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10 stupid score-killing mistakes, explained using advanced stats

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At the Masters earlier this month, a number of players before the tournament talked about the importance of limiting—or eliminating—"brain dead" bogeys.

It's a phrase that has stuck with me, and wrote about here.

What does it mean? Well, it means not every bogey is a bad bogey. Perhaps the wind was up. Perhaps you got unlucky. Perhaps it's just a long, difficult hole. A good bogey is when you stay in the hole, and don't give up. You lose one shot to the course, sure, but that happens. You didn't lose that short to the course lightly.

Bad, "brain-dead" bogeys that players were talking about are the opposite. When you're in a position to make a birdie or par, but walk away with a bogey or worse. Rather than being stingy with the shots you give up, you're donating shots to the course through a lapse of concentration, or avoidable errors. Stupid bogeys for pros, blow up holes for the rest of us.

So what causes them? Let's break down a few of the big mistakes golfers make, with a Strokes Gained statistical framework to explain what makes each so costly.

1. Drive OB

Sending a drive out of play, and into a situation where you have to re-tee (or drop near where you re-tee), is perhaps the single-biggest mistake golfers can make.

One bad swing, which costs golfers two shots to their peers, according to Golf statistician Dr. Mark Broadie.

The takeaway

Any drive in play is a good one, so aim for safety. Even if that means aiming into some strange spots...

2. Not advancing the ball

We're talking major contact errors here. Whiffs; flubs; shanks; tops; somehow hitting the ball backwards.

Let's say your ball is in a spot where the average score to finish a hole is three shots, then you shank your ball sideways into the rough. You've used one shot to move your ball into a slightly worse version of your previous spot, where the new average score to finish the hole is, lets say, 3.25 shots.

With one swing you've lost 1.25 shots to your peers—and damaged your pride along the way.

The takeaway

Avoiding serious contact errors is a boring, but essential skill. That means making ball-first contact, with a relatively square clubface.

3. Bunting into a hazard

The only upside to hitting your ball into a hazard is that most times, you at least get to drop a little closer to the hole than you were previously. The SG penalty to your game depends on how far up you get to drop, but it's easily more than a stroke penalty to your fellow players.

The takeaway

No one is trying to hit their ball into a hazard, but the really dumb hazard mistakes are when you know the hazard is there, try to lay up short of it—then hit your ball into it because you get needlessly greedy. It should be obvious, but your only goal is to miss the hazard: Make sure you miss it, by any means necessary.

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4. Bunting into the rough

When you keep the driver in the bag, you don't guarantee you're going to hit the ball straighter. It was this that lead to a major debate over Augusta National's third hole.

Even if you do find the fairway with an iron compared to the rough with a driver, that may still end up costing you a quarter of a shot or more to the field.

The takeaway

If you're reading this and thinking 'I should hit less drivers off the tee' you probably shouldn't. A good rule of thumb is to only drop back from driver when there are ~50 yards between penalty hazards, like water or OB, that you can't carry.

Getting your ball in play is priority one, followed by hitting your ball as long as possible. Longer and in the rough is usually a better outcome than shorter in the fairway...

5. Botching a punch out

When you do hit your ball into the trees or nasty rough, you've effectively already accrued your penalty shot. When you get fancy, you risk not advancing the ball—which is the worst possible outcome. The risks of hitting a heroic recovery shot outweigh the benefits.

The takeaway

The worst thing you can do, when you're in jail, is to stay in jail. Take the safest, most boring route back in play.

6. Skulling chips

When you skull a chip over the green, statistically, it's similar to hitting a sideways shank from the fairway. You're using one stroke to move your ball into a spot that's the same or worse than it was previously.

The takeaway

Develop a no-fail, low-maintenance chip shot. Hey look, a handy guide to one right here!

7. Leaving a shot in a bunker

The common theme with all of these is the power of advancing the ball. Moving the ball forward, even around the greens, is the essential task. Leaving your ball in a bunker means, by definition, you didn't do that. You're using a stroke to hit the same shot over again.

The takeaway

Brush up on your bunker skills, and remember what Eduardo Molinari says: Any shot around the green that ends up on the green is a good one.

8. Missing short putts

Check the stats, and you'll find that golfers start becoming more likely to make putts than miss them around seven feet. Inside of about five feet, making those putts becomes the expectation. For every one you miss, you're giving away a stroke to your competitors.

The takeaway

Remember that from short range, it's all about nailing your start line.

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9. Missing short to front pins

Most of the hazards protecting greens are short of the greens, yet when the pin is on the front of the green short, golfers miss short way more often. It can be a quick way to lose a shot to the field—or even more.

The takeaway

Take more club than you think, and aim for the middle of the green.

10. Short-siding

Most of the mistakes we've highlighted are on the more severe side of the spectrum. A severe short-side miss can lead to half a stroke lost to the field, but most of the time they're smaller fractions of a shot that add up.

The takeaway

The more you chase pins, the more you'll end up short-sided. Aim for the middle.