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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Tom Watson Almost Won

It’s been a few weeks since the Open Championship, but people are still talking about Tom Watson’s record-breaking run at history. Most people doubt that we’ll ever see the likes of that again.

I disagree. If anything, Watson’s performance should make us wonder if something’s wrong with the way we teach golf these days.

You see, Watson’s swing is a bit of a throwback to the past. Unlike the currently popular approach to golf, with its emphasis on muscle, Watson’s swing depends more on rhythm and tempo. Simply put, the club does more work in his swing, requiring less muscle strength to get the ball out there. A swing like his, coupled with just a decent amount of strength and endurance, can compete very well against the competition. Bear in mind that Watson’s downfall was neither accuracy nor distance. Ironically, it was adrenaline (a shot hit too far on the 18th) that cost him the tournament.

There are a lot of misconceptions concerning the so-called modern and classic swings. The best route to a low-maintenance golf swing is a combination of the two; and, contrary to popular belief, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ll try to show you the real differences as we go.


  1. Why he almost won has nothing to do with his swing was clearly a magical week for Tom and nobody was happier to see it than I...But the real reason (again IMHO) is the course allowed him to do so---could Watson have contended on ANY other modern day course? The newer, longer, and usually contrived courses have made old time ball striking unimportant...
    bomb and gouge with the current ball turns golf into a joke---I think Mr Watson proved it that day!!
    anyway---just found your site and was reading some old stuff---i'll check back from time to time

  2. Glad to have you aboard, Bob... and thanks for the comment!

    I have to disagree with you, though. While it certainly was a magical week, and Tom's experience with links golf clearly played a part, his swing had a major effect on his week. Just look at the playoff when his swing seemed to leave him! Had he continued hitting the ball as he had been, Stewart Cink might not be the 2009 Open champion.

    I understand the arguments about longer courses, but anybody able to drive the ball around 285, and with a good short game, can still beat the B&G'ers. Hybrids have made it easier to land long approach shots and get them to hold the greens. Only the longest par-3s and par-4s really pose a problem for the average-length pro; those comprise only three or four holes (at most) on the typical course, and the average pro will still only have a short up-and-down from there.

    Furthermore, most of the longer courses put the trouble where it will affect the long hitters, because the average pro's shorter length is considered enough trouble. The real problem is older courses where the trouble is placed for shorter hitters; many of those are being redone, and the others will probably be dropped from rotation over the next few years.

    So yeah, I think Watson can contend on the longer courses if he stops trying to convince himself that he can't. Short players win on longer courses all the time, even under poor conditions. (Weir and Johnson at the Masters, and Funk at the TPC, for example.) Ball-striking still counts for something, but I'll let you in on a little secret: If you check out the stat changes over the last 20 years or so (and I can't remember where I read this, sorry), you'll find that the average winning score has improved by roughly 3 shots per tournament... and the average number of putts per tournament has also improved by the same number. No matter how they gimmick up the courses, it still remains a matter of drive for show and putt for dough. Remember: Had Watson taken one less putt, it wouldn't have been just a magical week...

    I know a lot of people disagree with me, but "common knowledge" is frequently wrong. And when that common knowledge is espoused weekly by TV commentators, the way "it's a bomber's game" is, you can be pretty sure it's about to be proven wrong.

  3. We will agree to disagree, my friend! But thanks for the lengthy and well written response...truly appreciated
    Perhaps I am in the "it was better back then" group, but I see pros missing 40% of the greens these days (and winning) does not inspire me as to good ball striking...sigh...
    I play 60's blades and persimmon, so you know where I'm coming from!
    Happy Holidays, my new friend

  4. Happy Holidays to you too, Bob! And yes, I do know where you're coming from. I learned how to play with an old set of blades my uncle fished out of his attic for me, and I credit those in part for teaching me to hit it pure. And one of the purest strikers I ever played with (in the last few years) still uses blades and persimmon.

    But let me share my perspective on bombers with you... and why I think it shows that the swing still matters. Perhaps this will inspire you again!

    Everybody sees the distance the bombers hit the ball, but nobody really notices how big they are. This is a stat not readily visible to most TV viewers.

    First, here are your top 5 driving leaders:
    Robert Garrigus 5' 11"
    Bubba Watson 6' 3"
    Dustin Johnson 6' 4"
    Tag Ridings 6' 1"
    Gary Woodland 6' 1"

    Note: Garrigus is the only one under 6' tall, but his 2009 world ranking is only 324 ( None of these guys is ranked particularly high in the world; Dustin Johnson is highest at 53.

    Here are your top 5 in the world rankings:
    Tiger Woods 6' 1"
    Phil Mickelson 6' 3"
    Steve Stricker 6' 0"
    Lee Westwood 6' 0"
    Padraig Harrington 6' 1"

    ...and some other long hitters of note:
    Ernie Els 6' 3"
    Vijay Singh 6' 2"
    Sergio Garcia 5' 10"
    J.B. Holmes 5' 11"

    Now, here are your top 5 money winners, followed by distance rank, GIR rank, scrambling rank, and putts per round rank:
    Tiger Woods 21 16 1 T22
    Steve Stricker T194 T57 2 T8
    Phil Mickelson 13 127 T109 T69
    Zach Johnson T143 28 31 52
    Kenny Perry T48 36 13 89

    ...and your top 5 in the world rankings, same stats:
    Tiger Woods 21 16 1 T22
    Phil Mickelson 13 127 T109 T69
    Steve Stricker T194 T57 2 T8
    Lee Westwood not on PGA Tour in 2009
    Padraig Harrington 106 175 11 10

    Note that Phil, at GIR 127, still hits over 64%; Stricker hits almost 67%, Woods almost 68.5%. (The top guy, John Senden, hits just under 71%.)

    Perry, at putting 89, takes just over 29 putts per round.

    Here's my perspective: In driving, the most accurate players hit just under 75% of fairways; the most accurate of the guys I listed, Zach Johnson, was #10 and hit about 71.5%. The best players are all hitting about 2/3 of their greens in regulation, then putting really well; and when they miss, they also get it up-and-down about 2/3 of the time. Phil's stats are skewed, probably because of Amy's cancer battle; he's usually really good in these categories.

    I think this tells us that ball striking DOES still mean something. Zach, at 281 off the tee, is 7 yards BELOW the Tour average, yet his accuracy with that drive allows him to compete with the big guys as long as he is close in the other three stats.

    I'm glad you started this thread, Bob. I think I may explore these stats a little in some posts next week, and see if I can fill in some other ones; maybe it will help everybody approach their game a little more enthusiastically. Thanks for the idea.

  5. It turns out Lee Westwood's stats were at; they just weren't with the others, since he didn't play enough rounds to qualify. Here they are:

    distance rank: 37 (295 yards, 7 yards over the tour average - he was 73 in accuracy, at just over 65%)
    GIR rank: 11 (almost 69%)
    scrambling rank: not listed
    putts per round rank: 163 (just under 30 putts)

    Note that he was pretty accurate off the tee, and he hit more greens than Tiger. Again, ball striking really does seem to matter.

  6. Mike
    I think what gets lost in "my arguement" is
    simply this---
    Augusta National wasnt a good enough track? so make it longer?
    Riviera had to add new tee boxes?? you get the drift, Im sure...
    The day Augusta has to lengthen is the day someting is seriously wrong with modern day golf...
    new balls---and new clubs to hit the new balls...sigh
    not to mention the economics of feeding a super long course as opposed to a tough and tighter 6500 course that may even pay its way...
    happy new year!

  7. Now, THAT I agree with, wholeheartedly. I think they could toughen the courses without all this lengthening. After all, Harbour Town is one of the toughest courses the guys play all year, and it's also one of the shortest.

    It's just that I don't think the changes are all about the clubs and balls. The guys are bigger and stronger. Look at some of the long drives Nicklaus hit with the old balls and a persimmon driver; they're right out there with big hitters now.

    What the improved clubs have done is allow you to hit the ball a little less than perfect and still keep it on the course. (Yes, you referred to that in an earlier comment. My point there was just that shorter players who hit it pure can still compete.) Throw in a taller player with a bigger swing arc -- which gives him a faster swing -- and the re-marking of the clubs -- the clubs marked PW now are the same length and lie that my 9i (maybe my 8i) was in the mid-1980s -- and you can account for almost all the distance difference. The balls are longer, but not as much as everybody thinks.

    Bob, I guess what I really want to say is that "it is what it is" and I don't want you to get too depressed by the modern game. With the 2010 groove changes, ball striking will become a little more important since the wedges are going to fly more coming out of the rough. I suspect you'll see a lot of the guys going to slightly shorter drivers, in an effort to keep the ball in the fairway; the rest will improve their driving accuracy or risk getting beat by the shorter, more accurate players.

    Personally, I'll be really interested to see how Brian Gay does this year. He's already said he believes he can win on any course despite his lack of length. I happen to agree with him, and I think the groove changes may make it easier for him. (After all, they won't effect a player from the fairway much at all.) I also like Furyk's chances better as well. So we'll see what happens.

    Thanks again for all the comments, and I hope you're enjoying the site. As you may have noticed, I think most weekend players would be better off incorporating more of the classic swing techniques into their games, and I'll be covering more of them in 2010. Happy New Year to you too!

  8. I made a goof-up in the rankings above and just found it. Steve Stricker's distance rank should be T104, not T194. I misread the numbers. Sorry.