Why Iron Play Is So Important for Scoring Potential
If you’re a golfer who is looking to shoot their lowest scores, you’re going to find many answers in your iron play. Successful approach shots require careful planning, the right information, and of course, skillful ball-striking.
In this article, I’m going to share the following:
- Why approach shots are so important
- Data from millions of approach shots courtesy of Shot Scope (how far golfers are hitting each iron, proximity, and GIR)
- The one statistic that stands above all in terms of your scoring potential
Let’s dig in!
Approach Shots Are the Biggest Key to Scoring
For a long time, we didn’t quite understand why certain golfers scored better than others. Luckily, Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia University, cleared that up for all of us. After researching millions of shots using his revolutionary strokes-gained statistics (a measurement of relative performance), he came to the following conclusion:
My analysis of millions of golf shots reveals a consistent finding: Approach shots account for the biggest scoring advantage between golfers of every skill level. The best golfers also gain strokes with their driving, short game and putting games, but approach shots are the greatest difference-maker.
For clarity, approach shots encompass all shots outside of 100 yards that are not tee shots on a Par 4 or Par 5. As you know, that is a large percentage of your shots on the course, especially with your irons. For further information, I highly recommend reading Every Shot Counts.
How Far Golfers Are Hitting Their Irons
Ask any golfer how far they hit their 7-iron, and they’ll likely tell you how far they think they can hit it versus how far they are actually hitting it. If someone says 165 yards, that’s usually how far they can hit their 7-iron if they flush it. But what about more normal shots?
Shot Scope, a popular shot-tracking company, analyzed millions of real shots amongst their users (you can read my review of their system here). The following chart shows how far golfers at different handicap levels hit their irons on average:
As you can see, most golfers are hitting their 7-iron between 147 to 159 yards on average. And as you would expect, as the handicap level goes down, distance goes up.
If you’re interested in tee shot statistics, you can check out this article that was extremely popular a few months ago.
How Close Are Most Golfers Hitting Their Irons to the Hole?
Another element of scoring that Mark Broadie proved (and that many of us suspected) is that golf is a game of proximity. All things being equal, and with very few exceptions, the closer you are to the hole, your chances of posting a lower score go up.
Here are aggregate proximities amongst golfers by club:
As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of the most underrated difficulties of the game. Nobody on the planet can put their golf ball where they want. As such, you have to plan accordingly (hint: don’t be so aggressive with targets).
Now let’s take a look at the proximity numbers for a “middle of the pack” player on the PGA Tour from various approach distances in 2020:
175 – 200 yards: 33 feet
150 – 175 yards: 28 feet
125 – 150 yards: 23 feet
100 – 125 yards: 19.5 feet
As you would expect, these numbers are significantly better. But they usually surprise most golfers. As good as PGA Tour players are, they are not hitting the ball next to the pin. What you see on TV is mostly a highlight reel.
Pro golfers’ main skill is keeping the ball around the hole enough to make routine pars and some birdies. But mostly, avoiding bogey or worse.
Most golfers put way too much pressure on themselves and are unrealistic with proximity in general. Hopefully, those numbers can reset your expectations.
This leads me to my next point…
Green In Regulation is the Gold Standard for Scoring
Traditional golf stats such as fairways hit or putts per round can be misleading. That being said, greens in regulation is still a vital statistic. If anyone asks me what they can do to shoot lower scores, I usually tell them, “focus on hitting more greens per round, and work backward from there.”
But what does that mean? Well, it’s a combination of advice:
- Keep your tee shots in play
- Stop being so aggressive with your approach shot targets
- Make sure you have an accurate understanding of how far you hit each club on average
- Improve your ball striking ability
Looking at greens in regulation by club and handicap level, a couple of trends emerge:
For starters, if you want to give yourself a better opportunity to hit a green with your approach shot, you need to be closer to the hole. This is why finding ways to increase your distance off the tee is a worthwhile endeavor if you want to lower your handicap.
Not surprisingly, as the handicap level goes down, GIR goes up. There are very few exceptions to this rule in golf, but of course, having a stellar short game can buck this trend. But if you’re looking to give yourself the best opportunity to improve, you cannot ignore this statistic.
Wrapping It Up
Understanding how golfers separate themselves from one another is an important topic. Many players assume that working on certain parts of the game will yield bigger results than they do. I can tell you without a doubt that if you do want to improve, your iron play should be a significant part of your plan.
A more efficient way to go about this process is to keep more detailed statistics, which shot-tracking systems like Shot Scope can help with. Sometimes, you can fix your proximity and GIR numbers by having a better understanding of your true iron distances and where you are missing your shots. Small fixes like adjusting your target and club selection can yield big results in scoring.
ian wallace says
Inthe distances quoted above are they actual distances, flight plus run or just flight. I don’t believe the average 26 handicapper flies his 7 iron 147 yards
These are total distance (flight plus run out) – Shot Scope would have no way of knowing where the ball landed (carry distance) as it measures the ball’s final landing spot.
John, what was the associated loft on those irons?
It is nicely to view those stats. It shows me that I am just slightly below average.
My stats are:
HCP 23 (in reality it is somewhere about 26, but thanks to the new “stupid” system I have 3-4 lower HCP because I have played only 3 tournaments and I therefore affected by regulation of a) small amount of tournaments b) perfect round (to prevent “detained” handicap)
Real (what I am counting of during play) / ShotScope “p.avg” yardages:
i5 – 155 yards / 164 yards
i7 – 136 / 142
i9 – 110 / 118
For GiR my ShotScope shows – 18%
And as it is mentioned in article for me the biggest problem is length of holes. For good chance of GiR => good score I NEED to shot approach shots with i7 or lower. With 142 yards (i7) and my tee shots average of 210 yards it means for good score I should play:
par 3 shorter than 140 yards
par 4 shorter than 350 yards
par 5 shorter than 535 yards
With these yardages on golf courses I should play from 2/5 tees (junior male) but from my 3/5 (adult male) GiR are mentioned 18% which means that I need more luck than skill. 🙂
Jon C says
I resisted moving to forward tees for a long time, but with age has come diminishment of my ego (and distance off the tee). If moving to the junior male tee, or at my course the white tee, will better match my distances, I’ll do it. Otherwise I’m hurting myself off the tee. A playing partner of mine who is 10 years older on the other hand, refuses to move forward even though he hits it 10 to 20 yards shorter than I do. He regularly complains about his scores and I’m not sure he really enjoys the game as much as he could.
Ian S says
100 – 125 yards: 19.5 feet
175 – 200 yards: 33 feet
I.e., pros only add 4 yards dispersion when going from 100 yards out to 200 yards out.
That is eye-opening to me in how good it is. The average golfers I play alongside are nowhere near this – hitting it to 10 yards from 200 yards out is a miracle shot for most!
Bobby S says
In proximity charts – are those numbers the diameter of the circle or the radius? I’m assuming diameter for the full area of proximity?
Yes it is diameter
Surely it is radius. Why would you ever measure shot distance to the hole by diameter.
The accompanying graph sure makes it look like they’re measuring radius. So do the proximity stats listed at the PGA Tour website: https://www.pgatour.com/stats/stat.331.html
From it (scroll to the bottom), “The average distance the ball comes to rest from the hole (in feet) after the player’s approach shot. The approach shot distance must be determined by a laser, and the shot must not originate from on or around the green.”
My rule of thumb is if I hit the ball within 5% of the approach distance, it’s a very good shot and if it’s within 10%, it’s a decent shot. So from 150 yards, a very good shot is within 22 feet and a decent shot is within 45 feet. Your percentages may vary depending on your handicap.
It helps me focus on how much buffer I need on approaches, determining which distances and clubs I have trouble with, and to not get too upset when I have a 40 foot putt for birdie after a 7 iron.
that’s a great way of looking at it, and yes a 40-foot putt after a 7-iron is a good result!
Jon Whitesell says
Good advice, thanks! I’m in my early 60’s and whittled my GHIN down to 10 a bit more than a decade ago by focusing mostly on my iron play for this very reason. I’m now using a Taylormade UDI #2 driving iron which plays to that strength while being incredibly straighter than my driver w/o much loss of distance (230 yds ave.) giving me more chances from fairway. I’d been advised years ago by a pal (a collegiate scratch golfer) to also develop a trusted ‘go to’ iron that I would rarely miss with. That became my 6 iron, which my core belief has grown such that I don’t believe I will miss with it. My worst ‘misses’ with it now are mostly long (e.g., a 210 yd draw to a 180 yd center of green this last summer!). My worst habit has been trying to swing too hard/fast. My irons today (Callaway Diablo Edge) vs the Mizuno Pro blades I used until my mid-40’s have such huge sweet spots with much more trampoline effect (CoR) that a more accurate swing path using a more restrained and thereby repeatable swing speed has aided my iron play tremendously. Kept me competitive against my much younger playing partners. Now I just gotta get to work on my putting…
Be well & Play with a smile!
I don’t think there is a direct correlation between distance and handicap. Especially since one player’s 8 iron is another’s 6. Why are so many golfers obsessed with the distance someone else hits their irons. All this leads to, is so many golfers coming up short of the green, because ONE TIME, they flushed their approach flew the green.
Of course THERE IS direct relation between distance and handicap. There are tons of articles about it.
Lets show it on my nemesis par 4 – 400 yards and more:
a) HCP 25 (like me) have about 210 yards drives in average. Therefore after good tee shot I have 170-180 yards to GiR. For me it is only fairway wood or very good hybrid. So theoretically I can reach it but dispersion will be enormous and I will stay on green maybe in 5% of those shots. Therefore I will always choose lay up and get on green probably with 3rd shot and even than there is chance to ruin the shot. 😉 All in all lets take 10% for par, 80% bogey and 10% worse.
b) HCP 10 (regarding the statistics from ShotScope etc.) have about 240 yards drives. It means that their second shot will be 140-150 yards to reach green and for that they need 8i and there is average proximity 48 feet for all golfers so HCP 10 will have maybe 30 feet (even I can hit green with 8i maybe in 75% of my shots). With that they will have maybe 30% chance for birdie and certainty of par.
See regarding the percentage there is 50:50 that I lose one or two strokes on single hole. There is your correlation between distance and handicap.
I look at handicap as “what is a realistic score for me on a hole”? So lets say I am a 36 – I am basically getting 2 shots a hole – so my par on a par 4 is a six. If I play the hole thinking six is good, 5 is great, 7 is not horrible I can play a lot more sensibly looking at getting on the green in three. Dividing by three I only need 133 yards per shot – of course I would not play it that evenly, but what if my goal is to be making my 3rd shot from 80-90 yards from a nice spot in the fairway? I find I play a lot better this way than if I try to go over 200 off the tee and 170+ into the green. I will add I generally just play for fun either alone or with my son…I do not play in leagues or tournaments, just for enjoyment. I prize accuracy – making shots from good lies etc.
When you look at golfers in aggregate, there is a correlation between increased distance and handicap level. Sure, there are exceptions, but this is a general trend that holds up in pretty much anyone who has looked at the data.
“I don’t think there is a direct correlation between distance and handicap.”
Briefly, the reason why there’s a correlation is because lower handicap golfers are more consistent with their strike, and therefore lose less average yardage from their good hits by mishitting the ball.
Why distance is important is twofold. First, being closer shrinks dispersion distance, assuming an identical dispersion angle. 10 degrees off equals about 50 feet at 100 yards, but 100 feet at 200 yards. Second, for that vast majority of us, shorter clubs are easier to swing consistently. Our dispersion angles shot-to-shot are smaller. So, instead of being 10-15 degrees off with our driver, we might only be 6-8 degrees off with our 9I. The effects reinforce each other.
Don k says
I just keep it simple.im a 20 handicap,I just go up 1 club length for each shot to the green as long as I’m in the fairway and I usually get good results. Dont stress ,just enjoy.
My official HCP is 16 and I am a decent iron player. I have never seen any player with the same level can do i5 longer 155 yrds average. Your chart is pretty off. Sorry.
Not sure who we should trust – your anecdotal observations or millions of golf shots taken in aggregate? 🙂
You have to take average distance with a grain of salt and understand that not everyone is the same but in general these statements made are very true. I am also a 16 hdcp, shotscope user, and carry my 5i 195 (204 p. avg) so while I strike the ball better than many, not hitting the greens on approach is definitely my biggest problem. I get around the greens in regulation but have trouble converting the misses into pars and it leaves very few chances for birdies. Just missing the green by a few feet makes bogie a very common score. (Yes, improving my chipping would help too. 🙂
Carry i5 204 yards in average? And have HCP 16????? You should be scratch player with those. These numbers are good even for PROs so you have to do something VERY WRONG 🙂
I can assure you that there are plenty of people hitting 5 irons 200 yards. 6 irons even. Just because your driver plays like a putter doesn’t mean everyone else’s does.
My official handicap is 17.7 and my 5i goes 165-170 carry. I refute your anecdotal evidence with my anecdotal evidence #zerosum
Like I said few post above. I am HCP 26 and all my clubs are short and even than my average total distance for i5 is 145 yards (for all shots) and 160 (for good ones)
Many years ago (Apple II+ era, heh) I did a half-assed analysis of my game. The variables were; Fairways Hit (par-4 & par-5, GIR and #putts per hole. Far and away, the most significant metric was GIR. Glad to see real analysis confirm. Since, I’ve been putting in more time with my irons at the range. Also, Jon, thanks to your advice (previous article(s)) I’ve been “upclubbing” with my approach shots club selection – it really helps.
Brent Williams says
I believe many players hit irons long yet score high, mainly rather hit long off target than short down the middle. No rewards for short of the greens .so out of bounds and bad lies take toll