This past week former long-drive champion, Jamie Sadlowski, took to the PGA Tour by playing the Dean & Deluca Invitational at Colonial Country Club. I was very interested in how he would perform, as we have not seen many long-drive champions actually compete on the PGA Tour level. Sadlowski is not only extremely long (his club speeds in long-drive competitions are upward of 148 mph), but he’s remarkably accurate for a long driver. As a witness to his performance in clinics, he usually hits a tiny draw with a miss that’s a small flare to the right.
Previous long drive champions that have tried to compete in “normal” events generally tend to not only lack the complete game to make the cut, but are too wild off the tee to be taken seriously. But by the same token, we are seeing more top-tier PGA Tour players swinging at higher speeds. The very top of the PGA Tour in club speed also tends to be rising each year. For example, PGA Tour rookie Ryan Brehm has reached speeds of 131 mph in competition this season and routinely gets out-driven by fellow PGA Tour player, Brandon Hagy. It’s clear that there is a trend toward more club speed on the PGA Tour, and I believe that sometime in the future we will see a legitimately competitive Tour player that averages 135+ mph club speed.
Why Speed Matters
This has been often debated, but my statistical research on the subject shows that distance is the great equalizer. A few years ago, AimPoint Founder Mark Sweeney did a study showing the average length of a player’s birdie putt on Tour and found a strong, indirect mathematical correlation between driving distance and the length of the average birdie putt. Simply put, golfers who hit the ball farther are more likely to have a shorter birdie putt on average when they hit the green in regulation. This allows less skilled putters that hit it long to compete on the PGA Tour.
While golfers who hit it farther may have lesser skill with the flatstick, they are more likely to leave themselves birdie putts that have better make percentages. That is, in part, how bombers that have struggled with their putting over the years like Bubba Watson, Robert Garrigus and Rory McIlroy have been able to compete and win on Tour. They are simply giving themselves more makable birdie putts when they hit the green in regulation.
The rub is that while longer hitters are more likely to have shorter birdie putts when they hit the green in regulation, there is also a direct correlation between driving distance and the length of the average shot when they miss the green in regulation. Longer hitters are more likely to wind up in danger off the tee, and that may result in less than ideal approach shots that miss the green by a larger margin.
Here’s one of the questions I frequently get asked as a PGA Tour Statistician. Would you rather be:
- Super-long, inaccurate and a weak putter?
- Short, very accurate and a pretty good putter?
If I were a Tour player, I would take the former. If a super-long hitter can happen to get four days of accuracy off the tee and four days of good putting (+0.5 strokes gained per round or better), he has a good chance of winning. A classic example of that is John Daly in 1991, where the soft conditions at Crooked Stick helped him find fairways. He also putted insanely well. It became arguably the most unexpected victory in the history of golf.
I used Driving Effectiveness in order to determine a player’s skill off the tee. Driving Effectiveness is an algorithm that utilizes: distance, hit fairways, average distance from the edge of the fairway, hit fairway bunkers and missed fairway – other percentages and then simulates the data, and not just on the course that was played. I had Sadlowski second in the field in Driving Effectiveness. Granted, he only played two rounds, but the data greatly respected his performance off the tee.
Sadlowski averaged 299.9 yards off the tee on every drive he hit. Jon Rahm was first in driving distance on all drives at 308.1 yards. Sadlowski also hit 50 percent of his fairways compared to the field average of 54 percent. The reason for Sadlowski’s shorter-than-expected distance off the tee is that Colonial is a very tight, dog-leggy type of course that requires a frequent amount of lay-up shots off the tee. In fact, I think this was the biggest factor working against Sadlowski; Colonial is one of the worst golf courses on Tour for his game. It places more of a premium on accuracy off the tee and difficult approach shots to smaller greens.
A bomber like Sadlowski needs a course that will allow him to hit a lot of drivers. From my experience working with numerous Tour players and players that get that special invite, a course with bigger and flatter greens helps as well. Courses like Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational), The Golf Club of Houston (Shell Houston Open) and Las Colinas (Byron Nelson) would be better suited for Sadlowski.
Sadlowski performed poorly with his irons at Colonial. The typical skepticism with somebody that hits it as long as Sadlowski does is that he would have trouble with his wedges (since he hits them so far), but Green Zone shots (75-125 yards) was where he actually performed best. His Yellow Zone shots (125-175 yards) really hamstrung him, and because of his length off the tee he was getting more Yellow Zone shots instead of shots from the Red Zone like the rest of the field. The problem was that he could not take advantage of them, which is one of the reasons he finished 10-over par and missed the cut.
Sadlowski also finished second-to-last in shots from less than 30 yards. For long hitters (who tend to hit some shots offline and miss some greens by a larger margin), his inability to perform well from around the green presents problems for him in the future. Sadlowski was only able to hit 18 out of 36 greens in regulation, and he needed his short game to make up for his mistakes.
Sadlowski finished gaining +0.817 strokes per round with his putter. Here is a breakdown of his make percentages by putt distance.
Most of Sadlowski’s strokes gained on the greens came from his putting from 3-10 feet. He had 14 opportunities from 5-10 feet and only four chances from 10-15 feet. This discrepancy is indicative of a player who missed a lot of greens and had to make a lot of par saves from 5-10 feet.
Overview and Outlook
The great news is that Sadlowski was fantastic off the tee and very good with the putter. This was particularly impressive since Colonial does not fit Sadlowski very well off the tee, and he still had a great performance driving the ball.
He struggled to play what I call “complementary golf.” He couldn’t take advantage of his long driving and putting because his iron play was abysmal and his short game around the green was even worse. He was gaining on the field from his tee shots, but after he hit his approach shot he was behind the field. Then he fell further behind the field with his short-game shots, and he needed to putt out of his mind just to score close to the field average and make the cut — which of course he didn’t.
Going forward, I would not be surprised if Sadlowski could sustain this type of effectiveness off the tee, as he showed that hitting layups off the tee are fairly easy for him (as I mentioned earlier, bombers on Tour can put together four days of decent accuracy off the tee with good putting and can instantly contend in an event). Sadlowski showed some potential of being able to drive the ball very long and well and combine that with quality putting, but until he improves his iron play and short game, he will be hamstrung by those glaring inefficiencies.
To succeed on the PGA Tour, Sadlowski would need to get on a course that allows him to hit driver more often so he can gain an even greater advantage off the tee in order to counter his weaknesses with the irons and short game.