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Behind the numbers: A road map for an 18 handicap to get down to a 9

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I wrote an article four years ago for GolfWRX called “The statistical differences between a scratch golfer and a PGA Tour player.” This article became one of the most-viewed features for the site, totaling over 420,000 views to date. I recently consulted with Ben Alberstadt, GolfWRX’s Editor-in-Chief, about pulling together some numbers for handicap levels to which more of us can relate.

You might ask: How do I know the differences between these handicap levels? Well, it is my full-time job to know about the numbers behind the game of golf—at all levels. I have been a student of the game from a statistical standpoint for 30-plus years. I created the strokes gained analysis website, ShotByShot.com, used by thousands of amateur golfers to improve by isolating the strengths and weaknesses of their games. Additionally, I work with PGA Tour players to extract clear answers from the Tour’s overwhelming 650-plus ShotLink stats.

I’ve learned that there is no such thing as an “average” game, no matter the handicap level. We’re all snowflakes and find our own unique way to shoot our number. With that said, ShotByShot.com’s 384,000-plus round database enables us to create a composite of the average golfer at each level. One of the beauties is that our data is robust and smooth across all five major facets so that any golfer’s strengths and weaknesses—and we all have them—stand out clearly by comparison.

The Data We Used  

  • 18 Handicap: I averaged the 3,551 rounds in our database that match the 18 Differential from Slope Adjusted Course Rating. In other words, the Best eight of 20 rounds when Mr. 18   actually played to an 18 handicap.
  • 9 Handicap: Similarly, his Best eight out of 20 using the 5,000 applicable rounds in our database.

As you might guess, the difference between these two in scores is nine strokes. So, if your snowflake matches or is close to Mr. 18’s, simply drop the shots below by facet and voila you are there.

The chart below shows the distribution of the strokes by facet that Mr. 18 needs to save to join Mr. 9.

Driving

Skill in this critical facet of the game is measured by distance and accuracy. But let’s take distance out of the equation by assuming we’re all playing the correct tees for our games and focus on accuracy.

As the chart above indicates, we are looking for 2.5 strokes on, what for a typical golf course, is 14 driving holes. The chart below shows results in the average round for Mr. 18 and Mr. 9. Note that both make at least one Driving Error* per round. Weed out that error and you can be more than halfway home, especially if it is a Penalty Error** that tends to carry a cost of between 1.3 strokes (penalty with drop) and two-plus strokes (stroke and distance).

*No Shot Driving Errors = Balls hit out of play that cannot return to normal play with an advancement shot. 

**Penalty Error = a.  Stroke with drop, or b.  Stroke and distance. 

 

This may be easier said than done, but sometimes the fix is as simple as target and club selection from the tee. Sure, it works to aim away from trouble but try choosing a club that cannot reach the trouble. Most holes that feature trouble off the tee will also be stroke holes, even for Mr. 9. Avoid the error and take double-bogey out of play. This is also a valuable strategy for match play situations.

Next, strive to hit at least one more fairway. The approach accuracy charts below show how many more greens are hit from the fairway vs. rough.

Approach Shots

Here we need to save 3 strokes. This facet involves the greatest number of long game opportunities–on average 17.6 full swing attempts per round. These attempts are generally split 70 percent from the fairway and 30 percent from the rough. Let’s ignore the sand for now as it accounts for approximately only 1 shot every three-plus rounds. Except to say that when you find yourself in a fairway bunker, it is usually a mistake, so take your medicine, get back in play and avoid doubling the pain.

So where to save three strokes? Avoid penalties and that’s at least one stroke. Then hit three more greens in regulation and you’re there–Mr. 18 averages five GIRs vs. Mr. 9’s eight. The key is to improve accuracy.

I recommend working on the distance ranges circled in the charts below and devoting 70 percent of your work to fairway shots. From distances longer than the circled ranges, make smart choices, play within your capabilities and avoid errors and penalties. Easy?! At either handicap level, from long-range you’ll miss more greens than you hit. Knowing this, work toward “good misses” – the fat side of the green, short but in the fairway, etc. Finally, my data supports that hitting the green is far more important than worrying about “proximity to the hole”. But that’s another article.

Chip/Pitch Shots (within 50 yards of the hole)

Here we are looking to save 2 strokes in a less frequently used part of the game–ten shots per round for Mr. 18 vs. eight shots for Mr. 9. Again, please start with avoiding Errors*. My pro and mentor spent hours on the short game with me. First, valuable technique instruction and then competitions @ $1.00 per shot—best lessons ever! His method was to break the shot opportunities into three categories, and this goes for the Sand game as well. Try it—it works.

  • Green light: Good lie, no trouble–try to hole it
  • Yellow light: Difficult but doable–play conservatively and try to be left with an uphill, makeable putt.
  • Red light: Very difficult with looming downside–just get the ball on the green and avoid the error.

Next, practice the type of shots that you face the most and especially those that tend to give you problems. Bottom line, hit more shots closer to the hole and avoid costly errors. While this sounds like annoyingly obvious advice, maybe it will help to consider that Mr. 18 saves 20 percent of these opportunities vs. 32 percent for Mr. 9.

*Short Game Errors:  The shot misses the green AND requires 4 or more strokes to hole out.

 

Sand Shots (within 50 yards of the hole)

Here we are looking to save half a shot in a very small part of the game—just 2 and 1.6 shots per round respectively for Mr. 18 and Mr. 9. I view this an underrated skill that definitely produces more errors per attempt than any other part of the game. When I was learning the game, I was afraid of the gaping bunkers that surrounded and protected ALL of our 18 greens. It wasn’t until I worked hard to gain real confidence from the sand that the greens seemed larger and easier to hit. Again, avoid errors and you’ll solve this portion of the puzzle. Mr. 18 saves 12 percent of his sand opportunities (with 28 percent errors) vs. 21 percent saves for Mr. 9 (15 percent errors).

*Short Game Errors:  The shot misses the green AND requires 4 or more strokes to hole out.

Putting

Putting is 40 percent of the game at all levels and we need to save 1 stroke. EASY, Mr. 18 simply needs to reduce his 3-putts from 2.5 per round to 1.5. Do this by working on distance control from 20 to 50 feet.  Beyond 50 feet think of it as more of an easy chip shot with your putter. You’re doing well if you leave it within 10 percent of the original distance and below the hole. Finally, work on your short putts in the three-to-10-foot ranges. I recommend starting with three feet, then move to four to five feet. If you can get those ranges to Mr. 9’s one-putt numbers, you’re well on your way.

Conclusion

Bottom line, I have laid out where, on average, Mr. 18 needs to improve to make the leap to Mr. 9. If you made it this far, you may be saying, “Why all the focus on errors?” Simple! They are important! Most stat programs ignore them—the PGA Tour certainly does. My studies show that the relative frequency and severity of errors do more determine one’s scoring level than do all the good and average shots played.

Your game will no doubt have different areas of strength and weakness. The key is to accurately identify them so that you can address them appropriately. This article has hopefully given you some ideas about how to do that.

 

For a complete strokes gained analysis of your game, go to: www.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.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Jnak97

    Apr 14, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    I second the idea of doing another follow up article. Though, since your last article shows Mr. Scratch as a 73ish scoring average, maybe we could compare the single digit to someone that is averaging 1 or 2 under par. So I guess a +1 or +2 handicap would make a more informative comparison. We already have the stats for a 9 and 0 handicap based on this article and your previous, but it would be nice to have a reference for how to break par!

  2. John Stafford

    Mar 30, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    Great analysis. I’ve learned (as a 20 handicapper) that I don’t need to hit the ball any longer (or even that much straighter) to be a 10 handicapper. All I need to do is take my best 9 holes and do it for 15 holes. No penalties. Quit using driver and switch to 3 wood at first sign of trouble (most holes only give you 0.2 strokes or so advantage with driver, one penalty outweighs the entire round). No muffed irons, no muffed chips, don’t hit into sand traps except with long irons. Aim for 2 putts instead of the cup. Wedge forward 70 yards from trouble vs. a low probability 150+ yard shot. If only my body wasn’t breaking down as I’m getting so much smarter.

  3. Chris G.

    Mar 29, 2020 at 1:45 am

    Is it possible to get the statistics to go from Mr. 9 to Mr. Scratch?
    pls don’t make me wait 4 yrs, I could be an 18 by then

    • Peter Sanders

      Mar 29, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Chris,
      Certainly possible. I discussed with the Editor following up with 5 handicap to Scratch. IF, this article were well received.

      At the risk of sounding self-serving… If you subscribe to ShotByShot.com, you can select the lower handicap “Target” and the system will guide you to where you want to go. I suggest starting with the 6-9 Target range. When you get there, 4-5 and on down to 0-2 and even lower.
      Thanks for your question and please let me know how you do.

      • Chris G.

        Mar 29, 2020 at 12:05 pm

        Thank you for the response Peter.
        when my expendable income returns, I will give it a shot

        • Peter Sanders

          Mar 30, 2020 at 10:09 am

          I understand! Let’s hope it is still golf season!

        • Peter Sanders

          Mar 30, 2020 at 10:10 am

          Chris,
          Are you somewhere where you can play now?

          • Chris G.

            Mar 30, 2020 at 12:45 pm

            The short answer is no. There is a golf course 1 hour away from me that is open, but I am only driving to work and the store. I rode my bike to my local muni but they are closed for now.

  4. Bob Jones

    Mar 27, 2020 at 10:15 am

    I did just this. I did it by learning how to hit the ball straight, getting VERY good at approach putting and chipping, and learning how to play the game. There were other things, too, like learning how to hit from uneven lies, fairway bunkers, rough, greenside bunkers, chipping from strange places around the green, so I was seldom at a loss for how to stay on offense from challenging spots, but it was mainly those first three things.

  5. Peter Sanders

    Mar 27, 2020 at 9:50 am

    I’m with you 100% Jack! My long time friends and I, that used to relish the challenge from the back tees, now unabashedly pass them and walk proudly to the Sr./forward tees. The game is still as fun and competitive!

  6. Jack Nash

    Mar 27, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Great article

    I haven’t used this tech language per say but over the years I’ve managed to play smarter. Getting older, having injuries and losing distance has taught me to use the right club(more club) more often and miss it on the proper side. Oh, and playing it forward makes the game fun again. If it’s feeling like work, you’re on the wrong tee box.

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Equipment

Coming out of the haze: What to expect from the OEMs in the second half of 2020

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As we slowly come out of the lockdown haze, it’s going to be interesting to see which OEMs are primed to come out swinging. From where I sit, there are a few companies that either kept the foot on the pedal or found new ways to interact with the masses. I have been tracking the major companies for different reasons, and I am optimistic on most fronts. Now, it needs to be said that everyone has been keeping the respective momentum going in their own ways—this has been a challenge for everyone, so this analysis is simply a commentary on what may come in the second half of the year.

Many good folks were either furloughed or laid off during this lockdown—that’s where we all lost. It needs to be acknowledged that we are talking about golf here, but the underlying reality of this is still devastating. I so look forward to getting into the trenches with these folks again either back where they were or at new companies.

TaylorMade became educators…and kicked off live golf again

Big giant club company or big giant marketing machine…it doesn’t matter what you label them as. TaylorMade Golf, in my opinion, turned the heartbreak of stalling one of the biggest first quarters in company history into an opportunity to start talking…and teaching. With the help of the tour team and TM athletes, TaylorMade focused hard on talking to us all during the lockdown. With multiple initiatives through social media, the Driving Relief event, and the tour staff engaging way more than usual. I believe TM created a runway to start moving quickly once stores and pro shops open up again.

Let’s face it, with the social media presence, the most robust tour staff maybe ever, and the driver everyone seems to have reserved for the top big stick of 2020, what’s not to be confident about? On the flip side, a company that big could have really taken it on the chin hard, but how they handled the lockdown—from my chair—was fun to watch and will ultimately ensure a quick restart. There is something to be said about having guys like Trottie, Adrian, and Hause in the fold informing and keeping things fun.

Rumor has it new irons are dropping in the fall/winter, which could spell two awesome bookends to a bittersweet 2020.

PXG leaned in

Why online sales for all OEMs spiked is no mystery. Boredom, desire, and a credit card are keys to any great online buying experience, but PXG made certain that if you were not a buyer previously, you may be now.

The price tag has always been a key topic with Bob Parsons’ Scottsdale-based company. It’s no secret that the clubs aren’t cheap, but during this lockdown, they did multiple strategic initiatives to not only crank up direct-to-consumer buying but also expand the PXG conversation into different areas, namely fashion.

Price cuts across the board started early and, rumor has it, enabled PXG to achieve sales numbers unlike any other period in the company’s short history. Yes, cutting prices helps unit sales, but in the case of PXG, it brought in the club customer that ordinarily shied away from PXG for financial reasons and ultimately made them buyers. That’s where PXG seems to shine, once they finally get you in, they are very effective at keeping you in the family. Mercedes-Benz AMG is like that: once you have had a taste of the Kool-Aid, it’s hard to go back to Hawaiian Punch.

In addition to the aggressive price-cutting, PXG fashion, spearheaded by President Renee Parsons, launched a new collection that is designed and manufactured by PXG. Fashion in times like these is always a risk from a financial standpoint, but this launch has been on the calendar since the BOY and the current lockdown did not disrupt that. It speaks to the confidence that Bob and Renee have in what they are doing. Now, is it a guarantee that PXG garments will fly off the shelves? No. but that’s not the point, it’s the fact that this current climate didn’t scare them into pivoting or holding off.

Point to this pick is PXG looks healthy coming out of this and it was possible to believe that perhaps this would have taken a toll on the custom fit brand. There is even a commercial produced during lockdown to attract even more club builders to the fold. Not normal behavior in times like these, but is anything that PXG does normal? No, and that’s what makes them fun to talk about.

The company also released its Essential Facemask with 50 percent of proceeds going to Team Rubicon.

Ping was quiet…but don’t be fooled

Yes, they did some rare social media engagements with Kenton Oates and the tour staff, which were fantastic. But the real magic here was the quiet way in which Ping slipped into 2020 and the mystery they have in hand and what’s to come next.

There hasn’t been really any new Ping product in a good while, and I anticipate a big winter for the Solheim crew. Sometimes, silence is golden and from what I can gather, what Ping has coming in irons and woods will be yet again a launch that gets people talking.

Ping from a business standpoint is a company that gets one percent better every year. Never any dramatic shifts in strategy or product. It’s always good, it’s always high-performance, and it’s always in the “best of” category across the board.

Watch out for them over the next six to nine months…a storm is brewing. A good one.

Cobra introduced the “Rickie iron”

Cobra Rev 33 Irons

Compared to 2019 and the runaway success that was the F9 driver, Cobra Golf seemed to cruise along in the first quarter of 2020. The SpeedZone metal wood line was an improvement tech-wise from the F9 but seemed to get lost in the driver launch shuffle with an earlier release—and frankly everyone in the industry took a back seat to TaylorMade’s SIM.

It’s not placing one stick over the other actually, I have been very vocal about my affections for both, it’s just some years, the story around a club can generate excitement, and if the club is exceptional, boom. Cobra was that cool kid in 2019.

What Cobra decided to do in the downtime is slowly tease and taunt with a “Rickie Fowler” iron. Players blades aren’t typically the driving element of any business model, but what Cobra did was introduce to a beautiful yet completely authentic forging that will not only get the gear heads going nuts but also entice the better players to start looking at Cobra as a serious better players iron company. No small feat.

Point is, Cobra has generated buzz. It helped that Rickie’s performance at Seminole was just short of a precision clinic. Beyond the Rev 33, its rumored Cobra has a new players CB coming and some MIM wedges.

It should be an exciting last half for the Cobra crew.

The Titleist train chugged on

I mean, what else is there to say about Titleist? They are as American as apple pie, have a stranglehold on multiple tour and retail categories, and one of the best front offices in golf. The company is a well-oiled machine.

So what do I expect from them in the last half? Well pretty much what I would expect on any other year, solid player-driven equipment. A metal wood launch is coming, the SM8 was a huge hit in stores and on tour, and the ball portion is the biggest 800-pound gorilla in golf.

It was also nice to see a little more social media interaction beyond the traditional. Aaron Dill has been very active on the social media front and a good portion of the tour staff, namely Poulter, JT, and Homa were proactive in engagement. Might seem trivial to some, but specifically, Titleist and Ping are not super active in the organic interaction game, so it was nice to see both companies dive into the fold.

Cleveland/Srixon should have a lot to look forward to

Let’s be honest here, 2019 was a quiet year overall for Srixon. Shane Lowry won The Open, but in the golf mainstream it was a leap year for them in regards to any launches. The anticipation from me personally of what is to come is quite strong. I adore the irons. I have yet to meet one I didn’t love, and fitters across the country will speak to that in sales. The Srixon iron line has become a popular yet-sort-of-cult-classic among fitters and gearheads and rightly so. They are phenomenal.

The recently teased picture of the new driver on the USGA site more or less teased us of what is to come for the overall line. New Cleveland wedges are coming shortly and the golf ball has always been a solid component to the Huntington Beach company.

As much as anyone in the market, I believe Srixon could finish the year with some serious momentum going into 2021. The irons and ball have always been firestarters. My only wish for them, selfishly, is a more aggressive tour strategy in regards to landing one of the perennial top 10. It seems like a dumb thought, but I have always felt Cleveland/Srixon was always a serious hitter that at times seems to get lost in the conversation. Having a big gun on staff or a couple of them will remedy that quickly.

Callaway has an eye on big things for the golf ball

Callaway, a company that seems to do it all well, was actually a bit quiet since the lockdown started. After a solid release of the Mavrik line and some momentum in the golf ball area, I’m sure this lockdown probably felt like a kick to the shin.

However, this company is shifting in a good way. The idea that they were a golf club company that happened to make golf balls is slowly turning into a company with multiple major components that stand alone. TaylorMade is on a similar shift, and honestly it’s very interesting to watch. Do I think that anyone will ever catch Titleist in the ball category? No, I don’t. All of these mentioned golf balls are ridiculously good, but 75 years of trust and loyalty are hard to compete with. But that’s not the point, Callaway is a monster company that takes the golf ball conversation very seriously, and I believe this will serve them very well coming out of this craziness and help the momentum going into 2021.

 

 

 

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On Spec

On Spec: Is testing clubs bad for your game? Plus listener questions

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In this episode of On Spec, host Ryan talks about the Match Part 2 and then goes into a discussion about whether testing clubs is detrimental to your golf game or not.

After that, it’s time for the ever-popular listener questions to finish off the show.

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Opinion & Analysis

Is 2020 golf’s big chance?

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At the present moment, when discussing the game of golf, I use the word “opportunity” with great caution and understanding that golf is the least of many people’s worries in 2020. With that in mind, just like other industries around the world, there are millions of people both directly and indirectly who make their living working around golf, along with countless more that enjoy playing it for any number of reasons.

Outside of the four major championships, golf is generally a fringe sport that takes a viewership backseat to other team sports like basketball, football, and baseball. But as the only game in town, this past weekend golf brought in a lot of casual fans who don’t normally watch it. The TaylorMade Driving Relief charity skins game to benefit COVID-19 frontline workers featured some of the world’s top-ranked golfers, including World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, carrying their own clubs, getting their own yardages and playing in shorts—exactly how the majority of golfers enjoy the game.

It made the golf look and feel so much more approachable to the casual fans that normally tune in to see professionals debate over yardage with a caddy dressed in a white jumpsuit while patrons quietly murmur amongst themselves (in the case of the Masters).

If “watercooler” sports talk is the way we measure the success of a sporting event, then the skins game was a triumph.

The news sports landscape

Golf is in a unique position since it is one of the few sports that can currently be played with modified physical distancing measures in place. Golf is played outside, in small groups, and allows for players of all abilities to enjoy the game, and this is where the opportunity lies.

People want to be outside, get exercise, and spend time with their friends, and golf is the one game that offers all three of those—along with the ability to fill a competitive void left from the current absence of recreational team sports.

The proof that more people have already made this conclusion can be felt around the industry

  • Pushcart sales have been so unprecedented, many companies have been sold out for weeks.
  • As golf has been regulated to open within the United States, Canada, and the UK tee sheets have been loaded from dawn to dusk. Having spoken with operators of both private and public golf facilities, they have witnessed a huge influx of eager golfers including many who are much more infrequent players. In one case, a public course that I spoke to has seen membership triple from the previous year.

When you think about how many people enjoy sports as a way to be around friends and friendly competition, golf has the opportunity to provide a gateway for many who have never considered playing the game. Within the industry, there have been many well-thought-out-but-failed attempts to counteract declining participation numbers over the years, and one of the best ways to introduce anyone to a new hobby or activity is to do it with friends.

Here’s an example: a regular golfer has three friends they normally play a rec league sport with, with that league not operating, and those friends wanting to enjoy time outside in the company of one another, that one golfer becomes the catalyst to bring three new golfers into game. I realize it sounds simple, but it’s already happening, and this is golf’s opportunity to grow participation more organically than any 30-second commercial.

As a lover of golf and someone who has witnessed the declining participation over the last decade, this is our opportunity as a sport and as individuals to welcome people in with open arms, be supportive, and helpful. We have the chance to permanently change the perception of golf to the masses, and it all started last weekend with the top-ranked golfer in the world carrying his own bag.

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