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Hunt: Breaking down the best players on tour by category



I’m often asked by my readers what current PGA Tour player’s game I would prefer to have based upon my statistical research. To answer their question, I decided to look at the data and split the game into certain key metrics and base it upon a Tour player’s history. Hopefully for those at home, this will get people pointed in the right direction as to which players to observe when it comes to certain categories of the game.


Boo Weekley

Variables to consider:

  • Driving distance.
  • Fairway percentage.
  • Average distance from the edge of the fairway.
  • Percent of times in a fairway bunker.
  • “Missed Fairway — Other.”

Based on those variables, I use an algorithm that determines how effectively a player drives the ball. I call it “driving effectiveness.”

I also consider how well a golfer drives the ball off the tee when he is not hitting his driver. Looking at ShotLink data, I can tell you that most golfers would be surprised how many Tour players struggle hitting a 3 wood off the tee. We also have to consider ball height as in general, as high ball hitters have statistically fitted into today’s modern courses. I believe this is because the modern TPC courses are filled with forced carries.

With that, I would pick Boo Weekley, who has finished in my top 10 in Driving Effectiveness in each of the last three seasons. He’s one of the best fairway wood players in the game as well. He hits it long, accurate and precise.

Honorable Mention: Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan, Graham DeLaet
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth


Steve Stricker

Birdie Zone play (along with the rest of the zones) is based on the player’s average proximity to the cup. What I have generally found is that the golfers who perform best from the Birdie Zone tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact. There are some players who are usually very good Birdie Zone players such as Sergio Garcia. This makes me believe that Birdie Zone play is more about controlling the shaft lean and that the players with less forward shaft lean tend to do the best job of controlling it.

There are quite a few players on Tour that consistently perform well in the Birdie Zone, but I would pick Steve Stricker above them all based on his performance over the years.

Honorable Mention: Brian Gay, Camilo Villegas, Charlie Wi, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel
Top Newcomer: Paul Haley II


Bud Cauley

The Safe Zone consists of short and mid irons for Tour players. It is also the zone where the most frequent amount of approach shot happens.

There are generally three ways to become extremely good in the Safe Zone:

  • Keep the drive in the fairway a high percentage of time (80-plus percent).
  • Become an excellent player out of the rough.
  • Be a superior irons player from this distance.

For this article, I’m more concerned with the golfer’s pure ability to hit shots from this distance instead of the golfer who consistently keeps his ball in the fairway and ends up having an easier approach shot into the green than the golfer who is hitting shots out of the rough.

Out of all of the players, I would give this to Bud Cauley, as he has been excellent the past two years from the Safe Zone, whether he is hitting it from the fairway or the rough.

Honorable Mention: Lee Westwood, Tim Clark, Luke Donald, Ken Duke, Rory Sabbatini
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth


Robert Garrigus

There is a misconception that long hitters or excellent drivers of the ball goes hand in hand with good Danger Zone play. The assumption is that a long hitter will be hitting shorter clubs into the hole, and therefore has an easier shot. While that is true, he still has to be able to hit the ball well even if he has a shorter club. And there are plenty of excellent drivers of the ball that cannot hit it from the Danger Zone (i.e. Blake Adams, John Rollins and Bill Haas). Conversely, there are excellent Danger Zones that are terrible drivers of the ball (Mickelson, Romero and Michael Thompson).

One way to “cheat the system” is for players to keep the ball in the fairway when they are in the Danger Zone. I recommend this for ALL golfers when they are facing a very long par 4. Focus on finding the fairway with your driver instead of trying to swing harder in hopes of gaining a few yards.

Like the Safe Zone, I’m more interested in a “pure Danger Zone player” than one who smartly finds the fairway here repeatedly. That’s why I take Robert Garrigus. Most of the longer hitters on Tour hit very few of their Danger Zone shots from the rough because they usually are rarely in the Danger Zone on long par 4’s. Instead, they are usually hitting these Danger Zone shots from the tee box on par 3’s.

Garrigus is one of the exceptions, and he does hit quite a few Danger Zone shots from the rough, which indicates he is fairly conservative off the tee. However, he’s continually one of the best on Tour from the Danger Zone and is ranked first, by a long shot, from the Danger Zone this season.

Honorable Mention: Jim Furyk, David Toms, Boo Weekley, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: D.H. Lee

225 to 275 YARDS ZONE

THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One

This zone is what I call a “volatile” metric, meaning that players rarely perform well from here year after year. One year a player may be one of the best on Tour and then the next year they may be one of the worst. We start to see this distance favoring longer hitters a little more noticeably.

It’s hard to argue against Tiger, since no one has hit more clutch shots from this distance than he has over the years.

Honorable Mention: Gary Woodland, George McNeill, Boo Weekley, Scott Stallings, Michael Thompson
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann


Phil Mickelson

Shots from the rough are a bit difficult to quantify because rough tends to get longer as the ball is hit farther away from the fairway. While the data suggests that shots from the rough favor players who generate more club head speed, there are plenty of players with less club head speeds that play well from the rough. But, the issue may be that those lower club head speed players are keeping the ball closer to the edge of the fairway and are hitting from shorter rough grass.

Typically, Sergio Garcia has been one of the very best players from the rough over the years. However, I would take Mickelson, who has been practically as good. And if there was ever a golfer I needed to hit an impossible shot from the rough, it would be Lefty.

Honorable Mention: Sergio Garcia, Chris Couch, Dustin Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Ken Duke
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann


Steve Stricker Fairway

Shots from the fairway actually have a far greater correlation to a golfer’s success on Tour than shots from the rough. That’s because most of their approach shots come from the fairway or the tee box. Therefore, shots from the fairway do not favor any style of play other than quality ballstrikers.

For my money, I would take Steve Stricker in a Big Break style contest if every shot was from the short grass. Stricker also finished first in my Shots from the Fairway metric in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Maggert, Jim Furyk, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: Brian Stuard


Charl Schwartzel

I have been doing some preliminary research on playing into the wind. From what I have researched thus far, it tends to favor golfers whom have a downward attack angle with the driver and are very good from the Birdie Zone. My initial thoughts is that the downward attack angle keeps the ball low, which makes them more comfortable in the wind. I think the Birdie Zone play has to do with having more Birdie Zone shots on the par 5’s and thus, the better wedge players can convert birdies on those holes.

My initial research shows that the best player in windy conditions (13-plus mph winds) is Charl Schwartzel.

Honorable mention: Tiger Woods, Boo Weekley, Chris Stroud, John Merrick, Trevor Immelman
Top Newcomer: N/A


2006 PGA Championship - Round One

Part of short game play is not only the golfer’s skill around the green, but where they leave their approach shots. It is impossible to decipher where exactly the approach shots are left. That would make a strong case for Mickelson. But, I will go with Chris Riley, who has consistently been a top-5 player in Short Game play for years.

Honorable Mention: Phil Mickelson, Brian Gay, Charlie Wi, Ian Poulter, Jerry Kelly
Top Newcomer: James Hahn


Luke Donald Putting

This is based off the metric “Putts Gained.” The research has shown that putts from 3 to 15 feet have the largest correlation to Putts Gained performance. This is in part because putts made from longer than 15 feet are a volatile metric. In fact, the average Tour player makes one birdie putt from longer than 25 feet every 98 holes they play. As I have discussed here before, going low on Tour is about getting the ball inside 15 feet to the hole for birdie on a consistent basis — it is not about making a lot of bombs.

There are a lot of terrific putters on Tour. But, the one player who has stood out has been Luke Donald. Donald ranked first in Putts Gained in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He “slipped” last year falling to third in the metric.

Honorable Mention: Greg Chalmers, Aaron Baddeley, Tiger Woods, Bryce Molder, Brian Gay
Top Newcomer: Russell Henley

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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, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10



  1. B MAC

    Jul 13, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Putting brandt snedeker ??

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

      I agree. He’s one of the best on Tour. I would still take Luke Donald over him because that’s how incredible of a putter Luke Donald is.

  2. wayne defrancesco

    Jul 10, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    You mention that from 75 to 125 yards players with less forward shaft lean tend to be better. Less than what? Poor players tend to have none, and so I end up teaching them to get as much as possible. What are the extremes? What is too much and what is optimum? What is the average for all players and what is Stricker’s average? What do you suggest as a goal? Is it different for different types of grass? Do it change for uneven lies?
    As you can see, there are a lot of interesting questions when it comes to forward shaft lean. Rather than saying “less is better” it might be more instructive to be more detailed.

    • John

      Jul 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm

      I think he’s refereeing to your typical good ballstriker, people who can get around a course wit short g
      Ame dictating score, not your average bloke who’s struggling to hit a 9 iron onto a green.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:35 am


      I try to stay away from actual instruction when doing these columns. I feel that is something best left to the professionals like yourself.

      My comment was in regards to Tour players. The better Birdie Zone players tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact compared to the Tour as a whole. There are some players like Sergio that do quite well from this distance. However, Sergio has shown a lack of consistency from this distance over the years. Some year’s he’s great, other years he’s poor.

      From the BZ for Tour players, it’s really all about distance control. When Tour players hits shots from longer distances, we start to see golfers with more forward shaft lean at impact doing better in these categories.

      That’s why I tend to believe that BZ play is really about controlling the lean and there appears to be a correlation between players with less shaft lean on Tour and their ability to control that lean.

      Obviously, your 20 handicap can likely use more forward shaft lean in general. But, if you have a 5 handicap that has major distance control issues with a wedge in their hand, they may want to develop a wedge swing where they have less forward shaft lean to help remedy that issue.

  3. Tom Miller

    Jul 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Next year you should add bunker shots / sand saves.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Thanks guys.

      Tom – I wanted to do bunker shots, but the Tour’s recording of bunker shots is too vague for my tastes. I don’t like Sand Save % as a metric because it doesn’t really tell us if the golfer is a good bunker player or if they are a good putter.

      They do have proximity to the cup from the sand, but it is for ALL greenside bunker shots. The problem is that the distances on those bunker shots can vary. So a golfer who is hitting it closer may be doing so because they have a shorter shot to begin with.

      I have followed 20 different players for a project I’m doing throughout the year on Shot Tracker. From the limited data I have, I believe that Jason Day is the best bunker player on Tour.

  4. paul

    Jul 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    I love golf stats and read all articles about them. keep it up!

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