How to Become a Pro Golfer - the Facts.
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
For years, golf fans heard the slogan “These Guys are Good” from the PGA TOUR.
How good are they, really? We all want to know where we stack up against the best, and I'm about to present methods of comparison so you can see just how far (or close) you are from playing elite professional golf.
There are four methods of comparison that come to mind to help you in your journey towards becoming a pro golfer. Although many deny it, comparison is vital for us to find out where we really are in the game. However, remember that this comparison should be conducted from a non-emotional Mastery Perspective rather than an from Ego Perspective.
I'll present these methods of comparison in order of Serious Golf Talk's preferences.
1. World Handicap System's Handicap Index
This part of the article was very fun to research, as I was able to find out both the average Scoring Differentials required to make the cut and win five randomly selected tournaments on the Korn Ferry Tour and PGA TOUR.*
* Methodology: I used a random number generator with the number of weeks on the PGA TOUR as its limits. It came up with 5, 14, 20, 21, and 22 as the numbers. I therefore attempted to use the 5th, 14th, 20th, 21st and 22nd week in both the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour schedules.
If the tournament’s host course was not found on the USGA National Course Rating Database (found here), and I could not find an online scorecard with the required information regarding Par, Course Rating and Slope, I went to the following week. For example, I couldn’t find data on the HSBC Champions’ course in China (5th event of the year) and went to the sixth event of the year instead-- Sanderson Farms (I went forwards instead of backwards arbitrarily).
Additionally, in the event of weeks without a cut on the PGA TOUR, I went to the following event in the schedule which wasn't already being analyzed. For instance, while the 21st event was the WGC Mexico, I went to the 23rd event (the Arnold Palmer) since I was already analyzing the 22nd event.
It should also be noted that no playing conditions modifiers were used in this research.
What is the World Handicap System? It utilizes a formula to determine a score differential ( by using a golf course's rating, slope and a playing conditions modifier), and then averages a players best 8 differentials out of 20 to determine a players Handicap Index.
The reason I love using one's GHIN Handicap Index as a comparator is that almost every serious golfer has one! Many of you have played with +4 handicaps and 24 handicaps and have a feel for their respective games. And now that we have the World Handicap System, the time is better than ever for publishing this article. In the past, this article would not have been as universally relevant since many countries used their own system for handicapping. But now, the entire golf world has finally agreed on a common way to calculate a golfer’s handicap.
Anyways, now for the fun stuff! Here are the results I found from 5 randomly* selected weeks of 2019 from the PGA TOUR schedule.
In case the font is too small, I'll summarize the key takeaways.
The Made Cut differential is -4.92 and the Winning differential is -8.97. That is honestly incredible. This means you would need to be much better than a +5 handicap** to consistently make cuts in PGA TOUR events. Realistically, we are looking at about a +6 or +7 handicap.
And to win on tour? You need to have the potential to play like a +9 handicap. Wow.
** Since the current system drops a players' 12 worst differentials out of their last 20 rounds, a player's handicap index is not a true average of their differentials; whereas, the data presented in the tables in this article are true averages. Additionally, for my readers who are new to handicapping, a '+' before a number really means minus when it relates back to one's scoring differentials.
But what about the Korn Ferry Tour? Let's take a peak at their scoring differentials.
Once again, I'll summarize the key points.
The Made Cut differential on the Korn Ferry Tour was - 5.1, EVEN LOWER than the PGA TOUR's scoring differential! The reason this is fascinating is that people in the past would have attributed the Korn Ferry Tour's low scores to playing easier course; however, that is already taken into account with the handicap index's formula.
Are the courses set up a little easier? Possibly. But I think what this really shows is the depth of professional golf at this point in time. Everyone making cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour is good enough to make cuts on the PGA TOUR. Period.
Another fascinating takeaway is seeing how winning on the Korn Ferry Tour is just as difficult as winning on the PGA TOUR. The winning differential of Korn Ferry events was only 0.37 shots worse than the PGA TOUR's differential of -8.97.
Lastly, lets go down to the mini tour level and find the scoring differentials needed for those players to get through the 1st Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School. For this, we will look at what was needed to get the last spot at the Garland, TX site during the 2019 Q-School.
Again, I'll summarize the key takeaways. An average score of 69.75 over four days (a differential of -3.65 per round when put into the USGA’s formula) was required to get that last spot. Medalist honors went to Mikel Martinson with an average score of 66.75 (a differential of -6.65 per round). In other words, to even think about spending the money required to go to q-school, you need to be playing at about a +5 handicap to make the investment worth it.
So to summarize:
1. What handicap is needed to have a realistic chance of making the Korn Ferry Tour?
+4 or +5.
2. What handicap is needed to MAINTAIN your card by competing in Korn Ferry events?
+6 or +7
3. What handicap is needed to win on the Korn Ferry Tour or PGA TOUR?
+9 or better.
2. On Course Strokes Gained Statistics
In some ways this is a better comparator than Scoring Differentials. However, these statistics do not take into account the difficulty of the course you are playing on (a factor many amateurs largely undervalue). For instance, TPC Sawgrass is HARD and you would likely be collecting vastly different data if you were to play that course everyday instead of your local country club or public course.
On the other hand, what is wonderful about Strokes Gained Statistics is its ability to show your true weaknesses in your game. And, if you play courses with comparable ratings to tour courses (74.5 or higher), it does give you some insight into how you stack in each part of your game with tour professionals.
How do you get this data? It often requires investing in an application such as Arccos Golf or Decade to be able to access this data. Once you have a strokes gained app, you can compare directly to the ShotLink Data provided by the PGA TOUR!
Nothing beats Strokes Gained at the moment in this regard. To read more about how this statistic is calculated and what it means, click here.
3. The TrackMan Combine
While the TrackMan is a great tool, the impracticality of accessing it for 99.9% of golfers is frustrating (the TrackMan 4 costs just under $19,000 USD). However, I assume a few of my readers will have access to a TrackMan through their university, national federation team, or coach so I am including its Combine feature in my list.
The TrackMan Combine has a 60 shot test over ten specific distances. During the test, the device tells you a yardage to carry the ball towards an unchanging target line, and then calculates a score from 0 (worst possible value) to 100 (best possible value) depending on how well you do.
Tour professionals around the world love the TrackMan and often receive a discount when they buy them. Because they are so common among tour professionals, you can compare your score to the average tour professional’s score which is 84.3.
Why is this not the number one comparator in my list? Well, besides the price, the fact that you hit a total of six shots at the same distance from the same lie to the same target makes this test slightly exaggerate a player's progression. Part of what makes professionals so good is their ability to adapt to variation (different lies, stances and other environmental situations). Short Game guru James Sieckmann spoke of this on Altus' Earn Your Edge podcast, recently.
Additionally, it only tests your game from 60-180 yards and Drives. What about the other half of the game?
This is not to say the TrackMan Combine is a bad test or practice component! Only that it is not a perfect tool for comparison.
4. Playing Against Them
The best way to see how you stack up against the professionals is to play against them.
They have not yet posted the dates for the 2020 Korn Ferry Qualifying School, but it is a four stage tournament (pre-qualifying, 1st Stage, 2nd Stage and Finals) in which only the top players in each stage advance to the next. This is a great, although expensive, way to gain true perspective on where you are with your game -- especially if you keep statistics while you are playing.
Another great option is to play the All Pro Tour's Spring and Summertime events. If you play, you'll be warming up with many Korn Ferry Tour players come Wednesday morning.
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- Connor Black