Written By: Jon Sherman
The conventional wisdom in golf has always been that the long game is important, but your short game is where scoring actually occurs. The famous saying, “Drive for show, putt for dough” has been muttered a million times over the years.
However, with the emergence of new statistics from Every Shot Counts author Mark Broadie and others exploring similar research, the old adage is falling out of favor. Broadie uncovered a mountain of evidence that suggests that long iron and hybrid play have the most significant impact on the scores we shoot.
Broadie concludes that the long game is immensely important.
We don't dispute that. It’s unquestionably true for professionals, but how well does that actually translate to the average golfer?
Don’t Abandon The Short Game
My theory has always been that higher-handicapped golfers spend way too much time practicing their long game at the expense of their wedge and putter play. If you go to any driving range right now you’ll see stalls filled with golfers banging away on their drivers.
After Every Shot Counts was released, I worried that the rise of Strokes Gained would mean wedges and putter would fall even further by the wayside.
Here’s my problem with the new stats:
My argument against what Every Shot Counts teaches us...the notion that the long game is the key to lower scores, boils down to one undeniable constraint.
...and most of us don't have nearly enough of it.
For most of you reading this, the amount of time you devote to improving your golf game is limited. Between work, family obligations, and all the other things that get in the way of golf, we just don’t have as much time as the pros do to work on our games.
Improving your long game means fixing your swing. For most, that’s an extremely time-consuming process that offers no guarantees of improvement. How many golfers have you known who have spent hours trying to re-tool their swings, only to finish worse off than when they started?
While the stats say hitting the ball farther with more accuracy is the path to lower scores, for many of us, it’s just not feasible to put in the time necessary to turn statistical probability into reality.
Where is your time best spent?
Only a select group of golfers will have the physique, athleticism and technique to hit the ball with tremendous length and accuracy. Reaching that level of proficiency takes a great deal of time and effort in addition to having the natural physical ability. No matter how much time we spend with the driver, the overwhelming majority of us will never hit it like Jason Day.
However, every golfer on this planet can develop a great short game.
I think Dave Pelz sums it up nicely in this clip…
Your short game can be the great equalizer in golf, and it requires much less time and effort to master than the long game. How do I know that? Well, because it was the key for me.
If I had to summarize most of my golfing career, I would say it would be “wasted talent.” Since I took up the game at 10 years old, I have always been an above-average ball striker. As a kid, I spent thousands of hours hitting golf balls, and mostly focusing on the longer game. It was fun, and I loved doing it.
Most people who saw me on a driving range would assume I was a scratch golfer because of the way I hit the ball.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
I remember taking a lesson with a pro down in Florida many years ago. He watched me hit the ball for about 20 minutes as I went through my bag executing perfect shots – 300 yard drives, 7-irons thrown at the pin with laser accuracy.
I sheepishly told him that it wasn’t the case. I had played competitively in high school and college, and my opponents routinely beat my brains in because their wedge play was superior and they were better putters.
My issue was that I was TERRIFIED of my short game, because I had never really taken the time to commit to it.
I would only shoot my best scores when my swing was completely on, and I was able to hit a ton of greens. Sadly, those rounds were few and far between, and the times when my swing was off, my scores ballooned because I simply couldn’t get up and down for par.
Does this sounds familiar to you? It’s the story for most golfers regardless of the scores they are shooting.
So what changed for me?
I read Dave Pelz’s The Short Game Bible about 10 years ago. Not only did it convince me that the path to lower scores was going to be through my wedge game, but it gave me the tools to understand how to play those shots more effectively. I devoted my practice sessions to honing in my wedge distances, and improving my chipping technique.
The beauty about the short game is that once you understand the proper technique, it’s easy to make huge strides in that part of the game. To me, the short game is golf’s low-hanging fruit because it’s where you can improve your scores with the lowest time investment.
I credit this shift in my philosophy to improving from a 4-8 handicap down to a .7 handicap as of this spring (I’m currently a 2 right now). Improving my wedge game did a few things:
- I was able to lower my scores on rounds where my full swing was off. Rounds where I would have shot an 84 or 85 were now a 78 or 79.
- My on-course demeanor improved. I was no longer as worried or distressed when I missed a green. Instead of dreading my wedges, I knew that I could get up and down for par from anywhere on the course. My short game was like a shield against errant swings.
- I made more putts because I was leaving myself inside of 10 feet, which is the magic distance where you actually have a chance to make them.
My story is just one guy’s story, and anecdotal evidence probably isn’t compelling for most readers of this site.
Given newer stats that strongly suggest we focus on the long game, it might seem that my recommendation to invest more of your precious practice time on the short game is ill-advised, maybe even dead wrong.
But I believe down to my core that all great golfers have great short games. They weren’t born with them. They got them by spending a good chunk of their practice time on and around the green. I always noticed the better players working with their wedges and putter more, and had seen the results in my own game.
How could I prove it though? Sending out a poll to a few hundred golfers asking them to detail their practice habits was not going to cut it.
Thankfully we are at a point where technology can give us the answer.
I reached out to my friends at Swingbyte, and asked if they would run some numbers from their database. Their popular swing analysis tool is used by thousands of golfers around the world during practice sessions. SwingByte’s data provides us with the perfect way to really determine which clubs golfers are spending the bulk of their practice time with.
What if I was completely wrong?
SwingByte provided a spreadsheet that broke down how many shots were recorded with each club, separated into categories based on handicaps. With over 3 ½ million golf shots to sort through, I had some real insight into where golfers are actually spending their time practicing.
The data is definitive. Single-digit handicaps spend significantly more time practicing with their wedges and putters than higher-handicapped golfers do.
The chart above clearly illustrates that as handicap goes up, the amount of practice time devoted to the short game goes down.
What’s also interesting is that when you look at practice time with longer clubs (5 iron and above) and driver, an inverse relationship is revealed. As playing ability goes up, the time spent on this portion of the game goes down.
This presents an interesting dilemma, and it goes against Broadie’s findings. Based on his data you would expect that better golfers would devote more of their practice time to the long game, but the reality is exactly the opposite.
What does all of this mean?
I’m not arguing against Mark Broadie’s data that suggests improving your long game is the key to lowering your scores, but we have to be realistic. We have to be practical.
Conquering the long game is inherently more difficult, and it takes significantly more time. Most of us just don’t have a ton of that precious resource.
The data Swingbyte provided us shows that better golfers are spending more of their practice time on the short game, and it’s working for them. I believe this is clear evidence that the short game still offers the best bang for your buck in terms of the amount of time you invest versus the impact on your actual scores.
We are all infatuated with hitting the long ball, and it’s certainly a worthy cause. However, at the level that most of us play, and given the reality of our time constraints, it still makes sense to focus on the short game.