— April 28, 2015
Make the “smart” play for the fairway or let the big dog eat?
That’s the decision golfers are faced with 14 times in each round. The choices you make on the tee box are unparalleled in their impact on your scoring, so why rely on “common sense” and myths? At PluggedInGolf, we don’t! That’s why we set out to discover what is truly the best club to hit from the tee.
For this test, we examined five myths relating to the distance, accuracy, and consistency of tee shots.
Myth #1 – 3 Wood is more accurate than driver
Myth #2 – Driver is less consistent than shorter clubs
Myth #3 – Accuracy off the tee is more important than distance
Myth #4 – Shorter, more lofted clubs are always more accurate
Myth #5 – Taking “less club” off the tee is the smart play
For this test, we recruited three above-average golfers. Each brought in their driver, 3W, longest hybrid, and longest iron. Each player hit 10 shots with each club. No shots were deleted, and each golfer hit the clubs in a different order. The data can be found at the bottom of this post.
All testing was done at Club Champion.
This myth is 100% busted. In both absolute and relative terms, each of our testers hit their driver more accurately than their 3W.
We looked at accuracy three different ways. First, we looked at how far each shot was from the center line. Our testers hit their drivers an average of 8 yards closer to the center line. Next, we looked at degrees offline. This is an important number to consider because it levels the playing field between the driver, which goes farther, and the 3W. Our testers hit their drivers 2.3° straighter, on average. Finally, we looked at how many “bad” shots were hit. For accuracy, we defined a bad shot as any shot that finished 15 yards or more from the centerline. The results here were mixed: one tester hit an equal number of drivers and 3Ws badly, one did better with the driver, and one did better with the 3W.
There are some possible explanations for why golfers hit a longer, less lofted club straighter. First, drivers have higher MOI (moment of inertia) than 3 woods, meaning they’re more stable and forgiving on mishits. Also, golfers practice with their driver much more than they do with their 3W. Finally, it was our observation that golfers swung harder with their 3W in an effort to hit it as far as their driver.
Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that 3 woods are not more accurate than drivers.
Our testing showed that not only is the driver as accurate as shorter clubs, it’s also every bit as consistent.
To judge consistency, we looked at the range that each player covered, both in terms of distance and left-to-right accuracy, with each club. We also looked at how many bad shots were hit with each club. Bad shots were defined as being 15 yards or more from the centerline or 10 yards short of that club’s average distance.
With regard to distance, the driver had a smaller distance range than the 3W for 2/3 testers. All of our testers had smaller or equal distance ranges with their driver compared to their hybrid. When comparing the driver to the long iron, the results were mixed.
When we turn to accuracy, the supposed advantage of shorter clubs, we see a jumbled picture. One tester was least accurate with his driver in terms of range, but his driver produced the fewest bad shots. Our second tester was most accurate with his driver according to both metrics. Our third tester was roughly equal with a driver, 3W, and hybrid, but his long iron was consistently better.
In sum, there is no clear consistency advantage to shorter clubs. While the results are mixed, the onus is on the distance-challenged short clubs to prove their worth off the tee, and they failed to make their case.
This is a myth that doesn’t lend itself to being busted or confirmed because it’s too ambiguous. Would you give up 3 yards to be in bounds rather than out of bounds? Of course. Would you give up 50 yards to be in the fairway instead of the first cut? Obviously not.
We do know two things: distance is underrated in terms of its impact on scoring and golfers give up more distance than they realize when clubbing down.
Let’s quantify the importance of distance. According to Mark Broadie’s book Every Shot Counts, an extra 20 yards per tee shot is worth 0.8 strokes/round to a PGA Tour player. That distance is worth more to the amateur golfer. For an 80 shooter, that distance is worth 1.3 strokes. For a golfer shooting 115, those 20 yards are worth 2.7 strokes!
It’s no surprise that golfers overestimate the distance that they hit their clubs, and this really hurts them when it comes to decision making off the tee. Our testers lost 35 yards, on average, when switching from driver to 3W. The drop-off gets even more dramatic when you talk about hybrids and long irons. Compared to their drivers, our testers’ longest hybrids were 45 yards shorter. Their longest irons were 80 yards shorter.
Hitting fairways is important, but it’s not on the same level as having a pitching wedge as opposed to a 5I on your approach.
Just like Myth #1, this is absolutely busted. In fact, we found that, at least for some golfers, the driver is significantly more accurate. Check out the graphic below showing all the shots that we measured. The shots furthest from the center were hit with 3W and hybrid, not the driver.
As we discussed earlier, when you look at the distance in absolute terms – yards offline and left-to-right range – the results are somewhat mixed. Based on range, the driver was most accurate for one tester, it was least accurate for another, and a driver was in the middle for the third. Based on average yards offline, the driver was bettered only by the long iron.
When we switch to looking at accuracy in terms of degrees offline, we see little to no advantage for shorter clubs. We’ve already discussed that each player hit the driver more accurately than the 3W, and that extended to the hybrid as well. Our testers hit their driver 1.3° closer to the center line compared to their hybrid, on average. When we compare driver to the long iron, two of our testers still showed measurable driver advantages: 0.4° and 2.2°. Player 3 did hit his long iron exceptionally – only 1.2° offline compared to 3.6° for the driver – but it must be restated that the long iron was nearly 80 yards shorter than the driver.
It should be obvious by this point that this myth is busted. First, we’ve shown that there is not a clear accuracy benefit to shorter clubs – the driver can be as accurate or more accurate. Second, our data shows that shorter clubs are not more consistent. Finally, shorter clubs give up a lot of distance – much more than most people realize – without returning a benefit.
It turns out that the guy who hits driver on every hole isn’t a meathead after all…at least not when it comes to club selection. Our testing found that hitting driver off the tee results in longer, more consistent, and more accurate shots than any other club.
This doesn’t mean that you should snap your 3W in half. The smart play on any given hole takes into account a lot of things: your personal shot pattern, the shape of the hole, hazards, weather conditions, etc. There are plenty of holes that call for a fairway wood, hybrid, or iron off the tee, but overall the driver is the best club off the tee.
Matt Saternus. Co-founder, Director of Instruction at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is a golf instructor, club fitter, and writer living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Matt's work has been published in Mulligan Magazine, Chicagoland Golf, South Florida Golf, and other golf media outlets. He's also been a featured speaker at the Online Golf Summit and is a member of Ultimate Golf Advantage's Faculty of Experts.