Should You Always Hit Driver? – Golf Myths Unplugged

Let the Big Dog Eat!

Among many golfers, it’s accepted wisdom that hitting a 3W off the tee is the “smart” play.  In the past, we didn’t have the facts to either confirm or combat this kind of statement, but now we do.  Thanks to our friends at Shot Scope, we’re taking on the myths surround your club choice off the tee in this edition of Golf Myths Unplugged.

The Myths

Myth #1 – Golfers don’t lose much distance when hitting 3W instead of driver

Myth #2 – Golfers are meaningfully more accurate with their 3W than their driver

Myth #3 – Golfers score better when hitting 3W off the tee

How We Tested

For this edition of Golf Myths Unplugged, we did things differently.  Rather than gather a group of testers to hit shots for us, we asked our friends at Shot Scope to mine their library of tens of millions of shots to find the answers.  The data in this test comes from the users of Shot Scope and the shots that they hit on the course.

The Results

We’re starting off strong with one of the most busted myths ever.  According to Shot Scope, golfers are giving up over 20 yards when they hit 3W instead of driver.

Across all golfers, Shot Scope has calculated the gap between driver and 3W is 22 yards.  They go a step further in showing the gap for five different handicap levels.  For players with handicaps of 2, 6, 14, 20, and 26, the distance gap between driver and 3W is 26, 28, 24, 23, and 14 yards, respectively.  Regardless of your skill level, hitting 3W off the tee is costing you significant distance.

We may run out of red ink because this myth is busted, too.  Across golfers of all ability levels, the accuracy (measured in terms of fairways hit) of a 3W is not even 1% better than driver.  In the case of higher handicap players, driver is actually 1% more accurate than the 3W.

This probably overstates the case for the accuracy of the 3W because it is a simple binary that fails to take into account distance.  If we were to use a more refined metric, such as degrees offline, we might see that the driver is actually more accurate relative to its greater length.

We’ve established that the 3W is not going to put us in the fairway more often than the driver, but it will cost us 20 yards or more.  How does that affect our score?

Let’s start by looking at the stat most closely associated with score, Greens In Regulation.  Shot Scope has shown that golfers are more likely to hit the green when they’re hitting “less club” – i.e. a 7I shot has a better chance of ending up on the green than a 6I.  By being 20 yards closer, a golfer can hit roughly two clubs less into the green.  For an 8 handicap, that raises their odds of achieving GIR by approximately 14%.  Over 14 holes (we’re ignoring the par 3s), that’s almost 2 more greens in regulation, just by hitting driver instead of 3W!  Even if you have a excellent short game, hitting 2 more GIR will shave a stroke off your score, likely much more.

We can also look at proximity to the hole, another stat that strongly correlates to score.  For that same 8 handicap player, hitting two less clubs into a green improves proximity to the hole by roughly 20 feet.  That means fewer three putts, more birdies, and lower scores.

If you prefer to view this as one simple data point, here it is.  Across all Par 4s, across all handicap levels, Shot Scope has found that when players hit driver, they average 4.81 strokes.  With a 3W, that average jumps up to 5.11 strokes.

The Takeaway

What is the “smart” play?  In a game where the only thing that counts is the number on your card, smart should be defined as the decision that leads to lower scores.  That means, contrary to conventional wisdom, the smart play is to hit driver as often as possible.

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Matt Saternus

Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Plugged In Golf. He's worked in nearly every job in the golf industry from club fitting to instruction to writing and speaking. Matt lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with his wife and two daughters.

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28 Comments

  1. While I agree with your conclusion, I don’t like your methods. The data that you are using is most likely extremely biased. When mining existing data, you need to be very careful to understand your data before you jump to conclusions. The main issue with this study is that you are comparing golfers who are choosing to hit 3W to those who are choosing to hit driver. The bias comes from the choice that the golfers made. Why did they choose to hit 3W over driver? There could be many reasons.

    – Those who choose to hit 3W regularly are wilder than average with the longer clubs. Comparing 3W shots of wild players to driver shots of an average sample will make the 3W look worse.
    – Golfers chose to hit 3W on very tight holes where the fairways hit percentage will naturally be lower. Again not fair to the 3W.
    – Golfers chose to hit 3W on holes that make them uncomfortable. They might not put the best swing on the ball when uncomfortable.
    – Golfers hit 3W because they are very good with the 3W compared to driver. Again, not fair, but biased in the opposite direction.
    – Golfers start hitting 3W when their swing goes south. This probably makes the 3W look less accurate.

    The list could go on and on. There are many ways to work with the data that you have to try and overcome these issues, but since nothing was mentioned about how you solved these challenges, I would assume that the conclusions that you draw are dubious at best. Again, I do agree with your conclusion, but as a data scientist / statistician, I would not say that the conclusions that you draw from the data are particularly meaningful.

  2. Nick Bradley

    This is far too general. The data for higher handicappers will be skewed because we are far less likely to hit Driver for fear of losing a ball. You can’t apply the same philosophy to all handicappers.

  3. Strokes gained supports this, but this misses a big point about course management – hitting driver on every hole only works if there isn’t danger with your typical driver miss pattern in range/play.

    If the fairway is 50 yards wide at 3W landing distance but is 30 yards wide at driver, with some scrubby/sand/danger there, laying up in the fairway will be advantageous. PGA Tour pros have equal proximity to hole from ~100 yards in the rough as they do from ~150 in the fairway (or something like that).

    If the hole is long and hitting back leaves you a very hard second shot, its risk/reward. But if its higher risk driver/sand wedge vs lower risk 3W/pitching wedge (talking decent length hitters here), it may not be that beneficial to be closer. And pro’s decisions to hit less than driver on Augusta 5 and 10 are just 2 examples of this mentality.

    But for the average golfer, it makes sense to hit the biggest, farthest, most forgiving club you can.

    • Matt Saternus

      Matt,

      No one is suggesting hitting driver at a hazard.

      -Matt

      • Of course you don’t hit it at a hazard – but hitting to a 20 yard wide fairway with danger, be it hazard, fairway bunker, or rough, vs lay back 20 yards and have the fairway be 40 yards wide… now we’re not PGA pros so a 20-30 yard hit in the fairway vs in the rough could be really consequential. I’d probably take accuracy of a PW from the rough (depending on the rough) over a 7i from the fairway myself. But I’d take the 7i safely vs the PW that could easily be a hero shot due to other danger around the landing zone for the driver, is all I’m saying.

        • Matt Saternus

          Matt,

          Again, you’re making a straw man argument. No one is suggesting you should hit driver into a landing area that’s unrealistic versus targeting an area that’s wide and safe.
          To your point about giving up thirty yards to be in the fairway, it’s just not accurate. Read “Every Shot Counts” by Mark Broadie.
          All this article is trying to help people to see is that, all else equal, hitting 3W or hybrid instead of driver will lead to higher scores.

          -Matt

          • Can’t and wouldn’t argue with, all else being equal, hit Driver.

            And in re-reading the qualifications on the list above, makes sense.

  4. It may be more accurate due to it’s relevant length, but that’s no good when it’s in a gorse bush. In Europe there is a lot more chance of just losing a ball just off the fairway, or rough so deep you can’t see your feet. I can shape a 3 wood so much better. My 3 wood or a hybrid is much more accurate, no one is going to tell me any different.
    If your house was on the line if you missed a fairway, what would you honestly hit?

    • Matt Saternus

      You’re asking the wrong question: it’s not about hitting the fairway, it’s about getting the ball in the hole in fewer strokes.

      -Matt

      • Matt see your point but, which is why hitting the fairway as far as you can vs hitting the rough as far as you can is always better. If I can get on the green in 2-3 strokes by staying in the fairway rather than hitting a fade from the big dog 20yds further but into the woods and have to punch out still costing me another 1-2 strokes, it either equals out to the same number of strokes if I was from the fairway. On average the big dog in the rough adds a stroke for that hole. So yes, it’s about getting it into the hole in the fewest strokes but what gives you the best chance to do that? a better layup or always scrambling? I may be closer but closer to the green in the junk but on average is not always good. So which club you hit in the fairway the longest gives you a better chance for less strokes to the green.

        • Matt Saternus

          RFC,

          You’re making a straw man argument. No one is suggesting hitting your driver when it will land you in the woods or the water and a 3W would keep you safely short.

          However, being 20 yards forward in the rough is superior, on the whole, to being 20 yards back in the fairway. This is not an opinion, it’s math. I’d suggest you read Mark Broadie’s book “Every Shot Counts.”

          -Matt

  5. This is timely. Currently have Driver, 3 Wood, 2 Hybrid in the bag. The hybrid is basically automatic at 240-250 which leads me to wonder whether I really need a 270 yard 3 wood that has misses in it just as big as my 290 driver.

    • I’m in the same boat, almost to the number. I’m starting to think I’m better off hitting my driving iron more often to have a full club in than hitting 3/4 wedges after a good drive. My game from inside 100 yards is weak.

  6. Steve Dodds

    100% agree.
    My driver is just as accurate as my woods and hybrids, but much longer.
    I always hit it when I can.

  7. The title of the article is ” Should you always hit Driver”, yet the reference was only Vs a 3 wood. Come over and play some links courses and use the Big Dog off every tee and see how it pans out on a windy day.

    • Matt Saternus

      Shot Scope is based in the UK and their data contains thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of shots played on links courses.

      -Matt

    • Matt Meeker

      I can’t speak for the rest of the PIG staff, but I’m up for field testing over there, over here, over anywhere – just need research funding.

      – Meeks

  8. Great article. We all (should) know this thanks to Mark Broadie and Strokes Gained, but it’s cool to see how it carries over to the average golfer.

  9. Kevin Seroski

    Hey Matt. Good article. Have a question on Shot Scope vs Arccos. Which is more beneficial? Is there a significant difference between the two devices? Or is it a preference of watch to link or no fee to yearly fee? Looking forward to your thoughts, or anyone elses input on the topic,

    • Matt Saternus

      Kevin,

      I prefer the way that Shot Scope displays the data and the various ways it can be explored, but the biggest tangible differences are watch vs. phone and yearly fee vs. no yearly fee. I obviously prefer no yearly fee, and I strongly prefer a watch where I can quickly access the relevant data vs. having to pull out my phone rather than turning it off and leaving it in my bag.

      Best,

      Matt

  10. When deciding what club to hit off the tee i consider the shot shape of the day, landing zones, hazards, terrain at specific distances, length to hole from the target. Doesn’t do you any good to be 30 yards closer to the hole if you’ve run out of fairway, have a bad lie or in a hazard… I would rather choose to hit a 2 iron off the tee and have a full wedge into a green that doesn’t hold well, than hit a driver and have a half wedge and try to hold it.

  11. Is there a good instruction guide to Arrcos? I seem to be having difficulty is getting it all working.

  12. David Magill

    I use Shotscope V3 and the data available is fantastic. You only need to look at the distance gained by driver to realise the need to hit driver when appropriate, that doesn’t mean when you’re going to hit it into a hazard of driver brings bunkers into play. It’s about common sense and realising that driver has more advantages than most think compared with 3 wood.

    • Kevin Seroski

      Hey there David… is the platform easy to use? Do you log into the web page and are you able to see all the shots in your round? Also, how is the flag location part? Do you mark putts (if you two putt or the dreaded 3 putt)?

      • David Magill

        Hi Kevin, it’s very easy to use and it’s downloaded to the app on your phone or your laptop. You get an aerial view, it’s really good.

  13. Tim McElhaney

    Good stuff – Would really love to see the actual data specific to my handicap (12). I personally hit my 3 wood substantially straighter but do give up 20 yards. The choice of which to use will be course specific but the trouble on most of the holes on my home course is right at 230 to 250 yards so there is really a risk reward on most of the par 4’s and 5’s. Therefore it often just makes more sense to play a 3 wood 220 yards and be in the fairway rather than taking a chance on an extra 20 yards but ending up in the woods or a trap. It is definitely more dificut to hold a green at 160 than it is 140 however. Good stuff!

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