PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Start With Your Stats

By Lucius Riccio, Ph.D. Illustrations by Ryan Heshka
April 24, 2008

Imagine a doctor examining a patient without knowing the vitals. Or a corporate executive trying to boost the company's performance with no data on its financial position. You can't picture anyone being serious about analyzing anything without "knowing the numbers," right? Now imagine a golfer who's trying to get better but doesn't look at his game stats, or even know how to keep track of them. If you're like most golfers, that's exactly where you stand.

I'm going to give you some easy ways to track your stats so you can see the way to lower scores. Starting back in the late-'70s, I've studied the stats of thousands of golfers, from tour pros to 40-handi-cappers. Through it all, some interesting trends have emerged.

First, the most significant determiner of score by far is greens in regulation (GIR). Hitting greens separates the great golfers from the not-so-great, and almost any golfer's good rounds from the bad ones.

The next most important factor is number of putts. Putting well is not nearly as important as hitting greens, but it's far more important than all other stats. In fact, those two stats together account for virtually all of the ups and downs in the average golfer's game. You can save a bad tee-to-green round with great putting, and you can ruin a great tee-to-green round with bad putting, but your best days come when you're clicking in both areas. At a minimum, you should keep track of these two stats. An easy way to record GIR is to circle the hole number, or your hole score, when you hit a green. At the end of the day, add the circles. For putting, simply count your total putts for the day. After a few rounds, you'll start to see how GIR and putting influence score.

Now for the fun part: digging a little deeper. Here's how other parts of the game affect GIR and putting performance.


Better iron play is the best way to boost your GIR percentage, which is the top determiner of score. Keep track of every time you hit an approach from the fairway with an iron. After a few rounds, group the stats by long, middle and short irons. You'll get a good read on the strengths -- and weaknesses -- in your iron game so you'll know what to work on.


My studies are clear: Improved iron play is the biggest key to hitting more greens. To get a read on your iron game, keep track of your GIR percentage on par 3s. On these holes you have a perfect lie and a clear shot, so how well you do is a good indicator of your iron-play ability. Mark on your scorecard the par 3s where you hit the green. The pros hit par-3 greens with their irons 70 to 80 percent of the time. If you shoot about 90, your success rate is probably no more than 20 percent.

Now take it a step further: __Record every time you hit an approach shot from the fairway with an iron.__Put a mark in an empty row on your scorecard. If you hit the green, circle the mark and count them up when you finish -- better yet, do it over five or 10 rounds.

The question becomes, are your longer or shorter irons the bigger problem? My research tells me if you shoot in the 90s, there isn't much difference, but you should find out. Using the first nine holes on a separate scorecard, put a check next to the hole number that corresponds with the iron you hit into the green. For example, if you hit an 8-iron, put a check by the eighth hole. If you knock it on the green, circle the check. If you use a 5-iron, check the fifth hole. After a few rounds, you'll see how you're doing with each iron. Group the stats by long, middle and short irons. The pros hit the green about half the time with a 3-iron and more than 90 percent of the time with a 9-iron. Create a goal for yourself, such as five out of 10 with a 5-iron, six with a 6-iron, seven with a 7-iron, and so on.

Iron play is the biggest GIR factor, but don't forget about the tee shot. Everyone wants to hit it long and straight, but the drives that kill most golfers aren't the ones in the rough, but the ones that go O.B. or into a hazard or other trouble spot. Count the tee shots that leave you in a position where you can't hit the green. Mark them with an "X" over the hole number. At the end of the round, you'll be able to see if you're missing greens because of bad drives or poor irons. According to my research, you need to hit three greens on average to break 90 and eight to break 80. Keeping these stats will show you what you have to do to raise your GIR percentage.


There are many ways to look at putting performance, but counting your total putts is as good as any. (Putts are strokes taken on the putting surface.) For comparison, the typical 95-shooter on average takes 37 putts a round; the typical pro (shooting about 71) takes 29. To break 90, get your putts down to 34 or so. To break 80, get to 31 or 32.

You could begin by counting the short putts you miss, but making your short putts shorter is more important than being able to sink more three- and four-footers. Keep track of putts of 30 or more feet that finish within three feet of the hole. There's a good chance that poor lag putting is driving up your stats. When you record your number of putts on a hole, circle it if a lag putt left you within three feet. You'll probably be circling many more 2s than 3s. That shows you the importance of a good first putt.

Improving your chipping is another way to bring down your total putts. Tour players get up and down from within 10 feet of the green more than 90 percent of the time. If you think the pros do so well because of their putting, you're wrong. They one-putt because they chip to within three feet most of the time. You chip to six or eight feet, then miss the putt and blame your putter. Record your chips that end up within three feet of the hole. Put a check next to the hole when you have a chip shot, and circle it if you get it within three feet. As the circles increase, your putting stats will improve.

One more putting indicator: The more greens you hit, the fewer putts you'll take. If you don't believe me, keep track and over the long haul, you'll see it's true. __Whenever you mark a GIR, jot down how many putts you take.__You might have long putts on greens you traditionally missed, but with better iron shots, you'll get the ball closer on greens you traditionally hit, leading to fewer three-putts. Trust me, sharper iron play over time will reduce your putts.

As you collect data, patterns will develop, and you'll see a clear road to lower scores. Try recording these stats, then transfer them to a spreadsheet. You can start with this scorecard [click here to download].

Analyzing your stats is the best way to identify your problem areas and track your progress. With the Golf Digest Challenge, you can post scores and keep tabs on every part of your game online. Get started today!

Lucius Riccio teaches at Columbia University and has been on the USGA's Handicap Research Team since 1979.