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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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The Wedge Guy: The importance of a pre-shot routine

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I believe one of the big differences between better recreational golfers and those not so good—and also between the tour professionals and those that can’t quite “get there”—is the consistency of their pre-shot routines. It is really easy to dismiss something that happens before the ball is even struck as irrelevant, but I strongly urge you to reconsider if you think this way.

To have a set routine to follow religiously before every shot gives you the best chance to execute the shot the way you intend. To do otherwise just leaves too much to chance. Indulge me here and I’ll offer you some proof.

It’s been a while back now, but I still remember an interesting account on this subject that used the final round of the 1996 Masters—when Nick Faldo passed a collapsing Norman—as his statistical proof. This particular analyst reviewed the entire telecast of that final round and timed the routine of both players for every shot. What he discovered was that Norman got quicker and less consistent in his pre-shot routine throughout his round, while Faldo maintained his same, methodical approach to every shot, not varying by more than a second or so. I think that is pretty insightful stuff.

A lot of time has passed since then, but all competitive tour professionals pay very close attention to their pre-shot routines these days. I urge you to watch them as they go through the motions before each shot. And notice that most of them “start over” if they get distracted during that process.

While I do not think it is practical for recreational golfers to go into such laborious detail for every shot, let me offer some suggestions as to how a repeatable pre-shot routine should work.

The first thing is to get a good feel for the shot, and by that, I mean a very clear picture in your mind of how it will fly, land and roll; I also think it’s realistic to have a different routine for full shots, chips and pitches and putts. They are all very different challenges, of course, and as you get closer to the hole, your focus needs to be more on the feel of the shot than the mechanics of the swing, in my opinion.

To begin, I think the best starting point is from behind the ball, setting up in your “mind’s eye” the film-clip of the shot you are about to hit. See the flight and path it will take. As you do this, you might waggle the club back and forth to get a feel of the club in your hands and “feel” the swing that will produce that shot path for you. Your exact routine can start when you see that shot clearly, and begin your approach the ball to execute the shot. From that “trigger point”, you should do the exact same things, at the exact same pace, each and every time.

For me (if I’m “on”), I’ll step from that behind-the-shot position, and set the club behind the ball to get my alignment. Then I step into my stance and ball position, not looking at the target, but being precise not to change the alignment of the clubhead–I’m setting my body up to that established reference. Once set, I take a look at the target to ensure that I feel aligned properly, and take my grip on the club. Then I do a mental check of grip pressure, hover the club off the ground a bit to ensure it stays light, and then start my backswing, with my only swing thought being to feel the end of the backswing.

That’s when I’m “on,” of course. But as a recreational player, I know that the vast majority of my worst shots and rounds happen when I depart from that routine.

This is something that you can and should work on at the range. Don’t just practice your swing, but how you approach each shot. Heck, you can even do that at home in your backyard. So, guys and ladies, there’s my $0.02 on the pre-shot routine. What do you have to add?

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The Gear Dive: Akshay Bhatia

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In this episode of The Gear Dive brought to you by Titleist Golf, Johnny chats with rookie phenom and Walker Cup Player Akshay Bhatia.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Host Ryan Barath takes a long look back at the lineage of club designs from putters to drivers, and explains why we often see trends repeat themselves. From the eureka moments to modern-day manufacturing techniques that allow for continuous breakthroughs in forgiveness and overall performance. We try and cover it all on the show!

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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