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The blind spot of PGA Tour players: Long-iron play

by   |   October 30, 2012
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With the PGA Tour’s season winding down to the final tournament of the year, there will be a faction of golfers fighting to make the top 125 on the Money List in order to keep their Tour Card for 2013.  I have personally worked with a few PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors on understanding the game from a statistical standpoint.

When I started the 2012 season working with these clients there were a couple of parts of our initial interaction that surprised me:

1)     Each player had made it their goal to be ‘one of the best wedge players on Tour.’

2)     Each client initially did not buy into me telling them that in the grand scheme of things, full shot wedge play is not overly important. Particularly on the PGA Tour.

With the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data, the numbers are on display for statisticians like me to decipher the level of importance of each part of the game of golf.  It’s very similar to the movie Moneyball and the approach Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, utilized to build his team based on the cold, hard numbers instead of traditional baseball axioms. But even better, there are far less “moving parts” in the game of golf, making the numbers more distinct and easier to see the correlation to success on Tour.

Despite that, there is still plenty of resistance to approaching the game of golf from a metrics standpoint and every year there are about 75 full time PGA Tour golfers wondering where their entire season went wrong.

***

My development into metrics and the game of golf actually started back when I was only five years old.  I immediately took to the game of baseball and each week my dad would go to the local store and grab a few packs of baseball cards and give them to me where I would collect them.  Eventually I would spend my entire time reading and studying each card.  One of the fascinating parts of baseball is the amount of record keeping of statistics the sport has, dating back to the 19th century.

One of my favorite all-time baseball managers was Billy Martin as he would keep some data on how well certain batters performed against certain pitchers.  In fact, in the 1977 American League Championship Series, Martin benched superstar Reggie Jackson because Kansas City’s starting pitcher was Paul Splittorff, who had owned Jackson each time they faced each other.  Almost every baseball expert thought Martin was insane, but in the end the Yankees won the game 5-3 and went on to beat the Dodgers to win the World Series.

For better or for worse, statistics lends way to contrarian type of thinking.  But if analyzed diligently and with an open mind, it can uncover truths that have eluded even the greatest experts for centuries.

In my own personal journey of golf, I had never understood what the golf term “scoring” exactly meant.  Often times, hearing the words “I scored well’ left me with more questions than answers.  Generally I would hear it referred to putting and chipping well, but I had plenty of rounds where I shot a low score and did not putt or chip all that well. In fact, one of my lowest rounds ever (64) came with a 4-putt.

With that, I decided to look into the ShotLink data and use my background in statistics to see if I could figure out the level of importance that certain parts of the game have on the success of PGA Tour golfers.  In the process, I wound up uncovering a truth that has been long ignored by countless Tour players.

***

Before I go on, the wedge game does matter in the game of golf.  In fact, every part of the game matters in the game of golf.  If a golfer improves his fairway bunker play, that will lower their scores over a period of time.  However, if a golfer improves their putting, that will have a bigger impact on lowering their scores than if they were to just improve their fairway bunker player.  Thus, a metrics based approach to golf is about determining the level of importance that certain parts of the game have and then focusing on improving the parts of the game that have the highest level of importance in order to improve a golfer’s scores.

One of my first observations was that Tour players typically do not hit the ball well from every location with every type of club in the bag.  The golfers considered to be top tier ballstrikers are usually good off the tee and then excel with certain irons like the mid-irons or the long irons or with their wedges.  But to find a golfer who can hit it well off the tee and hit it well with each iron is quite rare.

I ended up splitting the game in different categories like Driving Effectiveness, Putts Gained and Short Game Play.  But for the approach shots, I split them into the following categories:

  • Birdie Zone Play (shots from 75-125 yards)
  • Safe Zone Play (shots from 125-175 yards)
  • Danger Zone Play (shots from 175-225 yards)

What I uncovered was that Danger Zone Play has the strongest correlation to success on Tour than ANY other part of the game, including putting and driving effectiveness.  And it has a far stronger correlation to success on Tour than Safe Zone Play and Birdie Zone Play.  Despite that, these clients of mine on the PGA Tour would tell me how important it was for them to be one of the best wedge players on Tour.

While I was a little frustrated with their desires to be the best at a part of the game that was relatively unimportant to their success, I did understand where they were coming from.   I had to remember that before I did this statistical research, I had the same ideas of good Tour players would almost always get up-and-in on any shot from inside 100 yards.  And if a Tour player was unable to execute from that distance, they would not find themselves on Tour for very long.  This led me to wondering where this faulty thinking came from.

***

Currently, the leader in Birdie Zone play is Steve Stricker, who has hit his Birdie Zone shots an average of 15.74 feet to the cup.  The average Tour player from the Birdie Zone has hit his shots 20.35 feet to the cup.

The general misconception for golfers, including actual PGA Tour golfers, is that once a good Tour player gets a wedge in their hands they will hit it close and have a tap in putt.  But as the data shows, that is far from the reality.  The best player from 75-125 yards is averaging almost 16 feet left to the cup on shots from this range.  The average Tour player is leaving it over 20 feet to the cup.

Furthermore, the Tour average putts made percentage from 15-20 feet is only 18.3 percent.  From 20-25 feet the average make percentage on Tour is 11.7 percent.  Therefore, Tour players are not having a lot of tap-ins when they get a full swing wedge in their hand, but also their odds of getting up-and-in with a full swing wedge in their hands are slim at best.

Still, we need to see what the correlation between Birdie Zone Play and success on Tour actually.  To give a better idea, take a look at the top-10 Birdie Zone players in 2012 and their ranking on the Money List:

Here’s a list of the players in the bottom-10 of Birdie Zone Play and their Money Ranking:

Out of the players in both lists, the bottom-10 in the Birdie Zone actually have 6 players in the top-100 on the Money List versus the top-10 Birdie Zone players which only has 5 players in the top-100 on the Money List.

Let’s compare that to the best and the worst of the Danger Zone golfers.  Here is the top-10 Danger Zone golfers and their rankings on the Money List:

Here’s the bottom-10 in Danger Zone play:

Every single player in the top-10 in the Danger Zone will be in the top-125 on the Money List in 2012, regardless of what happens at Disney.  But even better, those who have finished in the top-10 in the Danger Zone have had resounding success on Tour this year.  Whereas four of the top-10 Birdie Zone golfers (Mulroy, Taylor, Thatcher and O’Hern) will likely have to win at Disney in order to finish in the top-125 on the Money List.

This is the blind spot for many PGA Tour players.  They keep working doggedly on their wedge game whereas if they used their efforts towards the longer irons and hybrids, they would almost assuredly keep their card and get closer to nirvana, winning a PGA Tour event.

I think the cause of the ‘blind spot’ is television.  Television producers are far more interested in shots that wind up close to the pin than the shots that actually have a greater impact of a golfer separating themselves from the rest of the field.  That is why we see so much putting on televised rounds, those are the shots that golfers are most likely to make.  When it comes to full swing shots, golfers are more likely to hit a wedge shot closer to the pin.  And to make it even more visually appealing, wedge shots are more likely to get backspin as well.

Thus, the perception is that Tour players stick every wedge shot and get up-and-in with ease.  That is what we usually see every week on TV.  The reality is far different and that the more spectacular shot happens when a golfer hits a 190 yard shot to 15-feet with no back spin.  But television ratings always take precedent over mundane facts.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

About

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, 2013 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 2013 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10


15 Comments

  1. Louis

    August 10, 2014 at 5:25 am

    You say a player who averages 15 feet from 100 yards has a slim chance of making birdie because tour pros only make 20% of their 15 footers. How about all the shots that land inside 15 feet though?

    If you hit 30 shots and average 15 feet from 100 yards it means you will have 4 putts inside of 4 feet (let’s say you make 4), 6 from 5-10 (let’s say you make 3), 5 from 11-15 (let’s say you make 2), and 15 from 15-30 (let’s assume you make 2). That gives you a better than 33% chance of making birdie.

    Winning tournaments comes from making birdies and not screwing up badly. Going from a 7% margin of error to 5% margin of error with long irons isn’t gonna make you score any better.

    Not spraying your long irons will help immensely. Because that’s a really easy place to lose strokes.

    Lesson: keep the ball in play (hit greens) with your long irons. That’s it. Don’t worry about being better than able to hit it within 50 feet of where you aim consistently (still hard to do). Going from 50 feet to 40 feet won’t help.

    Eliminate inconsistencies that produce big misses.

    Once you have that down, to score well, hitting the wedges closer is the easiest way.

  2. Sam

    June 18, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Interesting stuff, here’s my 2cents worth…
    PGA Tour players are just like other golfers, they follow trends. In the 90′s everyone on Tour jumped on the 52, 56, 60 bandwagon with Tom Kite, when he took distance control to a new level. Then along came Tiger with 48, 54, 58 and they all dumped a wedge. Lately, club lofts have changed the make up of sets, making 3 iron redundant in many cases (as shown above). The reason the DZ looks more important to scoring than the BZ is that relative to the other parts of their game the average PGA Tour Pro is poor in the BZ. The reason for this is simple: not enough tools to do the job. Modern PW clubs have become much stronger, instead of keeping the loft/distance gaps even, everyone followed Tiger and minimized the short end of their set. No doubt, more options and more full shot yardages will result in closer to the hole with wedges, it would be interesting to look at the correlation between number of scoring clubs and proximity to the hole, pretty sure you will find that guys with 3-4 wedges get it closer more often than the two club guys. Now that’s a blind spot!

    • JD

      November 13, 2013 at 5:15 am

      Interesting comment. But what I think you have failed to recognise is the fact PGA tour courses have become much longer and therefore require more clubs down the long end of the set make up. As a professional caddie and also a pro myself I have seen this first hand. There are also more courses with par 3 holes that are between 200-225 yards, couple that with longer par 4 holes that require longer, higher and softer shots players are forced into a hybrid as well as 3 irons. This is one reason I feel players are dumping the extra edge.

  3. Mike

    February 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    The article is interesting but I am not sure that using Money List as a correlation to Birdie/Danger Zone is a statistically sound method. The Money List is a total of earnings but that is subject to a variable you have not accounted for which is the number of starts a player has on the Tour. Even an average PGA Tour player will have more money when they have more starts. A better comparison of earnings to player performance statistics would at least use “earnings per start” to eliminate the variable related to the number of starts.

    Also, isn’t there some relationship between BZ, SZ and DZ that you have not accounted for? For example, Steve Stricker rates Top 10 in BZ and DZ efficiency and Adam Scott is 189th in BZ and obviously not Top 10 in DZ. One would think, based on the analysis, that Adam Scott would finish far below Steve Stricker yet the opposite is true. Scott (16 starts) actually finished with slightly higher earnings per start ($181,000) than did Stricker (19 starts and $180,000 per start).

  4. Alex

    February 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    First of all great article…
    Last year i actually kept record of 30 rounds and analyzed them through out. I took lowest 10 rounds and see what i did best during those rounds. This is what i found. 7 out of 10 rounds i hit 12 fairways each of those rounds, however also note i took more 3 woods and hybrids off the tee that left me a lot of 150-185 yard approaches. In those rounds i hit about 14 greens on avg. What this concluded for me is that i am a lot better hitting 7,6,5 and hybrids off the fairway than wedges from the rough. I am pretty decent putter and will not really 3 putt very often, however i will also not drain too many 20 footers for birdies. If Tour avg from the BZ is about 20 ft then i will be definitely over that, so as an amateur if i want to score better but more importantly consistently better i should be hitting 3/5 woods off the tees and hitting 7 irons into greens taking my 2 putts and going to the next hole. This is where this article is dead on, for me to get better either i need to drive better and be on the short grass with my driver leaving wedges in or improve my approaches from 150-185. Now what is easier to improve….

  5. Jeff

    February 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Great article, really can relate to this.

  6. Dane

    February 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Great article Mark. Being a golf professional this has put into writing what plenty of golf pros think. I will definitely look more into your work!

  7. Philip

    February 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Wow! I think I need to become a statistician to analyze my golf game! Call me weird, but these are fun articles!

  8. mark burk

    November 5, 2012 at 9:28 am

    All of the players you metion are good danger zone players are longer hitters and bad dangerzone players are short hitters. 175 to 225 for the good ones mention are mostly mid irons that can hold the firm pga tour greens, they also will be able to hit par 5′s in two more often which is where these guys make there birdies with shorter clubs and since most the par 3′s on tour are over 200 yards plays to the advantage of the longer hitters. So it would be better most of the world class player have good long game because of distance. If you want to talk about where weekend warrior can save shots it is with the shortgame. If a player can eliminate 3 putts and get up and down more often it will save them more strokes than being a good iron player from 175 to 225. Keeping the ball in play, eliminating 3 putts and decent short game will keep the score down for the average weekend golfer. Every time I go to range at my club the chipping and putting green are empty and the range is full. What will lower a score faster going from 38 putts a round to 30 or hitting good long iron or hybrid shots which will maybe be hit 4 times a round. This is for the weekend player

    • Richie Hunt

      November 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Mark,

      I only showed the top-10 and bottom-10, but there is no substantative statistical correlation between distance off the tee or clubhead speed or a combination of the two and DZ play. And I have ran these numbers since 2003 for Distance and DZ play and thru 2007 for clubhead speed and DZ play.

      There are plenty of examples of shorter hitting, low clubhead speed players that play great from the DZ each year. McDowell is ranked 8th in the DZ and not very long. Same with Stricker. Furyk is ranked 12th and routinely does great in the DZ. Same for other shorter hitters like David Toms (who was ranked #1 in 2011), Heath Slocum, and Zach Johnson.

      Meanwhile there are longer hitters that struggle from the DZ. Like Chopra, Driscoll, Lamely, and Mark Anderson (currently ranked 174th) and Jhonattan Vegas (currently ranked 175th).

      Distance helps…slightly. But it’s not enough help for Tour players to overcome a lack of skill in the Danger Zone.

  9. Brett Adamkiewicz

    November 1, 2012 at 11:03 am

    What a well rounded article, and explained better than I have ever heard it. I have always taken a different thought process compared to the average joe. Not to exaggerate but we have all heard the phrase “drive for show and putt for dough” a million times. Fact of the matter is you will never win any “dough” if your superb putting skills are saving bogey and double bogeys all the time. On a side topic I am curious as too the percentage of penalty strokes taken in a round are due to tee shots and the “danger zone” shots. I know the phrase doesn’t exactly fit with the danger zone but it is all relative. 175 and out is what I call my scoring zone. I can have a bad putting and chipping day and still be sub 80. If I can’t get off the tee and can’t get around the green, the limit on my score…. I am taking a trip with 7 of my buddies to Kiawah Island this weekend and I am going to put this to the test! Most of them are all mid to low handicappers and can play well! I am going to have a little fun with this and track their scoring relative to your “Danger Zone” and off the tee. Thank you for this article and I hope more people will read this and pay attention.

    • Brett Adamkiewicz

      November 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

      The sky is the limit on my score. Left out that part.

  10. Dan

    October 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Fantastic article, very insightful. It will be great to stop focusing on the “Glamorous” parts of the game and focus more on the shots that lower my score.

  11. DaleH

    October 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Exactly.. most amatures do struggle with the short game but really struggle with longer irons like myself. I’m usually on hitting into greens with say an 8 iron or less, 7-4 not as good, the longer the iron the the less my chances. Time to practice more on the long irons. Thanks for the facts.

  12. Pingback: GolfWRX.com – The blind spot of PGA Tour players: Long-iron play | Golf Products Reviews

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