How would a PGA Tour player fare on a par-3 course? The results might surprise you

May 18, 2018

How many strokes under par would a PGA Tour pro average if he played a 2,700-yard, 18-hole course consisting only of par-3 holes averaging 150 yards in length? What do you think? Three under? Six under? Eight under? The startling answer is one under par.

Since tournament data doesn’t exist for our hypothetical course, I get this result — based on 2017 Tour stats — by looking at the average strokes to hole out on all shots from the fairway, first cut or tee, starting between 125 and 175 yards from the pin. The number: 2.94 strokes, or 0.06 strokes under par per hole. Across 18 holes, that yields a score of 1.08 strokes under par.

Most people I’ve asked expect a score far lower than that. Here’s typical reasoning: From that 125-to-175-yard distance, pros usually hit the green, so they’ll have, say, 16 birdie opportunities. Perhaps two of those will be tap-ins, and five of the other 14 attempts will be converted. That’s seven under. Of the two missed greens, one will lead to par and one to bogey. Final total: six under. The reality is much more sobering.

Based on ShotLink data, the average Tour pro will hit only 13 of those 18 greens, with about five of his shots landing within 15 feet of the hole. Those five “good looks” are principally responsible for the three birdies he’ll card. However, his five missed greens, plus an occasional three-putt, will yield two bogeys. Net result: one under par.

Expectations are important. Starting from the fairway or tee at 150 yards, pros hit the green “just” 72 percent of the time, with a median leave of 23 feet (that is, half of their shots finish within 23 feet of the pin and half outside). And weekend golfers? They hit the green 35 percent of the time, with a median leave of 56 feet. Those are huge skill differences—half the number of greens and more than twice the finishing distance compared with the pros. How would that translate on our hypothetical par-3 track? A weekend golfer would post a score of 15 over par. Like I said: sobering.

The biggest contributing factor when it comes to score differences between more-skilled and less-skilled players (pros or amateurs) are approach shots. Within this broad category, the biggest scoring difference comes from 150-yard shots (100 to 150 yards for amateurs, and 150 to 200 yards for pros).

It’s not realistic to expect a 90-golfer to improve to pro levels, but a good goal would be to hit 150-yard fairway shots the way 80-golfers do: on the green 50 percent of the time, with a median leave of 42 feet. Doesn’t sound that impressive? Trust me, it is.