Wedges or Magic Wands?
In the final round of the 2015 Valspar Championship, golf fans were treated to some of the finest wedge play imaginable. Jordan Spieth struggled to hit greens on the back nine, but, from even the most difficult lies, he consistently hoisted the ball within feet of the cup. During a 3-man playoff, Patrick Reed showed similar magic, escaping numerous tough spots before Spieth closed it out with a winning birdie.
Here’s what most people don’t realize: that kind of wedge play isn’t normal, even for PGA Tour players. It’s time to get real about the wedge game.
Why Are We Confused?
Most people believe that anytime a Tour player has a wedge in their hand, they will get up and down. Whether it’s a 120 yard shot from the fairway or a 15 yard blast out of a bunker, Tour players always wedge it to kick-in range, right? Wrong.
This misconception exists because of TV. First, the broadcast focuses on the players who are playing their best that week. That alone is removes a lot of mediocre shots. Second, if they do show players who are playing “average” golf, they show their best shots. Finally, the announcers feed this myth by saying things like, “He’ll expect to get this 100 yard shot inside 5 feet…Oh, he hit it to 10 feet, very disappointing.”
How Good Are Tour Players?
Don’t get me wrong, Tour players are very good with their wedges, just not as good as we think. From 75-100 yards, the average Tour pro hits it to 17 feet. That’s really good, but it’s miles from a tap in. From 100 yards in the fairway, a Tour player gets up and down only 30% of the time. From 40 yards in the fairway, they get up and down 45% of the time – still less than half!
Let’s take a closer look at the best short game player, Steve Stricker (as judged by Strokes Gained – Short Game in Mark Broadie’s excellent book Every Shot Counts). From 0-20 yards, Stricker’s median leave* is 11.7% (approximately 1 yard away on a 10 yard shot, 2 yards away on a 20 yard shot). From 20-60 yards, his median leave was 8.2%, and from 60-100 yards it was 4.8%. When he was in a greenside bunker, his median leave was 14.3%. What does all that mean? In short, even the best short game player on the PGA Tour is far from perfect, and he leaves plenty of work for his putter.
*Percent leave and median leave are Mark Broadie’s preferred metrics for measuring shots. Percent leave is the percentage of distance remaining after the shot. For example, if you hit a shot from 100 yards and it lands 5 yards from the cup, the leave is 5%. If you hit a shot from 50 yards to 5 yards, the leave is 10% because 5 yards is 10% of 50 yards.
Set Realistic Goals and Expectations
I present all of this Tour data as a way to say that we, the recreational golfers, need to accept the realities of the short game. If the best players in the world, guys who are on the course 365 days a year, can be happy with hitting a 100 yard wedge shot to 15 feet, we should be happy hitting it to 20, 25, or even 30 feet. If we hit a couple chips to within two feet, that’s worth a fist pump, but we shouldn’t expect to do it every time.
Unless you’re a single-digit handicap player, the goal of any iron or wedge shot should simply be, “Get it on the green.” For amateur players, being on the green always trumps being off the green (this is why Greens In Regulation is the king of stats, the one most closely related to scoring).
Improve – or Avoid – Your Weakness
If you do have the time and desire to improve your wedge game, I would recommend that you start thinking about your shots in terms of percent leave, as Mark Broadie does. This creates a more uniform way of evaluating the different parts of your short game. For example, a 10-yard chip that you hit to 3 feet feels great, but in terms of percent leave it’s no better than a 100-yard wedge shot to 30 feet. Both are 10% because you have 10% of the original distance – 1 yard or 10 yards, respectively – still to go.
Once you’ve taken some data about where you’re strong and where you’re weak, you can use that to improve your game and your course management. For example, you may find that bunkers are particularly tough for you. This could tell you to work on your bunker game, and, in the short term, to avoid them like the plague. If you find yourself playing the hole above, you know that you can be short, but long – particularly long and right – cannot be in play.
As always, please feel free to leave any questions or comments below.