Masters rookie Jon Rahm, 22, heads to Augusta this week with history decidedly not on his side: No player making his debut at the tournament has won it since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. But the Spanish golfer does have a secret weapon of sorts, one that might help him overcome the weight of history. So far this season, he ranks second on the PGA Tour — ahead of the likes of Jason Day and Jordan Spieth — in a statistical category called “strokes gained: tee-to-green” that measures how well a player hits the ball on all shots other than putts. And despite Augusta National’s longtime reputation as a putting test, it’s this ball-striking ability that will likely determine who wins this week — just like it does every other week on tour.
How to gain (and lose) strokes
Before we can isolate the quality of a player’s long game, we need a framework for evaluating every single shot he takes. That’s where “strokes gained” comes in: Developed by Mark Broadie, a business professor at Columbia University,1 the statistic uses data from ShotLink — a laser-tracking system that records the location of the ball on every shot — to estimate how many strokes a typical player would need to get the ball into the hole from any given spot on the course. In turn, those numbers can be used to evaluate every player on the PGA Tour, by comparing his performance on each incremental shot in a round to the average.
Here’s an example: Let’s say a player tees off on a hole where the average is 4.2 strokes to hole out. He hits a great drive down the middle, his ball coming to rest in a spot on the fairway from which the average player would take an additional 2.8 strokes to hole out. In other words, that one shot essentially did the work of 1.4 shots by an average player — his drive “gained” him 0.4 strokes on the field.2 Add up these marginal gains and losses, and you get a sense of not only who the best players are, but also why they’re so great — where on the course they gain their edge over the field.
The PGA Tour breaks “strokes gained” down into four categories: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. There are also two aggregate categories: total strokes gained, which is the sum of all categories, and strokes gained: tee-to-green, which is the sum of the non-putting categories. Each stroke a player gains is important, but the driving and approach categories — the ones Rahm excels in — are where great players separate themselves the most from their peers.
“Drive for show, putt for dough” is a myth
There’s an old golf adage, attributed to four-time major winner Bobby Locke (who was renowned for his putting ability), that you “drive for show and putt for dough.” In other words, even though long shots are flashy and crowd-pleasing, putting is what wins tournaments. But the data makes clear that the top players gain more strokes from their long games than from their short games.
To investigate this, I gathered stats from every PGA Tour season (excluding the handful of tournaments where ShotLink data wasn’t tracked) since 2004 — the first season for which “strokes gained” was calculated — and separated players into groups based on their ranking on the tour’s money list for each season. By taking the average strokes gained for each group, I found that players who finish among the top 10 on the money list average about 1.5 strokes gained per round, which break down by category like this:
- 0.4 strokes gained off the tee
- 0.6, approaching the green
- 0.2, around the green
- 0.3, putting
Most great players gain the majority of their strokes with their full-swing shots. By comparison, putts and shots around the green make up a comparatively small amount of their strokes gained in a given round. Here’s the breakdown of where players gain and lose strokes based on how they rank on the money list:
In the chart above, you can see that the same general pattern holds for every tier of the money list: Higher-earning players gain more strokes with their long games, while lower-earning ones lose more strokes the same way — and the impact of putting is relatively muted by comparison.
This, of course, flies in the face of “drive for show, putt for dough.” Putts do constitute the plurality of shots on tour — they make up around 40 percent of all strokes — so in hindsight, it’s not surprising that the conventional wisdom says putting is the primary separator of wheat from chaff. But with the advent of modern analytics, we can see that the long game is more important on average.
A good long game usually wins at Augusta
Unfortunately, the Masters itself does not keep tournament-level strokes-gained statistics. But we can look at Masters winners’ stats from other PGA Tour events3 during the same seasons, in search of patterns of play that may translate well at Augusta National.
The course is famous for its slick, undulating greens, which might suggest that it rewards putting skill. But going back to 2004 again, only three of the past 13 Masters winners have ranked among the top 10 in putting strokes gained during the year they donned the green jacket — and two of those players (Spieth and Tiger Woods) were equally elite according to strokes gained: tee-to-green. Meanwhile, six of the 13 winners were actually below-average putters according to strokes gained. (Strokes gained measures everything relative to average, so negative totals mean a player was below-average.)
On the other hand, eight of the 13 winners ranked among the top 10 in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and all 13 winners were above-average tee-to-green players in the seasons they won.
|TEE-TO-GREEN ENTIRE SEASON||PUTTING ENTIRE SEASON|
|YEAR||MASTERS CHAMPION||STROKES GAINED PER ROUND||RANK||STROKES GAINED PER ROUND||RANK|
This doesn’t mean that the winners didn’t putt well during the Masters itself — the eventual champion usually finishes among the top 10 in the field (at worst) in terms of fewest putts — but it does mean that, for the most part, they weren’t consistently great putters.
Just like in my earlier analysis of the top earners, players who finished in the top five at the Masters since 2004 gained the most strokes per round during the season as a whole from their approach shots (where they picked up a shade under half of their total strokes gained), followed by their tee shots, putts and chips or pitches around the green.
All of this bodes well for Rahm and his fellow long hitters at Augusta. Although golf is a difficult sport to predict, recent Masters results suggest that players with great long games and middling short games are more likely to finish high on the leaderboard than players with great short games and unremarkable long games. In turn, that explains why Rahm belongs right in the conversation with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson as Masters favorites — especially since they also perform extremely well in strokes gained from tee to green.4 (Rahm’s countryman Sergio Garcia, who ranks third in the metric, isn’t a bad dark-horse pick either.)
There is more than one way to be successful in a high-variance game like golf, and players such as Brandt Snedeker and Luke Donald have enjoyed success primarily because of stellar short-game skills, not powerful long games (as measured by strokes gained). But on average, the top PGA Tour players tend to gain many more strokes from their drives and approach shots than their chips and putts — even at a place like Augusta National, known for its lightning-fast greens. So the next time you hear somebody talk about driving for show and putting for dough, remember that the longest clubs in the bag are the ones that put the most money into the pros’ pockets.