Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite topic: birdies, who makes them, and how much it helps your round. I remember the first time I shot under 40 for nine holes: I shot a 38 that included two birdies. Take away those and I don’t break 40 that day. Over a year before that, I birdied the 17th on my way to breaking 90 for the first time with an 87. A bogey instead would still have me breaking 90 that day, but the bird makes me sound clear and focused (the truth is that I had no idea where I stood on the 17th tee).
Most professionals aren’t concerned with looking cool, and if they’re worried about breaking 40 or 90, we probably aren’t seeing them in the winner’s circle on a regular basis. But they are concerned with birdies.
This week we take a look at birdies on the PGA Tour.
Let’s begin by looking at the most straight-forward method of making a birdie: hit the green in regulation and make the putt. This is known as the birdie conversion rate, and is a statistic tracked by the PGA Tour. As of, and including, the Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola, the top 15 are:
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Greens ---------------- --- -------- ------- ------ Anthony Kim 35 35.68 289 810 Daniel Chopra 97 34.06 298 875 Tiger Woods 1 33.25 253 761 Jason Day 48 33.12 204 616 Dustin Johnson 14 32.98 311 943 Kris Blanks 168 32.97 179 543 Joe Ogilvie 121 32.88 268 815 Phil Mickelson 2 32.74 238 727 Fred Couples 84 32.61 195 598 Charley Hoffman 37 32.51 343 1055 Matt Bettencourt 106 32.33 313 968 Michael Letzig 86 32.23 312 968 Harrison Frazar 104 32.19 281 873 Steve Stricker 3 32.17 304 945 Nick Watney 12 32.02 318 993
11 of the top 15 “birdie converters” finished in the top 100 in the FedExCup. Only one of the 15 failed to qualify for the playoffs. Two of the players in the list had high-profile birdie fests recently. Anthony Kim set the record at The Masters for most birdies in a round with 11. That’s a birdie on almost two-thirds of the holes in his round! Harrison Frazar posted a 59 in Q-School en route to medalist honors and his 2009 PGA Tour card. And it is no surprise to find that all three players with three or more wins this season are on this list.
As for percentages, Anthony Kim and Daniel Chopra sank more than one-third of their birdie putts this season. Tiger Woods, in third place, would share this honor if only one more birdie attempt had fallen this season (we will never know how close he came, because the television networks never seem to show him if anyone else is on the field). Jason Day, in fourth, would have needed two more to join the crowd.
The Par Threes
So, where do birdies come from? Is it a perfect lie and knowing the exact distance to the pin? If so, we would expect the par-three birdie leaders to be cleaning house this season. Let’s look at the top five in that statistic.
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Holes ---------------- --- -------- ------- ----- Kris Blanks 168 18.22 39 214 Dean Wilson 145 18.18 50 275 Mark Brooks 173 18.14 41 226 Gary Woodland 207 17.59 38 216 Corey Pavin 129 17.16 46 268
… and not a single one of them even made the playoffs! In fact, only one of them would have qualified under last year’s rules (which allowed 19 more qualifiers in The Barclays to begin the playoffs).
Why is this? When we see a famous par three on television, we tend to see relatively short holes, such as the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, or the 12th at Augusta National. None of these, from the tournament tees, extends beyond the reach of my 6-iron; why aren’t the professionals throwing darts?
Truth is these aren’t examples of typical par threes. In the case of 17 at Sawgrass, we can be thankful for this. Many of the par threes that the professionals see require long-iron approaches, and this may explain the lack of birdies and the par-three scoring average, too (as of the Tour Championship, only six players are under par for the season).
It isn’t that Phil is bad with his long irons; he just doesn’t hit them that often in a green-in-regulation attempt, certainly not in proportion to short irons and wedges over the course of a round. And therein is a difference in the professionals’ game, versus that of a mid-handicapper, one in which the mid-handicapper has an odd advantage: we hit long iron approach shots far more often, so our scores on par threes tend to not be much out of line, relative to par, with our scores on par fours.
The aforementioned Phil Mickelson, incidentally, is sixth on the list of par-three birdie percentage leaders, so it isn’t as though those players low on the rankings are all doing poorly on par threes.
The Par Fours
This brings us to the par fours. Players at all levels see more of these than any other hole type, unless we’re playing par-three courses (or are regulars at John Daly’s all-par-five design). Whoever is leading in birdies on par fours must have had a good shot at the FedExCup this year.
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Holes ---------------- --- -------- ------- ----- Joe Durant 167 21.62 128 592
That’s not very encouraging. In all the years that the Tour has had the FedExCup, the person ranked 167th would not qualify to begin the playoffs. All right, who’s next?
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Holes ---------------- --- -------- ------- ----- Joe Durant 167 21.62 128 592 Dustin Johnson 14 20.25 175 864 Anthony Kim 35 19.90 158 794 Hunter Mahan 27 19.25 186 966 Jonathan Byrd 66 19.16 151 788 Fred Couples 84 19.10 102 534 Marc Leishman 20 19.10 183 958 Charlie Wi 56 18.81 170 904 Jason Dufner 11 18.80 182 968 Justin Leonard 39 18.60 170 914
First, something encouraging: Joe Durant and Dustin Johnson made birdie on par fours on more than one in five attempts this year. This amounts to one per side, and if one more of Anthony Kim’s attempts had dropped, he would have joined this club. Other than Joe Durant, the top ten in par-four birds had some good staying power, with four making it to the Tour Championship and another four reaching the penultimate tournament of the playoffs.
The Par Fives
And now, house cleaning. The par fives. After seeing the last category leaders, maybe you’re expecting to see someone who didn’t fare very well this year, but quietly led some scoring category. If you expect that, you’d be wrong.
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Holes ---------------- --- -------- ------- ----- Tiger Woods 1 56.77 109 192 Nick Watney 12 54.55 150 275
How far back to do you have to go to find a tournament at Torrey Pines that one of those two didn’t win? 2004. Let’s expand to the top ten:
Player FEC Birdie % Birdies Holes ---------------- --- -------- ------- ----- Tiger Woods 1 56.77 109 192 Nick Watney 12 54.55 150 275 Matt Jones 126 50.33 76 151 Bubba Watson 53 50.00 118 236 Anthony Kim 35 49.54 108 218 Steve Marino 15 49.29 138 280 Steve Stricker 3 49.19 122 248 D.J. Trahan 96 49.00 123 251 Scott Piercy 88 48.76 118 242 Dustin Johnson 14 48.25 124 257
Fully half of the top ten in par-five birdies made it to the Tour Championship. Of these, only Steve Marino didn’t win at least once in the past year, and only one of the top ten didn’t make it to the playoffs. Four of them birdied at least half of their par fives, and, as with par fours, Anthony Kim would have joined the party if one more attempt had fallen.
The massive birdie count on the par fives relative to the threes and fours is instructive to us amateurs, too. We might not be able to reach them all in two, but we can hit short irons and wedges into the greens with very little risk by intelligently planning the hole.
As fun as the math behind the professional game is, having our own low scores is more fun. In particular, we can observe that par is a very good score on a par three and that birdies don’t do us an immense amount of good on such holes. I, for one, am happy if I can play my par threes in a 3.5 average. Obviously, I want a lower score, but not to the point of being unhappy. I regularly see playing partners upset over par on such holes, as though these were crucial scoring opportunities.
I see the same playing partners accept net bogeys on par fives, essentially writing them off due to their length. Such holes’ length, however, puts the advantage in your hand: they are rarely a full 3-wood longer than an average par four, and this lets you effectively choose the shots you want to hit. Zach Johnson, hardly a long hitter, used this to his advantage en route to his win at the 2007 Masters. Tiger is often credited with thinking his way around the course better than anyone, and he accordingly has a commanding lead on the very holes that offer the advantage to the most thinking players.
This article was written by Michael Shindler, or “Shindig” in the forum.