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.
The Wedge Guy: A Tale of Two Misses
It seems like I somewhat “touched a nerve” with last week’s post ‘A Defense of Blades’, based on the scoring you all gave my take on that controversial topic.
I do appreciate it when you take the time to score your reaction to my work, as it keeps me tuned in to what you really want me to pontificate about. Before I get into today’s topic, I request that any of you who have a subject you’d like me to address please drop me an email at [email protected], OK?
So, in somewhat of a follow-up to last week, let’s talk today about misses. Those too frequent shots that move your scores in the wrong direction.
Early in my life, I was always part of “the group” of low-handicap players who had various kinds of “money games”, but that put me in touch only with other low-handicap players who were highly competitive. Just as I was getting fully engaged in the golf equipment industry in the early 1980s, I was blessed to be a part of a group at my club called “The Grinders”. We had standing tee times every day…so if you could get away, you played. There were about 35-40 of us who might show up, with as many as 6-7 groups going off on Fridays and Saturdays.
These guys sported handicaps from scratch to 20, and we threw up balls to see how we were paired, so for twenty years, I had up close and personal observation of a variety of “lab rats.”
This let me observe and study how many different ways there were to approach the game and how many different kinds of mishits could happen in a round of golf. As a golf industry marketer and club designer, I couldn’t have planned it any better.
So back to a continuation of the topic of last week, the type of irons you choose to play should reflect the kinds of misses you are hoping to help. And the cold, hard truth is this:
We as golf club designers, engineers and fitters, can only do so much to help the outcome of any given shot.
Generally, mishits will fall into two categories – the “swing miss” and the “impact miss”.
Let’s start with the former, as it is a vast category of possibilities.
The “swing miss” occurs when the swing you made never had a chance of producing the golf shot you had hoped to see. The clubhead was not on a good path through impact, and/or the clubface was not at all square to the target line. This can produce any number of outcomes that are wildly wrong, such as a cold skull of the ball, laying the sod over it, hard block to the right (for a right-hand player), smother hook…I think you get the point.
The smaller swing misses might be a draw that turns over a bit too much because you rotated through impact a bit aggressively or a planned draw that doesn’t turn over at all because you didn’t. Or it could be the shot that flies a bit too high because you released the club a bit early…or much too low because you had your hands excessively ahead of the clubhead through impact.
The swing miss could be simply that you made a pretty darn good swing, but your alignment was not good, or the ball position was a bit too far forward in your swing…or too far back. Basically, the possible variations of a “swing miss” are practically endless and affect tour pros and recreational golfers alike.
The cruel fact is that most recreational golfers do not have solid enough swing mechanics or playing disciplines to deliver the clubhead to the ball in a consistent manner. It starts with a fundamentally sound hold on the club. From there, the only solution is to make a commitment to learn more about the golf swing and your golf swing and embark on a journey to become a more consistent striker of the golf ball. I would suggest that this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game and encourage anyone who loves golf to go down this path.
But today’s post is about “mishits”, so let’s move on the other and much smaller category of misses…the “impact miss”. As a 40-year golf club designer, this is the world in which I function and, unfortunately, to which I am limited.
The “impact miss” is when most of the elements of the swing pretty much fall into place, so that the club is delivered pretty accurately to the ball…on the right path…face square to the target line at impact…but you miss the sweet spot of the club by just a bit.
Finding ways of getting better results out of those mishits is the singular goal of the entire golf club industry.
Big drivers of today are so much more forgiving of a 1/8 to ½ inch miss than even drivers of a decade ago, it’s crazy. Center strikes are better, of course, with our fast faces and Star Wars technology, but the biggest value of these big drivers is that your mishits fly much more like a perfect hit than ever before. In my own launch monitor testing of my current model driver to an old Reid Lockhart persimmon driver of the mid-1990s, I see that dead center hits are 20-25 yards different, but mishits can be as far as 75-80 yards apart, the advantage obviously going to the modern driver.
The difference is not nearly as striking with game improvement irons versus a pure forged one-piece blade. If the lofts and other specs are the same, the distance a pure strike travels is only a few yards more with the game improvement design, but a slight mishit can see that differential increase to 12-15 yards. But, as I noted in last week’s article, this difference tends to reduce as the lofts increase. Blades and GI irons are much less different in the 8- and 9-irons than in the lower lofts.
This has gotten a bit longer than usual, so how about I wrap up this topic next week with “A Tale of Two Misses – Part 2”? I promise to share some robotic testing insights that might surprise you.
Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: World Long Drive! Go Mu!
In this week’s podcast we discuss Wisdom In Golf Premium, new ways to help and fun talk about rules and etiquette.
Vincenzi: How the 2022 Presidents Cup actually grew the game
As fall approached, the world of professional golf was drowning in a sea of continuous division and animosity.
The Presidents Cup, which should have been a silver lining in the most tumultuous time in the history of the sport, had suddenly become a pasquinade.
The Internationals had always been an underdog and had just one win in fourteen tries against the Americans.
In 2019, the scrappy Internationals led by Ernie Els gave the United States team led by Tiger Woods all that they could handle at Royal Melbourne. The United States retained the cup, winning the competition 16–14, but the Els’ team fought to the end. The future was bright for professional golf on the world stage.
In 2022, things were different. The Internationals had just lost arguably their two best players in Cameron Smith and Joaquin Niemann, plus a handful of other Presidents Cup shoe-ins including Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer.
The International players who had joined the controversial LIV Golf series were deemed ineligible to participate in the competition, which resulted in the decimation of what should have been a deep and competitive team of Internationals. By the time the event started, the United States had ballooned to a -900 favorite.
One phrase that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the past few months has been “grow the game”.
After a bleak opening few days at the Presidents Cup, we caught a glimpse of what “growing the game” looked like over the weekend.
There are plenty of ways to potentially grow the game of golf. One of those ways unfolded in real time at Quail Hollow thanks in part to a spirited group of Asian golfers who refused to let their team go quietly into the night.
First, there was the budding superstar, Tom Kim.
Kim scored two points for the Internationals, but the impact he had on the event dwarfed his point total. The South Korean hijacked the event with his charisma, energy and determination to help his team succeed. Golf fans were treated to memorable moment after memorable moment whenever the 20-year-old was on their television screen.
Kim had already had a handful of moments that will live in our memories for many Presidents Cups to come, but the most memorable came on the 18th hole of Saturday’s afternoon foursomes. Facing a seemingly invincible duo of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Kim put a 2-iron to less than six feet of the hole. He then sunk the clutch putt to knock off the fourth and fifth ranked players in the world.
TOM KIM FOR THE WIN!!!
— Presidents Cup International Team (@IntlTeam) September 24, 2022
Tom wasn’t the only “Kim” to leave a lasting impact at the 2022 Presidents Cup. Fellow South Korean Si Woo Kim had his share of memorable moments as well.
Going into Sunday singles, the Internationals were trailing 11-7 and in need of a historic day. Typically, the trailing team will “frontload” their best players to attempt a comeback. When United States captain Davis Love III called the name of Justin Thomas to lead off in the first match of the day, many expected the international team captain Trevor Immelmann to call the name of Hideki Matsuyama or Adam Scott. Instead, he called the name of Si Woo Kim.
Si Woo did not disappoint. Kim took out the de-facto leader of the United States team 1-up. The 27-year-old didn’t shy away from the spotlight, and matched Thomas both in his ability to sink clutch putts and to bring energy with his animated style of play.
— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) September 25, 2022
Tom Kim and Si Woo Kim provided some of the most memorable moments of the Presidents Cup, but it’s Sungjae Im who’s been the best player for the Internationals in both 2019 and 2022.
Back in 2019, Sungjae tied with Abraham Ancer for the leading points scorer (3.5) for the Internationals during their narrow defeat in Australia. He was a rookie then, but this year he was depended upon to go against some on the United States best teams and delivered, scoring 2.5 points and knocking off young American star Cameron Young in their singles match.
PGATOUR: Winning in style @IntlTeam.
— Triple Bogey Golf Club (@TripleBogeyGC) September 25, 2022
As influential as the performances by the trio of South Koreans were, the overall impact of Asian golfers cannot be discussed without mentioning Hideki Matsuyama.
The 2021 Masters Champion has long been rumored to be interested in joining LIV Golf, but he was at Quail Hollow competing alongside his International teammates.
Stars were born at the 2022 Presidents Cup, but Matsuyama has been “growing the game” for what feels like a lifetime. Labeled from an early age as the savior for Japanese golf, Hideki has delivered time and time again. The former young prodigy has slowly but surely turned into a pillar of global golf and leader of the Internationals.
After a slow start, Hideki was able to grind out a win and a tie to help the Internationals remain competitive throughout the weekend.
While the Internationals were eventually defeated 17.5-12.5, a more important mission that cannot be measured by wins and losses was undoubtedly accomplished.
Amongst all of the turmoil and strife in the world golf, it’s easy to forget how much the game means to so many people.
Countless young golfers across the world went to bed on Sunday night and dreamt of being the next Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim or Hideki Matsuyama.
That sounds like an excellent way to “grow the game”.
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