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Sand Saves: How often should you actually get “up-and-down” from the bunker based on your handicap?

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This is a follow-up to my recent article,“How often should you … get ‘Up-and-Down’ based on your handicap?”  That article focused on short game shots around the green that were NOT sand shots. If you have not read it, please do as I will not be repeating all of the supporting points in this article.

The traditional “Sand Save” stat has long been the accepted measure of skill from greenside sand. The chart below shows average performance in this area for PGA Tour players and an array of handicap levels. It refers to sand shots around the green and within 50 yards of the hole.

How do you fit in?

While sand saves, or “up and downs,” are nice, I do not believe them to be an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill. Sand shots are quite a bit different than chipping or pitching, not only because they are a very different skill, but also because they tend to occupy a much smaller part of the overall game.

Non-sand short game shots generally range from a low of four or five shots per round at the top levels of the game, to as many as 15 shots at the other end. For perspective, the typical 15-19 handicap golfer averages about 10 non-sand short game shots per round. Shots from the sand are relatively rare, usually only 1 to 3 per round, and the 15-19 handicap golfer averages less than two.

Despite their reduced role, however, sand shots can have a meaningful impact on score. Why? It’s due to the difficulty of these shots and their high incidence of ERRORs, which I will discuss more below.

Again, I do NOT believe that “up and downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:

  1. An up-and-down is actually the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
  2. The stat totally ignores ERRORS, or shots that miss the green.

In my 30+ years of studying golf performance at all skill levels, I have found that FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) do so much more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. I did not create my stat program to expose the errors in the game, but my early work and analysis revealed exactly how important they are, as well as their glaring omission from existing, traditional stats. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.

The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good, and a negative number is not so good. So how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of the three stats below to be the correct way to display skill from the sand:

  • Average putting distance when the green is successfully hit.
  • Percent of shots hit to within 8 feet of the hole.
  • Percent of errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.

In the chart above, the orange line represents the percentage of shots that the various levels of handicap golfers hit to within 8 feet of the hole. Why 8 feet? Our data has told us that this distance represents a good shot, just as 5 feet does in Chipping and Pitching around the green. The black line represents shots that miss the green (errors). For example, if you are the average 15-handicap golfer, you should be getting about one of every six sand shots to within 8 feet. You’ll miss the green with about one in every three sand shots, however, so you’ll make twice as many errors as you make good shots.

Note that the two lines cross at about a 10 handicap. A 10 handicap is actually a better golfer than 90 percent of the people who play the game regularly. Yet for every sand shot that they successfully get to within 8 feet of the hole, they are also sculling or leaving one in the sand and missing the green altogether. Further, these errors can lead to even more difficult positions, large numbers and real frustration.

Finally, a fear of the greenside sand can dramatically impact confidence and ability to hit greens. If you are having difficulty from the sand, I suggest that you first consult with your pro about your sand wedge. Is it the right loft and bounce for your game and the condition of your course’s sand? Then work to gain confidence in getting OUT. Just focus on getting the ball on the green. Forget the about the “save” until you can practice enough to reliably play the array of sand shots required with confidence.

If you’d like to see how greenside errors are affecting your game, as well as where you stack up to golfers in your handicap level, you can register for a FREE TRIAL of my strokes-gained analysis at ShotbyShot.com

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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.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Brad

    Aug 3, 2018 at 5:01 am

    The best thing to do on many of the bunkers around here is to take your putter or a 7 iron and just chip it out on the lowest side of the bunker, regardless of what direction that may be. Many of the bunkers are like wet concrete around here and the bunker technique used by most pros and taught by most coaching pros is entirely worthless and will only result in a skulled bunker shot 80% or more of the time. I would rather hit a flop shot over a bunker or over a 50 foot tall tree from a hard pan lie than have to get it out of most bunkers.

    I would just love to see some of the best pros on tour get out of some of the kind of bunkers we have to play in sometime. There would be no end to the complaints from them I’m sure…

  2. DaveyD

    Aug 2, 2018 at 11:02 am

    The charts above should be explained by the number of data points used to create the statistics. While the overall trends aren’t surprising and are most likely expected, these types of stats are kept for your players, but less likely to be kept as the handicap increases.
    The last comment is in regard to putting, or rather the putting surface- in general. An assumption might be made that better golfers might play on better courses with better-maintained greens which could positively impact putting success.

    • DaveyD

      Aug 2, 2018 at 11:03 am

      The “your players” above should be “tour players”

  3. Poot

    Aug 2, 2018 at 2:04 am

    You ain’t applying this to Links bunkers, that’s for sure. We saw what happened at Carnoustie last week, they were lucky just to get it out.
    So, another meaningless “you’re an amateur and you suck” statistical analysis.

  4. Paul

    Aug 1, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    Makes me feel better about my sand play!
    I thought I was pretty average but I’m actually doing ok!

  5. Tom54

    Aug 1, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    Kevin explains it well. Our bunkers at our course aren’t the greatest either. Depth of sand inconsistent. One shot you hit couple inches behind and it comes out great. Next bunker you’re in there’s no sand, the club bounces into the ball and over the green it goes. Lots of times our group plays move it out of footprints. Pros play off perfect lies why shouldn’t we?

  6. Tee-Bone

    Aug 1, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Strokes Gained on the PGA Tour are based on the averages of the field. Where are the averages from with your Strokes Gained programs?

    • Peter Sanders

      Aug 2, 2018 at 9:09 am

      Good Q! Our Strokes Gained model is based upon the average Scratch player. We calculate each players SG # vs. Scratch and then compare it to the average SG #’s in each facet for the player’s Target handicap range. It works!

  7. Kevin

    Aug 1, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Sand save recovery stats are skewed as i’d guess the majority of amateurs aren’t playing courses where the greenside bunkers have several inches of sand and perfectly manicured like on tour. factor in that thousands of courses have little to no sand in some bunkers and the liklihood of a skull is much higher than a pga course. i always find it amusing when watching an instruction program on GC and they mention opening face and hitting 3 inches behind the ball. good luck when you come play in ohio and the bunker is hard packed. and its not goat tracks…a lot of really nice courses simply can’t afford to constantly replace/fill sand in their bunkers.

    • Mat

      Aug 1, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      Complete agreement. Sand, believe it or not, is expensive and getting rare. Traps are not worthy of a lot of practice outside of knowing your lie (your feet will tell you how far you sink in is how far behind the ball you enter) and getting out in one shot. If you’re a 10+, that’s the biggest challenge. Get out and two putt for bogey. Don’t take two to get out – that’s the card killer.

      • Pete McGill

        Aug 2, 2018 at 2:08 am

        True. My course has one hole with the only two bunkers. Players walk off with either 100% or zero in sand saves.

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The Wedge Guy: How many wedges?

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From the feedback I get, many golfers are not entirely confident…or are completely confused…about how many wedges they should carry. Those of you who know my work and writing over the past 25 years or so also know that I am a proponent of carrying a carefully measured “set” of wedges that give you the shotmaking control you need in prime scoring range. But what I’ve learned over those many years is that the number of wedges that is “right”, and the lofts of those wedges can be very different from one golfer to another.

The reason I think getting this right is so important is that your scores are more heavily influenced by your play from wedge range into the green, and your shotmaking around the greens, than by any other factor. The right “set” of wedges in your bag can make all the difference in the world.

As I repeatedly preach, taking your guidance from the PGA Tour players might not help you achieve your goals. These guys spend hundreds of hours each year perfecting their wedge play, and you simply cannot do that. The good news is that you can add some science to your wedge set make-up that can help you have more shot choices when you are in scoring range or trying to save par from a missed green.

My basic premise on the subject is that the answer can be approached scientifically for each golfer, and it is a multi-step process

  1. Begin by knowing the loft of the 9-iron and “P-club” that came with your set of irons, as optimum gapping begins there. The industry challenge of producing longer-hitting irons has led most OEMs to strengthen lofts throughout the set. Along the way, it was apparently decided to widen the gaps between the short irons to 5 degrees from the traditional 4 that stood for decades. What this does is increase the distance differential between your 9-iron and “P-club” from what I would consider optimum. For golfers of slower swing speeds, that 5-degree gap might well deliver a 10-12 yard differential, but my bet is that most of you are getting a difference closer to 15 yards, or even more. That just will not let you get the distance control precision you want in prime scoring range.
  2. The second step is to be honest with your distances. I am a big proponent of getting on the golf course or range with a laser or GPS and really knowing how far you carry each of your short irons and wedges. Hit a number of shots from known yardages and see where they land (not including roll out). My bet is that you will find that your distances are different from what you thought they were, and that the differentials between clubs are not consistent.
  3. Figure out where to start. If your actual and real distance gap between your 9-iron and “P-club” is over 12-13 yards, maybe the place to start could be with a stronger P-club. You can either have your loft strengthened a bit or make the shaft 1/4 to 1/2” longer to add a few yards to that club.
  4. Figure out what lofts your wedges should have. From there, I suggest selecting lofts of your wedges to build a constant yardage difference of 10-12 yards between clubs. Depending on your strength profile, that may require wedges at four-degree intervals, or it might be five – each golfer is different. Those with very slow swing speeds might even find that six-degree gaps deliver that distance progression.
  5. Challenge the traditional 52-56-60 setup. Those lofts became the “standard” when set-match pitching wedges were 48 degrees of loft. That hasn’t been the case in over 25 years. Most of today’s P-clubs are 45 degrees, which leaves a very large distance differential between that club and a 52-degree gap wedge. Some enlightened golfers have evolved to carry a wedge set of 50-54-58, which is a step in the right direction. But you can get whatever loft precision you want, and you should do that. At SCOR, we made wedges in every loft from 41 to 61 degrees, and our wedge-fitting tool prescribed lofts of 49-53-57-61 to many golfers, based on that 45* “P-club” and their stated distance profile. Those who took that advice were generally very happy with that change. We fitted and sold many sets at 49-54-59 as well. Though no company offers wedges in every loft, you can bend even numbers to hit your numbers exactly. Just remember, bending stronger reduces the bounce and bending weaker increases the bounce.

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