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The Wedge Guy: Lessons from The Players Championship

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If you read this column regularly, you probably would think I don’t care much for the PGA Tour, but that’s not exactly true. I just don’t think the majority of us recreational golfers can learn all that much from watching these young and supple, big and strong athletes show off their strength and skills.

While there is no question that equipment has changed the game and added yards for all of us, take a look at these guys’ physiques. Even the older guys like Lee Westwood and relatively small players like Justin Thomas are spending countless hours in the gym to optimize their strength. The equipment allows them to go at the ball much more aggressively than was possible back in the days of persimmon woods and tiny forged blade irons and balls that took on an amazing amount of side-spin if not hit just right.

With the majority of U.S. golfers being on the far side of 45-50 years old, and most of us not working out every day specifically to optimize our bodies for our golf swing, we don’t have a chance of matching these guys’ distance. Last fall, I posted a column asking if were playing a harder course than the pros, which received some challenging pushback. But the point of the column was about the relative length and difficulty of the courses you play as compared to those the PGA Tour players play every week. Yes, our skills and strength profiles are vastly different from these guys so let me ask a different way.

Think about the last round you played and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Could you reach the green on all the par-fives with your second shot if you hit a pretty good drive . . . maybe even with a middle iron?
  2. Did you have at least one par four where you had a chance of driving the green, maybe even with a fairway wood?
  3. On the other 13 holes, did you have a wedge or short iron second shot at least 9 or 10 times?

If the answer isn’t “YES” to all those questions, you played a longer (for you) golf course than what the best players in the world played (for them) at the TPC this past weekend. And this wasn’t a “pushover” golf course by any means.

I’ve long opined that tee markers on most golf courses are not anywhere near where they should be for the vast majority of players, so the game is playing much, much longer (and therefore, harder) for most of us than the PGA Tour courses play for them. I also take issue with the inadequate guidance as to the tees you should play–this is not about gender or age, but rather your ability. Why should a 69-year-old single-digit handicap who still hits a tee ball 240-260 be given a shorter course than the 45-year-old 18 handicap who drives it 210?

Regardless of your age and handicap, and assuming reasonably solid tee shots, I believe the game is supposed to be played…

  1. At a length where you can reach every par four with your approach shot, and
  2. At a length where at least half of your par-four and par-three approach shots can be played with a short iron or wedge, and
  3. At a length where no more than 3-4 of your par-four and par-three approach shots require more than a 5-iron, and
  4. At a length where you cannot at least have a chance of reaching one or two of the par fives with a long iron or fairway wood shot.
  5. With only a few exceptions these four conditions define every course the PGA Tour players face each week.

If you want to see how well you should be scoring, the next time you tee it up, choose a tee on each hole that will let you play the game at the same relative shotmaking challenge the pros face every week. If there isn’t one, just pick a spot up the fairway that will. My bet is that you will find the game to be a lot more fun and that your scoring will go down measurably.

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Terry Koehler is a fourth generation Texan, a native of a small South Texas town and a graduate of Texas A&M University. He has had a most interesting 40-year career in the golf industry. He has created five start-up companies, ranging from advertising agencies to golf equipment companies. You might remember Reid Lockhart, EIDOLON, SCOR, or his leadership of the reintroduction of Ben Hogan to the golf equipment industry in 2014. For almost 25 years, his wedge designs have stimulated other companies to slightly raise the CG and improve wedge performance. He has just announced the formation of Edison Golf Company and the new Edison Forged wedges, which have been robotically proven to significantly raise the bar for wedge performance. Terry serves as Chairman and Director of Innovation for Edison Golf, which can be seen at www.EdisonWedges.com. Terry has been a prolific equipment designer of over 100 putters and several irons, but many know Koehler as simply “The Wedge Guy”, as he authored over 700 articles on his blog by that name from 2003-2010.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Frank

    Mar 18, 2021 at 9:32 pm

    The shortest shot if you drove it 305 yards on all the par 4’s and 5’s at Augusta, which is the average distance of PGA Tour winners’ drives on par 5’s that led to birdies/eagles for the past 30 events, is 45 yards on #3. Then the next longest shot is actually #12 at Augusta at over 155 yards if you hit every par 5 green in 2. Only one shot under 155 yards at Augusta. Yeah, I’ll stick to practicing the long game over short game.

  2. Ms. Maddie

    Mar 18, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    As a lady golfer in her 70’s, you’d think I’d always play from the 5000 yd tees. And sometimes you’d be right. But I also enjoy playing from the 6000 yd tees and the 6500’s, too, often all in the same round. Because despite my age and gender, I’m still a fit athlete and a single digit handicapper with an intimate understanding of the architecture and physical layout of the courses I frequently play. I’ve been doing exactly as Mr. Koehler suggest for years, taking each hole individually and playing it from the tees that offer me the most intriguing strategic challenge and the most fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. snowman9000

    Mar 18, 2021 at 9:37 am

    My whole life, I have never found par 5’s to be reachable with two good shots.
    And, par 3’s are tending to be too long for the particular tee boxes too. I suspect the par 3’s and 5’s are where the course find extra yardage to get to the final number they want to see. If they made all the par 4’s longer, people would notice. Maybe ask a couple of architects and see what they say.

  4. Danie Mare

    Mar 18, 2021 at 2:43 am

    It is even worse for women. The tee options for my wife is that, apart from 1 or 2 par 3s, she uses fairway wood ON EVERY approach on our home course. Ans she does not have the option of moving forward. She plays of a 15, so she is a reasonable golfer. But I consistently wonder if I will enjoy the game if I had to use 3 wood so much.

  5. Radim

    Mar 18, 2021 at 2:11 am

    The article is missing any explanation how it works today. Here in Europe you get the teebox based on your handicap index. Is it the same in America?

    • iutodd

      Mar 18, 2021 at 11:19 am

      How it works today is that golfers can tee up wherever they want.

    • Ex-American

      Mar 24, 2021 at 4:31 am

      Radim, that’s how it *SHOULD* work.

      Americans all think they’re on tour. They play stroke, not stableford, from as far back as they can, and everyone complains about 5 hour rounds.

      The mentality is questionable at best.

  6. Mike

    Mar 17, 2021 at 2:21 pm

    Thank you, This is so true.

  7. DFM

    Mar 17, 2021 at 12:50 pm

    I completely get the intent of the article, and agree that people should play the game from a tee that suits their game, and allows them to feel comfortable. However, the game is the game. Since I am older and slower than I once was, should I play basketball on a 7 ft. goal where I can dunk like the pros? No, of course not. It might make me feel more like one of the pros to do so, but that isn’t the way the game is played. Rather than concentrating on how we do or don’t compare with pro athletes, people should simply play the course in front of them from whatever tee they feel is most appropriate. If it is harder for you than a pro athlete, so be it. Teeing it up from the middle of the fairway so that you can say you shot even par is silly.

  8. iutodd

    Mar 17, 2021 at 11:20 am

    I completely agree with your breakdown on this. Long par fours/par 3s are certainly part of the game – and the challenge of hitting hybrid/4/5/6 iron into the green is a challenge that should be a part of every round. But only a PART. I’ve played with guys that were hitting those clubs into EVERY par four and most par threes and I have no idea why they do that to themselves. Assuming a combined 14 par 3/par 4…I think 3-4 of those requiring a 5 iron or higher to get to the green is about right. That’s 21-28% of your iron shots on those holes. Which seems like plenty.

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The Wedge Guy: Your game vs. The pros

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I know most of us like to watch golf on TV. Seeing these marvelous (mostly) young athletes do these amazing things with a golf ball makes for great theater. But the reality is that they play a very different game than we do, and they play it differently as well.

I’ve long contended that most rank-and-file recreational golfers cannot really learn a whole lot by watching men’s professional golf on TV. It would be like watching NASCAR or Formula One racing and looking for tips on how to be a better driver.

The game is different. The athletes are different. And the means to an end are entirely different. Let me offer you some things to ponder in support of this hypothesis.

First, these tour professionals ARE highly skilled and trained athletes. They spend time in the gym every day working on flexibility, strength, and agility. Then they work on putting and short game for a few hours, before going to the range and very methodically and deliberately hit hundreds of balls.

Now, consider that the “typical” recreational golfer is over 45 years old, likely carrying a few extra pounds, and has a job, family or other life requirements that severely limit practice time. Regular stretching and time at the gym are not common. The most ardent will get in maybe one short range session a week, and a few balls to warm up before a round of golf.

The tour professionals also have a complete entourage to help them optimize their skills and talents. It starts with an experienced caddie who is by their side for every shot. Then there are the swing coaches, conditioning coaches, mental coaches, and agents to handle any “side-shows” that could distract them. You, on the other hand, have to be all of those to your game.

Also, realize they play on near-perfect course conditions week to week. Smooth greens, flawless fairways cut short to promote better ball-striking — even bunkers that are maintained to PGA Tour standards and raked to perfection by the caddies after each shot.

Watch how perfectly putts roll; almost never wavering because of a spike mark or imperfection, and the holes are almost always positioned on a relatively flat part of the green. You rarely see a putt gaining speed as it goes by the hole, and grain is a non-factor.

So, given all that, is it fair for to you compare your weekly round (or rounds) to what you see on television?

The answer, of course, is NO. But there ARE a lot of things you can learn by watching professional golf on TV, and that applies to all the major tours.

THINK. As you size up any shot, from your drive to the last putt, engage your mind and experience. What side of the fairway is best for my approach? Where is the safe side of the flag as I play that approach? What is the best realistic outcome of this chip or pitch? What do I recall about the slope of this green and its speed? Use your brain to give yourself the best chance on every shot.

FOCUS. These athletes take a few minutes to drown out the “noise” and put their full attention to every shot. But we all can work to learn how to block out the “noise” and prepare ourselves for your best effort on every shot. It only takes a few additional seconds to get “in the zone” so your best has a chance to happen.

PAY ATTENTION TO DETAILS. You have complete control over your set-up, ball position and alignment, so grind a bit to make sure those basics are right before you begin your swing. It’s amazing to me how little attention rank-and-file golfers pay to these basics. And I’m firmly convinced that the vast majority of bad shots are “pre-ordained” because these basics are not quite right.

SHAKE IT OFF. The game is one shot at a time – the next one. That has been preached over and over, and something most pros do exceedingly well. Very often you see them make a birdie right after a bogey or worse, because the professional bears down on these three basics more after he had just slacked on them and made a bogey or worse.

MEDIOCRE SHOTS ARE THE NORM. And those will be interspersed with real bad ones and real good ones. Those guys are just like us, in that “mediocre” is the norm (relatively speaking, that is). So go with that. Shake off the bad ones and bask in the glory of the good ones – they are the shots that keep us coming back.

Let me dive into that last point a bit deeper, because some of you might find it strange that I claim that “mediocre shots are the norm,” even for tour professionals. First, let’s agree that a “mediocre” shot for a 20-handicap player looks quite different that what a tour pro would consider “mediocre.” Same goes for a “poor shot.” But a great shot looks pretty much the same to all of us – a well-struck drive that splits the fairway, an approach that leaves a reasonable birdie putt, a chip or pitch for an up-and-down, and any putt that goes in the hole.

Finally, I will encourage all of you – once again – to make sure you are playing from a set of tees that tests your skills in proportion to how their courses test theirs. This past weekend, for example, the winner shot 25 under par “on the card” . . . but consider that Summit had four reachable par-fives (most with iron shots) and a drivable par-four, so I contend it was really a “par 68” golf course at best. Based on that “adjusted par”, then only 20 players beat that benchmark by more than 5 shots for the week. So, obviously, the rest pretty much played “mediocre” golf (for them).

So, did your last round have at least one or two par-fives you can reach with two shots? And did you hit at least 10-12 other approach shots with a short iron or wedge in your hands? More likely, you played a “monster” course (for you) that had zero two-shot par fives and several par-fours that you could not reach with two of your best wood shots. And your typical approach shot was hit with a mid-iron or hybrid.

The game is supposed to be fun – and playing the right tees can make sure it has a chance to be just that. Paying attention to these basics for every shot can help you get the most out of whatever skills you brought to the links on any given day.

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