Approach Shot Strategy: How to Lower Your Scores with Smarter Goals

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The shot strategy approach is one of my favorite topics to discuss. It is (usually) easy to explain and can quickly lower a golfer's handicap if he changes his habits.

In this article and the accompanying podcast, I explain the most common mistake most golfers make with their approach shot strategy and some simple changes you can make. I will also provide some statistics to support my case. For many of you, it may not be a topic you've ever thought about, but your standard approach will probably cost you success. Let's get them back!

Approach shots are the biggest contributor to scoring

For a long time we didn't fully understand why certain golfers scored better than others. Fortunately, Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia University, cleared that up for all of us. After researching millions of shots using his revolutionary blow count (a measure of relative performance), he came to the following conclusion:

My analysis of millions of golf shots reveals a consistent finding: Approach shots represent the greatest scoring advantage among golfers of all skill levels. The best golfers also score with their driving, short game and putting games, but approach shots are the biggest difference maker.

So if you can improve your strategy with approach shots, you will probably make bigger jumps in scoring than any other part of the game.

In our latest podcast episode of The Sweet Spot, Adam Young and I dive deep into how to optimize your approach shots. I'll cover many of the concepts we discuss in this article, but I encourage you to listen to the entire episode here.

Why aiming for the pin is a loss-making strategy

Unfortunately, most golfers aim at the pin with their approach shots by default. One of the great myths of golf is that you have to land the ball close to the pin and make birdie putts to lower your handicap. Usually, choosing a more aggressive target like the pin results in more double bogeys, which is the real culprit of higher scores.

Allow me to build a case that will (hopefully) convince you to stop targeting pins…

No one has that much control over the golf ball

Several years ago I wrote this article showing shot spreads from different distances. Many people were surprised to see the results, which is exactly why using launch monitors and game tracking devices can be so powerful: you get real insight into your shot patterns.

The truth every golfer needs to understand is that no player on the planet can, on average, land the ball close enough to the pin to make it a 'profitable' strategy.

The following is the average pin proximity from various distances by a typical PGA Tour player:

175 – 200 yards: 33 feet

150 – 175 yards: 28 feet

125 – 150 yards: 23 feet

100 – 125 yards: 19.5 feet

As you can see, they can't land the ball that at any distance near the pin.

From 100 yards to 110 yards into the fairway, PGA Tour players hit 26% of their shots within 10 feet.

The best players in the world hit one in four within 10 feet.

Your chances of doing better than that is 0.00%. #ManageYourExpectations

— Lou Stagner (Golf Stat Pro) (@LouStagner) June 7, 2021

Now let's look at some proximity numbers of normal golfers with different clubs:

As you would expect, these are considerably larger.

Long story short, it is unreasonable to expect one to be able to keep the ball within close range of its target. You should consider your general shot patterns when selecting targets with approach shots.

Even if you could land it close you can't make the putts

Maybe the nail in the box for pin hunting is a problem.

Suppose you can outperform a PGA Tour player and land the ball 10 feet from the pin. Look at your chances of making putts from that distance:

Source: Mark Broadie

Even if you could putt as a tour player, your chances are not very good.

In reality, on approach shots, you are unlikely to be able to land any ball on average within a 40-foot window of a peg. And your chances of making those putts are very minuscule. Sorry I burst your bubble!

At least it's not about Birdies

Now that you have a more rational understanding of how close you can actually land the ball to the pin and how difficult it is to make putts, I'll make my final point.

Reducing your handicap is not about making birdies.

Please read that statement over and over and burn it into your memory. I wish I knew this when I first started the game!

Perhaps one of the biggest myths about golf is that you need to do more birdies to lower your handicap. I've heard golfers say they average 5-6 birdies per round. I nod my head politely because I know they are either lying to themselves or to me.

PGA Tour players average between 2.5 and 5 birdies per round. A typical tour player only makes about 3.5 to 3.75 birdies per round. Many of those birdies are on par 5s, where they can get to most greens (or close) in two strokes.

For regular golfers, birdies are more of a utopia. Here are birdies by round for different handicap levels:

Source: Shot Scope

The real way to a lower handicap is making fewer double bogeys, no more birdies.

Now that we have all that sorted out, I can give you some basic guidelines for choosing smarter targets with approach shots.

It's all about GIR

While most traditional golf metrics have been replaced by more informative, more nuanced measures such as strokes, I still believe that greens in regulation is a metric that golfers should focus on.

GIR is one of the largest predictors of success scoring, and as you can see it is directly correlated with handicap levels.

If you want to play your best golf, your main goal should be to get the ball onto the putting surface with your approach shots or at the very least give yourself a manageable wedge shot if you miss the ball green.

In other words, this is a part of the game where a conservative strategy will lower your scores in the long run. The goal is to get boring pars, easy bogeys and eliminate doubles (or worse). And yes, you can scatter a few birdies here and there.

Understanding your tendencies

In our podcast episode, Adam Young mentioned a powerful exercise every golfer should do with their approach shots. Adam states that he likes his players to measure their shot results relative to what they are aiming for.

Ultimately, the goal is to distinguish between bad shots and bad targets.

You keep track of your results manually or use a recording tracking system like Shot Scope or even a launch monitor like SkyTrak (during your practice sessions).

Overall, this will help you figure out how to optimize your targets with approach shots. Often players will find themselves missing a lot of short goals, and by taking more club they will hit more greens in regulation. Or you may realize you have a left-wing bias and you can use that data on the course.

Back and center is a good idea

I wrote this article a few years ago. It suggests that for most players, if you aim for the center of the green and use the distance to the back of the green to plan your club selection, most golfers' scores will drop in the long run.

Since then I have received numerous messages from readers who have seen their disability significantly reduced with this strategy. The reason is threefold:

It simplifies the pre-shot process. When you know your target and distance (use a backyard GPS device for distance), you'll be more committed to the shot.
It is rare for golfers to "flush" their iron shots . Playing the backyard makes for a mishit and still hits the green in regulation. The data is also abundantly clear that almost every golfer is missing 80-90% of their greens on the short site. It's rare for golfers to miss long most of the time.
If you aim for the center of the green, you can spread your hitting patterns from left to right in a normal way. Whatever form you play, you're still missing out on both sides. As Boo Weekly said, "the center of the green never moves." It's an easy (and effective target) to use as standard on any hole.

Getting more advanced

The back/center strategy will work very well for most beginner or intermediate golfers. However, if you are a more advanced player, you can become more nuanced with your approach shots.

As I mentioned earlier, you can create your own shot distribution data and customize your targets.

Some general principles, such as aiming away from big problems, can help you adjust the target points on each hole. If you're looking for a systematic way to do this, I highly recommend checking out DECADE or DECADE Foundations.

This requires a bit more planning ahead and thinking about the course. You need to be comfortable enough to absorb a lot of information (distance, slope, pin position, wind direction, areas around greenery) and make quick decisions. That's why I often tell people to deviate from a more basic strategy only if they have the skill level and time commitment to make it worthwhile.

Bin all together

I'm constantly looking at the approach strategy because I know it can change a lot of your games. In addition, it is a subject that is very easy to understand but requires a lot of discipline to stay with the course. That's why I feel I need to remind you all (and myself) of its importance.

To summarize some of the key concepts of the article and podcast:

Approach shots have the most impact on scoring potential.
Aiming at the pin all the time is a bad idea. No golfer has the ability to land it close enough to its intended target to make it a profitable strategy.
Lowering your handicap has more to do with limiting double bogeys than making birdies. This is why the approach strategy is usually about choosing conservative, "boring" targets.
For most golfers, targeting the center of each green and playing in the backyard will lower scores in the long run.
If you are a more advanced player, you can use a more nuanced, advanced approach shot strategy. This takes into account the problems around the green and your tendencies as a striker.

My last plea is to be patient. Becoming a savvy course manager means stacking odds in your favor in the long run. You'll be tempted to use short-term results as a measure of success, but you need to look at your performance more broadly (think months, not weeks, or single rounds). I can guarantee lower scores if you follow some of this advice and commit to using it in the long run.

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