The blind spot of PGA Tour players: Long-iron play
By Rich Hunt
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.