Do you miss… or rattle the chains?

The number-crunching approach to better disc golf scores

Today’s hopefully useful game improvement post touches on a way you can improve scores on the course by recording and mining the data of past rounds while off the course.

However, talking about crunching numbers tends to get dry in a hurry — especially if you’re reading this in a disc golf frame of mind. So we’ll ease into the meat of this lesson by way of an illustration. The guinea pig in this case is yours truly.

I shot an even-par 84 (28 holes) morning round at DeLaveaga last weekend, and earned satisfaction on two different counts.

First, with the exception of only a few holes, the course is set up in its toughest configuration in preparation of the fast-approaching Masters Cup — an annual stop on the PDGA National Tour. Par in that layout is good for a plus-1000 rated round, and right now, I’ll take that any day of the week and twice on tournament weekends.

Hole No. 1 at DeLaveaga. (Photo by John Hernlund)

The other reason why I was able to bask in my own pysche a little after my round today — and the main subject of this post — is that I had a game plan and executed it quite well. My strategy at DeLa, when the course is long, is to think par at nearly every hole, even off the tee, and even though I can birdie most of the holes with a perfect tee shot and good putt. The result in this case was 24 pars, two birdies, and two bogeys — one of which was on Hole 13, which plays more like a par 4.

So why play for par on a hole when I know I’m capable of doing better? Because being capable of a executing a shot once and being capable of executing it consistently are two very different things. Understanding that basic fact is the first step in properly assessing the risk/reward quotient of every shot in golf — disc or otherwise.

DeLaveaga has been around for almost 30 years, and it is still one of the toughest courses, score-wise, in the world. It’s certainly not the distance of the holes that makes it tough — although DeLa still isn’t considered a short course even after all these years and the many advances in disc technology. DeLa is challenging because the trees are numerous, most holes have fairways bordered by steep ravines, and the “greens” are hard-packed and filled with exposed roots that jut out like angry veins.

It forces you to think about consequences.

When the course is shorter, and snuggling up to the basket with a good drive is a realistic outcome for me, then a certain amount of risk is justified. But in the long positions I know that my best drives will likely still result in a par, and bad ones will produce a bogey or worst, unless I pull off a miracle save.

Because DeLa is one of my local courses, I have digested a good deal of this information not just in a general sense, but hole-by-hole as well. Hole 13, for instance, is known as I-5 for a reason. It’s not, as many people assume, because the first half of the hole is flat and open — like an interstate highway — but rather because if you’re not careful that will be your reply when asked for your score on the hole (as in, “I fived”).

It’s listed as a par 3 (as are all holes at DeLa, according to early disc golf course custom), but, as mentioned above, that hole plays as a par 4. If your mindset is three or bust, get ready for bust.

Hole No. 13 at DeLaveaga. (Photo by John Hernlund)

This kind of local course knowledge and the conclusions that follow may just come to you over time, but don’t assume that that will be the case. I know it wasn’t for me. In my case, I knew that I was taking unnecessary strokes but just couldn’t figure out a way to nail down why. Or more importantly, how to prevent it from happening in future rounds.

Then one day while pouring over a work-related spreadsheet, it hit me. If I could compile enough data on my rounds over a statistically significant period of time, some new information would likely emerge that could help me make better, more informed decisions on the course.

I was right.

My initial effort was very simple.

I created a spreadsheet that recorded my scores for each round played at DeLaveaga, hole-by-hole. I purposefully did nothing but enter the numbers until I had 20 rounds worth of information, to avoid drawing any conclusions based on insufficient data. But once I had that many rounds to look back on, I added some basic formulas to show score averages on each hole, and the revelations leaped off the screen at me. Here is a specific memorable example:

Hole 10 at DeLaveaga can be played as a tunnel shot, or a lefty hyzer. Back then, because of the more open left side, I thought of it as a good birdie opportunity for me as a left-hander.

Hole No. 10 at DeLaveaga. (Photo by John Hernlund)

The spreadsheet told me otherwise.

Over 20 rounds, I got a par (3) six times, a birdie only four times, double bogeyed the hole three times, and bogeyed it seven times. My average score on that hole — which I had thought of as a birdie hole — was 3.45. Clearly my aggressive approach was costing me more strokes than it was gaining me.

This revelation caused me to look beyond the numbers at how I played the hole, in an effort to change the outcome in the future. I realized that in taking the outside hyzer route to the left, I was opening up the possibility of hitting a tree and deflecting into the woods across the fairway for hole 9, especially because the hyzer route required an elevated throw. I correctly deduced that taking the direct route might result in fewer easy birdies, but would also greatly reduce the chance of getting into deep trouble.

The result in this change in strategy based on hard numbers?

Over the next 2o rounds I averaged a 3.05 on Hole 10, with only one fewer birdie, only four bogeys, no doubles, and the rest pars. After that, as I got more and more comfortable with the new approach, my average score dropped even more.

I use hole 10 as an example mainly because until I had 20 rounds worth of real numbers to look at, I was sure it was a birdie hole. Emotions and ego certainly factored into my decision making in the absence of hard data. Does that sound vaguely familiar?

If you’re really into disc golf on a competitive level and see the benefit of this type of approach, you can go way beyond the simple hole averages described in the above example. Depending on the details you’re willing to record, and the computations (and charts and graphs) you employ (Excel or similar programs make it easy now), you can identify all kinds of illuminating trends.

Maybe you’ll learn that no matter what course you play, you’re scores are always worse on the opening holes (not enough warm-up?) or on the closing holes (loss of focus or energy that could be remedied by proper fueling or hydration?). Keep track of the weather conditions and you might discover that you need to change strategies on specific holes when wind or rain is present. You get the idea.

The bottom line is that knowledge is power. Maybe not the 450-foot drive kind of power, but in golf smart beats strong almost every time. Playing smart starts with having a game plan, and effective game plans are based on hard facts rather than guesses or emotions. Start recording your scores, and after a couple months do some basic math. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Jack Trageser is the founder of School of Disc Golf and is a writer for RattlingChains.com. You can reach him at jack@rattlingchains.com.

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  • Jeff Moore says:

    Great article. You can do the same thing for your putting practice with the ProPut app and you don’t have to find a computer to enter the data. It only takes a couple seconds to save the data during your regular practice routine. It will even show you your Performance over time in graph form.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:11 am
  • Jack Trageser says:

    Jeff, feel free to share a link to your site! Sounds great, and I’m looking forward to seeing the Android version.
    Jack Trageser recently posted..Part 2: Two univeral truths and 7.5 tips to help you improve your putting gameMy Profile

    August 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm
  • Jason Liebgott says:

    Great article, it’s interesting how other sports break down their %’s by the spot taken… basketball and hockey for example, that’s a very common stat to see in the game commentary. In dg, there’s a strong tenancy to go for the hero shot. It’s ingrained in the Heuristic approach to a game like disc golf – where you start making “informed decisions” instead of hard number decisions.
    Jason Liebgott recently posted..The setup shot, aka finding an advantage.My Profile

    October 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm

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