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True or False: Golf radar systems are ruining golf?
Last week, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee went on the offensive against radar launch monitors, claiming that they were “ruining golf.”
Chamblee said that radar systems (like Trackman and Flightscope) were promoting two different swings, one for the driver and one for the irons. He also said that they focused too much on optimizing distance at the expense of accuracy off the tee — according to Chamblee, all things that are bad for ball striking. Fortunately for golfers, there are recorded performance metrics that can determine the accuracy of Chamblee’s claims.
Golf radar systems hit the scene about a decade ago, but most PGA Tour players didn’t start using them for their practice and instruction sessions until about 2011. The golfers who used them prior to that time mainly used them as fitting tools to help them choose the right club head, shaft, etc.
From what I’ve been told by my contacts on Tour, Tiger Woods did not use a radar launch monitor for practice purposes until late 2010. Thus, I would establish a timeline of anything before 2010 as “pre-radar” and everything from 2010 on as “post-radar.”
I agree with Chamblee’s sentiments that golfers are becoming too focused on distance in place of accuracy, because my statistical research shows that the “bomb-and-gouge” strategy is not an optimal way to play golf — it tends to cost golfers some strokes.
With that said, a conservative strategy like the one Woods likes to use (choosing to hit 3 wood or 5 wood/2 iron off the tee whenever possible) is not an optimal strategy either. However, the data indicates that it is not a launch monitor issue.
When looking at how effectively a player on Tour drives the ball, I use an algorithm based on the historical data of the PGA Tour that factors in:
- Fairway Percentage
- Average Distance to the Edge of the Fairway (on shots that miss the fairway)
- Fairway Bunker Percentage
- Missed Fairway – Other Percentage
The Tour has distance and fairway percentage measurements dating back to 1980. However, the others do not date back as far. Here are some charts of the Tour averages in these particular metrics.
With these three metrics, I only made a chart that goes to 2009 (pre-radar), because it is very clear that Tour players were hitting it much farther and becoming more inaccurate off the tee well before radar launch monitors became popular to use for practice and instructional purposes.
I have excluded the Average Distance to the Edge of the Fairway metric because it only dates back to 2007 and the sample size is not large enough to make a valid “pre-radar” vs. “post-radar” comparison. However, we do see something very interesting when we look at the Tour average for Missed Fairway – Other Percentage. These are tee shots that do not find the fairway or the rough or the fairway bunker.
As we can see, the Tour average dropped dramatically at the end of the “pre-radar” era. It has risen slightly since the “post-radar” era, but it is still well below previous years averages.
The data shows that Chamblee’s claims that golfers are too focused on distance and neglect accuracy and precision off the tee does have merit. However, it also suggests that radar launch monitors are not a problem.
The Tour has seen a dramatic increase in distance and a decrease in accuracy and precision off the tee well before radar launch monitors became popular for use. I believe that the decline in accuracy on Tour has more to do with the fallacy that the “bomb-and-gouge” strategy is superior.
There is other data that suggests that more Tour courses are being designed to favor distance over accuracy. This is also being shown in the charts I have presented where golfers are hitting less fairways, yet their Missed Fairway – Other percentage has mysteriously dramatically declined.
Chamblee’s claim about golf radar systems being detrimental because they promote two different golf swings has to do with the attack angles that golf radar systems promote. With the irons, golfers must have a downward attack angle so they can make contact with the ball first, then take a divot. But since the ball is teed up with the driver, golfers can have a downward, upward or a flat (0-degrees) angle of attack
An upward or positive angle of attack is usually rewarded with extra distance, however, as it tends to allow golfers to launch the ball higher with less spin — a key component of longer drives (see the chart above). Thus, if the golfer hits the driver with an upward attack angle and his irons with a downward attack angle, that is having “two different swings.”
An obvious flaw in Chamblee’s claim is that according to Trackman, the average attack angle with the driver on Tour is 1.3 degrees down, or negative 1.3 degrees. Thus, Tour players on average are still using “one swing” to hit their clubs. However, I wanted to see what the Tour averages were for shot proximity to the cup during the years.
I examine this by breaking down approach shots into three different zones.
- Birdie Zone (75-125 yards)
- Safe Zone (125-175 yards)
- Danger Zone (175-225 yards)
As we can see, the Tour average has hardly changed on approach shots the past few years. For the most part, the averages have been within one foot from year to year. Thus, there is no evidence to Chamblee’s claim that golf radar’s recommendation for having two different swings is causing golfers on Tour to hit their irons worse.
Lastly, I very much doubt that radar launch monitors are “ruining golf.” While I do not have hard data with regards to this matter, I would estimate that less than 1 percent of the golfing population has ever utilized a radar launch monitor for practice and/or lessons.
We could hypothesize many other factors that are causing golfers to hit the ball farther, but with less accurately and with less precision. Perhaps it is the altering of course design? Perhaps it is a change into more of a “bomb-and-gouge” philosophy? Maybe the Tour players are getting bigger and more athletic (allowing them to generate more clubhead speed), but they are having difficulty learning how to harness that power?
Whatever the problem may be, I find Chamblee’s most recent criticism toward this piece of technology to be without merit.