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No one talks about this golf stat, but it might be the key to breaking 80

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Will Fullerton

September 09, 2023

As much as golf can feel like a three-act melodrama, it helps once in a while to condense it into a stark set of numbers. Golfers get clouded by emotion. Golf statistics are reliably objective.

Golf Digest’s How do you compare? interactive has been uniquely useful on this front. It’s how I know the specific ways a scratch golfer outperforms a 10.8 index like me—how much farther they drive it, how much closer they hit their approaches, and how many more putts they hole. The differences are illuminating enough, they’ve even pointed to a new game plan.

My new stat: “Greenside In Regulation”

For mid-handicappers, birdies are like rainbows. We enjoy them when they happen, but can’t plan our lives around them. Pars are different. We’re told pars are the key to breaking 80, and that greens in regulation are the key to making pars.

But as metrics, pars and GIRs are also too simple because the line between success and failure is too rigid. When I really need a sense of how I’m playing, it’s now how many pars I make, but how often I’m at least giving myself the chance.

This is where the greenside in regulation stat comes into play. It’s as simple as it sounds: How often am I on or within roughly 25 yards of the green in regulation. Both statistically and mentally, this is an important distinction. If I’m close enough to the green, the degree of difficulty of my next shot should be low enough where pars are more likely than double bogeys. It also suggests I’ve avoided the type of costly swing that harshly inflates scores.

An example: On Labor Day, I was only greenside in regulation on 13 of 18 holes. I pulled two tee shots into trouble that forced me to punch out, and on three occasions chunked relatively simple approach shots. Those were five wild swings that dramatically reduced my chance of making par (I saved one). I shot 80, but don’t be deceived. I had an unsustainably great day on the greens.

That day, my buddy Thomas beat me by one, and I later asked him to recall how many times he was either on the green or had less than a pitch in. He cited only one hole that he wasn’t—a wild approach on a par 5 that resulted in a penalty stroke. In other words, Thomas was greenside in regulation 17 of 18 times, four more times than me.

I expanded my circle further. Last week I interviewed Shane Ryan about his breakthrough 77, but it wasn’t until this week I posed the same question I asked Thomas: How often was he at least greenside in regulation? Shane replied every time but one.

“Other than that I had six bogeys and to my memory they were all failures to get up and down from relatively close,” he said.

It was the same answer among those golfers who are a notch better than me. Yes, most hit the ball farther, but really, it was the absence of those true hole-killing swings that explain why they’re single-digit indexes and I’m not.

The lesson: If you can’t be perfect, be close

The How do you compare? feature underscores a few key points. One, greens in regulation might be the goal, but they’re really the exception more than the rule. A 10 handicap hits only 37 percent of greens in regulation, and the range of the other 63 percent is pretty broad. If I miss to within 25 yards, the damage is manageable. I can expect to hit my next shot to an average of 16 feet of the hole–keeping my chances of par alive, and I’m far less likely to miss the green outright.

It’s from farther out, however, when mistakes compound. From 50 yards, the average approach is 25 feet to the hole, and 1 out of 5 times I’m missing the green. On the par-to-double bogey scale, I start tilting fast in the wrong direction.

All of which is to say, the real metric that matters at my level is to be greenside in regulation as often as possible, and that means making sure I’m keeping the ball in play off the tee, and making occasional decisions into greens that recognize good enough might be better than great. (When I chunk approach shots, for instance, it’s usually a sign of nerves). According to Arccos’ Lou Stagner, a benchmark for breaking 80 should be 16 of 18 greensides in regulation, and yes, the more times you’re actually on the green the better. “Seven greens in regulation plus nine around the green and NO doubles is ballpark about the minimum you need unless you have great up and down day,” Stagner said.

So that’s the plan moving forward. Of course I want to hit every approach shot on the green. But if I’m not going to be perfect, I now see there’s merit in at least being close.