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How power helps your golf game (and it’s not how you think)

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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Rich Hunt’s 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis, which can be purchased here for $10.99. Stylistic changes were made to the story for online publication.

As a statistical analyst and researcher for Tour pros, caddies and instructors, the most common question I receive is with regards to the importance of power in the game. There is still a strong contingent of golfers that believe that driving distance is the least important metric in the game of golf. I am emphatic when I say that is incorrect.

Research conducted by myself and others has shown that driving distance is one of the more important metrics in the game. Not only have I found this to be the case when studying Tour players, but it applies to the average amateur as well.

In 2013, some friends of mine and I did a study using Trackman and the USGA GHIN to see if there was a correlation between a golfer’s club head speed and their handicap index. There were 137 subjects, ages 15-57 years old that had to have a USGA handicap and have recorded at least 20 scores in the GHIN within the last 12 months. The subjects ranged from PGA Tour players to 25 handicaps.

The findings were than the correlation very strong at +0.91 with a standard deviation of 4.5 mph. Correlation is the a mathematical methodology to determine the strength of a relationship between two variables. The closer the correlation is to 1.0, the stronger the relationship. Therefore, a correlation of +0.91 shows a very strong correlation and it is strong enough to project club head speed based on the golfer’s handicap.

Here is the regression formula that projects the club head speed based on the golfer’s USGA handicap

(Handicap *-1.38899923605806) + 106.486783804431 = Projected Club Head Speed

Here is a table showing the projected club speed based on USGA handicap (note that + handicaps are better-than-scratch golfers)

There has been some confusion from readers in interpreting the data. Understand that this is projecting the club speed and it is not definitive. The projected club speed numbers do not represent the entire population.

The data projects that 68 percent of the population will fall within 1-standard deviation from the projected values. That means that the data projects that 68 percent of the population will fall within +/- 4.5 mph from the projected numbers listed above. 95 percent of the population will fall within 2-standard deviations (+/- 9 mph) of the projected numbers listed above. And 99.7 percent of the population will fall within 3 standard deviations (+/- 13.5 mph) of the projected numbers listed above.

When I posted this table on Twitter, many readers would proclaim that they ‘underachieved’ because their club speed was much higher than the projected numbers based on their handicap. For example, a player that is a -3 handicap is projected to generate 102.3 mph club speed, but generates (or at least claims to) generate 113 mph club speed.

That player has not ‘underachieved’ nor does it mean that the regression analysis is invalid based on their anecdotal evidence. It just means that that they fall outside 95 percent of the projected population of -3 handicaps.

The key to understanding the table and regression analysis is that the study shows that there is a relationship between the two variables, not a perfect 1:1 relationship. And thus, we can use that relationship not only for more accurate projections, but to examine why that relationship exists and what can be done for golfers to use that to their advantage to improve their scores.

For example, a friend of mine is roughly a 20 handicap, but I have clocked him at 124 mph club speed. He never had much in the way of formal instruction and plays about once a month. But he is a 6’6” former college basketball player and competitive softball player. He knows how to do one thing incredibly well in golf; generate speed. It does not mean that speed (power) is any less important. It just means that he is outside 99.7% percent of the population and is an extreme anomaly.

***

One issue with the regression analysis that I posted is that it does not determine why the relationship exists. Do lower handicaps tend to have higher club head speeds because they are utilizing better technique that allows them to generate more speed or does the distance gained actually help the golfer shoot a lower score?

A few years ago, my friend Mark Sweeney from AimPoint Golf found another strong correlation involving distance. This time the correlation was with the length of the average birdie putt for Tour players. The chart looks something like this:

Essentially, the further the player hits the ball off the tee, the more likely their average birdie putt will be shorter in length. Thus, a player that is a lesser skilled putter can sink more putts than superior skilled putters if they are longer off the tee because they are having easier putts to make. I call this The Power to Putting Principle.

For example, Rory McIlroy is one of the longest hitters on Tour and has struggled with the putter in recent years. Brian Gay is one of the shortest hitters on Tour and one of the better putters. Rory may sink more putts in a round because he may have an average birdie putt length of 15-feet while Gay’s average birdie putt length may be at 25-feet. On birdie putts, McIlroy is giving himself putts that have a 22 percent make probability on average compared to Gay having putts with a 10 percent make probability on average. Thus, while Gay is a far superior putter he will not likely make as many putts as McIlroy because Gay’s putts are much more difficult to make.

This is where power provides the greatest advantage to golfers; on the putting greens.

Is there any advantage to being short, but accurate off the tee?

Well, note that the Sweeney study is about the length of the average birdie putt. When a long ball hitter misses the green in regulation, they are more likely to have a longer and more difficult scrambling opportunity. This is because of the times that the bomber misses the fairway by a wide margin and ends up in the trees and has to punch out or they end up in a penalty area.

This is why I advise Tour players that analytics if golf is not a rigid ‘one size fits all’ system. Not only should a golfer accurately determine their strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to utilize them to play the best golf possible, but distance plays a major role in what areas of the game a player needs to focus on. Brian Gay should not try to play Bubba Watson’s game and Bubba Watson should not try to play Jordan Spieth’s game all because their differing lengths off the tee creates different advantages they must exploit and different weaknesses that they must account for.

Applying this to your game

As I mentioned earlier, the Power to Putting Principle states that longer hitters have an advantage on the greens because they are more likely to have short length birdie putts on average than shorter hitters. But shorter hitters have an advantage when the green in regulation is missed.

Thus, shorter hitters need to be more skilled putters to compete with the longer hitters. And longer hitters need to be more skilled with their abilities around the greens in order to convert those up-and-downs like the shorter, but more accurate golfer.

Therefore the best short hitting golfers in the world over the years (Zach Johnson, Brian Gay, Jim Furyk, etc.) have been very good putters. They must be great putters to make up for them having more difficult putts on average than the longer hitters. That is how some of the best long hitters in the world tend to still play great golf despite putting poorly (i.e. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson).

But we do see that the long hitters tend to play their best golf when their short game around the green and/or their putting improves.

The misconception from the press and fans becomes that because a bomber improved so much in their putting and/or short game around the green that is what really matters most in golf. The reality is completely different from perception though. They are great players and better than the rest of the world because of their ballstriking and their power. It’s just that when they improve their putting and short game around the green, now they become the very best of the best.

Bubba Watson isn’t ranked #17 in the world due to his short game around the green (ranked 174th last season) and putting (ranked 108th last season). However, if he starts to dominate the Tour and get into the top-10 it is very likely that he will have improved upon those areas and essentially have little in the way of flaws in his game.

How does this apply to the 10-handicap golfer?

The projected club speed of a 10-handicap golfer using my regression analysis is 92.6 mph. If a golfer is a legitimate 10-handicap golfer and generates 85 mph they are likely more accurate off the tee and a better putter than the other 10-handicap golfer that generates 93 mph of speed.

With any golfer, an increase in club speed is likely to improve their handicap. However, if the golfer just wants to compete with other 10-handicaps without working on their golf swing, it is very important that he hit the ball more accurately than his competitors and that he will need to be more skilled with the putter.

If the golfer is a 10-handicap and generates 100 mph of club speed with the driver, they most likely are less accurate off the tee and worse putters than their fellow 10-handicap golfers. However, the key here is that the 100-mph golfer has more options than the 85-mph golfer. The 100-mph golfer can beat out his fellow 10-handicappers by hitting the ball more accurately or by improving their short game around the green to make up for having more difficult scramble opportunities or they can improve their putting.

In a previous example, I showed why Brian Gay has to be more skilled of a putter to sink more putts than Bubba Watson. Gay hits it shorter and has longer (and thus more difficult) putts to make than Watson. But, what if Bubba was equally as skilled or more skilled than Gay with the putter?

You would have an equally skilled or more skilled putter that is putting from more makeable distances. This is why long hitters are so dangerous. If they can keep the ball out of trouble and get four good days with the putter, they are going to contend. And the same applies with amateurs.

Developing young golfers

I am frequently asked by coaches of junior golfers and colleges that have Professional Golf Management programs about what their golfers should focus on developing in their golf game.

My answer is ‘Power and Putting.’

It may sound like a cliché with all the discussion with regards to how the Tour is becoming about who can hit it the longest, but my opinion is based on the math and the historical data with regards to the subject.

If hitting it further is likely to leave you with more makeable birdie putts and the golfer is a great putter, then it is a scenario where a great putter has easier putts to make and that equates to the lowest scores.

Yes, every shot does count. Long approach shots are certainly important and the same with mid-length approach shots. The same goes for having a respectable amount of accuracy and precision. And you do lose strokes if your short game around the green stinks to high heaven. But most players that hit it long have a high level of competence as a golfer. And those that can putt well along with it are at an enormous advantage.

And if I were to just name players that hit the ball long (175+ mph ball speed) and putted great for a significant length of time with no regards to the rest of the game, the players I come up with are:

  • Tiger Woods
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Jason Day
  • Rickie Fowler
  • Paul Casey
  • Jimmy Walker

And those are the players that I could measure with ShotLink. While it is speculation, players off the top of my head that were both very long and great putters pre-ShotLink were:

  • Bobby Jones
  • Arnold Palmer
  • Jack Nicklaus
  • Tom Watson
  • Seve Ballesteros

There was more to their games than hitting it long and putting well. But, the math behind hitting it long and putting well is why it was not a coincidence that they were also some of the greatest players to have ever played the game.

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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, 2018 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

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Tom54

    Jan 30, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    I get the point about power is definitely an advantage over those who do not. I’ve always argued with a buddy of mine that power is not the end all when it comes to advantages. For example,if he pushes a tee ball off line in the same vicinity as mine,his will stay in the rough. Since I’m much longer,mine will be deep in the trees. I just think accuracy should weigh in more when just assuming the power hitter will always have shorter birdie putts.

  2. Tee-Bone

    Jan 30, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    No mention of Strokes Gained Driving? This is the best metric for what Tour players actually gain or lose from driving.

  3. dlygrisse

    Jan 30, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you for validating what I suspected. I’m the 8-9 capper that doesnt hit it long, I putt pretty well and I have a good short game. I keep the ball in play but don’t make a ton of birdies. Buddies of mine look like they might dominate me during a round, but at the end of the day I often have a lower score. My handicap used to be about 3 shots lower before I injured my back, biggest difference is a loss of speed. While I make a lot of pars and bogeys, they make more birdies, about the same amount of pars and a lot more “others”

    now if I could just get my bad back in order, I might regain some of my speed…..

  4. Scott

    Jan 29, 2019 at 10:53 am

    Interesting. I would have thought a +6 would have a higher club head speed than 115. I thought that the average PGA Tour speed was just south of 120.

  5. James

    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:38 am

    Simplest example for this article is Tiger when he debuted on Tour – pounded past most everyone, putted very well, and, well, we all know the rest about 1997-2003 😉

    • Keith Reynolds

      Jan 31, 2019 at 7:29 am

      But Tiger’s best shot was the second shot to the green. As Richie indicated, having a shorter putt is a great advantage. The advantage of a longer drive is that you’re using a shorter club for your shot to the green.

  6. St

    Jan 29, 2019 at 9:12 am

    It just means that golf is a stupid game. You hit the ball as far as you can and try to avoid trouble. If you can do that, the game becomes really silly

  7. JP

    Jan 29, 2019 at 12:00 am

    I must suck. My club head speed is much higher than my suggested handicap. I’ve got some work to do this year. Haha

  8. Patricknorm

    Jan 28, 2019 at 7:47 pm

    Another great article Rich. With you being a statistician there’s nothing you say or do that cannot be disputed. That’s why I don’t understand why anyone would “ shank” any of your articles. They are pure analytical gold. I think many people cannot understand the pure logic that statistics bring. Or took the time and energy to read it. Like I said, pure gold.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jan 30, 2019 at 10:43 am

      Thanks for the kind words. I will say that with most statistical analysis and research the data is compiled and then there is an interpretation of the data. The interpretation of the data can be more up for debate.

      The problem is that most non-statisticians are arguing their own opinion that is based on their own, long held belief system instead of actually debating the interpretation of the data.

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Courses

Brough Creek National: The backyard course you wish you’d built

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted a golf course in your backyard.

Of course you have.

Now leave your hand raised if you actually rolled up your sleeves and made it happen.

Among the very few people left with their hands in the air are Ben Hotaling, Zach Brough, Evan Bissell, and Mark Robinson, the driving force behind Brough Creek National. That’s right. These guys are building a golf course in their backyard. From scratch.

The true beginnings of golf aren’t well-documented, but one thing’s for sure: people were playing golf at least 400 years before the first working internal combustion engine. Long before golf course architecture was a multi-million dollar investment before the first dime of revenue trickled in, courses were laid down largely by hand using the natural movement of the land. In that same spirit, Ben happened to notice that there was one particular shot in their backyard that reminded him of the Road Hole at St. Andrews, as it plays over their barn and to a green situated right in front of the road to the property.

Ben ultimately convinced his roommate Zach, whose family has owned the land for some time, that they should clear some trees and put in a makeshift green for their Road Hole. That was in 2015 and, while that’s technically the genesis of Brough Creek National, it was in 2018 when they started sharing their ideas in No Laying Up’s online forum section that things escalated rather quickly. Bouncing ideas off their fellow compatriots revealed great natural setups for a Biarritz/punch bowl combination, a Redan, and more. Before they knew it, they had a 630-yard, 7-hole golf course criss-crossing through the three-acre property in Kansas City, KS.

Road Hole green at Brough Creek National

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brough Creek National is that it has operated solely off of donations, which started with a weed eater here and a can of herbicide there and has since grown to a recent GoFundMe campaign of $15,000. These donations have allowed them to purchase grass seed and other vital equipment to see the project through. The community aspect of Brough Creek National is so important to what they’re trying to achieve that anyone who provides their name and address on the website is sent a free new membership packet (I happen to be member #209). Included are some stickers, a ballmark, and a welcome letter that states (among other things),

“We are proud to have you as a lifetime national member at our exclusive, member-owned (and maintained) club…The vision of Brough Creek National is to have a place for community golf modeled around fun for members and guests from all golfing backgrounds…Your dues will be assessed at the rate of $0.00 annually.”

Ben further emphasizes the importance of the community aspect by saying:

“I think Brough Creek stands for community. It’s like-minded individuals coming together and supporting something they’re proud of. It’s a smart, intriguing golf course, but it’s ultimately about making friends and that’s what matters. The quality of the golf course is almost inconsequential because the real purpose is to assemble this brotherhood of people who are passionate about the game of golf. We think it’s done in a way that sheds the elitist stigma that golf has often struggled with and we’re almost mocking that in a playful way.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone they have to experience the game a certain way, but we try to go above and beyond to be approachable and welcoming because we think that’s more important than status. Golf’s not a money-making business. It’s just not. So, why don’t we just take that out of it, come together as a community, and create something we can all be proud of?”

If we’re all having an honest moment, not even Ben and Zach know exactly how this project is going to evolve, but one thing’s for sure: an emphasis on maximizing fun for the highest number of the golfing community is never a bad place to start. Those who believe par and total yardage are irrelevant in determining the amount of fun available to them should be in for a treat. To watch the project unfold, check out www.someguysbackyard.com and follow @someguysbackyrd on Twitter and @someguysbackyard on Instagram.

Below is an overview of the course, narrated by Ben Hotaling

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Opinion & Analysis

Brooks Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon III, on BK’s PGA Championship victory, working with the game’s best, and more

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Coming fresh of the celebration of Brooks Koepka’s fourth major win, Koepka’s long-time coach, Claude Harmon III chatted with Johnny Wunder as he was just about to hop on a plane back to The Floridian.

Here are the highlights of their conversation.

JW: Claude how you doin’?

CH3: Uh, I’m hungover!

JW: Brooks is walking off the 18th green after another major triumph. What is the first thing you guys said to each other?

CH3: Well, obviously there was a lot of emotion in that moment, but he told me it was the happiest he has ever been on the golf course, and after everything he’s done, that’s a big statement.

For him to put in all the hard work and to fight as hard as he did on a golf course that completely changed on the last day and come out on top makes me extremely grateful to be a part of the team that supports that. I believe he will find out more about himself from getting through the final nine holes than he would if he would have had a parade coming in and won by seven.

JW: That’s a great point. It seems like he is more apt to win even more majors based on that back nine than he would have otherwise.

CH3: I don’t think if you were watching it on TV you could have any appreciation for just how difficult it was. What DJ did yesterday was impossible and having that up ahead applies even more pressure to a leader. Ricky Elliott and BK are looking at the scoreboard and seeing DJ and 3 under and having no idea how that’s even possible. It was that tough.

JW: I think Brooks stubbornness is part of his true greatness. Would you agree?

CH3: His perspective constantly was “I’m still in the lead and someone is going to have to catch me and this golf course is extremely difficult.” Even after all the bogeys on the back side, he still controlled the lead and kept that mantra. The crowd yelling “DJ! DJ!” actually didn’t piss him off, it woke him up and made him want to hit a good drive and show the crowd he was still leading.

JW: How did yesterday compare to Shinnecock? 

CH3: At Shinnecock it was an interesting situation because Fleetwood…posted before BK was even off and in that case, Brooks said it was like playing against a ghost. No matter what he does, Tommy isn’t going to make any more mistakes or change in any way. That’s a tough scenario when you are staring at a number that won’t move for 5 1/2 hours.

JW: What do Brooks and DJ have that people can learn from.

CH3: It’s funny because we hear these cliches in sports psychology all the time, but I believe those two are the living embodiment of ONE SHOT AT A TIME. They don’t look back. Ever.

JW: Speaking on DJ. I’m watching the back nine and thinking to myself this guy is playing out of his mind, it was literally a battle of the best.

CH3: We talk about it all the time in golf, what we always want is the two best players in the world going toe to toe. We had that yesterday and I hope as time goes by we can look at this final round as a battle we will be talking about for a long time. Best players in the world on a tough but fair golf course with the ultimate prize on the line. In situations like this when there is this kind of pressure and these stakes you can look at the leaderboard and see the cream rising to the top. Rory, DJ, Jordan all with good rounds on a really tough day.

JW: You met Brooks in 2013, he showed up in his mom’s beat up Explorer and don’t know him at all. What was your first impression?

CH3: I was introduced to him by Pete Uihlein, his old roommate, and at first glance, he had raw talent and a ton of speed, but no plan. At the time he was hitting a draw and was uncomfortable with that. He told me his current coach wanted him to hit draws, and I said well that’s your fault, not your coach’s. It’s the player’s responsibility to manage himself and the information he’s comfortable with. When we worked on him getting into a fade, he started to click and he turned to me and said “it can’t be this easy.” My reply was “it has to be this easy!” At that level, under the gun, it better be easy. [Golf is] tough enough already.

JW: What were his career goals early on?

CH3: Even then, he wanted to be an elite player who won multiple majors. I was coaching Ernie Els at the time who had just won his fourth major and Brooks was on the Challenge Tour. He was committed to getting there but needed guidance, someone with a plan that wasn’t just his golf swing. Obviously, it worked out.

JW: What would you say is the Harmon secret to getting the best players in the world to peak as often as you guys do?

CH3: My dad told me: “What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.” At the Masters this year Brooks, in practice, was really struggling. Look, it’s Masters week and I’m not going to go in there and start putting thoughts in his head. At that point, if this is a shuttle launch, we are in the cockpit and there is no turning back. My dad always had his guys have a go-to shot that they “knew” they could hit. Brooks calls it his “fairway finder” which is a squeeze off fade with a driver. I told him to hit a couple of those knowing it might spur some confidence. After a few absolutely flushed missiles, his confidence went up and he turned to me and said…”fairway finder all day.” The rest is history.

JW: You coach DJ, Brooks, Jimmy Walker and Rickie. Describe each in one word

JW: DJ
CH3: Natural

JW: Brooks
CH3: Tough MF

JW: Rickie
CH3: Genuine

JW: Jimmy
CH3: Soulful

JW: Thanks old friend
CH3: Talk soon, thanks man.

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Podcasts

On Spec: Swing weight is overrated

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A deep dive into one of the most talked about but truly misunderstood aspects of club building: swing weight. What it really means, and why it isn’t the end all be all for a set of clubs.

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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