Why fairways are overrated for amateur players.

Lou Stagner's Newsletter #2

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Today, I am going to explain why fairways are overrated for amateur players.

If you can apply what you learn in this issue, you will lower your scores.

Good golf is mostly:

  • A lot of mediocre shots

  • A small handful of good shots

  • A minimal number of disaster shots

Unfortunately, many players judge their tee-shot performance by how many fairways they hit. They should stop this. I always get pushback on this topic. For years, many have been taught how important fairways are. I agree fairways are better than rough, but the difference is small.

Check out the table below. It shows how many more strokes players will average from the rough than the fairway. Distance to the hole is down the left and handicap index is across the top. Look at 5-index players from 80 to 89 yards for example. From that distance they will average 0.11 more strokes from the rough than from the fairway. About half of the numbers in that table are 0.10 or less.

As you get farther from the hole, the difference between rough and fairway gets smaller. For a 20-index, they perform better from the rough than the fairway from 240-249 yards! Does this apply to all situations? No. This is a baseline. This will apply to courses with "typical" rough height. These numbers will change slightly in different grass types. They also change slightly as rough height gets very long or very short.

There is not a huge difference between scoring from the fairway vs the rough (in most situations). The fact they are relatively close in scoring is not the biggest reason why fairways are overrated.

The biggest reason is because of penalty shots and recovery shots. It is easier to play from a bad lie in the rough than hitting three from the tee.

I wanted to understand this better so I dug into the Arccos database. We are nearing 600 million shots in Arccos so there isn't a situation we can't untangle.

Players used in this analysis logged at least 40 18-hole rounds in 2022.

For each player:

  • I sorted their rounds by strokes gained

  • I used the best 20% of their rounds and the worst 20%

I compared their best rounds to their worst rounds looking at the differences in:

  • Fairways hit

  • Penalty shots

  • Recovery shots

The results are eye opening! Across all skill levels:

  • They average ~0.75 more fairways in their best rounds compared to their worst rounds!

Remember, we are comparing a players best rounds to their worst rounds! The difference in fairways hit is less than a stroke for all skill levels. When you look at each player, 75% of them have an average fairways hit difference of 1.25 or fewer between their best and worst rounds. This holds across all skill levels.

The number of fairways hit in the best rounds is not that different than the worst rounds. Let that sink in! So what is different? Penalty strokes and recovery shots! In bad rounds, players at every skill level are hitting more "uh-oh" shots.

Needing to re-load or come out sideways is a quick way to run up a big number. Big numbers are scorecard killers. Especially when you make a few big numbers in the same round.

The difference in penalties varies by skill level. Scratch players have a difference of 0.72 penalties and 15-index players have a difference of 1.22. The difference in recovery situations varies by skill level.

Scratch players have a difference of 0.80 recoveries and 15-index players have a difference of 1.22. Check out the chart below for the details.

Again, if I get to pick between fairway and rough, I pick fairway. We all love to hit one pure and find the middle of the short grass. But more important than being in the fairway is NOT being OB, in a penalty hazard, or in the trees. If fairway hit percentage is something you track, you should stop. Start using "in-play percent".

This is the percent of tee shots where you have a reasonable chance to hit the green. (In a perfect world, you are using strokes gained!)As a final reminder, hit the ball as far as you can, as often as you can, taking into account penalty strokes and other hazards.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter.

Thank you for following along. See you next week!

— Lou