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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: How coaching & fitting work together – A conversation with Scott MacLeod

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Host Ryan is excited to welcome to On Spec, Scott MacLeod – golf coach, fitter, writer, Class A CPGA Professional, and accomplished player.

Scott has an abundance of knowledge around the game of golf and the discussion revolves around the relationship between coaching and club fitting as well as how golf can be more inviting to new players.

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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Clark: Power golf is the new reality

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that professional golf may never be the same after “the Bryson DeChambeau revolution.” Before we get to how much he is changing the professional game, let’s give a big hats-off to Bryson. With the Tiger era coming to an end, professional golf needed a shot in the arm, and Bryson is poised to give it just that. If all is legal here, and we have no reason to believe it isn’t, we may be witnessing the biggest change we have seen in a long while on tour.

Saying that Bryson DeChambeau is long is like saying that water is wet. He is testing the limits of clubhead speed in professional golf. It is an experiment Bryson is willing to take on and use the PGA Tour as his laboratory. If he can continue to play at the highest level with clubhead speeds of 130 mph and ball speeds approaching 195-200 mph, a revolution in professional golf is clearly underway. There has always been a clear distinction between playing golf and long-driving golf. The speed the LDA guys generate is designed for one purpose: to hit the ball as far as possible—and hope to get one out of six in the grid. In other words, don’t worry about the foul balls. We thought these speeds could never be achieved in playing on tour. And although there is still a gap, Bryson is closing it.

DeChambeau is unique to say the least, but we cannot be so naive to think that he is the only professional who will test these waters. This is almost guaranteed to start a trend on tour. There are bigger, stronger athletes playing professional golf now (and every other sport), that much we know. But the fact that one man has stepped this far ahead 0f the field should and very likely will be a source of motivation for many others in the tournament game.

Muscle equals distance is the future of professional golf, and it is apparent that golf training is moving from the range to the gym. But even DeChambeau’s admirable discipline will not stay unique to him very long. There are and will be others ready to take up the gauntlet now that he has laid it down. The era of skinny flat-bellies may soon be a thing of the past. What effect will this have on the game itself? This is the current buzz in golf. There will soon be another.

One consideration sure to arise is how will golf course designs and/or renovations factor into this revolution? Let’s be clear: There is not a par 4 in golf where Bryson needs more than a driver/wedge or 9-iron to reach any green. A 5-degree driver followed by a 45-degree wedge to travel 500 yards is not something I ever thought I’d see-but it’s here and it’s not going away. Fans love the long ball and sponsors love fans. My question is, what do the governing bodies think of it, and what will they do about it. Is 20 under par OK with them? Knowing what the USGA does to their courses for the U.S. Open, it seems not. Will the PGA Tour begin to question current course designs? The R&A seems to think that the natural hazards and weather conditions are challenging enough, but even there when “hell bunker” and “beardies” are no longer in play, even the old boys might start re-thinking this whole thing.

Here are the Current USGA recommendations for something called “par” for men and women respectively.

Par 3 Up to 250 yards Up to 210 yards
Par 4 251 to 470 yards 211 to 400 yards
Par 5 471 to 690 yards 401 to 575 yards
Par 6 691 yards+ 576 yards+

These are great guidelines for most of us, but they are totally antiquated for tournament professionals. Based on what Bryson is doing now and others are soon to be, these guidelines could be at least 50 yards off for professionals. I’m not saying that lower scoring due to tremendous distance increases is a bad thing, in and of itself. Athletes (Bryson in particular) should be rewarded for all their hard work, but the general idea of golf courses being built to challenge players will soon need to reconsidered. Fairway bunker positioning is already obsolete on many tournament venues, and “rough” is less of an issue when the top players are plowing the ball out with 45-degree wedges and grooves that will spin the ball anyway.

Some say it’s still a game of getting the ball in the hole and it matters not how far they hit it or how low they go. I agree, but what I’m saying is that standing on the tee, players have always had two variables to consider:  distance to carry or avoid hazards and positioning. One of those is no longer a consideration, and the other is becoming less of a factor all the time.  It mattered when fairway bunkers were in play and the right angle to get at the hole locations when the guys were hitting middle irons into them. It matters much less so with 45-50 degree wedges and with the ball coming in from an outer space trajectory; In other words “shotmaking” is going the way of the mashie niblick. Take a few examples: Say, Augusta National…The bunker on the right side of #1 is not in play. The bunker on the right side of #8 is not in play. It’s not unlikely that the bunker on the left side of #18 is or soon will be out of play, and so on…This drastically changes the mentality of how to play those holes.

Often I hear, “Yeah, but the hoop is still 10 feet high in basketball, the football field is still 100 yards, and baseball parks still have a 400+ ft. centerfield fence”. But here is the difference:  Other sports are played against opposing players; the game of golf is played against the course. The field of play itself is the challenge, provides the defense, the other players be damned. And when the clubs, the golf ball and the bigger stronger players reach previously unheard of distances, we could easily lose what I call “the chess” aspect of the game; thinking about hazards, approach shot positions and so on.

Note: This is a professional tournament golfers only concern.  The rest of us have our hands full the way things are.

I am not objecting to lower scores due to better athletes and better equipment-hats off to Bryson for stepping up his game and starting the revolution. All I’m saying is golf has always been a challenge of how to manage a golf course—plan the entire course out from the first tee to the 18th green and that has long been its charm. Watching Hogan manage a golf course was watching a Van Gogh paint a masterpiece. I am concerned that the “bombs away” approach caused by power and equipment is changing that, and for the game to continue as we have always known it, golf courses will soon need to adapt to the changes. I, for one, would like strategy to stay part of tournament golf.

All of that said, it will be interesting to watch the ripple effect of the mad scientist of golf’s experiment.

 

 

 

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The 19th Hole Episode 131: Tiger YES, Ryder NO, Horton Smith OUT

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Host Michael Williams discusses Tiger’s return, the postponement of the Ryder Cup, and the name change of the Horton Smith Award by the PGA of America. Guests include Mike O’Reilly of Whistling Straits and Mike McCartin of the National Links Trust.

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