Background

When I was lucky enough to join a golf club many years ago, my No. 1 goal was to become a real 5-handicap. But first, I had to figure out how to break 90 on my new difficult golf course. I played on weekends and 9-holes after work without seeing improvement. I took one lesson from the pro, who laughed at my list of ambitious goals.  His response was, “OK, but how about we start with letting me see you hit a 5-iron.” His prescription was a minor grip change and much more practice time on the range.

In my second month of membership, I signed up for my first event: a one-day member-guest with my 70-year-old, 36-handicap father who had introduced me to golf when I was seven. We played nine holes every Saturday at a public course in Washington, DC, that had no hazards and no sand traps – just nine tees, nine circular greens and one gigantic fairway. When I was 12, “real sports” took over and I dropped golf and my dad.

Anyway, here we were at my great new club getting ready to play in our first event together. My dad, a lofty 36, and me, a shiny new 14-handicap. I was nervous for myself, but I was much more nervous for my Dad. How he would enjoy — or NOT enjoy — the long, difficult test of golf. I was so nervous, I guess, that I started to hit shanks on the practice tee… and I couldn’t figure out how to stop them. Finally, it was time to head to the tee for the shotgun start.  To my horror, we were starting on the most difficult par-3 on the course. It was 165 yards over WATER and we were paired with two fairly good golfers that I didn’t know.

“Go ahead,” one of them said. “Lead us off!”

Not wanting to expose my dad to the extreme pressure of going first, I took the tee. I somehow summoned my inner pride and made a fairly good swing with my 6 iron. I did NOT s_____, and my tee shot hit the green. I not only broke 90; I shot 78. Dad chimed in on a couple of holes with his two strokes and we won low net. It’s amazing what can happen when one totally forgets score and focuses on the process of selecting and hitting quality shots.

From there, I worked hard on my game and reached my 5-handicap goal and more. It led me to start a business providing a new type of golf statistics and analysis for golfers, now known as Strokes Gained, and you can read about the History of Strokes Gained on my website www.ShotByShot.com.

Want to break 80? Here is my blueprint

The game of golf is a puzzle and all the pieces fit together. Further, each round is a mix of good shots, average shots and bad shots/errors. The challenge is to determine which piece of your game’s unique puzzle is your greatest weakness in order to target your improvement efforts on the highest impact area. If you track the simple good and bad outcomes listed below for a few rounds, your strengths and weaknesses will become apparent.

Tee Game/Driving

Drive goals 2

Distance: I’ll ignore this and assume you’re playing from the appropriate tees for your game.
Fairways: Hitting fairways is important, as we are all more accurate from the short grass.
Errors: Far more important than Fairways Hit is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of misses. ShotByShot.com users record THREE types of Driving Errors:

  1. No Shot: You have missed in a place from which you do not have a normal next shot, requiring some sort of advancement to get the ball back to normal play.  Preferably, your one error will be of this, less costly, nature.
  2. Penalty: A one-stroke penalty due to hazard or unplayable lie.
  3. Lost/OB: Stroke and distance penalty

Approach Shots

1-Appr. goal 2 Error = Penalty/Second: This means either a penalty, or a shot hit so poorly that you are left with yet another full approach shot from greater than 50 yards of the hole.

Short Game (shots from within 50 yards of the hole)

If you miss NINE Greens, you will have EIGHT of these greenside save opportunities.

Chip/Pitch shots  

1.C.P goals 2Errors = Shots that miss the green.  The fringe does not count as an error

Sand shots  

You should have ONE of these greenside save opportunities.

1. sand goal2

Errors = Shots that miss the green.  The fringe does not count as an error

Putting  

You need 32 putts.

1. Putt goal 2

Good luck, and please let me know if and when you are successful.

Chart

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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.

39 COMMENTS

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  1. It’s all relative …… for instance, how do you compare scoring 79 if you are driving a golf cart as opposed to walking the course and carrying/pushing your golf clubs/bag?
    A golfer breaking 80 in a golf cart would likely have difficulty breaking 100 if he walked the course carrying his bag.
    Ambulance golf versus ambulatory golf ….lol

  2. Stats are way to go and each serious player should collect their own independent of Hcp. I would be looking at the avarage on the PGA tour. Considering that avarage for GIR is 66%, FIR 61% and scrambling 60% ish, this are the numbers to strive for in the first place to put down a reasonable score. Assuming you don’t 3/4 putt on 50% of the holes you should be in good shape.
    If you want to break 80 or Par then my best advise is to take your scorecard hopefully with a course map and set a strategy for each hole how you hit it of the tee (fade, draw or straight) and most importantly the landing spot of the ball on the fairway and green. Start recording where you miss it (also on the green) and this will give you and idea what to work on.
    Play your game and shots for instance the hybrid (if what is required) of the tee even if big Joe hits a driver – don’t bother what others play unless those guys are aspiring players and you practice with them.
    From the stats you should get a picture of your range, patterns and tendencies and you can adjust your practice and course management accordingly.

  3. The more I play and the closer I get to breaking 80, my tee ball has become the difference maker. An OB on the back 9 has been my downfall each time i’ve been close. Distance plus the strokes are killer. Other than driving, 3 putts are a nemesis. Outside 40 feet, the 2 putt % needs to be much higher. Good data!

  4. This is great. I started keeping stats when I play almost any round. Fairways, Greens, and Putts. I also putt little tick marks when I get into the sand and circle it when I get up and down. Keeping the stats don’t necessarily make you play better, but they give you a better idea of what is costing you strokes. And if you can figure out what is really costing you strokes based on trends over several rounds, then you can use your likely minimal practice time to focus on those aspects. I struggle hitting full mid-irons shots and it has cost me because I hit 10 or more fairways quite often, but I’m hooking 7/8-irons and wasting the opportunities. So instead of hitting drivers on the range, I have been working hard on mid/short irons. This is a good way to break down your rounds. Good stuff.

  5. 9 GIRS is PLENTY to break 80. I’m a 2 index who averages 55% girs. I just don’t make big numbers.

    Even when I was a lousy 40-42% GIRS I shot half my rounds under 80 and was a 4-5 index.

  6. Personally off the tee is the biggest issue. If I’m in the fairway off the tee, I’ll likely have a good day regardless of ball striking and putting (unless a complete outlier day happens) as I know I will avoid big numbers unless something is seriously off. Can’t go wrong with avoiding costly penalties (which likely also hurt you mentally for the rest of the hole) and being in a good position into the green.

  7. This matches up with my experience really well. I got down to a single digit handicap after just a few years of playing. From my second season to my third I dropped from a 16 to a shaky 6, and it was almost entirely due to cleaning up mistakes. My ball striking improved just enough that I largely stopped hitting tee shots into the woods/water, and largely stopped duffing iron shots. I still missed half the greens, but I learned how to miss in places where I had relatively straightforward chips. I don’t think I even made more birdies – I just stopped throwing shots away.

  8. Nice blueprint. For me, the GIR is definitely the difference for breaking 80 since I count anything withing 6 feet as a gimme. On a good day 7 GIR can get it done, but the more the merrier.

    Also, you forgot the number one tip: Play a par 70 course!

  9. Another example of good shot or bad shot…you’re 120yd out, you cold top your approach and it rolls to front of green?

    just seems there is a difference in using the above in tracking scoring and tracking actual ball striking or playing level. are we trying to get to a point we’re tracking the quality of shots or simply the outcomes.

  10. Love love love this!
    My pro who also happens to have played pro sports ( NHL) and became scratch himself within 2 years of taking up golf, uses this philosophy and Ive used it to break 80 several times. His approach, cut the game into little strategical pieces based on GIR. 7-10 GIR almost guarantees me I will break 80. I simply focus on the task at hand, hitting the green, INSTEAD of getting to the hole. I know it sounds absurd, but that mental picture is easier.

  11. my only question is regarding tracking errors in driving. is it only based on the outcome of the shot, or the actual shot. if you slice it into an opposing fairway and have a good look at the green, do you count this as an error even though the outcome is very playable.

  12. This is a great format in terms of how to think about how to break 80. I think it is a very thought-provoking article.

    My only issue with it is that it is way way too broad, and ignores that each shot influences the next, so it doesn’t actually show you what you need to work on.

    For example, you want five one-putts. But practicing putting isn’t the best way to improve your one-putt percentage or number. The best way to get better at putting (And it isn’t close) is to hit the ball closer to the hole. There is no putter on Earth who is worse from 10 feet than the best PGA Tour putter is from 20. “5 one putts” sounds like a putting statistic, but it isn’t. Its an approach statistic. It should be in the approach box, not the putting box. Avoiding 3 putts should be the only thing in the putting category, because it is the only thing that evaluates solely putting skill.

    Similarly, “fairways” is meaningless. I can hit the fairway with a pitching wedge. While this is an extreme example, you will always be less accurate the longer you are (i will miss much further 1* open swinging 110 than 90 – the 90 will be a “fairway” in your system, the 110 won’t).

    Its the same thing with “chip/pitch” shots. Whats the best way to get up and down more often? And by “best way” I mean “most efficient way to practice”. Its not to hit pitches and chips until your hands bleed, its to improve your approach shots! If you hit one extra green, you can “get up and down” one more time by two-putting instead of pitching/chipping.

    This entire article should simply say “practice your driving and your approach shots” because that’s all that matters until you are around scratch. There is no amount of chipping, pitching or putting practice that will make up for hitting it closer and hitting the green more often. None. Zero.

    It is always more efficient to improve your putting, pitching and chipping by improving your approach shots. Practicing putting, chipping and pitching is a horrifically inefficient way to break 80 (and this doesn’t even include missing in the right spots – your article treats all missed greens equally, when this couldn’t be further from the truth – missing in the right spot is just as important to pitching and chipping success as technique).

    So, great article concept, just too long – you didn’t need to go past driver and approach. The rest doesn’t matter until you get up around scratch.

    Please note I DID NOT SAY pitching, chipping and putting don’t matter. I said that practicing them is way less efficient than practicing your full swing and your full swing controls how difficult your putting, chipping and pitching are on the course. Of course practicing them will “help”, but practicing chipping is silly unless your approach shots are around scratch level – you will automatically be better because you’ll hit more greens and have to chip less.

    “A Marine and a Navy man are using the restroom. The Marine leaves without washing his hands. The Navy man says “in the navy, they teach us to wash our hands. The marine says “in the marines, they teach us not to piss on our hands. ” Hitting greens is not pissing on your hands.

    “32 putts” is meaningless. If I hit it an inch from the hole on every hole I would get 18 putts!!!!! Best putter in the world!!!!!!! Until a certain very high level, the full swing is all that matters.

    • I disagree that tee shots and approach shots are all that matters until you are around scratch. Nor do I think that practicing putting is an inefficient way to practice if you are trying to break 80.

      I’m actively trying to break 80 so I feel like I can comment on this with some meaningfulness. I’ve broken 40 for 9 many times but have never been able to put it together.

      Because on a par 72 course – getting to 79 means only giving up seven shots to par. Obviously if I hit every fairway and hit every approach shot to an inch I’d break 80. Then I’d have my girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence pick me up from the course in her Ferrari and fly to Vegas for the weekend. Practicing with that goal in mind just has no basis in reality.

      Missing fairways and greens are all part of being a golfer. The best golfers in the world miss fairways and greens all the time so it’s quite likely that I’m going to miss just as many, if not more. So in order to only give up seven shots to par you have to be able to limit mistakes in every aspect of your game. So you need to hit about 8 of 14 fairways. You need to hit about 9 of 18 greens. You need to have around 5 one putts and maybe sneak a birdie in there to make up for the inevitable 3 putt or drive that goes awry. When you miss the green you need to be able to get up and down 3 or 4 times out of 9 or 10 greens missed.

      The point he is trying to make – and he says it pretty clearly – is that breaking 80 involves EVERY skill you have. You have to drive the ball cleanly, get onto the green and 2 putt. You only have 7 strokes to give up. Yes limiting mistakes off the tee and on your approach is important…but it’s not any more important than chipping and putting well.

      I think if you were trying to break 90 focusing just on tee shots and approach shots would make sense. But if you’re trying to break 80? You gotta make putts and you have to score. That means you have to make putts.

      • Agreed. The one and only time I’ve managed to break 80 I drove the ball decent (only getting into severe trouble on one hole – damn water!), hit 7 greens, pitched/chipped well, and putted slightly better than average (which is about 1.89 putts/hole). Simply put, it took every aspect of my game working together to achieve that feat. Since then, I haven’t been able to sniff 80 because pitching/chipping has been horrible and I haven’t been hitting enough greens. On the rare occasion pitching/chipping has been good, my driving or putting has slipped. You gotta be able to do it all moderately well and manage the course.

      • Read the part of my post that said “PLEASE NOTE”.

        I’m not saying putting isn’t important. Of course it is. What I’m saying is that no amount of practice with your putter will make you better at putting than hitting the ball five feet closer to the hole. Its not that “putting doesn’t matter” or “putting practice is stupid” its that “the best way to practice putting is to hit it closer”.

        There is no better way to get “good” at putting than to make your putts shorter by being better at irons.

        • I just don’t agree. Billy Horschel is T51 in terms of proximity to hole after his approach shots. He averages almost 36 ft! Number 1 is Chez Reavie at 33′. Alex Noren is last at 43′.

          The average 10 handicap golfer is probably, what, 50 feet? What does being 5 feet closer to the hole get me?

          I don’t think I’d make significantly more putts from 45 feet than from 50 feet – I don’t think anyone would. I make more 5 footers than 10 footers for sure – but THAT is down to chipping and lag putting – not approach shots or tee shots. That is true for pros as well and the statistics bear that out. Even inside 100 yards the average pro hits it to like 15-20 feet.

          Bottom line here: 79 is a great score for me – it’s about 6 shots better than my average round of 85 – so it’s like Rickie Fowler shooting a 62. Rickie can’t ball strike his way to a 62 and I can’t ball strike my way to a 79. Gotta make putts and I have to save strokes in all aspects of my game.

  13. What you just described is looking at every shot in a vacuum. Don’t look at the entire round, don’t think about the hole on the score, focus on the task that is immediately at hand. There is no water, there is no green side bunker, the only thing that should be going through your mind is if you hit that 6 iron the way you should, it will go 170, and the rest will take care of itself. Getting to low single digit handicap is entirely mental. Being able to repeat the right mindset over 18 holes is what makes for good scores.

  14. Hi Peter,

    How would you recommend tweaking those numbers to look at shooting low 70’s? (for context I’ve just been cut to 5 and keen to keep getting lower meaning regular rounds in the low 70’s are necessary)

    Thanks,

    Gareth

  15. I’ve always based it on GIR. If, using your formula, you have 9 GIR, and get up and down on 40% of the greens you miss, that’s 13 pars. That gives you an 8 shot buffer for the other five holes. So you can have 3 bogeys and two doubles.

    First time I broke 80 I had a couple of birdies which made up for the triple I had on the last as I limped over the line.

    • Thanks Steve,
      Yes, birdies provide a nice cushion. Bear in mind, those 9 GIR’s are only pars if followed by 2-Putts. Also, the errors sited tend to result in bogeys or worse unless followed by 1-Putts. It is a complicated puzzle.

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