THE SPIN

Num­bers sug­gest ac­cu­racy off the tee is be­com­ing less im­por­tant in the mod­ern game, as Stu­art Hood ex­plains.

Golf World (UK) - - CONTENTS -

The first and last word on the key is­sues in the game right now.

So far this year, golf’s big­gest talk­ing point has been dis­tance, and the sug­ges­tion that the lit­tle white ball is now go­ing a lit­tle too far. But while the R&A and USGA’s much-dis­cussed an­nual re­view on driv­ing dis­tance was ex­tremely in­sight­ful, one thing it did not in­ves­ti­gate was the ef­fect this in­creased dis­tance is hav­ing on driv­ing ac­cu­racy. We found this strange. Af­ter all, if the game’s gov­ern­ing bod­ies are try­ing to: “pro­tect golf’s best tra­di­tions to pre­vent an over-re­liance on tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances rather than skill, and to en­sure that skill is the dom­i­nant el­e­ment of suc­cess through­out the game,” then surely it makes sense to ask if these tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances are al­low­ing the skill of

find­ing the fair­way from the tee less im­por­tant to a player’s suc­cess? Which is why we did a lit­tle re­search of our own.

Crunch­ing the num­bers

Our first sus­pi­cion that we were onto some­thing came from the Twit­ter feed of four-time Euro­pean Tour win­ner Pablo Lar­raz­a­bal. On Jan­uary 26, af­ter miss­ing the cut at the Omega Dubai Desert Clas­sic, the Spa­niard tweeted: “We must tighten the fair­ways, grow the rough and firm the greens to make it tougher. Nowa­days it’s all about hit­ting it hard and putting con­test. -5 cut at the #ODDC18 is crazy.”

Our sec­ond sus­pi­cion came from the performance sta­tis­tics of the top 10 in this sea­son’s FedEx Cup. On May 1, not one of the 10 most suc­cess­ful play­ers on the 2017/18 PGA Tour ranked in­side the top 100 of the tour’s driv­ing ac­cu­racy statis­tic (see panel, be­low). Case closed. Point proven. Tech­nol­ogy is clearly usurp­ing skill and the rul­ing bod­ies must act. Well, maybe.

“Driv­ing dis­tance does con­trib­ute more to scor­ing than driv­ing ac­cu­racy, but the rel­a­tive weight is about 60% dis­tance, 40% ac­cu­racy, so find­ing the fair­way is still im­por­tant,” says Pro­fes­sor Mark Broadie, cre­ator of the Strokes Gained performance sta­tis­tics. “Ev­ery time a player misses a fair­way it costs them about 0.3 strokes, and that is just when they find the rough. This penalty rises sig­nif­i­cantly when a player finds the woods or the wa­ter or hits it out of bounds.”

Ac­cu­racy is rel­a­tive

So how does the aca­demic ex­plain the in­ac­cu­rate driv­ing of the cur­rent FedEx Cup top 10? “Ten play­ers is a pretty small sam­ple, and it’s all rel­a­tive,” he says. “Take Dustin John­son and Phil Mick­el­son. Yes, Dustin is near the top of the driv­ing dis­tance statis­tic and out­side of the top 100 in driv­ing ac­cu­racy, but that does not mean he just bombs it re­ally far into the rough and then gouges it out. By my cal­cu­la­tions, he hits his drives 20-21 yards longer than the PGA Tour av­er­age and misses ap­prox­i­mately half a fair­way more per round than the PGA Tour av­er­age. To put this into num­bers, hit­ting a drive 20 yards longer than av­er­age will gain you 0.1 strokes. Times this by the 14 driv­ers he could hit on a course’s par 4s and par 5s and he will gain a 1.4 stroke ad­van­tage over the field due to his length off the tee. Sub­tract the 0.15 strokes he loses by miss­ing 0.5 more fair­ways than the field’s av­er­age and it means he gains 1.25 strokes per round with his driver. So, in his case, the dis­tance he gains from hit­ting driver is well worth the marginal loss of ac­cu­racy.”

And Phil? “Phil is dif­fer­ent,” says Broadie. “He is five yards longer than av­er­age, which gains him 0.35 strokes per round, but he misses one-anda-half more fair­ways per round, which loses him 0.45 strokes per round. So, in his case, the dis­tance he gains from his power is not worth the loss of ac­cu­racy.”

Not just a power game

Mick­el­son’s ex­am­ple is in­ter­est­ing for two rea­sons. First, it shows that suc­cess in the mod­ern game is not in­trin­si­cally linked to dis­tance from the tee – Lefty’s lofty FedEx Cup po­si­tion is down to his im­pres­sive putting (2nd strokes gained putting) and iron play (5th ap­proach the green) and above av­er­age chip­ping (61st around the green) rather than his driv­ing (161st off the tee).

Sec­ond, it proves that wield­ing golf’s tech­nol­ogy in the cor­rect man­ner isn’t the skill-free

“I don’t care about the US Open or The Open Cham­pi­onship. The most amount of eye­balls, the most amount of hype, ev­ery­thing is at Au­gusta. For me it’s the most spe­cial tour­na­ment we play and the one ev­ery­one des­per­ately wants to win.” Rory McIl­roy, hop­ing that smoke blow­ing will win him a Green Jacket if his golf con­tin­ues to fail to do so…

“The ‘Live Un­der Par’ cam­paign goes be­yond cap­tur­ing the in­cred­i­ble abil­ity of PGA TOUR play­ers to score be­low par each week... it cap­tures not just a way to play, but a way to be.” The PGA launches its shiny new slo­gan. But as Lee Westwood and oth­ers point out, in English it means to be feel­ing a tad un­well.

ex­er­cise some crit­ics like to claim it is. “The best way of high­light­ing the pre­ci­sion and ac­cu­racy of to­day’s top driv­ers is to look at a watch and study one sec­ond tick­ing by,” says Broadie. “The dif­fer­ence in the an­gle of the sec­ond hand from one sec­ond to next is about 6°. This isn’t a lot, but if any PGA Tour player hit the ball that far off line they would be most in­ac­cu­rate player on the tour. The av­er­age an­gle a PGA Tour player hits ev­ery drive off­line is about 3.5° and, given how fast they are swing­ing and how far the ball is go­ing, that is in­cred­i­bly pre­cise and skill­ful.”

The take­away

So what does all this mean? It means that Pablo Lar­raz­a­bal was in­cor­rect and that we were wrong. Mod­ern golf is not all about hit­ting it hard and win­ning a putting con­test, and the skill of ac­cu­racy off the tee is not be­com­ing ob­so­lete. Yes, dis­tance is slightly more im­por­tant than con­trol. But the is­sue is marginal, it takes a lot of skill to ex­ploit this dis­par­ity and even if you do, there is a no guar­an­tee of golf­ing suc­cess.

“Suc­cess is not just about power,” con­cludes Pro­fes­sor Broadie. “If you want to be in the top 10 in the world you have got to be re­ally good in at least three of the four strokes gained cat­e­gories – off the tee, ap­proach the green, around the green, putting. You can have one weak­ness and rank high, but you can­not have two.”

‘To be a top 10 player you have to be re­ally good in four key cat­e­gories. You can have one weak­ness, but not two’

World num­ber one Dustin John­son ranks 129th in ac­cu­racy off the tee. But in the mod­ern era, that hasn’t held him back.

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