Alter: Drive for show or putt for dough? Which one matters?

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Bo Van Pelt was one of two players (Tiger Woods) to rank in the top 50 in three major stat categories in 2012.
January 14, 2013
Tom Alter,

The first two tournaments of the 2013 PGA TOUR season offer an ideal setting to compare winning styles and determine which ability a player needs to truly succeed. 

Although they were both in Hawaii, the host courses for the opening two events couldn’t have been more different: The Plantation course at Kapalua for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is huge, hilly and features wide-open fairways producing some of the longest drives of the season; at last week’s Sony Open in Hawaii, Waialae CC is a tight track that’s almost 400 yards shorter but produces higher scores

There’s a prevailing notion that the current “bomb and gauge” style favored by many current, particularly younger, players is now dominating the TOUR … that the old adage “drive for show and putt for dough” has become obsolete. 

Not so fast. 

Using the top 50 finishers within the 2012 ShotLink statistics, comparisons can be made to determine which skill produced the most qualifiers for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and/or TOUR winners last year:

Total driving: Combines a player’s distance rank and accuracy rank to produce the best drivers on TOUR. Total driving is clearly important because 14 -- almost half of the field at East Lake -- finished near the top last year. And 12 players won 16 tournaments last year.

Strokes gained-putting: However, the best putters produced even better numbers: 13 qualifiers for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and 15 players won 18 tournaments.

Greens in Regulation: This can almost boast similar success: 12 players at East Lake and nine winners claimed 13 titles.

So putting remains a better barometer for success than driving or ball striking, although it’s not a remarkably better predictor.  What is remarkable is that just two players appeared on all three lists last year: Tiger Woods and Bo Van Pelt. 

Even more remarkable is that the PGA TOUR Player of the Year -- Rory McIlroy -- didn’t appear in the top 50 of any of those three statistics. He finished 53rd in total driving, 86th in strokes gained-putting and 60th in greens in regulation.

McIlroy’s success on the course can be summed up simply: he makes birdies. He finished 2012 as the scoring average leader, and was also No. 1 in birdie average. He was also the leader in par-5 scoring average.

Although he’s not among the TOUR leaders in greens in regulation, nobody hit it closer to the hole from the fairway. And he led the TOUR in making 10-foot putts and 3-foot putts; in fact he made all 438 attempts he faced from 3 feet last year.

The best predictor of success on the PGA TOUR is birdie average. Since his first full season, Tiger Woods was the leader in birdie average a whopping eight times. On the rare occasion when Woods didn’t lead the list, players such as World Golf Hall of Fame members Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson finished on top.

So it doesn’t matter if you make birdie by driving a par 4 and two-putting or wedging it close and tapping in -- TOUR players need to make as many birdies as they can. And if they get hot for a full week, then they might very well end up with a trip to Hawaii next year for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.