Make your course strategy decisions based on science, not hope

Let’s face it – golf is hard. But we don’t have to make it even harder by making poor decisions.

Your ball is in the middle of the fairway, 187 yards from the pin, which is back left. There’s a pond (penalty area) left of the green and a big deep bunker on the right. Over the back is iffy but the approach in front of the green is clear. What’s your next shot?

Scott Fawcett is a self-confessed data nerd and the flavour of the month on the PGA Tour. His program, called DECADE, is used by several dozen PGA Tour players and is catching on with elite amateurs as well. Fawcett has taken the Strokes Gained data that was developed almost ten years ago for the PGA Tour and turned it into a useful tool for making decisions on the golf course. (Daniel Rapaport of Golf Digest has an excellent article about Fawcett and his program HERE.)

Essentially, DECADE helps a golfer decide which club to hit and where to aim based on their previous results and golf course mapping. The primary focus is avoiding trouble which leads to bogeys.

In our example above, DECADE would be able to say that without any wind, 187 yards is a 4-hybrid for me and my chance of hitting any part of the green is 20%. That means that eight out of ten shots with that club are going to end up somewhere else. It could also tell me that my tendency with a 4-hybrid is to pull the ball left – OK, hook it hard – which brings water into play and eliminates any chance at making par, more likely a double bogey.

From the bunker, I get the ball up and down 15% of the time but my chances increase to almost 50% when chipping close to the green. So, my decision should be to hit a 6-iron short of the green. Maybe it rolls onto the front edge but worst case I’m looking at a routine chip and par is still a 50/50 bet.

The voice in my left ear is calling me Aunt Edna and screaming at me to go for the pin. “We didn’t come here to lay up”, it says. “Remember that 4-hybrid you smoked to four feet on this hole two years ago. Just do it again!”

My inner Bryson DeChambeau is telling me to listen to the science.

And therein lies the struggle: logic dictates the 6-iron; the optimist in me wants to hit the more aggressive shot.

Some of you are probably thinking, “That’s all well and good for Tour players who have access to ShotLink and scads of data, but I got nuthin’.”

Most of us at one time or another have probably recorded personal stats like fairways and greens hit, sand saves and putts per hole, which is great information to have but doesn’t really help with club selection or where to hit the ball. Naturally, we like to think we’re always going to hit it long and straight, but you might be surprised to learn that the top player on the PGA Tour averages greens in regulation 78% of the time from 150 yards. That number drops to 66% at 175 yards and 55% over 200 yards.

Those guys have more talent than we do and practice way more too. Apart from hopeless optimism, what would make us think we should even match their results?

Fortunately, to improve in our own game we don’t have to beat Rory McIlroy or Brooks Koepka – we just have to beat our own bad tendencies. The easiest way to do that is to know what they are.

A long time ago, I played a lot with a former Canadian Tour player who gave me a drill to help me know my game better and develop a better course strategy. It’s called the 10-ball drill and I still use it several times a year.

Take 10 balls out to the 100-yard mark in the middle of the fairway and hit as many as you can onto the green. Record hits and misses but equally as important, record how close to the hole you hit it and where you miss it, then move to 125 yards and repeat the process. I generally do it in 25-yard increments up to 200 yards. The whole drill will take about 90 minutes and I guarantee you will be surprised by the results.

You could do this on a range which would eliminate fetching balls but target greens on ranges are not very realistic in size or texture. Best if you can use the real thing either early in the morning or later in the evening when the course isn’t busy.

The drill works well for your short game too (25, 50, 75 yards) and helps you to know what distance might be best for laying up and how close to the pin you should expect to hit.

Apart from knowing which clubs and which types of shots you need to practice more, the data you get from this drill will take much of the guess work out of your course strategy, help you avoid trouble and lower your scores. It works equally well for high and low handicappers.

To think or hope you can do something leaves room for doubt. To know you can do something instills confidence. Which do you prefer?

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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