Birdies on the PGA Tour

How well do you think the leaders in par-three birdies did this year? Par-five birdies?

The Numbers GameLet’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.

2 thoughts on “Birdies on the PGA Tour”

  1. Good analysis, however, I think the Par 5 numbers can be deceiving. I’d also like to see how the Par 5 birdie list is broken down into 1-putts. It would be interesting to see how many of these birdies were originally eagle opportunities, which would truly indicate if it’s wedges into Par 5s or distance that matters.

  2. This makes a lot of sense. I am one of those “net bogey” or “bogey” guys on the par 5s and I guess that is one reason why I have yet to break into the 80s. More thinking could do me some good!

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