Iron vs. Driver Off The Tee: Can a Strategy That Is Too Conservative Cost You Strokes?

Dan Gold
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The Test

In the golf course design business, there are two opposing philosophies. They are nicely summarized in the phrases "The shape of the hole dictates the volume of the shot" and "The volume of the shot dictates the shape of the hole." In other words, course designers who follow the first philosophy attempt to design courses so force restrictive that they are practically immune to the four modifiers of golf — wind, sand, ground and light.

Under this traditional view, courses should be as bold as possible, and the golfer should be required to shape his or her shots along the lines of what is impossible to do.

On the other hand, those who follow the second philosophy try to determine what is possible for a golfer to hit on a particular hole and then make the hole fit that. For example, a hole that is too long to reach with a driver and a long iron might be the fairest hole in the world, but it will hardly ever be very exciting. If it must be long, then that extra length should be found around the hole, instead of making the hole bigger than it needs to be.

So, the debate between these two philosophies has raged for years, never coming to a satisfying conclusion. Which is better: the bold shot or the solid one? Besides being a design philosophy, it is, of course, a frame of mind, and many of the best golfers ever have firmly adhered to one or the other.

4-Iron Results

In Strokes Gained, Driver Results in Strokes Lost.

Looking at the 2013 ShotLink stats, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods were the top golfers on approach shots not around the green, while Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, and Webb Simpson were the best golfers off the tee.

Instead of choosing your driver off the tee, you should use a 4-iron from 225-250 yards for two reasons: it will give you better distance control and less chance of hitting into the rough. If you are able to achieve a one- to two-percent advantage in gaining strokes from this strategy, it will more than compensate for the shorter distance.

I strongly believe the way you approach the tee affects how you play approach shots to the green.

Driver Results

I grew up on a municipal course that launched a number of good players, and I remember overhearing a conversation between a dad, his son and a buddy that someone shot a zero on the par-five 13th hole.

Now, your typical par-five hole is around 500 yards with maybe three hazards and a gully hazard. There was a lengthy discussion on how anyone could shoot 0 on such a hole, and it finally was adjudicated to a one-stroke penalty on an already ridiculous score.

It is a great example of the potential impact of a few bad decisions on your score. But how can you ensure that you aren’t making decisions that are too conservative? i.e., will using an iron off the tee on a reachable par-four cost you more strokes than using a driver?

To answer this angle of the dilemma, I examined the shot distance results for my players off a tee on 15 of the best-known par-four holes on Tour. I also examined the average drive distance for each hole. Table 1 shows that, on average, a drive off the tee was longer than the average of the better iron clubs in my bag.

Some Analysis

One of the most important aspects of the game is where you hit your tee shots on every hole, and particularly on the par 5s. Let’s take a look at the three holes that most golfers struggle with.

When Limiting Distance Makes Sense

If you have just started playing long-drive competitions and have fallen into the trap of trying to drive the ball like the pros, it’s time to dial back the distance a bit.

Yes, Bobby Rice’s 208-yard drive and Eric Axley’s 213-yard drive on the U.S.G.A. Leaderboard highlight the long-drive contest to perfection. However, they do not define it.

The longer you play, the more you will realize that the shots you hit that check in at 189 to 200 yards are the ones that gain you the advantages on the tee.

These crucial tee shots require a correct read of the green, the ability to shape the shot with the right club, and the best swing possible.

A swing that produces a long ball can lead people to believe that you have a great stroke, but it doesn’t mean that you are hitting the ball correctly. And that’s what building a driving strategy is all about.

Instead of worrying about hitting the ball as far as possible, learn to execute the following techniques, and watch your scoring gains.

A Few Caveats and Closing Thoughts

First, these rules can backfire. In fact they are designed to help golfers avoid backfiring. You can’t play some of these rules perfectly. Many of them break down in the real world.

Second, these rules cover a relatively narrow range of conditions; they are not intended to be general guidelines for all play all the time. Following them may result in you missing shots you otherwise would have made from time to time, but that is why you have to decide how much the rules apply to a given lie and a given situation.

Finally, there is a mental tactic that is very useful to signal the decision to take the safe side of these rules. That is playing the shot with a conservative amount of swing or club. When you do that, a certain amount of getting away with it follows. That is the benefit. The drawback is that it adds a degree of difficulty, and often tends to make the reward less in the sense of making a lot of strokes and only occasionally makes you look good. If this is your strategy, you have to be willing to play this way with nearly every shot. Otherwise it won’t work.