Ranking the 10 Players with the Best Short Games in Golf

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2013

Ranking the 10 Players with the Best Short Games in Golf

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    Contrary to widespread belief, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are not the undisputed kings of the short game on the PGA Tour. In fact, when looking at the three most significant statistical metrics of the short game (strokes gained-putting, sand save percentage and scrambling), neither Woods nor Mickelson place in the top three of a combined category of the three statistics. 

    Adding a golfer's ranking in these three statistics together, then, gives some indication of his short game aptitude. Given this, the lower the number (or the better the combined ranking), the better a player's short game. For example, if a player were first in strokes gained-putting, first in greens in regulation and first in scrambling, his combined ranking number would be three.

    It's not a profoundly sophisticated concept but hopefully a relatively objective metric of short game proficiency. And much better than, say, watching Tiger's flop shot from the Memorial last year and thinking "Wow, that guy must have the best short game on tour!"

10. Tiger Woods

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    Historically, Tiger Woods has had a superlative short game. In 2009, for example, his combined ranking in the three statistics was six, which is, to put things in perspective, half of the total of the No. 1 player on this list. Assuming Tiger's return to form continues, he will surely be able to devote more time to practicing his short game—rather than grinding away on the range repeating some micro-movement from the full swing. When this happens, he will likely rocket up this list.

    At the end of 2012, Woods was 36th in strokes gained-putting (.332), 80th in sand save percentage (49%) and fourth in scrambling (63.17%), for a combined total of 120. Throughout the years, as remarkable as Woods' ability to post birdies has been, his resilience and ability to grind out pars has been even more remarkable. This is reflected, year after year, in his ranking in scrambling that is making par or better after missing the green. It can be assumed, as mentioned earlier, with time to practice and refine his putting path and with more time in the practice bunker, Woods will bring these rankings into line with his scrambling ranking and this list in short order.

9. Kevin Na

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    A competent, if not profoundly compelling, player across the board, Kevin Na was ranked 57th in strokes gained-putting (.200), 36th in sand save percentage (54.03%) and 19th in scrambling (61.30%) in 2012. The aggregate of these three rankings, then, is 112, placing him just ahead of Tiger Woods last year. 

    These solid figures have helped the native of South Korea compete on tour for the past 12 years. Na doesn't hit the ball very far (he averaged only 281 yards off the tee last year), and he doesn't make a ton of birdies (he placed 67th in birdie average last year), so his ability to hole important putts and get up and down for par is vital to his continued existence on the circuit.

8. Aaron Baddeley

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    Aaron Baddeley's combined ranking total last year was 56. Badds has been widely regarded as one of the best putters on tour; he routinely finishes in the top 10 of significant putting metrics. Last year, the Australian finished sixth in strokes gained-putting (.599). 

    Additionally, his sand save percentage was excellent (58.33%). Baddeley struggled with both his accuracy off the tee last year (174th in driving accuracy) and hitting greens in regulation (189th in the category). His ability to get up and down for par (36th in scrambling) was vital in 2012 and further evidenced the quality of his short game. 



7. Phil Mickelson

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    A straw poll amongst casual golf fans would likely find that Phil Mickelson is regarded as the player with the best short game on the PGA Tour. After all, announcers never seem to tire of talking up Lefty's aptitude with wedge in hand, and the golfer did release an instructional DVD entitled Secrets of the Short Game.

    Last year, Mickelson's combined figure from the three statistical categories was 52, placing him seventh in this ranking. Switching to the claw grip, Mickelson's putting was strong; he finished 10th in strokes gained putting (.591). Additionally, he was 26th in sand save percentage (55.07%) and 16th in scrambling (61.57).

    At a certain point, it becomes ridiculous to call a player who has a 56 percent sand save percentage "vastly better" than a player whose percentage is 54 percent. Indeed, at the top of these statistics there is so little space between players that the aptitude of the 20th ranked player is much the same as the first.

    With this in mind, the true testament to the quality of Mickelson's short game is that he finishes near the top of scrambling and sand save percentage year after year. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the claw grip has vastly improved his putting. Given this, Mickelson's short game is as strong at present as it has ever been. 

6. Zach Johnson

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    The 2007 Masters champion only hits the ball about 270 yards off the tee. To be competitive on tour, then, he has to have a great short game.

    Johnson, with his trademark SeeMore putter, ranked sixth in strokes gained-putting last year (.599). He placed 16th in sand save percentage (57.24%) and 29th in scrambling (60.37%) for a combined ranking value of 51.

5. Jason Day

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    Jason Day's results on tour as of late haven't been spectacular. 2012, for the golfer, was a year marred by injury and subpar play. His short game, however, has been quite solid. The Australian finished sixth in strokes gained putting (.599) last year. In addition, he placed 16th in sand save percentage (57.24%) and 17th in scrambling (61.36%).

    His combined rating in the three statistics, then, was 39 in 2012, which is impressive indeed. Day really didn't hit the ball straight enough last year (183rd in driving accuracy) or hit enough greens (167th in GIR) to be competitive. He played well at both the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the Accenture Match Play so far this year, so perhaps the 2010 HP Byron Nelson winner has turned a corner.

4. Matt Kuchar

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    Matt Kuchar displayed his short game proficiency at Dove Mountain earlier this year en route to winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play. With respect to the quality of this aspect of his play, Matt Kuchar has flown under the radar since turning professional in 2000, just as he has with...well, the quality of just about every other component of his golf game. 

    The Winter Park, Florida native finished 26th last year in strokes gained-putting (.409), ninth in sand save percentage (60.14%) and seventh in scrambling (62.43%) for a combined ranking value of 42, placing him fourth on this list.

    Don't expect Kuchar to get a lot of praise or recognition for his short game prowess, and don't expect flashy flop shots or instructional DVDs. Do, however, expect continued quality play from Kuchar around the greens. 

3. Greg Chalmers

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    Greg who? Chalmers has been a professional golfer since 1995. In 315 career starts on the PGA Tour, he has never won but has grossed nearly $8 million. 

    Like some other players on this list, the greatest testament to the strength of Chalmers' short game is the weakness of the rest of his game. He doesn't hit the ball anywhere (164th in driving distance last year). He doesn't hit it terribly straight (62% driving accuracy), and he doesn't hit a lot of greens (180th in GIR in 2012).

    In order to continue to compete on tour, then, Chalmers must be accomplished with both wedge and putter—and he is. The Australian finished 17th in strokes gained-putting in 2012 (.460), second in sand save percentage (65.24%) and 11th in scrambling (62%) for a combined value of 30. 

2. Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald didn't reach the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings (which he has since relinquished to Rory McIlroy) by bombing it off the tee or with deadly accuracy into greens. The Englishman was 169th in driving distance last year at barely 280 yards and was 100th in greens in regulation. 

    Even his birdie average wasn't spectacular—3.52 per round (72nd on tour).

    What was spectacular last year, however, was Donald's short game. With a combined rating of 27, Donald's play on and around greens in 2012 was statistically second best on tour. He was third in strokes gained-putting (.797), 19th in sand save percentage (56.48) and fifth in scrambling (62.66%).

1. Brian Gay

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    Perhaps you don't like his iridescent clothing, his penchant for frosted hair or the fact that he's sponsored by a male enhancement drug. However, if you're if a fan of golf, you have to respect Brian Gay's short game prowess.

    Gay's combined rating last year was 13. The legend of the University of Florida golf team was no worse than sixth in any of the three statistics. Gay placed fifth in sand save percentage (62.69%), second in scrambling (63.99%) and sixth in strokes gained-putting (.599), making him easily the most accomplished short game artist on tour today.


    *All statistics and supplementary information courtesy of PGATour.com and the PGA Tour Media Guide