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Jason Day’s Secret to Saving Strokes

May 21, 2015

Jason Day has been a very good golfer for a long time. He played his first tournament on the PGA Tour in 2006, at the age of 18. He broke into the top 50 in the World Golf Ranking in 2010, and he moved into the top 10 in 2011 on the strength of second-place finishes in the Masters and the U.S. Open. Through this year’s Masters, he was No. 5 in the world. Credit a substantial part of his rise to improvement in his short-iron play. You’d be hard pressed to figure this out from traditional stat categories; greens-in-regulation, for example, doesn’t focus on specific yardages, and it’s difficult to see how changes in the proximity-to-the-hole stat impacts a player’s score. But Strokes Gained makes it easy to pinpoint a player’s strengths and weaknesses.

As well as Day was playing in 2010 and 2011, he consistently struggled with his approach shots from 100 to 150 yards. In those years on Tour, he was ranked 148th and 162nd, respectively, in Strokes Gained in this category. Day and his coach, Colin Swatton, worked to shore up this area by having him practice hitting into greens (rather than to flags or cones on a range), to better see how balls react and where they finish relative to the hole. Day’s results are impressive: In three of the past four years, he has cracked the top 10 in Strokes Gained on shots from 100-150 yards.

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How much closer to the hole did Day have to get from this range to go from being below average on Tour to elite? Not much! In 2011, starting from 125 yards away from the hole in the fairway, Jason hit half of his shots to within 20 feet of the hole, a bit worse than the Tour average of 19 feet. In 2014, Day’s “leaves” were about five feet closer on average—half of his approaches from 125 yards stopped 15 feet from the hole or closer. Seemingly small differences in leave distance can have a big impact on scoring. Day’s improvement in shots from 100-150 yards shaved about a third of a stroke per round from his game.

Most of Day’s scoring improvement didn’t come from 20-footers that became 15-foot putts. It came from short putts that were even shorter—say, 10-foot birdie putts that suddenly turned into five-footers. It also came from shots that were previously missing the green and now found the dance floor. These incremental gains add up over the five shots per round that pros hit from this distance.

The table below shows the Tour’s 2015 Strokes Gained leaders from 100-150 yards (results through the Shell Houston Open). Obviously, hitting approach shots closer to the hole leads to lower scores for pros. What is less obvious is how much your score improves by hitting it closer. For world-class players like Day, reducing by five feet the leave on shots from 100-150 yards saves about a third of a stroke per round. I’ve crunched the numbers for recreational players. On average, hitting these approach shots just 10 feet closer would save the average player one stroke per round. (Note: Everyday players face more shots from this range than the pros do.) This analysis understates the impact on scores because it doesn’t take into account that better swings from 100-150 yards lead to improvement on shots slightly inside and outside that range.

To go deeper, for Tour pros, half of their shots from 100-150 yards in the fairway finish within 19 feet of the hole, and they hit the green 83 percent of the time. Eighty-shooters leave half of their shots within 34 feet, and they hit the green 63 percent of the time. For players who regularly shoot 90, half of their shots finish within 46 feet of the hole, and they hit the green just 47 percent of the time.

Day improved his short approaches by some five feet, and he started from a place where there didn’t seem to be much room for improvement. A five-to 10-foot reduction in your “leave” from 100-150 yards would have an instant impact on your scores.

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