Which is better, a drive that finishes a few feet off the fairway but is sitting up in the first cut, or a drive that ends up in a tangled knot of thick grass between the roots of a low-hanging oak tree?
The answer is obvious, yet the two drives would be recorded as equal under the statistic widely used on the professional tours, "Driving Accuracy Percentage," which simply divides the number of fairways hit by the number of attempts. Because this archaic method has never been updated in the big leagues, it's how most amateur golfers evaluate their own driving. I've created a better system.
If you really want to assess how you're driving the ball, forget about fairways hit. The number you need to know is how many shots your errant drives cost you. Think of this number as a gauge of how much you spray the ball: the lower the better.
Each time you miss a fairway, there's a cost. That cost varies by how much the resulting situation affects your opportunity to hit the green -- or to accomplish your normal goal -- on the next shot. I use the word "goal" because determining the cost of an errant drive depends on the kind of player you are. For a short hitter on a long par 4, for example, the normal goal might be to advance the ball to within wedge distance for the third shot. For a long hitter on a par 5, the normal goal might be to reach the green in two. Whatever your goal, the obstacles presented by errant drives -- a lie in the rough, a tree branch, an awkward sidehill stance, the lip of a fairway bunker, etc. -- decrease the odds of your achieving that goal. The cost is how much your odds decrease.
These costs vary fractionally across handicap levels. My research shows that from a lie in heavy rough 150 yards from the green, a 10-handicapper will lose an average of .4 shots to par. Comparatively, a lie in light rough from that distance will cost that player .15 shots to par.
It might sound complicated, but I've done the statistical heavy lifting. Figuring out the cost of your bad drives boils down to a formula I've created where you assign each drive a rating of 0-4, according to how it affects your next shot. Once you've tracked a few rounds, compare your shots lost to your handicap group (see chart below). A good driving round is one that beats the average at your handicap. Visit shotbyshot.com for a more in-depth analysis. Here's an example of how it works:
EXAMPLE: JOE GOLFER LOSES 8 SHOTS TO BAD DRIVING
Joe, an 18-handicapper, went out the other day and shot 90. On his scorecard (below), he gave each drive, except on par 3s, a score
of 0-4 points. Joe was careful to score according to how each drive affected his opportunity to hit the next shot (other golfers who handle tough lies better or worse than Joe might have rated the same drives differently). Joe hit three drives in the fairway, four in the light rough and two in the heavy rough.
In addition, he twice had to chip out sideways, twice had to take a drop from a water hazard, and on one hole drove it out-of-bounds. After the round, we had Joe add up all his points and divide by 2. (Using our points system and dividing by 2 means you don't have to deal in decimals.) Here's how Joe collected the data, made the calculations and determined how many strokes his driving cost him that day: