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.
Fantasy Preview: 2018 Fort Worth Invitational
Under a new name, but a very familiar setting, the Fort Worth Championship gets underway this week. Colonial Country Club will host, and it’s an event that has attracted some big names to compete in the final stop of the Texas swing. The top two ranked Europeans, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose are in the field, as are Americans Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
Colonial is a tricky course with narrow tree-lined fairways that are imperative to hit. Distance off the tee holds no real advantage this week with approach play being pivotal. Approach shots will be made more difficult this week than usual by the greens at Colonial, which are some of the smallest on the PGA Tour. Last year, Kevin Kisner held off Spieth, Rahm, and O’Hair to post 10-under par and take the title by a one-stroke margin.
Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)
- Jordan Spieth 9/1
- Jon Rahm 14/1
- Justin Rose 18/1
- Webb Simpson 18/1
- Rickie Fowler 20/1
- Jimmy Walker 28/1
- Adam Scott 28/1
Last week, Jordan Spieth (9/1, DK Price $11,700) went off at the Byron Nelson as the prohibitive 5/1 favorite. Every man and his dog seemed to be on him, and after Spieth spoke to the media about how he felt he had a distinct advantage at a course where he is a member, it was really no surprise. Comments like this from Spieth at the Byron Nelson are not new. When the event was held at TPC Four Seasons, Spieth often made similar comments. The result? He flopped, just as he did last week at Trinity Forest. Spieth’s best finish at the Byron Nelson in his career is T-16. The reason for this, I believe, is the expectations he has put on himself at this event for years.
Switch to Colonial, and the difference is considerable. Spieth’s worst finish here is T-14. In his last three visits, he has finished second, first and second. While Spieth may believe that he should win the Byron Nelson whenever he tees it up there, the evidence suggests that his love affair is with Colonial. The statistic that truly emphasizes his prowess at Colonial, though, is his Strokes Gained-Total at the course. Since 2013, Spieth has a ridiculous Strokes Gained-Total of more than +55 on the course, almost double that of Kisner in second place.
Spieth’s long game all year has been consistently good. Over his previous 24 rounds, he ranks first in this field for Strokes Gained-Tee to Green, second for Ball Striking, and first for Strokes Gained-Total. On the other hand, his putting is awful at the moment. He had yet another dreadful performance on the greens at Trinity Forest, but he was also putting nowhere near his best coming into Colonial last year. In 2017, he had dropped strokes on the greens in his previous two events, missing the cut on both occasions, yet he finished seventh in Strokes Gained-Putting at Colonial on his way to a runner-up finish. His record is too good at this course for Spieth to be 9/1, and he can ignite his 2018 season in his home state this week.
Emiliano Grillo’s (50/1, DK Price $8,600) only missed cut in 2018 came at the team event in New Orleans, and he arrives this week at a course ideally suited to the Argentine’s game. Grillo performed well here in 2017, recording a top-25 finish. His form in 2018 leads me to believe he can improve on that this year.
As a second-shot golf course, Colonial sets up beautifully for the strengths of Grillo’s game. Over his previous 12 rounds, Grillo ranks first in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, second in Ball Striking, third in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green and eighth in Strokes Gained-Total. The Argentine also plays short golf courses excellently. Over his last 50 rounds, Grillo is ranked ninth for Strokes Gained-Total on courses measuring 7,200 yards or less. Colonial is right on that number, and Grillo looks undervalued to continue his consistent season on a course that suits him very well.
Another man enjoying a consistent 2018 is Adam Hadwin (66/1, DK Price $7,600), who has yet to miss a cut this season. The Canadian is enjoying an excellent run of form with five top-25 finishes from his last six stroke-play events. Hadwin is another man whose game is tailor made for Colonial. His accurate iron play and solid putting is a recipe for success here, and he has proven that by making the cut in all three of his starts at Colonial, finishing in the top-25 twice.
Hadwin is coming off his worst performance of 2018 at The Players Championship, but it was an anomaly you can chalk up to a rare poor week around the greens (he was seventh-to-last in Strokes Gained-Around the Green for the week). In his previous seven starts, Hadwin had a positive strokes gained total in this category each time. Over his last 24 rounds, Hadwin ranks seventh in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, 15th in Ball Striking, and ninth in Strokes Gained-Putting. He looks to have an excellent opportunity to improve on his solid record at Colonial this week.
Finally, as far as outsiders go, I like the look of Sean O’Hair (175/1, DK Price $7,100) at what is a juicy price. One of last year’s runners-up, his number is far too big this week. He has had some excellent performances so far in 2018. In fact, in his previous six starts, O’Hair has made five cuts and has notched three top-15 finishes, including his runner-up finish at the Valero Texas Open. The Texan has made three of his last four cuts at Colonial, and he looks to be an excellent pick on DraftKings at a low price.
- Jordan Spieth 9/1, DK Price $11,700
- Emiliano Grillo 50/1, DK Price $8.600
- Adam Hadwin 66/1, DK Price $7,600
- Sean O’Hair 175/1, DK Price $7,100
Pick three golfers to build the ultimate scramble team. Who you got?
It’s officially scramble season. Whether it’s a corporate outing or charity event, surely you’ve either been invited to play in or have already played in a scramble this year.
If you don’t know the rules of the scramble format, here’s how it works: All four golfers hit their drives, then the group elects the best shot. From there, all four golfers hit the shot, and the best of the bunch is chosen once again. The hole continues in this fashion until the golf ball is holed.
The best scramble players are those who hit the ball really far and/or stick it close with the irons and/or hole a lot of putts. The point is to make as many birdies and eagles as possible.
With this in mind, inside GolfWRX Headquarters, we got to discussing who would be on the ultimate scramble team. Obviously, Tiger-Jack-Daly was brought up immediately, so there needed to be a caveat to make it more challenging.
Thus, the following hypothetical was born. We assigned each golfer below a dollar value, and said that we had to build a three player scramble team (plus yourself) for $8 or less.
Here are the answers from the content team here at GolfWRX:
Tiger Woods ($5): This is obvious. From a scramble standpoint, Tiger gives you everything you want: Long, accurate, and strategic off the tee (in his prime). Woods, sets the team up for optimal approach shots (he was pretty good at those too)…and of course, arguably the greatest pressure putter of all time.
David Duval ($2): I’m thinking of Double D’s machine-like approach play in his prime. Tour-leader in GIR in 1999, and 26th in driving accuracy that year, Duval ought to stick second shots when TW doesn’t and is an asset off the tee.
Corey Pavin ($1): A superb putter and dogged competitor, Pavin’s a great value at $1. Ryder Cup moxy. Plus, he’ll always give you a ball in the fairway off the tee (albeit a short one), much needed in scramble play.
Rory McIlroy ($4): I am willing to bet their are only a handful of par 5’s in the world that he can’t hit in in two shots. You need a guy who can flat out overpower a course and put you in short iron situations on every hole. His iron play is a thing of beauty, with a high trajectory that makes going after any sucker pin a possibility.
Jordan Spieth ($3): Was there a guy who putted from mid-range better than him just a couple years ago? If there was, he isn’t on this list. Scrambles need a guy who can drain everything on the green and after watching 3 putts to get the read, he won’t miss. His solid wedge game will also help us get up and down from those short yardages on the Par 4’s.
Corey Pavin ($1): Fear the STACHE!! The former Ryder Cup captain will keep the whole team playing their best and motivated to make birdies and eagles. If we have 228 yards to the flag we know he is pulling that 4 wood out and giving us a short putt for birdie. He will of course be our safety net, hitting the “safe shot,” allowing the rest of us to get aggressive!
Dustin Johnson ($4) – Bombmeister!!!
Lee Trevino ($2) — Funny as hell (and I speak Mexican).
Sergio Garcia ($1) – The greatest iron player (I speak Spanish, too).
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Lee Trevino ($2)
DJ is longer than I-10, Seve can dig it out of the woods, and Trevino can shape it into any pin.
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Jordan Spieth ($2)
Anthony Kim ($1)
Are all the old timers gonna be mad at me for taking young guys? Doesn’t matter. DJ has to be the best driver ever, as long as he’s hitting that butter cut. With Jordan, it’s hard to tell whether he’s better with his irons or with his putter — remember, we’re talking Jordan in his prime, not the guy who misses putts from 8 inches. Then, Anthony Kim has to be on the team in case the alcohol gets going since, you know, it’s a scramble; remember when he was out all night (allegedly) before the Presidents Cup and still won his match? I need that kind of ability on my squad. Plus AK will get us in the fairway when me, DJ and Spieth each inevitably hit it sideways.
Tiger Woods ($5)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Corey Pavin ($1)
Tiger is a no-brainer. Seve is maybe the most creative player ever and would enjoy playing HORSE with Tiger. Pavin is the only $1 player who wouldn’t be scared stiff to be paired with the first two.
Tiger Woods ($5): His Mind/Overall Game
Seve Ballesteros ($2): His creativity/fire in a team format/inside 100
Anthony Kim ($1): Team swagger/he’s streaky/will hit fairways under the gun.
A scramble requires 3 things: Power, Putting and Momentum. These 3 guys as a team complete the whole package. Tiger is a one man scramble team but will get himself in trouble, which is where Seve comes in. In the case where the momentum is going forward like a freight train, nobody rattles a cage into the zone better than AK. It’s the perfect team and the team I’d want out there if my life was on the line. I’d trust my kids with this team.
Who would you pick on your team, and why? See what GolfWRX Members are saying in the forums.
Is equipment really to blame for the distance problem in golf?
It’s 2018, we’re more than a quarter of the way through Major Season, and there are 58 players on the PGA Tour averaging over 300 yards off the tee. Trey Mullinax is leading the PGA Tour through the Wells Fargo Championship with an average driving distance of 320 yards. Much discussion has been had about the difficulty such averages are placing on the golf courses across the country. Sewn into the fabric of the distance discussion are suggestions by current and past giants of the game to roll back the golf ball.
In a single segment on an episode of Live From The Masters, Brandel Chamblee said, “There’s a correlation from when the ProV1 was introduced and driving distance spiked,” followed a few minutes later by this: “The equipment isn’t the source of the distance, it’s the athletes.”
So which is it? Does it have to be one or the other? Is there a problem at all?
Several things of interest happened on the PGA Tour in the early 2000s, most of which were entirely driven by the single most dominant athlete of the last 30. First, we saw Tiger Woods win four consecutive majors, the first and only person to do that in the modern era of what are now considered the majors. Second, that same athlete drew enough eyeballs so that Tim Finchem could exponentially increase the prize money golfers were playing for each week. Third, but often the most overlooked, Tiger Woods ushered in fitness to the mainstream of golf. Tiger took what Gary Player and Greg Norman had preached their whole careers and amped it up like he did everything else.
In 1980, Dan Pohl was the longest player on the PGA Tour. He averaged 274 yards off the tee with a 5-foot, 11-inch and 175-pound frame. By 2000, the average distance for all players on the PGA Tour was 274 yards. The leader of the pack that year was John Daly, who was the only man to average over 300 yards. Tiger Woods came in right behind him at 298 yards.
Analysis of the driving distance stats on the PGA Tour since 1980 show a few important statistics: Over the last 38 seasons, the average driving distance for all players on the PGA Tour has increased an average of 1.1 yards per year. When depicted on a graph, it looks like this:
The disparity between the shortest and the longest hitter on the PGA Tour has increased 0.53 yards per year, which means the longest hitters are increasing the gap between themselves and the shortest hitters. The disparity chart fluctuates considerably more than the average distance chart, but the increase from 1980 to 2018 is staggering.
In 1980, there was 35.6 yards between Dan Pohl (longest) and Michael Brannan (shortest – driving distance 238.7 yards). In 2018, the difference between Trey Mullinax and Ken Duke is 55.9 yards. Another point to consider is that in 1980, Michael Brannan was 25. Ken Duke is currently 49 years of age.
The question has not been, “Is there a distance problem?” It’s been, “How do we solve the distance problem?” The data is clear that distance has increased — not so much at an exponential rate, but at a consistent clip over the last four decades — and also that equipment is only a fraction of the equation.
Jack Nicklaus was over-the-hill in 1986 when he won the Masters. It came completely out of nowhere. Players in past decades didn’t hit their prime until they were in their early thirties, and then it was gone by their early forties. Today, it’s routine for players to continue playing until they are over 50 on the PGA Tour. In 2017, Steve Stricker joined the PGA Tour Champions. In 2016, he averaged 278 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour. With that number, he’d have topped the charts in 1980 by nearly four yards.
If equipment was the only reason distance had increased, then the disparity between the longest and shortest hitters would have decreased. If it was all equipment, then Ken Duke should be averaging something more like 280 yards instead of 266.
There are several things at play. First and foremost, golfers are simply better athletes these days. That’s not to say that the players of yesteryear weren’t good athletes, but the best athletes on the planet forty years ago didn’t play golf; they played football and basketball and baseball. Equipment definitely helped those super athletes hit the ball straighter, but the power is organic.
The other thing to consider is that the total tournament purse for the 1980 Tour Championship was $440,000 ($1,370,833 in today’s dollars). The winner’s share for an opposite-field event, such as the one played in Puerto Rico this year, is over $1 million. Along with the fitness era, Tiger Woods ushered in the era of huge paydays for golfers. This year, the U.S. Open prize purse will be $12 milion with $2.1 million of that going to the winner. If you’re a super athlete with the skills to be a golfer, it makes good business sense to go into golf these days. That wasn’t the case four decades ago.
Sure, equipment has something to do with the distance boom, but the core of the increase is about the athletes themselves. Let’s start giving credit where credit is due.
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