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