Iron vs. Driver Off The Tee: can a strategy that is too conservative cost you success?

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The club that you select to tee off can have a significant impact on your expected score on a given hole. As golfers, we are constantly challenged by the course and our own possibilities to make the optimum selection. For many, the choice comes down to what they experience as safety or aggressiveness. In this article I want to investigate the selection to hit an iron off the tee against the driver and how that can change your expected score.

I recently performed a test on my SkyTrak launch monitor to help me answer a few questions about my own game.

How much more accurate am I with a tee iron versus my driver?
On average, how much distance do I specify by choosing an iron?
Which strategy is optimal?

After years of studying statistics, measuring my own game and observing others, I changed my mind about club choice alongside the tee. I have discovered that golfers sometimes attach too much value to safety and hit fairways. That is why I believe that fairways hit is a very misleading statistic. Moreover, we make assumptions about our club performance that are often not accurate.

I think my results will surprise you a bit, and hopefully make you think about your own game and test yourself.

The test

In recent years I have conducted many interesting tests with my start monitor. It helps to shed light on topics such as the driver's spread, how the ball position can affect your ball flight and how often you have to change your wedges. Admittedly, these are hardly any scientific experiments. But I know that many readers have found value in exploring these topics. My goal is always to let you experiment only to and find the answers in your golf game .

For this test I made 30 shots with my 4-iron and driver. If I am looking for the ultimate "safety" tee-shot, then my 4-iron is the club that I use next to the tee. I want to see the difference in choosing a very conservative approach to a hole with a tight fairway versus hitting my driver.

With my SkyTrak I try to keep track of various parameters. I have set up an imaginary 25-meter fairway with the software.

I note the following information:

Percentage of waterways
The total distribution of my recordings from left to right
Typical distances for each club when I hit or miss the fairway

4-iron results

For a long time I avoided hitting my driver for safer tee clubs. At holes with tighter landing sites I often chose a club such as my 4-iron. However, I never stopped to think about the relationship between accuracy and distance. Was I so much more precise with an iron? Did the amount of distance that I specified cost me strokes?

Here is a summary of my 4 iron recordings

In my session on the SkyTrak, I thought I hit my iron pretty well, and it was an accurate representation of the kind of performance I see on the track. Here are the relevant statistics:

I hit the fairway 17 out of 30 times, which means an accuracy of 57%
My total spread from left to right on all shots was 48 meters wide
A typical distance when I hit the fairway was about 210 meters. When I missed it was about 200 meters

I was generally surprised. I thought my spread would have been much tighter with an iron. Moreover, while 57% on a tight fairway is not terrible, I expected that I could hit somewhere around 70% of fairways.

If you look at my distribution pattern, you see that I miss the fairway on both sides, even though I have a draw pattern on every ball flight.

This is typical of many other tests that I have done, and therefore you should never assume that one side of the golf course is out of the game because you tend to work the ball in one direction.

Driver results

In recent years I have done a lot of work on my driver. Where I once considered it a duty, I now see it as one of the strengths in my game. That doesn't mean I'm perfect at every lap, but my overall performance is much better.

A visual summary of my driver from SkyTrak

I knew that there would be a significant difference in total distance compared to my 4-iron. But I was more concerned with my mistakes; were they so much worse than my iron? Let's take a look:

I hit the fairway 13 out of 30 times, which means an accuracy of 43%
My total spread from left to right on all shots was 67 meters wide
A typical distance when I hit the fairway was about 270 meters. When I missed it was around 255 meters

I have done many tests with my driver and these numbers are very common, especially my distribution.

A visual image of the spread of my driver; many of my mistakes were on the right in this session

As expected, I hit fewer fairways – but it was only four less than with an iron. Interestingly, my driver distribution is not that much wider than my 4-iron – the difference is about 20 meters wide. On most golf holes, 10 yards in each direction is not as punishable.

The biggest difference is of course the total distance. I give up anywhere between 55-60 meters compared to my 4-iron on most shots.

Some analysis

In general, I believe that hitting an iron off the tee to achieve accuracy would be a loss-making strategy for my game in the long run. The amount of distance that I lose is much greater than the precision that I would get, which was less than I expected.

Golf is a game of proximity. The closer you are to the hole, the lower your expected score will be. Modern statistical analysis has proven that this is true. Of course there are exceptions when you take small sample sizes, but in the long run it is almost impossible to avoid.

Mark Broadie is arguably the leading innovator when it comes to this type of analysis. His arrival of succeeded statistics and his book Every Shot Counts

revealed many insights into how golfers distinguish themselves through achievements in different parts of the game. His research has shown that tee shot distance is more important for scoring than accuracy. Interestingly enough, he discovered that distance was even more important for recreational golfers versus professional golfers. I also learned a lot from Scott Fawcett and his DECADE strategy system, which has also changed my tee-shot strategy.

Analysis of actual shot data from regular golfers has yielded the same results. Shot Scope, a popular game tracking system used by golfers around the world, has released an analysis of their key findings. After looking at millions of shots at all different skill levels, they found that the distance also negated fairway accuracy. For example, a driver who covered 222 meters against a 3-piece that landed 194 meters in the fairway would give a golfer a .3 blow advantage on a hole. In my case, losing 60 meters with my 4-iron versus hitting driver would probably cost me more than 1/2 a stroke per hole. In addition, they noticed that landing the ball in the light rugged corner was not as bad as they thought – it cost golfers roughly .3 hits.

I even played with an interesting calculator made by Lou Stagner of Golf Stat Pro. Using the data I found during my SkyTrak session, I tried a few different scenarios, and almost all of them resulted in a lower expected score with my driver.

In my case, I discovered that the shorter club was not as much better at hitting fairways as I thought it would be. Golfers have traditionally attached too much value to landing the ball in the fairway, and often it makes them more conservative than necessary.

When limiting distance makes sense

I do not want to suggest that you all hit the driver off the tee every time, swing as hard as possible and be aggressive at every hole. The other key factor in the analysis of tee shots is the avoidance of major problems. It is just as important to use fairway bunkers, trees, deep rugged areas and penalty kicks. How far you can hit the ball.

I choose to knock an iron off the tee when I know that limiting my distance prevents major problems. For example, the 5th hole on my home course, St. George's G & CC, presents an interesting tee decision. The widest landing area ends at about 215 meters from the tee, and that's exactly how far I usually hit my 4-iron. Beyond that, the fairway narrows to around 25 meters and is surrounded by deep bunkers and fescue.

If I hit the driver, I could possibly leave myself within 100 meters with my approach shot. But I know I can't clean up any of the bunkers on the fly. If I miss the fairway, I will land in the bunker, or have a treacherous lie in deep fescue, or often not find my ball. In other words, I will cost myself at least 1-2 shots if I miss the very narrow fairway. In this case, the penalty for missing the fairway with my driver is so severe that I believe that if I go back with my 4-iron, I can play the hole with the lowest score in the long run because I know that I can't reach the bunkers and fescue.

Let's say the same hole usually had slightly rough and less fairway bunkers – I would hit the driver every time. Having an approach shot of 100 meters or less, even in the light rough, would result in a lower score than having to hit a 150-160 meter approach shot from the fairway.

A few comments and final thoughts

Although some of the analyzes that I have done apply to many golfers, your results may not be the same as mine. It is quite possible that some of you are so erratic with your driver that it makes no sense to get caught up in certain gaps. My advice would be not to completely avoid it. If you can learn to keep your driver in the game more often, this will result in a dramatic drop in your scores. Practice more, have your equipment evaluated or take lessons.

I always suggest that if golfers want to know more about their own game, they must test themselves. For a long time I played too conservatively off-the-tee with the wrong assumptions. I didn't realize that sitting back took me so many strokes. More importantly, I also did not know that I was not as accurate with a tee iron as I thought I was. Adjusting my tee strategy has certainly lowered my scores, and this most recent test confirms what I suspected was the case. The data of my course performance and the use of a start monitor helped to make my strategic decisions clear. It has also given me more confidence when I go to the tee box, knowing that I am making the optimum choice.

Although I can't tell you how to evaluate each hole you play, I can tell you that your overall goal should be to push the ball forward as far as possible and to avoid major problems from the tee. Do not fall victim to the idea that it is fairway or bust. A tee-shot plan that is much too conservative can be just as expensive as a plan that is too aggressive. When it comes to choosing an iron versus a driver off the tee, start by considering those thoughts.

If you want to see other tests that I have performed, you can read the following articles:

You do not have as much control over the ball as you think you have

The Driver Dispersion Test

How does dirt and water influence spin speed?

Tested modern versus classic equipment: what has changed?

How I practice with SkyTrak

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