I used to be a pretty good golfer, peaking at a 3 handicap when I was 21 years old. Over time I lost my game; I am still struggling to find it. Today I am a 14 handicap which is an improvement from where I was five years ago. The cruel irony is that I am a much better putter now than I was back in the day.
What’s changed? The driver yips. The Ian Baker-Finch’s if you will. As a left-handed golfer, I can miss it 80 yards left and miss it 40 yards right. If I was lucky, I might hit a single fairway in a round. I could easily incur 10-15 penalty strokes related to my tee shots.
My inability to accurately drive the golf ball impacts the rest of my game. From the rough, I will have a 5 or 6 iron into the green instead of an 8 or 9 iron from the fairway. That leads to missed greens which leads to a lot of two-putt bogeys or triples, depending on whether or not I kept my tee shot on the golf course. What used to be a round of 75 quickly became a round of 95. I had three or four birdies one year. In a year!
January’s instructional focus on the Golf Channel is on putting. One of the commercials brings out the old cliché that you “Putt for dough”. For my game, that certainly does not ring true. A couple of years ago I played in a “Shamble”, which has a team of four take the best drive and has each player play out the hole from that spot. The result? An easy 76 with a couple three putts.
I was in shock and excited at the result. Put me in the fairway at a reasonable yardage and all of a sudden the rest of my game appeared. I immediately stopped with hitting three hybrids and three woods off the tee to simply keep the ball in play. I committed to hitting driver whenever it made sense with a primary goal of minimizing my yardage into the green.
The results have been mostly encouraging. In 2013, I broke 80 for the first time in over a decade and had a few other rounds in the low 80’s. I occasionally have rounds when I hit five or six fairways. The demons still lurk in the shadows but I am enjoying playing the game again.
I wondered if the old adage that “You drive for show and putt for dough” was a true statement in today’s professional game? To my eye a lot of the top guys out on the PGA Tour simply bomb it off the tee without much regard to fairways. Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson come to mind. Rory McIlroy is a guy who is really long of the tee, can’t putt most weeks and yet is still one of the best in the world.
To try to answer this question, I went over to pgatour.com and devised the following test:
- Who are the 20 most successful players each year? I went with average dollars earned per tournament played as my yardstick.
- What was each player’s annual ranking in driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation and putting strokes saved*?
What I was looking for was an idea of which stats translated to success? Would the list be filled with guys who were great putters or guys that hit the long ball?
* From the PGA Tour website “Strokes Gained-Putting … takes into account putting proficiency from various distances and computes the difference between a player’s performance on every green – the number of strokes needed to hole out – against the performance of the other players for each round. This ultimately shows how many strokes are gained or lost due to putting for a particular round, for a tournament and over the course of a year.
The statistic is computed by calculating the average number of putts a PGA TOUR player is expected to take from every distance, based on ShotLink® data from the previous season. The actual number of putts taken by a player is subtracted from this average value to determine strokes gained or lost. For example, the average number of putts used to hole out from 7 feet 10 inches is 1.5. If a player one-putts from this distance, he gains 0.5 strokes. If he two-putts, he loses 0.5 strokes. If he three-putts, he loses 1.5 strokes.
A player’s strokes gained or lost are then compared to the field. For example, if a player gained a total of three strokes over the course of a round and the field gained an average of one stroke, the player’s “Strokes Gained Against the Field” would be two.”
I pulled the stats for 2010, 2011 and 2012 for the top 20 guys in $’s/event. Unfortunately, the PGA Tour website has a glitch where is it showing 2014 stats for the 2013 season (I guess that is what you get for starting the 2014 season several months early).
I have crossed out few names of players that only played in a few events during the year. There are some repeat names, which I have reformatted below.
For the guys who were on the list all three years, I also pulled their 2013 numbers. I also pulled Tiger’s 2013 numbers because he is Tiger. And he had a dominating 2013 season.
I also ordered the list starting with the long drivers, followed by the putters, followed by the iron players followed by Ernie Els, who is some sort of magician it seems. If a player was in the top 30 in a stat, I highlighted it green. I used red to denote being outside the top 125. Green is good, red is bad.
Looking at the chart, I kind of forgot the question I was asking and found myself surprised at some of the players. Lee Westwood’s putting in 2010! Phil’s putting the past two years! Luke Donald is not as good an iron player as his reputation suggests! What a ball striking clinic by Steve Stricker last year!
I am sure this chart is going to cause me to pull the full stat history of a few players for future posts. I had no idea why Matt Kuchar is so good, assuming he was a fairly long hitter.
But getting back to the question, do today’s PGA players drive for show and putt for dough? The table surely suggests that some players do. For the younger stars, there seems to be a leaning towards overpowering the course. The following table summarizes the number of instances a player was top 30 or bottom 125.
The one conclusion I feel comfortable making is that accuracy off the tee is not overly important in today’s professional game. Half the players on my list have spent time outside the top 125. Only Stricker and Rose had season’s ranking in the top 30.
In terms of distance vs. putting, the number of instances of being in the top 30 is pretty similar. The number of players registering at least one season in the top 30 is the same.
The number of players outside the top 125 is interesting. Seven of the twelve players listed had putting seasons outside the 125. If golf was simply a putting contest, these guys would lose their Tour Cards. Only three of the twelve players were outside the 125 in driving length. Stricker and Donald are two of the best putters in the world.
The implication is interesting. If Stricker and Donald (especially) were to lose their touch on the greens, I do not think they would have very good seasons. A long hitter is probably more likely to remain relevant as distance is not such a fickle skill. Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and Phil Mickelson all had seasons where they were wild off the tee and putt poorly. Yet they still had very successful seasons.
I suspect the reason for the above is that a long hitter will have good putting weeks from time to time, leading to victories. A short hitter that is a putting wizard will never have a week when all of a sudden they hit it long.
For my own game, the takeaway is that maximizing distance is probably the easier path to lower scores. Failing that, I can always shorten the holes by playing off the red tees.