Driving ranges are packed stall-to-stall with John Daly wannabes trying to knock balls 250 yards on the fly. Maybe that's why the average handicap in the U.S. has not budged in two decades. Amateurs would be smarter to emulate Bob Estes and other masters of the short game. If you're unfamiliar with Estes, you're not alone. The 32-year-old Texan has won only once in his 10 years on Tour. Still, he has earned more than $3 million, chiefly because he's the Daly of scrambling.
Scrambling—trying to make a par or a birdie after missing a green in regulation—became an official Tour stat last year. Short-game gum Dave Pelz, however, has kept such data since 1975. Pelz calls scrambling the best indicator of a player's ability. "Even the finest Tour players miss about six greens per round," he says. "Add to that the three or four times they're near the green in two on par-5s, and you have about 10 chances per round to get up and down. The best players can do it consistently."
The chart below shows the Tour's top five scramblers, along with their earnings, their Tour ranks in greens in regulation and putting, and their scrambling percentage. Note that all five rank in the top 50 on the money list—a claim you can't make for the leaders in driving distance, fairways hit, GIRs, sand saves or any other major stat. Lee Janzen stands sixth on the money list and only 111th in up and downs, but those numbers are deceptive. In March, Janzen was 144th with a scrambling success rate of 52.6%. Last month, under Pelz's tutelage, including a three-day crash course the week before the Open, Janzen raised his percentage to a passable 57.9 and won his second Open title.
He still isn't close to Estes, the 1997 Tour leader in scrambling (68.8%) and sand saves (70.3%) and the runner-up in putting. What are Estes's short-game secrets? During practice rounds he sketches the contours of each green in a notebook so that he'll know where to aim approach shots for easier chips and putts. He also deploys different balls for different surfaces. On hard greens, he plays a soft balata for extra bite. On soft greens he switches to a slightly harder ball, which spins less.
A trim 6'1" 175-pounder, Estes averages only 269.1 yards off the tee. He makes his living by being golf's Fran Tarkenton, the superscrambler, and he may soon be saving still more pars. "I just switched to cross-handed putting," he says. "I think I'm about to become an even better scrambler."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]