Does Distance Determine Dollars?
By: Erik Chen and Taiyo Keilin
Driving distance has been at the forefront of golf fans’ minds since the 1997 season when a young Tiger Woods was outdriving the average PGA Tour pro by over 25 yards while also winning many tournaments by lopsided margins. At the time he was the game’s second-longest hitter, averaging nearly 300 yards per drive, 10% farther than the average Tour player. Now, Woods still drives the ball about the same length – picking up about five yards on his 1997 performance – but he is suddenly only hovering around Tour average.
Even with an influx of new club technology and emphasis on body conditioning, Woods hasn’t dramatically increased his driving distance throughout the years.
In this graph, you can see that while the average driving distance by PGA Tour pros has steadily increased since Woods earned his card in 1997, the 82-time winner’s distance has remained pretty constant, besides a 2002-08 spell in which he saw a big increase followed by a big decrease.
In Woods’s debut season, the average Tour player was hitting his driver 267.3 yards. In 2020, that distance jumped to 296.4 yards, an increase of almost 30 yards, with many of the newer Tour professionals averaging lengths that seemed unachievable 20 years ago.
As a result, age-old courses that were seen as difficult in the past, due in part to their length, are no longer seen as monsters. One famous example is the change Augusta National went through in preparation for the 2019 Masters Tournament where the tee box on hole No. 5 was pushed back more than 40 yards to accommodate for the changing game.
With this in mind, Tour pros and amateur players alike have been trying to maximize their distances off the tee to gain an advantage over the field. No player took this idea more to heart than Bryson DeChambeau.
Nicknamed the Mad Scientist because of his unique approach and penchant for experimentation in golf, DeChambeau utilized the extensive downtime in the golf season due to the COVID-19 pandemic to add on 40 pounds of muscle with the hope of knocking the golf ball farther down the fairway, simplifying the game. And it seems to have worked!
DeChambeau came out of the season pause and led the PGA Tour in driving distance in the 2020 season and currently sits atop the category for the ongoing 2021 season as well. The 27-year-old also picked up two tournament wins since the restart of the golf season, including his first major at the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot.
In this article, we will analyze the effects of driving distance upon the success of professional golf players. Specifically, we will quantify success as the amount of prize money each athlete has earned in a specific season. Furthermore, we will look at specific golf courses anticipating that the longer golf course will necessitate longer driving distance in order to achieve success.
We will be utilizing PGA tour data from the 2019-2020 season to analyze if driving distance has any positive correlation with player success, which we are quantifying as prize money earned. We picked prize money as the key indicator to success because the statistic reflects an emphasis on both consistently finishing near the top of the leaderboard and earning victories.
In essence, we wanted to avoid elevating two types of players. The first archetype of players are those that played in a majority of tournaments, made the cut almost every week, but failed to really contend in the tournament. The second archetype of players are those that finish high on the leaderboards in one or two tournaments, but are inconsistent and miss the cut many times throughout the season.
If we take a look at the top players in the money list for 2020, we have a top three of Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, and Dustin Johnson. All of these players are considered superstars of the sport, so it makes sense for them to be near the top. By the eye test, it seems like prize money is a decent metric for success in golf. Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Take a look at Tiger Woods. 2020 was a pretty big year for him. He won the Zozo Championship in Japan which tied him for the most wins on the PGA Tour at 82. However, he had a pretty uneventful year besides that tournament. In the biggest tournaments of the year, which were the PGA Championship and FedEx Cup Playoffs, his highest finish was 37th. He finished the season with a total prize money just over $2 million, which placed him 38th on the prize money leaderboard for the year, a reasonable placing for his season.
This graph shows the correlation – or lack thereof – between a player’s distance off the tee and the money he took home at the end of the 2020 season. For the sake of not making the graph too cluttered, we only looked at players that earned over $1 million, because we are more interested in the “better” players. With an r-squared value of only 0.126, it’s hard to conclude that distance off the tee really could be a good indicator for one’s income.
Driving distance doesn’t seem to have an obvious correlation with overall success on the PGA Tour. Instead, let us analyze the effects of driving distance on the results of individual tournaments and golf courses, with the hypothesis being that a longer course would mean that driving distance would have a bigger impact.
The South Course at Torrey Pines is the longest course on the PGA Tour, clocking in at 7,698 yards. The 2020 Farmers Insurance Open was played there. When we take a look at a graph of driving distance vs money earned, we again see essentially no correlation between the two variables. In fact, the tournament was won by Marc Leishman, whose 295.9-yard average drive that week was below the 2019-2020 Tour average. It seems like driving distance has little to no impact on success when analyzing specific courses. Of course, this could be due to the limited sample size in only looking at one tournament or the broader idea that “long” courses on the PGA Tour are simply not that long for average PGA pros. Some long courses like Torrey Pines might have been problematic in the past, but perhaps not anymore.
DeChambeau vs Champ
We have seen that driving distance is not the be all and end all of golf. Even though hitting longer drives certainly is advantageous, all other parts of golf – iron play, short game, and putting – matter in the success of a PGA Tour pro.
Let’s return to analyzing Bryson DeChambeau. We already know that he hits the ball a mile, but what about the other parts of his game? Not surprisingly, the success that he has had does not solely stem from his long drives. He is also proficient in the other parts of his game.
To better illustrate this, we compared DeChambeau to another one of the PGA Tour’s longest hitters, Cameron Champ.
In 2020, DeChambeau and Champ had almost identical average driving distances, with DeChambeau being first in average driving distance and Champ being a very close second. DeChambeau averaged 322.1 yards per drive and Champ averaged 322.0 yards per drive.
The pair also sat one and two atop the Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee category. Strokes Gained aims to calculate how good a player is off the tee on par-4s and par-5s based on the location of their tee shot.
From golfwrx.com: [PGA Tour scoring average for the hole] – [PGA Tour average scoring from distance (and lie) left after your drive] – 1 = Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee.
DeChambeau led the Tour with 1.039 SG: Off-the-Tee and Champ was second with 0.999.
Needless to say, they are almost the same player when comparing their performance from the tee box. With that in mind, how come DeChambeau is a top-10 player (9) while Champ is well outside the top-50 (75), according to the World Golf Rankings at the end of the 2019-2020 season?
If we take a closer look at some performance metrics between the two players, we can see that DeChambeau is a stronger player in all other categories, especially putting.
We have seen a gradual increase in the ability of PGA Tour pros to hit the ball a long distance. Starting with Tiger Woods in the late 20th century, players have started to take physical conditioning much more seriously. Coupled with the advancement in club technology, there has been over a 20-yard increase in average driving distance. While hitting the ball farther is definitely advantageous, it does not solely determine the success of a player. Bryson DeChambeau may be pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible in terms of club head speed and distance, but without his abilities in approach play, short game, and putting, he would not be able to replicate his amazing results.