What weekend golfers should focus on to save shots

Time to lower your score this summer.

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Years ago, when I first played with my club pro Mike Diffley, I was struck by a truth that should have been clear. Anything I could do, he could do better. He drove it longer and straighter, hitting approach shots closer. He was better at scrambling and sinking more putts. Sure, I could beat him on a single shot or hole, but his dominance was so complete that it would have been unproductive to compare my game to his.

Sometimes when we’re trying to figure out what to work on to get lower scores, we’re better off looking at those playing a game more similar to our own.

Using data from millions of amateur shots recorded with my Golfmetrics app, I can identify low-hanging fruit and help players set realistic goals for improvement. There’s no point in spending an inordinate amount of practice time sinking 50 percent of 10 feet when PGA Tour pros only sink 40 percent of them.

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A surefire way to remove shots from your score is to improve performance from 150 yards down the fairway. PGA Tour pros hit half of those shots within 23 feet of the hole (and hit the green 77 percent of the time), while 80 golfers hit them (and hit 50 percent of the greens) at about 40 feet and 90 golfers to about 55 feet (hitting just over 30 percent of the greens). These are Grand Canyon size differences! Reducing your distance by 5 feet in these shots is a realistic goal and would yield better results in other areas of your bag. For example, if you hit a 7-iron from 150, improving with that club will also make you better at your 6-iron and 8-iron.

Driving distance is an attention-grabbing statistic. No doubt it’s important. The bombshells that hit Bryson DeChambeau last year propelled him to the top of the charts in Strokes Gained Off-the-Tee. But understand this: Analyzing the ShotLink and Golfmetrics data, I find that distance gains are worth even more to amateurs than to pros. An increase in driving distance of 20 yards with the same accuracy will remove approximately 1.4 strokes from the scorecard for a pro and 1.8 for a mid-90’s golfer. Missing an extra fairway or two is fine, but avoiding hazards that are serious scorecard wreckers in amateur play is imperative.

You can gain driving distance by upgrading your equipment. However, you can also do this by increasing your swing speed, which has additional benefits as it leads to longer distances with your other clubs as well. Where you used to use, say, a 6 iron from 160 yards, you might now be able to use an 8 iron, giving you a better chance of hitting it closer. When you account for improved approach shots, the total impact of driving distance gain can be 3.6 shots (or more) for a 90 golfer.

Are large gains in distance realistic? To cite an example, my friend, biomechanist Sasho MacKenzie, told me that Andrew Putnam, who was using the Stack system this winter, gained 13 mph in clubhead speed in six weeks. Putnam is a Tour pro, so he’s playing a game most of us aren’t familiar with. However, there is ample evidence that fast and significant distance gains are possible even for amateurs.

Not that you should ignore your short game, especially if you’re prone to occasionally leaving chips with skulls, chili dip, or green-side bunker shots in the sand. From around the green, the goal should always be to get the ball to the putting surface in one stroke.

Improving your putting probably won’t take five strokes off you, but trimming a stroke or two is a relatively easy start (and you can practice indoors). Most potential gains on the green are in the short range of 3 to 10 feet. Why? Because of execution (there is a significant difference in skill) and opportunity (there are a lot of short putts). From 1.50m, 95 golfers sink only about 50 percent of their attempts compared to 60 percent for 80 golfers (and 77 percent for pros). That 10 percent difference is significant (think of the difference in baseball between a .250 and .350 hitter — it’s gargantuan), and it really adds up because weekend warriors have many (about 10 per round) of these short ones resulting from a Combination of approach shots, shots around the green and second putts.

As a new season approaches, it pays to lay out a rough battle plan. Focusing on 60-yard bunker shots doesn’t make much statistical sense. But there are many simpler things you can do. Pick one or two (or all!) of these goals, take a class with your PGA Pro, and you’ll see your scores go down in the coming year.

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