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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Stat of the Game

Nope, that’s not a misprint. We’re looking at tour stats today, and I think they’re pretty revealing. We tend to see the top players as having incredible stats, and we look to see which stat is most responsible for their success. As you’ll see, nobody is really that good… at least, not in the way we expect.

First, let me give you a couple of tables. Here are your 2009 top 5 money winners, along with each one’s rank in driving distance, driving accuracy, GIR, scrambling, and putts per round:

Tiger Woods21T86161T22
Steve StrickerT10453T572T8
Phil Mickelson13179127T109T69
Zach JohnsonT14310283152
Kenny PerryT4849361389

...and your top 5 in the world rankings, same stats:

Tiger Woods21T86161T22
Phil Mickelson13179127T109T69
Steve StrickerT10453T572T8
Lee Westwood377311--163
Padraig Harrington1061711751110

Westwood didn’t play enough on the American tour to get official rankings. Although the Tour does list some for him, scrambling isn’t one of them; hence the “--“. You can find these stats (in more detail) as well as others at

No surprise that three of the top 5 in each list are the same; the difference comes because the money list is for one year, while the world rankings cover two years. World rankings therefore indicate better play for a longer period of time, although their more recent finishes carry more weight.

Just for comparison (followed by tour average):
  • your longest driver, Robert Garrigus, averages 312.0 yards off the tee, TA 287.9 yards;
  • your most accurate, Joe Durant, averages 74.09% of fairways hit, TA 62.91%;
  • most GIR goes to John Senden, at 70.89%, TA 64.70%;
  • scrambling champ Tiger Woods gets up-and-down 68.18% of the time, TA 57.52%; and
  • putting whiz Brad Faxon takes only 28.00 putts per round, TA 29.20 ppr.
Your worst stat holders in these tables are:
  • Distance: Zach Johnson, T143 (281.2 yards)
  • Accuracy: Phil Mickelson, 179 (52.21%)
  • GIR: Padraig Harrington, 175 (61.20%)
  • Scrambling: Phil Mickelson, T109 (57.53%)
  • Putts/Round: Lee Westwood, 163 (29.78 putts)
Notice that only in driving distance, driving accuracy, and GIR is any of the top players noticeably worse than average. That should tell you something right there. If you want to play well, you need to putt and scramble well.

Phil's stats are skewed, probably because of Amy's cancer battle; he's usually really good in the short game categories. 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. Note also that Westwood was pretty accurate with his approach shots, hitting more greens than Tiger.

Ball striking DOES still mean something, but we obviously have an unrealistic idea of what a good ball-striker is doing. In driving, the most accurate players still hit less than 75% of fairways; the most accurate of the guys I listed, Zach Johnson, was #10 and hit just under 71.5%. The best players are only 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. That’s why the putts per round figure is so low—they’re only taking one putt when they miss the green. Let's assume you two-putt most of the time. Twelve greens hit, that's 24 putts; one-putt 4 of the remaining 6 greens for 8 more putts. That’s 32 putts to shoot par-72, but the Tour average is 29 putts and a round of 71. That putting discrepancy means they're making a big number or two as well.

(Let me explain the logic of that, in case you missed it: If 32 putts gets you a 72, then 29 putts should be for a 69, correct? But the 29 actually results in a 71; therefore, they wasted 2 shots somewhere. And if they hit one or more par-5s in 2, they wasted even more shots.)

See? Here’s what the average Tour player is doing, according to Tour stats:
  • Regardless of length, hitting 67% of fairways or less (mostly less);
  • Hitting less than 67% of greens in regulation;
  • Getting it up-and-down less than 67% of the time when they miss (way less);
  • Taking 29 putts per round.
Anybody can learn to putt, and the rest isn’t really that impressive, is it? Only 49 players hit more than 67% of their fairways. This isn’t a game of perfection, people—it’s a game of two-thirds! Get to that point and you're better than the average tour player. We’ll work on that in 2010.

And that’s enough golf for this year. Go out and have a great New Year’s Eve!


  1. I hope you had a nice bottle of...something sitting next to you while you put all those stats together. That's a lot of work. :-)

    What they tell me is that there is more to golf than any single statistic. Nobody is great in EVERY statistical catagory. All of these guys can golf their ball better than I will ever dream of doing.

    And mostly - that Bobby Jones is still right - there is golf and there is tournament golf. Tournament golf is played on a 5" course between the ears.

    Who the heck came up with "ball striking" as a statistic ? I have never seen a pro wiff a regular shot. Some announcers define "ball striking" as the ability to make the ball turn the right direction and amount. Some just call it accuracy. "Ball Striking" has no real definition.

  2. Actually, I had a Diet Dr. Pepper. ;-D

    You're right, Court; nobody is great in every category. That's one thing I wanted everybody to see. Only Tiger and Kenny Perry avoided any ranks over 100, and I hope everybody notices that too. As far as these stats go, they seem to indicate that you can be a great player if you excel in a couple of areas and are close to average in the rest. Again, Phil is an anomaly on this chart; that bad spot in the middle of his year skewed his stats. You don't win 4 times without doing something right.

    And I'm glad you brought this up: "All of these guys can golf their ball better than I will ever dream of doing." I draw a line between a good golfer and a good player:

    A good golfer has skill at "working the ball" - that is, they hit the ball solidly and can consciously control all aspects of the ball's flight. (And landing, as well. Controlling the amount of spin after hitting the green is an example.)

    A good player may not have the degree of ball control skills that the good golfer has, but they are good at using the skills they have to post a score. These are the guys who sometimes appear to be hitting the ball poorly but still post a decent score.

    I think being a good player is more important than being a good golfer. And while I don't consider "ball striking" a stat, I think stats tell us something about a player's ball striking. Good players have the ability to get the ball to a spot where they can score. And I tend to define ball striking as the ability to hit the ball solidly time after time; consistency of contact is necessary if you expect to hit the ball predictably. You can measure ball striking by seeing how big the "wear spots" on your club's faces are.

    When Jones commented on the difference between golf and tournament golf, he was referring to the mental game. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking purely about ball striking - again, defined as the ability to hit the ball to a reasonably predictable area, so you can actually plan your shots. The average Tour player does that about 2/3 of the time.

    You can learn to golf your ball that well, Court. A 67% game just isn't that hard to develop; that's why the Tour is so "deep" with talent. Maybe your mental game won't match a Tour player's, but your ball striking can... and once you can do that, who knows what kind of mental game you can develop?

  3. Here's the odd thing - the mental game is exactly what you are talking about.

    Since nobody is great at ALL aspects of the game - and your list is working with some of the biggest names in the game today - then they have to control their skills - managing their strengths and weaknesses...which is done with the mental game.

    Didn't Hogan say that he only hits one perfect shot a round ? The rest is managing your mistakes.

    My problem is that the last 33% puts me in some REALLY nasty places...but I'm working on it...thanks for the encouragement. I'm hoping to get into the 70's on a regular basement. :-)

  4. That last 33% is what's screwing up the average Tour player as well! ;-D Remember, they're wasting at least 2 shots per round.

    Actually, Court, you made one of my main points for me. The big names ARE the big names precisely because they have a good mental game. The average Tour player doesn't, although many of them have enough tools in their arsenal to be a big name if they did. Getting a 67% game doesn't really require a mental game; the mental game is what turns that 67% game into a consistent winner.

    I'm glad you got my other point though. I quoted Hogan back in my Dec. 3 post (Ben Hogan Talks About Confidence) as saying that he saw no reason the average golfer shouldn't play in the 70s. (To tell you the truth, I was amazed at how much he agreed with my own beliefs.) He clearly didn't expect weekend golfers to put in the practice time he did; he chalked it up to confidence. I'll grant you that confidence is part of the mental game, but Hogan just meant the weekend golfer needed to believe he or she could get that 67% game. He didn't say it was all mental; he said, and I quote, "...and I mean by playing the type of shots a fine golfer plays." That's way more about the physical skills than the mental ones.

    Hogan and I both believe you can shoot in the 70s, Court. You should be encouraged. It's gonna be a great 2010, don't you think?