Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Rich Hunt’s 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis, which can be purchased here for $10.99. Stylistic changes were made to the story for online publication.
As a statistical analyst and researcher for Tour pros, caddies and instructors, the most common question I receive is with regards to the importance of power in the game. There is still a strong contingent of golfers that believe that driving distance is the least important metric in the game of golf. I am emphatic when I say that is incorrect.
Research conducted by myself and others has shown that driving distance is one of the more important metrics in the game. Not only have I found this to be the case when studying Tour players, but it applies to the average amateur as well.
In 2013, some friends of mine and I did a study using Trackman and the USGA GHIN to see if there was a correlation between a golfer’s club head speed and their handicap index. There were 137 subjects, ages 15-57 years old that had to have a USGA handicap and have recorded at least 20 scores in the GHIN within the last 12 months. The subjects ranged from PGA Tour players to 25 handicaps.
The findings were than the correlation very strong at +0.91 with a standard deviation of 4.5 mph. Correlation is the a mathematical methodology to determine the strength of a relationship between two variables. The closer the correlation is to 1.0, the stronger the relationship. Therefore, a correlation of +0.91 shows a very strong correlation and it is strong enough to project club head speed based on the golfer’s handicap.
Here is the regression formula that projects the club head speed based on the golfer’s USGA handicap
(Handicap *-1.38899923605806) + 106.486783804431 = Projected Club Head Speed
Here is a table showing the projected club speed based on USGA handicap (note that + handicaps are better-than-scratch golfers)
There has been some confusion from readers in interpreting the data. Understand that this is projecting the club speed and it is not definitive. The projected club speed numbers do not represent the entire population.
The data projects that 68 percent of the population will fall within 1-standard deviation from the projected values. That means that the data projects that 68 percent of the population will fall within +/- 4.5 mph from the projected numbers listed above. 95 percent of the population will fall within 2-standard deviations (+/- 9 mph) of the projected numbers listed above. And 99.7 percent of the population will fall within 3 standard deviations (+/- 13.5 mph) of the projected numbers listed above.
When I posted this table on Twitter, many readers would proclaim that they ‘underachieved’ because their club speed was much higher than the projected numbers based on their handicap. For example, a player that is a -3 handicap is projected to generate 102.3 mph club speed, but generates (or at least claims to) generate 113 mph club speed.
That player has not ‘underachieved’ nor does it mean that the regression analysis is invalid based on their anecdotal evidence. It just means that that they fall outside 95 percent of the projected population of -3 handicaps.
The key to understanding the table and regression analysis is that the study shows that there is a relationship between the two variables, not a perfect 1:1 relationship. And thus, we can use that relationship not only for more accurate projections, but to examine why that relationship exists and what can be done for golfers to use that to their advantage to improve their scores.
For example, a friend of mine is roughly a 20 handicap, but I have clocked him at 124 mph club speed. He never had much in the way of formal instruction and plays about once a month. But he is a 6’6” former college basketball player and competitive softball player. He knows how to do one thing incredibly well in golf; generate speed. It does not mean that speed (power) is any less important. It just means that he is outside 99.7% percent of the population and is an extreme anomaly.
One issue with the regression analysis that I posted is that it does not determine why the relationship exists. Do lower handicaps tend to have higher club head speeds because they are utilizing better technique that allows them to generate more speed or does the distance gained actually help the golfer shoot a lower score?
A few years ago, my friend Mark Sweeney from AimPoint Golf found another strong correlation involving distance. This time the correlation was with the length of the average birdie putt for Tour players. The chart looks something like this:
Essentially, the further the player hits the ball off the tee, the more likely their average birdie putt will be shorter in length. Thus, a player that is a lesser skilled putter can sink more putts than superior skilled putters if they are longer off the tee because they are having easier putts to make. I call this The Power to Putting Principle.
For example, Rory McIlroy is one of the longest hitters on Tour and has struggled with the putter in recent years. Brian Gay is one of the shortest hitters on Tour and one of the better putters. Rory may sink more putts in a round because he may have an average birdie putt length of 15-feet while Gay’s average birdie putt length may be at 25-feet. On birdie putts, McIlroy is giving himself putts that have a 22 percent make probability on average compared to Gay having putts with a 10 percent make probability on average. Thus, while Gay is a far superior putter he will not likely make as many putts as McIlroy because Gay’s putts are much more difficult to make.
This is where power provides the greatest advantage to golfers; on the putting greens.
Is there any advantage to being short, but accurate off the tee?
Well, note that the Sweeney study is about the length of the average birdie putt. When a long ball hitter misses the green in regulation, they are more likely to have a longer and more difficult scrambling opportunity. This is because of the times that the bomber misses the fairway by a wide margin and ends up in the trees and has to punch out or they end up in a penalty area.
This is why I advise Tour players that analytics if golf is not a rigid ‘one size fits all’ system. Not only should a golfer accurately determine their strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to utilize them to play the best golf possible, but distance plays a major role in what areas of the game a player needs to focus on. Brian Gay should not try to play Bubba Watson’s game and Bubba Watson should not try to play Jordan Spieth’s game all because their differing lengths off the tee creates different advantages they must exploit and different weaknesses that they must account for.
Applying this to your game
As I mentioned earlier, the Power to Putting Principle states that longer hitters have an advantage on the greens because they are more likely to have short length birdie putts on average than shorter hitters. But shorter hitters have an advantage when the green in regulation is missed.
Thus, shorter hitters need to be more skilled putters to compete with the longer hitters. And longer hitters need to be more skilled with their abilities around the greens in order to convert those up-and-downs like the shorter, but more accurate golfer.
Therefore the best short hitting golfers in the world over the years (Zach Johnson, Brian Gay, Jim Furyk, etc.) have been very good putters. They must be great putters to make up for them having more difficult putts on average than the longer hitters. That is how some of the best long hitters in the world tend to still play great golf despite putting poorly (i.e. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson).
But we do see that the long hitters tend to play their best golf when their short game around the green and/or their putting improves.
The misconception from the press and fans becomes that because a bomber improved so much in their putting and/or short game around the green that is what really matters most in golf. The reality is completely different from perception though. They are great players and better than the rest of the world because of their ballstriking and their power. It’s just that when they improve their putting and short game around the green, now they become the very best of the best.
Bubba Watson isn’t ranked #17 in the world due to his short game around the green (ranked 174th last season) and putting (ranked 108th last season). However, if he starts to dominate the Tour and get into the top-10 it is very likely that he will have improved upon those areas and essentially have little in the way of flaws in his game.
How does this apply to the 10-handicap golfer?
The projected club speed of a 10-handicap golfer using my regression analysis is 92.6 mph. If a golfer is a legitimate 10-handicap golfer and generates 85 mph they are likely more accurate off the tee and a better putter than the other 10-handicap golfer that generates 93 mph of speed.
With any golfer, an increase in club speed is likely to improve their handicap. However, if the golfer just wants to compete with other 10-handicaps without working on their golf swing, it is very important that he hit the ball more accurately than his competitors and that he will need to be more skilled with the putter.
If the golfer is a 10-handicap and generates 100 mph of club speed with the driver, they most likely are less accurate off the tee and worse putters than their fellow 10-handicap golfers. However, the key here is that the 100-mph golfer has more options than the 85-mph golfer. The 100-mph golfer can beat out his fellow 10-handicappers by hitting the ball more accurately or by improving their short game around the green to make up for having more difficult scramble opportunities or they can improve their putting.
In a previous example, I showed why Brian Gay has to be more skilled of a putter to sink more putts than Bubba Watson. Gay hits it shorter and has longer (and thus more difficult) putts to make than Watson. But, what if Bubba was equally as skilled or more skilled than Gay with the putter?
You would have an equally skilled or more skilled putter that is putting from more makeable distances. This is why long hitters are so dangerous. If they can keep the ball out of trouble and get four good days with the putter, they are going to contend. And the same applies with amateurs.
Developing young golfers
I am frequently asked by coaches of junior golfers and colleges that have Professional Golf Management programs about what their golfers should focus on developing in their golf game.
My answer is ‘Power and Putting.’
It may sound like a cliché with all the discussion with regards to how the Tour is becoming about who can hit it the longest, but my opinion is based on the math and the historical data with regards to the subject.
If hitting it further is likely to leave you with more makeable birdie putts and the golfer is a great putter, then it is a scenario where a great putter has easier putts to make and that equates to the lowest scores.
Yes, every shot does count. Long approach shots are certainly important and the same with mid-length approach shots. The same goes for having a respectable amount of accuracy and precision. And you do lose strokes if your short game around the green stinks to high heaven. But most players that hit it long have a high level of competence as a golfer. And those that can putt well along with it are at an enormous advantage.
And if I were to just name players that hit the ball long (175+ mph ball speed) and putted great for a significant length of time with no regards to the rest of the game, the players I come up with are:
- Tiger Woods
- Phil Mickelson
- Brooks Koepka
- Jason Day
- Rickie Fowler
- Paul Casey
- Jimmy Walker
And those are the players that I could measure with ShotLink. While it is speculation, players off the top of my head that were both very long and great putters pre-ShotLink were:
- Bobby Jones
- Arnold Palmer
- Jack Nicklaus
- Tom Watson
- Seve Ballesteros
There was more to their games than hitting it long and putting well. But, the math behind hitting it long and putting well is why it was not a coincidence that they were also some of the greatest players to have ever played the game.
The Wedge Guy: The Red Zone
For those of you who are big football fans, we are lost in the off-season, waiting a few more months before we get to watch our favorite pro or college teams duke it out on the gridiron. Living in Texas, of course, football is a very big deal, from the NFL Cowboys and Texans, through our broad college network representing multiple conferences and into the bedrock of Friday nights – high school football, which drives fans and entire towns into a frenzy.
In almost every football conversation on TV, you hear talk about “the red zone”. How a team performs inside the 20-yard line is a real measure of their offensive prowess, and usually a pretty good indicator of their win/loss record, too. It breaks down to what percentage of the time a team scores a touchdown or field goal, and how often they come away empty.
I like to think we golfers have our own “red zone”. It’s that distance from the green where we should be able to go on the offensive and think about pars and birdies, ensure no worse than bogey . . . and rarely put a double or worse on the card. Your own particular set of red zone goals should be based on your handicap. If you are a low single digit, this is your “go zone”, where you feel like you can take it right at the flag and give yourself a decent birdie putt, with bogeys being an unpleasant surprise. For mid-handicap players, it’s where you should feel confident you’ll guarantee a par and rarely make bogey, and for higher handicap players, it’s where you will ensure a bogey at least, give yourself a good chance at par, and maybe even a birdie.
But regardless of your handicap, your own “red zone” should begin when you can put a high loft club in your hands – one with over 40 degrees of loft. Of course, that has changed a lot with the continual strengthening of irons. In my early days that was an eight iron, then it migrated to a nine. But regardless of your handicap or the make and model of irons you play, my contention is that golf is relatively “defensive” with all the other clubs in your bag. With those lower lofted irons, your goal should be to just keep it out of trouble and moving closer to the goal line . . . er, the flag. Even the PGA Tour pros make a very small percentage of their birdies with their middle irons.
When you can put a high loft club in your bag – whether that’s from 150 yards or 105 – that’s when you should feel like you can put your offense into high gear and raise your expectations. It’s no longer about power, because this isn’t about raw distance, but rather distance control and precision. From the red zone, it’s about trusting your technique and your equipment and taking it to the golf course a little bit.
As most of us are in the early stages of the 2021 golf season, one of the best things you can do for your golf improvement is to begin tracking your “red zone” performance. Put the numbers down as to how you are scoring the golf course from your 9-iron range on into the flag. My guess is that you’ll see this is where you can make the most improvement if you’ll give that part of your game some additional time and focus. Any golfer can learn to hit crisp and accurate short range approach shots. And so you should.
Pay attention to your own red zone stats, and work to improve them. I guarantee you that you’ll see your scores come down quickly.
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