Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Is the Long Game More Important?

There is a NY Times piece on some research conducted by Mark Broadie - a Columbia University professor on the USGA's handicap research team - that leads to the conclusion that the long game is more important than the short game.

Here are some of his findings:

  • It is the long game that proves to be the biggest factor when examining the difference in scores between pros and amateurs and even between low- and high-handicap amateurs. If, for example, a PGA Tour player were available to hit shots for an amateur from 100 yards and in, or available to hit all the shots leading to the 100-yard mark, Broadie says the amateur would benefit the most from having the PGA player hit the long shots, not the short ones.
  • Despite the belief that shorter hitters are more accurate off the tee than longer hitters, Broadie discovered the opposite: longer hitters also tend to be straighter hitters. “Better players are more skilled over all,” Broadie said. “They hit it farther and they have more consistent swings, so they’re more accurate, too.”
  • It is often said that 60 to 65 percent of all shots are struck within 100 yards of the hole. Broadie agreed but noted that if you take out “gimme” putts of two and a half feet, the statistic has less meaning. Remove very short putts that are rarely missed, and shots from 100 yards or less account for only 45 to 50 percent of all shots. Eliminate putts from three and a half feet or less, and the figure drops to 41 to 47 percent.
It's quite a contrarian point of view given that we have been claiming that putting has been winning the major championships. The Masters is all about putting, supposedly. The US Open is about putting in more recent years. The PGA Championship and Open Championships have it as a crucial factor. In fact, Greg Norman took more heat for his strategy off of the tee than for lipping out more putts than I have ever seen in a major.

The USGA claims that there is almost no correlation between winning on the PGA Tour and driving accuracy. I have produced articles that reach the same conclusion. The implication behind that truth is that we should regulate how the ball plays from the rough because distance and accuracy really do not matter all that much - therefore, we need to regulate the approach shot.

But, what if this is a rock solid finding? It would imply, then, that distance and accuracy do matter, right? If distance and accuracy do matter, but the data suggest that accuracy doesn't matter, then does ONLY distance matter? (That's a stretch, I know.)

Still, at the end of this, I am left wondering whether we should be regulating the golf ball for distance because it seems then that it has serious implication on success in the game.

ADD ON 10:20am 7/23:

On The 19th Hole yesterday, we had a guy by the name of Vin Lee on the show. He invented something called the Caesar Featherie - a golf ball with no dimples. The idea behind the ball is that you sacrifice some distance (a club or two) in exchange for a lower, boring flight straight through the air. In effect, the idea is that golf is more fun when you don't spray the ball. It reminds me of the older men I used to play with as a youth golfer that would hit the ball maybe 180 yards off of the tee, but dead straight. I could outdrive them all I wanted, but if I wasn't in the fairway, they could tie or beat me on a hole.

My interpretation of this piece and my interview with Vin leads me to believe that there is a scale of focus for players at all levels. For the high handicappers, they should focus on the long game and learning to make solid contact with the ball to get it in the fairway. At the mid-level stage, they should learn ball striking and working the ball with irons to get more GIRs, assuming they can two putt. But to get to scratch or better, a player has to learn how to get the ball in the hole from further away - meaning become a better putter. Certainly there are ways around this structure, but this would make the most sense to me.


Hound Dog said...

Ah! An article I can really sink my teeth into! I particulary enjoyed reading this passage:

"Broadie also said that a putting statistic golfers often keep (the number of putts per round) was not as valuable at predicting one’s score as another stat, the percentage of greens hit in regulation, which will more likely tell you how well a golfer is scoring."

I had also found that GIR correlated very well with good scoring.

I think it's important to mention that Broadie's research covers the entire spectrum of golfing abilities. His point about accuracy vs length may not be as pronounced when limiting the scope to the professional ranks.

Ryan Ballengee said...

I really enjoyed it, too and thought of your rankings when reading the GIR part. I keep my own stats when I play - fairways, GIR, score, and putts per hole. My best rounds tend to come when I hit GIRs. I don't sink a ton of long putts, but I generally 2 putt. If I hit GIRs, then I make a lot of pars. Since I hit the ball pretty far, I don't have to worry about hitting the fairway as much. That is another anecdote to prove my and the USGA's research.

But, I totally see the findings of the study as being legit. For high handicappers, they duff and slice and hook off of the tee. If they could just put the ball into play in the fairway, they would shave a ton of shots per round.

As you mentioned, that's likely not the worry for lower handicap players. They can get off of the tee and into play. Where you get closest to par, then, is hitting greens and draining longer putts. The study did find that pro players hole out from further away than high handicappers (makes sense). It proves, to some extent, that the key to getting to scratch is putting.

It paints an interesting picture of how players can go from +36 to +0. They first have to learn how to get the ball in play. Then they have to learn how to hit GIRs. Then they have to learn how to sink lengthier putts. In the end, this may very validate the habits of people learning the game - going to the range and learning how to whack a ball straight.