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The pros save strokes by ‘missing’ tee shots in the right places. You can, too.

January 3, 2018

Standing on the tee with driver in hand, we can’t always hit the fairway. But we can learn from the pros about how to minimize the damage from our big misses.

Weekend golfers hit a decent 49 percent of fairways. The problem? We hit 16 percent of our tee shots into “recovery” situations.

Using ShotLink data from the past season, I looked at the results of all tee shots on par-4 and par-5 holes. Pros hit the fairway or first cut (or, in rare cases, the green) 65 percent of the time. The average gain was 0.13 strokes per fairway hit. What’s really interesting is to investigate the types of fairway misses in the other 35 percent of shots. We know hazards are score-killers, but how much do pros avoid them?

I grouped fairway misses into three mutually exclusive groups: rough and sand, recovery, and penalty. Recovery shots include chip-outs from the trees and wedge shots from the hay, back to the fairway. Penalty refers to any tee shot that is followed by a penalty drop or a stroke-and-distance penalty (e.g., out-of-bounds or lost ball). Pros hit 31 percent of their par-4 and par-5 tee balls into the rough or sand, with an average gain of -0.12 strokes. So the difference between hitting the short grass (0.13) and missing in the rough or sand (-0.12) is a quarter of a stroke. Pros hit 2.3 percent of their tee balls into recovery situations, each with an average gain of -0.85 strokes. Pros hit 1.3 percent of their tee balls into penalties, each with an average gain of -1.4 strokes. The bigger the penalty for hitting into a hazard, the more the pros avoid it.

I split the penalty category into the routine “one-stroke” penalties and tougher “two-stroke” penalties (the kind of stroke-and-distance disasters Hank Haney dubbed “the big miss”). Pros hit just under 1.0 percent of tee shots into one-stroke penalties and only 0.4 percent into two-stroke penalties. Think about that. Pros hit into stroke-and-distance trouble just one in 250 par-4 or par-5 tee shots — or about one big miss every 18 rounds.

How do us weekenders do? We hit a decent 49 percent of fairways, and 31 percent into rough or sand. The problem: We hit 16 percent into recovery situations (seven times as often as pros) and 3.4 percent into penalty situations. The penalty breakdown is interesting. We average 1.0 percent into one-stroke penalties and 2.4 percent into two-strokers. While our one-stroke-penalty rate is nearly the same as the pros (in part, I suspect, because weekend golfers rarely declare a ball unplayable), our two-stroke-penalty rate is nearly seven times that of pros.

Most holes are designed to give alternate routes, where big misses can be avoided. Learn from the pros: Give hazards the respect they deserve and you’ll lower your scores.