to longer hosels that can be more lie-adjusted.

If the lie of the club is upright, more “hook” is built into the club through the principle that “loft is hook.” Additionally, the more the available “loft” of the club, the more the upright angle increases hook. So a set of clubs built 8 degrees upright has a very different directional profile with the 4-iron than with the wedge. This is a fact a well trained and experienced club fitter will take into consideration and properly apply.

Without correction, a wedge that is 8 degrees upright will really go left, while the 4-iron won’t have as much correction. Additionally, the uprightness of the club significantly reduces the sweet-spot, making the club less forgiving by increasing the chance that the ball will be struck lower in the face (which has a worse effect on long irons than short irons). Gear effect has now been proven to exist even in irons, and low-in-the-clubface hits will cause a gear effect fade, magnified with lower lofted clubs, even if the face and path are square. So, the uprightness of the club creates a bigger pull/hook in the wedge and the effect doesn’t really work in the longer irons. If fitters are going to use this approach, then short irons should be bent less upright and long irons more upright, but even so, this will reduce the sweet-spot in the longer irons and most golfers will really struggle to get the ball into the air since most of their hits will be low on the clubface.

I’ve had playing lessons with some of these students and have clearly seen how much farther to the left shots go when teeing the ball up, such as on a par-3. With the contact higher in the face, the contact has “zero” gear effect. The upright lie angle, combined with the loft of the club, sends the ball with a pull-hook way off target. This alone is enough of a source of confusion and frustration to send some golfers home, back to the tennis courts, to the card room, or whatever else might take the place of golf.

Additionally, golf clubs that are set to “lie angles” that are not square will not cut through the grass (when taking divots) as they are intended to do. For example, using the example above, if the lie angle of the club is set too upright and the shot is hit a little fat, the heel of the iron will dig or hit into the grass first, usually causing the heel to slow down while the toe of the club speeds up, thus closing the face and causing a big pull/hook. Different grass types, different firmness of grasses and different density of grasses can have differing effects, leading to increased inconsistencies of golfers and greater frustration levels.

Some club manufacturers have built game-improvement irons with bigger sweet-spots (with lower CG’s and higher MOI’s). When club fitters make the lie angle “off-square,” this improvement immediately is canceled and, in most cases, completely nullifying any benefit the game-improvement design can provide. The poor golfer who just spent thousands of dollars getting new equipment comes to the realization that the clubs didn’t work that well after all, and his/her 16 handicap is not dropping.

The real answer to game improvement lies in improving the golfer’s impact first, then getting clubs to match his or ideal impact or the impact they are striving to attain. Then, and only then, will the golfer get the full and just reward for improving one’s impact. Simply trying to buy a new game by getting a new set of clubs just doesn’t work. One must work with an instructor who truly knows what proper impact is and is diligently directing the instruction to improve their impact first. Then they can have a knowledgeable club fitter fit clubs to that proper impact. Unfortunately, in our industry, instructors and club fitters rarely work together. Golfers are continually being fitted to their improper impact and thus effectively playing with clubs with smaller sweet spots that are ill-designed for what they were originally intended to do.

Problem 2: Fitting Irons for Distance

The second problem that seems to be growing in the industry is the focus on increased distance with the irons. I don’t mean to be too blunt here, but who cares how far you hit an 8-iron! Today’s pitching wedge is yesterday’s 9-iron. My pitching wedge is set at 49 degrees, and my 9-iron is 44 degrees (about the standard loft for today’s pitching wedge). The only two clubs in the bag that should be designed for distance are your driver and your 3-wood. All the other clubs should be set for proper gapping and designed to improve consistency and proximity to the hole. That’s why my pitching wedge is at 49 degrees and I only hit it 120 yards (exactly 16 yards farther than my 54-degree sand wedge). Most of my students hit a pitching wedge 20 yards farther than I do, but I drive the ball 30-40 yards farther than they do. When they get into the 7-irons through 4-irons, their gaps narrow. They have a 175-yard shot, and they don’t know what club selection to make since the 7, 6, 5, and 4 irons all go somewhat similar distances.

When I dig a little deeper, I start to find significant differences in spin rates. Like most pros on the PGA Tour, my 7 iron spins about 7000 rpm, I launch it around 17.5 degrees and carry the ball about 158 yards with 88 mph of clubhead speed. OK, I’m retired from playing competitive golf and I’m 58 years old, so I don’t have that youthful club head speed anymore. When I try some of the new products that are the top sellers today, I start launching the ball slightly higher but my spin rate drops below 6,000 rpm. Suddenly, I’m hitting my 7-iron 170 yards like my 6 iron. But is this better?

Yes, my peak height gets slightly higher (I do like that), and the ball won’t roll out much differently, even with the lower spin rates. So, what’s the problem you ask? When I start to look at distance control numbers and proximity to the hole, I clearly see higher distance dispersions and thus proximity to the hole gets worse. Learning to hit the ball flag high is one of the key separators between top PGA Tour Players and those a notch or two below. It’s also a key element in lowering scores. So, greater distance with my irons actually makes my game worse and it does the same with my students, too, because accuracy and ability to get the ball consistently closer to the hole is negatively impacted.

What avid golfers are really wanting is game improvement. They want to see their handicaps go down, shoot their lowest scores, create personal bests. Sure, there is a bit of “wow factor” they like to have with the new, shiny equipment, but the people I give lessons to and have played with in all these pro-ams want a better game! How are they going to get that when the golf industry separates teachers and club fitters? Where can golfers go to get the whole experience of tying in their swing improvement that creates better impact with their equipment properly set up?

If you want to see your scores get better, the best way to do so is to work with a qualified golf instructor who knows how to improve your impact while keeping your style of swing. You want to work with a club fitter who understands that the lie angles of the irons should be set to square, and that proximity to the hole is more important in the irons than distance. Only then can you get the biggest game improvement and take full advantage of hitting better shots with a better impact.

Improve your impact, improve your game; it really is that simple!

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