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Opinion & Analysis

How valuable is hitting the fairway, really?

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Hitting more than 50 percent of fairways has long been considered a good goal for amateur golfers. The winners on the PGA Tour tend to hit 70 percent. I have long maintained, however, that it is not the number of fairways HIT that matters. Instead, it is the relative severity of fairways MISSED.

Think about it. By the one-dimensional Fairways Hit stat, every miss is the same. A perfect lie in the first cut is exactly the same as a drive in a hazard… or even OB. There is nothing in the 650+ PGA Tour stats about this. In all, there are 60 stats in seven categories that relate to driving performance, but none about penalties! Like PGA Tour players don’t make any?

Let’s see exactly how important the old tried-and-true Driving Accuracy (Percentage of Fairways Hit) really is. To test it, I used two data clusters: the 2017 PGA Tour season (14,845 ShotLink rounds) and my ShotByShot.com database for the average male golfer (15 to 19 handicappers – 4,027 rounds).

For the graph below, I started with the No. 1-ranked player in the Driving Accuracy category: Ryan Armour. He certainly was accurate by this measure, but why did he only rank 100th in 2017 Strokes Gained Off the Tee with a barely positive 0.020?

Next I looked at the actual top-5 PGA Tour money winners (J. Thomas, J Spieth, D. Johnson, H. Matsuyama and J. Rohm), the 2017 PGA Tour average, and all PGA Tour players that missed the cut in 2017. We all know the significant scoring differences between these three categories of players, but it’s difficult to see a meaningful difference in the fairways hit. They’re not even separated by half a fairway. How important could this stat be?

For those that have not tried ShotByShot.com, our analysis includes Strokes Gained and Relative Handicap comparisons. That enables users to easily differentiate between FIVE MISS categories below based upon severity. The final three categories are what we consider to be Driving Errors:

  1. Good lie/Opportunity: One can easily accomplish their next goal of a GIR or advancement on a par-5.
  2. Poor Lie/Opportunity: One could accomplish the next goal, but it will require a very good shot.
  3. No Shot: Requires an advancement to return to normal play.
  4. Penalty-1: Penalty with a drop.
  5. OB/Lost: Stroke and distance penalty, or shot replayed with a stroke penalty.

As we are fortunate enough to work with several PGA Tour players at Shot by Shot, we have access to ShotLink data and can provide those clients with the same valuable insight.

Let’s see how the frequency and severity of driving errors relates to the above groups of players (removing Mr. Armour, as he simply helped us prove the irrelevance of Driving Accuracy). The graphs below display the number of Driving Errors per round and the Average Cost Per Error. Note the strong and consistent correlation between the number and the cost of errors at each of the four levels of performance.

Finally, the average cost of the errors is heavily driven by the three degrees of severity outlined above (No Shot, Penalty, OB/Lost). The graph below compares the relative number and cost of the three types of errors for the average golfer and PGA Tour players. The major difference is that PGA Tour players do not seem to have a proper share of OB/Lost penalties. I found only TWO in the 14,000+ ShotLink rounds. While I accept that the most severe faux pas are significantly less frequent on the PGA Tour, I also believe there must have been more than two.

Why so few? First and foremost, PGA Tour players REALLY ARE good. Next, the galleries stop a lot of the wayward shots. And finally, I believe that many of the ShotLink volunteer data collectors may not actually know or care about the difference between a Penalty and OB/Lost.

Author’s Note: If you want to know your Strokes Gained Off the Tee (Driving) and exactly how important your fairways and the misses are, log onto ShotByShot.com for a 1-Round FREE Trial.

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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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Jason

    Mar 19, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Players know where the boundaries of the shot are, and they aren’t always the boundaries of the fairway. At my course (lots of water, light rough) you’re regularly playing up the side and a good (but not great) shot will find the harmless light rough. Likewise, an aggressive tee shot over a corner might run out of fairway, but the distance saved is worth the small cost of maybe catching light rough. The best pros might not find the fairway as often simply becasue they trust their game enough to take the more challenging line – and know that they can handle a small “penalty” in the form of light rough (and fairway missed stat) if that’s the price. So yeah, fairways hit doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the ‘did you hit it somewhere you were ok with standing over the ball’ stat – and I’m not sure how you measure that, except that it probably correlates with good judgement, temperament and good skills. Not sure there’s a stat for it though, and not sure there needs to be.

  2. James T

    Mar 19, 2018 at 10:27 am

    “How valuable is hitting the fairway, really?”

    After Sunday, ask Tiger Woods.

  3. Bruce Hart

    Mar 18, 2018 at 11:01 am

    If I miss a fairway, especially if I’m playing by myself, I may never find the ball which would mean slowing play by going back to the tee (or hitting a lot of provisionals) or just not playing by the rules (which is what I usually do). Sometimes even hitting the fairway isn’t a guarantee because the ball can plug. I have found that bright Volvik Vivid balls can help. When the rough is up, it’s windy and clover are everywhere I can’t afford to spray driver. I’d like to do an experiment where you take a pro and put them on a standard muni course (no gallery, no grandstands, no tv coverage, no spotters) by themselves and see how many lost balls they have. I think the pros play a different game.

  4. CrashTestDummy

    Mar 18, 2018 at 2:14 am

    There still is a premium on good ball striking. Yeah the severity of fairways missed matters, but the best ball strikers will have much less severe missed fairways. The best ball strikers are always at the top of the leaderboards consistently. Whenever their ball striking goes awry they start missing cuts. When they miss putts, they are still making cuts or placing well because they are avoiding bogeys and the big numbers. Bottom line is missed fairways and greens means bogeys and big numbers.

    There should probably be a stat for “strokes gained with missed fairway” or “strokes lost with missed fairway”. That would be a telltale metric for knowing the severity of missed fairways.

  5. James T

    Mar 17, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Personally, I think Greens in Regulation is far more important to scoring. Rare is the course that has U.S. Open rough that keeps you from going for the green.

    • Tal

      Mar 19, 2018 at 2:24 am

      True, but pure greens in regulation doesn’t tell us why greens were missed. Poor driving makes hitting a GIR more difficult so if someone is driving really well and still hits very few greens, their iron play is probably to blame. Whereas if they are missing greens and their driving is poor, that helps paint a picture as to why.

  6. larrybud

    Mar 17, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Unfortunately, with shotbyshot, and any other system with user driven data, you’re relying on a data which has zero verification to it (unlike shotlink). In other words, you have no idea how accurate the data is which players have entered that you’re basing your analysis.

  7. Sean Foster-Nolan

    Mar 17, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    I think it depends on the golf course. My home course is littered with hazards and has little rough to speak of. If you miss the fairway there is a good chance you will find a hazard.

    But overall I agree.

  8. Doug

    Mar 17, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    If I miss a fairway there is a 50% chance that my ball gets lost. So I better go for 100% fairway even when that means I can‘t use my driver

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Mastering the basic pitch shot

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As promised in last week’s post about basic chipping technique, this week let’s move back to that dreaded “half wedge” range; I get so much feedback that this is the place where “wedg-ilepsy” so often sets in.

I have to give credit to a friend for that term, and I will admit that I have suffered from “wedge-ilepsy” at times throughout my golf life. It’s like the putting yips, in that it is a maddening “disease”, but there IS a cure. My experience and analysis is that both stem from a drift away from good basic technique—which begets terrible results—and the spiral begins.

But, back to the subject matter at hand today – those mid-range pitch shots that are longer than a chip, but considerably less than a full wedge swing. Please bear with me today, as this post – by necessity of the subject matter – is a bit longer than usual.

As I repeatedly admit, this column is not a substitute for instruction from a PGA professional, but I’ll do my best to give you some basics to work on for this range of shots. And I believe those basics start with the same fundamentals I outlined for chipping last week. You might want to refresh those HERE.

As I’ve written many times before, all golf shots are infinitely easier to master if your starting “geometry” is sound. That means solid posture and ball position, and a grip that is light for maximum feel and to help maintain a slow, smooth tempo. You should feel control of the club in the last three fingers of the left hand, and a light touch in your right fingertips to optimize feel and to keep you from getting quick – it’s almost impossible to get too fast in your swing if your right grip is very light.

Mid-range wedge play is only about distance and trajectory control. Unfortunately, there is just no shortcut to developing that. It takes commitment to a technique, and practice time. I strongly suggest that at least half of your range time – whether a dedicated practice session or your pre-round warm-up – be given to this part of your game. Do that and your scores will reflect the dedication.

While some promote the notion of different swing lengths relating to a clock face, I think this shot is most reliable and repeatable when you make a “half swing” that is long enough to foster some rhythm and tempo. And I think that swing length is where your hands and forearms reach a point at or just past having the lead arm roughly parallel to the ground at the end of this shortened backswing. That allows you to make a mini-swing, longer than the chip shot, but shorter than a full shot.

Once you have found that comfortable backswing length, you can make the same length basic “mini-swing” and achieve the desired distances for this shot by changing clubs and altering the speed of the forward rotation of the body core.

I like to use the analogy of driving speed. And you never swing a wedge at “freeway speed”. That’s for your longer clubs only.

For your longer pitch shots, I like to think rotating my body through impact at “country road” speed – 55 mph and relaxed. Just below that is “city driving”, slower and careful. And for the shortest shots, that forward swing – from the same backswing position – is “school zone” speed, which is the most precise and careful pace of all.

But for all these shots, the key is to finish the backswing! You want to feel the end of the swing and then allow your body core to begin its forward rotation into and through impact and follow-through at your desired speed.

I know many of you are wintered in, but you can learn this technique in your basement or garage. Just take your wedge and practice this approach to see how it feels. Once you have found your comfortable backswing length, and have become familiar with these three speeds, you can further dissect your “distance chart” by learning how far each of your wedges flies and rolls out with these three speeds, and even further by experimenting with gripping down on the club various amounts.

It’s hard to explain this completely in a single blog post, but that’s my best effort. Let me know where you want to get more, and we’ll continue this dialog as long as you wish.

Keep those emails coming, OK? [email protected].

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: New Callaway Epic drivers and fairways + Apex hybrids!

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New Callaway Epic drivers are better than last year! Three different drivers offer options for every level golfer. Epic Speed is lower launching and easy to work the ball, Epic Max LS has a penetrating flight but good stability, and the Epic Max with its higher launch and maximum forgiveness. The new Apex hybrids are easier to hit and more user friendly than last year.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Golf Test Dummy with Chad Ferguson

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Today, we have a great conversation with a fellow YouTuber Chad Ferguson on the evolution of teaching and Chad’s first couple of lessons with Wisdom in Golf. A lot of our students have been saying how they appreciate his take on our methodology, and it’s very refreshing to hear another unique perspective on learning and acquiring skills in golf.

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