Monday, June 13, 2011

Driver vs. 3-Wood Strategy Talk

“A scratch has a consistent swing and can put together very good rounds, but too often he makes that double bogey or multiple bogeys in a row. A (tour) pro learns to eliminate that.”Matt Kuchar, Golf Digest (June 2011)

Some questions were asked on the forum ( about the strategy of when to hit driver or leave it in the bag. I have some more updated thoughts on that.

First off, let’s be very clear here. I am AVERSE to hitting anything BUT A DRIVER off a par-4 or a par-5. Leaving the driver in the bag is something I do NOT like to do. However, many times it is unavoidable. The main point here is that I believe an aggressive golf strategy is generally a good golf strategy. The golfer just cannot play with a dumb and reckless strategy.

I cannot stress that enough…my belief is that the best strategy is to play fearless, aggressive golf while playing the odds smartly. Unfortunately golfers tend to do the opposite…fearful, conservative golf and taking gambles instead of calculated risks.

Most of the time, hitting a driver on a par-4 or par-5 should come without even having to put much thought towards it. However, we all know that there are usually 2-3 holes where it comes into question and whether or not we should hit driver or take out the 3-wood off the tee.

I think the very basic questions a golfer needs to ask themselves is ‘what is the risk?’ and ‘what is the reward?’

For me, I hit my driver on average approximately 290 yards. And off the tee, I hit my 3-wood about 250 yards. Thus, if I hit both well the inherent reward of using driver is 40 extra yards of distance. But, we need to drill down more than that.

I think where golfers tend to screw up with using the driver when they need to hit 3-wood off the tee, is that they tend to focus too much on increasing their odds of making a birdie. I feel that they are better off on focusing upon their odds of making a bogey or worse.

What I mean by this is with regards to the approach shot. I’d say that in my own game, I’m quite confident that if I have an approach with a 7-iron thru Lob Wedge in my hand, my odds of making a bogey or worse are pretty slim. And obviously, if I have a shorter club into the green, my odds of making birdie do increase. Although I believe it’s the same for PGA Tour pros, if I have a PW in my hands instead of an 8-iron, my odds of making birdie increase, but not by a wide margin.

When I get to 6-iron and 5-iron, I think my chances of making bogey increase quite a bit. It’s not by confidence that I hit my 6-iron about 182 yards and my 5-iron about 195 yards…both of which are in the ‘Danger Zone’ (175 – 225 yards). And I think my odds of making bogey spike when I get the 4-iron, 3-iron, 3-hybrid and 3-wood in my hands on the approach shot.

I think this is crucial to understand because bogey avoidance percentage has a greater correlation to adjusted scoring average on the PGA Tour than birdie or better percentage does.

Read that last line again because it is that important to understand.

So if the difference between hitting a driver vs. a 3-wood off the tee is a PW vs. a 7-iron on the approach, the reward really goes no further beyond having about 3 less clubs into the green. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a nice advantage. But, if the difference between a driver vs. a 3-wood off the tee is a 8-iron vs. a 4-iron, that’s a MUCH GREATER advantage and thus there is much more of a reward for hitting a good driver off the tee than hitting a good 3-wood off the tee.

Of course, we still have to assess risk. When doing so, I ask myself 3 questions

1. What are the things that would ‘impede’ my approach shot into the green? (i.e. O.B., water, woods, fairway bunker, deep rough, etc)

2. If I hit a good shot that is pretty much going at the intended target, what are the odds I will be okay?

3. How much room do I have to deviate from the intended target before I get into trouble? In other words ‘what is my margin for error?’

#2 is an important question to ask because sometimes you get a hole where you can miss your target a bit and still wind up okay, in part because of dumb luck. However, you may hit a pretty good shot at your target and wind up in trouble. Usually this happens on doglegs.

#3 at Shingle Creek is a 394 yard par-4. This is a hole where I take 3-WOOD off the tee

If I hit driver well off the tee, I have a Sand Wedge into the green. With a 3-wood, I have a 9-iron into the green. Don’t get me wrong on this, I’m more likely to make birdie with a SW into the green vs. a 9-iron into the green. But, my odds of making BOGEY are pretty slim with either. So outside of the 40 yards gained, there is substantial advantage to hitting driver off the tee.

Still, that does not persuade me until I assess the risk. There are some pretty heavy things that impede the approach shot. Water on the right, which will almost automatically force me to make at least a double bogey on the hole. And woods on the left which would probably force me into making a bogey.

Then we have margin for error. I would probably be fine with a driver that was well struck and at the target outside of some random times. But, my margin for error is pretty small. 5 yards right or left of my intended target and things get dicey. And the risk is so big, that it outweighs the reward in this situation. So we take out the 3-wood on this tee.

#5 at North Shore GC is a 367 yard par-4. This is a hole where I take DRIVER off the tee.

If I hit driver off the tee, I have about 70 yards into the green. If I hit 3-wood, it’s more like a pitching wedge into the green. So why would I take a driver?

Despite the reward ‘only’ being about 40 extra yards of distance, the risk is rather manageable for me. There is O.B. right and sand dunes and fairway bunkers left, but it’s pretty wide open. Furthermore, if I hit a ball O.B on this hole, it’s a very bad swing and I would likely go O.B. with that swing had I hit 3-wood instead. So for me, the play is a driver, favor it a little left of center and give it a good rip.

#3 at North Shore is a different situation. This is a 454 yard par-4 with water right.

Here I take driver even though there’s a chance I can go into the water with the driver and it’s very unlikely I would go into the water with the 3-wood.

But, the left side is well open. And a solid driver wood mean an 8-iron into the green whereas a good 3-wood would mean a 4-iron into the green.

However, it’s different on #12, a 417 yard par-4

If you look at the yardage book, where it says 153 yards in the fairway, that’s a huge overhanging oak tree. It’s only 261 yards to that tree, but the opening between the oak and the trees right of the fairway is about 15 yards. And if I hit a driver, it’s almost pot luck as to whether or not I wind up behind the tree, impeding my approach shot.

OTOH, because the 3-wood would wind up a further distance away from the oak tree, it’s not likely to wind up where I can’t hit a clean shot at the green.

Here, a good driver will put me about a 9iron or PW away. A good 3-wood will put me about a 5-iron or 6-iron away. So, there’s a big advantage for me hitting a driver well off the tee than a 3-wood off the tee on this hole. However, since it is almost pot luck with regards to hitting a driver and winding up in good position, I play a 3-wood. Obviously, I’m not that keen in hitting less club off the tee and winding up with a 5 or 6-iron into the green. But sometimes you just have to grin and bear it….hit the shot, 2-putt and take part.

This type of strategy can work great at a course you are not too familiar with. But, I’ve seen it work even better at golfers’ home course, where they pull out the 3-wood because that’s what they’ve always done. When I lived in Georgia, members commonly took a 3-wood out on the 3rd hole, a par-5 that is 497 yards from the back tees (you tee off a cliff).

One of the good things for the golfer on this hole is that since they are teeing off a cliff, they will get a maximum of 5 yards of roll.

If a 5-handicap or less golfer aimed at the middle of the fairway, they would be alright as long as they didn’t hit a decent sized pull or have a block that was the result of a very open clubface at impact. In other words, they were fine in large part because they didn’t have to worry about the roll, as long as they didn’t take a poor swing. Or in other words, the only advantage using the 3-wood is that if you took a very poor swing on a block shot, you have a better chance of winding up okay. But then we are ‘playing for bad swings’ instead of ‘playing for good swings’ and *reasonable* misses.

This was a big advantage for me in their 2009 Club Championship as almost every golfer used 3-wood off the tee while I was using driver. And I wound up with hybrids into the green, leaving it to 7-feet for eagle in the first round and then a chip and kick in for birdie in the 3rd round (we played a different course in the 2nd round).

So remember, there’s almost always an inherent reward of extra distance with the driver over the 3-wood off the tee. The question then becomes how big of an advantage and how big of a risk. And the golfer has to figure out that for themselves. But as I always like to say, I’d rather ‘go down swinging’ than to play conservative and get burned in the end anyway.



Nick said...

This was great Rich. I played the course I grew up on this weekend and can see alot of parallels.

Although I had 4 doubles (the kuchar quote still applies to me) it was actually a good round for how I've been playing recently (2 birdies does that). I noticed that all of my errors came from the short game. (which is what I haven't worked on at all over the last year or so). I was great from the danger zone, hitting both of the long par threes with 4 and 5 irons to 20 feet and also hitting a 540ish par 5 in two with my 5 wood.

Although the doubles sucked, they all came from not committing to the shot or trying to really overdo a short club (i.e. trying to kill a short iron rather than going with the longer club).

Just reading your blog really helps with the mental process of how to play different scenarios. I also noticed that on holes that are normally very tough for me I played them much smarter than I would have previously. That was also a plus.

geoff said...

It has been a gradual process to start playing agressive golf on my part.Now 3 strokes away from my target hcp of 10 I now have the confidence in my stroke play to pick a target and go for it 100% certain of success. The door has been opened on the mental wall.

This month I have been getting 82's from that and also the increased practise as I prepare for the regions various club opens. Accuraccy is my prefered strength I work on developing in favour of distance. but the same winning etyhos applies.

Rich H. said...

keep up the good work, Geoff. As I always say, we don't practice to play conservatively. We practice so we can hit great shots.


Ronnie Martin said...

good stuff Rich. But what if you hit you driver as well if not better than you do your 3 wood?
With todays technology, I would say that I probably hit mine as straight if not straighter. In fact, I can chip my driver 225 to 240 with a little bunt cut.

Rich H. said...

I would recommend finding something that you hit more accurate than the driver. Whether it be a hybrid or a long iron.


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