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Opinion & Analysis

The real numbers behind driving the ball on Tour

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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. 

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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, 2017 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 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Philip

    Feb 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

    Jan 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

    Nov 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

    Nov 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

    Nov 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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Podcasts

The 19th Hole: Mark Rolfing and architect David Kidd on Carnoustie’s challenges

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It’s Open Championship week at Carnoustie! This week, Michael Williams hosts NBC and Golf Channel analyst Mark Rolfing and award-winning architect David Kidd (Bandon Dunes) to talk about how the pros will try to tame “Car-nasty.” It also features Jaime Darling of Golf Scotland on the many attractions around Carnoustie outside the golf course.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?

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‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?

A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:

  1. It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
  2. It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.

That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:

  1. It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
  2. It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.

In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.

The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good and a negative number, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:

  • Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
  • Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
  • Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.

Where does your game fall in these two important categories?

Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?

You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:

  1. They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
  2. The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.

That reminds me again of my very early days when Chuck Cook said to me: “Pete, Tour players don’t make errors in the short game!”  See Chuck, I was right, they do! For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com.

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Opinion & Analysis

Think Carnoustie’s hard? Try winning a title on it playing golf with one arm

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When things get challenging during the 147th Open this week on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, the players would do well to think of Mike Benning–specifically the fortitude he channeled into success at the venerable venue.

Benning grew up with golf at Congressional while his father, Bob, was head professional at the iconic country club in Bethesda, Md. Due to a rare form of cancer, Benning, who was already a top junior in the Washington, D.C. area, lost his left arm below the elbow to amputation at age 14.

Rather than let that stop him from playing, he learned to adapt. So much so that he won back-to-back Society of One-Armed Golfers world championships in 1993-94. The first win came at Seaford Golf Course in Sussex, England, in 1993. Benning defended his title at Carnoustie in 1994, the 56th and 57th renditions of the annual event, which began in the 1930s.

Benning was low medalist in stroke play at Seaford, shooting 80-81-161. With the top 16 finishers advancing to match play, Benning won four matches in two days to become champion. He went to Carnoustie the next year full of confidence but couldn’t find the form initially that carried him at Seaford, qualifying 10th in medal play.

“My game wasn’t on, and the course was brawny and fast,” Benning said this week from his home in Scituate, Mass. “The course was so dry it was grey, and it was windy. That makes Carnoustie very difficult, even more challenging than normal. I had a difficult draw in match play, but I found my game when it mattered most, and only one of my matches went to the 18th hole.”

In the championship match, Benning defeated Scotsman Brian Crombie of Dundee, a 25-minute drive from Carnoustie.

“He had about 50 friends and family members rooting him on, the crowd was definitely behind him,” Benning recalled. “But I had a couple Americans following me. One was Mike Gibson, who now works for Titleist. He came out wearing a pair of red plus fours and an American flag shirt. He and Mark Frace really propped me up. I remember having a big decision on the 10th hole – whether to try and get a 3-wood over the burn – so I turned and looked at those guys behind me, and they encouraged me to go for it. I cleared the burn and ended up 12 feet from the hole.”

Benning was an independent sales rep in the golf business before joining Hanger, Inc., the leading U.S. provider of prosthetics and orthotics, where he is currently Marketing Manager. He has played other Open Championship courses but calls Carnoustie’s Championship layout “probably the greatest risk-reward course” in the rota. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do justice to the demanding test of golf it presents players,” he said.

To underscore his assertion, Benning cited the 6th hole – “Hogan’s Alley” – named after 1953 Open Champion Ben Hogan. Here is the description for it from the Carnoustie Golf Links website. “Normally played into prevailing wind, this can be a severe par 5. Bunkers and out of bounds await the miss-cued drive and although the best line is up Hogan’s Alley between the bunkers and the out of bounds fence, it requires a brave player to drive to that narrow piece of fairway. The second shot is no less perilous with a ditch angling across the fairway and the out of bounds continuing to be a threat. The approach is reasonably straightforward to an undulating green, particular care must be taken if the pin is located on the back-right portion of the green. A player should always be content with a five on this hole as it can be the ruin of many a scorecard.”

Benning said the pair of fairway bunkers side by side on the 14th hole – known as “The Spectacles – have to be experienced to be understood how hard they play for those unfortunate enough to find them.

“I hit into one of them during a match and it was the only time I had to hit backwards out of a bunker during the championship,” Benning remembered. “The face of the bunker was unthinkably high.”

The closing holes at Carnoustie’s Championship Course – Nos. 16-18 – may be the most difficult finish in all major golf, particularly No. 18, named “Home”.

“Just ask Jean Van de Velde,” said Benning, referring to the Frenchman who led by three strokes going to final hole of the 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde took triple bogey to fall back into a tie and playoff, which he lost to Paul Lawrie. No golf follower who watched the debacle can forget the image of Van de Velde standing in Barry’s Burn with his trouser bottoms rolled up, hands on hips, stunned disbelief etched on his face. Conversely, Lawrie’s final round 67 astounded Benning, who pointed out that the final round average score was significantly higher. The 18th also cost Johnny Miller the 1975 Open title, after Miller took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the hole.

Suffice it to say, Carnoustie will provide many of the world’s greatest players the chance for immortal golf glory this week, or demoralizing defeat. Maybe both. Whomever emerges as champion, Mike Benning will relate to the elation felt after prevailing on one of the game’s greatest courses.

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19th Hole

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