Monday, April 18, 2011

Golf Strategy Thoughts Part III

In part III, I will discuss approach shot strategy. In the previous parts, I discussed par-4 and par-5 strategy. Since I’m discussing approach shot strategy here, you can include par-3 strategy as well because the tee shot on a par-3 is an approach shot.

A long time ago, on 3Jack Top 50 Instructor Dave Orr’s old forum (, he asked the question ‘why did we as young kids playing golf, make so many long putts?’

I’m sure there were some good reasons for it that dealt with the putting stroke and how our mind thinks. But I have another theory to add to this.

As kids, we struggled to get the ball to the flag on approach shots and pitches. We usually wound up hitting the ball short of the flagstick. Since greens tend to slope upward from front to back, we were leaving ourselves with a lot of uphill putts. As we got older, we started ‘having enough club’ and constantly hitting shots past the pin and we may have closer putts, but they are more downhill.

It reminds me of the first time I watched a golfer from my hometown play. He was the #1 player for an SEC university, then he went on to play mini-tours and the Canadian Tour for years. This was well before the Hogan Tour (now the Nationwide Tour) was available. He eventually gave up his pro status and started working 3 different jobs.

In his first year with his amateur status, in his mid-30’s while working 3 jobs, he made the finals of the New York State Amateur and eventually made the quarterfinals of the US Amateur, beating then #1 ranked Manny Zerman before eventually losing to the winner, Justin Leonard.

Again, all while in his mid-30’s and working 3 different jobs.

The thing is we really couldn’t figure it out. He wasn’t long off the tee. He wasn’t what we would call a great ballstriker. He seemed like a great putter, but he would miss way too many short putts to be considered great. He did seem like he had a great chipping and pitching game.

I remember telling my dad when I watched him for the first time that ‘he only hits it short of the flag if it will leave him an uphill putt.’ Meaning, he would try to hit shots ‘pin high’ or maybe a little longer. But if it was going to leave him with a downhill putt, he’d make sure he left it short of the flag. And his ability to do that was pretty special.


I asked AimPoint Golf creator ( Mark Sweeney about uphill and downhill putts and the percentages of made putts and he told me that he actually had data for the Tour players and yes, Tour players make much less downhill putts compared to uphill putts. IIRC, David Orr’s ‘Spider Studies’ came to the same conclusion.

Why is this?

1. Uphill putts (provided everything else is equal) will have less break than downhill putts

2. The roll of the putt is more predictable on an uphill putt than a downhill putt.

#2 I’ll explain further.

If you hit a downhill and an uphill putt the same distance, it will take a longer amount of time for the DOWNHILL putt to reach its destination. In other words, the downhill putt will go slower than an uphill putt.

The slower the ball rolls, the more likely it is to WOBBLE.

It’s much like a bicycle wheel wobbling when it starts to go slower. The problem that the wobble causes is it can change the roll of the putt and allows things like spike marks, indentations, etc to influence where the ball goes. With the uphill putt, since it’s moving at a faster speed, the wobble factor is much less than with a slower moving, downhill putt. And that’s a huge reason why golfers are more likely to make an uphill putt than a downhill putt.

And with the spring-early summer season coming up on us, this is very important to understand as golf courses start to use aerify the greens. A golfer stands little chance of making downhill putts on aerified greens because of the Wobble Factor and the aerification holes having a major affect on the roll of the ball.


The point about the Wobble Factor is that you’re much more likely to make uphill putts than downhill putts, but that does not mean that is your only goal on approach shots. It’s certainly something to keep in mind. But, if I had the choice between a 6 foot downhill putt and a 20 foot uphill putt, I’ll probably take the downhill putt more often than not because it is significantly closer. Where it starts to get closer is when you have something like a 12 foot uphill putt vs. an 8 foot downhill putt and with a slope of 3.5% on a 10 stimp green.

A lot of this depends on the golfer’s skill and their distance to the hole.


As I’ve discussed in the previous 2 parts, we generally consider the ‘Danger Zone’ to be shots from 175-225 yards on par-4’s and par-3’s. On par-5’s, due to the way most of them are designed, the Danger Zone moves up a bit into the 150-200 yard range.

I like Tom Watson’s thoughts on what his goals are when he has a long iron in his hand. He has stated that he just focuses on making good contact and finding the green.

As I’ve mentioned before, Danger Zone play is very important because this is where golfers usually lose all of their strokes. This is where making bogey or worse is very likely. Simply put, even the top 10 ranked golfers in the world do not ‘score’ from the Danger Zone. It’s usually a place where they typically make par. And because they are so good, they find a way to cut down on bogeys, probably make a few more birdies and do a good job of practically eliminating doubles and triples. Usually the top player in the Danger Zone on the PGA Tour has an average proximity to the cup of 34 feet or so. Remember, that is the *top* player. The average is about 40 feet. And there’s about a less than 2% chance of making a 34 footer or a 40 foot putt.

So Danger Zone play becomes a game of not hitting a shot that will cost you extra strokes and having makeable up and downs when you do miss the green.

In the Danger Zone I would not worry about leaving myself with an uphill putt. Like Watson said, just be happy with finding the green. Of course, there are some times you get on a hole where you can find the green, but you’re almost guaranteed to 3-putt, so I would avoid that part of the green in that situation.

But from the Danger Zone we need to start thinking about where the best location is for us to get up and down if we miss the green. And if you guessed, chipping to an uphill slope…you guessed correctly.

However, from the Danger Zone it may not be quite that easy. If that is the case, I would focus on the spot that you know would be the most difficult spot to get up and down from and try to avoid that at all costs.

#11 (208 yard par-3) at Walkabout is a good example

The only uphill chip/pitch is over to the left. But, if you miss left you risk hitting it into the bunker. While that isn’t exactly bad, if you miss the greenside bunker on the left, it’s actually a tough chip/pitch because there’s a hill you will have to hit over. And if the flag is tucked over to the left, getting up and down is extremely hard. While the right side doesn’t leave for an uphill chip, the slope isn’t too severe and thus the shot isn’t *that* hard. So the best play is to lean towards missing to the right. If you’re a push-draw type player whose misses are usually a push, that’s a good way to play the hole.

Overall, Danger Zone play should be rather conservative and the golfer should think ahead as far as where they want to leave themselves if they miss the green (which is much more likely from this position).


Obviously, the closer a golfer gets to the pin the more precise the golfer should be. However, it’s important to differentiate the strategy behind how far away a golfer is to the pin versus what club they are using.

For example, one of my friends legitimately hits their 7-iron about 210 yards long. For me, that’s a 4-iron. But if he has a 200 yard shot to a flag that is tucked behind a bunker and everywhere else surrounding the pin would be a very hard up and down, he would be a bit foolish to fire right at the flag even if he’s using an 8-iron.

I believe that’s because that even though he has less club, he’s still hitting a shot 200 yards long and that will have more hangtime. And in that time the ball is still up in the air, anything that has an affect of the flight of the ball (i.e wind) it will have a bigger impact on the ball flight than if he was 150 yards away. Furthermore, since he’s using more lofted club and still hits it the same length, he’s going to have more hangtime than myself hitting a 4-iron. So that is where he’s at a slight disadvantage.

That doesn’t mean I would recommend cutting down your power with irons just so you can cut down the hangtime. My friend still has some sizeable advantages being able to hit it this long with his irons.

For example, if he chooses to aim for the middle of the green, in general hitting a 7-iron is easier than hitting a 4-iron. Also, if he really needs to hit one close because he needs to hit a birdie, I think his odds would be better with a 7-iron than me hitting a 4-iron. And the other big factor is if the shot calls for something with a high trajectory and will land soft. Again, advantage longer player.


Wind is usually the weather factor that causes scores to rise, regardless of handicap. This is because it’s hard to control the ball’s flight and there is more guessing of where to aim. If you watch the PGA Tour enough, you start to see the days that the golfers tend to go really low out is when it just got done raining and it’s not windy. Drivers start to find the fairway more often because they can’t roll thru the fairway into the rough. And now with approach shots, they can fire right at the flag.

Wind has a similar type of affect that the incline/decline slope has on a shot. If you own a laser rangefinder with slope, you should notice that the slope has a bigger impact the further away from the hole you are. Let’s take the picture above. From 181 yards, there’s a 14* slope. This means the hole plays more like 153 yards, which is a 28 yard difference. But, if we were to take a shot from 100 yards with a 14* decline, it may read like an 85 yard shot which is a 15 yard difference.

I believe wind works the same way. If you feel a ‘2 club wind’ from 150 yards out, then from 210 yards out it’s probably more like a 3-club wind. And from 90 yards out it’s probably more like a 1 club wind.

Still though, your chances of hitting a lot of greens and hitting shots close on windy days is pretty slim. That’s why from a strategic standpoint, you need to mentally prepare yourself to have your short game ready. And as we discussed, if we can keep putts, chips and pitches below the cup, we will likely have better success.


Where golfers also tend to mis-club themselves is when they do not accurately judge their terrain. #6 at Windermere Golf Club just outside of Atlanta is a perfect example. If a golfer hits a tee shot in the fairway, they will have a downhill lie hitting into an elevated. However, it’s a bit deceptive to judge the downhill lie and the elevated green. Because the green is elevated, we need to hit it a little longer. And because the lie is downhill, the ball will go shorter because it will have a lower trajectory. This leads to most golfers needing 1 extra club.

From talking to the architects, they obviously design holes with the terrain in mind and also design bunkers, water, etc. around the green with the types of shots caused by the terrain.

I think many golfers, including myself, tend to fall into the trap of when they have a somewhat difficult lie of thinking ‘I should aim at the flag and just worry about hitting a good shot from this tough lie.’ Instead, I think it should be more of a ‘aim for the middle of the green and focus on making solid contact, 2-putt and make your par’ type of mindset.

Sometimes golfers have to worry about the terrain of a green, like a tiered green. Most tiered greens are on holes with short approach shots because it’s too difficult for golfers to have to hit into a tiered green with a mid-iron. If the flag is on the top tier, my recommendation is to try and carry it to the pin instead of hitting a low shot and trying to get it to run up to the pin. The reason being is that the bounce and roll is probably too unpredictable. A golfer could hit a shot on the bottom tier and it could take a hop over the top tier and go well off the green. Or the golfer could hit the tier and spin back to the bottom tier. With tiered greens, making birdie becomes much harder, but I think the goal is to put the ball on the correct tier and at least give yourself a run because putts to the opposite tier rarely go in.


On the Sunday of this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, I decided to watch some of the first few holes played early that morning on TV. On one hole, Bubba Watson blasts a driver about 370 yards, but in the right rough. He’s only about 10 yards from the fairway, but that had the deep rough close to the fairway on that hole.

Bubba has a PW into the green and out of the deep rough, he catches it a bit thick and winds up just short of the green, with an uphill chip. The announcers sorta ‘scold’ Bubba for not finding the green. However, from what we know, even if you just have a PW into the green, getting it on the green from the deep rough is no easy task. I believe that Bubba played the shot pretty well. He didn’t find the green, but odds weren’t in his favor and he wound up with a very makeable up and down.

But then Bubba hits a chip that burns the edge and goes about 3.5 feet past the cup. Before the chip, the announcers discuss how ‘you don’t get much better from here than Bubba Watson.’ And after the chip they basically state ‘good job of giving it a run there’ and more or less concede that he’ll make par and he ‘made a good effort’ on that chip.

However, that 3.5 foot putt is a downhill putt. And Bubba misses the putt and once again he’s ‘scolded’ for missing an ‘easy putt.’

The truth is that Bubba probably would’ve been much better with a 5 footer uphill and not ‘giving it a run’ than his 3.5 foot downhill putt.

Now, that does not mean you should never try and chip it in, but in Bubba’s case, it was really a poor chip. Had he knocked it 2 feet past, he’s almost likely to make that putt even if it is downhill. But now he’s 3.5 feet and downhill, he’s probably got the odds in his favor of making it, but the odds were better with an uphill putt.


Statistics are not about certainty, they are about probability. The argument I hear from critics usually revolves around incomplete statistics and those occasions where something defies the statistical odds. For instance, if I had a quarter and flipped it ten times in a row, theoretically it could land on heads each of the ten times. But the odds of that happening are at 0.098%. So, would anybody bet $100 on a quarter being flipped and landing on heads 10 times in a row? Or would you like your chances of it landing on heads on one flip?

Probability…not certainty.

Another good example was this past weekend at the Masters. The golfer who led the Masters in fairways hit?

Angel Cabrera is usually the player who has the lowest percentage of fairways hit on Tour. So yeah, theoretically it did happen, but it was a gigantic long shot given Cabrera’s history with his driver accuracy. And that’s why he played so well despite having a rough year, he got hot with the driver and with his power off the tee, that put him at a sizeable advantage that he almost never gets.

With that, scoring isn’t really about ‘putting and chipping well’ as much as it is made out to be. That *can* be part of it, but in general a golfer is not going to putt and chip abnormally better than they typically do.

Scoring is about the golfer putting themselves in position to get the ball in the cup with the least amount of strokes needed as it is about actually putting and chipping well.

The great rounds usually don’t consist of golfers making bombs as they do with golfers hitting shots closer and I believe leaving themselves with uphill putts.

People often say that golf is like chess. If that’s the case, you better start practicing what you preach.



Anonymous said...

Great one here!

Anonymous said...

awesome series, these are great to read...