Hit driver, not 3 wood for better scoring on tight holes
The following column is an excerpt from my recently published annual e-book, 2013 Pro Golf Synopsis. There is a link below in my profile data for those whom would like to purchase the book for only $10.
Early in the 2013 season, I wanted to research one of the key questions golfers have often asked themselves: Is it better to hit driver off the tee on a tight par-4 or should golfers leave the driver in the bag and lay up?
To learn the answer, I had to study data from PGA Tour players using the PGA Tour’s Shot Tracker system. Furthermore, I needed to find holes where there was roughly an even split between golfers who hit driver off the tee versus those who laid up off the tee so there was a large enough sample size for both golfers who hit driver and those who laid up.
The numbers supporting laying up
There are two methods of looking at whether or not to “go for it” off the tee or lay up. One method is to look at the average proximity to the cup on shots from the fairway versus shots from the rough on Tour.
There is a clear advantage to being able to hit a shot from fairway rather than from the rough, as shots from the fairway finished 33 percent closer to the hole. In fact, we see that average Tour players hit the ball closer from 175-to-200 yards in the fairway (34.2 feet) than they hit it from the 125-to-150 yards in the rough (35.8 feet). This data clearly argues in favor of laying up off the tee so that golfers can find the fairway and hit their approach shots closer to the hole.
The numbers supporting going for it
The main flaw in the table that supports laying up off the tee is that it assumes that golfers who use a driver off the tee will automatically miss the fairway, and that golfers who lay up off the tee will automatically find the fairway.
Based on those average proximity to the cup numbers from various distances, I created a “break-even” table (below). It assumes that the golfer hits his driver approximately 25 yards farther off the tee than his 3 wood.
The table is a bit difficult to decipher, so I will help you with an example.
Let’s say that a Tour player is playing two balls. He reaches a par 4 where if he hit driver off the tee, the ball will end up between 125-to-150 yards from the hole. If he hit 3 wood on that same exact tee, his shot will end up between 150-to-175 yards from the hole; a 25-yard difference.
If golfers hits their 3-wood off the tee and find the fairway 80 percent of the time, it would leave them with a forecasted proximity to the cup of 30.8 feet. That is because they average 42.5 feet to the cup on shots from 150-to-175 yards from the rough and 27.9 feet on those shots from the fairway.
If the golfer was playing the same hole and hitting driver, he would need to find the fairway only 39.5 percent of the time in order for the golfer to “break-even” to that forecasted proximity to the cup of 30.8 feet.
Notice that each table makes a strong argument: the first for laying up, and the second for “going for it.”
My first article for GolfWRX examined “going for it” versus laying on the tricky No. 10 at Riviera Country Club. The hole gives some players fits; so much that second-place finisher Charlie Beljan had some choice words for it on Twitter. Beljan hit driver on Sunday both times he played it (he was in the playoff as well) and bombed both drives well left. He bogeyed the hole in the final round, and then took an “X” in the playoff.
With that said, the “go for it” players beat out the players who laid up for the week on that hole; a 4.025 stroke average versus 4.080. But upon closer inspection, the only problem with Beljan’s choice to hit driver is that he hit it on the day with the wrong pin position, as there was a clear advantage toward the “lay it up” golfers with the back pin location on Friday and Sunday.
I started to find more holes to research based on suggestions from Tour clients. TPC Sawgrass was a good course as Nos. 1 and 4 were both holes that clients of mine wondered if it was better for them to lay up off the tee or just hit their driver. And I decided to record the following for both the “go for it” and the “lay it up” golfers:
- Hit Fairway Percentage
- If the ball missed the fairway, did it go into the rough, fairway bunker, water, etc.
- Yardage to hole on second shot
- Proximity to the cup after the second shot
I feel that the average proximity to the cup after the second shot was the metric that was the most important. From my vantage point, that is Golf 101: Get the ball closer to the hole. If a golfer shoots worse scores because he putts poorly, that is not the fault of the golfer’s strategy.
What I started to find with these holes was that not only were the golfers who hit driver off the tee averaging lower scores, but they were also averaging a closer average proximity to the cup after their second shot. But here was a giant surprise in the results of the research.
The golfers hitting driver were hitting it much more accurately and precisely than the golfers hitting 3 wood. Here is a chart showing the fairway percentage differences.
My original inclination was that the golfers who hit driver off the tee would end up better off based on my break-even table and some other numbers I had ran. I estimated that golfers who hit 3 wood and find the fairway 80 percent of the time should be able to find the fairway at least 39.5 percent of the time with the driver in order to “break-even.” But the real surprise was that the golfers hitting driver off the tee were finding the fairway much more often than the golfers hitting 3 wood. That is exactly the opposite of why golfers generally choose to lay-up off the tee.
This started to make some sense when I started to examine many of the “critical holes” on Tour, which I discussed in this GolfWRX story. As the year went along, and I started to examine more of the “critical holes.” I started to notice that one of them was usually a par 4 where either hitting 3 wood off the tee was mandatory, or there was a split between hitting driver and 3 wood off the tee. And it became apparent to me that even PGA Tour players struggle at hitting precise 3 woods off the tee.
The big question that I was left with was why are PGA Tour players hitting their drivers more accurately than their 3 woods off the tee? Let’s go into what we know about the components of your typical 3 wood versus your typical driver.
- The 3 wood is shorter in shaft length.
- The 3 wood is heavier in static weight and shaft weight.
- The 3 wood generates more spin.
- The 3 wood flies a shorter distance.
- The landing angle of the ball is steeper with a 3 wood.
- The 3 wood has a smaller sized head.
The only component that would lead to a 3 wood being less accurate is its smaller-sized head. The rest of the differences in components would lead to a 3 wood being more accurate off the tee.
Part of what I had to remember is how important head size is to driving the ball off the tee. Remember, the true sweet spot on a club is only the size of about a needle point, and golfers don’t hit it as often as most golfers think. And larger heads do not have larger sweet spots, either. They are just more forgiving around the sweet spot area because of their larger moment of inertia, which helps keep the club from rotating on off-center hits. That creates less gear effect, usually resulting in straighter shots that have a ball speed more similar to those struck on the sweet spot.
I had to remember back to the days when titanium drivers with their larger heads were replacing steel and persimmon driver heads. One of the advantages of titanium was that the substance was so light that the manufacturer could design a larger head and allow the club head to be much more forgiving than those old 200-cubic-centimeter driver heads. The same applies to hitting a 460cc driver versus a 190cc 3 wood.
Hopefully, this will make golfers think twice about leaving the driver in the bag the next time they are hitting into a tight fairway.