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The blind spot of PGA Tour players: Long-iron play

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With the PGA Tour’s season winding down to the final tournament of the year, there will be a faction of golfers fighting to make the top 125 on the Money List in order to keep their Tour Card for 2013.  I have personally worked with a few PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors on understanding the game from a statistical standpoint.

When I started the 2012 season working with these clients there were a couple of parts of our initial interaction that surprised me:

1)     Each player had made it their goal to be ‘one of the best wedge players on Tour.’

2)     Each client initially did not buy into me telling them that in the grand scheme of things, full shot wedge play is not overly important. Particularly on the PGA Tour.

With the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data, the numbers are on display for statisticians like me to decipher the level of importance of each part of the game of golf.  It’s very similar to the movie Moneyball and the approach Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, utilized to build his team based on the cold, hard numbers instead of traditional baseball axioms. But even better, there are far less “moving parts” in the game of golf, making the numbers more distinct and easier to see the correlation to success on Tour.

Despite that, there is still plenty of resistance to approaching the game of golf from a metrics standpoint and every year there are about 75 full time PGA Tour golfers wondering where their entire season went wrong.

***

My development into metrics and the game of golf actually started back when I was only five years old.  I immediately took to the game of baseball and each week my dad would go to the local store and grab a few packs of baseball cards and give them to me where I would collect them.  Eventually I would spend my entire time reading and studying each card.  One of the fascinating parts of baseball is the amount of record keeping of statistics the sport has, dating back to the 19th century.

One of my favorite all-time baseball managers was Billy Martin as he would keep some data on how well certain batters performed against certain pitchers.  In fact, in the 1977 American League Championship Series, Martin benched superstar Reggie Jackson because Kansas City’s starting pitcher was Paul Splittorff, who had owned Jackson each time they faced each other.  Almost every baseball expert thought Martin was insane, but in the end the Yankees won the game 5-3 and went on to beat the Dodgers to win the World Series.

For better or for worse, statistics lends way to contrarian type of thinking.  But if analyzed diligently and with an open mind, it can uncover truths that have eluded even the greatest experts for centuries.

In my own personal journey of golf, I had never understood what the golf term “scoring” exactly meant.  Often times, hearing the words “I scored well’ left me with more questions than answers.  Generally I would hear it referred to putting and chipping well, but I had plenty of rounds where I shot a low score and did not putt or chip all that well. In fact, one of my lowest rounds ever (64) came with a 4-putt.

With that, I decided to look into the ShotLink data and use my background in statistics to see if I could figure out the level of importance that certain parts of the game have on the success of PGA Tour golfers.  In the process, I wound up uncovering a truth that has been long ignored by countless Tour players.

***

Before I go on, the wedge game does matter in the game of golf.  In fact, every part of the game matters in the game of golf.  If a golfer improves his fairway bunker play, that will lower their scores over a period of time.  However, if a golfer improves their putting, that will have a bigger impact on lowering their scores than if they were to just improve their fairway bunker player.  Thus, a metrics based approach to golf is about determining the level of importance that certain parts of the game have and then focusing on improving the parts of the game that have the highest level of importance in order to improve a golfer’s scores.

One of my first observations was that Tour players typically do not hit the ball well from every location with every type of club in the bag.  The golfers considered to be top tier ballstrikers are usually good off the tee and then excel with certain irons like the mid-irons or the long irons or with their wedges.  But to find a golfer who can hit it well off the tee and hit it well with each iron is quite rare.

I ended up splitting the game in different categories like Driving Effectiveness, Putts Gained and Short Game Play.  But for the approach shots, I split them into the following categories:

  • Birdie Zone Play (shots from 75-125 yards)
  • Safe Zone Play (shots from 125-175 yards)
  • Danger Zone Play (shots from 175-225 yards)

What I uncovered was that Danger Zone Play has the strongest correlation to success on Tour than ANY other part of the game, including putting and driving effectiveness.  And it has a far stronger correlation to success on Tour than Safe Zone Play and Birdie Zone Play.  Despite that, these clients of mine on the PGA Tour would tell me how important it was for them to be one of the best wedge players on Tour.

While I was a little frustrated with their desires to be the best at a part of the game that was relatively unimportant to their success, I did understand where they were coming from.   I had to remember that before I did this statistical research, I had the same ideas of good Tour players would almost always get up-and-in on any shot from inside 100 yards.  And if a Tour player was unable to execute from that distance, they would not find themselves on Tour for very long.  This led me to wondering where this faulty thinking came from.

***

Currently, the leader in Birdie Zone play is Steve Stricker, who has hit his Birdie Zone shots an average of 15.74 feet to the cup.  The average Tour player from the Birdie Zone has hit his shots 20.35 feet to the cup.

The general misconception for golfers, including actual PGA Tour golfers, is that once a good Tour player gets a wedge in their hands they will hit it close and have a tap in putt.  But as the data shows, that is far from the reality.  The best player from 75-125 yards is averaging almost 16 feet left to the cup on shots from this range.  The average Tour player is leaving it over 20 feet to the cup.

Furthermore, the Tour average putts made percentage from 15-20 feet is only 18.3 percent.  From 20-25 feet the average make percentage on Tour is 11.7 percent.  Therefore, Tour players are not having a lot of tap-ins when they get a full swing wedge in their hand, but also their odds of getting up-and-in with a full swing wedge in their hands are slim at best.

Still, we need to see what the correlation between Birdie Zone Play and success on Tour actually.  To give a better idea, take a look at the top-10 Birdie Zone players in 2012 and their ranking on the Money List:

Here’s a list of the players in the bottom-10 of Birdie Zone Play and their Money Ranking:

Out of the players in both lists, the bottom-10 in the Birdie Zone actually have 6 players in the top-100 on the Money List versus the top-10 Birdie Zone players which only has 5 players in the top-100 on the Money List.

Let’s compare that to the best and the worst of the Danger Zone golfers.  Here is the top-10 Danger Zone golfers and their rankings on the Money List:

Here’s the bottom-10 in Danger Zone play:

Every single player in the top-10 in the Danger Zone will be in the top-125 on the Money List in 2012, regardless of what happens at Disney.  But even better, those who have finished in the top-10 in the Danger Zone have had resounding success on Tour this year.  Whereas four of the top-10 Birdie Zone golfers (Mulroy, Taylor, Thatcher and O’Hern) will likely have to win at Disney in order to finish in the top-125 on the Money List.

This is the blind spot for many PGA Tour players.  They keep working doggedly on their wedge game whereas if they used their efforts towards the longer irons and hybrids, they would almost assuredly keep their card and get closer to nirvana, winning a PGA Tour event.

I think the cause of the ‘blind spot’ is television.  Television producers are far more interested in shots that wind up close to the pin than the shots that actually have a greater impact of a golfer separating themselves from the rest of the field.  That is why we see so much putting on televised rounds, those are the shots that golfers are most likely to make.  When it comes to full swing shots, golfers are more likely to hit a wedge shot closer to the pin.  And to make it even more visually appealing, wedge shots are more likely to get backspin as well.

Thus, the perception is that Tour players stick every wedge shot and get up-and-in with ease.  That is what we usually see every week on TV.  The reality is far different and that the more spectacular shot happens when a golfer hits a 190 yard shot to 15-feet with no back spin.  But television ratings always take precedent over mundane facts.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

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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, 2017 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

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Louis

    Aug 10, 2014 at 5:25 am

    You say a player who averages 15 feet from 100 yards has a slim chance of making birdie because tour pros only make 20% of their 15 footers. How about all the shots that land inside 15 feet though?

    If you hit 30 shots and average 15 feet from 100 yards it means you will have 4 putts inside of 4 feet (let’s say you make 4), 6 from 5-10 (let’s say you make 3), 5 from 11-15 (let’s say you make 2), and 15 from 15-30 (let’s assume you make 2). That gives you a better than 33% chance of making birdie.

    Winning tournaments comes from making birdies and not screwing up badly. Going from a 7% margin of error to 5% margin of error with long irons isn’t gonna make you score any better.

    Not spraying your long irons will help immensely. Because that’s a really easy place to lose strokes.

    Lesson: keep the ball in play (hit greens) with your long irons. That’s it. Don’t worry about being better than able to hit it within 50 feet of where you aim consistently (still hard to do). Going from 50 feet to 40 feet won’t help.

    Eliminate inconsistencies that produce big misses.

    Once you have that down, to score well, hitting the wedges closer is the easiest way.

  2. Sam

    Jun 18, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Interesting stuff, here’s my 2cents worth…
    PGA Tour players are just like other golfers, they follow trends. In the 90’s everyone on Tour jumped on the 52, 56, 60 bandwagon with Tom Kite, when he took distance control to a new level. Then along came Tiger with 48, 54, 58 and they all dumped a wedge. Lately, club lofts have changed the make up of sets, making 3 iron redundant in many cases (as shown above). The reason the DZ looks more important to scoring than the BZ is that relative to the other parts of their game the average PGA Tour Pro is poor in the BZ. The reason for this is simple: not enough tools to do the job. Modern PW clubs have become much stronger, instead of keeping the loft/distance gaps even, everyone followed Tiger and minimized the short end of their set. No doubt, more options and more full shot yardages will result in closer to the hole with wedges, it would be interesting to look at the correlation between number of scoring clubs and proximity to the hole, pretty sure you will find that guys with 3-4 wedges get it closer more often than the two club guys. Now that’s a blind spot!

    • JD

      Nov 13, 2013 at 5:15 am

      Interesting comment. But what I think you have failed to recognise is the fact PGA tour courses have become much longer and therefore require more clubs down the long end of the set make up. As a professional caddie and also a pro myself I have seen this first hand. There are also more courses with par 3 holes that are between 200-225 yards, couple that with longer par 4 holes that require longer, higher and softer shots players are forced into a hybrid as well as 3 irons. This is one reason I feel players are dumping the extra edge.

  3. Mike

    Feb 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    The article is interesting but I am not sure that using Money List as a correlation to Birdie/Danger Zone is a statistically sound method. The Money List is a total of earnings but that is subject to a variable you have not accounted for which is the number of starts a player has on the Tour. Even an average PGA Tour player will have more money when they have more starts. A better comparison of earnings to player performance statistics would at least use “earnings per start” to eliminate the variable related to the number of starts.

    Also, isn’t there some relationship between BZ, SZ and DZ that you have not accounted for? For example, Steve Stricker rates Top 10 in BZ and DZ efficiency and Adam Scott is 189th in BZ and obviously not Top 10 in DZ. One would think, based on the analysis, that Adam Scott would finish far below Steve Stricker yet the opposite is true. Scott (16 starts) actually finished with slightly higher earnings per start ($181,000) than did Stricker (19 starts and $180,000 per start).

  4. Alex

    Feb 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    First of all great article…
    Last year i actually kept record of 30 rounds and analyzed them through out. I took lowest 10 rounds and see what i did best during those rounds. This is what i found. 7 out of 10 rounds i hit 12 fairways each of those rounds, however also note i took more 3 woods and hybrids off the tee that left me a lot of 150-185 yard approaches. In those rounds i hit about 14 greens on avg. What this concluded for me is that i am a lot better hitting 7,6,5 and hybrids off the fairway than wedges from the rough. I am pretty decent putter and will not really 3 putt very often, however i will also not drain too many 20 footers for birdies. If Tour avg from the BZ is about 20 ft then i will be definitely over that, so as an amateur if i want to score better but more importantly consistently better i should be hitting 3/5 woods off the tees and hitting 7 irons into greens taking my 2 putts and going to the next hole. This is where this article is dead on, for me to get better either i need to drive better and be on the short grass with my driver leaving wedges in or improve my approaches from 150-185. Now what is easier to improve….

  5. Jeff

    Feb 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Great article, really can relate to this.

  6. Dane

    Feb 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Great article Mark. Being a golf professional this has put into writing what plenty of golf pros think. I will definitely look more into your work!

  7. Philip

    Feb 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Wow! I think I need to become a statistician to analyze my golf game! Call me weird, but these are fun articles!

  8. mark burk

    Nov 5, 2012 at 9:28 am

    All of the players you metion are good danger zone players are longer hitters and bad dangerzone players are short hitters. 175 to 225 for the good ones mention are mostly mid irons that can hold the firm pga tour greens, they also will be able to hit par 5’s in two more often which is where these guys make there birdies with shorter clubs and since most the par 3’s on tour are over 200 yards plays to the advantage of the longer hitters. So it would be better most of the world class player have good long game because of distance. If you want to talk about where weekend warrior can save shots it is with the shortgame. If a player can eliminate 3 putts and get up and down more often it will save them more strokes than being a good iron player from 175 to 225. Keeping the ball in play, eliminating 3 putts and decent short game will keep the score down for the average weekend golfer. Every time I go to range at my club the chipping and putting green are empty and the range is full. What will lower a score faster going from 38 putts a round to 30 or hitting good long iron or hybrid shots which will maybe be hit 4 times a round. This is for the weekend player

    • Richie Hunt

      Nov 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Mark,

      I only showed the top-10 and bottom-10, but there is no substantative statistical correlation between distance off the tee or clubhead speed or a combination of the two and DZ play. And I have ran these numbers since 2003 for Distance and DZ play and thru 2007 for clubhead speed and DZ play.

      There are plenty of examples of shorter hitting, low clubhead speed players that play great from the DZ each year. McDowell is ranked 8th in the DZ and not very long. Same with Stricker. Furyk is ranked 12th and routinely does great in the DZ. Same for other shorter hitters like David Toms (who was ranked #1 in 2011), Heath Slocum, and Zach Johnson.

      Meanwhile there are longer hitters that struggle from the DZ. Like Chopra, Driscoll, Lamely, and Mark Anderson (currently ranked 174th) and Jhonattan Vegas (currently ranked 175th).

      Distance helps…slightly. But it’s not enough help for Tour players to overcome a lack of skill in the Danger Zone.

  9. Brett Adamkiewicz

    Nov 1, 2012 at 11:03 am

    What a well rounded article, and explained better than I have ever heard it. I have always taken a different thought process compared to the average joe. Not to exaggerate but we have all heard the phrase “drive for show and putt for dough” a million times. Fact of the matter is you will never win any “dough” if your superb putting skills are saving bogey and double bogeys all the time. On a side topic I am curious as too the percentage of penalty strokes taken in a round are due to tee shots and the “danger zone” shots. I know the phrase doesn’t exactly fit with the danger zone but it is all relative. 175 and out is what I call my scoring zone. I can have a bad putting and chipping day and still be sub 80. If I can’t get off the tee and can’t get around the green, the limit on my score…. I am taking a trip with 7 of my buddies to Kiawah Island this weekend and I am going to put this to the test! Most of them are all mid to low handicappers and can play well! I am going to have a little fun with this and track their scoring relative to your “Danger Zone” and off the tee. Thank you for this article and I hope more people will read this and pay attention.

    • Brett Adamkiewicz

      Nov 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

      The sky is the limit on my score. Left out that part.

  10. Dan

    Oct 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Fantastic article, very insightful. It will be great to stop focusing on the “Glamorous” parts of the game and focus more on the shots that lower my score.

  11. DaleH

    Oct 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Exactly.. most amatures do struggle with the short game but really struggle with longer irons like myself. I’m usually on hitting into greens with say an 8 iron or less, 7-4 not as good, the longer the iron the the less my chances. Time to practice more on the long irons. Thanks for the facts.

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Geoff Shackelford and Louis Oosthuizen join our 19th Hole podcast

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Louis Oosthuizen and Geoff Shackelford join our 19th Hole this week. Oosthuizen talks about his prospects for the 2018 season, and Shackelford discusses Tiger’s setback at the 2018 Genesis Open. Also, host Michael Williams talks about the PGA Tour’s charitable efforts in the wake of tragic events in Parkland, Florida.

Listen to the podcast below on SoundCloud, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Fantasy Preview: 2018 Honda Classic

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It’s off to Florida this week for the Honda Classic, as the lead up to the year’s first major continues. PGA National has been the permanent home of this event since 2007, and it has proved to be one of the most demanding courses on Tour since then. The golf course measures just under 7,200 yards, but it is the often blustery conditions combined with the copious amount of water hazards that make this event a challenge. There is also the added factor of “The Bear Trap,” a daunting stretch of holes (Nos. 15-17) that are arguably the most difficult run of holes we will see all year on the PGA Tour.

Ball strikers have excelled here in the past, with Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy all boasting fine records at PGA National. The par-70 golf course contains six long Par 4’s that measure over 450 yards, and players will be hoping that the wind isn’t too strong — when it does blow here, the course can turn into a brute. Last year, Rickie Fowler posted 12-under par to win the event by four strokes over Morgan Hoffmann and Gary Woodland. It was the first time in the last five years that the winning score reached double digits.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Rickie Fowler 8/1
  • Rory McIlroy 10/1
  • Justin Thomas 11/1
  • Sergio Garcia 18/1
  • Tyrrell Hatton 28/1
  • Tommy Fleetwood 30/1
  • Gary Woodland 30/1

Previous champions Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy are sure to be popular picks this week, but it’s Justin Thomas (11/1, DK Price $11,300) who I feel offers slightly more value out of the front runners. Thomas has begun the year well, finishing in the top-25 in all four events he has played. The numbers show that his game is getting better all the time. His iron play has steadily improved, picking up more Strokes for Approaching the Green week by week. Last week he gained six strokes approaching the green at the Genesis Open, which was fourth in the field.

At the ball strikers’ paradise, Thomas fans will be glad to know that he ranks fourth in the field for Ball Striking over his last 12 rounds. He is also ranked fourth for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green and second in Strokes Gained Total. Comparatively, neither Fowler nor McIlroy rank inside the top-50 for ball striking and the top-40 for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green over the same period.

Thomas’ accuracy on his approaches has been sensational lately. He leads the field in Proximity to the Hole for his past 12 rounds, and on a golf course that contains many long par 4’s it should play into Justin’s hands, as he’s been on fire recently with his long irons. He is third in the field for Proximity on Approaches Between 175-200 yards, and second in the field for Approaches Over 200 yards in his last 12 rounds. Thomas has a mixed record at PGA National, with a T3 finish wedged in between two missed cuts, but I like the way his game has been steadily improving as the season has progressed. It feels like it’s time for the current PGA Champion to notch his first win of the year.

On a golf course where ball striking is so important, Chesson Hadley (55/1, DK Price $7,700) caught my eye immediately. The North Carolina native has been in inspired form so far in this wraparound season with four finishes already in the top-5. The way he is currently striking the ball, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see him get his fifth this week. Hadley is No. 1 in the field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and Ball Striking, while he is No. 2 for Strokes Gained Total over his last 24 rounds.

Having taken last week off, Hadley returns to a golf course where he has finished in the Top-25 twice in his three visits. Yet there is a sense that this year he’ll be aiming even higher than that. Chesson is fifth in this field for Proximity to the Hole from 175-200 yards and fourth overall over the past 24 rounds. With that level of accuracy on such a tricky golf course, Hadley will be confident of putting himself in position to claim win No. 2.

My next pick was a slow sell, but with the number so high I couldn’t leave him out. Adam Scott (55/1, DK Price $7,700) has been struggling for some time now. He has slipped out of the World’s Top-50, changed his putter from the short putter to the long putter and back again over the winter break, and he doesn’t have a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since the FedEx St. Jude Classic last summer. Despite all of this, I don’t feel Scott should be as high as 66/1 with some bookmakers on a golf course where he has excelled. To put it in perspective, Scott is the same price to win this week in a modest field as he is to win The Masters in April.

There are also signs that Scott blew off some of the rust last week in LA. The Australian was 12th in the field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, which indicates that things might slowly be coming around for a man who is known for his prodigious ball striking. Scott’s achilles heel is the flat stick, and I wouldn’t expect that to change this week. He’s been very poor on the greens for some time now, which must be incredibly frustrating for a man who gives himself so many looks at birdie. But average putters have performed well at PGA National in the past, where it seems that excellent ball striking is the key for having a good week. Scott won here in 2016, and on his two other visits to PGA National in the past five years he twice finished in the top-15. If he can continue to improve his iron play the way he has been, I feel he could forge his way into contention.

My long shot this week is Sean O’Hair (200/1, DK Price $6,800). The Texan hasn’t done much so far this year, but he is making cuts and he arrives at a course that seems to bring out the best in him. O’Hair has five top-25 finishes in his last seven appearances at PGA National, which includes a T11 at last year’s edition. At 200/1 and with a DK Price of as little as $6,800, there is little harm in taking a chance on him finding that form once more this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Justin Thomas 11/1, DK Price $11,300
  • Chesson Hadley 55/1, DK Price $7,700
  • Adam Scott 55/1, DK Price $7,700
  • Sean O’Hair 200/1, DK Price $6,800
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Don’t Leave Your Common Sense in Escrow Outside the Golf Course Parking Lot

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Disclaimer: Much of what follows is going to come off as elitist, harsh and downright mean spirited — a pro looking down from his ivory tower at all the worthless hacks and judging them. It is the opposite. The intent is to show how foolish WE golfers are, chasing around a white ball with a crooked stick and suspending all of the common sense we use in our every day lives.

Much of what follows is not just the bane of average golfers, but also low handicappers, tour players and even a former long-drive champion during his quest for the PGA Tour… and now, the Champions Tour. In other words, if WE take ourselves a bit less seriously and use a bit more common sense, we are going to have more fun and actually hit better golf shots. We will shoot lower scores.

FYI: All of the examples of nutbaggery to come are things I have actually witnessed. They’re not exaggerated for the sake of laughs.

It’s winter time and most of you poor souls are not enjoying the 70-degree temperatures I am in Southern California right now (see, you all hate me already… and it’s going to get worse). That gives us all time to assess our approach to golf. I am not talking course management or better focus; I am talking how WE golfers approach our successes and failures, which for many is more important than the aforementioned issues or the quality of our technique.

Why is it that golf turns normal, intelligent, successful and SANE people into deviant, ignorant failures that exhibit all of the tell-tale signs of insanity? I also forgot profane, whiny, hostile, weak-minded, weak-willed and childish. Not to mention stupid. Why do we seem to leave our common sense and sanity in escrow in a cloud outside the golf course parking lot… only to have it magically return the moment our car leaves the property after imposing extreme mental anguish on ourselves that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (don’t feel bad if you have to google this) would find extreme?

Smarter people than I have written books on this, but I think they missed a key factor. Clubs, balls, shoes, bags, gloves, tees, the grasses, especially the sand in the bunkers, the Gatorade they sell at the snack bar, hats, visors, over-logoed clothing, golf carts, etc., are all made with human kryptonite. Not enough to kill us, but just enough to make us act like children who didn’t get the latest fad toy for Christmas and react by throwing a hissy fit.

Bob Rotella has said golf is not a game of perfect, and although religious texts say man was made in God’s image, thinking we are perfect is blasphemous. We all play golf like we think there is an equivalent of a bowling 300. We expect to hit every drive 300 yards (the bowling perfect) with a three-yard draw… in the middle of the face… in the dead center of the fairway. All iron shots must be worked from the middle of the green toward the pin and compressed properly with shaft lean, ball-first contact and the perfect dollar-bill sized divot (and not too deep). Shots within 100 yards from any lie should be hit within gimme range, and all putts inside 20 feet must be holed.

We get these ideas from watching the best players in the world late on Sunday, where all of the above seem commonplace. We pay no attention to the fact that we are significantly worse than the guys who shot 76-76 and missed the cut. We still hold ourselves to that ridiculous standard.

  • Group 1: “Monte, you’re exaggerating. No one has those expectations.”
  • Group 2: ”Monte, I’m a type-A personality. I’m very competitive and hard on myself.”

To the first group, the following examples say different. And to the second group, I am one of you. It’s OK for me to want to shoot over 80 percent from the free throw line, but at 50 years old and 40 pounds over weight, what would you say to me if I said, “I’m type-A and competitive and I want to dunk like Lebron James!” Oh yeah, and I want to copy Michael Jordan’s dunking style, Steph Curry’s shooting stroke and Pistol Pete’s passing and dribbling style.” That seems ridiculous, but switch those names to all-time greats in golf and WE have all been guilty of those aspirations.

I don’t know how to answer 18-handicaps who ask me if they should switch to blades so they can work the ball better and in both directions. The blunt a-hole in me wants to tell them, “Dude, just learn to hit the ball on the face somewhere,” but that’s what they read in the golf magazines. You’re supposed to work the ball from the middle of the green toward the pin, like Nicklaus. Well, the ball doesn’t curve as much now as it did in Nicklaus’ prime and most tour players only work the ball one way unless the circumstances don’t allow it. “And you’re not Jack Nicklaus.” Some joke about Jesus and Moses playing golf has that punch line.

Wouldn’t it be easier to get as proficient as possible at one shot when you have limited practice time, versus being less than mediocre on several different shots? This also applies to hitting shots around the greens 27 different ways, but don’t get me started…just buy my short game video. Hyperbole and shameless plug aside, this is a huge mistake average golfers make. They never settle on one way of doing things.

The day the first white TaylorMade adjustable driver was released, I played 9 holes behind a very nice elderly couple. He went to Harvard and she went to Stanford. He gets on the first tee and hits a big push. He walks to the cart, grabs his wrench and closes the club face. She tops her tee shot, gets the wrench and adds some loft. Out of morbid curiosity, I stayed behind them the entire front 9 and watched them adjust their clubs for every mishit shot. It took over 3 hours for a two-some. These are extremely nice, smart and successful people and look what golf did to them. Anyone calling this a rules violation, have a cocktail; you’re talking yourself even more seriously than they were. Old married couple out fooling around, big deal if they broke a rule. No tournament, not playing for money, they’re having fun. They had gimmies, mulligans and winter rules. Good for them.

This is an extreme example of a huge mistake that nearly 100 percent of golfers make; they believe the need for an adjustment after every bad shot… or worse, after every non-perfect shot. How many of you have done this both on the range and on the course?

”(Expletive), pushed that one, need to close the face. (Expletive), hit that one thin, need to hit down more on this one. (Expletive), hooked that one, need to hold off the release.”

I’ll ask people why they do this and the answer is often, “I’m trying to build a repeatable swing.”

Nice. Building repeatable swing by making 40 different swings during a range session or round of golf. That is insane and stupid, but WE have all done it. The lesson learned here is to just try and do better on the next one. You don’t want to make adjustments until you have the same miss several times in a row. As a secondary issue, what are the odds that you do all of the following?

  1.  Diagnose the exact swing fault that caused the bad shot
  2.  Come up with the proper fix
  3.  Implement that fix correctly in the middle of a round of golf with OB, two lakes, eight bunkers and three elephants buried in the green staring you in the face.

Another factor in this same vein, and again, WE have all been guilty of this: “I just had my worst round in three weeks. What I was doing to shoot my career low three times in row isn’t working any more. Where is my Golf Digest? I need a new tip.”

Don’t lie… everyone reading this article has done that. EVERYONE! Improvement in golf is as far from linear as is mathematically possible. I have never heard a golfer chalk a high score up to a “bad day.” It’s always a technique problem, so there is a visceral need to try something different. “It’s not working anymore. I think I need to do the Dustin Johnson left wrist, the Sergio pull-down lag, the Justin Thomas downswing hip turn, the Brooks Koepka restricted-backswing hip turn and the Jordan Spieth and Jamie Sadllowski bent left elbow… with a little Tiger Woods 2000 left-knee snap when I need some extra power.” OK, maybe it’s a small bit of exaggeration that someone would try all of these, but I have heard multiple people regale of putting 2-3 of those moves in after a bad round that didn’t mesh with their downtrending index.

An 8-handicap comes to me for his first lesson. He had shot in the 70’s four of his last five rounds and shot a career best in the last of the five. All of the sudden, those friendly slight mishits that rhyme with the place where we keep our money show up. First a few here and there and then literally every shot. He shows up and shanks 10 wedges in a row and is literally ready to cry. I said, “Go home, take this week off and come back… and what’s your favorite beer?”

He comes back the next week, pulls a club and goes to hit one. I tell him to have a seat. I hand him a beer and we talk football for 15 minutes. Then I pull out my iPad and show him exactly why he is hitting shanks. I tell him one setup issue and one intent change and ask him to go hit one. It was slightly on the heel, but not a shank and very thin. I said to do both changes a bit more. The second one — perfect divot, small draw and on target. I walk over, put my hand up for a high five and say, “Awesome job! Great shot!”

He leaves me hanging and says, ”Yeah, but I hit it in the toe.”

Don’t judge him. Every day I have people with 50-yard slices toned down to 15-20 yards saying the ball is still slicing. These are people who won’t accept a fade, but slam their club when it over draws 15 feet left of the target… and so on. I can’t judge or be angry; I used to be these guys, too. During a one-hour lesson, I often hear people get frustrated with themselves for thin and fat, left and right, heel and toe. Apparently, anything not hunting flags or hit out of a dime-sized area is an epic fail. I also get emails the next day saying the fault and miss is still there.

GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!

My big miss has always been a big block, often in the heel. Instead, I now often hit a pull in the left fairway bunker out of the toe. I celebrate like I’m Kool & the Gang and it’s 1999… and I get strange looks from everyone. I can manage a 10-15 yard low, slightly drawn pull. I cannot not manage a 40-50 yard in the atmosphere block… that cuts.

So, now that I have described all of US as pathetic, let’s see what we can do.

  1. Be hard on yourself, be competitive and set lofty goals all you want… but you need to accept at least a one-side miss. If you hate hitting thin, weak fades, you need to allow yourself a slightly heavy over draw. Not allowing yourself any miss will make you miss every shot.
  2. Generally, the better the player, the larger the pool of results that are used to judge success. Pros judge themselves over months and years. High-handicappers judge themselves on their previous shot. Do you think pros make a swing change after 10 good shots and one minor miss? We all seem to think that course of action is astute. Bad shot, must have done something wrong… HULK MUST FIX!
  3. Don’t judge your shots on a pass/fail grade. Grade yourself A-F. Are you going to feel better after 10 A’s, 25 B’s, 15 C’s, 4 D’s and 1 F… or 10 passes and 40 fails? If every non-perfect shot is seen as a failure, your subconscious will do something different in order to please you. Again, 40 different swings.
  4. Improving your swing and scores is a lot like losing weight. No one expects to make changes in a diet and exercise routine and lose 20 pounds in one day, yet golfers expect a complete overhaul in a small bucket. Give yourself realistic time frames for improvement. “I’m a 12. By the end of next year, I want to be an 8.”  That’s your goal, not whether or not your last range session was the worst in a month. It’s a bad day; that is allowed. Major champions miss cuts and all of them not named Tiger Woods don’t change their swings. They try and do better next week… and they nearly always do.
  5. DO NOT measure yourself either on the mechanics of your swing or your scoring results according to some arbitrary standard of perfection… and especially not against tour players. Measure yourself against yourself. Think Ty Webb. Is your swing better than it was 6 months ago? Do you hit it better than 6 months ago? Are you scoring better than 6 months ago? If you can say yes to at least two of those questions, your swing looking like Adam Scott is less relevant than the color of golf tee you use.

That is a winning formula, and just like bad habits in your swing, you can’t wake up one morning and tell yourself you’re no longer into self flagellation. It takes effort and practice to improve your approach and get out of your own way… but more importantly, have some fun.

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