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The Other 90 Percent

How using honest data can help average golfers create a more effective game plan

December 04, 2021

Illustration by Santino Calvo

I finished last in putting at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. This was during my playing days when I could be rather headstrong on the golf course. The smallest disturbance would set me off. I’d fire at flags and try to jam putts in the hole like a poker player on tilt. After I stopped playing professionally, I decided to rededicate myself to competitive amateur golf with a more measured approach. This time, I decided to use my background in advanced mathematics to analyze data from TrackMan and the new strokes gained statistic, created by Mark Broadie, to turn course strategy into a set of unemotional decisions. I was determined to not repeat the mistakes of my youth.

I created a math-based course-management system that I first presented to an underachieving junior golfer when I caddied for him in the 2014 Texas State Amateur. Will Zalatoris, who now plays on the PGA Tour, won that week, and he sent me a text afterward that I’ll never forget: “Scott, you’ve given me 25 years of experience in five days.”

I decided to codify my findings and name the system DECADE, which is an acronym: Distance, Expectation, Correct Target, Analyze, Discipline, Execute.

Let’s talk about possibly the most important concept in the acronym—Expectation. The No. 1 thing I try to teach my students, who include dozens of PGA Tour players, is expectation management. Announcers on weekend broadcasts often say that a player should expect to hit an approach from 100 yards in the fairway to inside 10 feet. It’s a ludicrous statement that the data laughs at. From 100 yards in the fairway, PGA Tour pros hit it to nine feet or less 25 percent of the time. From 100 yards in the rough, the PGA Tour average to hole out is 3.02 strokes. If a player has 100 yards from the rough into a par 4, he’s more likely to make bogey than birdie. From 165 yards in the fairway, the average strokes to hole out is 3.0. From 150 yards in the fairway, the player is more likely to hit it outside 40 feet than inside 10 feet.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s not what I see when I watch these guys on the weekends. But consider the data set: You’re watching only the guys playing the best that week. The broadcast doesn’t show the player who shot a bunch of 71s to finish T-47, and you’re definitely not seeing the player who slammed his trunk Friday after two 74s. It comes down to this: Even the best players in the world don’t know exactly where the ball is going. It’s true of putting, too; PGA Tour players make just 50 percent of eight-foot putts. They’re more likely to three-putt from 33 feet than to make it. These guys are good, as the old PGA Tour slogan says, but they’re not as good as the Sunday afternoon broadcast would lead you to believe.

Golfers are too attached to the good. It’s human nature: You remember the 7-iron you pured to tap-in range three months ago and hold that up as the standard. The problem with this thinking is that it gives you a distorted view of how far you hit your clubs and how accurate you are with them, which leads to faulty targets and decision making. On a simpler level, unfair expectations make the game less fun. I work with students of all skill levels, not just professionals, and most players have a distorted view of how good they are and how good they need to be to improve. If you’re an 8-handicap, hitting a shot from 100 yards to the green 25 feet from the hole is a very good result—one that should make you happy. If you’re a 15-handicap, it’s an excellent shot worthy of a smile and fist pump. Don’t let what you see on TV or a shot you remember from weeks ago skew your expectations if you want to enjoy your time on the golf course. It’s supposed to be fun, after all. —With Daniel Rapaport