If a PGA Tour player shoots a round of 70 on a day when the scoring average is 72, that player has obviously gained two strokes on the field average. Unfortunately, until recently there were not obvious answers as to how that player made gains on their competitors. The traditional stats of driving distance, fairways in regulation, greens in regulation, up and downs, and putts per round are all highly flawed. For instance, the classic driving stats have no way to compare a player who hits a 320-yard drive that missed the fairway by 1 foot vs. one who hits a 260-yard drive down the fairway. Meanwhile, total putts per round has a huge bias against players who hit many greens in regulation. On average, a player who hits a green in regulation will leave themselves a longer first putt than a player who missed the green and chips on. As such, players who miss many greens typically take less putts, but not necessarily because they are more skilled at putting.
Strokes Gained to the Rescue
Since 2004, the PGA Tour has been using lasers to track exactly where each shot on tour is hit from (sadly, no such data exists for the LPGA). This data has been used by statisticians such as Mark Broadie to create four Strokes Gained sub-categories to narrow in on where players are losing or gaining strokes against the field average. The four sub-categories are:
- Strokes-Gained: Off-the-tee (SG:OTT)
- Strokes-Gained: Approach the green (SG:APP) - Strokes-Gained: Around the Green (SG:ARG)
- Strokes-Gained: Putting (SG:P)
How it’s Calculated:
The formula for calculating the strokes gained on any given shot is:
(Scoring Average from start position) - (Scoring Average from result position) – 1
As an example, imagine a player on a 410-yard par 4. The PGA Tour scoring average on 410-yard holes is 4.0 so the scoring average from the starting position of the first shot is 4.0.
Learning from the Best
A single hole sample size doesn’t tell us much, but when these statistics are calculated over several seasons of data, certain players continually rise to the top. That is why I have accumulated all the PGA Tour’s available Strokes Gained Data to analyze who have been the best players in each Strokes-Gained Category. Sometimes the results are obvious – the best approach player ever according to the SG:APP data is Tiger Woods, and by a large margin. Sometimes there are less expected results. While Phil Mickelson has a truly excellent short game that is deservedly famous, SG: ARG indicates there are several less-known golfers, such as Chris Reilly, who are/were better around the greens.
On Instagram, I have been releasing technical tips and analyses of the players who dominated these four categories under the hashtags #shortgamewizards🧙♂️, #puttingsecrets🤫, #pinseekers🎯 and #showoffs💪. While these names are intended to be lighthearted, I hope they can be an easy way to filter my Instagram content and find great advice for any part of your game you are struggling with. I also want my followers to know that every time I post under these hashtags, it isn’t just my opinion that these players are good at what I am highlighting. Rather, it’s with the backing of statistical evidence.