Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Golf Strategy Thoughts, Part I

I had a lot of readers tell me that they enjoyed my statistical analysis on the importance of driving accuracy and in particular, my statistical analysis on Phil Mickelson (why he usually plays the odds right and why he’s so successful).

With that, I’ve been thinking more and more about strategy on the golf course and trying to apply it to my own game. I’ve recently come up with some more thoughts on strategy and have liked the results when I’ve applied them to my game. Please note, that I would say that this applies for the 4 or less handicap golfer because their shots are a bit more ‘predictable’ and for a course of 6,700 to 7,400 yards in length and provided the golfer’s average driver goes at least 265 yards.

First, we’ll go over my thoughts on Par-4 strategy

Recently, I’ve been corresponding with 2 different course architects on some of the principles and theories of golf course architecture. I feel if you can understand the architects, then you can better understand how to create a strategy for the course.

When it comes to par 4’s, the general rules of thumb these architects go by were:

1-2 par-4’s under 380 yards with severe penalty left and right of the hole
1-2 par-4s 425-450 yards with a tight fairway
1-2 par-4’s 455+ yards long and wide open

That usually means that if a course has 10 par-4’s, 5 or 6 of them will fall into those categories. The rest will be about 380-430 yards long, usually with trouble on one side.

But, we start to see the designer’s concepts:

A) 1-2 holes with big risk and reward (par-4 less than 380 yards)
B) 1-2 holes where you must hit driver and you hit it accurately
C) 1-2 holes where they want you to hit a driver long, but will give you open space to do so.

In all, if there’s 6 holes that fit this category, that’s 1/3rd of your round and a very important 1/3rd because in general the par-5’s and par-3’s require much less strategy off the *tee*.

For par-4’s, I would like to split them into 3 ‘zones.’

Danger Zone= Approach Shot from 175-225 yards long

Safe Zone= Approach Shot from 110-174 yards long

Birdie Zone= Approach Shot from 109 yards or less

Obviously, the closer to the hole a golfer is, the better they will be, provided they have the same lie and shot to the green.

However, I believe there are varying different levels where distance is more important. For instance, if I hit a driver that is 220 yards to the green and then another that is 195 yards into the green, I’d certainly take the 195 yard approach shot, but it’s not likely to make *that* big of a difference.

Here is what I have, in order of greatest to smallest difference.

1) Approach Shot in the Birdie Zone vs. Approach Shot in the Danger Zone
2) Approach Shot in the Safe Zone vs. Approach Shot in the Danger Zone
3) Approach Shot in the Birdie Zone vs. Approach Shot in the Safe Zone
4) Closer Approach shot, but in the same Zone

#1 is obvious. If I have a shot 100 yards into the green vs. one 180 yards into the green, MAJOR difference. The big reason why is that on average, double bogey is almost completely out of the question. Bogey has a pretty slim chance. Even the PGA Tour player is likely to make par, but they are now much more likely to make birdie.

#18 at Bay Hill was a great example as I watched Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and Gary Woodland play there in the first round. Woodland laid up and had 185 yards (Danger Zone) into the green. Woods laid up and found the rough and was playing for bogey (something I’ll get into later in this post). Johnson made the bold play of ripping a driver and hitting it right down the middle with less than 100 yards into the green.

Even though Woodland was in the fairway with a clear shot at the green, because he was in the Danger Zone, he had a very tough shot. What’s extremely tough about the Danger Zone is that if you miss the green, your chances of getting up and down are usually slim because of your lack of accuracy from that position and also, the way most of the holes are designed where a Danger Zone approach shot is likely.

Woodland hit his shot and wasn’t off by that much, but he almost went into the water if he didn’t get a lucky bounce off the rocks. He wound up making bogey (IIRC). The announcers were talking about what a great position Johnson was in and acted like birdie was a foregone conclusion. He hit an approach to 15 feet and then missed the birdie putt and made par. The announcers more or less ‘scolded’ him for not making birdie, but that’s because they do not understand these zone very well.


The ‘Birdie Zone’ does not guarantee a golfer, even a top 10 ranked player in the world, will make birdie. It doesn’t even mean that a top 10 player in the world will make birdie from there the majority of the time. What it means is that if we were to place 100 golf balls in each 3 of these zones, the golfer would have the highest percentage of birdies from the Birdie Zone (109 yards or less into the flag).

The beauty of the Birdie Zone is that while it doesn’t even guarantee birdie more than 50% of the time, your chances of making bogey have diminished greatly. And your chances of making double bogey or more are almost nil.


What I’ve found that most people who don’t quite buy into the ‘Danger Zone’ concept is that they get too wrapped up into making birdies. Don’t get me wrong, birdies are important. You cannot ‘go low’ if you don’t make a lot of birdies. But, more often than not we are not ‘on fire’ and we need to play decent but manage to still shoot good scores.

The flaw in the ‘it’s all about birdies’ concept is that for the most part the best you can really do on a hole is to make a birdie. Once in awhile a golfer can make an eagle and once every couple of years a golfer makes an albatross, but almost all of the time, the golfer can only make a birdie.

On the flip side, a golfer can theoretically make as high of a score as they want. A double, triple, quad, etc.

Thing about it for a second.

If I make a bogey, I can ‘cancel’ that out with a birdie. But if I make a double bogey, now I need 2 birdies to ‘cancel’ that out. And that means I’ve taken up 3 holes of golf in order to ‘cancel out.’ That’s 1/6th of my round.

It should go without saying, but if you want to ‘go low’ or shoot consistently good scores, avoiding double bogeys are more important than making birdies. It’s not a blowout because making birdies is important, but double bogeys are just more important.


As I stated with my analysis on ‘driving accuracy’, golfers at this level essentially want to have unimpeded approach shots into the green. The average PGA Tour player hits it 30% more accurate from the fairway than they do the rough, but that doesn’t differentiate an unimpeded approach shot vs. an impeded approach shot. Here are the 5 main parts of the game that impede approach shots.

1. Water
2. O.B.
3. Deep Rough
4. Fairway Bunker
5. Trees

We actually do not hit from O.B. or water (well, most of the time), but they automatically cost the golfer strokes, so the approach shot is impeded before we actually get to hit it.

It’s important to differentiate deep rough versus the first cut and intermediate rough. I would probably label deep rough has grass length of 4 inches or more. Anything less than that usually has a decent chance of being a shot you can get on the green.

A big key strategy is this. Off the tee, we want to pretty much take water and O.B. almost out of play. If you watch the PGA Tour pros, they usually don’t go in the water very much or O.B. off the tee. They are not afraid to aim well away from the fairway if it means a likely approach shot in the rough, just as long as it takes O.B. and water out of play.


From there, we want to try and estimate what the odds of our possible results off the tee will be and weigh them against the risk vs. the reward.

The odds we want to figure out is the chances we will have an impeded approach shot into the green. The risks vs. rewards is more along the lines of what type of reward will we get if we hit the ball longer and get closer to the hole and the risks are what the penalty would be if we miss.

But here’s something to think about when assessing the risks and the odds. Ask yourself ‘what are the odds of me having an impeded shot IF I take a pretty good swing?’

For instance, take a look at #12 at North Shore Golf Club

If I hit a driver really well and right down the middle, I can have about 135 yards into the green. However, at the 153 yard mark, there’s a large oak tree there. The fairway is only about 15 yards wide from there with trees left of the oak tree and right of the fairway.

In other words, I can take a pretty good swing and still have a pretty good chance of having an impeded approach shot, which is what I do not want.

Instead, I’m better off taking a 3-wood off the tee. Yes, that risks me winding up in the Danger Zone. But I’d rather be able to a full swing with a 5 or 6-iron with a clear shot into the green than having to punch a shot around some trees, then get up and down.

Now take a look at #5 at North Shore

There’s O.B off the right and on the left is a bunch of nolls with tall fescue growing there (risks a lost ball penalty) and waste bunkers.

The easy play is go hit a 3-wood or a 3-hybrid and have 130-150 yards into the green. However, I believe driver is the play here because if I take a very average golf swing for me, I probably have a 80-90% chance of having an unimpeded shot into the green. Furthermore, this puts me deep into the Danger Zone. Left of the knolls on the left side is the #4 fairway. I wouldn’t want to be over there, but it’s not the worst place in the world to be. Thus, I aim slightly left and know that as long as I do not have a wide open clubface at impact, O.B. won’t be an issue. Like Dustin Johnson on #18 at Bay Hill, it doesn’t guarantee birdie but it gives me a much better chance than if I was 130-150 yards away and if I hit one in the fairway, bogey is pretty much out of the equation.


Often times no matter how well you hit the driver or if you use driver instead of 3-wood, you are still going to be stuck with an approach shot in the same zone. For instance, #17 at The Deltona Club is a 470 yard par-4 that goes uphill. I would need to hit it 300 yards uphill in order to not be in the Danger Zone and I would still be very close to it.

While most of these par-4’s where you’re likely to wind up in the Danger Zone typically have wide fairways, allowing the golfer to let the shaft out, my advice would be to fight that instinct and instead concentrate more on making solid contact and finding the fairway.


Because in the Danger Zone, PGA Tour golfers are about 40-45% more accurate from the fairway than in the rough.

So, if you leave one in the fairway, 205 yards away versus one in the rough 185 yards away, I think on average you’re very likely to hit the 205 yard shot in the fairway closer to the pin. More importantly, if you miss the green, the miss will probably not be nearly as penalizing.

And if you find the fairway from 180 yards away, you’re still not likely to hit it that close to where you have a reasonable shot at birdie. You’re likely to just put it on the green and 2-putt. Like Tom Watson said when it comes to long irons, just try to make solid contact and put it on the middle of the green.


-Assess the risk vs. reward

-Estimate your odds of having an impeded approach shot

-What’s your chances of being unimpeded if you take a decent swing with the driver?

-More important to find the Safe Zone instead of the Danger Zone if you can

-Find the Birdie Zone vs. the Safe Zone if you can.

-Figure out how to take O.B. and water out of play



Kurobuta said...

This is a great post. You don't find this kind of discussion very often on golf websites. Quite frankly, there should be much much more.

Looking forward to part 2.. and part 3.. and part 4..

Dan said...

I agree with Kurobuta, this is awesome. This is definitely someting I want to try with my game, and might make me rethink when to take the driver out.

Rich H. said...

Thanks guys. Let me say though that I do believe in taking the driver out and generally being aggressive. Closer to the hole typically equates to better. The point of this post is more about when to leave the driver in the bag and when you do use the driver, where to aim it, when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive.

Kurobuta said...

I tend to automatically use my driver on every par 4 and Par 5 hole.. I just grab it without thinking. When having trouble with the irons, i've actually my driver on a long Par 3 before.. I just choked down on it about couple of inches with a nice easy swing.. ball rolled right up onto the green.

I like your Northshore example. I often find myself lured into trying to find narrowest part of the fairway.. it really does go against logic. Next time, I will do my best to resist.. and keep the driver in the bag and go with a safer club.. see what happens.