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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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Mondays Off

Mondays Off: Steve recaps his match with the 2nd assistant and Knudson’s golf weekend

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Steve recaps his match against the 2nd assistant and if he won or lost. Knudson gets asked about a guys golf weekend and if his back will hold up. Knudson tosses his brother under the bus.

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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19th Hole

5 men who need to win this week’s Open Championship for their season to be viewed as a success

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The year’s final major championship is upon us, with 156 players ready to battle it out at Royal Portrush for the Claret Jug. The oldest tournament in the sport presents the last opportunity for players to achieve major glory for nine months, and while some players will look back at this year’s majors and view them as a success, others will see them as a missed opportunity.

Here are five players who will tee it up at The Open, needing a win to transform their season, and in doing so, their career.

Adam Scott

Adam Scott has looked revived in 2019 with four top-10 finishes, including a T7 at the U.S. Open and a T8 at the PGA Championship. The Australian hasn’t won since 2016, and at 39-years-old, Scott knows better than anyone that the final narrative over his career comes down to whether or not he can add to his lone major championship victory he achieved at the 2013 Masters.

Speaking following his final round at Pebble Beach last month, Scott stated

“I’m angry; I want to win one of these so badly. I play so much consistent golf. But that’s kind of annoying; I’d almost rather miss every cut and win one tournament for the year if that win was a major.” 

A gut-wrenching finish cost Scott the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham and St. Annes seven years ago, and the 39-year-old has held at least a share of the back-nine lead on Sunday on three occasions at the event since 2012. The Australian’s statement following the U.S. Open says it all; a successful 2019 depends on whether or not he can finally put his Open Championship demons to bed.

Dustin Johnson

With a win in Mexico earlier this year, Dustin Johnson has now made it 11 straight seasons with at least one victory on the PGA Tour. However, Johnson continues to be judged, rightly or wrongly, on his struggles to capture major championships. The 35-year-old remains on one major victory for his career, which is a hugely disappointing total for a player of his talent.

Should the American remain stuck on one major for another nine months following this week’s event, it’s hard to imagine the 35-year-old feeling satisfied. Johnson came to Pebble Beach last month as the prohibitive favorite and failed to fire, but it’s what occurred at the PGA Championship which will leave a sour taste. With Brooks Koepka feeling the heat, Johnson had the opportunity to step up and reverse his major championship fortune, but two bogeys in his final three holes just added to his ‘nearly man’ tag at the most significant events.

A win in Northern Ireland removes both the ‘nearly man’ and ‘one major wonder’ tags, and turns his least successful season, victory wise, into one of his best.

Rory McIlroy

Whatever happens this week at Royal Portrush, Rory McIlroy’s season has been impressive, but it’s missing something big. That something is a win at a major championship, and it’s been missing since 2014. To avoid a five-year drought at the majors, McIlroy must win the 148th Open Championship at home, and with it, claim the greatest victory of his career.

Speaking prior to this week’s tournament, McIlroy stated

“I want to win for me. It’s not about trying to do something in front of friends and family.”

The home-town hero is currently in the midst of one of the greatest ball-striking seasons of all time. But without a win at a major to show for it, there’s undoubtedly going to be frustration and regret in the aftermath. On the flip side, should the Ulsterman triumph this week then it would likely eclipse his double major season success of 2014, and according to the man himself, it would also eclipse anything that he could ever go on to achieve in the game thereafter.

Rickie Fowler

Without getting his hands on a major, the narrative behind Rickie Fowler is not going to change. ‘The best player without a major’ tag has been there for a while now with Fowler – who hasn’t been close to shaking it off in 2019. Victory at the Phoenix Open back in February snapped a 24-month streak without a win on the PGA Tour, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone considering the 30-year-old’s season a success without him finally getting the monkey off his back and entering the winner’s circle at a major.

Justin Rose

Justin Rose turns 39-years-old this year, and each season from now to the house, he will be judged on his success at the majors. With  wins at the U.S. Open and Olympics already achieved in his career, a successful season for the Englishman now depends on whether he can become a multiple major champion.

Talking ahead of his bid to win his first Open Championship, Rose said

“People don’t come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you won the FedEx!’. It’s the US Open, the Olympic gold, the Ryder Cup. I’m 40 next year and yes, the clock is ticking.

I’ve had three top threes in the majors in the last three seasons, with two seconds, so I know I’m right there doing the right things. It’s just a case of making it happen again, because the chances won’t keep coming forever.”

Rose’s sense of urgency may stem from tough losses at the 2017 Masters, 2018 Open Championship and more recently at the 2019 U.S. Open. In Rose’s favor is that the average age of winners of The Open since 2011 is almost five years higher than the average age of those who won the Masters, and over eight years older than those who won the U.S. Open. To elevate his 2019 to elite levels, Rose is relying on victory at Royal Portrush.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Scoring Series Part 2: Pitching

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As I wrote two weeks ago, I consider there to be five basic elements to “scoring range performance”, and I dove into the full swing shorts irons and wedges last week. This week I’m going to address “pitching,” which I define as those shots with your wedges that require much less than a full swing. In my opinion, this is the most difficult part of golf to master, but the good news is that it is within reach of every golfer, as physical strength is pretty much neutralized in this aspect of the game.

Before I get into this, however, please understand that I am writing a weekly article here, and do not for a minute think that I can deliver to you the same level of insight and depth that you can get from any of the great books on the short game that are available. There are some genuine “gurus” out there who have made a living out of writing books and sharing their expertise—Dave Pelz, Stan Utley, et al. One of my favorites from a long time ago is Tom Watson’s “Getting Up and Down.” The point is, if you are committed to improving this part of your game, it will take much more than a few hundred words from a post of mine to get you there.

I will also suggest that there are no short cuts to an effective short game. I know of no other way to become a deadly chipper and pitcher of the ball than to invest the time to learn a sound technique and develop the touch skills that allow you to hits an endless variety of shots of different trajectories, distances and spin rates. As the old saying goes: “If it were easy everyone would do it.” In my opinion, it is mostly short game skills that separate good players from average, and great ones from good. Those greenside magicians we see on TV every week didn’t get there by spending minimal time learning and practicing these shots.

So, with that “disclaimer” set forth, I will share my thoughts on the basic elements of good pitching technique, as I see it.

As with any golf shot, a sound and proper set up is crucial to hitting great pitch shots
consistently. I believe great pitch shots are initiated by a slightly open stance, which allows you
to clear your body through impact and sets up the proper swing path, as I’ll explain later.

Your weight distribution should be favored to your lead foot, the ball should be positioned for the shot you want to hit (low, medium or high) and maybe most importantly, your hands must be positioned so that they are hanging naturally from your shoulders. I firmly believe that great pitch shots cannot be hit if the hands are too close or too far from your body.

The easy way to check this is to release your left hand from the grip, and let it hang naturally, then move the club so that the left hand can take its hold. The clubhead will then determine how far from the ball you should be. To me, that is the ideal position from which to make a good pitch shot.

Second is the club/swing path. I believe the proper path for good pitch shots has the hands moving straight back along a path that is nearly parallel to the target line, and the through swing moving left after impact. This path is set up by the more open stance at address. The gurus write extensively about swing path, and they all seem to pretty much agree on this as a fundamental. Taking the club back too far inside the line is probably more damaging than too far outside, as the latter is really pretty hard to do actually. My observations of recreational golfers indicate that the inside backswing path is “set up” by the ball being too close or too far from their feet at address, as I explained earlier.

I also believe (from observation and experience) that many recreational golfers do not engage their torso enough in routine pitch shots. This is NOT an arm swing; a rotation of the shoulders is tantamount to good pitch shots, and the shoulders must keep rotating through impact. Stopping the rotation at impact is, in my observation, the main cause of chunks and bladed shots, as that causes the clubhead to move past the hands and get out of plane.

Finally, I’ll address swing speed. Again, in my observation, most recreational golfers get too quick with this part of the game. The swing is shorter for these shots, but that should not make it quicker. One of my favorite analogies is to compare golf to a house painter. In the wide-open areas, he uses a sprayer or big roller for power, and works pretty darn quickly. As he begins to cut in for the windows and doors, he chooses a smaller brush and works much more slowly and carefully. Finally, he chooses very specialized trim brushes to paint the window and door trim, baseboards, etc. I like to compare our wedges to the painter’s trim brushes. Slow and careful wins.

I think learning distance control is the hardest part of becoming a good pitcher of the ball. And there are many approaches to this part of the equation. My opinion is that your expectations and therefore your approach to this aspect of it should be commensurate with your willingness to spend the time on the range or course. And I just do not know of a short cut, I’m sorry to say. But I will share something that I’ve learned works pretty well and is reasonably easy to learn.

First, find a “half swing” length that feels comfortable to you, and by that I mean repeatable. For most, it seems to be where the lead arm is about parallel to the ground. From that position, I like to think of three different downswing speeds – country road (i.e. 50 mph), neighborhood driving (30 mph) and school zone (15 mph). We’ll leave freeway speed for the driver, and regular highway speed for our fairways, hybrids and irons.

If you can internalize what these three speeds feel like for you, it only takes a little time to figure out how far each wedge goes at these three speeds, and then you can further dissect this by gripping down on each wedge to cut those gaps even tighter.

Again, I’m limited by space in this blog, but these ideas will hopefully get you thinking about meaningful practice and implementation. And in no way, are these few words intended to cover the subject as thoroughly as Pelz, Utley and others have done in series of books and videos. The more you learn and practice, the better you will get. That’s just the facts.

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19th Hole

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