Golf Scoring Well Without Perfect Shots
A purely struck golf shot is a thing of beauty. And a rarity. The real key
to scoring is where your less-than-ideal shots end up.
By RICK ADAMS
The fairway narrows between trap and creek (red box/driver range) on the
dogleg 15th hole at The Trails of Frisco. The blue box/3wood range offers
a wider margin of error and improves your odds of hitting the green in
If you could choose one area of improvement in your game that might lower
your handicap by the most strokes, what aspect would you choose? Longer
drives? A smoother putting rhythm? More consistent chipping and sand play?
Maybe none of these. The area of highest potential for score improvement
is probably your iron approaches. If you could double the accuracy of your
approaches to the green - in other words, hit the ball twice as close to
the hole - you would likely shave five or more strokes per round off your
score. Putting improvement should be a second priority - especially
makeable putts inside 15 feet. Doubling your accuracy here could save four
strokes per round. But adding 20 yards to your drives (without sacrificing
accuracy) may only save two strokes per 18.
These were the findings of a meticulous shot-by-shot statistical analysis
of professionals in the Dunlop Masters tournament at Royal Birkdale in the
UK a few years back, reported in the book, Search for the Perfect Swing,
by Alastair Cochran and John Stobbs.
Some of the findings were obvious. The shorter the putt, the more putts
holed - from 6 to 9 feet, the pros made 1 of 2; from 12 to 18 feet, 1 of
4; from 24 to 30 feet, only 1 of 20. The shorter the fairway approach, the
closer to the pin the pros hit it - from 140 yards, within 25 feet of the
hole; from 165 yards, 32 feet; from 200 yards, 55 feet.
Other results were a bit surprising. Driving distance, for example, was
negligible in terms of results - the nine players who finished at the top
of the Dunlop leader board drove only a handful of yards further than the
nine players who finished at the bottom. Last year's PGA Tour numbers also
show that distance isn't everything - of the top five bombers, only
Charles Howell (9th) finished better than 100th on the season money list.
John Daly was 112th, Boo Weekley 200th, Matt Goggin 142nd, and Dennis
Paulson 151st. Similarly, only one of the five longest hitters on the
Senior PGA Tour (John Jacobs, 14th) finished in the top 25 among money
By contrast, four of the straightest drivers - all of them 20 to 25 yards
in arrears of Daly, Tiger Woods and Rich Beem - still made handsome
livings last year: Fred Funk ($2.3M), Scott Verplank ($1.2M), Jim Furyk
($2.3M), and Nick Price ($2.1M). Hale Irwin, always one of the most
accurate drivers but in the middle of the pack in distance, walked away
with a cool $3 million on the senior circuit.
Another reason control is better than distance - Cochran and Stobbs
calculated that when playing from the rough, approach shot accuracy
decreased by one-third, adding at least one stroke for every four forays
into the thick stuff. On short approaches, from 40 to 50 yards, shots from
the rough finished more than twice as far away and bunker shots nearly
three times as far as pitches from short grass. If you play a course with
light or no rough, it's no problem. However, if you're on one of our local
layouts with thick, gnarly Bermuda - or worse yet, the kind of marsh or
"native grass" areas where you don't even bother to search for stray
shots, the penalties to your score can increase exponentially.
The 1st rule of course management: keep it in the short grass. Even at the
sacrifice of a little distance. Hitting more fairways translates to
hitting approaches closer, which leads to more putts made.
Play For a "Target Box"
Left/right "margin of error" is a simple calculation - 10 percent of the
expected shot distance. 10 yards L/R (20 yards total) for a 100-yard shot,
15 yards L/R (30 yards total) for a 150-yard shot, 20 yards L/R (40 yards
total) for a 200-yard shot, and 25 yards L/R (50 yards total) for a
250-yard shot. Keep track of your own average "shot dispersion" to see if
your margin is larger or smaller, then adjust your target boxes
The Dunlop pros were amazingly consistent in their "margin of error."
Their yardage off-line was about 7.5 to 8 percent, regardless of how far
they were hitting their approach shots. Similar research at a tournament
for top amateurs showed a 10 percent deviation. This means for shots from
the fairway of 100 yards, the amateurs averaged 10 yards off-line, or 30
feet from the hole. For shots of 150 yards, 15 yards left or right (45
feet). From 200 yards, 20 yards wayward (60 feet).
Why is this important? Because the typical green is 20 to 30 yards wide
(10 to 15 yards from the center), so from 150 yards hitting anywhere on
the green is considered average for a pretty good player. Beyond 150
yards, even scratch players and pros are going to miss a few greens. PGA
Tour players hit only about 2 of 3 greens in regulation, and the best are
below 75 percent. The key to scoring then becomes where the misses end up
- water, sand, rough, or fringe - and how difficult it is to get up and
down from there.
Just as important as left/right deviation - at least for course management
strategy - is short/long distance control. Ask a golfer how far he hits a
driver, and the answer will probably be his maximum once-in-a-lifetime
blast . downhill on a concrete fairway with a brisk breeze behind.
The better answer would be a range of distance because no two shots from
the same club travel the same distance. Even if you hit every shot exactly
the same - same clubhead speed, same swing path, same point of contact on
the clubface (impossible, of course) - variables beyond your control like
wind gusts and landing on firm or soft ground will affect the ball's
flight and roll.
The high end of your personal target range should be the distance the ball
will fly (plus roll) if you catch it dead-solid perfect. The low end of
the range would be the carry distance (no roll) if you slightly miss-hit
the shot - a little thin, heavy, or off center. We all know that catching
a shot flush is rare; the greatest ball-striker ever, Ben Hogan, said he
only hit 3 or 4 shots per round as he intended. And when Tiger Woods
doesn't have his "A" game, he still manages to score pretty well with "B"
and "B+"-quality shots. So factoring in a reasonable margin of error is
just smart golf.
If your typical 7-iron distance is 150 yards, your range (without wind)
might be between 142 yards (slightly miss-hit) and 155 yards (if you catch
it pure). This means if the flagstick is 147 yards, a "normal" A or A-
shot will be three yards (9 feet) long, a miss-hit B/B+ will be no more
than five yards (15 feet) short and an A+ flush shot will still be within
8 yards (24 feet).
That's from a level fairway lie. You may also want to adjust for other
factors: whether the lie is uphill/downhill, tight/fluffy, long rough
laying with (flyer) or against (heavy) the direction of the shot; high/low
trajectory; elevation changes; upslope/downslope in the landing area; firm
turf (lots of roll) or soft/wet turf (no roll) in the target zone;
humidity; temperature . maybe even the adrenaline or pressure of
tournament conditions. (Nah, this game isn't complicated at all.)
You'll also need to vary your ranges depending on the strength of the
wind. Tests show that a normal trajectory 250-yard drive will add only
about 5 yards with a 9-10 mph trailing wind. Against that same breeze, the
drive will lose 10 yards. In other words, a wind behind you doesn't help
as much as a wind against hurts. And as wind against increases, the effect
worsens (a 25 mph wind costs you more than 30 yards of carry).
Two other wind factors to consider: One, a wind in your face exaggerates
the ball's spin - a fade will slice more, a draw will hook more. Two,
winds are stronger higher in the air (around the treetops) where the ball
reaches the peak of its arc compared to what you feel on the ground, so a
lower trajectory (such as a long iron or a knock-down "punch" shot) will
not be blown around as much as a high short-iron shot.
The 2nd rule of course management: your target for each shot is not a
single point or a line, it's a box - the area you're likely to land in
based on long/short distance ranges for that club (wind adjusted) and
left/right margin of error. (Okay, technically it's a trapezoid, but who
visualizes that way?)
Play Away From Jail
Now that you know the target box you're likely to hit with each club, you
can map out a strategy for any hole, any shot, any course.
Let's say you're faced with a tee shot where a bunker narrows the fairway
to about 25 yards wide in the 249- to 268-range, such as the 398-yard 15th
at The Trails of Frisco. The wind on this mythical day is about 5 mph
against you. Your long/short range for driver, wind adjusted, is 230 to
255, which means most of the time you'd end up short of the trap but if
you catch it solid or get a hard bounce or the wind eases up momentarily
you might end up in the sand. And with a left/right margin of error of 50
yards (25 yards left or right) on a 250-yard shot, your chances are slim
for striping it into a section of fairway only half that wide. And, oh
yeah, there's a hidden creek at the corner of the dogleg on the right. The
smart play is a 3-wood (range 210 to 235), which will definitely come up
short of the bunkers. And you're now hitting to a much wider target area
(40 yards), almost the same width as your margin of error (46 yards, or
+/- 23 yards for a 230-yard shot). With the larger "comfort zone," you'll
probably be more relaxed and hit a better 3-wood than you would have
trying to fit the driver into the smaller target box.
Yes, your approach to the green will be longer by perhaps 20 yards, but
since you're hitting from the fairway you'll hit the green more often with
the longer shot than you would playing half your approaches from the
fairway bunker or the tangled rough (or adding a penalty for splashing
into the water).
With the "greens keeper's revenge" hole tucked back left (X) on the 7th at
Ridgeview Ranch, aiming at the flag (red box) requires a near-perfect shot
to avoid serious trouble. The blue target box allows you to miss a little
left or right and still have two putts for par. (Photo/graphic courtesy of
The Perfect Shot)
Another example: Let's try the Par 3 7th at Plano's Ridgeview Ranch, the
course's signature hole. Say the cup is cut in the back left corner of the
green, directly behind the limestone quarry that guards that side. The
slope runs away in that tiny area of the green, making it difficult to
hold a shot, even from 150 yards. In other words, a real sucker pin. If
you go at the pin and miss left, normal margin of error immediately puts
you in the trees and brush. Catch it flush and you may sail or bounce
over. Hit it just a little heavy and your Pro V1 is rattling around the
white rocks. A perfect shot may net you a chance for birdie deuce;
anything else could quickly turn into 5 or 6. My play is to the fat part
of the green with the club whose longest range won't carry over the green
into the three bunkers behind. My aim point is at least the margin of
error - 15 yards right of the flag. If I hit it in the center of my target
box, I'll have 45 feet to get down in two putts for par. If I pull/draw
the shot, I'm inside 45 feet, still right of the flag, but I've taken the
jail areas - quarry short, trees left and long - out of play. If I
push/fade it right, my putt or chip may be lengthier but still easier to
make 3 than from an unplayable lie or lost ball.
The 3rd rule of course management: avoid jail areas (and big numbers) by
taking them out of play. Choose target boxes where all, or most, of the
box keeps the ball in play with a reasonably struck shot.
The majority of talk in golf locker rooms is about "big dog" drives. Every
golfer wants to hit the ball long. But unless you can blast it over all
the trouble or play a course with no rough, no sand and no water, length
alone rarely wins trophies. The Tour pros' driving distance is measured on
only two fairly straight, open holes per round - one with the wind, one
against the wind. On many of the other non-measured holes, Tiger and
friends hit 3-wood and long irons off the tee because they appreciate the
huge advantage of playing from the short grass. So pick two broad holes on
your course, blast away, brag away, then leave the driver in the bag most
of the rest of the round. We don't "measure" true success in golf, we
Copyright 2002 Rick Adams. All Rights Reserved.