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Total package: Inside Nicklaus' historic driving season

3 Min Read


    Written by Justin Ray, @JustinRayGolf

    Like seemingly everything in 2020, the PGA TOUR’s annual trip to Muirfield Village Golf Club is a bit different this year.

    Though the stay is a little later on the calendar and has been stretched from one week to two, one inexorable element of the yearly sojourn to Ohio is the tournament host, Jack Nicklaus.

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    Nicklaus’ trove of insurmountable records is instant recall for golf die-hards. Eighteen majors, yes – but an unreachable nineteen runner-up finishes, too. Six Masters titles won across a span of 23 years. Seventeen straight PGA TOUR seasons with a win, tied with Arnold Palmer for most all-time. An incomprehensible 73 top-ten finishes in the majors, 25 more than any other player.

    But there’s one lesser-known statistic that might be just as untouchable. In 1980, Nicklaus had arguably the greatest season in recorded PGA TOUR history driving the golf ball.

    Before the ShotLink era ushered in countless metrics to quantify ball-striking performance, a statistic called ‘total driving’ was the best way to measure a player’s combined acumen in distance and accuracy off the tee.

    A player’s total driving number looks at his season-long ranking in both driving distance and accuracy. Added together, you get a total driving number – the lower that number, the better you are overall driving the ball (i.e. a player who ranks 10th in driving distance and 50th in driving accuracy would have a total driving number of 60).

    Forty years ago, the TOUR started compiling reliable data to calculate this metric. In 1980, Nicklaus had just turned 40 and was coming off his first winless season on the TOUR. His bounce-back campaign was remarkable: The Golden Bear won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, becoming the first forty-something to win multiple majors in the same season since Ben Hogan in 1953.

    But his performance off the tee was an even greater statistical anomaly.

    In 1980, Nicklaus ranked 10th in driving distance and 13th in accuracy, giving him a TOUR-leading total driving figure of 23. To this day, that remains the best single-season total driving performance ever recorded.

    YearNameTotal Driving
    1980Jack Nicklaus23
    1999David Duval35
    1988Greg Norman36
    1985Bruce Lietzke38
    1986Bruce Lietzke39
    Note: Since 1980.

    To put that into perspective, Brendan Steele led the PGA TOUR in total driving in 2018-19. His number was 56, and only four other players were lower than 100.

    The closest anyone has ever come to matching Nicklaus’ 1980 number was David Duval in 1999. That year, Duval ranked ninth in distance and 26th in accuracy. He won four times, including THE PLAYERS, and reached No. 1 in the world.

    Nicklaus and Duval are the only two players since 1980 to rank in the top 10 in driving distance and still rank in the top 30 in driving accuracy. There are only five instances since 1980 where a player ranked better than 40th in fairways hit while still ranking in the top 10 in average distance.

    YearNameAccuracy rank
    1980Jack Nicklaus13
    1999David Duval26
    1993Greg Norman33
    1988Greg Norman33
    1994Nick Price39

    There’s good reason to believe that Nicklaus’ record will never be approached again.

    Since 2010, the average driving accuracy rank for players to be in the top 10 on TOUR in driving distance is 152.9. Less than six percent of the players ranked in the top 10 in that span in distance also ranked in the top 100 in accuracy. And not once in the entire decade has a player ranked top 50 in fairways hit while also being among the top 10 in distance.

    If that wasn’t enough, Nicklaus also led the PGA TOUR in greens in regulation that season, hitting more than 72%. No player would lead the TOUR in both total driving and greens in regulation in the same campaign again until Bruce Lietzke did 11 years later. Only two players since 2000 have replicated that feat: Tiger Woods in 2000 and Henrik Stenson in 2015.

    Nicklaus carries fistfuls of golf accolades that may never be touched again. Add his remarkable 1980 ball-striking achievement to the lengthy list.

    YearsAverage Accuracy Rank of Top 10 in DistanceAverage Accuracy % of Top 10 in Distance