Why are today's elite golfers so much better than past generations? Advances in equipment and golfer fitness, no doubt. But advances in analytics have also taken giant leaps. That goes for using launch monitors to create optimal launch conditions, but it also can be said for Strokes Gained's impact on the evolution of course strategy and utilization of practice time.
The fact is, thanks to millions of shots being recorded and analyzed down to the inch by leading instructors and statisticians, golfers can now remove their preconceived biases about what's causing them to lose shots and instead use concrete evidence to elevate their games like never before.
Advanced statistics have snowballed on the PGA Tour since the installation of ShotLink in 2003. Strokes Gained was born out of this data soon after. Many sports, from baseball to basketball, use incredible new-age stats to identify top performers and insights. But the big, beautiful difference in golf is that we can use these same advanced stats in our own game thanks to a growing selection of affordable apps at our disposal.
A recent round by eventual winner Rory McIlroy at the Wells Fargo Championship illustrates in a nutshell the power of Strokes Gained vs. traditional "Fairways and greens" stats.
What is Strokes Gained?
Strokes Gained is a modern golf statistic that analyzes the result of each shot you hit to determine how it compares to the field average. This data can then be broken down into specific segments of your game (driving, approach, short game and putting) to learn which elements of your game are gaining or losing the most strokes. While each shot amounts to just a tiny fraction of a shot gained or lost, add that up over 18 holes and you realize how a 10-handicapper sheds shots to a scratch player like a husky in the summertime.
Mark Broadie is considered the founder of Strokes Gained stats and his book - "Every Shot Counts" (2014) - is essential reading for anyone interested in advanced analytics. As the PGA Tour began charting shots at its tournaments, Broadie, a Columbia University statistician, used dynamic programming to create advanced golf statistics using a large shot location database. He also had access to a growing database of amateur shots for comparison. His discoveries laid waste to some of the most well-known mantras in golf, like "Drive for show, putt for dough" and "fairways and greens."
Among the highlights of the book, Broadie breaks down Tiger Woods' dominance in great detail. Turns out, it wasn't so much Tiger's clutch putting or huge drives (though both certainly helped) as it was his approach game that separated himself from the field, placing him 1.4 shots ahead of the field average and a remarkable .4 shots ahead of the second-best approach player, Robert Allenby.
In this segment with Chris Como from the GolfPass series Build A Better Game: Maximum Distance, Broadie outlines how Dustin Johnson's driving length gains him 1.4 shots per round against the field average, while his relative lack of accuracy only causes him to lose .3 shots. "He's a little less accurate but in a very intelligent way," says Broadie of Johnson's driving dominance. Normally available to GolfPass members only, we've temporarily unlocked this video for all readers.
Broadie on how Dustin Johnson's distance advantage helps him score
Why amateur golfers should use Strokes Gained
In the amateur golf apps, Strokes Gained has been broken down into four popular metrics: Strokes Gained Driving, Strokes Gained Approach, Strokes Gained Short Game and Strokes Gained Putting. Add all of these up and you've got your total Strokes Gained number.
I started using Strokes Gained in my game in 2020 and I wish I had it during my competitive high school and junior golf tour days. Arccos reports their average new member sheds 4 shots off their handicap. Speaking from personal experience, I've shed about 2 since getting into shot tracking and strokes gained. The biggest difference? My poor rounds are a lot better than they used to be.
Using a Strokes Gained app helps you eliminate any bias and understand what the true inefficiencies are in your game. Let's say you had a round with 36 putts. You might think you need to work on your putting. But what if it's because you hit a lot of greens and had a lot of 40-footers? You'll realize that amateurs aren't expected to two-putt from that distance. Or maybe you had some fairly reasonable chips that you couldn't get inside 6 feet - suddenly your odds of making the up-and-down are considerably lower than if you had hit them to three feet.
Strokes Gained helps identify your true weakness versus the field, which you can use to determine where to spend your precious practice time, and also tailor those weaknesses to your on-course strategy.
Here's how an amateur golfer can apply their Strokes Gained data to improve their game:
The first step is you need a shot tracker for your round, that is unless you want to manually record the position of every shot and use data entry to put it into Golf Metrics or DECADE. For my guide on the various methods you can use to track shots on the course, from Apple Watch to club sensors like Arccos or Shot Scope, view my article and video here:
Once you've determined a method for logging all of your shots, it's time to get analytical. Once you've played a few rounds, you'll be able to see where you're losing shots and improve in two key ways:
Strokes Gained On-Course Strategy: By reviewing your rounds and seeing where you gained and lost shots against the field, you can discover insights on when it pays to be aggressive vs. lay back. Analyzing your shot patterns will help you identify the safest line of play off the tee when trouble abounds. Detailed approach shot analytics will also tell you what distances are your sweet spot, so you can target your drives for those zones.
Some apps have combined their shot trackers and strokes gained data to create "Virtual caddies" - A.I.-powered assistants that will calculate live odds of each shot location and tell you which club to hit and where. There is some promise in this tech but I have not found these to be very useful (real-time wind is hardly ever accurate) and the advice, especially with my Garmin watch, can be hyper-conservative (like laying up on a par 3).
Use Strokes Gained results to determine where to spend your practice time: In the foreward to Every Shot Counts, Sean Foley says the data help him convince his students where to spend their practice time and illuminated in particular how important shots from 190-230 yards on Tour are. "It becomes obvious how important it is to spend your time in the right place."
Those of us with day jobs and/or family might only have a few hours a month to practice our game. Strokes Gained can lead you to where to spend that time. Its insights have adjusted my practice habits in 2021 in a few ways:
Putting: I've been ice cold this year and am losing .5 shots inside 10 feet. So I'm focusing on 5-10 footers. My 10-25-footers however are gaining .5 shots vs. my benchmark. I also need to improve my lag putting (-0.6 shots), which would likely benefit from a better pre-game warmup getting the speed of the greens down.
Wedge play: From 50-100 yards I'm losing 0.6 shots against my 4 hcp benchmark. I want to make my wedge play a weapon and not a liability.
Off the tee, Arccos tells me that I'm only losing shots vs. my benchmark because of tee shots lost to penalties. It's made me be more strategic in terms of understanding my shot pattern, the safest lines of play and tee box club selection.
Another X-factor is the confidence that comes with seeing a part of your game you are good at. Knowing you're better than your benchmark at a 200-yard approach shot helps you swing more freely when that is the shot required.
Strokes gained golf apps for amateurs
Broadie's Golf Metrics: Broadie's App, Golf Metrics, is available for iOS and Android (no desktop version). It's a simple interface by comparison to some of the newer and more consumer-focused apps out there. You simply enter the distance away from the hole for each shot until you hole out as well as the lie (tee, fairway, bunker, rough, sand). It also asks you to input a "mental" score for each shot.
DECADE: Founded by Scott Fawcett, DECADE is similar to Broadie's app (it also wants you to record a mental score on each shot) but more detailed and includes a full library of instruction on strategy. You can find specific courses and tag your shots to a specific location on each hole. This helps your spray pattern data. Like Golf Metrics, this app wants you to track your mental score and assign each stroke a value of 1 (committed) or 0 (not committed).
Arccos: The best combination of insights and consumer-friendly dashboard and hardware, Arccos is a favorite of mine thanks to a seriously addicting dashboard in the mobile app as well as desktop. While strokes gained data is typically based on a scratch index, last year Arccos installed the ability to set a benchmark index to base your Strokes Gained off. Club tags at Arccos is $179 and annual membership is $99 (first year is free). They also have a Caddie Link belt clip and Apple Watch integration. Arccos' mobile and desktop dashboard is by far the industry leader for retail golfers.
Shot Scope: Shot Scope's V3 uses a combination of a watch and club tags to record all your shots. Their dashboard is also quite robust and provides plenty of data. It's also very intuitive for recording putts and setting a pin location. Shot Scope recorded 100,000,000 in May 2021 and helps fuel their strokes gained algorithm. Their dashboard compares your game to a scratch golfer.
V1 Game: V1 is a coaching app that has made great strides with its consumer scoring and shot-tracking device, V1 Game. This is the best shot tracker and app out there that doesn't rely on club tags. It uses A.I. and tracks your path down a hole (I go into more detail on V1 Game in my 2021 Apple Watch golf apps review). Unlike Arccos or Shot Scope, in V1 Game, you don't set a pin location, but instead select how many putts you had and select a first-putt distance. This gives you access to a wide variety of graphs and you can view proximity medians by distance or by club.
GolfPad: This is the most affordable shot tracker with club tags out there with a $99 option that comes with access to a premium app subscription. GolfPad has a very solid Apple Watch app integration that allows you to tag pin location easily, but it currently doesn't provide detailed putting and approach proximity statistics. A neat thing about the GolfPad dashboard is it shows shot-by-shot Strokes Gained data.
Garmin: Do you wear Garmin hardware? If so, its Garmin Golf app has strokes gained data, so if you have a shot-tracking wearable like the Approach s62 or Approach s42, or have their CT10 club tags, you'll be able to see insights. But Garmin lacks detailed proximity and hole location data.
You don't necessarily need club tags in order to track shots. Apps ranging from 18Birdies to SwingU to GolfShot all provide strokes gained analytics with their premium subscriptions. With GolfShot, for example, you can assign clubs to shots on Apple Watch or after the round to get club-by-club data.
Do you use Strokes Gained for your golf game? Let us know how it's going in the comments below!