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Opinion & Analysis

How valuable is hitting the fairway, really?

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Hitting more than 50 percent of fairways has long been considered a good goal for amateur golfers. The winners on the PGA Tour tend to hit 70 percent. I have long maintained, however, that it is not the number of fairways HIT that matters. Instead, it is the relative severity of fairways MISSED.

Think about it. By the one-dimensional Fairways Hit stat, every miss is the same. A perfect lie in the first cut is exactly the same as a drive in a hazard… or even OB. There is nothing in the 650+ PGA Tour stats about this. In all, there are 60 stats in seven categories that relate to driving performance, but none about penalties! Like PGA Tour players don’t make any?

Let’s see exactly how important the old tried-and-true Driving Accuracy (Percentage of Fairways Hit) really is. To test it, I used two data clusters: the 2017 PGA Tour season (14,845 ShotLink rounds) and my ShotByShot.com database for the average male golfer (15 to 19 handicappers – 4,027 rounds).

For the graph below, I started with the No. 1-ranked player in the Driving Accuracy category: Ryan Armour. He certainly was accurate by this measure, but why did he only rank 100th in 2017 Strokes Gained Off the Tee with a barely positive 0.020?

Next I looked at the actual top-5 PGA Tour money winners (J. Thomas, J Spieth, D. Johnson, H. Matsuyama and J. Rohm), the 2017 PGA Tour average, and all PGA Tour players that missed the cut in 2017. We all know the significant scoring differences between these three categories of players, but it’s difficult to see a meaningful difference in the fairways hit. They’re not even separated by half a fairway. How important could this stat be?

For those that have not tried ShotByShot.com, our analysis includes Strokes Gained and Relative Handicap comparisons. That enables users to easily differentiate between FIVE MISS categories below based upon severity. The final three categories are what we consider to be Driving Errors:

  1. Good lie/Opportunity: One can easily accomplish their next goal of a GIR or advancement on a par-5.
  2. Poor Lie/Opportunity: One could accomplish the next goal, but it will require a very good shot.
  3. No Shot: Requires an advancement to return to normal play.
  4. Penalty-1: Penalty with a drop.
  5. OB/Lost: Stroke and distance penalty, or shot replayed with a stroke penalty.

As we are fortunate enough to work with several PGA Tour players at Shot by Shot, we have access to ShotLink data and can provide those clients with the same valuable insight.

Let’s see how the frequency and severity of driving errors relates to the above groups of players (removing Mr. Armour, as he simply helped us prove the irrelevance of Driving Accuracy). The graphs below display the number of Driving Errors per round and the Average Cost Per Error. Note the strong and consistent correlation between the number and the cost of errors at each of the four levels of performance.

Finally, the average cost of the errors is heavily driven by the three degrees of severity outlined above (No Shot, Penalty, OB/Lost). The graph below compares the relative number and cost of the three types of errors for the average golfer and PGA Tour players. The major difference is that PGA Tour players do not seem to have a proper share of OB/Lost penalties. I found only TWO in the 14,000+ ShotLink rounds. While I accept that the most severe faux pas are significantly less frequent on the PGA Tour, I also believe there must have been more than two.

Why so few? First and foremost, PGA Tour players REALLY ARE good. Next, the galleries stop a lot of the wayward shots. And finally, I believe that many of the ShotLink volunteer data collectors may not actually know or care about the difference between a Penalty and OB/Lost.

Author’s Note: If you want to know your Strokes Gained Off the Tee (Driving) and exactly how important your fairways and the misses are, log onto ShotByShot.com for a 1-Round FREE Trial.

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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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Jason

    Mar 19, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Players know where the boundaries of the shot are, and they aren’t always the boundaries of the fairway. At my course (lots of water, light rough) you’re regularly playing up the side and a good (but not great) shot will find the harmless light rough. Likewise, an aggressive tee shot over a corner might run out of fairway, but the distance saved is worth the small cost of maybe catching light rough. The best pros might not find the fairway as often simply becasue they trust their game enough to take the more challenging line – and know that they can handle a small “penalty” in the form of light rough (and fairway missed stat) if that’s the price. So yeah, fairways hit doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the ‘did you hit it somewhere you were ok with standing over the ball’ stat – and I’m not sure how you measure that, except that it probably correlates with good judgement, temperament and good skills. Not sure there’s a stat for it though, and not sure there needs to be.

  2. James T

    Mar 19, 2018 at 10:27 am

    “How valuable is hitting the fairway, really?”

    After Sunday, ask Tiger Woods.

  3. Bruce Hart

    Mar 18, 2018 at 11:01 am

    If I miss a fairway, especially if I’m playing by myself, I may never find the ball which would mean slowing play by going back to the tee (or hitting a lot of provisionals) or just not playing by the rules (which is what I usually do). Sometimes even hitting the fairway isn’t a guarantee because the ball can plug. I have found that bright Volvik Vivid balls can help. When the rough is up, it’s windy and clover are everywhere I can’t afford to spray driver. I’d like to do an experiment where you take a pro and put them on a standard muni course (no gallery, no grandstands, no tv coverage, no spotters) by themselves and see how many lost balls they have. I think the pros play a different game.

  4. CrashTestDummy

    Mar 18, 2018 at 2:14 am

    There still is a premium on good ball striking. Yeah the severity of fairways missed matters, but the best ball strikers will have much less severe missed fairways. The best ball strikers are always at the top of the leaderboards consistently. Whenever their ball striking goes awry they start missing cuts. When they miss putts, they are still making cuts or placing well because they are avoiding bogeys and the big numbers. Bottom line is missed fairways and greens means bogeys and big numbers.

    There should probably be a stat for “strokes gained with missed fairway” or “strokes lost with missed fairway”. That would be a telltale metric for knowing the severity of missed fairways.

  5. James T

    Mar 17, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Personally, I think Greens in Regulation is far more important to scoring. Rare is the course that has U.S. Open rough that keeps you from going for the green.

    • Tal

      Mar 19, 2018 at 2:24 am

      True, but pure greens in regulation doesn’t tell us why greens were missed. Poor driving makes hitting a GIR more difficult so if someone is driving really well and still hits very few greens, their iron play is probably to blame. Whereas if they are missing greens and their driving is poor, that helps paint a picture as to why.

  6. larrybud

    Mar 17, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Unfortunately, with shotbyshot, and any other system with user driven data, you’re relying on a data which has zero verification to it (unlike shotlink). In other words, you have no idea how accurate the data is which players have entered that you’re basing your analysis.

  7. Sean Foster-Nolan

    Mar 17, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    I think it depends on the golf course. My home course is littered with hazards and has little rough to speak of. If you miss the fairway there is a good chance you will find a hazard.

    But overall I agree.

  8. Doug

    Mar 17, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    If I miss a fairway there is a 50% chance that my ball gets lost. So I better go for 100% fairway even when that means I can‘t use my driver

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Gear Dive: Mizuno’s Chris Voshall speaks on Brooks Koepka’s U.S. Open-winning irons

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Mizuno’s Chief Engineer Chris Voshall speaks on how Brooks Koepka was the one that almost got away, and why Mizuno irons are still secretly the most popular on Tour. Also, a couple of Tiger/Rory nuggets that may surprise a few people. It’s an hour geek-out with one of the true gems in the club biz. Enjoy!

Related: Brooks Koepka’s Winning WITB from the 2018 U.S. Open

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

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Opinion & Analysis

Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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5 things we learned on Saturday at the 2018 U.S. Open

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Whoops, we did it again. While not as dramatic as the 7th hole concern of 2004, the Saturday of 2018 seemed eerily familiar. The commentators were divided on the question of whether the USGA was pleased with the playing conditions. The suggestion was, the grass in the rough was higher than necessary, and the cuts of the fairway and greens were just a bit too close of a shave. No matter, everyone finished and the band played on. The hashtag #KeepShinnyWeird didn’t trend, but Saturday the 16th was certainly not ordinary. Five weird things we learned, on the way.

5) Phil’s breaking point

It wasn’t violent. No outburst or hysteria. We’d seen Phil leap in triumph at Augusta. Now we’ve seen the Mickelson jog, albeit under most different circumstances. Near as we can determine, for a moment Phil forgot that he was playing a U.S. Open. After belting a downhill, sliding bogey putt well past the mark, the left-handed one discerned that the orb would not come to rest for quite some time: a lower tier beckoned. As if dancing a Tarantella, Phil sprang toward the ball and gave it a spank while still it moved. Just like that, his quadruple-bogey 8 become a 10, thanks to the 2 strokes for striking a moving ball penalty. In true warrior fashion, Mickelson accepted the penalty without questions, intimating that it saved him another stroke or two in the end. Yeesh. Phil, we feel you.

4) DJ’s front-nine free fall

Just as unlikely as Phil’s whack-and-walk was Dustin Johnson’s front nine of 41. The cool gunslinger of Thursday-Friday faced the same turmoil as the other 66 golfers remaining, and the outward nine did not go according to his plan. DJ got past the opening hole with par, after making bogey there on Friday. Number two was another story. Double bogey on the long par three was followed by 4 bogeys in 5 holes, beginning with the 4th. The irony once again was, Johnson struggled on holes that the field did not necessarily find difficult. Hole No. 2 was the 10th-ranked hole for difficulty on day 3, while 4 and 7 were 13th and 11th-ranked, respectively. Hole No. 6 and 8 did fall in the more difficult half, but not by much. At day’s end, however, the tall drink of water remained in contention for his second U.S. Open title.

3) The firm of Berger and Finau

Each likely anticipated no more than a top-15 placing after 3 days, despite posting the two low rounds of the day, 4-under 66. Those efforts brought them from +7 to +3 for the tournament, but Johnson and the other leaders had yet to tee off. Every indication was lower and deeper; then the winds picked up, blustery like the 100 acre wood of Winnie The Pooh. Both golfers posted 6 birdies against 2 bogeys, to play themselves into the cauldron of contention. Berger has one top-10 finish in major events, while Finau has 2. None of those three came in a U.S. Open, so a win tomorrow by either golfer would qualify as an absolute shock.

2) Recent winners fared well

In addition to Johnson, the 2016 champion, Justin Rose (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2017) found themselves near or in the lead for most of the afternoon. Since Shinnecock Hills offers much of what characterizes links golf, it should come as no surprise that 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson is also within a handful of strokes of the top spot. Rose played the best tee-to-green golf of the leaders on Saturday, but was unable to coax legitimate birdie efforts from his putter. Koepka was the most impressive putter of the day, making up to 60-feet bombs and consistently holing the clutch par saves. On another note, given his victories at Chambers Bay (2015 U.S. Open) and Royal Birkdale (2017 British Open), the missed cut by Jordan Spieth was the week’s biggest surprise.

1) The wind

The most unpredictable of nature’s weapons, the winds of Shinnecock Hills exposed flaws in the course preparation. Areas that would have held off-line putts, were dried out enough to escort those efforts off the shortest grass, into the runoff compartments. The zephyrs pushed tee balls and approach shots just far enough astray to bring all the danger zones into the recipe. Prediction for tomorrow is, any golfer within 5 shots of the lead has a chance at the title. A Miller-esque round of 63 would bring anyone into contention, if the wind continues to blow. No event appreciates drama more than the U.S. Open, and Sunday at Shinnecock promises plenty of it.

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