RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links



Smart Strategy

Why you shouldn't hit 3-wood off the tee

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David Cannon

It’s one of the most disappointing feelings in golf. You’re on a par 4 with a narrow landing area. You reach for the 3-wood instead of driver … then fail to find the short grass.

You are not alone. Data from ShotScope, a Scotland-based company that produces watches with shot-tracking capabilities, studied millions of tee shots from everyday golfers and found the percentage golfers found the fairway using a driver is nearly identical to that with a 3-wood, a trend that holds up across single-digit, mid and higher handicappers.

The rub, however, is that while one might find the short grass as often using a 3-wood, the approach shot will be from a much longer distance. Take the middle-handicap group. They hit the fairway 46 percent of the time with a driver and 48 percent with a 3-wood, essentially a wash. ShotScope then studied the distances of those tee shots from three perspectives: the true average; the performance average (removing obvious outliers) and the longest tee shot.

The true average showed tee shots with the driver going 207 yards, the performance average at 222 yards and the longest shot averaging 246 yards. With the 3-wood, those numbers dropped to 188, 194 and 222 yards, respectively. That’s a difference of 19 yards on average; 28 yards on solid strikes and 24 yards on the Sunday punch. That’s a two- to three-club difference in exchange for hitting an extra pair of fairways every 100 tee shots.

"The first selection off the tee should be driver,” Scott Fawcett, a course strategy expert who has worked with Bryson DeChambeau and Will Zalatoris, said on the inaugural edition of the Golf Digest Happy Hour. “There needs to be a very good reason we're not hitting driver."

Those reasons include a dogleg you might barrel through with the big stick, trouble at the end of your driver distance range or when you need to truly shape a shot. Tight fairways, however, are not among the reasons.

“It’s a conversation I have with students all the time,” said Jason Guss, director of the Jason Guss Golf Academy at Naperville (Ill.) C.C. and a Golf Digest Best Teacher in State. “Most everyday golfers don’t practice 3-wood off the tee so it’s an unfamiliar feeling. Plus, the confidence they get looking at a larger face is likely to produce a better swing.”

That’s due to the fact that driver is not only larger, but far more forgiving on mis-hits. A fairway wood is less than half the size of a driver with far less moment of inertia (resistance to twisting on off-center strikes that helps mitigate ball speed loss on those shots). Seeing how everyday players tend to wipe the tee shot all over the face, it stands to reason more help is better than less. Then, of course, is the indisputable fact that you’re giving up valuable yards off the tee. It’s far easier to hit the green with a 9-iron in your hands than a 6-iron.

Fawcett is all over that fact. “The main thing people get wrong with approach or tee-shot strategy is they start dropping back too often. For that player, just dropping back to a 3-wood or hybrid, now you might get five or six percent more balls in the fairway but you've made 100 percent of your second shots 30 or 40 yards longer. That's a bad idea. The expected value in that bet for you is negative. Just because you won on one iteration does not make it a good bet.”

What does it all mean? The answer is easy: Let the big dog eat—nearly every time.