Drive for Show, Putt for Dough: How the PGA’s Best Make Their Money

golf

For the casual weekend golfer, there may be too much wrong with your game to focus on only one aspect to perfect. However, PGA players often do have that issue and spend practice days refining the booming power-draw off the tee or fiddling around with a new wedge near the green. The question then becomes how best to use their time. Even weekend golfers may know the old golf adage “Drive for show; putt for dough” (almost certainly from the member of the foursome who is 30 yards shorter than the rest after the tee shots). However, is this saying just a cute excuse, or does it have validity?

On a very basic level, it seems like this phrase most likely came from some common sense: through 18 holes a player can only hit a maximum of 18 shots with a driver. Factoring in par 3’s and potential course hazards, that number is more realistically somewhere between 10 and 14 shots per round. However, barring some short game magic, a player has to putt on every hole (and usually more than once). By that logic, it makes sense that better putting is more conducive to better scores. However, the casual golfer may be overlooking how important better drives may be in terms of setting up more makeable putts. To get to the bottom of this cute expression, I have decided to look at the top 25 money earners on the PGA tour this season through the BMW Championship to see how the tour’s best stack up in certain important statistical categories.

Method:

The PGA Tour provides several important statistics that they track and do a very good job of accounting for variance and chance to try and make their stats more useful in analysis (for example for the average drive distance they use drive distances on holes that face opposite directions to try to account for wind and elevation changes). The PGA provides six important stats that I looked at: average driving distance, greens in regulation, driving accuracy percentage, scrambling percentage, average proximity to the hole, and average strokes gained while putting.  Most of these stats are self-explanatory, although a casual golf fan may not be familiar with strokes gained, the PGA’s own advanced statistic that determines how many strokes a player gains on the field per hole based on their putting, which is far more telling than just average putts per hole. I looked up these stats for the top 25 money earners on tour but first ordered the 25 based on money per event, a stat that the PGA doesn’t provide but is important to use because players don’t have to participate in every event. For example, Brandt Snedeker made over one million more than Steve Stricker, but Stricker participated in 10 fewer events, leading to him earning more money per event. I finally graphed earnings per event for each player versus all of the previously discussed statistics and found the linear correlation between each one and the earnings per event.

Results:

Below are two of the datasets graphed. The other four graphs were omitted to save space.

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The correlation between each stat and earnings per event helps us see where the highest earners tend to place among the other stats. The strongest correlation (although by no means is it a very strong correlation) is the correlation between strokes gained putting and earnings per event. Following strokes gained are scrambling percentage and then greens in regulation. The other three stats have correlations that are nearly zero.

Analysis:

While the correlation is not very strong, it is strong enough to suggest that players who earn more money per event tend to gain more strokes on the field while putting than those players that earn less per event. The same could also be said about scrambling and greens in regulation although those links are weaker. As for driving distance, accuracy, and proximity to the hole, all of these statistics had an insignificant correlation, meaning that the top money earners were randomly placed among the best of these stats. However, it is important to remember that these correlations are only among the top 25 money earners. On average, the top 25 was better in every single one of these statistics than the overall tour average, so one should not think that driving distance and accuracy are irrelevant. Instead, when it comes to separating the best of the best the most important differentiator is putting ability.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, it seems clear that the stats support the adage “drive for show, putt for dough.” Among the PGA tour’s top 25 money earners, strokes gained putting had the highest correlation with earnings per event while the statistics related to driving had correlations near zero, indicating no relationship. As mentioned before, it is important to remember that to make it into the top 25 players are still on average far better than the average tour player in most of these statistical categories. Overall, my research suggests that the PGA’s best should focus on putting if they want to rise all the way to the top.

Data taken from www.pgatour.com

Max Roberts
Georgetown University Class of 2016

Follow Max on Twitter: @maxroberts611
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