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What does it take for the best to “go low”?

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One of the most frequent questions I receive is about the numbers behind “going low.” Fortunately with the ShotTracker and ShotLink data, we’re able to analyze what it takes to go low as executed by the types of golfers that go low the most, PGA Tour players.

For the sake of brevity, I will examine golfers who shot a round of 61 or better in the 2012 season. They were:

  • Tommy Gainey (60 — The McGladrey Classic)
  • Brian Harman (61 — The Honda Classic)
  • Padraig Harrington (61 — The Transitions Championship)
  • Tim Herron (61 — The Wyndham Championship)
  • Hunter Mahan (61 — The Travelers Championship)
  • Troy Matteson (61 — The John Deere Classic)
  • Ryan Moore (61 — The Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open)

Robert Garrigus (The Humana Classic) and Charlie Wi (The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) also shot rounds of 61. But, they were on courses that were not tracked by ShotTracker, so I will not include them in the analysis.

But first, we have to understand an important rule of going low. Golfers make a significantly smaller percentage of birdie putts than putts for par or worse. Here’s a look at the make percentage of birdie putts versus non-birdie putts on Tour in 2012:

Birdie Putts

The average Tour player makes nearly half of the non-birdie putts from 5 to 20 feet, while making roughly one-third of his birdie putts from that distance. While most people chalk it up to pressure, I tend to disagree with that claim because the pressure for birdies are likely the same as pressure to save par or a bogey. I think there are other reasons for the discrepancy.

  1. Golfers are much more likely to have an uphill putt when putting for par (or worse) than when they putt for birdie. Particularly after they miss a birdie putt, the next shot is much more likely to be an uphill putt and research has shown that golfers of all levels make a higher percentage of uphill putts.
  2. Golfers can get a better read on a par or worse putt than a birdie putt. If a golfer misses a birdie putt or chip, they can read how the ball breaks as it rolls on the green and can use that information to better judge the line of the putt.

That is part of the reason why going low is difficult. In order to go low, a golfer has to make birdie putts which are inherently more difficult than most par (or worse) putts. This is most noticeable on putts from inside 10 feet of the hole. Here is the average birdie putts per round by Tour players from various distances:

Average Distance of Birdie Putt

What all of this leads to is that in order to go low, the golfer has to strike the ball much better and putt much better than they typically do. It is not a case of simply doing one thing great and struggling with the others. Both the ball striking and putting must improve greatly in order for a golfer to go low. Below is a table looking at the golfers mentioned, their number of birdie putts from within 21 feet and the number of times they converted.

PGA Tour Birdie Putts Within 21 Feet

Most of these players’ birdies came from no longer than 20 feet away from the cup. What the players did was increase their number of birdie attempts from inside 20 feet away. These players averaged 11 attempts in their rounds of golf, a 129 percent increase from the Tour average!

I think that is where the misconceptions about putting and shooting low scores come from. Yes, a golfer has to putt very well as the table above shows in order to go low. But, the golfer also has to have an incredible improvement in his ball striking. Furthermore, I think one could argue that low rounds are due to the golfer having things click and the better ball striking helps their confidence with the putter.

It is fairly obvious that in order to go low, regardless of skill level, the golfer has to hit the ball well and putt well. But, Tour players must get more birdie opportunities inside 20 feet in order to have any chance at having that spectacular round.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

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The Gear Dive: Discussing the drivers of 2020 with Bryan LaRoche

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with his good buddy Bryan LaRoche. They chat on life and do a deep dive into the drivers of 2020.

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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The Wedge Guy: The 5 indisputable rules of bunker play

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I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here’s what Art had to say:

“I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the “rules” of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the ‘why’ of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you’re aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?”

Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let’s try to cover the basics of sand play–the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers–and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA Tour standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver–excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”

  1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
  2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
  3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
  4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
  5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).

So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game–just send it in. You can’t win if you don’t ask!

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Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Task to target

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In this week’s episode: How having a target will improve your direction and contact you have with the ball.

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