Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Jaime Diaz

The pay­off for play­ing all-out golf.

Justin Thomas, 22, seems too slight and cal­low to be a good ex­am­ple – let alone a paragon – of the foun­da­tional act on which mod­ern pro­fes­sional golf is built. At least un­til he springs into his down­swing with a driver. Thomas cre­ates a 14.11-de­gree upward launch an­gle that is the high­est on the PGA Tour, which com­bined with the

AG­GRES­SIVELY, sev­enth-low­est spin rate makes him the lead­ing ex­em­plar of the “high-launch, low-spin” mantra for ideal im­pact. The path of his soar­ing drives, which last year av­er­aged 303.2 yards, traces the rst, best step to suc­ceed­ing on tour.

“I love hit­ting driver be­cause the harder I swing, the straighter I seem to hit it,” says Thomas, win­ner of the CIMB Clas­sic in Malaysia.



“It gives me a lot of wedges into greens. Which gives me a lot of looks in­side 12 feet, which is a lot bet­ter than putting a 20-footer. When we get go­ing with that ap­proach, low rounds can get lower.”

Sens­ing that the im­plied ip side is that his high scores can get higher, Thomas adds, “I al­ways want to be an ag­gres­sive player, but I don’t think I’m play­ing low per­cent­age, if that makes sense.”

Con­sid­er­ing what’s go­ing on in pro­fes­sional golf, it ab­so­lutely does. It’s of­ten said golf is pri­mar­ily a game of min­imis­ing mis­takes. But on the pro­fes­sional tours, the pri­or­ity on mis­take avoid­ance has given way to a wide­spread style in which the per­cent­age play – the smart play – is all-out golf.

One e ect was ev­i­dent at the start of the 2015-16 PGA Tour sea­son. Six of the rst seven of cial events were won by young rst-timers: Thomas, Emil­iano Grillo, Smylie Kauf­man, Peter Mal­nati, Rus­sell Knox and Kevin Kis­ner, the old­est of the bunch at 31.

Other Amer­i­can sports have seen sim­i­lar “go for it” changes. In base­ball, the Kansas City Roy­als based their World Se­ries-win­ning o ence on ag­gres­sive con­tact hit­ting in­tended to cut down on strike­outs. In the NBA, sta­tis­tics prove that when teams can shoot a three-pointer in­stead of a two-pointer, they should.

Pro golf ’s “Money­ball” break­through has come through the ShotLink-based strokesgained con­cept. Although the av­er­age am­a­teur can best cut strokes by play­ing more con­ser­va­tively, sta­tis­tics show the tour player will have a bet­ter chance at suc­cess by play­ing more all out.

Con­sider any given Sun­day on the PGA Tour. Play­ers in the mid­dle of the pack know that a low score could make a big di er­ence in prize money, but a high one will mean rel­a­tively lit­tle. Ergo, go for it, with lit­tle to lose and much to gain.

Ag­gres­sive golf has al­ways ex­isted. Tra­di­tion­ally such play at big mo­ments has gone down as ro­man­tic but fool­ish, like Billy Joe Pat­ton rins­ing risky sec­ond shots at the par-5 13th and 15th holes in the nal round of the 1954 Masters. Arnold Palmer pop­u­larised the phrase “go for broke” with his ex­cit­ing play-to-win style, which also caused some tragic losses. Lanny Wad­kins and Johnny Miller got on some of the hottest pin-seek­ing streaks ever seen, but the ju­di­cious Jack Nick­laus, who al­ways seemed to play well within the outer lim­its of his im­mense power, still set the stan­dard of dom­i­nance in their era. Greg Nor­man’s “Shark At­tack” strat­egy was a thrill ride, but he’s still best known for his ame­outs.

Phil Mick­el­son’s 42 PGA Tour vic­to­ries have raised the pro le of ag­gres­sive golf. The down­side of his style has been some sur­pris­ingly poor golf for such a great player. But when he was be­ing crit­i­cised for some fool­hardy risks in 2002, the then-ma­jor­less Lefty is­sued an im­promptu man­i­festo in which he said, “If I change the way I play golf, one, I won’t en­joy it as much, and two, I won’t play to the level I’ve been play­ing. So I won’t ever change.”

To­day, strap­ping Jamie Love­mark, 27, says he tries to ap­proach the game “kind of like Phil. Ei­ther win, come close, or don’t play awe­some.”

But the prime shaper of to­day’s bold style has been Tiger Woods. Though he pos­sessed Nick­laus’ re­straint in ma­jors, Woods ex­e­cuted shots with a tran­scen­dent ta­lent that was in­spi­ra­tional.

“More young guys watched Tiger and said, ‘Man, that looks like the way to play golf,’ ” Stu­art Ap­pleby says. Thomas and Jor­dan Spieth say it was Woods above ev­ery­one who shaped them as play­ers. “It’s hard to de­scribe how much,” Thomas says.

Woods’ in uence is im­bued in Rory McIl­roy and Ja­son Day. And Rickie Fowler re ected the best of Mick­el­son, his fre­quent prac­tice-round part­ner, with uber-ag­gres­sive bril­liance down the stretch in win­ning the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship last May.

But the ag­gres­sive­ness is as com­mon at the mid-level and even lower reaches of the tour. Whether in­tu­itively or by study­ing sta­tis­tics, play­ers have gured out that week to week, what mat­ters more than ever is not who’s bet­ter, but who’s hot.

Davis Love, who at 51 won last year at Greens­boro, re­mem­bers com­ing out in 1985 as one of the long­est hit­ters ever seen, yet he spent most of his en­ergy try­ing to gear down for more con­sis­tency.

“If you want to win on the tour, you have to lean to­wards all out, be­cause pretty much ev­ery­body else is,” says Love, who as the US Ry­der cap­tain is pay­ing close at­ten­tion to po­ten­tial mem­bers of his team. “Equip­ment al­lows you to hit some shots that were more low per­cent­age in the past, and ev­ery­body’s hit­ting it fur­ther. But what­ever your style is, if you want to win, it has to be more ag­gres­sive. It has to be geared to­wards mak­ing birdies. No mat­ter how hard the course is, some­body shoots a low score ev­ery day.You just can’t go out and try to make a bunch of pars.You can barely make the cut any­more do­ing that.”

Help­ing the all-out ethos ex­pand has been the im­prov­ing con­di­tions for tour play­ers. The up­side keeps get­ting higher, and the down­side isn’t as low. Here’s a look:


Be­yond 18 per­cent of the to­tal purse, win­ning car­ries im­por­tant ex­emp­tions on the PGA Tour, in­clud­ing spots in the Masters, the Tour­na­ment of Cham­pi­ons and two-year play­ing priv­i­leges. Win­ning also car­ries ex­tra weight in the O cial World Golf Rank­ing, where reach­ing the top 50 means the good life. Not to men­tion how win­ning en­hances im­age and o -course op­por­tu­ni­ties.


There’s a say­ing that 80 per­cent of a tour player’s win­nings come from 20 per­cent of the tour­na­ments. With ap­prox­i­mately a fth of the eld play­ing well in a given week, play­ers know it will take ag­gres­sive golf to beat them, which leads to a self-per­pet­u­at­ing style of play. Play­ing with higher risk might mean more missed cuts, but for a player try­ing to win, tak­ing a bold ap­proach be­comes an in­tel­li­gent roll of the dice.


A PGA Tour player los­ing his card used to mean a har­row­ing trip back to Q school, which if un­suc­cess­ful, left only mini­tours, for­eign tours or Monday quali ers. Though the orig­i­nal Ben Ho­gan Tour in the early ’90s did not o er much of a liv­ing, what has be­come the Tour has cre­ated a rea­son­able safety net, and an op­por­tu­nity in that tour’s nals to win a card back on the reg­u­lar tour.

Over­all, young play­ers who used to feel they were im­me­di­ately play­ing de­fence when they got to the tour now have more free­dom to go on the o ence.

“With my gen­er­a­tion, it was make cuts, get a card, keep a job,” says Charles How­ell, 36. “Older play­ers would tell me, ‘Charles, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ But now I turn on the TV, and it’s the next 20-yearold hit­ting it 320 and putting good. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ‘what if?’ sce­nar­ios in their minds. They play fear­less golf. Not fear­less stupid, but fear­less smart. They’ve gured out that it’s just bet­ter in to­day’s game to step on the gas.”

Do­ing so doesn’t have to re­quire power. Among the re­cent rst-time win­ners, Knox, Kis­ner and Mal­nati, although ag­gres­sive in seek­ing birdies, are short hit­ters who are about ac­cu­racy rst and be­ing sk­il­ful the closer they get to the hole. Knox says he shot at nearly ev­ery pin when he won the WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons in Shang­hai.

“Now all these guys chip like gods,” says vet­eran Ja­son Gore, who last year re­turned to the big tour af­ter ve sea­sons on the “It’s like there’s no short side any­more. They re at the pin even if it’s three (yards) o the back-right edge.”

How­ever, there is no doubt that ag­gres­sive golf goes best with the power that Thomas de­scribed. Even Pat Goss, who coaches two pre­em­i­nent short hit­ters, Luke Don­ald and Matthew Fitz­patrick, says, “Ide­ally, it’s best to hit it far. In de­vel­op­ing a young ju­nior player, I would make in­creas­ing swing speed and strength a big part of the equa­tion.”

The value of length is re ected in sta­tis­tics in which the ma­jor­ity of top play­ers rank highly, in par­tic­u­lar strokes gained/tee to green and par-4 scor­ing av­er­age. Both are most eas­ily achieved by play­ers who drive the ball long enough to leave the wedge and short-iron ap­proaches that can pro­duce the kind of pin-hunt­ing spin and ac­cu­racy that makes get­ting in­side 10 feet with a good shot a re­al­is­tic goal. The 10 feet around the hole was quanti ed by Dave Pelz in the 1980s as the area where good put­ters make more than they miss. (The tour av­er­age for 50-per­cent con­ver­sion to­day is eight feet.)

Long-hit­ting elite play­ers like McIl­roy, Day, Bubba Wat­son and Dustin John­son all rank highly in the stats above. But it doesn’t mean they will al­ways beat a hot player who in a given week hap­pens to be do­ing the same thing even bet­ter.

Psy­cho­log­i­cally deal­ing with the missed cuts that can come with a higher-risk game can be di cult. “Ag­gres­sion is ne, but can you han­dle it when it doesn’t work out?” Ap­pleby says. A good ex­am­ple of some­one who did was last year’s PGA Tour rookie of the year, Daniel Berger, who missed 14 cuts but bal­anced them with six top-10s, in­clud­ing two sec­onds.

Roberto Cas­tro, whose course-record-ty­ing 63 on the TPC Sta­dium Course in the 2013 Play­ers Cham­pi­onship was a mas­ter­piece of ag­gres­sive play (he hit six ap­proaches in­side ve feet and an amaz­ing four in­side two feet), has made his choice.

“I found I got com­pletely men­tally ex­hausted with a grind-it-out mind-set, and you aren’t go­ing to win many tour­na­ments that way,” Cas­tro says. “I started to just say, ‘I don’t care if I miss the cut or blow this ball into the hazard. At least I tried to hit a good shot.’ I think emo­tion­ally and men­tally, it was more fun that way.”

As al­ways, the most fun is at­tained when putts go in. Although top play­ers gen­er­ally don’t rank as highly in putting as they do in ball-strik­ing sta­tis­tics, ag­gres­sion is as vi­tal in putting as any other area of the game at the high­est level.

Peter Sanders, who analy­ses sta­tis­tics for Zach John­son and other pros, has found that the six-to-10-foot range, which pro­vides the most op­por­tu­ni­ties in nor­mal pro rounds, sep­a­rates good put­ters from not-so-good put­ters. But, he says, the con­ver­sion rate from 11 to 20 feet – Spieth’s great­est ad­van­tage over his peers – is con­sis­tently what most sep­a­rates win­ners in the week of their vic­to­ries. “Ev­ery win­ner goes o in that range,” Sanders says. The statis­ti­cian also tracks prox­im­ity to the hole af­ter the rst putt, and has found that good put­ters con­sis­tently get the ball to the hole on putts in­side 40 feet, where poorer put­ters leave a lot of them short.

No golfer was more e ec­tively all out than Smylie Kauf­man, 24, when he shot 61 to win the Shriners Hos­pi­tals for Chil­dren Open last Oc­to­ber. In a round in which he passed 27 play­ers, Kauf­man av­er­aged 328 yards o the tee and hit nine shots in­side 16 feet to rally from a seven-stroke de cit.

“If I get a cer­tain amount un­der par, I don’t feel lim­ited,” he says. “I stay ag­gres­sive to get more un­der par. That’s the best way to win.”

It’s get­ting to be the rule.


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