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Fact or Fiction: Lay Back with a 3 Wood Off the Tee

If there are two storylines that seem to be prominent at every US Open, it’s length of the course and length of the rough. This year should be no different at the Country Club at Brookline which will play over 7,200 yards (at par 70) with fescue that could conceal a small animal.

With rough penalizing misses off the tee, pros may be tempted to lay back with a lesser club in hopes of increasing their chances of finding the fairway. So is that the right choice?

In this installment of Fact or Fiction, Mark Blackburn answers whether or not it’s wise to choose 3 wood over driver.

Assuming hitting it further doesn’t bring a hazard into play or decrease your chance of hitting the green in regulation, smashing driver is usually the right move. That said, the course set up at the Country Club should encourage some variety off the tee. With fast fairways that will require golfers to shape their tee shots, lesser clubs will be required, especially on the back nine. This This is a stark contrast to the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot which featured such tight fairways that bomb and gouge was almost the only almostthe only choice. However, in general, maximizing distance off the tee is usually the statistically favorable move for club golfers.

3-wood might be the safer play, but only marginally so. A recent study by Arccos golf published in Golf Monthly reported that across millions of shots hit by golfers of all handicaps, a driver found the fairway 45.5% of the time and a 3 wood finds the fairway 46.4% of the time.

Bottom line: Laying up doesn’t guarantee that you’ll hit the fairway and hitting driver doesn’t guarantee that you’ll miss the fairway.


Consider this hypothetical from stat guru Lou Stagner:

▶️You are scratch player that averages 290 off-the-tee
▶️325 yard hole - water in play
▶️With driver you estimate you will hit fwy 40%, rough 35% and water 25%
▶️A layup to 100 yards takes water out of play. You will hit fwy 80% and rough 20%

What is the correct play?

— Lou Stagner (Golf Stat Pro) (@LouStagner) February 24, 2021

Though he intentionally framed this to favor the lay up (percentage of shots in fairway for layup and water for driver are probably both high), both scenarios feature an almost identical expected score (hitting driver is actually ~0.01 strokes lower than laying up).

Here’s one more from Lou:

For the typical scratch player, driver is the mathematically better option here.

▶️Leaves 100-yds if fwy hit, 105 if missed (in rough)
▶️Fwy% = 10%
▶️Rgh% = 90%

▶️Leaves 130-yds if fwy hit, 135 if missed (in rough)
▶️Fwy% = 55%
▶️Rgh% = 45%

— Lou Stagner (Golf Stat Pro) (@LouStagner) September 10, 2021

Think about that. Only hitting one of ten fairways is better than hitting more than half of the fairways assuming you end up 30 yards closer to the green.

This will be a critical strategic decision at the U.S. Open this week, but also underscores the importance of understanding your shot tendencies and dispersion from your Mobile Launch Monitor data. Unless your misses are drastically worse with a driver than a 3 wood, there’s a good chance that smashing driver is a better option for you.

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By Rapsodo Golf

With an unwavering passion for the game and data-driven insights, we're here to inspire and elevate your Golf journey through articles that help you find improvement and excellence.