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A statistical analysis of what makes Jordan Spieth great

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This story was selected as one of the 15 best GolfWRX stories of 2015!

With Jordan Spieth winning the first two majors of the year, I am often asked, “What makes him so good?” Spieth’s game seems to puzzle most people as I have had several Tour clients, some of whom have played with Spieth, ask me that question as well. And the typical commentary from announcers and analysts is to the effect of “He’s not great at anything, but he’s not weak at any part of the game either.”

I wanted to give a thorough analysis of Spieth’s 2014-15 season and see what exactly makes the potential Grand Slam winner so good.

For starters, let’s take a look at his scoring metrics (rankings based out of 202 golfers).

01

The most important statistic with regards to Tour success is Adjusted Scoring Average. Spieth has the lowest Adjusted Scoring Average on Tour. As far as Adjusted Scoring Average goes, Adjusted Par-4 Scoring Average has the strongest correlation of any of the other scoring metrics. In essence, we can see that Spieth’s success is not smoke and mirrors. His weakest scoring metrics is the Adjusted Par-5 Scoring Average where he still ranks 11th. And he does not rank higher most likely due to him not being a bomber off the tee. But, he is still an exceptional player on the par-5’s. Spieth simply makes a ton of birdies and pars and very few bogeys.

02

Remember when critics said last year that Spieth was “choking” on the weekends? That’s certainly not the case anymore. But the real key to these scoring metrics is his performance in the first two rounds. When it comes to a correlation to total Adjusted Scoring Average, Rounds 1 and 2 have the strongest correlation to Total Adjusted Scoring Average. Rounds 3 and 4 have a significant drop-off in their correlation to a Tour player’s success. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the real “moving day” on Tour occurs on Thursday and Friday and not on Saturday. But, what Spieth does so well is he continues to score better than the field average on the weekend and progresses up the leaderboard or extends his lead.

Driving Metrics

03

Driving Effectiveness is based on distance (all drives), hit fairway percentage, average distance to the edge of the fairway, hit fairway bunker percentage and missed fairway – other percentage. It is also based on the level of difficulty of the courses the golfer has played. For instance, if two golfers each average hitting 290 yards off the tee, but Player A is playing courses where the average distance is 275 yards off the tee and Player B is playing courses where the average distance is 295 yards off the tee, Player A is actually much longer off the tee than Player B as the average is the baseline to serve the comparison.

Last season, Spieth ranked 88th in Driving Effectiveness. He had issues with his driver head cracking and not being satisfied with the replacement. We can see that by his Hit Fairway Bunker Percentage and Missed Fairway – Other Percentage that he still has some occasional issues off the tee. Last year he was fourth in Tee Shot Aggressiveness which measures how often a player is laying up off the tee. This year he is still quite aggressive, but not nearly as he was last season and perhaps last season’s regression off the tee had something to do with it.

We are in the infancy stages of understanding performance on straightaway versus dogleg par-4s, but it appears that driving ability and curvature of ball flight has something to do with it. Spieth’s performance on dogleg lefts indicate that he prefers to hit a little draw. And his small dip in performance on straight away par-4s indicates that some occasionally errant tee shots pop up from time to time. But overall, he’s still an elite driver of the ball.

04

The radar metrics above indicate an upward strike. Based on previous data acquired, I would say that Spieth’s attack angle when he is playing in an event is probably in the +1.5 degree to +2.5 degree range.

Related: Understanding dynamic loft, angle of attack and launch angle.

This is critical to understand because if his attack angle was flat (0 degrees) he would likely have the same ranking in driving distance (using traditional driving distance measurement of two drives per round) that he has in club head speed (97th). Instead, he ranks 72nd in the traditional driving distance measurement which more accurately reflects how far he hits the ball when he has the driver in his hands. But, since he is aggressive off the tee and does not leave the driver in the bag very often, he is effectively the 42nd-longest player on Tour despite ranking 97th in club head speed.

There are two other key radar metrics that need to be mentioned. For starters, he hits the ball high. All other things being equal, the numbers have shown over the years that the player that hits it higher on Tour will tend to be more successful. The other is that he generates an adequate spin rate with the driver. Typically the leaders in Driving Effectiveness each year generate roughly 2,400 to 2,800 rpm Spin Rate. While everybody wants high launch and low spin, on Tour there is a negative effect from not generating enough spin with the driver. Lastly, Spieth’s miss bias is 54.7 percent to the right. The most effective drivers of the ball tend to have their miss bias within a 55/45 range.

Approach Shot Metrics

05

I break the approach shot distances into zones. Here are the zones ranked in order of strongest to weakest correlation to Tour success:

  • Red Zone (175-225 yards)
  • Yellow Zone (125-175 yards)
  • Green Zone (75-125 yards)
  • 225-275 Yards Zone

For Tour players, the typical Tour event will usually place emphasis on approach shots from 150-200 yards or 175-225 yards. When we start to get into the majors is when we see more of an emphasis on shots from 175-250 yards. As we can see, Spieth is quite strong from every Approach Shot Zone. It is unique that he performs better from the Red Zone and Green Zone than he does from the Yellow Zone. When that happens, that is usually an indicator that golfer’s driver can go awry on occasion and he is having to hit those Yellow Zone shots from more difficult positions and from more difficult lies.

06

The metrics above show that Jordan’s approach shot game is not smoke and mirrors. He’s exception from the fairway and the best on Tour from the rough. He has gone for par-5s in two shots 57.53 percent of the time. My calculations based on past 10 seasons of PGA Tour data show that a player of his distance off the tee should be going for par-5s roughly 57 percent of the time. So, Spieth is right on the money with his level of aggressiveness on the par-5s.

Short Game Metrics

07

The Short Game is where Spieth has improved the most since becoming a professional. He had a good short game in his previous two seasons on Tour, but now it is arguably the best on Tour. Combine that with his iron play which I think is the best part of his game, he’s going to make it very hard for him to make any bogeys. He’s simply hitting too many greens, leaving himself with a lot of makeable birdie putts and when he does miss on the approach, he has the short game to hit it close and almost guarantee the par save.

Putting Metrics

08

Here is where I find Spieth’s game very interesting. Overall, he’s a decent putter from 5-15 feet, but he’s elite from 15-plus feet. Normally, Tour players do not sustain their ranking in make percentage on putts outside 15 feet for very long. Regardless of their skill level with the putter, most Tour players tend to make a lot of putts outside 15-feet one season, then regress towards the mean the next season. Conversely, they may struggle to make putts from outside 15-feet one season and then progress towards the mean the following season.

The other interesting facet is that usually the putts from outside 15+ feet are birdie putts. But, when we break down Spieth’s putts from 5 to 15 feet between birdie and par+ putts, he is a mediocre birdie putter from that range and one of the very best par putters from that range.

The trend is that good birdie putters tend to have a very aggressive speed and the good par putters tend to be more conservative with their speed. So these numbers indicate that Spieth is aggressive with his speed on putts outside 15+ feet, but more conservative from the 5-15 range. The only other plausible explanation is that Spieth is incredibly clutch with the putter, nailing the bombs for the much needed birdie and drilling those crucial par saves.

Final Synopsis

What makes Jordan Spieth great?

Everything.

He’s a great driver, great iron player, has a great short game and is a great putter. He is far more than being “average” at every part of the game. He’s in the top-90th percentile on Tour in EVERY part of the game that is critical to a Tour player’s success.

There’s no reason why he can’t win the Grand Slam. In fact, I think one of his greatest assets is that he has a game fit for almost any golf course that the Tour players. He can play a bomber course like Augusta and win a precision course like Colonial or Harbour Town where the bombers tend to avoid like the plague because they have to lay up off the tee more often. He has gotten by Augusta and Chambers Bay which clearly favored the long hitter, so St. Andrews and Whistling Straits are there for the taking.

If there is a concern about Spieth it would be his putting from 3 to 15 feet. His putting from 3-5 feet has been poor and he has struggled to make birdie putts from 5-15 feet. If he doesn’t quite have it with the par putts from 5-15 feet, I could see him losing a major because he can’t quite get the putter going. But other than that, he has as legitimate of a chance of winning the Grand Slam.

Related: Jordan Spieth WITB 2015

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Andy

    Jul 23, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Rich,

    Awesome insight from some very interesting analysis. Wondering, where do you get the data for your analysis?

    Thanks!

  2. golfiend

    Jul 2, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I think it can be a fun endeavor, but we tend to over-analyze golf. I’ve even seen amateurs do this which sometimes seems to take the fun out of playing golf (but I think they get some fun out of pretending they are a pro). But this statement says it all, “Spieth simply makes a ton of birdies and pars and very few bogeys.”

  3. Paul Burke

    Jul 2, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Jordan is playing extremely well at this time. He deserves to be #1 because of his consistency of play. Love your analysis.

  4. Jerome Marquez

    Jul 2, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Hi Rich, this is Jerome from jeromemarquez.com. Great analysis!

    Clearly Jordan’s confidence is extremely high and this contributes significantly towards the achievement of the stats depicted above. In my view, his consistency of play is to be commended and kudos must be given to his caddie and instructing team (coach, family etc.). Far too often we tend to forget how critical a good caddie and support team is towards the success of their ‘bag’.

    I remember when Stephen Ames won the 2006 Player’s Championship and, while be broadcast on TV, you heard his caddie (his brother Robert Ames) say in the background “Now just go out and have fun with the shot”. This was his approach shot to the 18th green on the final day. Now who would not feel good about and with themselves when you have a caddie that is just amazing. (BTW, I am not a caddie. 🙂 )

  5. KK

    Jul 1, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    I like Jordan’s old man game. Seems like it will stand the test of time. What will be his major/win total by the time he’s done with the PGA? i think it could be 12/40.

  6. Matt

    Jul 1, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    To have said Spieth is not great at anything but has no real weakness was not to say every aspect of his game is average. There is a lot of room between average and great.

    When people ask what has made Spieth so successful, the best (short) answer borne out by your analysis is “He has a great short game, and is very good with his irons” No need to devote three paragraphs to “He scores lower than most”. “He is the very best out of the rough” is a little more interesting, but still not very satisfying.

    The question here is how you define “great”. Is a “great” driver or “great” putter one who ranks in the top 20 or so players during a given season, or might that be more aptly described as “strong” or “very good”? If you did a similar analysis on Tiger when he was most dominant would we be surprised to learn he ranked no better than about third to 20th in driving, putting, or approach shots, or that he was at the top in only one little-known stat? I’d find that very interesting.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 1, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      I did an analysis of Tiger’s game throughout the years which can be found here: http://www.golfwrx.com/240225/hunt-advanced-break-down-of-tigers-stats-under-harmon-haney-and-foley/

      During the Harmon years (with the data we have), he was the best driver on Tour. During the Haney years, his iron play was unparalleled and his putting stepped up tremendously, but his driving started to suffer. With somebody like Rory, he a decent putter at best and typically decent in the Short Game and struggles from the Green Zone. So, it’s rare to see somebody this good at everything.

  7. Matt

    Jul 1, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    When people ask what aspects of his game make Spieth so great, I’d say the best (short) answer borne out by your analysis is that he has a GREAT short game. I don’t think devoting three paragraphs to “He scores lower than most” is really necessary. “He’s the very best out of the rough” is a more unexpected conclusion, but still not very satisfying.

    To say he’s not great at anything but has no real weaknesses does not imply “every part of his game is average”. There’s lots of room between average and great.

    As I see it, the problem is how does one define ”great”. Is a “great” driver or “great” putter, etc, one who ranks in the top 20 or so players in a particular season, or might that be more typically classified as “very good”? If we did the same sort of analysis of Tiger’s game when he was most dominant, would we learn that he also ranked no better than about 3rd to 20th in driving, putting, or approach shots? I’d find that very interesting

  8. BTooth

    Jul 1, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Awesome article. I’m wondering how his averages compare with his major win stats? As Rory once said, he’d rather win 3 tournaments and miss 3 cuts than make 6 cuts and get 6 top 10s.

    • Rich Hunt

      Jul 1, 2015 at 1:45 pm

      Unfortunately, ShotLink is not available at the Masters, US Open and British Open. They did make it available for the PGA Championship last year.

  9. Martin

    Jul 1, 2015 at 1:06 am

    Great article, Rich! Numbers always eliminate speculation and I am a big fan of sports metrics. It would be interesting to see the same numbers for Rory McIlroy just to get a feel of who’s better at what. Any chance you do so a side-by-side comparison? Thanks!

    • Rich Hunt

      Jul 1, 2015 at 9:10 am

      I’ve been getting requests for this, so I will probably do this in my next article.

  10. Jp

    Jul 1, 2015 at 12:36 am

    Great spadework, Richie!

    In your estimation, who on Tour comes in a distant second to YJS in all-round game according to many of the similar metrics from the article above?

    • Rich Hunt

      Jul 1, 2015 at 9:09 am

      Right now, McIlroy. McIlroy is a slightly better driver. Spieth is a better putter and is significantly better from the Green Zone (although that won’t game him many strokes since it is a small part of the game).

  11. NYKnuckleballer

    Jun 30, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I think golf has a huge ball park factor similar to Colorado Rockies players back in the day. Did you compare / sorta / crunch Spieth’s numbers versus the playing field for the tourneys he played? As you said, driving distances go down at Harbor Town and go way up at Kapalua.

    • Rich Hunt

      Jul 1, 2015 at 9:08 am

      All of my data, from Driving Effectiveness, to Zone play to Short Game and of course, Strokes Gained – Putting accounts for the fields and events they have played in.

  12. JP Leahy

    Jun 30, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Are there similar stats for Rory available?

    • Richie Hunt

      Jun 30, 2015 at 8:17 pm

      I have Rory’s stats as well. Maybe in a later date I will write an article on him.

      • Pat M

        Jun 30, 2015 at 10:55 pm

        Rory and Jordan are a great contrast and we are lucky to have both of them at young ages for years of entertainment. Rory is an amazing bomber and when he is on – he is arguably the best player in the world by far.

        Jordan is so consistent it is frightening. Week in and week out. In 2014 at 20 years old, he was second place at the Masters and could have won it. The next year he dominates the Masters.

  13. DaveD

    Jun 30, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    This is tangential, but an important aspect of his game that helps with his success is one you can’t measure- attitude. Doesn’t swear after a bad shot, throws his clubs, tweets his issues with the tournament, or complain about the course. Just goes out and plays his game, works the problems after a bad shot, and shows his respect for the audience and the game. An excellent role model for the kids that golf is trying to attract.

    • Rich Hunt

      Jun 30, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      I agree. It’s funny because here’s a 21-year old kid that has won the first 2 majors of the season (1 in convincing fashion) and has a great shot at winning the Grand Slam and you don’t hear much about it. If it were Tiger at 30 years old or Rory, the hype surrounding it would be far more intense. Instead, he just seems to go about his business and keep the hysteria to a minimum. He doesn’t seem to let things fluster him.

      • Pat M

        Jun 30, 2015 at 4:37 pm

        Jordan also finished second at the Masters last year and could have won it.

        My friend was a big Tiger fan. During Chambers Bay, he finally wrote off Tiger. He made switch to Jordan after the win at Chambers Bay. He put all of his TW gear on ebay and bought all Jordan Under Armour clothes. Apparently, a lot of Tiger fans are moving to Jordan.

        • Adam

          Jun 30, 2015 at 9:11 pm

          I’m almost there. Tiger’s golf game isn’t there right now. I don’t doubt he’ll make a small resurgence but he is past his prime so for the long term, I think Jordan is the new favorite.

        • prime21

          Jul 1, 2015 at 7:01 am

          Obviously, your friend was NOT a BIG Tiger fan. His actions sound more like an obsessive stalker than they do fan. Does he have the orange Rickie Fowler outfit too? Or was that just a crush?

          • Pat M

            Jul 3, 2015 at 11:03 am

            No. He is just one of those fan boy types who likes winners. He said that Tiger is now probably ranked 215th in the world now. He said that makes him a loser and he does not wear loser clothes. Yeah he is a jacked up but fan boys are like that.

  14. Tony P

    Jun 30, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    We really don’t need to see these stats to know that the kids is a flat out winner! Nuff said

  15. jedidiah's grandmother

    Jun 30, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    oh richie, plop your sweet cheeks on my face

  16. Dave S

    Jun 30, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I really wonder if his technique of looking at the hole on short putts has anything to do with his poor performance for that metric. You don’t really see any other tour pros doing that, and considering that he’s worse from 3-5 ft than 88% of pros, maybe he should re-think that strategy. Of course it’s very easy to armchair quarterback. In all likliehood I have no idea what I’m talking about 🙂

    Great article btw, I love statistics and your commentary and analysis added a lot of value.

    • BTooth

      Jul 1, 2015 at 10:00 am

      It is weird, but if you’ve ever suffered from the affliction known as the yips, you’d know that he’d putt with his eyes closed before he’d putt from 3-5 feet under pressure looking at the ball and his putter head. He could possibly fight through it, but my guess is that this statistic would probably get worse if he didn’t use this technique.

  17. astrang0327

    Jun 30, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    Great article Richie. His 155th ranking in “make % on birdie putts from 5-15 feet” indicates that he’s actually leaving a ton of birdies out on the course doesn’t it?

    • Rich Hunt

      Jun 30, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      Sorta.

      If he was at the Tour average from those distances, he would have made 7 more birdies for the entire year so far. So on one hand, that’s not much more. But, 7 strokes over the course of the season typically equates to more money being made than most people think. However, he’s already made so much money I’m not sure how much it would help him. Lots of factors involved to determine the real value of his ‘struggles’ on birdie putts from 5-15 feet.

  18. Tom

    Jun 30, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    He is 42nd in total driving not driving distance.

  19. marionmg

    Jun 30, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    So basically be 2nd on tour in birdies and don’t make bogies. Now I see why he’s winning everything!

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In this episode of The Gear Dive brought to you by Titleist, Johnny chats with TrackMans Lance Vinson on an all things TrackMan and its presence on Tour. It’s such a deep dive that they needed two shows to cover it all.

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Dear golf,

I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.

It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.

On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.

This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.

As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.

I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.

When you are able to return in full, I will be here.

Sincerely,

Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)

 

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The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact

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One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.

As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.

I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.

So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.

So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.

I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.

I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.

If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.

[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]

It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.

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