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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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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: It is early season WITB time!

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Played some golf recently and the “gamer” bag is getting a little more settled in. Time to do an early season WITB, what is staying and what is on thin ice to maybe be replaced!

 

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The Wedge Guy: Your wedge shafts DO make a difference

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Over the past few decades, golf shafts have come to represent an extremely broad and deep segment of the golf equipment marketplace. And the major manufacturers spend countless hours evaluating shafts – within an acceptable cost range, of course – for their product offerings in irons, drivers, fairways, and hybrids. As a result, the custom-fitting layer of golf club retailing is myopically focused on shaft selection — often at a premium price.

Special shaft technologies are even finally working their way into some of the newer putters — but not your wedges.

Take a stroll down the seemingly endless display of wedges in any big store, and you’ll see numerous brands, models, lofts, finishes and sole grinds — but nearly every one of them has been fitted with the same type of heavy, stiff steel shaft. I’ve always thought that was really shorting golfers where feel and performance need to be pinpoint perfect.

I have learned from countless observations of golfers of all skill levels that getting the right shaft in these super-important scoring clubs can reap huge rewards in performance. Just like in your driver, the material, weight, and flex of your wedge shafts have to be exactly right for you to optimize your scoring range skill set — whatever that might be.

Stop to realize that, when it comes to the shaft in your wedges, you’re asking a lot. They have to stabilize the heaviest clubheads in the bag at full swing speed, in order to give you full shot trajectory control so that your distances are consistent. But they also have to give you precise feel and control of those touch shots around the greens where clubhead speed is only a few miles per hour. That requires the shaft to have the ability to flex or move a bit in order to give you optimum motion feedback — the sensation back to your hands of exactly where the clubhead is and what it is doing.

I think it is very important that wedge shafts should be fitted to the individual golfer’s strength profile.

Every week on television, we see the tour professionals exhibit an unbelievable display of short game mastery, hitting greenside wedge shots with absolute control of trajectory, spin, and distance. And while most all of them play a steel shaft that is the same weight as that in their irons, most all also opt for a bit softer in flex than the shaft in their irons.
But you have to also realize that these guys are top-level athletes who are extremely strong in the forearms and hands, so they can do things with a wedge of that overall weight that very few recreational golfers can even dream about – simply because you do not have the arm and hand strength to allow that level of precise manipulation of the club.

To solve this dilemma, I strongly advocate the following: Select a shaft for your wedges that closely approximates the weight of your short iron shafts. If you play lightweight steel or graphite shafts in your irons, by all means, demand the same in your wedges. This, of course, means you need to retrofit the wedges you have, or buy from a company that will accommodate your needs.

Your wedge shafts, however, should be a bit softer overall than your iron flexes to give you the feel you need around the greens. One way to achieve that is to select the same type of shaft as your irons, but in a softer flex, then cut back some of the tip section if you can.

And finally: test everything! Trying new things is one of the fun aspects of playing golf, and wedges are no different. You can experiment with different shafts in your wedges at a pretty low cost, so do it! I think you’ll have fun, and you’re likely to stumble on a formula that really improves your scoring.

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Ways to Win: Focused Phil does anything but flop at the PGA Championship

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That was fun. Through 55 holes, it looked like Brooks Koepka was ready to return from injury and establish his dominance with three wins in four years at the PGA Championship. Instead, his putter went dead cold and Phil Mickelson did the improbable.

Despite having poor form in recent weeks, Mickelson felt like he was on the verge of a breakthrough. He spent much of his recent practice working on focus. Staying present in the moment. In the end, golf is a mental game where a single uncommitted swing or distraction can lead to disaster and cost a tournament. There is no doubting Mickelson’s tremendous talent, but he is notorious for losing focus at the worst possible moment. Not this time. Between his practice and timely advice from his brother and caddie, he was able to remain dialed in down the stretch and outlast a star-studded leaderboard to win the PGA Championship at 50 years old. Incredible.

So, how did he do it? Well first, he hit bombs.

Mickelson has been all over social media discussing his “hellacious seeds” and “bombs.” Over the past several years, he put in a tremendous amount of work to go from average in terms of swing speed on the PGA Tour to fast. All of this at 50 years old. While this has separated him from fields on the Champions Tour, it has been difficult for Mickelson to keep it in play on the PGA Tour. Not this week. Mickelson may have only finished 29th in terms of strokes gained: driving this week, but he kept the ball in play and gave himself chances to hit the green. On a difficult, windy Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, that is more than many can say. In fact, he hit the longest drive of the day on hole 16 on Sunday. Take that Bryson. Using V1 Game’s driving distance analysis, Mickelson averaged over 300 yards across all drives for the week. This allowed him to dismantle the par 5s, which were critical to getting his overall score under par.

Mickelson did most of his damage on the front nine and in particular, holes two and seven above where he was 7 under for the week. V1 Game’s Hole History view gives a Shotlink-like view of how he played the two holes. Long drives in the fairway allowed him to be aggressive into the greens with easy chips or two-putt birdies. At a course as difficult as Kiawah, you have to birdie the holes you’re supposed to to give room for mistakes on the more difficult holes. Typically, the winner of each PGA Tour event makes very few mistakes. However, at Kiawah, mistakes were unavoidable. Between narrow fairways, wind, and difficult conditions, the week was more like a U.S. Open than a PGA Championship. Mickelson made mistakes, but he was able to minimize them with his amazing short game and tremendous lag putting.

The Virtual Coach in V1 Game details the mistakes Mickelson made throughout the week. Despite playing well all week, when the pressure was ratcheted up on Sunday there were more mistakes. Still, Mickelson did a great job of turning doubles into bogeys to minimize the damage. He was off to a shaky start on Sunday. He 3-putted the first hole and took 4 to get down from just 36 yards on the third hole. Around that time, his brother Tim told him to start committing to shots if he wanted to win. Mickelson was able to do that and didn’t make another mistake until the 13th hole by which time he had a five-stroke lead. Sometimes golf is a game of survival.

Not enough will be said about Mickelson’s putting this week. Phil is notorious for struggling with the short ones in pressure situations, and one observation from tracking his rounds — his lag putting was phenomenal. He consistently left himself inside two feet for his clean-up. This takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the putter when nerves are at an all-time high. This may not show up from a strokes gained perspective where you are rewarded for making longer putts, but not missing short ones is important as this was the downfall of both Louis Oosthuizen and Koepka. Mickelson may have finished 37th in strokes gained: putting for the week, but he made it easy for himself on the greens. So, if he finished in the 30s for driving and putting, how did he win the golf tournament?

If Mickelson is known for anything, it’s his prolific short game. He certainly shined when it mattered, gaining strokes on all four days around the green. He finished 18th for the week in strokes gained: short and made critical up and down time and again to minimize big numbers and save par. However, Mickelson truly separated himself with his strokes gained: approach gaining 4.4 strokes on the field with his irons and finishing fifth in the field. Add it all up and Phil is the winner in strokes gained: total and gets the Wanamaker.

It was a brilliant display of golf and focus. The scene at 18 was incredible as the crowd chanted “Lefty” and circled the green to watch the historic moment as the oldest man to ever win a major championship tapped in the final putt. Mickelson was focused. Golf is a mental game after all. The golf course was difficult and he played it better than anyone else.

Mickelson knew what he needed to work on these last several years to stay at the top of the game and has been able to do it through not just working on speed and hitting bombs, but improving his mental game along the way. V1 Game can help you understand what you need to work on to get better at any age and any skill level. Mickelson’s performance was inspiring as is his desire to use every tool available to get better. It was interesting late on Saturday to listen to both Oosthuizen and Koepka discuss their play. Louis was frustrated with his ballstriking, despite leading the field on Saturday in strokes gained: tee to green. It was his putter that was letting him down. Koepka complained about his putting after a late short miss when his iron play was below average for him. Even the best in the game can be confused on which area of their game is impacting their score. Strokes gained and V1 Game take the mystery out of game improvement. Whether you’re a young gun or closer to the Champions Tour, advanced analysis from V1 Game can get you following in Mickelson’s footsteps. What a great game golf is.

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