Are You More Likely To Hit The Fairway With A Driver Or 3-Wood? Here's What The Data Says...

Hitting a 3-wood isn't as safe as you might think, according to new data from Arccos

A golfer lining up to hit a 3-wood off the tee
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For many golfers, when the driver is misbehaving or when facing a tight fairway, hitting a 3-wood off the tee instead seems like a sensible option. Using a fairway wood should provide a good combination of distance with a tighter dispersion. That's the theory, but does it play out in reality? 

Well, yes, according to Arccos data, but the results aren't exactly resounding. In fact, across handicaps ranging from 0-20, you are less than 1% more likely to hit the fairway with a 3-wood as you are with a driver, while the average loss of distance is 12 yards. It doesn't seem like a worthy trade-off, does it? Let's delve deeper into some of the specifics...

0-5 handicappers

A graphic showing the difference in distance and accuracy between a driver and 3-wood for scratch handicappers

(Image credit: Arccos)

As you can see, the data obtained from scratch handicappers is incredibly similar. Delving deeper, players find 2.4% more fairways with a 3-wood than they do with a driver, with the biggest percentage change coming in the category of tee shots under 30 yards from the middle of the fairway. This happens 4% more with a 3-wood for scratch golfers, which is still a small gain for the 15 yards of distance you're giving up.

Moving onto 5-handicappers and the dispersion is even smaller. When it comes to fairways hit, a 3-wood is 1.3% more likely to put a 5-handicapper on the short grass compared to the big stick. That rises to 3.3% for tee shots under 30 yards from the middle of the fairway, whereas the average loss of distance is 14 yards. 

10-15 handicappers

While it might be expected the performance differences would grow working up through the handicap ranges, the opposite is actually true. A 10-handicapper is only 0.7% more likely to find the fairway with a 3-wood than with a driver, and a 15-handicapper is actually 0.3% less likely to find the fairway with what is considered the 'safer' of the two clubs.

As is the case above, dispersion is tighter with the 3-wood but it is only marginal, while the average loss of distance is 13 and 11 yards for 10- and 15-handicappers respectively. 

20-handicappers

A graphic showing the difference in distance and accuracy between hitting a driver and 3-wood for 20-handicappers

(Image credit: Arccos)

Once again, there are no surprises in this category. The percentage differences are minuscule, with 20-handicappers actually 0.8% more likely to find the fairway when hitting a driver. Distance from the middle of the fairway is a fraction smaller on average with a 3-wood but is that enough to justify the loss of 10 yards?

All handicaps

A graphic showing the difference in distance and accuracy between hitting a driver and 3-wood for all handicap ranges

(Image credit: Arccos)

So, what about when you put all this together? Well, as you can see in the graphic above, the average gain in fairways hit for golfers opting to put their trust in a 3-wood is 0.9%. For context, say there are 14 chances per round (assuming most courses have four par-3s), that equates to finding one extra fairway every eight rounds. For that, you're giving up 12 yards per shot.

Of course, each individual case is different, but it's worth taking this information into consideration and perhaps thinking deeper about what the greater sacrifice is...

Here's a breakdown of the data in its entirety: 

DRIVER DATA
Handicap Index% under 30yds from centre% under 40yds from centreFairway %Median distance (yds)
078.8%89.8%47.3%245
578.5%89.7%47.1%236
1077.8%89.2%45.4%224
1577.5%89%44%214
2077.4%88.9%42.7%205
Average78%89.3%45.5%226

3-WOOD DATA
Handicap Index% under 30yds from centre% under 40yds from centreFairway %Median distance (yds)
082.8%92.4%49.7%230
581.8%92%48.4%222
1081%91.5%46.1%211
1580.2%90.9%43.7%202
2079.9%90.7%41.9%195
Average81.2%91.6%46.4%214

COMPARISON DATA
Handicap Index% change under 30yds from centre% change under 40yds from centreFairway % changeMedian distance change (yds)
04%2.6%2.4%-15
53.3%2.3%1.3%-14
103.2%2.3%0.7%-13
152.7%1.9%-0.3%-11
202.5%1.8%-0.8%-10
Average3.2%2.3%0.9%-12

Final thoughts

There's no denying that across the board, the 3-wood is the safer club in terms of keeping the ball in play. But it's marginal. There are many reasons why this might be the case like bigger-headed drivers instilling more confidence at address or perhaps a bias towards getting fitted for drivers versus buying fairway woods off the rack.

Regardless of the reason, if you feel like you fall into this category, a change of strategy might be sensible. Instead of automatically reaching for the club that's next in line, perhaps it would be wiser to consider another option like one of the best driving irons instead. Food for thought!

Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

A lifelong golf fan, Andy graduated in 2019 with a degree in Sports Journalism and got his first role in the industry as the Instruction Editor for National Club Golfer. From there, he went on to enjoy a spell freelancing for Stats Perform producing football reports, and then for RacingNews365 covering Formula 1. However, he couldn't turn down the opportunity to get back into the sport he grew up watching and playing and now covers a mixture of equipment, instruction and news for Golf Monthly's website and print title.


Andy took up the game at the age of seven and even harboured ambitions of a career in the professional ranks for a spell. That didn’t pan out, but he still enjoys his weekend golf at Royal Troon and holds a scratch handicap. As a side note, he's made five holes-in-one and could quite possibly be Retief Goosen’s biggest fan.


As well as the above, some of Andy's work has featured on websites such as goal.com, dailyrecord.co.uk, and theopen.com.


What's in Andy's bag?

Driver: Callaway Mavrik Sub-Zero (9°)

3-wood: TaylorMade M1 (15°)

Driving iron: Titleist U500 (17°)

Irons: Callaway Apex Pro '19 (4-PW)

Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM9 (50°, 54° and 58°)

Putter: Titleist Scotty Cameron Newport 2.5

Ball: Titleist Pro V1