In winning the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open this past week in Las Vegas, Webb Simpson recorded an amazing 28 birdies in 72 holes, or an average of seven birdies per round. That’s a lot of birdies — more than many recreational golfers make in an entire season! Just how can you start making more of these red numbers in the future?
First of all, you have to understand just how difficult birdies are to come by. According to data compiled on TOURCaddie (www.pgatourcaddie.com) and ShotZoom users, the average 0 to 9 handicapper birdies a hole about 5.5 percent of the time. That number drops to 2.5 percent for 10-19 handicappers and 1.2 percent for 20-plus handicappers. That’s one birdie every 100 holes! By comparison, the average PGA TOUR player records a birdie or better 19.4 percent of the time (based on 2013 season stats). A significant increase, for sure, but it just goes to show you that they don’t exactly grow on trees.
Another thing to realize is that most birdie putts on TOUR occur in the 10- to 25-foot range; they’re not easy tap-ins, as most people may suspect. Consider: When Annika Sorenstam shot a 59 in the Standard Register Ping tournament in 2001, she made 13 birdies. Of those 13, eight were on putts of 9 feet or longer. There were birdie putts of 12, 18, 22 and 30 feet, not to mention two 2-putt birdies. My point is that if you’re going to make more birdies, you have to give yourself more opportunities to make birdie. That means hitting more greens. If you fire at every flag and try to force birdies to happen, chances are you’re going to make a lot more bogeys and doubles than birdies. But if you stay with your routine, focus on the shot at hand, and play to the fat part of the green instead of thinking that you have to stick every approach inside 5 feet, more birdies will happen. As Annika proved, if you give yourself a fair amount of putts at birdie, you may just make a few.
Here are some other keys to making more birdies on par 3s, 4s, and 5s.
Par 3s: Take One More Club
More often than not, you’ll have a mid-iron or longer into a par 3, and how often do you hit these clubs perfectly solid? If you’re playing the yardage to the pin—as most amateurs are--and you mis-hit the ball just slightly, chances are you’re going to come up short. But play one more club, taking into account which club will get you to the back of the green (without going over) if hit solid, and you’ll still find the putting surface, even if you mis-hit it some. If the pin is in the middle of the green, it’s likely you have 15 to 18 yards of wiggle room beyond that, so taking an extra half or full club is not going to hurt you.
Par 4s: Seek the Green, Not the Pin
How many times have you taken dead aim at the flag with your 6-iron, only to walk off the green berating yourself after making a bogey or worse because you short-sided yourself on your approach shot? As I said earlier, don’t try to force the birdie. Unless you have a short club (8-iron or less) in your hands, you should only be thinking about one thing—hitting the green. With a short iron in your hand, you can narrow down the target more, perhaps zone in on a certain quadrant of the green, but with a 7-iron or longer, you’re not going to be as accurate, and you need to leave some margin for error.
Consider: On the PGA TOUR in 2013, the average leave distance (measured from the hole) on approach shots from 150-175 yards was 27 feet, 7 inches. And that’s from the fairway, not the rough! From 175-200 yards it was 33 feet, 3 inches. The percentage of times players birdied the hole from the same approach distances was 15.1 and 12.8 percent, respectively. So ask yourself, does it make any sense aiming at the pin from those distances if the best players in the world are leaving it 30 feet from the flag? The answer, of course, is no. If the pin is tucked in the right-hand corner of the green, next to a bunker, then aim 25-30 feet left of the flag. This way, if you miss 20 feet right you wind up hitting a great shot, and if you pull it 20 feet to the left you’ll have all of that green to work with on the next shot. Aim at the pin and miss it 20 feet to the right, and you’ll be struggling to make bogey.
Par 5s: Knock Your Second Shot Close
Traditional instruction would tell you to lay up to a favorite short-iron distance (full wedge) and play these as three-shot holes, but recent studies suggest that the closer you are to the green on your second shot, the more likely you are to make birdie. Why? Because it’s still easier to hit the green from 40 yards out than it is from 100. Even the TOUR stats bear this out: From less than 100 yards, the average greens hit in regulation (GIR) percentage from 2013 was 86 percent; from 100-125 yards, it was 75.3 percent.
Assuming you can get it fairly close, I think you should advance the ball as far as you can on your second shot, but with two stipulations: 1) you don’t short-side yourself; and 2) you leave yourself the best angle to the flag. For example: If the pin is cut back left, you’re better off being in the right rough, whereas if you miss left you could find yourself with a delicate pitch over a bunker to a tucked pin. And that spells trouble. Miss right and a par should be well within your grasp; perhaps even a birdie, too.
Anne Cain is Master Instructor at the PGA TOUR Golf Academy at World Golf Village, and a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher. For more game-improvement tips from the TOURAcademy instructors, on-the-spot club recommendations and 3D previews of each hole you play, download the TOURCaddie PRO app at www.pgatourcaddie.com.