Tiger Woods on the 18th tee at Augusta National
Statistics used to be afterthoughts in golf. Now with Shotlink for the professionals, there’s a new focus on them. Stats can be important to see how your favorite golfer is playing and why, compared to the rest of the field. Stats can also be important for you personally in analyzing your golf game. If you are making fantasy picks, stats can make the difference in how well you do.
Today there are so many categories in stats that it can be confusing. That’s why it’s important to cut through the chaff and go right for the most important measures.
Driving distance is important. But it’s not everything or else guys like Zach Johnson and Corey Pavin would never have won tournaments, never mind majors. However, the big stick does give some players an advantage if they can stay in the short grass and utilize the advantage their length can provide. Nobody wants to be like 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of China, hitting fairway woods to long par-four greens. Everybody wants to be like Dustin Johnson hitting wedges to them. (That said, the youngster stunned everyone by making the cut in three tournaments, including The Masters.) Fact is, 99 percent of the time, hitting a shorter club should allow a better opportunity to get closer to the flag and provide a more reasonable opportunity for birdie. Tianlang Guan somehow hit five-woods closer to the pin than some guys were hitting middle irons.
Right now there are nine PGA Tour players averaging over 300 yards driving. The player with the most victories this season, Tiger Woods, isn’t one of them. He’s in 28th place. Nicolas Colsearts is first. The difference between Colsearts and Woods is about 10 yards. That’s probably a club and a half.
Driving accuracy can be critical. The reason is obvious. You have a better chance to hit a clean shot to the green without having the grass from the rough do squirrely things to the golf ball. And from the fairway, pros can stop the ball on the green whereas it may not be possible from the rough. But like driving distance, it’s not the end all, be all.
Tiger Woods is 152nd in accuracy off the tee in 2013, and he’s won three times this year. He has hit 55 percent of fairways. Phil Mickelson is 159th. He’s a little over 54 percent in hitting fairways. He has one 2013 victory. Top four in fairways hit are Ken Duke, Tim Clark, Jeff Maggert and Jim Furyk. Recent winner Graeme McDowell is seventh in driving accuracy.
Greens in regulation are important, but the stats themselves can be deceiving. Say the pin is on the left side of the green, six paces from the edge and the green is 60-feet wide. You might hit the right side of the green and have a 40-foot putt and take three to get the ball in the hole. You might hit the left fringe and be closer to the hole with a better chance for birdie. It’s a tough stat to analyze for that reason. Same for putts. If a putt is relatively close to the hole, but on the fringe, it’s not considered a putt. It can just be a misleading stat.
Because nobody hits every green, scrambling is critical for success in golf. Graeme McDowell is currently leading in the scrambling stat. He made par or better when scrambling 72 percent of the time. That’s frighteningly good. One of the reasons Tiger Woods has been so amazing in his career is his ability to recover from bad drives or bad locations. He’s been a Houdini most of his career. Right now, though, he’s 41st. Maybe he just hasn’t missed as many greens this season.
A great stat is strokes gained putting. Tiger Woods leads in that category for 2013. He’s gained strokes on the field with birdies or eagles, and while those are earned with good drives and good second shots, nothing is as important in professional golf circles as putting. In 2008, for example, Woods made 98 percent of his putts inside five feet. He was first in a shortened season. This year, he has made 97 percent of putts inside five feet and is 16th.
Again, no surprise, Woods leads in birdie-conversion percentage, too, followed by Kevin Na, Phil Mickelson and recent winner Billy Horschel.
Because Woods leads in birdie conversion, he’s also ahead in one additional category that’s essential to success on the PGA Tour: scoring. The goal in golf, after all, is to come to the end of the tournament with the lowest score. Whether you never hit a fairway or hit every one of them, the golfer with the lowest score wins. The scorecard doesn’t say how, just how many. Of the 360 holes Woods has played in 2013, he’s had birdie or eagle on 97 of them.
The key to scoring, as Woods points out every time he’s asked about a round, is taking care of the par fives. Woods leads in that category as well, averaging 4.39 for par-fives this season.
So using Tiger Woods’ 2013 season as a guideline, the five most critical stats are: Scoring, strokes gained putting, making birdies or better on par fives, scrambling and driving distance.
You can imagine, knowing how Woods plays, that he’s less concerned about driving accuracy and more concerned about making putts. As long as his drives are somewhere on the planet, he has a shot at par or better. And the reason is a stat that can’t be measured: the mental aspect. That affects all the rest of the categories.
To give you some idea how important the mental aspect is, remember the lesson of Byron Nelson and his Little Back Book. He used a small book to record his play in tournaments in 1945, when he set a record that will likely not be broken. Nelson won 11 tournaments in a row—even though one of them was a partnership with Jug McSpaden—and won 18 out of 35 tournaments played that year. The 11 are called The Streak, and every time he won another consecutive event, the pressure mounted. Finally, Fred Haas, who was still an amateur at the time, beat Nelson at the Memphis Open in the late summer of that year.
Nelson attributed some of the success in 1945 to a decision he made in 1944. After the end of the 1944 season, he said he had thought back about how he might have won more tournaments if he had not made a few poor shots here and there. Keep in mind that he was leading money winner in 1944 and AP Male Athlete of the Year with eight victories. That did not deter him. Nelson resolved in 1945 never to hit a careless shot. And he started his diary of play. Twelve months later, he made history.
Nelson’s scoring average in 1945 was an astonishing 68.33. To this day the PGA Tour’s annual scoring trophy is called the Byron Nelson Award.