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
Other-4 2017 vs. Jordan Spieth 2017 Driving Errors
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.
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:
- The art of holing short putts.
- 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.
Again, below, Jordan’s 1-Putt percentages are below the Other-4 until he gets past 16 feet.
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.