Driving: Distance vs. Accuracy

What do the numbers behind driving tell us? Lower scores? More winnings? The answers may surprise you a bit.

Damn technology today. It is making the game obsolete. Or is it? Guys on tour are hitting the ball longer and scoring lower and winning more money. Or are they? This issue has been a hot button for a while and only seems to be getting hotter. Companies, ruling bodies, snooty chairmen, and golf giants like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman are lining up on sides blaming golf balls, equipment, and the tides… well, maybe not the tides, but you get my drift.

This week I’m going to look a little closer at a couple numbers to see which means more money and lower scores: driving distance or driving accuracy? Is a longer ball better for a PGA Tour player than a straighter ball? Let’s find out.

The first question I asked myself is “Do the longest drivers (LD) make more money than the accurate drivers (AD)?” The answer, I found, is yes, but with an asterisk*. Using the top 20 and ties on the PGA Tour, the LDs have averaged about $1.45 million in earnings and about $97,000 per event this year. The ADs average about $871,000 and $54,202. Sounds pretty open and shut, right? But the numbers told me a little more.

The LDs, naturally, included Tiger, Vijay, Phil and Sergio. Jim Furyk is the only AD who appears in the top 10 in earnings this year. This is one part of the asterisk I speak of. The other is that of all the ADs, the least earned this year is $171,805 (Skip Kendall), but there were three tour players that have earned less than $100k on the LD list. Here are the numbers:

Driver      Min Earnings       Average       Max Earnings
Long          $41,462       $1,454,642       $5,780,142
Accurate     $171,805         $871,021       $3,316,669

The range is much tighter for the accurate drivers of the ball. For you statistical nerds, the standard deviation of the LDs numbers was $1.77 million where the standard deviation of the ADs was just under $865,000. What it all means is that now things don’t seem so open and shut, especially after I found the answer to the next question.

That question is “Do the longest drivers score better than the most accurate ones?” Given the “bomb it and wedge it” mentality of some of the top players, I thought that this would be well in favor of the long hitters. Surprisingly, it isn’t. The longest drivers averaged 70.948 strokes per round and the accurate drivers averaged 70.996 strokes per round – a virtual tie. The big names in the LD group (Tiger, Vijay, Phil, and Sergio… I’ll refer to this as “The Tiger Factor” from now on) could not make up for the higher scoring players in their group. Again, the ADs were grouped much more tightly. The numbers are starting to look more neutral.

So what was next? I thought that looking at a fuller sample of players would be a good step. Looking at all the players, I wanted to answer my last question: “Do longer and less accurate drivers of the ball score better/make more money than the more accurate and shorter drivers?” To get this, I took the PGA player ranking in driving accuracy and subtracted it from their ranking in driving distance, getting a differential. The negative numbers were the “longer but less accurate” (LLA) players and the positive numbers were the “shorter but more accurate” (SMA) players.

The LLA players (97 of 191 golfers) make more money. Again, the Tiger Factor skews this statistic in that favor. The LLAs have averaged over $113,000 more than the more than the SMAs and almost $8,600 more per tournament. Did they give it back in scoring like before? Yes – the LLAs actually score worse than SMA players. Again, the best players (high income, low scoring) in the world fall into the long driving category, but the more accurate ones don’t populate the bottom of the scoring list as much as the longer drivers and remain clustered in the middle. The below graph shows the distributions a bit more:


Left of the center line are the LLA (with negative differentials). Right of the center line are the SMA players. As you can see, the distribution is looser on the left than it is on the right. This should help visualize what I’ve been talking about. In later articles I’ll use distributions like this to see how ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ the numbers are.

To look at the money stat even closer and prove the Tiger factor, I calculated average weekly winnings per player on tour ($47,659.89). I found the number of players on tour that averaged higher (or better if you like) than that number. There are 57 of them. 30 of those players fall in the LLA category and 27 fall in the SMA category. In fact, to demonstrate the Tiger Factor even more, if you remove the five highest earners from each category, the LLA per tournament edge drops from $8,600 to less than $3,000. This shows that driving distance (or accuracy for that matter) does not mean a tour player will score better or give themselves a distinct chance of making more money per tournament than the average PGA professional.

Sorry, Jack. The USGA is right so far: Distance is a non-factor.

Conclusions and What is Next…
The Tiger factor makes the driving distance top heavy and slightly skews things from a ‘total winnings’ view. Anyone claiming that their distance results in them making more money or having more success is not telling the complete truth. The numbers suggest otherwise. So what does give someone the best chance of succeeding on tour? My guess would be hitting greens and putting… but I haven’t gotten that far. Sounds like the topic to one of my next articles.

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