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Analyzing Tom Watson’s Potential Ryder Cup picks

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Captain Tom Watson’s captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup became more difficult when Dustin Johnson announced that he will not play in the event. And that was just the start.

I’ve posted the current U.S. Ryder Cup Team standings below. Remember, the top-9 finishers on the points list automatically earn a spot on the team, and T. Watson will pick two additional players of his choice to round out the lineup. Qualifying finishes this weekend at the conclusion of the PGA Championship.

  1. Bubba Watson
  2. Jim Furyk
  3. Jimmy Walker
  4. Rickie Fowler
  5. Matt Kuchar
  6. Jordan Spieth
  7. Patrick Reed
  8. Jason Dufner
  9. Zach Johnson
  10. Phil Mickelson
  11. Keegan Bradley
  12. Brendan Todd
  13. Ryan Moore
  14. Chris Kirk
  15. Webb Simpson
  16. Harris English

Jason Dufner (No. 8) announced that he has bulging disks in his neck, and Tiger Woods, who all expected to either make the team or be a captain’s pick before his back surgery, has yet to play well enough to prove that he can be a good addition to the Ryder Cup team, even if he is 100 percent healthy. To make things worse, Matt Kuchar (No. 5) withdrew from the PGA Championship today with back spasms, bringing his health into question.

The U.S. Team will also be playing against an impressive European team that has a red hot Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. Despite these recent events, I still believe that a statistically oriented approach to the Ryder Cup can greatly overcome these odds.

First, I want to run over some of the main tenets when it comes to using a statistically oriented approach to the Ryder Cup:

No. 1: Versatility is critical

Ryder Cup teams need golfers who are suited to play both the four-ball and foursome format. This way, if a player is playing poorly, the team does not have to rely on him to start playing well and can have a different golfer come in and win valuable point(s).

No. 2: When in doubt, favor youth over experience

Most of the U.S. Ryder Cup team captains in recent years have favored experience above all else. Even if a Ryder Cup player is experienced, however, if he has proved to be a poor Ryder Cup player he is simply an experienced, poor Ryder Cup player.

The other part about youth is that if a young player gets a hot hand, the captain can keep him in the lineup without worrying about his stamina. That’s not always true for an older player or an injured player. Lastly, it serves future Ryder Cup teams to see how well these young players perform. It will help future captains better determine if they are a good, poor or indifferent Ryder Cup players.

No. 3: Favor players with great short games over the “hot putter”

While being a good putter is certainly helpful, the best Ryder Cup players historically have been very good around the green. This includes players like Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Jesper Parnevik, Raymond Floyd, Billy Casper, Larry Nelson and Seve Ballesteros, to name a few. The problem with looking purely at putting is that it is hard to rely on player to putt well at any given moment. Even the best putters on Tour putt great (+1.0 strokes gained per round per event) in only about 30 percent of the events they play. Conversely, players with good short games can take that short game from event to event much more consistently, and the ability to save par and stymie your opponent appears to be critical to successful match play.

No. 4: Four-ball format is about birdies and playing each type of hole well

In the four-ball format, Ryder Cup team captains want players who can make a lot of birdies. One of my favorite teams in the four-ball format was Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes in 2008. Weekley is a long hitter who finds a ton of fairways and is usually one of the most effective drivers of the ball. Holmes was the long distance hitter who made a ton of birdies and had the capability to make eagles. So they would have Weekley tee off first and he would usually blast a 300+ yard drive down the middle. And if Weekley was in good shape that would allow Holmes to get a free rip and blast a 375+ yard drive. If the ball was in play, it would put them at a sizeable advantage. Weekley was also a strong par-4 player and a pretty good par-3 player, while Holmes was an excellent par-5 player. Essentially, they had all of their bases covered and could rattle off birdies.

5. Foursome format is about avoiding bogeys and pairing players whose styles of play compliment each other

The foursome format is where bogeys are more likely to happen and this is where a great short game can be even more important. You can have two players who make few bogeys, however, who are a terrible match for each other. For instance, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk may not make a lot of bogeys, but that is on their own ball. Furyk is a player who hits fairways and does not play well from the rough. Since Mickelson is an errant driver of the ball, the combination would not likely be a very good one.

With those out of the way, here’s a table looking at the rankings of some key players that are not in the top-8 in Ryder Cup points. You can click the table to enlarge it.

Hunt Ryder Cup Table 1

I will start with some of the obvious players. Zach Johnson should be a sure fire pick if he doesn’t automatically qualify. He’s played well in previous Ryder Cups and his rankings in the key performance metrics are excellent. In fact, he has done a nice job of hitting shots from the rough this year, which have typically given him issues. And he has been spectacular on the par-5’s despite being a short hitter.

I would also eliminate the following players:

  • Matt Every (poor driving and par-4 play).
  • Erik Compton (poor driving, poor iron play, poor bogey rate).
  • Webb Simpson (poor 175-to-225 yards play)
  • Brendon Todd (poor 175-to-225 yards play)
  • Kevin Stadler (poor par-4 play)

The Ryder Cup courses generally favor hitting shots from 175-to-225 yards, so I would be leery of using any player who has struggled from that distance this year. And since there are 11 par-4’s to be played, the team cannot afford a weak par-4 player.

From there, I will bring it down to these players for the final three spots.

  • Phil Mickelson
  • Keegan Bradley
  • Ryan Moore
  • Kevin Na
  • Harris English
  • Brian Harman

Keegan Bradley becomes the first obvious choice. He has driven it well and has been good with his long approach shots, short game and putting. The issue for Bradley has been iron shots from less than 175 yards. However, he can be paired with an accurate driver of the ball and keep him playing those shots from the fairway. Combine that with his performance on par-3’s, par-4’s and par-5’s and his Birdie Rate, and Bradley is a versatile player who played superbly in the last Ryder Cup.

Mickelson

phil-mickelson_t640-600x350

I will assume that Phil Mickelson will be selected if he does not automatically qualify. Regardless of what the data says, I have a hard time believing a captain would not select Lefty if he is healthy. So as far as his analysis goes, he’s been a streaky Ryder Cup player. But, he has been better in recent Ryder Cups.

The interesting thing about Phil is that while he has had an off year, the numbers indicate that he is better suited for the Ryder Cup than he has been over the years. His driving has been the best it has been in years, although I would not call him overly accurate. What has hurt him this year, however, is that his iron play has not been quite as good from inside 175 yards than it has been in previous seasons, but he is still a great long approach player. The other issue is that his putting was giving him issues, but we have seen some progression lately.

I don’t think Phil will be a bad pick, although both Ryan Moore and Brian Harman are enticing. Harman is ranks 6th on shots from the fairway, has a good short game and has quality scoring metrics. If there is a worry about Mickelson, it’s that he has yet to finish in the top-10 this year and suffered back problems earlier in the year. I would not be vehemently against a Mickelson pick, but I am not assuming that he and Keegan Bradley will automatically pick up where they left off in 2012 at Medinah.

The Last Pick

This player currently has all of the elements of a good Ryder Cup player.

  • He has a super low bogey rate.
  • He has a great short game.
  • He is one of the premier putters on Tour.
  • He hits his long approach shots well from both the rough and the fairway.
  • He has having a fine year with his scoring metrics.
  • He is only 30 years old.

Who is this player? If you guessed Kevin Na, you are correct.

The possible knock against Na is he has gone fairly unnoticed this year. He has five top-10 finishes, however, which include two second-place finishes. He also finished T12 at the US Open.

The other knock against Na may be his slow play. That could aggravate his partner, but it may aggravate his opponents as well. Colin Montgomerie was not overly liked and was a phenomenal Ryder Cup player, and Sergio was one of the slowest players on Tour during his unbeatable years in the Ryder Cup.

Regardless of how this year’s Ryder Cup qualifying plays out, I see Captain Watson making sure that Mickelson, Z. Johnson, Bradley, Simpson and Dufner (if he’s healthy enough) for this year’s team. That’s a shame, because I’d like to see Harman and especially Na get a chance to prove that they could be fantastic Ryder Cup players.

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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, 2018 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

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Ryder Cup Preview: The Course, Home Field, & Competition | Golf Analytics

  2. Pingback: Watson goes with familiarity for Gleneagles | AdamSarson.com

  3. Pingback: ¿En qué nos deberíamos fijar para la elección del Capitán de la Ryder Cup? - Golf76.com

  4. marcel

    Aug 10, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    hes gona pick Rory

  5. Ronald Montesano

    Aug 8, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Guess what? He’s going to pick himself. He’ll be the first playing captain in over fifty years, he has played well in two major championships and (here’s the funny part) he’s not injured. He just added Steve Stricker as an assistant captain, probably because Stricker is young in comparison to the other assistants.

    Stricker is also a possibility as a pick. If one of the guys (Kuchar, Dufner) on the team goes down in Scotland, Stricker will be there and will be a legitimate choice to play.

  6. BogeyFree

    Aug 8, 2014 at 10:44 am

    My order would be Moore, Bradley, then Na. I’d even take those 3 over Woods or Michelson. At some point it is entertainment and I understand that, so Michelson is probably a lock.

    I am older guy, but frankly it’s time to bring some youth to the US side. The team already has Furyk and Johnson, plus Watson and Stricker coaching. How much experience do you need…especially when that experience is more with losing than winning Ryder Cups?

  7. Alex

    Aug 8, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Nice.

    Na could be a golden idea, or turn out to be a total bad move. It’s interesting how much you have to decide if stats alone are worth making a decision on.

    I think Na could be a good choice. Unless he can’t rise to the occasion. I’d say, give him a shot.

    Any chance we will see a European article soon?

    • Richie Hunt

      Aug 8, 2014 at 9:08 am

      I may do a European article. Depends on how many of the players qualify statistically on the PGA Tour so I can have statistical data on them to analyze.

      While the data appears to favor the European team heavily, I could say the same for the US team in 2012. Jumped out to a big lead and then lost at Medinah. You never quite know with this rivalry.

      • ND Hickman

        Aug 12, 2014 at 6:58 am

        As a Brit I’m confident for Europe this year, but as you say the Americans should have closed things out at Medinah so we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way it’s going to be a brilliant Ryder Cup.

  8. gunmetal

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I absolutely love the Na pick. He sorta flies under the radar but possesses everything you outlined as critical.

    I’m not sold on the Bradley pick. I should be, but I feel like he lets his emotion get out of control and it ends up hurting. He got destroyed by Rory last year despite Rory essentially falling out of the car on to the first tee box. I know he’s the popular pick and will likely make it, I just hope he keeps his emotions in check.

    I also think another thing to consider is matchplay record. Mahan got a bad rap for what went down in Wales, but he should have been on the team at Medina. Despite winning twice in 2012 (once at the Matchplay) Love chose Striker and Furyk. Mahan won the matchplay!! IIRC Ryan Moore has a nice matchplay record as do Reed and Fowler. I’d be happy with Na or Moore.

    Nice read.

    • SN

      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:53 am

      Na is a good choice.
      I think his pace of play will also pixxed the heck out of Europeans.

      and THAT is another advantage.

      • C web

        Aug 8, 2014 at 8:41 am

        Just Pair Na with Furyk…. And watch the Euros self destruct

  9. Brad

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Great overall analysis. Even though statistics are an awesome way to determine many things (I am an engineer) in the case I have to disagree with Kevin Na. He is a nice player statistically, but he has really struggled with the mental game over the years. The Ryder Cup may be the most mentally stressful environment in golf. I think it would be tough for him to excel in this environment.

  10. mb

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    I feel bad for Tom he’s screwed J Duf just pulled out of the PGA

  11. Travis

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Nice article

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Opinion & Analysis

Inside the ropes with the fittest on Tour

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Before the world hit pause, I had the awesome opportunity to go out to Torrey Pines and the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open and spend the week with former champ Scott Stallings.

The link was fitness, and this was my opportunity to go and learn from the best about all aspects of performance.

That’s how I got to know Scott a couple of years ago—a similar path to improved health and fitness directly, and indirectly, linked to golf performance.

So, what does a week on tour really look like from the player’s perspective?

Pretty busy.

I flew in late Monday evening, and Tuesday at 8 AM, it was time to meet up with Scott—in the gym of course. Scott, Adam his trainer, and a couple of players were already fired up and ready to go.

A one-hour session of dumbbells, med balls, kettlebells, and sleds finished with a “vanity pump” session that was more than enough to get a serious sweat going in the California hills.

After freshening up with a solid post-workout breakfast, it’s time to hit the course. As a past winner, Scott knew all about Torrey As a newbie from England, I can tell you that place is as good as you think it is!

Scott joined workout partners Trey Mullinax and Scott Brown, as well as Sepp Straka, to go play the North Course. At this point, it was clear the players were feeling out their games as much as they are the course—a couple of challenges here and a few extra chip shots there, the mood is pretty laid back as the players do their thing.

Off the course, and it’s time to refuel again. This kind of schedule is asking a lot of the body. Then you guessed it, it’s back to the gym. This time it’s a lighter focus to let the body wind down and only around 40 minutes long. Then its time to loosen up, get a massage, and the day is largely done.

In the current age of performance tracking and performance data, sleep and recovery are almost as important as anything else going on here. Scott is at the forefront here as well, being one of the first to use the extremely popular Whoop Bands to track a whole bunch of physical data. Keeping yourself in the green can be a pretty big deal if you want to feel and perform your best!

Wednesday is pro-am day, and with 36 holes at Torrey, everyone is in. An early tee time means no specific gym work in the morning, rather a quick functional mobility session before heading to the range—increasing the heart rate, moving the body and basically waking up all of the movements patterns needed for the body to hit the range to start getting dialed in.

After the “steadily paced” round, Scott fuels up ready to hit the gym with a different workout partner. A certain curly-haired Irishman got in touch with Scott to set up an early season workout to gauge performance, maybe learn a few things, and for sure do some work!

Fitness on tour is a continuing revolution, with almost all players now understanding the huge benefits of increased physical performance for their games but also for their health. The benefits of increased speed, fitness, and overall performance, when you’re playing at the highest level seems fairly straightforward. But players also have to consider their schedules, travel, work demands and a bunch more stressors that affect mental, physical, and hormonal function.

Having earned his reputation through an accelerated journey from poor health to fitness junkie, Scott is more than happy to spend time with other pros talking all things, health, fitness, and performance.

This is how the game will continue to move forwards and also how it will feed down into all levels of golf. There is a clear spectrum emerging within this for the golf world: using golf as a motivating factor to get in better shape and overall health all the way up to using specific fitness work to further golf performance.

Basically you gotta be doing something!

Anyway, fresh from an all out sweat session, it’s head down and prep for a Thursday morning tee time—same deal, physical therapy, good nutrition, and as much rest as possible.

With a 9:10 AM tee time Thursday morning, the preparations are much like that for the pro-am and the body is ready and warm headed to the tee.

Then, it’s go time. Stepping onto the first tee in competition and everything changes. This was one of the most noticeable and impressive things watching Scott and all the other players in this incredible field.

There is a visible, almost palpable, change in demeanor, and it’s all-out competition mode.

This is a part of the mental toughness and preparation learned through years of hard work and the desire to do what is needed. This, in my opinion, is where all golfers can take so much from the best in the game—just compete and grind to get the best score possible whatever the circumstance. Don’t over-think technique, don’t overreact, just play each shot as best as you possibly can and count them up at the end.

Scott is also playing the first round on the brutal, but incredible, South Course in tough conditions and posts up a 1-under 71 to sit nicely on the leaderboard after day one. This was a mentally and physically challenging day with high temperatures, a tough course and an incredible field. On course nutrition, and even more so, hydration, are on point and the hours of work in the gym all stack up for optimal performance.

After a good day’s work, more food, and just enough rest, we hit the gym for my last workout at Torrey: 30 minutes of hard effort including rowing, stepper, med balls, and squats—there really is no holding back.

Training is always individual and even more so at this level. Training hard after a five-plus hour round of golf is no easy workload, but it depends on the body. If you are consistently putting in the work, it feels best to keep the body operating at that level. If you’re not doing all that much and decide to do this mid-tournament, it is not likely to end well!

And that’s what it is all about: finding how you can be your best in all areas! For a Tour pro, it’s probably not as easy as you might think. Balancing performance with all the factors listed above, the grueling (normal) season schedule and the time taken to be at this level requires huge commitment and consistency on so many levels. Scott has shown this better than anyone with his newfound commitment to health, fitness, and all things performance.

I took off back to the UK Friday, and Scott went on to play the weekend finishing in the top 50. Each of the four competitive days required the same level of physical commitment, and every day Scott was in there getting the work done.

Gaining this direct insight into the week of a PGA Tour pro gave me a new appreciation for the time and work required as well as an even greater foundation to help to continue and develop the relationship between health, fitness, and golf at all levels.

It comes down to attitude and effort. Rent is due on both.

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Opinion & Analysis

So you wanna work in golf media…

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I get this question all the time: “So, how does someone get a job in golf media?”

Hmm…I could give you a bunch of tips, ideas, resume suggestions, etc. I’m not going to. All I know is how I got here. It’s a story of passion, initiative, blind luck, God, and desperation.

I feel like in the telling of how I got here you will see a path but not the only path.

My story—condensed into the point golf gear took over my life.

It’s 1993, and I’m a sophomore in high school at John F. Kennedy Memorial in Burien, Washington. I was a baseball player my whole life, and for whatever reason that summer, I decided it wasn’t for me anymore, and I wanted to go scrub clubs, pick balls and have the occasional lung dart with my buddies at the local country club. At that time, golf was something to me just shy of an afterthought. I had played the occasional short 9 as a kid, went to a camp or two, but in all honesty, it was just another game.

Fast forward to my first week working at Rainier G&CC—the second assistant was a guy named Mike Montegomery (DOG at Glendale CC now), and he took me to the range to help pick balls and hit some into the net. After about 30 mins of pounding balls, I was hooked. Hook, line, and sinker.

I’m an obsessive person by nature, so when I get into something, it becomes a bit scary—I want to know everything. That’s when the equipment junkie revealed himself, and it all started with a trip to the dentist and an issue of Golf Digest.

This one…

Golf Digest, February issue, 1993

This magazine started the whole thing. No, it wasn’t the fact that Phil Mickelson graced the cover, it was the advertisements. The color codes of Ping, the black and gold of Cobra, Titleist Tour Balata, Founders Club, and on and on. Everything looked just so damn awesome. I wanted to try, see, touch and feel everything I could. And I did. From that point, until even today, golf and golf gear dominate a good chunk of my thoughts every day.

Lesson #1: To do this job well….you have to obsessed.

Now we are in 2005. I’m working in Irvine, California, for LendingTree slanging equity loans to the A paper client,s and in the search engine, I type David Duval golf clubs…

Before I go further it must be acknowledged that my good friend Nico Bollini and I used to spend HOURS on Getty images and at the local Wajamaya scouring pictures of players bags in Golf Classic magazine and any close-ups Getty would catch. Instead of going to parties and chasing girls as normal people do, we were trying to see what shaft Ray Floyd had in his Bridgestone J’s driver.

Back to DD. I type in “David Duval golf clubs,” and I land on this weird forum thing called BombSquad Golf. It was a site that not only talked gear in-depth like Nico and I did, but they had some dude taking pics at tour events. It was golf porn. I was in. Eventually, BSG became nothing, and Richard Audi and GolfWRX.com took over. That story is very well told, so I won’t go into it.

That fueled my golf junkie for a long time. It wasn’t until 2012 and the urging from my then-girlfriend that I began writing for WRX. Since I was on the site so much and had so many opinions, she jokingly said, “You should write for them,” to which I replied, “I should.”

This is where luck comes in. I found the contact info at the bottom of the site and ended emailing Zak, the editor at the time.

“Hi Zak,

My name is John Wunder and I am extremely excited and interested in writing for Golfwrx! I have been a member of this site for over 6 years now and I have always admired the professionalism and in-depth coverage that your site provides. I am what they would call in the golfing streets a “Junky”. Tour news, college news, equipment trends, companies, in the bag info, history, etc. You name it, I know it. I’m a lifer and the only thing I have left to do to get my fix is either learn how to putt and play the mini-tours or start writing. Unfortunately, even the belly putter was of no use to me so writing it is! As writing goes my experience is limited with the exception of the occasional Facebook comment but my knowledge of the game and its culture is undeniable.  I’m dying to be apart of this thing and if I had not been scrolling to the bottom of the page I would not have noticed the link to you. Maybe it’s a sign from the Golfing Gods, you never know. Any information you can give would be much appreciated.  I Look forward to hearing from you.”

Lesson #2: You won’t know what’s possible until you ask.

Eventually, Zak gave me a shot and from 2012 to 2018 I wrote roughly 30-40 articles for WRX. For fun, for free, for the love of the game. I wrote opinion pieces, did some video articles, reviews, tournament recaps, etc. Every time they asked, I said HELL YES. Why not? Golf content is what I think about all day anyway. It requires no real study or extra work to execute. It’s something I can just sit down and do, sometimes quickly.

Now we find ourselves in 2018. It’s late January. My son Seve had just been born and my main source of income at the time (film/tv) was slow and unpredictable. I had two months of savings left, no consistent income coming in to speak of, and with two kids and my girl that I am supporting. Things got scary. Desperate is a better word. In that desperation, a decision was made. I wanted to finally do the thing I’ve always wanted to do. Work in the golf business.

I sat down and mapped out my plan…

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid of desperation. God can be found there.

But how? What can I bring to the table?

Remember obsession? Remember the power of asking?

I knew my knowledge of the tour and golf equipment was abnormal, to say the least. It still is. I knew that I had a Rolodex to choke a horse, and I had the email of someone at WRX that I could plead my case to. The editor at the time, Andrew Tursky. My email to him was very similar to my email to Zak. I plainly told what I wanted to do, why they needed me, and left it at that.

The term the squeaky wheel gets the grease is so true in my case—every job I have ever chased, there were two things I made sure were in place…

  1. I knew my passion equaled my knowledge
  2. I was willing to hear NO multiple times until the right YES came along.

Lesson #4: Know where you want to go (and tell people).

That email turned into a face-to-face with the GolfWRX brass, to a “yes we will hire you,” to getting a job doing what I love.

The job I was hired for has mutated into something way different. Every person at GolfWRX.com does multiple jobs—there is really no definitive titles or boxes we fit in. It’s a passionate, nimble crew and to a person, everyone is a golf junkie degenerate, including the owner, Rich. That was the deciding factor of going down this path. Yes, I wanted the job, but after meeting Richard Audi and discovering he was just as crazy as I am, I knew I had to work for that man.

The moral of the story is this: Golf media is not a box anymore. You don’t need a degree in journalism or your doctorate in Bill Shakespeare.  It’s the time of the hustler. So, if you have something to say, say it, something to show, show it, and most importantly if you want to get in, ASK. ASK. ASK. Someone will say yes eventually and when they do, what you do with that YES is up to you.

Hope this gives you a hint that like anything else, there is not one door, there are multiple. Knock, scream, kick, and do it with some fire.

Lesson #5: ANYTHING is possible if you want it bad enough

 

 

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Instruction

Confessions of a hacker: Chipping yips and equipment fixes

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There’s a saying in golf that, paraphrasing here, it’s the person holding the weapon, not the weapon. Basically, if you hit a bad shot, it’s almost certain that it was your fault, not the fault of the golf club. It has a better design than your swing. And while that truism is often correct, it ain’t necessarily so.

For example, if I were to try to hit one of those long drive drivers, I’d probably mis-hit it so badly that the ball might not be findable. That stick is way too long, stiff, and heavy for me. Similarly, if I were to use one of those senior flex drivers, I’d probably hit it badly, because it would be too floppy for my swing. It’s clear that there are arrows that this Indian can’t shoot well. Maybe a pro could adapt to whatever club you put in his hand, but there’s no reason he would accept less than a perfect fit. And there’s little reason why any amateur ought to accept less than a good fit.

I was never a competitive athlete, although I’m a competitive person. My path led a different direction, and as my medical career reached its mature years, I was introduced to our wonderful and frustrating game.

Being one who hates playing poorly, I immediately sought instruction. After fifteen years, multiple instructors, a wallet full of videos, and a wall full of clubs, I am finally learning how to do one particularly vexing part of the game reasonable well. I can chip! But as you may have guessed, the largest part of this journey has to do with the arrow, not the Indian.

We may immediately dismiss the golf shaft as a significant issue since chipping generally involves a low-speed movement. And as long as the grip is a reasonable fit for the hands, it’s not a big deal either. The rubber meets the road at the clubhead.

Manufacturers have worked hard to get the best ball spin out of the grooves. Their shape is precisely milled, and then smaller grooves and roughness are added to the exact maximum allowed under the rules. Various weighting schemes have been tried, with some success in tailoring wedges to players. And some manufacturers market the “newest” designs to make it impossible to screw up wedge shots. And yet, nothing seemed to solve my yips.

So I went on a mission. I studied all sorts of chipping techniques. Some advocate placing the ball far back to strike a descending blow. Others place it near the center of the stance. The swing must have no wrist hinge. The swing must have a hinge that is held. It should be a short swing. It should be a long swing. The face should be square. The face should be open. There should be a “pop.” There should be no power added.

If you are confused, join my club. So I went on a different mission. I started looking at sole construction. Ever since Gene Sarazen popularized a sole with bounce for use in the sand, manufacturers have been creating massive numbers of “different” sand wedges. They have one thing in common. They are generally all built to 55 or 56-degrees of loft.

The basic design feature of the sand wedge is that the sole extends down and aft from the leading edge at some angle. This generally ranges from 6 to 18-degrees. Its purpose is to allow the wedge to dig into the sand, but not too far. As the club goes down into the sand, the “bounce” pushes it back up.

 

One problem with having a lot of bounce on the wedge is that it can’t be opened up to allow certain specialty shots or have a higher effective loft. When the player does that, the leading edge lifts, resulting in thin shots. So manufacturers do various things to make the wedge more versatile, typically by removing bounce in the heel area.

At my last count, I have eight 56-degree wedges in my collection. Each one was thought to be a solution to my yips. Yet, until I listened to an interview with Dave Edel, I had almost no real understanding of why I was laying sod over a lot of my chips. Since gardening did not reduce my scores, I had to find another solution.

My first step was to look at the effective loft of a wedge in various ball positions. (Pictures were shot with the butt of the club at the left hip, in a recommended forward lean position. Since the protractor is not exactly lined up with the face, the angles are approximate.)

I had no idea that there was so much forward lean with a simple chip. If I were to use the most extreme rearward position, I would have to have 21-degrees of bounce just to keep the leading edge from digging in at impact. If there were the slightest error in my swing, I would be auditioning for greenskeeper.

My appreciation for the pros who can chip from this position suddenly became immense. For an amateur like me, the complete lack of forgiveness in this technique suddenly removed it from my alleged repertoire.

My next step was to look at bounce. As I commented before, bounce on sand wedges ranges between 6 and 18-degrees. As the drawing above shows, that’s a simple angle measurement. If I were to chip from the forward position, a 6-degree bounce sand wedge would have an effective bounce of 1-degree. That’s only fractionally better than the impossible chip behind my right foot. So I went to my local PGA Superstore to look at wedges with my Maltby Triangle Gauge in hand.

As you can see from the photos, there is a wide variation in wedges. What’s most curious, however, is that this variation is between two designs that are within one degree of the same nominal bounce. Could it be that “bounce is not bounce is not bounce?” Or should I say that “12-degrees is not 12-degrees is not 12-degrees?” If one looks below the name on the gauge, a curious bit of text appears. “Measuring effective bounce on wedges.” Hmmm… What is “effective bounce?”

The Maltby Triangle Gauge allows you to measure three things: leading-edge height, sole tangent point, and leading-edge sharpness. The last is the most obvious. If I’m chipping at the hairy edge of an adequate bounce, a sharp leading edge will dig in more easily than a blunt one. So if I’m using that far back ball position, I’ll need the 1OutPlus for safety, since its leading edge is the bluntest of the blunt. Even in that position, its 11-degree bounce keeps the leading edge an eighth of an inch up.

Wait a minute! How can that be? In the back position, the wedge is at 35-degrees effective loft, and 11-degrees of bounce ought to be 10-degrees less than we need. The difference here is found in combining all three parameters measured by the gauge, and not just the angle of the bounce.

The 1OutPlus is a very wide sole wedge. Its tangent point is a massive 1.7″ back. The leading edge rises .36″ off the ground and is very blunt. In other words, it has every possible design feature to create safety in case the chip from back in the stance isn’t as perfect as it might be. Since a golf ball is 1.68″ in diameter, that’s still less than halfway up to the center of the ball. But if you play the ball forward, this may not be the wedge for you.

Here are the measurements for the eight sand wedges that happen to be in my garage. All are either 56-degrees from the factory or bent to 56-degrees.

A couple of things jump out from this table. The Callaway PM Grind at 13-degrees has a lower leading edge (.26 inches) than the 11-degree Bazooka 1OutPlus (.36 inches). How can a lower bounce have a higher leading edge? Simple geometry suggests that if you want a higher leading edge, you will need a higher bounce angle. But it gets worse. The Wishon WS (wide sole) at 6-degrees (55-degree wedge bent to 56-degrees) has a leading-edge height of .28 inches, higher than the Callaway which has over twice the nominal bounce angle!

One thing is missing from this simple discussion of angles.

If I place one line at 34-degrees above the horizontal (loft is measured from the vertical), and then extend another at some angle below horizontal, the height above ground where the two join depends on how long the lower line is. This means that an 18-degree bounce with a narrow “C” grind will raise the leading edge a little bit. A 6-degree bounce on a wide sole may raise it more because the end of the bounce on the first wedge is so close to the leading edge.

 

Let’s look at this in the picture. If the red line of the bounce is very short, it doesn’t get far below the black ground line. But if it goes further, it gets lower. This is the difference between narrow and wide soles.

This diagram describes the mathematical description of these relationships.

Our first task is to realize that the angle 0 in this diagram is the complement of the 56-degree loft of the wedge, or 90 – 56 = 34-degrees since loft is measured from vertical, not horizontal. But the angle 0 in the bounce equation is just that, the bounce value. These two angles will now allow us to calculate the theoretical values of various parts of the wedge, and then compare them to our real-world examples.

My PM Grind Callaway wedge has its 3rd groove, the supposed “perfect” impact point, 0.54 inches above the leading edge. This should put it 0.8 inches back from the leading edge, roughly matching the measured 0.82 inches. So far, so good. (I’m using the gauge correctly!)

The 13-degree bounce at 1.14″ calculates out to 0.284″ of leading-edge rise. I measured 0.26″, so Callaway seems to be doing the numbers properly, until I realize that the leading edge is already .45″ back, given a real tangent of .69″. Something is out of whack. Re-doing the math suggests that the real bounce is 20-degrees, 40 min. Hmmm…

Maybe that bounce angle measurement isn’t such a good number to look at. Without digging through all the different wedges (which would make you cross-eyed), we should go back to basics. What is it that we really need?

Most instructors will suggest that striking the ball on about the third groove will give the best results. It will put the ball close to the center of mass (sweet spot) of the wedge and give the best spin action. If my wedge is at an effective 45-degree angle (about my right big toe), it will strike the ball about half-way up to its equator. It will also be close to the third groove. But to make that strike with minimal risk of gardening, I have to enough protection to keep the edge out of the turf if I mis-hit the ball by a little bit. That can be determined by the leading edge height! The higher the edge, the more forgiveness there is on a mis-hit.

Now this is an incomplete answer. If the bounce is short, with a sharp back side, it will tend to dig into the turf a bit. It may not do it a lot, but it will have more resistance than a wider, smoother bounce. In the extreme case, the 1OutPlus will simply glide over the ground on anything less than a ridiculous angle.

The amount of leading-edge height you need will depend on your style. If you play the ball forward, you may not need much. But as you move the ball back, you’ll need to increase it. And if you are still inconsistent, a wider sole with a smooth contour will help you avoid episodes of extreme gardening. A blunt leading edge will also help. It may slow your club in the sand, but it will protect your chips.

There is no substitute for practice, but if you’re practicing chips from behind your right foot using a wedge with a sharp, low leading edge, you’re asking for frustration. If you’re chipping from a forward position with a blunt, wide sole wedge, you’ll be blading a lot of balls. So look at your chipping style and find a leading-edge height and profile that match your technique. Forget about the “high bounce” and “low bounce” wedges. That language doesn’t answer the right question.

Get a wedge that presents the club to the ball with the leading edge far enough off the ground to provide you with some forgiveness. Then knock ’em stiff!

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