You might ask: How would I know the differences between a scratch golfer and a PGA Tour player? Well, it is my full-time job to know these type of things about golf. I have been studying the game from a statistical standpoint for 27 years. I created the Strokes Gained analysis website, ShotByShot.com, and work with PGA Tour members to extract clear answers from the Tour’s overwhelming 653 ShotLink stats.
My experience tells me that there is no such thing as an average game, no matter the handicap level. We’re all snowflakes and find our own unique way to shoot our number. With that said, ShotByShot.com’s 260,000+ round database enables us to create a composite sketch of the average golfer at each level. One of the beauties of our averages is that they are smooth across all five major facets so that every individual golfer’s strengths and weaknesses — and we all have them — stand out clearly by comparison.
The Data Used for this Study
- Mr. Scratch: I averaged the 8,360 rounds in our database that match the zero handicap criteria. In other words, the rounds when Mr. Scratch actually played to his 0 handicap.
- PGA Tour: The average of the 14,557 ShotLink rounds recorded in the 2015 season.
The USGA’s Course and Slope rating system does a sophisticated job of evaluating the relative difficulty of our golf courses. I joined my local course rating committee shortly after the new “Slope” system was added. My specific goal was to gain an understanding of how the system works so that I could effectively apply it in my analysis program.
For the purposes of this article, the Course Rating reflects the relative course par for the scratch golfer. The chart below tells us that the PGA Tour scoring average is 2.25 strokes better than Mr. Scratch. Further, Tour players are playing courses that are 3.2 strokes more difficult. The net result is a 5.45-shot difference between Tour players and Mr. Scratch, but let’s just call it 5.5.
The chart above shows us that the biggest piece of the 5.5-shot pie falls into the Driving category, or Distance, which makes sense to me. To play the game for a living, one must be able to hit it straight and far. Even Zach Johnson, with whom I have had the great pleasure of working with for five years, is often considered a short hitter. I contend that he is simply more intelligent and recognizes the true value of accuracy. Zach is averaging 281 yards this year, only seven off of the Tour average. Short? Not by my standards.
The chart below indicates that the driving distance gap between the Tour and Mr. Scratch is 33 yards. The average approach shot distance on the PGA Tour is 175 yards. Adding the 33 yards to all 14 driving holes puts Mr. Scratch’s average approach distance at just over 205 yards. The Strokes Gained value of this added distance is 2.52 strokes (0.18 per attempt x 14 driving holes = 2.52).
Accuracy and Errors Per Round
Mr. Scratch appears slightly better than the Tour in accuracy and errors per round. With added distance inevitably comes some reduced accuracy and more errors. I believe this slight edge would more than disappear if Mr. Scratch were using the Tour’s big-boy tees.
As you can see by the chart below, Mr. Scratch is slightly less accurate from the distances that account for 80 percent of the Tour approach attempts. I estimate that Mr. Scratch’s reduced accuracy would account for at least two fewer GIR’s per round, at a cost of 1.5 strokes. It is interesting to note that Mr. Scratch incurs an approach penalty with the same frequency as the Tour average (1 in every 5 rounds).
Mr. Scratch leaves his successful short game shots 1 foot farther from the hole. This difference in the range of 7-10 feet is worth 0.08 Strokes Gained. When multiplied by seven short game shots per round it’s 0.56 strokes, but we’ll call it half a stroke.
I am ignoring the minor difference in errors (shots that miss the green). My theory is that Mr. Scratch attains his excellent scoring level through meticulous short game consistency. The Tour players are so good that they try to get even highest-risk shots close to the hole, confident that if they miss the green they will save the next — which they do 75 percent of the time. In 2015, only 25 percent of the short game shots that missed the green took more than three strokes to finally hole out.
As you can see from the chart below, Mr. Scratch is slightly less proficient in the ranges that account for the vast majority of 1-Putt opportunities on Tour. Mr. Scratch also 3-Putts 38 percent more frequently than the Tour average. The Strokes Gained impact of these differences over 18 holes would be 0.9 strokes — let’s call it 1 stroke.
Bottom line, there is a measurable 5.5 stroke difference between Mr. Scratch and PGA Tour players. I have obviously not factored in the immeasurable effect of the added pressure and stress of teeing it up in a Tour event. Anyone who has participated in a PGA Tour Pro-Am will attest to the electric atmosphere and amplified pressure that comes with the experience.
If you want to try to get on the PGA Tour, your handicap needs to be a solid +3. If you want to support a family playing on tour, your handicap should be +5. Much easier said than done, however.
Ways to Win: Hideki Matsuyama from Low Am to low man at the Masters
They say the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday, but by that time, this year’s iteration was all but wrapped up. Hideki Matsuyama stepped onto the 10th tee with a five-stroke lead and the volatile back nine in front of him. The Augusta pines would be void of roars, though, as Matsuyama’s pursuers near the top of the leaderboard struggled to mount a significant charge. The closest challenger was a late-charging Xander Schauffele, who made four straight birdies to get to within two of the lead heading to the 16th tee. His hopes were then quickly dashed when he dunked his tee shot in the water and eventually made a triple-bogey. Augusta National Golf Club played difficult this spring. Contrary to the record-setting November version, the greens were more brown and firm than typical and required precision. Luckily for Matsuyama, precision has made him one of the elite golfers in the world. He earned this green jacket. He just happened to earn it on Saturday where his 65 was three strokes better than the next-best round. Using V1 Game to analyze his Strokes Gained performance shows Matsuyama gained 6.7 strokes on the average PGA Tour field on Saturday and 4.2 of those were from his iron game.
Matsuyama has always been a premier ball striker and, if anything, poor putting has held him back from winning more. Augusta National is no place for a balky putter and Matsuyama has made some significant strides in that category. While he did not gain strokes on the field in putting this week, he managed to get to average and, with his elite ballstriking, that was enough. Augusta National’s lightning-quick, undulated greens reward a properly-struck shot and punish even the slightest mishit. Matsuyama made 96 feet of putts Saturday (the PGA TOUR average is around 70 feet), including birdie putts of five, 19, 10, four and 10 feet. He also made a six-foot eagle putt on 15. You don’t have to be an elite putter when you have opportunities that close. Good for Matsuyama, because while he filled it up on Saturday, for the week, his putting was sub-standard.
V1 Game breaks down putting performance by distance from the hole, where we can see that Matsuyama lost strokes to the field in all but four distance buckets. He gave significant strokes back to the field from 4-6 feet, 11-15 ft, and 31-50 feet. Matsuyama had four 3-putts on the week, including one on Saturday and one Sunday. That’s progressing in the right direction, but still with room for improvement for the 29-year-old Matsuyama.
If you are going to win the Masters, it always starts with the par 5s and Matsuyama took advantage, playing them in 11-under for the week. He played the par 3s in +1 and the par 4s in even par for the week. Clearly, the par 5s were vital to him being able to get to the required -10 to win the tournament by just a single stroke. Augusta National has arguably the finest set of par fives in golf, each of them scorable and each of them dangerous. With V1 Game’s Hole History, Hideki played the 13th the best at -4 and the 8th the next-best at -3. Hideki made three eagles on the par 5s and averaged 4.3 strokes on the par 5s. That even includes the near-disaster on 15 on Sunday. Matsuyama was consistently in play off the tee and able to challenge the greens with his approach shots throughout the week.
All of the above added up to a healthy lead and afforded Matsuyama some cushion coming down the stretch, cushion that he needed as he got closer to earning his first green jacket. The golf tournament could have turned out significantly differently if young Will Zalatoris could have found a way to play better around Amen Corner, but instead Matsuyama was able to stumble a bit down the stretch and still maintain a two-stroke cushion until the final putt was holed. The Strokes Gained Heatmap from V1 Game for his final round scorecard shows exactly which part of his game became unsteady. Matsuyama overshot the 15th green into the lake and made bogey (Approach). Then three-putted the 16th green and missed a short putt on 18 (putting), knowing bogey was enough to win the golf tournament.
Still, a well-earned victory for Matsuyama. He struck the ball better than anyone else this week and did enough to claim the victory. Augusta National showed its teeth with firmer, faster greens and challenged the field to be precise. Matsuyama has made a career out of being precise. The same strength that brought Hideki Low Amateur honors more than 10 years ago brought him the green jacket as low man in the 2021 Masters.
Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Starting the outdoor golf season with minimal damage
With all the courses opening in the Northeast and the Northwest, we are transitioning from the indoor training facilities to the great outdoor abyss. This talk will help you stick to your guns with conviction and avoid all the new distractions that are going to come your way.
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