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

rich hunt

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#1 zakkozuchowski

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:26 AM


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


By Rich Hunt


GolfWRX Contributor


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:


Posted Image


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


Posted Image


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:


Posted Image


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


Posted Image


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.


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#2 jim rockford

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:42 AM

great stuff, thank you.... although 2 things. i think play from 200 yards+ really gets heavily into talent. also thinking pro's obsessions with wedge play might be as much chipping and pitching

#3 dpb5031

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:45 AM

Fantastic article.  Seems there may also be some additional correlations between top performing player's swings and their ability to hit the longer clubs well.  Effective use of the longer clubs generally requires more clubhead speed, higher launch angles, and control of side-spin (which is more likely to occur with the longer and less lofted irons).

#4 Vindog

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:46 AM

Nice write-up, with facts and figures, even.  

Although I might disagree that tour players mold their livelihood (game) around the television, rather than what they think is going to give them the most sucess.

Just out of curiosity, what were the figures for the "safe zone" play?

Edited by Vindog, 30 October 2012 - 11:48 AM.

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#5 pappaf2

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:47 AM

Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing you research with us.

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#6 anjoga

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 11:49 AM

Very informative read!

#7 burgosity

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:01 PM

Great write up. This will make a fun topic to discuses with my regular foursome.

#8 J13

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:09 PM

wow great piece of info right there.
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#9 farmer

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:11 PM

Just for clarification, your best players in the DZ hit greens rather than miss greens?

#10 Jamboy72

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:21 PM

Interesting topic and nice article...I'd like to toss a question out there in terms of why tour players may have "misconceptions" regarding wedge play....I don't have the stats in front of my right now, but you noted that the make percentage from 15-20 is about 18%....so, it would be fair to say from 75-125 yards, tour pros get up and down about 1/5 of the time....But we know as shots get closer, "make" percentages go up fairly drastically...I believe at 10 ft it is about 38% and at 7 ft. 10 inches it is 50/50...so it would make some sense to me for a tour player to think, "hey, if I can hit it x feet closer from 100 yards, I can make y number more birdies...


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#11 ej002

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:22 PM

Does the top DZ players = better than average BZ players?   I would assume if you are a great long iron player that you are probably a pretty solid wedge player (unless you are Tiger hitting his "beepin" short irons too far).

#12 Hattori Hanzo

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:23 PM

Great write-up! Hard to argue with cold, hard data!

Just a thought, but I wonder if the reason players still don't put as much work into the long iron game is that, even at the highest levels of the game, being a great long iron player seems to be almost an innate ability.  Maybe pros feel like there just isn't as much room to improve there?

Just a guess!
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#13 jim rockford

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:23 PM

i remember reading about canadian young gun graham delaet and a golf analyst said he hits his long irons very far and very high and that is a big differentiator on tour. makes sense as i'd think the guys are much more equal in things that don't require unique physical talent. obviously delaet hasn't taken the PGA tour by storm but he's done quite well a few years out and with major injury issues.

#14 Hattori Hanzo

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:31 PM

View Posttopekareal, on 30 October 2012 - 12:21 PM, said:

Interesting topic and nice article...I'd like to toss a question out there in terms of why tour players may have "misconceptions" regarding wedge play....I don't have the stats in front of my right now, but you noted that the make percentage from 15-20 is about 18%....so, it would be fair to say from 75-125 yards, tour pros get up and down about 1/5 of the time....But we know as shots get closer, "make" percentages go up fairly drastically...I believe at 10 ft it is about 38% and at 7 ft. 10 inches it is 50/50...so it would make some sense to me for a tour player to think, "hey, if I can hit it x feet closer from 100 yards, I can make y number more birdies...

Great point. Say a player works on long iron play, and his average from the DZ goes from, say, 35' to 30'.  That would only up his make percentage by about 1-2%. But say a guy starts hitting his BZ shots from, say, 20' to to 19', just that 1' distance theoretically would produce the same number of birdies vs. the 5' increase from the DZ.

Edited by Hattori Hanzo, 30 October 2012 - 12:31 PM.

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#15 Jamboy72

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:41 PM

View PostHattori Hanzo, on 30 October 2012 - 12:31 PM, said:

View Posttopekareal, on 30 October 2012 - 12:21 PM, said:

Interesting topic and nice article...I'd like to toss a question out there in terms of why tour players may have "misconceptions" regarding wedge play....I don't have the stats in front of my right now, but you noted that the make percentage from 15-20 is about 18%....so, it would be fair to say from 75-125 yards, tour pros get up and down about 1/5 of the time....But we know as shots get closer, "make" percentages go up fairly drastically...I believe at 10 ft it is about 38% and at 7 ft. 10 inches it is 50/50...so it would make some sense to me for a tour player to think, "hey, if I can hit it x feet closer from 100 yards, I can make y number more birdies...

Great point. Say a player works on long iron play, and his average from the DZ goes from, say, 35' to 30'.  That would only up his make percentage by about 1-2%. But say a guy starts hitting his BZ shots from, say, 20' to to 19', just that 1' distance theoretically would produce the same number of birdies vs. the 5' increase from the DZ.

Right..exactly...and if I only have so much talent and time to practice, I have to put my practice time wherever I see the most benefit...not necessarily the most correlation...and some of that is certainly a function of talent/belief...If I believe I can become a better long iron player and this is where I see my greatest chance to improve, then it makes the most sense...but if I see my talent as fairly limited with mid/long irons (let's face it a 180 yard shot for tour pros is no more than a 6 iron and likely a 7 or 8) they I may opt for the 75-125 area...


#16 hoganfan924

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

#17 Sean25rp

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:13 PM

Interesting. Thanks for posting this research.

#18 gators78

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?

Seems to me probably 90% of par 3's the tour players will see happen between 175-225 yards, and if these guys are poor from that distance that's effectively 4 landmines around the golf course to worry about.

#19 kevcarter

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:25 PM

Good to see your voice here Richie!

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#20 hoganfan924

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:31 PM

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?

Seems to me probably 90% of par 3's the tour players will see happen between 175-225 yards, and if these guys are poor from that distance that's effectively 4 landmines around the golf course to worry about.

For starters, because 175-200 yard shot for DJ, Tiger, Garrigus, et. al. isn't a "long iron."  Might be a 6-8 iron.   Might want to read up on the correlation/causation fallacy which I believe the author has committed here.  Other reasons off the top of my head why there may be little to no causation:

Good ballstrikers from 175-225 are good ballstrikers in general, so they should be good with mid and short irons as well.
Very limited number of data points likely for some of these players from this distance range.
Money list is a very poor measure of consistency as a guy can miss 20 straight cuts, win one tournament and be mid-pack on the money list.

Remember, the premise here is that PGA tour pros should spend more time practicing on improving accuracy from this distance and less on wedge play, it isn't that shots from this range aren't important.

"There are lies, damn lies and statistics"


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#21 Jamboy72

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:31 PM

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?

Seems to me probably 90% of par 3's the tour players will see happen between 175-225 yards, and if these guys are poor from that distance that's effectively 4 landmines around the golf course to worry about.

My guess is he is questioning the idea that being a top 10 long iron player causes you make more money...vs the idea that there is a strong correlation between being a good long iron player and money made on tour...

#22 CDMackFisher

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:32 PM

I wonder if there is a similar correlation for short/medium/long putts. In other words, just as the data suggest additional practice on Danger Zone full-swing shots, perhaps data will suggest focus on a particular range of putt lengths...say 25-40 feet. I believe I shall investigate and report back.

#23 Stretch

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:32 PM

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?


It doesn't. In fact, one of the primary advantages of being conspicuously long off the tee is that you get to hit fewer shots from Danger Zone distances in an average round. This is why Phil, for example, can be so wild and still win things. The simple answer for why long drivers also tend to be superior long iron players is that there are common mechanics that favor both -- mainly, lots of lag.

PS: Only on GolfWRX can you rely on someone to pop up pretty much immediately to tell a professional statistician that he doesn't know the difference between correlation and causation. Classic.

#24 aimleft

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:33 PM

When I look at the PGA stats for GIR, even the best players hit about 50% GIR from the danger zone. Based on this, your analysis make sense. To get more birdies, you need to hit more greens and once you hit greens, you need to get it closer to the pin. Do you have stats on the number of approach shots tour players take from each zone?  A second factor might be that these danger zone shots are more likely to be from the rough or at bad approach angles..

It would be intersting to do a weighted evaluation of each statistical category to see if these same trends would apply to a large group of players. I.E. shorter players off the tee need to be better from the danger zone.

#25 Vindog

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:33 PM

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?

Seems to me probably 90% of par 3's the tour players will see happen between 175-225 yards, and if these guys are poor from that distance that's effectively 4 landmines around the golf course to worry about.

The thing that sticks out in my mind regarding this is that 200 yards to a long hitter could be a 7 iron (not really a long iron) as opposed to a 4 iron for a more "pedestrian" swinger.

Another thing is maybe there is a relationship between long hitting and tour ranking that is unaccounted for.

Maybe those things don't matter, but they popped in my head anyways.

run of the mill driver with stock shaft
a couple of outdated hybrids
shovel-ier shovels
wedges from same shovel company
some putter with a dead insert and
a hideous grip

#26 canonlbp430

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:33 PM

Great write up. Wouldn't have thought of that. It definitely does seem like the best wedge players hit stick it to 6 feet everytime but so many variables with what makes the best the best.

#27 bennycoop9882

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:36 PM

It makes me think that short hitters are like a guy playing tees too far back and longer hitters are like a good player playing the white tees.  Changes the game when your irons go that far.

Edited by bennycoop9882, 30 October 2012 - 01:37 PM.


#28 hoganfan924

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:37 PM

View PostStretch, on 30 October 2012 - 01:32 PM, said:

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?


It doesn't. In fact, one of the primary advantages of being conspicuously long off the tee is that you get to hit fewer shots from Danger Zone distances in an average round. This is why Phil, for example, can be so wild and still win things. The simple answer for why long drivers also tend to be superior long iron players is that there are common mechanics that favor both -- mainly, lots of lag.

PS: Only on GolfWRX can you rely on someone to pop up pretty much immediately to tell a professional statistician that he doesn't know the difference between correlation and causation. Classic.

A "Professional statistician" (BTW, where did he make that claim?) who can't distinguish the difference between the length of shot and the club being used.

#29 SundayBag

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:38 PM

love this article. i enjoy hitting wedge shots but love standing over a 195 yard shot with a 4 or 5 iron in my hand trying to hit that high cut into the wind to put the pressure on in my match. i practiced those shots alot more and always felt bad about it. thanks to this, i don't feel so bad for letting me wedges fall to the wayside for a bit :P

#30 canonlbp430

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Posted 30 October 2012 - 01:40 PM

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 01:31 PM, said:

View Postgators78, on 30 October 2012 - 01:21 PM, said:

View Posthoganfan924, on 30 October 2012 - 12:55 PM, said:

Without a lot more in-depth analysis, this is the typical "correlation = causation" fallacy.

For example, note that about 1/2 of the top DZ players are known a long hitters, and several of the bottom 10 are short hitters.

Not totally sure why player distance means this study is invalid?

Seems to me probably 90% of par 3's the tour players will see happen between 175-225 yards, and if these guys are poor from that distance that's effectively 4 landmines around the golf course to worry about.

For starters, because 175-200 yard shot for DJ, Tiger, Garrigus, et. al. isn't a "long iron."  Might be a 6-8 iron.   Might want to read up on the correlation/causation fallacy which I believe the author has committed here.  Other reasons off the top of my head why there may be little to no causation:

Good ballstrikers from 175-225 are good ballstrikers in general, so they should be good with mid and short irons as well.
Very limited number of data points likely for some of these players from this distance range.
Money list is a very poor measure of consistency as a guy can miss 20 straight cuts, win one tournament and be mid-pack on the money list.

Remember, the premise here is that PGA tour pros should spend more time practicing on improving accuracy from this distance and less on wedge play, it isn't that shots from this range aren't important.

"There are lies, damn lies and statistics"

As far as I'm concerned, money list is the only thing that matters in golf. He didn't say he was looking at what makes the golfer most consistent, it was what makes them "successful."

Edited by canonlbp430, 30 October 2012 - 01:40 PM.


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