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Understanding distance variance

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Sometimes it can be a blow to the ego to go to a new course where the ball seems to go nowhere and you just can’t bring yourself to hit 5-iron, for example, when you could normally hit 7-iron.

But if you want to score well, it’s something that can be important to understand and accept…that is, that distances can vary quite dramatically from course to course.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the average driving distances for the field in the following PGA Tour and European Tour events from 2012.

2013 Average PGA & European PGA Tour Driving Distances by Event

Event Distance
DP World Tour Championship 248.5
Volvo Golf Championships 252.1
Hyundai Tournament of Champions 270.4
Reale Seguros Open de Espana 270.4
RBC Heritage 277.8
The Irish Open 277.8
Omega Dubai Desert Classic 280.3
Ballantine’s Championship 281.3
Transitions Championship 281.5
Maybank Malaysian Open 281.6
Frys.com Open 281.8
UBS Hong Kong Open 282.3
Aberdeen Asset Management Open 282.9
Nordea Masters 283.2
Africa Open 283.4
BMW International Open 283.9
Omega European Masters 284.0
Barclays Singapore Open 284.5
Johnnie Walker Championship 284.9
Lyoness Open 285.0
Alstom Open de France 285.4
Valero Texas Open 285.9
KLM Open 286.1
Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship 286.8
ISPS Honda Wales Open 287.3
BMW Masters 287.9
BMW Championship 288.5
Commercialbank Qatar Masters 288.5
Volvo China Open 288.6
Zurich Classic of New Orleans 289.9
BMW Italian Open 290.3
Joburg Open 291.3
Open de Andalucia 291.4
Deutsche Bank Championship 292.6
Portugal Masters 293.3
Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial 294.2
Avantha Masters 295.5
John Deere Classic 295.7
Saint-Omer Open 295.9
Tour Championship 297.4
Sony Open in Hawaii 297.5
AT&T National 297.9
Sicilian Open 298.3
Wyndham Championship 299.1
HP Byron Nelson Championship 300.4
Justin Timberlak Shriners Hospital for Children Open 305.7
Reno-Tahoe Open 311.6
SA Open Championship 313.6
Madeira Islands Open 322.6


Average:  288.5 yards/drive

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

As you can see, despite more or less the same players playing each week, there’s a 74.1-yard variance between the tournaments with the shortest and longest average driving distance for the field.  That’s a huge difference!

It’s feasible that there were extenuating circumstances taking place during the events on the extreme ends causing such a broad gap.  There may have been severe weather, for example, or perhaps a certain course required the use of more woods, hybrids, or irons off the tee. But in general, to account for things like this, the driving distance averages for Tour events are generally taken on two holes where the wind blows in opposite directions and also where the players are likely to use driver.

Even still, let’s take out a few of the extremes on the short and long ends. When we do this, note that the bulk of the average driving distances range between 280 and 300 yards.  That’s still a 20-yard difference from event to event and course to course.  It’s not as much as 74.1-yards but it’s still worth noting.

I remember this was also the case when I used to compete in long drive. My longest drive in competition was a 421-yard drive in Warner Springs, Calif., to win a qualifier for the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championships. Granted, it set the grid record but it was still on firm ground at an elevation of about 3,130 feet.  Conversely, the 381-yard ball I hit to win the Pinnacle Distance Challenge was actually a much better drive, despite being 40 yards shorter. However, the ground was a little softer and the elevation was much less — around 466 feet.

In general, Tour players and their caddies understand and are good at accepting that distances change based on conditions.  In fact, determining these distance variances are actually one thing that many of them are doing during practice rounds…and it’s also partially why they can subsequently go tear up the course in the tournament with a few as one practice round under their belts.

Different guys do it differently, but in the 30-or-so week-long professional tournaments I’ve played, one of the things I’ll do during my practice round is jot down in my course guide or on a scorecard how far my clubs are going on full swings. By the end of the round, I’ll approximate the percent difference from my normal distances and then make a new distance card that I keep with me for reference during the tournament.

For example, let’s say these are my average carry distances (pros are more concerned with carry than total distance) for my clubs on flat ground under normal conditions:

Club Carry
Driver 270
3-Wood 243
16* Hybrid 225
20* Hybrid 212
4-Iron 203
5-Iron 194
6-Iron 183
7-Iron 172
8-Iron 160
9-Iron 148
PW 136

 

Then, over the course of my practice round, I find out that on average I’m about 3 percent longer with each club at this new course I’m playing.  So I get out my calculator, add 3 percent, and then make a small card like this to carry with me for reference during the rest of the tournament:  Personally, I like having a little card like this because it saves me both time in determining what shot I want to hit and also mental energy during the tournament rounds.

Club Carry
Driver 278
3-Wood 250
16* Hybrid 232
20* Hybrid 218
4-Iron 209
5-Iron 200
6-Iron 188
7-Iron 177
8-Iron 165
9-Iron 152
PW 140

 

Note that on the updated card it’s only about a 4-yard variation for the PW, but that could mean the difference between having a 3-footer for birdie or a 15-footer.  With the driver, the 8-yards of extra carry might give me the confidence to fly over a fairway bunker I normally wouldn’t otherwise try to carry.

You may not want to get in to this level of detail with your own game (or have the ball-striking skill to worry about it – hehe), but I guess the point I’m getting at is to keep in mind that depending on the course you play and the conditions involved, distances can and will vary.

Understanding and accepting this can help you make better club selections in general, which of course can also lead to lower scores.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

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Jaacob Bowden is a Professional Golfer, PGA of America Class A Member, Top 100 Most Popular Teacher, Swing Speed Trainer, the original founder of Swing Man Golf, the co-creator of "Sterling Irons" single length irons, and has caddied on the PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR CHAMPIONS. Formerly an average-length hitting 14-handicap computer engineer, Jaacob quit his job, took his savings and moved from Kansas to California to pursue a golf career at age 27. He has since won the Pinnacle Distance Challenge with a televised 381-yard drive, won multiple qualifiers for the World Long Drive Championships including a 421-yard grid record drive, made cuts in numerous tournaments around the world with rounds in the 60s and 70s, and finished fifth at the Speed Golf World Championships at Bandon Dunes. Jaacob also holds the championship record for golf score with a 72 in 55 minutes and 42 seconds using only 6 clubs. The Swing Man Golf website has more than 8,000 members and focuses primarily on swing speed training. Typically, Jaacob’s website members and amateur and tour player clients will pick up 12-16 mph of driver swing speed in the first 30 days of basic speed training. You can learn more about Jaacob, Swing Man Golf, and Sterling Irons here: Websites – JaacobBowden.com & SwingManGolf.com & SterlingIrons.com; Twitter - @JaacobBowden & @SwingManGolf & @SterlingIrons; Facebook – Facebook.com/JaacobBowdenGolf & Facebook.com/SwingManGolf & <Facebook.com/SterlingIronsGolf; Instagram - Instagram.com/JaacobBowden YouTube – YouTube.com/SwingManGolf – More than 2.8 million video views

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Jaacob Bowden

    Jan 7, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Ruddy – Haha, yeah, especially on new courses it helps to pay attention right away. :-p

    Hmmm, if I remember correctly, Advanced Golf Solutions also tested the balls by accuracy. So you could pick something out based on any number of variables…distance, accuracy, price, etc.

    I think the ProV1x was the most accurate…or at least in the top 3. But that was a few years ago. Ball models change as time passes.

    They must’ve gone out of business because I’m not finding their website…which is too bad because it was really cool software. They tested the top 50 or so new balls on the market each year for several years.

  2. Ruddy

    Jan 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Jacob, thanks for answering. I too noticed a big difference in distance between balls. 10 yards less with Titleist Velocity vs. ProV1x. Better scores with the expensive ball, also. I never seem to recognize the distance variation each round until around Hole#18!

  3. Jaacob Bowden

    Jan 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Ruddy – Yeah, using the same model ball can definitely help consistency. I remember one time I did some new ball testing using some independent testing software (I believe made by Advanced Golf Solutions) and there was literally a 50 yard difference between the longest ball and shortest ball for me (that variance will be more or less depending on swing speed and other factors).

    I just do it as a rough percentage because during a single practice round I may not get enough flat shots (no elevation changes) without wind to get an average for each club.

    In situations where I don’t get in a practice round, I just try to pay really close attention on the first few holes and adjust up or down accordingly as quickly as I can.

  4. Ruddy

    Jan 3, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Interesting article. Averages are greatly affected by extremes, so good move to eliminate extremely long and short distances. The mode is the distance most often achieved. The median is the distance exactly in the middle. Rather than a percentage change, why not just use actual distance achieved for each club in the practice round? If I can’t play a practice round, how can I make a distance adjustment using some other method? I suppose using the same ball brand helps consistency. Thanks.

  5. Jaacob Bowden

    Dec 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Al, Mark, Steve…thanks!

    Good suggestion, Steve. Those things definitely do have an effect on distance. I know I’ve seen studies that have covered this but I don’t recall specifics or where I saw them off the top of my head. I’ll put it on my list of article ideas for the future!

    Happy New Year!

  6. Steve

    Dec 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Jaacob, nice article. I wish you would have spent some time discussing temperature and it’s effect on distance. Don’t golf balls fly further in the heat vs. cold air? What about in high humidity/fog, vs. dry air? Thanks!

  7. Mark Bishop

    Dec 21, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Very interesting Jaacob and well put together. All the very best for the Hols mate. Mark in Oz!

  8. Al Dilz

    Dec 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Very informative, Jaacob. I have never seen distance variables covered with such precision and detail. Thank you!

  9. Jaacob Bowden

    Dec 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks gents!

  10. DJ Watts

    Dec 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Jaacob, I love your attention to numbers and stats, it’s right up my alley!

    Congrats on a solid first piece, and I’m looking forward to applying the playing and strategy knowledge that you relay.

  11. Brian Cass

    Dec 20, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Great article, a subject that is hardly covered

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The 19th Hole: Mark Rolfing and architect David Kidd on Carnoustie’s challenges

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It’s Open Championship week at Carnoustie! This week, Michael Williams hosts NBC and Golf Channel analyst Mark Rolfing and award-winning architect David Kidd (Bandon Dunes) to talk about how the pros will try to tame “Car-nasty.” It also features Jaime Darling of Golf Scotland on the many attractions around Carnoustie outside the golf course.

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

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Opinion & Analysis

How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?

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‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?

A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:

  1. It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
  2. It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.

That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:

  1. It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
  2. It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.

In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. 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, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:

  • Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
  • Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
  • Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.

Where does your game fall in these two important categories?

Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?

You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:

  1. They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
  2. The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.

That reminds me again of my very early days when Chuck Cook said to me: “Pete, Tour players don’t make errors in the short game!”  See Chuck, I was right, they do! For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com.

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Opinion & Analysis

Think Carnoustie’s hard? Try winning a title on it playing golf with one arm

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When things get challenging during the 147th Open this week on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, the players would do well to think of Mike Benning–specifically the fortitude he channeled into success at the venerable venue.

Benning grew up with golf at Congressional while his father, Bob, was head professional at the iconic country club in Bethesda, Md. Due to a rare form of cancer, Benning, who was already a top junior in the Washington, D.C. area, lost his left arm below the elbow to amputation at age 14.

Rather than let that stop him from playing, he learned to adapt. So much so that he won back-to-back Society of One-Armed Golfers world championships in 1993-94. The first win came at Seaford Golf Course in Sussex, England, in 1993. Benning defended his title at Carnoustie in 1994, the 56th and 57th renditions of the annual event, which began in the 1930s.

Benning was low medalist in stroke play at Seaford, shooting 80-81-161. With the top 16 finishers advancing to match play, Benning won four matches in two days to become champion. He went to Carnoustie the next year full of confidence but couldn’t find the form initially that carried him at Seaford, qualifying 10th in medal play.

“My game wasn’t on, and the course was brawny and fast,” Benning said this week from his home in Scituate, Mass. “The course was so dry it was grey, and it was windy. That makes Carnoustie very difficult, even more challenging than normal. I had a difficult draw in match play, but I found my game when it mattered most, and only one of my matches went to the 18th hole.”

In the championship match, Benning defeated Scotsman Brian Crombie of Dundee, a 25-minute drive from Carnoustie.

“He had about 50 friends and family members rooting him on, the crowd was definitely behind him,” Benning recalled. “But I had a couple Americans following me. One was Mike Gibson, who now works for Titleist. He came out wearing a pair of red plus fours and an American flag shirt. He and Mark Frace really propped me up. I remember having a big decision on the 10th hole – whether to try and get a 3-wood over the burn – so I turned and looked at those guys behind me, and they encouraged me to go for it. I cleared the burn and ended up 12 feet from the hole.”

Benning was an independent sales rep in the golf business before joining Hanger, Inc., the leading U.S. provider of prosthetics and orthotics, where he is currently Marketing Manager. He has played other Open Championship courses but calls Carnoustie’s Championship layout “probably the greatest risk-reward course” in the rota. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do justice to the demanding test of golf it presents players,” he said.

To underscore his assertion, Benning cited the 6th hole – “Hogan’s Alley” – named after 1953 Open Champion Ben Hogan. Here is the description for it from the Carnoustie Golf Links website. “Normally played into prevailing wind, this can be a severe par 5. Bunkers and out of bounds await the miss-cued drive and although the best line is up Hogan’s Alley between the bunkers and the out of bounds fence, it requires a brave player to drive to that narrow piece of fairway. The second shot is no less perilous with a ditch angling across the fairway and the out of bounds continuing to be a threat. The approach is reasonably straightforward to an undulating green, particular care must be taken if the pin is located on the back-right portion of the green. A player should always be content with a five on this hole as it can be the ruin of many a scorecard.”

Benning said the pair of fairway bunkers side by side on the 14th hole – known as “The Spectacles – have to be experienced to be understood how hard they play for those unfortunate enough to find them.

“I hit into one of them during a match and it was the only time I had to hit backwards out of a bunker during the championship,” Benning remembered. “The face of the bunker was unthinkably high.”

The closing holes at Carnoustie’s Championship Course – Nos. 16-18 – may be the most difficult finish in all major golf, particularly No. 18, named “Home”.

“Just ask Jean Van de Velde,” said Benning, referring to the Frenchman who led by three strokes going to final hole of the 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde took triple bogey to fall back into a tie and playoff, which he lost to Paul Lawrie. No golf follower who watched the debacle can forget the image of Van de Velde standing in Barry’s Burn with his trouser bottoms rolled up, hands on hips, stunned disbelief etched on his face. Conversely, Lawrie’s final round 67 astounded Benning, who pointed out that the final round average score was significantly higher. The 18th also cost Johnny Miller the 1975 Open title, after Miller took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the hole.

Suffice it to say, Carnoustie will provide many of the world’s greatest players the chance for immortal golf glory this week, or demoralizing defeat. Maybe both. Whomever emerges as champion, Mike Benning will relate to the elation felt after prevailing on one of the game’s greatest courses.

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