Friday, April 8, 2011

The Statistical Importance of Driver Accuracy

On the forum we’ve been discussing the importance of ‘driver accuracy.’ There’s some that believe that there’s not much, if any importance when it comes to driver accuracy and that distance is more important.

First though, I think we need to get my definition of driver accuracy to understand where I’m coming from and to get everybody on the same wavelength.

From a statistical standpoint, I look at driver accuracy as % of fairways hit and the new statistic ‘proximity to the edge of the fairway.’

Obviously, there are some flaws to these statistics. For instance, I could pop up a driver and find the fairway, but only hit it 120 yards. That would still count as a fairway hit. Also, I can hit a fairway, but miss the side of the fairway I wanted to hit and the golfer who is in the rough may have just missed that fairway and have a better shot at the green. And if I miss the fairway by a foot to the left, perhaps I cannot afford to miss 1 foot to the left. But all in all, it’s a good ballpark particularly for the PGA Tour golfer.


Well, yes and no.

Statistically, a PGA Tour player on average will hit the ball about 30% less accurate from rough than they would from the fairway. So let’s say that a Tour player typically hits a shot from 150 yards in the fairway to 30 feet, from the rough they are likely to hit it on average about 39 feet.

However, if a Tour player has shorter distance into the green, the more likely they will hit the ball closer to the cup. So if they are in the rough from 140 yards out, they should hit it closer than they are from the rough from 180 yards out. The same goes if they are in the fairway. This is fairly obvious.

But, from what I’ve discovered by looking at the statistics, if the golfer wants to be as accurate on the approach shot from the rough as they are from the fairway, they need to be approximately 50 yards closer to the green. Let’s say Robert Garrigus is playing a round by himself and playing with 2 golf balls. If he hits the 1st tee shot to 180 yards and in the fairway, he would…on average, need to be about 130 yards away if he were to…on average…hit the ball the same proximity from the *rough*.

So, there is some obvious importance of the fairway there.


Mickelson is one of the longest hitters on Tour. With that, he has a big advantage of being able to avoid the Danger Zone (175-225 yard approaches) on long par-4’s compared to most of the rest of the field. But the big advantage is when the average Tour player has a shot in the Danger Zone on an approach and Phil winds up with an approach shot from 125-175 yards away AND in the fairway.


Because historically Phil hits it about as close from the rough from 125-175 yards as the average Tour player does from the fairway from 175-225 yards.

So if the Tour average is a 190 yard approach shot and Phil comes in at 140 yards, if Phil is in the rough…in the end, he’s likely to hit it the same distance from the cup than the average Tour player would from 190 yards in the fairway. It’s tough getting some shots in the rough on the green and holding them can be tough as well.

Since ’06, Phil has hit roughly 55% of his fairways. If Phil steps up to a long par-4 where the average golfer in the field has 190 yards in on the approach and he can blast it to about 140 yards, the driver is often the right play. Why? Because the odds are in his favor (55%) that he’ll find the fairway. From there, I’m doing some guessing, but I would say that he’s probably got an 80% chance of having a shot that either lands in the fairway or in the rough where his swing and shot to the green are not impeded.

Thus, it’s like say ‘if Phil hits driver on this hole, he’s got about an 80% chance of leaving him with a birdie shot that is no worse than the average player in the field and a 55% chance of leaving himself with a birdie shot that is much better than the average player in the field.’ Who wouldn’t take that?

Where guys like Phil (and Tiger) get into trouble is when they are not only missing fairways, but missing badly with the driver. When they are catching the deep rough instead of the first cup or intermediate. When they are in the trees and have to punch out instead of being able to take a free swing.


Statistically, Phil is a poor putter, very average with his short irons and hits less fairways than the average PGA Tour golfer. From what ‘common golf theory’ tells us, you must be a great putter with a great wedge game and find fairways to be a great golfer on the PGA Tour. So, what gives?

The strongest point of Phil’s game has consistently been his play from the Danger Zone and his short game around the greens from 20 yards in. He’s also very long off the tee.

As I discussed earlier, his length means he’s going to have less shots in the Danger Zone. But PGA Tour golfers cannot avoid the Danger Zone all together because of the par-3’s. It doesn’t matter anyway, because Phil is consistently in the top 20, year in and year out, from the Danger Zone. And while Phil may be inaccurate off the tee, he could always use a 3-wood on a long par-4, find the fairway and put himself in the Danger Zone…where’s he’s one of the best on Tour.

And if he misses a green, he’s one of the best on Tour at getting that chip or pitch or bunker blast close to the cup.

In essence, Mickelson’s game is designed for top 10 in the world golf. All he has to do is hit the ball like he normally does and if he putts about the average for the field, he’s going to be in contention more often than not. If he strikes the ball like he usually does and putts well (say top ¼ on Tour), he’s going to dominate and be unstoppable.

However, that’s given he strike the ball ‘like he normally does.’ When he has problems with his swing and ballstriking, it’s really because his driver is so inaccurate that he can’t find the fairway or give himself a reasonable shot from the rough. That’s what happened at Torrey Pines in ’09. If all he can do is hit a 3-wood off the tee, now he loses a big chunk of his advantage against the rest of the field.

And that’s why driver accuracy is important.



Nick said...

You should get a job with the tour explaining this stuff. First time any of it has ever made sense to me.

Rich H. said...

Thanks. They have Columbia U. and MIT guys providing this info, but they really don't explain it.

jake said...

50 odd years of golfing have convinced me that the two most important analytics are number of birdies per round and up and down percentage. Have you thought of correlating these (jointly, not separately) with money winnings or tour rankings?

Rich H. said...

Jake - no. Reason being is that they are 'vague' statistics. What makes certain golfers able to make more birdies on average than others? And there is no doubt in my mind that there's more to getting up and down than being a good chipper, pitcher and flop shot player. You need to miss greens close and give yourself easy up and downs. I plan on having a blog post this week going into something similar to this.


BrendanC said...

One thing I'd add to this - if a player is hitting the fairway with his driver, chances are he is swinging well that day and hence more likely to be close to the hole than on days he is hitting in the rough.

Basically, there is a relationship via the players 'form' on the day between the two stats (driver accuracy and proximity to the hole). So success is arguably not only about the level of difficulty of the second shot.

Ronnie Martin said...

Is driving in the fairway important? Only if you like money? The farther you hit the less important hitting said fairway becomes because you are hitting shorter clubs into the green. But the variables are so vast and unpredictable that it really depends on what level you are playing at, what's at stake. If you were to prioritize what's the most important to scoring for the average golfer- notice I didn't say amateur, I would have to say that getting the ball in play from the tee. Then it would have to be what club/clubs give you the highest probability of turning 3 shots into 2 and 2 into 1. The highly ranked/competitve and professional would likely take those catagories for granted because let's face it, they wouldn't play at the level that they do unless they were accomplished in those areas. As a professional I would say that ball striking in that 175 to 210 danger zone that Rich talks about is highly coveted. But for average player they have to get the ball in play to even have a chance. The confidence that an average player gets from driving the ball in play just snowballs and makes their game much easier. JMO

Ronnie Martin said...

Dang I wish their was an edit button :-(

Rich H. said...

Thanks Ronnie. This post was in response to a poster on the forum who believed that driving accuracy on Tour isn't that important, if at all and that 'power trumps accuracy.'

It really doesn't trump it. But somebody like Phil is often times hitting driver because he's only going to lose out maybe 10% of the time. Meanwhile he has a 55% chance of getting a sizeable advantage on the field. I like those odds.

The problem that Tiger and Phil have is when they:

1) Can't find the fairway with the driver


2) Are missing badly and leaving themselves with impeded shots.

If they can't find the fairway and have unimpeded approach shots, they are basically 'playing with the field' They really don't have an advantage. They probably make the cut, but they probably don't get into contention.

I think the Danger Zone is still important for the average player, provided we go by my chart I made in a post a little while ago.

However, I think if the average player can focus on the following things:

1) Eliminating awful tee shots
2) If they hit an awful tee shot, they consistently find the fairway on the next shot.
3) Cut down on 3-putting
4) Consistently find the green on shots 40 yards and in (it doesn't have to be close, just on the green)
5) Cut down on double bogeys or more

They could probably easily cut their handicap in half in less than 1 year.


Ronnie Martin said...

I like it. 1 and 2 emphasize getting the ball in play at all costs.
3 and 4 play the shots that give you the highest probability of turning 2 shots in to 1 and 3 in to 2.
The reason all of make a big number is typically when we " get out of position " we don't play OUR personal percentages. For instance. The average golfer misses the fairway and has 200+ to the green that is guarded by bunkers, hazards, high rough, short sided approaches. They immediatly pull out their 200+ club because they think thats what they are supposed to do and they only remember the .5% of the times they pulled it off instead of taking a 150 yard club that leaves them with a 50 yard pitch that dramatically increases the probability of turning 3 shots into 2. I conduct 70% of my lessons on the golf course during the season and I coach my guys to hit the shot that they can produce 70 to 80% of the time. The average golfer can't hit a green from 200+ but about 10% of the time or 1 out of 10. And that's a good shot. They might scrape one up there maybe 3 out of 10 but it's just good fortune.

good stuff