FT Baseline Interactive: fact-checking golf’s great myth

By John Burn-Murdoch and Gavin Jackson

For the second instalment in our weekly sporting statistics series, The Baseline, we turned our attention to golf.

On Thursday, the top golfers from Europe and the US do battle as the 40th Ryder Cup begins at Gleneagles in Scotland. While we don’t know which way it will go, one thing we can be certain of is that most of the excitement will take place on the green.

But is golf’s aphorism that you “drive for show and putt for dough” – i.e a big drive may look impressive, but it’s the ability to hole a pressure-putt that brings home the prizes – really true?

For the answer, turn to the aforementioned story. For the methodology, read on.

Golf’s official world rankings are frequently criticised for a number of reasons, but one of the most common is the fact that it takes account of performances over a full two year period, with no reduction in weighting for older results.

So in order to compare the relative importance of putting and driving among the golfing elite, we decided to base the top 20 that would form our sample not on their world ranking, but on their strokes gained statistic, using figures from the PGA Tour’s Shotlink data set.

The stat is the brainchild of Columbia Business School professor Mark Broadie, and it measures how well a player performs relative to other players on the same hole. The result is a number for strokes gained or lost against the rest of the field.

Having taken the top 20 by this measure for our analysis, we then used another of its strengths to calculate whether the short or long game was the more important to a golfer’s success.

The strokes gained statistic is split into the long and short elements of the game, allowing us to look at the proportion of the top players’ gain that is down to each part, and then compare it to the equivalent proportion of all shots played on each part of the course.

In the graphic above, we also added visual representations of the top players’ long and short games.

The golf hole on the left shows how far each of our top 20 strikes the ball off the tee (vertical axis), as well as how frequently they find the fairway or green (distance from central axis) and whether they tend to draw or fade to the left or right.

The putting chart shows how each player’s success rate changes in line with distance from the hole, and in the bottom right we can see how much of each player’s overall strokes gained statistic is down to their tee-to-green play, and how much to their putting.

Throughout this series we’re keen for readers to join the debate, so if you want to ask further questions, offer ideas for who or what we should look at next, or point out flaws in our logic, please leave a comment below or email us on baseline@FT.com