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Are Your Approach Shots Holding You Back?

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The GolfWRX editors suggested that I research approach shots, as this is a crucial part of the game, and see if the stats can help golfers improve — or at least gain knowledge of the areas they need to improve.

As I did with my March 10 article: Research Shows Golfers Should Spend More Time Practicing Short Putts, I researched the average 17-handicap golfer from our database of more than 180,000 ShotByShot.com rounds.

I first isolated 3,200 rounds in our database with a 17 Slope Adjusted Differential (SAD). This would represent the average 17-handicap golfer (Mr. 17) when he played to his handicap or the best 10 of his most recent 20 rounds.

Next, I analyzed this large block of rounds just as I would a single player in order to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of his game. The results were interesting, and as you can see from the summary graphic below, his No. 1 Improvement Priority is Approach shot accuracy, specifically in the 150–175-yard range.

Appr. Art. 1

What does this analysis actually mean? Based upon our Strokes Gained model and analysis, in order for Mr. 17 to improve his game to the level of his “Target” Handicap (10 to 14), he would need the most improvement in his approach game and specifically on the 150–175-yard shots.

One might ask: Why not his Chip/Pitch facet? It is also at a relative handicap of 20. Simple, he only has 9.5 Chip/Pitch shots per round vs. 17.6 approach shots each round. The result of the analysis is always a combination of frequency and severity.

Let’s start with the frequency. The chart below displays the number of approach shots from the fairway as they relate to Mr. 17’s TOTAL approach shots (all shot of 50+ yards from Fairway-Tee, Rough or Sand). To be clear, shots from the fairway (and tee) represent 68 percent of ALL of Mr. 17’s approach shots. For perspective, I have included like numbers for the 2016 PGA Tour. Note the obvious spike in the 151-175-yard range. Just over one in every four of Mr. 17’s attempts fall in this range.

Appr. Art. 2

Severity: Not only does this particular distance own the most opportunities, but it is also the most costly. That is, Mr. 17 loses more strokes on average PER SHOT from this range than any other, a negative strokes gained of 0.43 per shot. Why? He only hits the green with 35 percent of his attempts AND makes an error* with 5 percent of his attempts.

*Approach error is a penalty result or a shot hit poorly enough to require a second approach from greater than 50 yards.

Appr. Art. 3I have a theory on why this particular range is so costly. I believe that this distance tends to represent the greatest distance from which MOST of us still hit traditional irons (7, 6 and 5 irons). Outside of 175 yards, we tend to go to hybrids, which are much more forgiving. These longer iron shots require the combination of club head speed and crisp contact in order to carry the distance needed AND hold the green. I personally have resorted to a 5 hybrid for the top end of this critical range.

Conclusions

If your game is like Mr. 17’s, I suggest:

  1. Devote some more range time to the 150-175 distances.
  2. Consider more forgiving irons or hybrids.
  3. Adjust your targets from these longer distances to the middle, even back-middle, of the greens.

For a complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, you can visit www.shotbyshot.com.

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In 1989, Peter Sanders founded Golf Research Associates, LP, creating what is now referred to as Strokes Gained Analysis. His goal was to design and market a new standard of statistically based performance analysis programs using proprietary computer models. A departure from “traditional stats,” the program provided analysis with answers, supported by comparative data. In 2006, the company’s website, ShotByShot.com, was launched. It provides interactive, Strokes Gained analysis for individual golfers and more than 150 instructors and coaches that use the program to build and monitor their player groups. Peter has written, or contributed to, more than 60 articles in major golf publications including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women. From 2007 through 2013, Peter was an exclusive contributor and Professional Advisor to Golf Digest and GolfDigest.com. Peter also works with PGA Tour players and their coaches to interpret the often confusing ShotLink data. Zach Johnson has been a client for nearly five years. More recently, Peter has teamed up with Smylie Kaufman’s swing coach, Tony Ruggiero, to help guide Smylie’s fast-rising career.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Dave R

    May 3, 2017 at 11:54 pm

    Mr. Nicklaus hello where are you. Unbelievable ! Best ever golfer what happened.

  2. Dave

    May 1, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Leave it golf RX to screw up a link even. I wanted to read about why no one taught Mr. Nicklaus’s swing, and end up reading about some dude needing work on his approach.

    • indyvic

      May 3, 2017 at 2:47 am

      Nicklaus golf swing? ‘Asleep at the wheel?’

  3. Nigel Kent

    May 1, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    I thought this is supposed to be about Chamblee’s take on Nicklaus ???

  4. Shortside

    May 1, 2017 at 11:34 am

    I see realistic room for improvement from 100-150 yards. I am Mr. 17 and that is my window of opportunity. Or should I say lost opportunity. Being Mr. 17 that’s where most of my good tee shots leave me (white tees, where I belong). Most of my range time is devoted to it. Yet when I get on the course I seem to take a stupid pill. Pushed or pulled far too often. My personal analysis is pretty simple. I’m not finishing at my target. Hoping this is the year a little more focus on that gets me to an 8 GIR average. In theory that should get me to Mr. 13-14.

  5. Matto

    Apr 29, 2017 at 6:48 am

    You’re darn tootn. I hit 80%+ of fairways. Getting off the tee is no stress for me. Get a wedge in my hand and I’ll generally hit the green most times under 100. Around the green? No problem….I love the short game. Putting? Not too bad. But I’m an 11hc and that’s ALL thanks to approach shots. Hitting mid to long irons off grass? I basically have NO idea what I’m doing. 30 years of playing and it’s always held me back.

    • IHateLoveGolf

      May 1, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      I’m your exact opposite with weakness. I lose a handful of balls every round from the tee and shoot in the 80s. Irons? Easy peasy. If I (only had a brain) could tee off, I’d be single-digit and maybe even mid single digit.

  6. H

    Apr 29, 2017 at 3:37 am

    I can’t get off the tee, so no, my approach shots don’t hold me back as it takes me about 3 shots to get anywhere near the green, but my short game is deadly

  7. Greg

    Apr 28, 2017 at 9:39 am

    I believe more often then not Mr 17 tees it too far back. Move up one tee box and lower the amount of 150+ yard shots by 4 or 5 and he or she will improve. Also without slowing down the pace of play. Tee it forward.

  8. Parker0065

    Apr 28, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Great article!
    I guess I’ve been preaching this idea for +30 years when people ask how to consistently break 80(or whatever scoring level). I played a lot of golf as a junior, many rounds just me, my bag and the summer sun. By age 13 I was getting so close to breaking 80 and at the end of that season I did a full blown analysis of my game and stats(Crazy, I know, but all I ever thought or cared about as a kid was golf, until girls came along that is), and my conclusion was I just wasn’t hitting enough greens and had to get better with my iron approaches.
    Going into the following season I set out on a mission to do just that and over the first few months I did start to hit more greens. For me it was a combination of taking more conservative lines to the greens, as well as simply continuing to improve my golf swing.
    To me it’s all relative. Just saying “your going to hit more greens” is one thing but without actually “improving your golf swing” makes the idea of hitting more greens just irrelevant words!

    I’ll also add that for me hitting more greens to lower my scores into a competitive zone was a two step process. After my GIR stats started to improve that season many years ago as a junior I quickly realized I had to put in more time with “Lag Putting”. Holes in the past where I may have missed the green I was now faced with 30-40 foot lag putts. Which with a little practice become much easier to two putt versus trying to get up and down from all over the place. Plus it actually takes pressure off your short game(until you start shooting around or under par anyways) because you don’t have to rely on getting up and down 5-7 times a round to break 80.

    By August of that season(1979) I was consistently breaking 80 and never looked back!

  9. Peter Sanders

    Apr 28, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Steve,
    An 8 handicap from the Sand means that the player’s average putting distances following successful sand shots AND his % Errors (shots that do not find the green) match the profile of the average 8 handicap. It is based on Strokes Gained from the sand. While “Saves” are nice and important, they have nothing to do with the assessment of a player’s sand performance – Saves are two facets: Sand and Putting.

  10. WILLIAM MARTELLA

    Apr 28, 2017 at 8:13 am

    Pete, can you do a similar analysis for people in the 10-14 range looking to get to single digits? I’d like to see if this scoring zone shifts at all.

    • Dave

      Apr 28, 2017 at 8:29 am

      I would imagine the chipping and putting would be the focal point then.

    • Peter Sanders

      Apr 28, 2017 at 9:02 am

      Could be a good idea for another article. I will think about it. Thanks!

  11. Simms

    Apr 27, 2017 at 11:52 pm

    I find this idea completely correct….even pros end up missing cuts/or finishing low in the money because of this, and they are hitting 8,9 irons from 170. John Daly would be a prime example I would think..

  12. mikee

    Apr 27, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    My instructor wants to see only two stats on my scorecard …..GIR and distance from the pin after the approach shot. She wants 12 to 14 GIR (I am a 7 hcp) and as close as possible to the pin. Tiger dominated for years because he was first in both those stats.

    • Peter Sanders

      Apr 28, 2017 at 9:12 am

      mikee,
      12 – 14 GIR’s? A lofty goal! PGA Tour average is 12.5 and the Winner’s on Tour average 13. The average 7 handicap hits 8 GIR’s. Where are you now?

      • mikee

        Apr 28, 2017 at 9:26 am

        I’m at 10 GIR……but I putt terribly ….about 33 to 35 per round

  13. Matt

    Apr 27, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Yep, fairway approach shots and pitching / chipping

  14. Mark

    Apr 27, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Good article. I am struggling at the moment and hitting greens, never mind hitting it close is my weak area. The range beckons…

  15. Chris Bunting

    Apr 27, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Maybe Mr.17 needs to move up a T box? I do not consider 175 yards an approach shot if I got off the T properly. Its more of a try to limit the damage shot since I barfed all over the T shot and now need a good recovery or else a big number looms.

    I do practice my approach shots quite a bit, but thats with a 7i-54* wedge.

    • george

      Apr 27, 2017 at 3:58 pm

      If you’re playing in the States you have the possibility to ease out and move up a tee, sure. But if you’re playing anywhere else in the world, the men’s tees are the men’s tees regardless of your driving distance or your hcp. The mens tees are rated and your hcp is based on the men’s tees. So you play the men’s tees and not some kind of colour code. And that, my friend, means that real golfers in the UK, anywhere else in Europe or Africa play from 6300-6700yds. If your Par4s are 410+yds you better learn how to hit those approaches from 170 or pitch it close with your 3rd.

    • WILLIAM MARTELLA

      Apr 28, 2017 at 8:10 am

      Also doesn’t take in to account the intentional play from the tee. 175 yards in is a 7 iron for me. Normally I would say I am closer, but my expectation is to be on or near the green with 6 iron or shorter, aka 185 and in.

      Moving up or back should be decided by your ability to hit for distance/accuracy

  16. Steve

    Apr 27, 2017 at 11:43 am

    I wonder what an 8 handicap out of the sand really means. My guess is gets out of the sand most of the time, but rarely gets a sandie.

  17. golfraven

    Apr 27, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Nice breakdown and analysis. Good to know the trouble zone (150-175 – 7,6,5 iron) so I will look out what mine is and work on it. Are my approaches holding my game back? Heck yeah – last round was 80% FIR but only 33% GIR – sucker.

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