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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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On Spec

On Spec: The “Trust” Show – Trusting your swing, gear, fitter, approach

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This episode is all about trust – in your swing, fitters, gear, and more.

After a recent discussion on social media got into a heated debate about fitters and clubs I wanted to tackle the subject head-on, and why your game and your gear should be a long term investment built around long term relationships.

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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Inside the ropes with the fittest on Tour

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Before the world hit pause, I had the awesome opportunity to go out to Torrey Pines and the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open and spend the week with former champ Scott Stallings.

The link was fitness, and this was my opportunity to go and learn from the best about all aspects of performance.

That’s how I got to know Scott a couple of years ago—a similar path to improved health and fitness directly, and indirectly, linked to golf performance.

So, what does a week on tour really look like from the player’s perspective?

Pretty busy.

I flew in late Monday evening, and Tuesday at 8 AM, it was time to meet up with Scott—in the gym of course. Scott, Adam his trainer, and a couple of players were already fired up and ready to go.

A one-hour session of dumbbells, med balls, kettlebells, and sleds finished with a “vanity pump” session that was more than enough to get a serious sweat going in the California hills.

After freshening up with a solid post-workout breakfast, it’s time to hit the course. As a past winner, Scott knew all about Torrey As a newbie from England, I can tell you that place is as good as you think it is!

Scott joined workout partners Trey Mullinax and Scott Brown, as well as Sepp Straka, to go play the North Course. At this point, it was clear the players were feeling out their games as much as they are the course—a couple of challenges here and a few extra chip shots there, the mood is pretty laid back as the players do their thing.

Off the course, and it’s time to refuel again. This kind of schedule is asking a lot of the body. Then you guessed it, it’s back to the gym. This time it’s a lighter focus to let the body wind down and only around 40 minutes long. Then its time to loosen up, get a massage, and the day is largely done.

In the current age of performance tracking and performance data, sleep and recovery are almost as important as anything else going on here. Scott is at the forefront here as well, being one of the first to use the extremely popular Whoop Bands to track a whole bunch of physical data. Keeping yourself in the green can be a pretty big deal if you want to feel and perform your best!

Wednesday is pro-am day, and with 36 holes at Torrey, everyone is in. An early tee time means no specific gym work in the morning, rather a quick functional mobility session before heading to the range—increasing the heart rate, moving the body and basically waking up all of the movements patterns needed for the body to hit the range to start getting dialed in.

After the “steadily paced” round, Scott fuels up ready to hit the gym with a different workout partner. A certain curly-haired Irishman got in touch with Scott to set up an early season workout to gauge performance, maybe learn a few things, and for sure do some work!

Fitness on tour is a continuing revolution, with almost all players now understanding the huge benefits of increased physical performance for their games but also for their health. The benefits of increased speed, fitness, and overall performance, when you’re playing at the highest level seems fairly straightforward. But players also have to consider their schedules, travel, work demands and a bunch more stressors that affect mental, physical, and hormonal function.

Having earned his reputation through an accelerated journey from poor health to fitness junkie, Scott is more than happy to spend time with other pros talking all things, health, fitness, and performance.

This is how the game will continue to move forwards and also how it will feed down into all levels of golf. There is a clear spectrum emerging within this for the golf world: using golf as a motivating factor to get in better shape and overall health all the way up to using specific fitness work to further golf performance.

Basically you gotta be doing something!

Anyway, fresh from an all out sweat session, it’s head down and prep for a Thursday morning tee time—same deal, physical therapy, good nutrition, and as much rest as possible.

With a 9:10 AM tee time Thursday morning, the preparations are much like that for the pro-am and the body is ready and warm headed to the tee.

Then, it’s go time. Stepping onto the first tee in competition and everything changes. This was one of the most noticeable and impressive things watching Scott and all the other players in this incredible field.

There is a visible, almost palpable, change in demeanor, and it’s all-out competition mode.

This is a part of the mental toughness and preparation learned through years of hard work and the desire to do what is needed. This, in my opinion, is where all golfers can take so much from the best in the game—just compete and grind to get the best score possible whatever the circumstance. Don’t over-think technique, don’t overreact, just play each shot as best as you possibly can and count them up at the end.

Scott is also playing the first round on the brutal, but incredible, South Course in tough conditions and posts up a 1-under 71 to sit nicely on the leaderboard after day one. This was a mentally and physically challenging day with high temperatures, a tough course and an incredible field. On course nutrition, and even more so, hydration, are on point and the hours of work in the gym all stack up for optimal performance.

After a good day’s work, more food, and just enough rest, we hit the gym for my last workout at Torrey: 30 minutes of hard effort including rowing, stepper, med balls, and squats—there really is no holding back.

Training is always individual and even more so at this level. Training hard after a five-plus hour round of golf is no easy workload, but it depends on the body. If you are consistently putting in the work, it feels best to keep the body operating at that level. If you’re not doing all that much and decide to do this mid-tournament, it is not likely to end well!

And that’s what it is all about: finding how you can be your best in all areas! For a Tour pro, it’s probably not as easy as you might think. Balancing performance with all the factors listed above, the grueling (normal) season schedule and the time taken to be at this level requires huge commitment and consistency on so many levels. Scott has shown this better than anyone with his newfound commitment to health, fitness, and all things performance.

I took off back to the UK Friday, and Scott went on to play the weekend finishing in the top 50. Each of the four competitive days required the same level of physical commitment, and every day Scott was in there getting the work done.

Gaining this direct insight into the week of a PGA Tour pro gave me a new appreciation for the time and work required as well as an even greater foundation to help to continue and develop the relationship between health, fitness, and golf at all levels.

It comes down to attitude and effort. Rent is due on both.

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Opinion & Analysis

So you wanna work in golf media…

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I get this question all the time: “So, how does someone get a job in golf media?”

Hmm…I could give you a bunch of tips, ideas, resume suggestions, etc. I’m not going to. All I know is how I got here. It’s a story of passion, initiative, blind luck, God, and desperation.

I feel like in the telling of how I got here you will see a path but not the only path.

My story—condensed into the point golf gear took over my life.

It’s 1993, and I’m a sophomore in high school at John F. Kennedy Memorial in Burien, Washington. I was a baseball player my whole life, and for whatever reason that summer, I decided it wasn’t for me anymore, and I wanted to go scrub clubs, pick balls and have the occasional lung dart with my buddies at the local country club. At that time, golf was something to me just shy of an afterthought. I had played the occasional short 9 as a kid, went to a camp or two, but in all honesty, it was just another game.

Fast forward to my first week working at Rainier G&CC—the second assistant was a guy named Mike Montegomery (DOG at Glendale CC now), and he took me to the range to help pick balls and hit some into the net. After about 30 mins of pounding balls, I was hooked. Hook, line, and sinker.

I’m an obsessive person by nature, so when I get into something, it becomes a bit scary—I want to know everything. That’s when the equipment junkie revealed himself, and it all started with a trip to the dentist and an issue of Golf Digest.

This one…

Golf Digest, February issue, 1993

This magazine started the whole thing. No, it wasn’t the fact that Phil Mickelson graced the cover, it was the advertisements. The color codes of Ping, the black and gold of Cobra, Titleist Tour Balata, Founders Club, and on and on. Everything looked just so damn awesome. I wanted to try, see, touch and feel everything I could. And I did. From that point, until even today, golf and golf gear dominate a good chunk of my thoughts every day.

Lesson #1: To do this job well….you have to obsessed.

Now we are in 2005. I’m working in Irvine, California, for LendingTree slanging equity loans to the A paper client,s and in the search engine, I type David Duval golf clubs…

Before I go further it must be acknowledged that my good friend Nico Bollini and I used to spend HOURS on Getty images and at the local Wajamaya scouring pictures of players bags in Golf Classic magazine and any close-ups Getty would catch. Instead of going to parties and chasing girls as normal people do, we were trying to see what shaft Ray Floyd had in his Bridgestone J’s driver.

Back to DD. I type in “David Duval golf clubs,” and I land on this weird forum thing called BombSquad Golf. It was a site that not only talked gear in-depth like Nico and I did, but they had some dude taking pics at tour events. It was golf porn. I was in. Eventually, BSG became nothing, and Richard Audi and GolfWRX.com took over. That story is very well told, so I won’t go into it.

That fueled my golf junkie for a long time. It wasn’t until 2012 and the urging from my then-girlfriend that I began writing for WRX. Since I was on the site so much and had so many opinions, she jokingly said, “You should write for them,” to which I replied, “I should.”

This is where luck comes in. I found the contact info at the bottom of the site and ended emailing Zak, the editor at the time.

“Hi Zak,

My name is John Wunder and I am extremely excited and interested in writing for Golfwrx! I have been a member of this site for over 6 years now and I have always admired the professionalism and in-depth coverage that your site provides. I am what they would call in the golfing streets a “Junky”. Tour news, college news, equipment trends, companies, in the bag info, history, etc. You name it, I know it. I’m a lifer and the only thing I have left to do to get my fix is either learn how to putt and play the mini-tours or start writing. Unfortunately, even the belly putter was of no use to me so writing it is! As writing goes my experience is limited with the exception of the occasional Facebook comment but my knowledge of the game and its culture is undeniable.  I’m dying to be apart of this thing and if I had not been scrolling to the bottom of the page I would not have noticed the link to you. Maybe it’s a sign from the Golfing Gods, you never know. Any information you can give would be much appreciated.  I Look forward to hearing from you.”

Lesson #2: You won’t know what’s possible until you ask.

Eventually, Zak gave me a shot and from 2012 to 2018 I wrote roughly 30-40 articles for WRX. For fun, for free, for the love of the game. I wrote opinion pieces, did some video articles, reviews, tournament recaps, etc. Every time they asked, I said HELL YES. Why not? Golf content is what I think about all day anyway. It requires no real study or extra work to execute. It’s something I can just sit down and do, sometimes quickly.

Now we find ourselves in 2018. It’s late January. My son Seve had just been born and my main source of income at the time (film/tv) was slow and unpredictable. I had two months of savings left, no consistent income coming in to speak of, and with two kids and my girl that I am supporting. Things got scary. Desperate is a better word. In that desperation, a decision was made. I wanted to finally do the thing I’ve always wanted to do. Work in the golf business.

I sat down and mapped out my plan…

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid of desperation. God can be found there.

But how? What can I bring to the table?

Remember obsession? Remember the power of asking?

I knew my knowledge of the tour and golf equipment was abnormal, to say the least. It still is. I knew that I had a Rolodex to choke a horse, and I had the email of someone at WRX that I could plead my case to. The editor at the time, Andrew Tursky. My email to him was very similar to my email to Zak. I plainly told what I wanted to do, why they needed me, and left it at that.

The term the squeaky wheel gets the grease is so true in my case—every job I have ever chased, there were two things I made sure were in place…

  1. I knew my passion equaled my knowledge
  2. I was willing to hear NO multiple times until the right YES came along.

Lesson #4: Know where you want to go (and tell people).

That email turned into a face-to-face with the GolfWRX brass, to a “yes we will hire you,” to getting a job doing what I love.

The job I was hired for has mutated into something way different. Every person at GolfWRX.com does multiple jobs—there is really no definitive titles or boxes we fit in. It’s a passionate, nimble crew and to a person, everyone is a golf junkie degenerate, including the owner, Rich. That was the deciding factor of going down this path. Yes, I wanted the job, but after meeting Richard Audi and discovering he was just as crazy as I am, I knew I had to work for that man.

The moral of the story is this: Golf media is not a box anymore. You don’t need a degree in journalism or your doctorate in Bill Shakespeare.  It’s the time of the hustler. So, if you have something to say, say it, something to show, show it, and most importantly if you want to get in, ASK. ASK. ASK. Someone will say yes eventually and when they do, what you do with that YES is up to you.

Hope this gives you a hint that like anything else, there is not one door, there are multiple. Knock, scream, kick, and do it with some fire.

Lesson #5: ANYTHING is possible if you want it bad enough

 

 

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