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What’s the Best Club Off the Tee? – Golf Myths Unplugged

Best Tee Club

The Big Decision

Make the “smart” play for the fairway or let the big dog eat?

That’s the decision golfers are faced with 14 times in each round.  The choices you make on the tee box are unparalleled in their impact on your scoring, so why rely on “common sense” and myths?  At PluggedInGolf, we don’t!  That’s why we set out to discover what is truly the best club to hit from the tee.

Best Tee Club_0242

The Myths

For this test, we examined five myths relating to the distance, accuracy, and consistency of tee shots.

Myth #1 – 3 Wood is more accurate than driver

Myth #2 – Driver is less consistent than shorter clubs

Myth #3 – Accuracy off the tee is more important than distance

Myth #4 – Shorter, more lofted cubs are always more accurate

Myth #5 – Taking “less club” off the tee is the smart play

Best Tee Club_0222

How We Tested

For this test, we recruited three above-average golfers.  Each brought in their driver, 3W, longest hybrid, and longest iron.  Each player hit 10 shots with each club.  No shots were deleted, and each golfer hit the clubs in a different order.  The data can be found at the bottom of this post.

All testing was done at Club Champion.

Club Champ Banner 1

The Results

MYTH 1 BUSTED

This myth is 100% busted.  In both absolute and relative terms, each of our testers hit their driver more accurately than their 3W.

We looked at accuracy three different ways.  First, we looked at how far each shot was from the center line.  Our testers hit their drivers an avergage of 8 yards closer to the center line.  Next, we looked at degrees offline.  This is an important number to consider because it levels the playing field between the driver, which goes farther, and the 3W.  Our testers hit their drivers 2.3° straighter, on average.  Finally, we looked at how many “bad” shots were hit.  For accuracy, we defined a bad shot as any shot that finished 15 yards or more from the center line.  The results here were mixed: one tester hit an equal number of drivers and 3Ws badly, one did better with the driver, and one did better with the 3W.

There are some possible explanations for why golfers hit a longer, less lofted club straighter.  First, drivers have higher MOI (moment of inertia) than 3 woods, meaning they’re more stable and forgiving on mishits.  Also, golfers practice with their driver much more than they do with their 3W.  Finally, it was our observation that golfers swung harder with their 3W in an effort to hit it as far as their driver.

Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that 3 woods are not more accurate than drivers.

MYTH 2 BUSTED

Our testing showed that not only is the driver as accurate as shorter clubs, it’s also every bit as consistent.

To judge consistency, we looked at the range that each player covered, both in terms of distance and left-to-right accuracy, with each club.   We also looked at how many bad shots were hit with each club.  Bad shots were defined as being 15 yards or more from the center line or 10 yards short of that club’s average distance.

With regard to distance, the driver had a smaller distance range than the 3W for 2/3 testers.  All of our testers had smaller or equal distance ranges with their driver compared to their hybrid.  When comparing the driver to the long iron, the results were mixed.

When we turn to accuracy, the supposed advantage of shorter clubs, we see a jumbled picture.  One tester was least accurate with his driver in terms of range, but his driver produced the fewest bad shots.  Our second tester was most accurate with his driver according to both metrics.  Our third tester was roughly equal with driver, 3W, and hybrid, but his long iron was consistently better.

In sum, there is no clear consistency advantage to shorter clubs.  While the results are mixed, the onus is on the distance-challenged short clubs to prove their worth off the tee, and they failed to make their case.

MYTH 3 Inconclusive

This is a myth that doesn’t lend itself to being busted or confirmed because it’s too ambiguous.  Would you give up 3 yards to be in bounds rather than out of bounds?  Of course.  Would you give up 50 yards to be in the fairway instead of the first cut?  Obviously not.

We do know two things: distance is underrated in terms of its impact on scoring and golfers give up more distance than they realize when clubbing down.

Let’s quantify the importance of distance.  According to Mark Broadie’s book Every Shot Counts, an extra 20 yards per tee shot is worth 0.8 strokes/round to a PGA Tour player.  That distance is worth more to the amateur golfer.  For an 80 shooter, that distance is worth 1.3 strokes.  For a golfer shooting 115, those 20 yards are worth 2.7 strokes!  

It’s no surprise that golfers overestimate the distance that they hit their clubs, and this really hurts them when it comes to decision making off the tee.  Our testers lost 35 yards, on average, when switching from driver to 3W.  The drop-off gets even more dramatic when you talk about hybrids and long irons.  Compared to their drivers, our testers’ longest hybrids were 45 yards shorter.  Their longest irons were 80 yards shorter.

Hitting fairways is important, but it’s not on the same level as having a pitching wedge as opposed to a 5I on your approach.

MYTH 4 BUSTED

Just like Myth #1, this is absolutely busted.  In fact, we found that, at least for some golfers, the driver is significantly more accurate.  Check out the graphic below showing all the shots that we measured.  The shots furthest from the center were hit with 3W and hybrid, not the driver.

Players Combined Tee Shots - All Clubs

As we discussed earlier, when you look at distance in absolute terms – yards offline and left-to-right range – the results are somewhat mixed.  Based on range, driver was most accurate for one tester, it was least accurate for another, and driver was in the middle for the third.  Based on average yards offline, the driver was bettered only by the long iron.

When we switch to looking at accuracy in terms of degrees offline, we see little to no advantage for shorter clubs.  We’ve already discussed that each player hit the driver more accurately than the 3W, and that extended to the hybrid as well.  Our testers hit their driver 1.3° closer to the center line compared to their hybrid, on average.  When we compare driver to the long iron, two of our testers still showed measurable driver advantages: 0.4° and 2.2°.  Player 3 did hit his long iron exceptionally – only 1.2° offline compared to 3.6° for the driver – but it must be restated that the long iron was nearly 80 yards shorter than the driver.

MYTH 5 BUSTED

It should be obvious by this point that this myth is busted.  First, we’ve shown that there is not a clear accuracy benefit to shorter clubs – the driver can be as accurate or more accurate.  Second, our data shows that shorter clubs are not more consistent.  Finally, shorter clubs give up a lot of distance – much more than most people realize – without returning a benefit.
Best Tee Club_0203

Conclusion

It turns out that the guy who hits driver on every hole isn’t a meat head after all…at least not when it comes to club selection.  Our testing found that hitting driver off the tee results in longer, more consistent, and more accurate shots than any other club.

This doesn’t mean that you should snap your 3W in half.  The smart play on any given hole takes into account a lot of things: your personal shot pattern, the shape of the hole, hazards, weather conditions, etc.  There are plenty of holes that call for a fairway wood, hybrid, or iron off the tee, but overall the driver is the best club off the tee.

The Data

Tee Shot Data

Player 1 Tee Shots - All Clubs Player 2 Tee Shots - All Clubs Player 3 Tee Shots - All Clubs

Matt Saternus
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17 Comments

  1. Interesting data and finding.
    These Myths look to be carry overs from persimmon days. Back then woods were a lot less forgiving and clubs in general were not able to be fit to someone as well with far fewer shaft options and mainly blades for irons.

    In any case it’s good to know the only time to not hit driver is if you can hit it too far. :)

  2. I hit my driver consistent @ 60% fairways.
    My next club is a 17″ Hybrid. I miss consistently 60% left.
    I hate that club.

  3. I disagree with this and offer some of your own articles as proof. If you refer back to your “breaking 100 and 90” articles (awesome articles btw… I’m working on 80) you say right out of the gate to leave your driver and long irons at home. Why would this make breaking 100 or 90 any easier? Loftier short irons are much easier to control, much easier for a player to “know”, and much harder to hit out of play – both because of the lack of distance and accuracy. I think these articles also prove the 3rd Myth to be a little more true than inconclusive.

    I think the data here is skewed by the “above average” players. Another test using some 10, 15, 20 handicappers would yield different results I would think. My personal experience shows that using driver (wisely) in produces scores on average in the 90-95 range, but if I use 3 or 4 irons off all tees I rarely ever go above 90. It is directly related to balls going out of play and having to play a drop versus 85% fairways hit with my 3/4 irons.

    Just my $0.02.

    • Matt Saternus

      Joey,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the “Breaking ___” articles. The thing to keep in mind is that those articles are geared towards shooting particular scores (99, 89. 79), not shooting your best score possible. As such, they’re geared towards taking absolute minimal risk. As you point out with your personal scoring, your long irons keep your scores under 90, but I suspect you would have a lot of difficulty (depending on course length) going below 80 without a driver. Ultimately, you know your own game which is the true recommendation of everything we do here.

      I think your point about our use of above average players is interesting. We would love to do more testing with higher handicap players (and more players overall), but it’s hard to find testers. I am genuinely curious what the results would show.

      Best,

      Matt

  4. I agree with Joey.
    I myself am a 10 handicapper and play to my handicap only when using irons.I hit my 3 iron 200 yards but it is always in play.On some long courses it is a struggle reaching the green in regulation but I would rather have to get up and down from 100 yards for par than to lose one out of bounds or have to hit out of some crap.

  5. Good article. Never understood why people thought you’d all of a sudden start hitting the ball straight when using a club whose face half the size as the driver and only an inch shorter.

  6. Load of rubbish of course shorter clubs are easier to hit

  7. I properly understand the topic that you have described there perfectly. thanks, for the best idea

  8. This conversation has been even more eye opening since Mark Crossfield started making videos on the subject too. The strokes your gain hitting driver vs. any other club is astounding. Thinking back, I was my lowest handicap (+4.8) when I took driver more often (almost exclusively). I’ve now dropped to as low as scratch, but clawing my way back to roughly a +2, but scoring has been difficult for me. When I think on it, I take driver probably less than half the time now on the courses I play. I’ve justified it because in SWFL we have a lot of water and tighter fairways. However, I’m just as likely to hit 3W into those hazards than I am driver, and all I am doing by taking 3W is giving up 30+ yards on every hole. I have 6 and 7 irons in now instead of 9 irons… I’m going to start hitting driver on every single hole UNLESS the driver would go too far into a hazard. Then you’re negating the strokes gained. But if it’s only a left/right hazard question, then it’s driver all day.

  9. Considering purchasing a Ping 410 driver and shorting the shaft by an inch. What if any are the pros and cons of doing this?
    Consistency with my 4 wood is much better than a 3 wood.
    Thank you!

    • Matt Saternus

      Garry,

      You’ll change the swing weight quite a bit. You will probably lose a small amount of swing speed. Beyond that, there’s nothing that I can say is likely to happen. Shortening a driver shaft is no guarantee of consistency or accuracy, which we discuss in another Golf Myths Unplugged.

      Best,

      Matt

  10. Robert Donovan

    I am surprised at the results here. I am having great success with just the opposite. I am a +1 hdcp, 58 years old. I play in senior KGA events in Ks. I still hit the ball 285 with my driver. 255 with 3 wood. I played in 5 events this summer. 4 of them had 3 foot tall gunch surrounding wide fairways. One was at Topeka CC. More tree lined. I chose to hit 3-4 iron off the tee in all of these tournaments. It worked very well except for TCC where trees have grown into the fairways blocking approach shots from some fairways. The only problem I had at the other courses were miss hits with the long irons. I bought a Hybrid 3 iron, and at 230 yards off the tee, it was a game changer! I got 3rd in one event, and tied for first in the next. 71-71 were my scores. All the players I played with were looking for lost balls in the gunch. On more open courses I will use the driver. But this approach is working very well. You must work on your mid irons however. You will get alot of 5-7 irons into greens.But from the fairway!

  11. Larry Robinson

    I’m in my 70s and have had to make a number of adjustments to my game. My driver basically deserted me and my 3 wood is inconsistent. By switching to my 2 or 3 hybrid off the tee I’m nearly the same or equal to the driver but in 80% of fairways. I shoot around 80 on a par 72.
    in my 50s I could drive 300 yards with my 1997 King Cobra driver. I’ve never been the same since I switched to the large head metal woods.

  12. I think it depends in player. Guy on my golf team can hit 300 but often times in trouble. He try’s occasionally to use less club off tee and he just swings as hard as he can and vets bad results. I get much better results using a 17.5 degree off the tee. Because of the shorter shaft i am able to swing aggressive and still get good results. I also seem to get driver distance because with driver i feel like i have to swing easy to get it in play.

  13. Hi Matt, you talked about how obviously these findings don’t hold if your driver distance would run out into a water hazard, but what about doglegs, for instance? Or taking into account the ability to work a mid iron better than a wedge (now that one can’t be a myth!). For instance a course I play has a few holes with annoying, but integral trees that block an approach from one side. I find I’m much better off with a shot of 150 yards from the right, but almost completely stymied if I’m 100 out. What do you think about holes where a “big miss” comes into play? I would love to see some data about stroke averages based on the different types of hazards that come into play (water hazard vs ob, or carrying a trap vs water?). Intuitively, wouldn’t a higher penalty carry a smaller average stroke gap between hitting less club? You sorted alluded to this in your laying up article, saying obviously you’d rather lay up than be in the water, but I think that’s the most interesting part! You suggest here that shot dispersion is not closer with a higher lofted club (driver vs 3wd) but is this true all the way to a pitching wedge? As you pointed out, it’s better to be closer to the hole, but what about if you can’t miss it short? Anecdotally, I feel like my distance control is much better the lower in my bag I go, I wonder what distance dispersions would look like across the bag, and if you could identify a point where it becomes significantly lower (ie enough to justify going for it). I loved both this article and the laying up one, but I would love to see you account for strokes you stand to lose!

    • Matt Saternus

      Andrew,

      That’s a lot of questions in one comment. :)
      With regard to doglegs, I don’t think there can be a universal recommendation because there’s so much variance – sharp turns, soft turns, the ability to cut the corner or not.
      As to “working” a shot, there’s zero chance I’d lay back for the purpose of having a longer club in hand, but it seems you’re speaking more to laying back to avoid dealing with an obstacle (tree). If being 100 yards out stymies you, I think you’ve answered your own question – you need to be farther back.
      I’m not sure what you’re asking about a “big miss.”
      Regarding shot dispersion, I think it’s obvious that a pitching wedge has a smaller dispersion than a driver. However, you can reasonably infer that because the difference between driver and 3W is not significant, the gap between any two clubs – 8I to 9I, for example – is not significant either.
      Again, with your question of “can’t miss it short,” I’m not sure what you’re asking.

      Best,

      Matt

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