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The real numbers behind driving the ball on Tour

by   |   November 15, 2012
Rory McIlroy

By Rich Hunt

GolfWRX Contributor

In the era of modern technology, advanced fitness regimens and long driving competitions, there has been a growing sentiment towards golf favoring the ‘bomb-n-gouge’ style of play.  However, we still see many shorter-hitting golfers like Zach Johnson who are successful in the game.  Most of the clients on Tour I work with have questioned the advantages that power can have on Tour versus hitting the ball the more accurately.  As a competitive amateur golfer myself, it was one of the first things I investigated from a statistical standpoint.

Part of the issue deals with the main metric designed to determine driving skill on Tour, called ‘Total Driving.” Total Driving utilizes a very simple formula by adding the rankings of a player’s Driving Distance and Fairway Percentage together.  The lower the combined ranking, the better the golfer will rank in Total Driving. But it’s metrics like Total Driving that have only produced more questions than answers for golfers.

The main issue with the Total Driving metric is that it is flawed from a statistical standpoint and it is a very incomplete formula. From a pure statistical standpoint, the addition of taking the rankings and adding them together is a bad idea in general.  Theoretically, a golfer on Tour could hit nothing but 4-irons off the tee and would likely lead the Tour in percentage of Fairways Hit. But, they would also likely be dead last in driving distance. And using the Total Driving formula of adding up the rankings would misrepresent how well the golfer hits the ball off the tee.

In that example, the golf would rank No. 1 in Fairway Percentage and No. 191 in Driving Distance.  That would combine for 192 Total Driving points, leaving this particular golfer ranked 100th out of 192 golfers on Tour in Total Driving.  However, the reality is that if a Tour golfer hit nothing but 4 irons off the tee, they would almost be guaranteed to be the least effective driver of the ball on Tour, if not in the history of the Tour.

And therein lies part of another issue with Total Driving — it assumes that driving distance is just as important as fairway percentage. When examining Driving Distance and Fairway Percentage to par-4 and par-5 scoring averages, the data shows that they are not of equal importance.

Not wanting to stop at just driving distance and fairway percentage, I examined other metrics as well.  The one metric that showed some statistical influence to par-4 and par-5 scoring averages is called “Average Distance to the Edge of the Fairway.”  This metric is measured on shots by a Tour player when they miss the fairway.

It’s easy to understand why combining Driving Distance, Fairway Percentage and Distance To the Edge of the Fairway can show a strong correlation to par-4 and par-5 scoring average. Distance helps measure power, fairway percentage helps measure accuracy and distance to the edge of the fairway helps measure precision. Now the question becomes putting it in a formula to best represent its effect on Tour players and then examine the results.

Eventually I came up with my own metric that I call “Driving Effectiveness.”  It combines the metrics of Driving Distance, Fairway Percentage and Average Distance To the Edge of the Fairway. However, it utilizes the actual measurements instead of using the rankings.  Furthermore, it weighs those metrics differently to better represent its typical impact on Tour golfers on par-4s and par-5s.  Without giving the formula away, I will say that in the end that Driving Distance and Distance to the Edge of the Fairway have a larger impact on a golfer’s score than fairway percentage. But, do not let that fool you into believing that hitting fairways is unimportant.

Here is a table showing the top-10 and bottom-10 players in Driving Effectiveness and the Total Driving metric.

Top-10 in Driving Effectiveness


Bottom 10 in Driving Effectiveness


While there are some similarities between the rankings of the two metrics, there are plenty of players who are not accurately depicted in Total Driving.  Here’s a look at the top-10 players who had the largest improvement in Driving Effectiveness ranking from the Total Driving metric.

Here are the players with the largest decline in Driving Effectiveness ranking from the Total Driving metric.

In golfers who had a much better Driving Effectiveness ranking, we see that favoring shorter hitters a little. Conversely, with the golfers with a worse Driving Effectiveness ranking, that has a small bias towards longer hitters. The reason being has to do with the Average Distance To The Edge of the Fairway metric.

However, the bias is somewhat small. I believe the reason for that is regardless of their length off the tee, Tour players do not typically see a sizeable difference in where they rank on Tour between fairway percentage and Average Distance to the Edge of the Fairway.

For example, KJ Choi saw the largest difference in Driving Effectiveness (67th) versus Total Driving (128th).  Choi was ranked 54th in fairway percentage, hitting 64.08 percent of his fairways. But, Choi was also 2nd in Average Distance to the Edge of the Fairway, hitting it 18.7 feet from the edge on average. Thus, Choi was more effective than Total Driving indicates because when he did miss the fairway, he did not miss by much.

I think that amateurs can apply the general principles of Driving Effectiveness in their own game as well. If they are looking to become more effective off the tee, the ways to make the largest improvements would be to increase their driving distance (power) and their Distance to the Edge of the Fairway (precision).  If they are looking at swing changes or a new driver in order to increase distance, they should focus more on how that may possibly affect their Average Distance To The Edge of the Fairway.

However, if they gain power but lose too much precision they may end up being less effective in the long run. And if they do not believe they can gain any power, they should probably focus their efforts on Fairway percentage (accuracy) and Distance To The Edge of the Fairway (precision) in order become more effective off the tee.

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.

Purchase 2013 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10


5 Comments

  1. Philip

    February 8, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Great article. Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the statistics of the game of golf and other sports.

  2. be_right

    January 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Great article….Do you publish your driving effectiveness stats anywhere? I’d love to follow along throughout the season.

  3. stevielee

    November 29, 2012 at 12:50 am

    i disagree with The Pecker, this author somehow simply showed his approach and explained his findings without all the science behind it. now i can understand that even somedays that i couldnt hit single fairway and still had a decent day at the course. this is what you should get from an short online article.

  4. Richie Hunt

    November 15, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Hello,

    I agree with many of your points, except for the last one stating that I am ‘fond of rendering the reader unable to form their own opinion.’

    The difficult part for me is that I utilize a proprietary statistical model that took time, effort and mathematical knowledge to create. Thus, giving it away for free is not something I am willing to do.

    This is not all that uncommon. I know the advanced metrics group for NFL research, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, do not give away their models and algorithms either. But they present the information and their findings to their readers and then the readers decide how much sense it makes. This does typically lead to some debate as to how good certain players and teams are along with debating certain aspects and strategies of the game. But, they have obviously allowed their readers to render their own opinions because they have plenty of readers with plenty of opinions.

    I think in this article, the reader can render some opinion on the importance of the Avg. Distance to the Edge of the Fairway metric along with the flawed nature of Total Driving from a basic mathematical standpoint and whether or not the metrics should be weighted evenly or disproportionally. The reader could also discern if a players I listed like KJ Choi, Rory McIlroy and Robert Garrigus are better or worse than their Total Driving metric indicates. If you have further questions, please let me know.

  5. The Pecker

    November 15, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    While I think it is appropriate to incorporate more data into driving efficiency, I am unable to accept the author’s data for one simple reason. The author criticizes the PGA Tour for their “total driving” forumla, whereas, in the author’s analysis, they avoid mentioning any formula, rendering the reader unable to form their own opinion – something the author is clearly fond of doing.

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