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Opinion & Analysis

Even Jordan Spieth Has A Weakness!

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As the founder of ShotByShot.com, a Strokes Gained analysis website, I have been studying Strokes Gained and the relevant performance statistics for PGA Tour players and amateurs for more than 30 years. In all that time, I have never seen a player that was good at every part of the game. I have made it my business to help players at every level identify their strengths and weaknesses, as improving the latter generally represents the quickest route to consistently lower scores.

This week, I looked at Spieth’s 2017 Tour data through the BMW Championship, and I compared it to the other top-5 players in the FedEx Cup race to the same point in time. The other players, which I’ll refer to this group as “Other-4,” are:

  • No. 2: Justin Thomas
  • No. 3: Dustin Johnson
  • No. 4: Mark Leishman
  • No. 5: Jon Rahm

Off the Tee, Driving Performance?

If there is one weakness in Spieth’s game, it’s his driving. I believe that his quest for more distance, following his loss to Jason Day in the 2015 PGA Championship, has injected a two-way miss off the tee, resulting in more severe driving errors. With the help of my genius programmer, I extracted the two types of driving errors from the ShotLink data that are most frequent on Tour:

  • No Shot: A miss that requires an advancement shot to return to normal play. The average cost of this type of error in 2017 has been 74 percent of a stroke, or 0.74 strokes.
  • Penalty: A miss that causes a player to incur a penalty. The average cost this year has been 1.38 strokes.   

Note: There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball. This most severe miss is relatively rare on Tour and neither Jordan or the Other-4 had one.

As you can see in the charts below, 2015 Spieth, 2017 Spieth and the 2017 Other-4 all had just about the same frequency of driving errors, but the Spieth’s 2017 errors were much more costly (my definition of “cost” is calculated based upon the score, relative to par, recorded on the driving-error hole). As we can see, while Spieth’s frequency of errors has not increased, the severity/cost has jumped significantly: +41 percent over his 2015 average and +55 percent over the Other-4.

Jordan Spieth 2015 vs. 2017 Driving Errors

Spieth 15 vs. 17 Dr errors

*0.48/round is just under 1 driving error every 2 rounds.

 Other-4 2017 vs. Jordan Spieth 2017 Driving Errors

Spieth 17 vs 0ther-4 Dr errorsApproach Shots

This is clearly how Spieth separates himself from the rest and mitigates his less-than-stellar driving. Ranked No. 1 in this Strokes-Gained category, here are some of his impressive approach-shot numbers:

  • Strokes Gained: 0.958/round, Rank No. 1
  • Proximity to the Hole: 33-feet 8-inches, Ranked No. 8, Tour Average: 36-feet 4-inches
  • Greens in Regulation: 70.35 percent, Ranked No. 3, Tour Average: 64.94 percent, Other-4: 67.7 percent
  • Penalties Per Round: The Tour does not publish this, or any such negative numbers, but all players make them. Jordan: 0.18/round (1 every 6 rounds). Tour avg.: 0.2/round (1 every 5 rounds), Other-4: 0.15/round (1 every 7 rounds).

Short Game, Around the Green

This Tour stat includes every shot from within 30 yards of the edge of the green. Jordan is ranked No. 15. The short game is obviously one of Jordan’s strengths. We have all seen it, so I will not go into detail.

Putting

This is an extremely important skill in golf and approximately 40 percent of the game at any handicap level. Actually, it’s more than one skill; it’s two:

  1. The art of holing short putts.
  2. The precise distance control on the long putts.

While putting is a very important part of Spieth’s success, when one looks under the hood, what Jordan does so well is not what we would think. It’s his long-range distance control that separates him from the rest. Further, Spieth’s 1-Putt numbers are VERY AVERAGE.

Note, in the chart below, at each distance up to 20 feet, Spieth is either right at or literally within 1-percentage point of the 2017 Tour average. This is not at all what we would expect from a No. 1 player.

Spieth 1putt vs Tour 2017Again, below, Jordan’s 1-Putt percentages are below the Other-4 until he gets past 16 feet.

Spieth 1putt vs Oth-4 2017Spieth’s long-range excellence serves him well and in two ways:

No. 1: Fewer 3-Putts. Jordan is ranked 9th in 3-Putt Avoidance at 2.03 percent (a 3-Putt on only 2.3 percent of total greens). The Tour Average (3.16 percent) is 56 percent higher! This complements his approach-shot strength. By hitting 13+ greens each round with average proximity of 33.9 feet, Spieth is faced with a bundle of +20-foot opportunities.

No. 2: Fewer “Save” Putts. With fewer missed greens, Spieth is faced with fewer short-putting “save” opportunities, where he enjoys only average success.

Finally, a few points to support Jordan’s distance-control excellence. The numbers below are from a study that I performed for a Golf Digest article: Stats show why Spieth is a great putter (Masters issue 2016). I compared Spieth’s putting to a thorough, distance-control study that I had performed on the No. 1 Strokes-Gained putters for the prior five years (I’ll call them the FIVE #1’s below). Coincidently, it covered all putts from 20 feet and greater in the 2015 season and Spieth beat the averages of the FIVE #1’s in every key measurement.

  • Average Leave Distance: Spieth was the only player under 2 feet at 1.97 feet. The FIVE #1’s averaged 2.31 feet.
  • Percentage of 1-Putts: Spieth: 12 percent, FIVE #1’s: 7 percent
  • Percentage of 3-Putts: Spieth: 5 percent, FIVE #1’s: 8 percent
  • Percentage of Putts Holed or Past the Hole: Spieth: 69.3 percent, FIVE #1’s: 66 percent

What can we amateurs take away from all this?

No. 1: There are two important, but different, skills in putting. Understand and practice both. For more, see my GolfWRX article: Research shows golfers should spend more time practicing short putts?

No. 2: To improve as much as possible, golfers must determine the strengths and weakness of their game, because we all have them. Work to take advantage of your strengths while improving or mitigating your weaknesses.

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In 1989, Peter Sanders founded Golf Research Associates, LP, creating what is now referred to as Strokes Gained Analysis. His goal was to design and market a new standard of statistically based performance analysis programs using proprietary computer models. A departure from “traditional stats,” the program provided analysis with answers, supported by comparative data. In 2006, the company’s website, ShotByShot.com, was launched. It provides interactive, Strokes Gained analysis for individual golfers and more than 150 instructors and coaches that use the program to build and monitor their player groups. Peter has written, or contributed to, more than 60 articles in major golf publications including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women. From 2007 through 2013, Peter was an exclusive contributor and Professional Advisor to Golf Digest and GolfDigest.com. Peter also works with PGA Tour players and their coaches to interpret the often confusing ShotLink data. Zach Johnson has been a client for nearly five years. More recently, Peter has teamed up with Smylie Kaufman’s swing coach, Tony Ruggiero, to help guide Smylie’s fast-rising career.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Dtrain

    Sep 23, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    Also JS struggled with his putting early in the year. I’d like to see the poor rounds tossed out and compare JS to the other 4 at say their best 10 events relative to the field.

  2. Ron

    Sep 23, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Make you short putts, get close on the long putts. Brilliant insight.

  3. Joe

    Sep 22, 2017 at 7:35 am

    “Note: There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball.”

    That’s another advantage PGA pros have. Their ball usually hits a spectator or grandstand a lot of the times before it gets into any real danger!! On top of that they got so many eyes on their ball that it’s easily findable. Where us hackers can only spend “X” amount of time looking for it to keep pace of play. Pace of play is irrelevant on the tour if you’re a big name 😛

  4. Andrew

    Sep 22, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Good analysis. Unfortunately there isn’t a fleet of total stations and trackmans surveying and logging my every shot.

  5. Irma

    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    We didn’t need all this analysis, it’s fairly bloody obvious he’s bad off the tee lol

  6. Frankie

    Sep 21, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    “There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball. This most severe miss is relatively rare on Tour and neither Jordan or the Other-4 had one.” That’s right, just disregard and ignore the fact that Jordan Spieth made a 9 on a par 5 this year by hitting back-to-back tee shots OB right…

    • Henry

      Sep 21, 2017 at 11:52 pm

      If that’s the only time he did that, I don’t think something that happened on .0006% of holes played should matter all that much. Do you?

  7. Speedy

    Sep 21, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Fake news.

  8. X-out

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Golf statistics are only two dimensional; they lack real-time competitive game perspective.
    IOW, they are misleading because they do not calculate what is happening on the golf course during play. Nobody can do that because the future is not predictable, particularly on a golf course in competition and the playing environment.

  9. Chris B

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    It seems that the fairways hit percent category is now the least important one of all.

  10. Mike

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    How is the cost/error of the driving error calculated? Wouldn’t this cost be affected by the decision making/execution of subsequent shots in addition to the severity of the missed drive?

    • henry

      Sep 22, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      you cant calculate something based on a decision that he didnt make, and if whether an outside perspective thought the decision was the right one or not.

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Opinion & Analysis

Dear announcers: Stop saying “topspin”

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If there is one thing that grinds my gears, it’s when television announcers at the highest level in golf, with the largest audiences, get things so terribly wrong about the physics of the game. It may seem like a small issue, but the problem is these pieces of false information get into the minds of golfers, which then continues to perpetuate misinformation around the game, club fitting, and what actually happens when a golf ball is in motion.

The most recent account was during the first round of the U.S. Open when after a shot was hit from the rough and took off low with very little spin a not-to-be-named announcer said something along the lines of

“That really took off with some topspin, look at it roll out” 

This, from a physics perspective, is impossible. So I did what many commentators of the game do, I took to Twitter (@RDSBarath) to state my displeasure for the comment and share the truth about what really happens when a golf club strikes a ball.

The truth

Now that we have pointed out the falsehood, let’s help you better understand what’s really going on. In the golf vernacular, there are a number of ways spin is improperly described, with the two most common being; “sidespin” and “topspin.”

What is sidespin

Spin Axis – Trackman Golf

Sidespin is a commonly used incorrect way to describe the spin axis of a golf ball as it travels through the air. Rather than try and define it myself I will refer to the experts at Trackman to help me explain what’s really going on.

“Spin Axis is the tilt angle relative to the horizon of the golf ball’s resulting rotational axis immediately after separation from the club face (post impact).”

“The spin axis can be associated to the wings of an airplane. If the wings of an airplane are parallel to the ground, this would represent a zero spin axis and the plane would fly straight. If the wings were banked/tilted to the left (right wing higher than left wing), this would represent a negative spin axis and the plane would bank/curve to the left. And the opposite holds true if the wings are banked/tilted to the right.”

To better understand just how important spin axis is it to hitting shots that land close to your intended target check out the video below which demonstrates both spin axis and launch direction.

The falsehoods of “topspin”

As mentioned off the top, no pun intended, any shot struck under normal circumstances will not have topspin. The only scenario where is it possible is when a shot is topped into the ground with the leading edge or sole of the club above the equator of the ball.

The idea of topspin originates in paddle sports like tennis and ping pong where is it entirely possible to hit a low flying topspinning shot that hits their respective courts or tables and proceed to almost pick up speed.

The difference between a racket/paddle and a golf club, is a golf club delivers loft at impact, and the center of gravity is away from the contact point of the face. A golf ball even when hit in extremely low friction will still leave the clubface after impact with some amount of backspin, even on a putt.

The below video shows a putt starting to roll forward almost immediately, but what is really happening is the ball is struck under almost perfect putting launch conditions will very low backspin (but still measurable), friction from the ground resists the movement of the ball and the ball goes from skidding to forward roll very quickly.

In the case of the announcer who misspoke, it would have been much more beneficial to the viewer to have explained the shot like

“based on the lie and circumstances of the impact that shot came out a lot lower than it normally would with very little spin, and ran out more than usual” 

It’s a major change to the original statement and accurately describes what actually happened when the ball was hit from U.S. Open rough.

Remember, just because it was said on TV by a former professional golfer doesn’t make it true.

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In this episode of TGD brought to you by Titleist, Johnny has On Spec’s Ryan Barath and TG2’s Brian Knudson on the show to go deep on the US Open picks and their favorite driver/shaft combos for 2020.

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Read the full transcript of Williams’ conversation with Monahan here. 

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