Okay, time for the "answer." As I said above, "answer" isn't the right word. And though I feel pretty strongly about what is the "best" play, as with anything like this, two things are true:
- I could be wrong, and I'm happy to discuss it.
- Your individual situation may be unique. Maybe you are absolutely terrible at hitting a 4I, or you can't chip a ball to within 20' to save your life, or whatever. This discussion deals with generalities, not individual situations.
The second is more likely than the first. (To those who don't know me very well, that's a jab at myself. )
Dave and I have spent a lot of time observing how people play golf, and by and large, we feel that there's a LOT that can be done for golfers to help them overcome some basic course management flaws. We've started caring more and more about this because we believe that there's a lot more to improving at golf than learning the full swing. We're geeks, and we want to make people better at golf, regardless of the means - whether it's the full swing, short game, pitching, chipping, putter or wedge fitting, or course strategy - we'll do what we can to help make golfers better.
Strategy is one of those other aspects of the game that, seemingly, needs to be taught more than it is. Yes, we're coming out with a book (KickStarter project will launch some day… eventually…), but that's about the last I'll mention of that. This isn't promotional, I'm just mentioning that so that people have some understanding why this topic interests me right now. This example may even make it into the book, because it struck Dave and I in the fairway as a good example of a situation to which people would have all sorts of answers. If 235 yards isn't your "hybrid" distance, the distance can be adjusted so that the shot is pretty much the "same" to you, and then the answers will make sense to you as well.
So, we thought we'd get a good amount of discussion with a lot of answers, and y'all proved that correct. You gave several answers, but I think they can be lumped into roughly three groups. Those groups are:
- Go for the green.
- Lay up close to the green.
- Lay up to ~100 yards.
I made a birdie 4 (but bogeyed the next two holes before birdieing the par-five 17th to shoot +1 total and E on the back nine), but that doesn't make my play the "right" one. It's important to divorce the result from the choices - sometimes an unusually good or bad shot (or good or bad luck) will change the result, but the choice was still what it was.
The "winner," in my opinion and based on the information I'll lay out below, is the second: lay up close to the green. I hit a stock 4I because even if I pured it, it wasn't reaching the bunkers, I couldn't flub it much (and even if I did I'd have a wedge in), and it wasn't going to get into any trouble at all unless I quite literally shanked it or something, but then again shaking it will get you in trouble regardless of the shot you choose, so… :-)
I hit the shot fairly straight (two yard cut), and left myself a pitch just about straight up the green. I chipped a 9I that flew a yard too far (just past the top edge of the bowl), made a very "hollow" sound, and bounced and rolled 15 feet past the flag into the back fringe an inch or two. I tapped the putt (it's quite steep - 4% all day) and it dropped in for a four in which I technically "scrambled" and missed the GIR (by a few inches). The worst score I was going to make with this strategy was 5 (par). The best was birdie with a very, very, very slim chance of eagle (chip in).
Why "Laying Up to 100 Yards" is the Wrong Play
The short answer: The closer a player is to the hole is the single biggest determinant in how close their next shot is. Or, to put it in sarcastic terms: "You're telling me that you'd rather play from 100 yards than 20 yards? So if we made a deal that every time you were off the green but inside 100 yards, you had to pick your ball up and walk back to 100 yards without penalty, you'd do it?" No, you wouldn't, and that's why it's the wrong play here.
The longer answer: Though occasionally a PGA Tour player will lay up to a yardage where they can spin the ball, these are often situations where:
- they need to spin the ball to get anywhere near the hole (i.e. it's tucked over water or a big bunker or a tier or something)
- there are bunkers at 65 yards and 125 yards, so 90 fits between them well
- they're stupid (Seriously, sometimes PGA Tour players are guilty of making the same mistakes as a lot of people.)
In fact, a MUCH better predictor for score is "going for its." It talks about how many times pros "go for it" - trying to get on or near a par five in two, or on or near a par four with their tee shot. There's a fairly tight relationship between pros who "go for it" frequently and scoring averages on the PGA Tour.
But okay, let's say I've laid up to 100 yards. Let's look at what some PGA Tour level players (players WAY better than I am) can do from there:
- The leader (Tiger Woods) hits the green from 100-125 yards only 86.79% of the time. The 100th ranked player (I'm going to use 100 a lot) hits the green only 74.8% of the time (let's call it 75%).
- From 100-125 yards, the leader in proximity is 15'1" (Robert Garrigus). The 100th ranked player is 19'10".
- Since we're missing the green 25% of the time, we're going to have to scramble. The leader in scrambling is 66% (Bob Estes), while #100 is 56.99%.
So, let's crunch the numbers.
- We hit the green 75% of the time, to a distance of about 20 feet (which is a good thing, since that's about all the room that's around that flag at all - 15' long is in the fringe, 15' right is in the fringe, we have 30' left of the flag, and 15' short of the flag is a slope down into the bowl). The rest of the time we're scrambling. We can scramble only 57% of the time, meaning we are making bogey 43% of 25% of the time.
- We're making birdie from 20' only about 11% of the time, and that's generous because this isn't a PGA Tour quality green (additionally it's very sloped - about 3.5% on average in that section of the green).
((6 * 0.43) + (5 * 0.56)) * 0.25 = 1.345
((5 * 0.89) + (4 * 0.11)) * 0.75 = 3.6675
Total expected score (for 100th ranked player on PGA Tour in all stat categories): 5.0125.
So, basically, I'm making par. The times I three-putt (which I didn't even add in, but which is a real possibility with the bowl so close to the hole location) and fail to scramble are more than offset (though not by a lot) by the times I make birdie after hitting the green (11% of 75% of the time).
Why "Go For It" is the Wrong Play
This one will be a bit tougher to justify using statistics, because the unique features of this green and target and hole location are unusual. Those features include:
- A heavily tilted green, with some parts being steep enough to roll off and the remainder of the green being about 3.5% on average.
- An immediate slope of 15' or so beyond the back of the green, from which simply staying ON the green is considered a pretty darn good shot.
- The relatively small area in which to stop the ball on the level of the flag.
- The relatively steep bowl which will lead to a long putt IF you hit the green.
- The fact that the shot required is a fade of fairly good length, and yet long and left is D-E-A-D.
- The bunker shots with which one would be left are from 40 yards, uphill 10' or so, and to a small portion of the green over which, once again, is D-E-A-D.
Let's look at some actual figures, now.
- From 200+ yards (and this is from 235 yards to a very sloped green WITH a bowl, two bunkers, and a cliff over the back, WITH a reasonable sized fade), the best PGA Tour player hits the green 62.96% of the time. #100? 43.8% of the time.
- When these players manage to hit the green, their proximity to the hole is 41'6" at best and #100 is over 50'.
- From 52' or so, players three-putt fairly often. In fact, from "25+ feet" the leader 3-putts about 5% of the time while Mr. 100 is three-jacking over 10% of the time. They'll make the putt for eagle less than 2% of the time.
So what's their score if they hit the green (43.8% of the time)?
(3 * 0.01) + (4 * 0.88) + (5 * 0.11) = 4.1.
Basically, the player will average a score of 4.1 IF they hit the green (and bear in mind these putting stats are from 25+ feet, when in all reality the putts will likely average 50' or so given the bowl and the unlikelihood of a ball sitting in the 15' radius circle around the cup very often. In this light, I consider two putting 88% of the time generous, as this green is quite steep throughout the entire green, unlike most PGA Tour greens).
4.1 * 0.438 = 1.7958.
Now what if we miss the green? We have the advantage of only lying two, after all. But things aren't looking good for us. Either we're in the sand with a LONG bunker shot (40+ yards), or we're short in the rough (pitching to a small area, but that's manageable), or we're long and down the steep slope behind and left of the green, from which recovery is VERY difficult - in fact, just keeping your ball on the green is often considered a good shot.
In fact, being over the green is such a lousy place to be, we can almost consider the putting stats from 25+ feet above, with one extra shot added to the score for the pitch:
(4 * 0.01) + (5 * 0.88) + (6 * 0.11) = 5.1.
But let's see how it shakes out by looking at scrambling from farther away.
The current leader (Luke Donald) is 100% in sand saves from 30+ yards (he only has two attempts, however) and Ben Crane is first with 75% from 20-30 yards. #100 on each list is 31.25% (5 of 16) and 46.43%. I don't think it's particularly unfair to rate our likelihood of getting up and down from the bunker at about 20%. In fact, I feel that's incredibly generous given the facts that: a) we're not PGA Tour level golfers, b) the green is severely tilted, c) PGA Tour bunkers are pristine, and manicured the same every week, and d) there's a massive drop-off behind the green. So, 20% is generous, but we'll go with it.
So, if my ball winds up in the bunker, that's easy math:
(4 * 0.2) + (5 * 0.8) = 4.8.
Now, if my ball winds up over the green, well, as I've said, that's lousy. I already quickly estimated that the average score would be 5.1. You'll have to trust me a bit, but again, realize that I said the green was 10-15' above you, and consider how high that is. Look at this image from the first post:
Do you see the guy on the left? He's halfway into the green. Notice how you can't see any grass behind the ball? That's because he's already six feet above the ground level behind the green, with the green still above his head. It's a B-A-D spot to be.
Jerry Kelly leads in scrambling from > 30 yards at 44.9%. #100 is at 28%.
So just quickly looking at these numbers:
(4 * 0.28) + (5 * 0.72) = 4.72*
* This doesn't take into account the slope of the green, and it's why I feel the 5.1 number above just based on putting (again from only 25+ feet when you could easily have a putt from 50+ feet) is more realistic.
So, combining all of these, we have the 1.7958 from hitting the green 43.8% of the time. I'm going to say we're pitching or hitting out of the rough 60% of the time, and 40% of the time we're in the bunkers.
((5.1 * 0.6) + (4.8 * 0.4)) * 0.562 = 2.79876
Add the two up: 2.79876 + 1.7958 = 4.59456.
Let's call it 4.6. Things look good for "going for it," especially if you can hit the darn green.
Why I feel Laying Up *Just* Short is the Right Play
Short answer: Because I'd favor going for it if the green weren't so severe and the punishment so large, so the next best option is getting close and taking my chances at getting up and down for birdie, or two putting for par at the worst the vast, vast majority of the time.
- Because we'll lay up in the fairway, we'll have a clean lie, a good look at the hole, and an uphill chip. There aren't any good stat categories that present this type of shot, so we'll look at proximity from 30+ yards: Zach Johnson leads at 8'7" and #100 is 12'6". This includes shots from the rough, though. I consider the severity of the greens a wash because we've not shortsided ourselves, and that cancels out hitting through or over the bowl IMO.
- Vaughn Taylor leads at 41.75% from 10-15'. #100 is 28.97%.
- Ben Curtis (#100) 3-putted from 10'-15' 0.88% of the time.
Given the proximity of about 12'6" and the fact that we're knocking home a birdie 28.97% of the time and three-putting less than 1% of the time, the math becomes:
(4 * 0.29) + (6 * 0.01) + (5 * 0.7) = 4.72.
What these putting stats don't account for is that we have some control here, or more control than we typically do when putting (because many putts from 10-15' occur after an approach shot, so the ball may be above the hole, on a sidehill slant, etc.). Chipping from just short of the green increases the odds of leaving ourselves the easiest putt if we think about it at all, and the easiest putts are the relatively straight uphill putts.
So by the math, using PGA Tour player #100 for the best available stats, going for the green would win out by 0.12 strokes.
Didn't I thus contradict myself? Isn't going for it the right answer?
Yes… if you're a PGA Tour player! A big part of what separates the average PGA Tour player from the average golfer is their abilities in a few areas. One of the bigger ones is the long game. These players hit the green from 200+ yards 43.8% of the time, which dramatically drops the "go for it" number, even if we do all we can to factor in the green and the length of their likely putts.
Additionally, we can't truly capture in stats how difficult getting up and down from the bunkers or long of the green will be. The PGA Tour stats are, as I've said, for average PGA Tour courses. A green with this tilt and a 15' "cliff" behind it is unusual. And even the average single digit player is as likely to make 6 from long or in the bunkers as they are to make 4, or maybe more likely. You've gotta make a big swing for a long bunker shot, and hit awfully close to the ball, too. Or you'll have a 50' putt out of the bowl. And if you're long, and leave it short going for the hero shot, you'll struggle to get up and down for PAR let alone making birdie.
After all, we're looking about about one tenth of a stroke difference. The fact that the green has a collection area in front (the bowl) makes the 0.1 disappear relatively quickly.
Still, if I was scoring this (and I'm not, but I hope this exercise has proven interesting), anyone who said "go for it" would get a B, especially if they said "go for it but err on the side of leaving it short." Long and/or left is dead, again. Anyone who said "lay up close" (and there were only a few) would get an A. Anyone who said "lay up to a comfortable yardage" gets a C if I'm in a good mood. Seriously, the next time you're less than 100 yards from the green, go pick up your ball and walk it back to your "comfortable wedge distance" and play from there. I think you'll see what I'm saying about that idea pretty quickly. :-)
So that's my answer. Again, it may not be correct, but I feel pretty strongly that it is. Our book will have certain "rules" in it, or ways of looking at scoring that you can apply to your game, and one of them, particularly for anyone who isn't a Tour level golfer (any professional tour level, really) is "avoid bunkers at all costs."
FWIW, I played three other par fives that round.
- On the first hole, from the fairway, I had 270 or so into the green. There's a fairway bunker 50 yards short of the green, and two greenside bunkers. The pin was tucked back. I hit a hybrid into the fairway to about 90 yards (as close as I could get without running the risk of hitting into that fairway bunker), a 2/3 sand wedge to the back fringe, and just missed the 20' putt for birdie. Par.
- On the sixth hole, from the fairway, I had 277 to the green. I hit a 3W (the only trouble were two greenside bunkers pin-high) that just trickled onto the front of the green. I two-putted for an easy birdie.
- On the 17th hole (17 yard wide fairway), I hit the fairway and had 235 to the green again. There's a collection area left of the green, and I drew a hybrid a little and ended up just through it in the rough five yards from the green. I had a relatively simple pitch to two feet. Birdie.
In other words, I got as close to the green each and every time while doing everything reasonable to avoid serious trouble. On the first hole, that meant the fairway bunker. On the sixth and 17th holes, that meant going for it. On the 13th hole, that meant not messing with a long bunker shot or going over the green.
And yes, it's anecdotal, but I was -3 on the four par fives, with the one par coming from a 20' putt that almost went in and a tap-in left for par.
That was a lot to type out. If I linked to the wrong stat, please let me know. If I made some other math mistake or something, please let me know. It's getting late, and I'm tired, and that was a lot to type. But I think this should further the discussion, and I'm happy to have possibly made a few people think about this.