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When faced with a difficult hole, golfers often choose between hitting their driver or 3-wood. The conventional wisdom is that taking a shorter club will result in more accuracy and a higher chance of a lower score. However, with modern analysis, we are beginning to discover that many of the assumptions we have made about the game are simply incorrect.
In this article I would like to share the following with you:
Data from millions of golf shots comparing drivers with 3 woods from Shot Scope
Thoughts of an Equipment Expert
Testing My Launch Monitor
Some advice to help you make better decisions
I think many of you will be surprised by the results!
Recording Range Data
Performance tracking companies have helped dispel many myths in recent years.
Shot Scope, a Scotland based company, has a popular GPS tracking system used by thousands of golfers around the world. As a benefit, they can see trends in their database based on millions of golf shots (you can read my review of their V3 system here).
Recently I got a review of their findings on the use of the tee driver by golfers over their 3-wood. The conclusions are interesting and dispel some generally accepted beliefs about accuracy.
The first table examines the extent to which golfers hit each club at handicap level:
In general, you can see golfers at any handicap level give up distance with a fairway wood off the tee – nothing surprising there.
This is where it gets interesting. Let's have a look at the fairways hit:
At each handicap level, golfers could only hit about 1% more fairways with their 3-woods compared to their driver. You would think that if fairway woods were much more accurate from the tee, the number would be significantly greater.
And now we can come to the critical calculation. If golfers aren't more accurate with 3-wood but give up anywhere from 20 to 30 yards from the tee, they make it more difficult to score. I've used this image from Shot Scope before and I think it's worth checking again. If you sacrifice about 30 yards from the tee, you will lose nearly 1/3 of a shot per hole. That's right!
ShotScope's data shows how punishable certain obstacles on the track can be
One last point I want to make is that running into the light rough is not as significant a punishment as most assume. It's worth the equivalent in distance between the two clubs. That's why I've written before that sometimes golfers overestimate the importance of hitting fairways.
As a whole, we have focused too much on lateral spread (left to right), and have not taken distance into account as much as we should have.
Thoughts of an Equipment Expert
Understanding the fundamental differences between a driver and fairway wood is also essential. Every golf club has tradeoffs in performance, and that's part of why we see the trends in the data.
Fortunately, I am good friends with one of the best club fitting experts in the business: Woody Lashen, the co-owner of Pete's Golf in Mineola, NY.
When I shared the results of the Shot Scope with Woody, he wasn't too surprised. Based on his knowledge of how each club is designed and the results he sees in the equipment on a daily basis, he believes a 3 wood is no more accurate than a driver when used off the tee. One reason is fairway woods are not designed for off-tee use only. When they fit golfers, their primary goal is to have a fairway wood that performs effectively when used on approach shots, which is what the club is usually designed for. However, he cautioned that there are exceptions, which I will discuss later in this article.
My driver and fairway wood
From a design perspective, Woody spoke to me about the concept of stroke patterns and MOI. Moment of Inertia (MOI) is a term you will hear often when describing how "forgiving" a golf club is. Without getting too complicated, MOI measures how resistant a golf club is to turning on impact. When a golfer misses the center of the clubface and hits the toe or heel of the club, the clubface will open or close. The result is twofold: the ball continues offline (due to the gear effect) and loses distance .
Woody told me that most modern drivers have about 2-3 times the MOI compared to a 3-wood. That means that when a golfer doesn't hit the sweet spot, a driver can make the ball travel farther and straighter. Considering the smaller area of a fairway wood and golfers who generally struggle to hit it regularly, it's no surprise that a driver can generally produce straighter shots (or equivalent) off the tee.
Another concept Woody talked about is dynamic loft. Generally speaking, if you have a more dynamic loft on impact, it helps produce a right-hand wave. While he hasn't tested extensively, his suspicion has always been that a driver and 3-wood have very similar dynamic loft on impact when used off the tee.
In general, Woody (like me) always encourages golfers to test. Some players might hit a 3-wood straighter off the tee than their driver, but based on his experience, that golfer is an exception to common trends.
To give you all more context, I decided to place my fairway wood against my driver. I am custom made for both clubs (by Woody Lashen) so the shank / head combinations are optimal for my swing. My results do not necessarily indicate what you would experience, but my aim is to get you to experiment for yourself and find the answers in your golf game . You can also check out my tests on irons versus my driver in this article.
For the test I set up a very difficult fairway on my launch monitor. I have also made the turf conditions so hard that it is even more challenging to keep a ball on the fairway. I hit 25 shots each with my driver and 3 wood. Currently my handicap index is +.3, and I consider myself an above average striker.
I pay attention to the following data:
Percentage of fairways
The total spread of my photos from left to right
Typical distances for any club when I hit or miss the fairway
Fairway Wood Results
Here are my relevant stats with my fairway wood:
I hit the fairway 36% of the time
My mean total distance was 243 yards
The total spread from left to right was 72 yards
Here's a representation of my 3 wood spread
Overall, I would say these results are quite mediocre. The only thing I noticed is that my fairway wood accidents suffered quite a bit in terms of distance and accuracy. When I missed a fairway some shots only went about 225-230 yards in total. If you look at my spread in both directions, it was more erratic than my driver – some big "foul balls."
This is where it got interesting. You would assume my fairway wood would be more accurate than my driver, but it wasn't.
Here are my driver's stats:
I hit the fairway 44% of the time
My mean total distance was 274 yards
Total spread from left to right was 57 yards
Here is a representation of my driver's distribution
It was no surprise that my driver went about 100 feet further than my 3-wood, but my spread was smaller and I could hit more fairways. When I do these tests my driver's spread is usually around 65m so I would say this is an above average session, but I didn't see any evidence that my fairway wood would perform better in terms of accuracy.
As a reminder, you may see different results. But I would say these are consistent with what I notice on the golf course. I generally only use my fairway wood off the tee when I want to shorten my distance (if the driver would bring penalty areas or other major problems into play). I believe this is a strategy most golfers should adopt.
What can you learn from this?
The data collected from Shot Scope and the results from my launch monitor give a fairly clear picture. Hitting a fairway wood off the tee doesn't seem to produce more accuracy, and when combined with the loss of distance, it doesn't seem like the right strategic game. You have to take the loss of distance into account and weigh that against your spread from left to right.
However, every golfer is unique. You all have different tendencies with every club in your bag. You may be more erratic with your driver, and a 3-wood can keep you out of big trouble. The purpose of this article is twofold:
Failure of Common Myths
Let You Discover Your Tendencies
Often times our memories and the truth don't match so well. You might assume that trends in your game are correct based on what others have told you, or based on your vague memory of rounds. This is where performance tracking comes in handy.
Using a system like Shot Scope to track all your shots can reveal trends in your games. You may find the same results: that your driver is more accurate than you think, and that your fairway wood is not the answer for difficult tee shots. Or it could be the opposite. You won't know until you've collected enough rounds to see your trends.
Launch monitors can also benchmark your performance to give you more information to make smarter decisions. More and more teaching golf professionals are offering these sessions to golfers to discover the trends in their clubs.
If you are interested in discussing further, join the conversation in this thread in our new community.