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.
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.
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.
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.