A Blueprint for Breaking 80

Once you have descended the ladder thru the 100’s and conquered the 90’s, you need to strive for golf’s holy grail – breaking 80! It’s not easy but well worth the effort. As I was told by my first pro and mentor, “the game really does get more fun the better you play“. And spot on he was. I worked hard and eventually attained my ultimate goal of having my handicap match my personality – zero. It was so much fun that I created a new and better system of golf stats and analysis, now known as Strokes Gained. You can read about the History of Strokes Gained on my website: www.ShotByShot.com

I quickly discovered that the game is a puzzle in that all of the pieces, good and bad, fit together to produce a score. Each round is a mix of good shots, average shots and bad shots/errors. The challenge is to find which piece of your puzzle is your greatest weakness so you can target your improvement efforts on the highest impact area. If you track the simple good and bad outcomes listed below for a few rounds, your strengths and weaknesses will become apparent.

Here is my blueprint for breaking 80

Distance: I will ignore this and assume you are playing from the appropriate tees for your game.

Fairways: Hitting them is important, as we are all more accurate from the short grass.

Errors: Far more important than Fairways Hit is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad misses. ShotByShot.com users record THREE types of Driving Errors:

  1. No Shot: You have missed in a place from which you do not have a normal next shot, requiring some sort of advancement to get the ball back into normal play. This tends to be the less costly error – usually 70% of a stroke.
  2. Penalty: A one-stroke penalty due to a penalty area or an unplayable lie.
  3. Lost/OB: Stroke and distance penalty.

GIR’s: The most useful of all of the “old school” stats for two reasons. First, your long game has been efficient enough to get you to the green in regulation (2 strokes or more under par). Second, it is always a birdie or eagle putt of some length.

Errors: In the Approach facet, this is a penalty result or a shot missed so badly that you are faced with a 2nd shot from greater than 50 yards of the hole.

Short Game Shots (shots from within 50 yards of the hole): If you miss NINE greens, you should have at least EIGHT green-side save opportunities.

*Errors: Shots that miss the green AND require FOUR or more total shots to hole out. In my book, the fringe does not count as a green missed.

You should have one or two sand shots per round, depending on your course.

You need 33 putts or less and the numbers above will ensure that you get there.

GOOD LUCK! Please let me know when you are successful.

For a complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to www.ShotByShot.com

Mr. 18 to Mr. 9: Approach Shots

Here we need to save 3 strokes. This facet involves the greatest number of long game opportunities – on average 17.6 full swing attempts per round. These attempts are generally split 70% from the fairway and 30% from the rough. Let’s ignore the sand for now as it accounts for approximately only 1 shot every three-plus rounds. Except to say that when you find yourself in a fairway bunker, it is usually a mistake, so take your medicine, get back in play and avoid doubling the pain.

Where to save three strokes? Avoid penalties and that’s at least one stroke. Then hit three more greens in regulation and your there – Mr. 18 averages five GIR’s vs. Mr. 9’s eight. Obviously, the key is to improve accuracy.

I recommend working on the distance ranges circled in the charts below and devoting 70% of your work to fairway shots. From distances longer than the circled ranges, make smart choices, play within your capabilities and avoid errors and penalties. Easy?! At either handicap level, from long-range you will miss more greens that you hit. Knowing this, work toward “good misses” – the fat side of the green, short but in the fairway, etc. Finally, my data supports that hitting the green is far more important than worrying about “proximity to the hole”. But that’s another article.

Was it DeChambeau’s Long Ball that beat Westwood by a single stroke at Bay Hill?

I admit that Bryson is growing on me. His demeanor seems more joyful and he is playing a bit faster. You have to admire the dedication to his craft, his skill and prodigious, yet accurate, long game. That said, I was rooting for Lee Westwood, once it was clear that Zach Johnson was not going to don Arnie’s famous sweater.

Let’s ignore the first three rounds and jump straight to the final head-to-head between Bryson and Lee Westwood. Bottom line, in the 4th round, Westwood’s accuracy with his approach shots offset Bryson’s driving distance and accuracy. Neither of them made any long game mistakes. Lee’s short game bested Bryson by just over a stoke – enhanced by a 19-foot putt from the fringe (considered short game, not putting, in tour stats).

The true separation between the two came on the greens. Lee gave up 3.44 Strokes Gained to Bryson on the greens in the 4th round alone. Part of it was a single 3-Putt by Lee from 46 feet – by no means a choke on those firm, windswept greens – but Bryson had no 3-Putts.

The major difference was in the 1-Putts made versus those missed. Even Paul Azinger cringed along with the rest of us as Westwood missed FIVE consecutive putts from 19′, 9′, 8′ (for par), 13′ and 9′ in the first five holes of the round. A player tied for the lead in a premier event needs to make at least two of these putts. I did not see it, but believe that Lee’s fiancee/caddie must have walked off the 5th hole with her head a bit down. Below, are the 1-Putt numbers by distance for DeChambeau and Westwood for the 4th round.

The 6 to 10-foot range is the 50% make distance on the PGA Tour. As I have said for years, this important range separates the good putters on Tour from the rest while the 11 – 20 foot range usually separates the winners. In the final round, the winner tends to beat that 50% average from 6 to 10 feet. Had Lee made 3 of 5 (60%), he would have put himself in the cat-bird seat.

Mr. 18 to Mr. 9: Driving

Skill in this critical facet of the game is measured by distance and accuracy. But let’s take distance out of the equation by assuming we’re all playing the correct tees for our games and focus on ACCURACY.

As the chart in my first post indicates, we are looking for 2.5 strokes on, what for a typical golf course, is 14 driving holes. The chart below shows results in the average round for Mr. 18 and Mr. 9. Note that Mr. 18 makes two Driving Errors* per round while Mr. 9 just over one. Weed out these costly errors and you can be more than half way home, especially if they are Penalty Errors** that tend to carry a cost of between 1.3 strokes (penalty with drop) and two-plus strokes (stroke and distance). This may be easier said than done, but sometimes the fix is as simple as target and club selection from the tee. Sure, it works to aim away from trouble but try also choosing a club that cannot reach the trouble. Most holes that feature trouble off the tee will also be stroke holes, even for Mr. 9. Avoid the error and take double-bogey out of play. This is also a valuable strategy for match play situations.

Next, strive to hit at least one more fairway. the approach accuracy charts in my next post will illustrate how many more greens are hit from the fairway vs. the rough.

*No Shot Driving Errors = Balls hit out of play that require an advancement shot to return to normal play.

**Penalty Errors = a. Stroke with a drop, or b. Stroke and distance

A road map for an 18 handicap to get down to a 9

You might ask: How do I know the differences between these handicap levels? Well, it is my full-time job to know about the numbers behind the game of golf—at all levels. I have been a student of the game from a statistical standpoint for 30-plus years. I created the strokes gained analysis website, ShotByShot.com, used by thousands of amateur golfers to improve by isolating the strengths and weaknesses of their games. Additionally, I work with PGA Tour players to extract clear answers from the Tour’s overwhelming 650-plus ShotLink stats.

I’ve learned that there is no such thing as an “average” game, no matter the handicap level. We’re all snowflakes and find our own unique way to shoot our number. With that said, ShotByShot.com’s 450,000-plus round database enables us to create a composite of the average golfer at each level. One of the beauties is that our data is robust and smooth across all five major facets so that any golfer’s strengths and weaknesses—and we all have them—stand out clearly by comparison.

The Data We Used 

  • 18 Handicap: I averaged the 5,000 rounds in our database that match the 18 Differential from Slope Adjusted Course Rating. In other words, the Best eight of 20 rounds when Mr. 18 actually played to an 18 handicap.
  • 9 Handicap: Similarly, his Best eight out of 20 using the 5,000 applicable rounds in our database.

As you might guess, the scoring difference between these two handicap levels is nine strokes. So, if your snowflake matches or is close to Mr. 18’s, simply work to drop the shots below by facet and voila you are there.

The chart below shows the distribution of the strokes by facet that Mr. 18 needs to save to join Mr. 9. In the coming days, I will post five short articles – each describing the most important areas for improvement in each of the five major facets: Driving, Approach shots, Chip/Pitch, Sand shots and Putting. Next post Mr. 18 => 9: Driving.

Welcome to Concession! Bet you can’t break…?

Years ago, I was lucky enough to join a special golf club that had a well-earned reputation as the most difficult test in our area. Golf soon became my passion and I was pleased to invite friends and clients to experience the course that I loved. Before their 1st round, I would offer my guests a standard wager. I would have them choose a score 5 to 10 shots above their conceivable scoring max. I would bet $10 that they could not break that lofty number. For the extra cocky, I would also bet that they could not avoid at least one double bogey. How difficult is my course? In 30+ years, I have NEVER LOST either of those wagers.

Just imagine how Concession members could cash in on a wager like this! Not to mention the number of lost balls or sleeves of balls. I couldn’t help but think of the time it might take a foursome of average golfers to finish. Including out of bounds and/or balls hit out of play, Concession appeared to be just about the most challenging driving course EVER. The breaks in the healthy vegetation featured problematic water off the tee on NINE holes.

To bolster my point, I dug into exactly how the 71 top Tour players handled Concession. I had my genius program extract two important stats from the ShotLink data that do not appear in the Tour’s stats:

  1. Driving Errors: Penalty results this week were more than twice the Tour’s 2020 season average. .40/round vs. .19/round for the 2020 season. This means that on average the best 71 players on Tour had 1.6 drives result in a penalty* situation during their 4 rounds at Concession while the entire field of the 2020 Tour would have had only .8 such driving errors every four rounds. *Penalty = OB, Lost or Penalty area requiring 1 stroke penalty and drop.
  2. Short Game Errors**: These were also twice the Tour’s 2020 season average. 4.2% of shot attempts resulted in errors vs. 2.1% for the 2020 season. Below are the main Around the Green (Short Game Tour stats). NOTHING about these stats would lead me to believe that the FIELD had any such dramatic problems around the greens. If you watched, as I did, you understand my point.

**Short Game Error = Shot attempts from within 50 yards of the hole (Chip/Pitch or Sand). The shot MISSES the green AND requires 4 or more TOTAL strokes to hole out.

Stat Trivia: Which PGA Tour Player WON with Negative Strokes Gained Putting?

The answer is Rory McIlroy.  He won the 2012 BMW Championship with a -.272 Strokes Gained Putting.  It was the first leg of the playoffs, so a limited field of 72 players.  But hey, this was the best 72 players for the year-to-date AND no CUT.  To be honest, there might have been another negative winner that snuck past me, but I seriously doubt it.  Please be sure to let me know (nicely) if you discover that I am wrong.

As we know, putting is key. In fact, it is approximately 40% of the game at every skill and scoring level (see chart below).  Strokes Gained Putting was introduced on Tour in 1994.  Since then, more often than not, Tour winners are highly ranked in this important facet – often #1 in the FIELD but usually in the TOP-10.  As a statistician, I was shocked when I saw Rory’s negative Strokes Gained WIN.  So, I filed it away.

How bad was Rory’s putting?  

Rory won by two strokes over Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood.  His putting was ranked #45 @ -.272, giving up just over one stroke to the FIELD for the event.  Most costly, Rory had TWO 3-Putts from 20 and 35 feet. These are reasonably close ranges by Tour standards. For Strokes Gained purposes, 35 feet is the Tour’s 2-Putt distance so that 3-Jack cost him one stroke while the 20 footer about 1.13 strokes.

How did he overcome his putting shortfall?

Simple, he was dominant against the FIELD in every other aspect of the game. Rory was ranked #1, or +2.58 in Approach the Green and #4, or +1.07 Off the Tee.  Most importantly, Rory was ranked #1, +3.81 in Tee to Green (this measures everything except Putting). To top it off, Rory chipped in TWICE.  Those two strokes of genius alone offset his two measly 3-Putts.  Well done, Rory!

For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of Your Game, go towww.ShotByShot.com

The Dreaded 4-Putt!

Isn’t that the way all golfers think about it?  I certainly do – and so must the eight players at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am who suffered 4-Putts.  None more-so than Nate Lashley who left the 16th green on Sunday after a 4-Putt for triple-bogey.  This dropped him from the lead to three strokes behind with only two holes left to recover.  Devastating I’m sure!  Not to pile on, but there are a few things that set Nate’s 4-Putt apart from the other seven at Pebble Beach:

  1. His was the only 4-Putt in the final round.
  2. His 13-footer 1st putt was the closest to the hole.  There were two from 15 feet, two from 30 feet and the other three from 42, 47 and 53 feet.
  3. 13 feet was also the 3rd closest starting distance of the 54, 4-Putts recorded in the 2021 PGA Tour season so far.  The closest was a painful 4 feet and 2nd place 12 feet.
  4. His was the only 4-Putt by a player in the lead.

Just how rare, or frequent, are these embarrassing 4-Putts?  My focus group of ONE, has always considered the 4-Putt to be a relative rarity.  I only tend to play in a couple of Stroke Play events each year and throw in a few Stroke play qualifying rounds.  The remainder of my 70 to 90 rounds per season are all match play where the unfortunate 3rd putt is almost always conceded and picked up.  In short, I expect ONE 4-Putt max each season and am usually relieved when I can get it out of the way early and blame it on “winter rust.”

I have studied putting and distance control on the PGA Tour for many years and know fully well that 4-Putts are by no means that rare among the best in the world.  To update my conclusion, I looked at the 14 events of the Tour’s 2021 season including last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.  Here is what I found:

# ShotLink Rounds:  4,906

  • 4-Putts:  51
  • 5-Putts:   2
  • 6-Putts:   1 (and it was from 4 feet!!)
  • The average start distance of all 54 putts was 43.8 ft.  The complete array of starting distances is in the chart below.

This amounts to a DREADED putting result once in every 91 PGA Tour rounds.  In other words, just about every full-time Tour player has ONE each season.

Other points of interest:

The course matters

  • Winged Foot (home of the 2020 US Open) had the most with TEN 4-Putts and ONE 6-Putt (again, from 4 feet. OUCH!).
  • Torrey Pines (South) was 2nd with nine 4-Putts.
  • Pebble Beach was 3rd with eight 4-Putts.
  • Five courses had ONE
  • None of the 14 courses had ZERO 4-Putts.

How do amateurs match up?

To answer this, I had my genius friend & programmer run a quick query on 2020 ShotByShot year.  I expected the frequency to be similar to the Tour’s, if not lower, due to the vast majority of rounds being match play – again, the 3rd putt is generally conceded or picked up.  I also believed that as the player handicaps go UP, so will the instance of Stroke Play rounds dramatically diminish.  Not true!

ShotByShot subscribers recorded 53,309 rounds and incurred a 4-Putts or worse once in every 19 rounds.  That is 4.7 times the frequency of the PGA Tour.  My only conclusion is that not only are ShotByShot subscribers extremely loyal, they are also much MORE HONEST than the palookas that keep beating up on me every week.

For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, go to wwwShotByShot.com.

A Modern Blueprint for BREAKING 90

Want to break 90?  Here is my blueprint

The game is a puzzle and all the pieces fit together. Each round is a mix of good shots, average shots and bad shots or errors. The challenge is to find the piece of your game’s unique puzzle that is your greatest weakness so you can target your improvement time and money on the highest impact area. If you track the simple good and bad outcomes listed below for a few rounds, your strengths and weaknesses will become apparent.

Tee Game or Driving

Goals:  Hit 7 fairways, and limit your driving errors to 2– preferably of the No Shot variety (see Errors below).

Distance:  I will ignore this and assume that you are playing from the appropriate tees for your game.

Fairways:  Hitting fairways is important as we are all more accurate from the short grass.

Errors:  Far more important than Fairways hit is your FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of misses. ShotByShot.com users record THREE types of Driving Errors:

  1. No Shot:  You have missed in a place from which you do not have a normal next shot, requiring some sort of advancement to get the ball back to normal play.
  2. Penalty:  A 1-stroke penalty due to hazard or unplayable lie.
  3. Lost/OB:  Stroke and distance penalty.

Approach Shots

Goals:  5 GIRs and 1 Penalty/2nd (see below)

Penalty/2nd:  This means either a penalty or a shot hit so poorly that you are left with yet another full approach shot greater than 50 yards from the hole.

Short Game

(Shots from within 50 yards of the hole)

Chip/Pitch: If you miss 13 greens, you will have at least 10 greenside save opportunities. Your goals should be:

  • % Saved:  20% (two saves)
  • % Errors:  15% shots that miss the green (approximately three every two rounds)


You should have 2 greenside save opportunities.  Your goals:

  • % Saved:  10%
  • % Errors:  30% of your shots miss the green (approximately 1 in every 3 attempts)


You need 36 putts.  Aim for:

  • 1-Putts:  3
  • 3-Putts:  2

Good luck and please let me know when you are successful!

For a complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to:  shotbyshot.com.

FOUR outstanding aspects of Si Woo Kim’s game. Which was the most impressive?

You had to be impressed with young Si Woo Kim this weekend at the American Express tournament at PGA West.  To see him step up to shoot 64 (-8) in the final round to win by one on the water-EVERYWHERE Stadium course?  Here is my list of four noteworthy features of his game – in MY reverse order of impact:

His Finish

He closed with birdies on 16 and 17 and a solid par on the difficult 18th hole.  With water looming down the entire left side and very much in play on both the drive and approach shot, Si Woo hit a 263-yard drive in the fairway.  From 175 yards, he hit his approach shot safely to 20 feet right of the pin for a stress free 2-Putt par.  Given the circumstances, very impressive!

His Scoring Profile

One Eagle, 23 Birdies and ONLY 2 bogeys!

Si Woo Crushed MY 70% Rule

Shortly before the PGA Tour implemented Strokes Gained analysis in 2010, I published an article describing the THREE constants that I’d noted in the PGA Tour winners.  These were 70% or higher in each of these basic, but important “Old School” stats:

  • Greens-in-Regulation (GIR’s).
  • Scrambling – Scoring Par or better when the GIR was missed.
  • 1-Putts from 5 to 10 feet.

[For more on the 70% Rule, see https://shotbyshot.blog/2020/08/10/the-70-rule-still-valid/]

As you can see in chart below, Si Woo Kim dominated the field:

(We are giving Si Woo the benefit of ONE percentage point below 70% in his putting considering how he blew past the other two goals.)

ZERO Errors

The two most prevalent and consequential errors in the AMEX were Driving and Approach shots:

  • Driving Errors:  There are three types:
  • No Shot:  Drives hit out of play requiring an advancement shot to return to normal play.
  • Penalty-1:  Drives into a Penalty area or unplayable lie requiring a penalty drop.
  • LOST/OB:  Out of bounds or lost ball

The Stadium course had water very much in play for the drive on SIX holes.  Accordingly, penalty driving results were 26% more frequent for the AMEX field than the 2020 Tour Average.  Again, SI Woo had NONE.

  • Approach Shot Errors:  This is simply an Approach hit into a Penalty area.  The Stadium course offered NINE greens very well protected by water.  Here the AMEX field fell prey to the water with 2.6 times the frequency of the 2020 Tour average.  In other words, in a field this size and only 3 rounds, the 2020 Tour average would see 63 Approach penalties.  The AMEX field suffered 166 approach penalties – more than one for every player in the field.  Si Woo managed his 3 rounds with an impressive NONE.

Given the course and the relative performance of his peers, I view Si Woo’s complete avoidance of errors to be the more impressive of his very impressive accomplishments. What do you think?  

For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: www.ShotByShot.com

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