Luke Donald's success from the sand dispels some commonly-held bunker myths
Since 2004, former World No. 1 Luke Donald has been the best putter on the planet, but did you know he's also the second best from the greenside sand? Donald's putting gains him nearly a stroke per round on the field. From the greenside sand, he gains about a quarter of a stroke per round on the field.
You wouldn't know about Donald's fine bunker play by looking at the traditional sand-save stat, however. Weighing sand prowess by recording the number of saves is flawed because it combines sand play and putting. Imagine two greenside bunker shots: one hit to 60 feet and another hit to 2 feet, each followed by holed putts. Both are considered sand saves, even though the bunker shot was much better in the second scenario. Under conventional sand-save stats, a failure to get up and down could result from a poor sand shot, a poor putt, or both.
Also, sand-save stats don't account for the initial shot distance, and longer bunker shots are typically harder than shorter ones. Consider Padraig Harrington. Midway through 2014, he ranked fourth in Strokes Gained from greenside sand, yet he's 99th in sand saves. Why the contradiction? He hasn't putted well (161st in Strokes Gained Putting), and his sand shots start farther from the hole (156th in the average initial distance from the hole). Thus, the sand-save stat obscures Harrington's superior bunker play.
Here's how my Strokes Gained from greenside bunkers works. Tour pros average 2.5 strokes to hole out when starting in the sand 20 yards from the hole. A shot hit on the green to where the average to hole out is 2.0 (that is, 33 feet from the hole) loses 0.5 strokes on the field. A shot hit to one foot gains 0.5 strokes. Leaving the ball in the sand loses a full stroke. Strokes Gained from greenside sand is a pure measure of performance because it measures the quality of the shot, not the outcome of the putt. It's intuitive, too: Closer to the hole is better than farther.
How does Donald dominate from greenside traps? He hits the green more often (97 percent, compared to the Tour average of 91 percent), and he hits it closer to the hole (on sand shots starting from 20 yards, Luke hits half his shots within seven feet, compared with the field's nine feet). And here's an amazing stat: Based on ShotLink data, Donald has hit 415 consecutive sand shots (since 2009) without once leaving it in the sand. Wow!
Weekend golfers have more to gain from working on their sand play than Tour pros do, in part because they have more sand shots (2.6 per round compared with 1.7 for pros). Everyday players should track the percentage of times their greenside sand shots finish on the green. The Tour average is 91 percent. For guys like you? Just 66 percent! From the sand, priority No. 1 is to simply get it on the green. In the sidebar at left, Luke's teacher, Pat Goss, will help you turn your next trip to the bunker into a day at the beach.
LUKE'S SAND SECRET? USE THE FORCE!
"Luke doesn't have huge length," says Donald's longtime coach Pat Goss. "So for him to compete with the bombers, he has to excel in other areas, like greenside bunker play. In bunkers, Luke's biggest key is to use a lot of clubhead speed. His swing speed on a spinning 40-foot bunker shot and a full 7-iron from the fairway will be similar. He wants a good, clean strike in the bunker and a good divot. The average golfer hits too far behind the ball and takes a divot that's too deep. Luke 'thumps' the head of the club down and forward with lots of speed, all the way to the finish. To play like Luke, feel as though you're throwing the clubhead down and forward to your front foot, which will expose the club's bounce. To feel this in practice, try making divots in the sand that are two, three or four inches in front of the ball."
Pat Goss is the director of golf at Northwestern. He's been coaching Donald since 1997.