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It's called the '90-percent rule'—and it's a key difference between good and bad golfers

January 05, 2023

Harry How

You’re 100 yards away from the hole. You've got a straight-forward shot at a pin that is in the middle of the green. Pleased with your good drive, your dare to wonder: Have we approached birdie time?

You pull a wedge, take a swing—then lay the sod over one. The ball travels just a few yards, and you walk towards it, annoyed.

It’s easy to start dreaming of glory when you have a good look at the green. Those are the moments we play golf for, after all. But rather than thinking about the best possible shot you could hit, it’s improving the quality of your worst shots that actually should be your ultimate priority if you're looking for improvement.

And for that, you need to understand the 90-percent rule.

What is the 90-percent rule?

The 90-percent rule is, in simplest terms, when you hit your ball at least 90 percent of the way to the target. So, if you’re 100 yards away, the 90-percent rule means you hit your ball at least 90 yards. If you’re 200 yards from the pin, your ball needs to go at least 180 yards.

90 percent distances from each yardage

  • 100 (90 yards)
  • 110 (99 yards)
  • 120 (108 yards)
  • 130 (117 yards)
  • 140 (126 yards)
  • 150 (135 yards)
  • 160 (144 yards)
  • 170 (153 yards)
  • 180 (162 yards)
  • 190 (171 yards)
  • 200 (180 yards)

Why is this important? Because, believe it or not, the outcome of a good shot for a professional golfer and for the rest of us is roughly the same. Tour players hit them more often, of course. And when they don't, the key difference is that their bad shots are much better than our bad shots.

Simply put, that's because good players are really good at the 90-percent rule. And as Arccos’ data lead and golf statistician Lou Stagner (who is a great follow on Twitter, if you haven’t already) outlines below, the better you are at the 90-percent rule, the better you are at golf.

So how do you improve at the 90-percent rule? Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

The first, as Butch Harmon explains here, is that amateur golfers are really bad at taking enough club. They think they hit it longer than they do and thus underclub themselves quite often. Unless they hit their shot perfectly, their good shots end up slightly short, and their bad shots end up really short. It really is a simple problem to solve: Take more club!

The second comes down to making solid contact more often. Big contact errors—chunks, tops and shanks—are disastrous if you have hopes of being good at the 90-percent rule. Avoiding those with your irons means striking the the ball consistently, which ultimately comes down to improving your impact position, as Golf Digest Top 50 coach Michael Breed explains in this Golf Digest Schools series.