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As the PGA Tour turns the page on the 2021 season, I’m diving into Jon Rahm’s ’21 season on the PGA Tour to see what he did so well to earn over FIVE times the average wages on Tour. His $7,705,933 Official winnings for 22 events (64 rounds) comes out to $120,405 each time he teed it up.
In 22 events, Rahm won once (US Open), finished in the TOP-10 fifteen times (68% of his starts) and missed only one cut (Wells Fargo). Impressive! His average score was 69.3 – or 2.098 shots better than the Tour average. Also impressive! Basically Jon did everything well, but totally dominated the long game. 74% of his Strokes Gained differential came in Driving (Off-The-Tee) and Approach shots (Approach the Green). These two very important facets of the game generally account for 50% of total shots. Note that while Rahm was #2 and #8 in his long game facets, he was a mere mortal 42nd in his Short Game (Around the Green) and Putting.
Let’s dive into the most important details of what were clearly his strengths.
Obviously, Distance and Accuracy are important but, in the 30+ years that I have worked with Tour players, I’ve found that Driving Errors* have an unusually large bearing on success or lack thereof. As you can see below, Rahm’s distance is strong (long) and accurate (more fairways hit). But what I believe is even more important – he has 30% fewer errors than the Tour Average.
Driving Errors: • No Shot: Ball hit out of play requiring an advancement shot to return to normal play. • Penalty: Either a ball hit into a Penalty area requiring a drop or the more rare OB, stroke & distance penalty.
Approach Shots Greens Hit in Regulation (GIR’s) is the most relevant and important of the old-school stats that Strokes Gained has made obsolete. A GIR means two very good things have occurred: 1. the player has been efficient enough to reach the green in regulation (2 or more strokes less than par), and 2. the player is left with a potential birdie putt. The Tour event winners average 13 GIR’s per round. Rahm averaged just a fraction under that mark (12.95 GIR’s) for the entire 2021 season – impressive, but not surprising for the #1 player on tour.
Jon lent further credibility to my thesis that GIR’s are far more important than Proximity as he was only slightly better than the Tour average in this stat (ranked 74). I’ve never been a fan of the Proximity to the Hole stat. If you are interested in WHY, please read my 2018 article: Is Tiger’s “#1 Proximity to the Hole” a Meaningless Stat?
Finally, as with Driving errors, penalties in the approach game are costly. The average Tour player records an approach penalty once in every FIVE rounds while Rahm limited his mistakes to one every NINE rounds.
I will not go into any detail in Putting or Short game other than to reinforce Rahm’s consistency in the ability to avoid errors.
Putting: 3-Putt Avoidance: (a.k.a., % of holes where 3 or more putts were taken). Rahm was ranked 15th with only 2.02% of holes played vs. the Tour at 2.98%
Short Game Errors (shots that miss the green AND takes 4 or more shots to hole out): While Rahm’s Stroke Gained around the green was not that impressive, his ability to avoid errors was remarkable. In his Chip/Pitch game within 50 yards of the hole, Rahm had 380 attempts. He made only THREE errors. Give the average Tour player the same number of attempts and he would make 36 errors – TWELVE times Rahm’s frequency.
The story of this champion is that he hit the ball farther with greater accuracy while avoiding the pitfalls in the game that turn great rounds into just good ones and good rounds into mediocre – or worse. Believe it or not, the positive impact of error avoidance applies to ALL OF US at every level of the game.
I can’t remember the last round of a PGA Tour event with as much consistent drama as we saw this weekend. Sunday’s final round of the BMW Championship was great TV. I didn’t even mind the commercials as they gave me time to process what had happened and make quick trips to the kitchen.
Bryson’s driving distance WITH accuracy was front stage and incredible. It was only rivaled, in my opinion, by Cantlay’s unflappable demeanor and answer after answer to the onslaught of challenges thrown his way.
Before I get to my main point, here are a few stats that I found interesting:
Bryson outdrove the FIELD by 40 yards and Patrick by ONLY 34 yards (345, 305 & 311 respectively). Given the sizable gaps, it is not a surprise that Bryson hit fewer Fairways (8, 9.2, 9.3)
Again, given Bryson’s driving advantage, we’d expect him to hit more Greens in Regulation. With 13.5/round, Bryson bested the FIELD’s 13.03/round – but NOT Patrick’s impressive 14.5!
It was also no surprise that Bryson was #1 in Going for the Green with an impressive 96%. Patrick was more human at 65% – but still above the FIELD’s 60%.
Bryson was closer to earth with his % Greens Hit (when going for it) at an almost mundane 28%. Heck Patrick hit 27% and the FIELD 19%.
The final gem in this area was the Average Distance (of the going for it shots). Bryson’s driving prowess netted him a one yard DISADVANTAGE to Patrick (278 yards for Patrick vs. 279 for Bryson) and a wapping FOUR yard advantage over the FIELD (283 yards). Where did Bryson’s 40-yard driving advantage go on the Par 5’s???
Putting was the difference!
In the 30+ years that I have studied performance on the PGA Tour, it became clear early on that there are two critical 1-Putt distance ranges. The 6 to 10 foot range separates the good putters from the rest while the 11 to 20 foot range separates the WINNERS from the rest. Both held form in influencing the outcome of this event.
In the chart below, I have provided Bryson’s and Patrick’s 1-Putt numbers for the regulation four rounds. For perspective, I have added the PGA Tour average and the 2021 Winners to date. Clearly Patrick Cantlay’s performance was otherworldly especially considering that in the final round and playoff, these holed putts were all must makes.
To emphasize my point, in the last pressure packed 14 holes (8 regulation and 6 extra holes), Bryson had ten 1-Putt opportunities in these two important ranges. He made only 3 of 10. In his last eight holes, he had FIVE opportunities to win outright (11, 13, 16, 6, 18 feet) and 1 to extend (9 feet) – Bryson missed them all.
By contrast in the last 14 holes, Patrick had seven 1-Putt opportunities in these two critical ranges. He made FIVE, all MUST makes, including the 18 foot birdie to close out the title.
First, what exactly is a Green-in-Regulation (GIR)?
This may seem like a silly question. It did to me until I heard two long-time clients — both prominent golf instructors — independently of each other coaching their elite juniors that a GIR meant that an approach shot was successful. REALLY guys?
To be clear, a GIR is a ball reaching the putting surface in two or more strokes less than par, regardless of how it gets there. A few examples of GIR’s:
A Par 5 green reached in two shots.
A Par 5 missed in two but the short game shot hit on the green in three.
A Par 4 green driven (reached in one) or two shots.
A Par 3 tee shot that comes to rest on the green.
So how relevant are GIR’s?
In my opinion, extremely! I believe GIR’s to be the most important of the Old School, one-dimensional, traditional stats. ShotByShot.com replaced most of the dinosaur stats with a more dynamic and informative analysis methodology – now known as Strokes Gained. Those that have read my previous articles or visited my website will know these old stats as:
# Putts per GIR
In the ShotByShot.com program, Fairways Hit has been retained, but augmented by five categories of the severity of the fairways missed. (See my recent article explaining this further: How Important are Fairways? ). I kept the GIR stat in because it is such an important positive in the game. First, it is an accomplishment to have been efficient enough to reach the green in regulation. Second, it always represents some sort of a birdie opportunity.
The GIR numbers below represent the number hit by each handicap group in the rounds when they play to their handicap, or the BEST 8 of their most recent 20 rounds. In other words, if you strive to get to Scratch (0 handicap), your best rounds should average about 12 GIR’s.
Finally, you might ask how could the 0-2 handicap group hit virtually the same Number of GIR’s as the PGA Tour average?Here are a couple of reasons:
The dramatic difference in the length of the courses played by the pros vs. amateurs.
Pros tend to attack pins looking for birdies while amateurs learn to excel through consistency – HITTING MORE GREENS!
How do I know how many GIR’s players actually hit?
I developed ShotByShot.com, a Strokes-Gained analysis website. We have been providing Strokes Gained analysis to players at all levels of the game since 1992, collecting more than 500,000 rounds from thousands of players in the process.
For a complete Strokes Gained analysis of your game, log onto ShotByShot.com.
If you guessed short putts, you’re a winner. The often-overlooked fact is that putting is a critical 40% of the game. This is true of all golfers – at every level. The average PGA Tour player needed 29 putts to shoot an average score of 70.6 (41% of strokes). The average 17-handicap golfer needs 34 putts to achieve their average score of 89 (or 38%). This number would be greater than 40% of average golfers putted everything out.
Clearly, not many of us have the physical skill to drive the ball like a Tour player, but almost anyone can putt like a Tour player with the right equipment, technique and practice. There’s been a lot written about equipment and techniques for better putting. What’s surprisingly not talked about as much is an approach for practicing this all-important skill.
For guidance, I studied our ShotByShot.com database recorded at a 17 Slope Adjusted Differential (this was the 12,000+ rounds we have for golfers that actually played exactly to their 17 handicap). I had a stronger motive for this research than writing this post. We’ve added a new product to our ShotByShot.com Strokes Gained analysis: a putting skills test and practice app. Our goal is to provide a simple but intelligent app to accurately test putting skill and focus practice time for meaningful improvement.
The data shows us that a 17-handicap male golfer’s average round includes:
Long Game: 5.3 GIRs with an average putting distance of 27 feet.
Short Game (shots within 50 yards of the hole):
9 chip/pitch shots, of which 7 successfully hit the green to an average putting distance of 15 feet. The other 2 are errors or missed greens.
2 sand shots. When Mr. 17 successfully hits the green, which is only 65% of his sand attempts, his average putting distance is 18 feet.
Putting: 34 total putts, including:
1-Putts = 3.2
2-Putts = 11.8
3-Putts = 2.3
4-Putts = once every 20 rounds.
50% Make Distance: The distance from which our prototype will make 50% of putts is 5 feet. (By comparison, the PGA Tour player’s 50% make distance is 8 feet.)
2-Putt Range: The distance from which the prototype average will 2 putts is 16 feet. This means that outside of 16 feet, our 17 handicapper will 3-putt with a greater frequency than 1-putt. (The PGA Tour’s 2.0 distance is 34 feet.)
I used our data to project recommended practice distances. As you can see below, 68% of the average golfer’s putting opportunities are from 15 feet and closer and 41% are from 5 feet and in.
The chart below displays our average 17 handicaper’s 1-putt and 3-putt percentages by distance range.
Finally, I charted 1-putt percentages from 3-10 feet for the average 17- and 10-handicap golfer.
How much time to devote? Putting is worth 40% of whatever amount of time you spend practicing golf.
70% of your practice putting time should be devoted to increasing your 1-putt percentages on short putts and expanding your 50% make distance.
30% of your putting practice time should be spent improving your distance control on lag putts in the 20-50 foot ranges and extending your two-putt distance.
The “Star drill”
I was taught this practice drill by a young professional over 30 years ago and Phil Mickelson has been seen using it in his practice sessions.
Place 5 tees a given distance from the hole in a star pattern. I recommend starting with 3 feet. A slight slope will provide a slope from each direction as shown below. After warmup, work around the star twice and see how many you can make of the ten attempts. When you can make 9 of 10 from 3 feet, move the tees to 4 feet. When you can make 7 or 8 of 10 from 4 feet move to five feet. Make sure to practice your set-up routine with each putt and make it real. For help with your putting routine, see your professional.
Distance Control: Lag Putts
Place a tee 20 feet from a target or hole. Use two or three balls and practice lagging them back and forth until you can consistently get the balls to the target, but no farther than 2 feet past the hole. Repeat the drill from 30 and 40 feet trying to leave the putts no farther than 3 feet from the target.
Some of our ShotByShot.com users have had a difficult time finding our Filter Options located next to Pick Specific Rounds on our Analyze tab. Sorry, we are correcting this. The nine filtering options are robust and can be used individually or together to produce surprising insight. I promised one of our Group Leader/instructors that I would share exactly how I run a BEST vs. WORST analysis. I thought that this was something that all of our ShotByShot.com users should see. I have been doing these studies for years for the Tour players with whom I work, but every player can benefit from seeing exactly what changes the most from when they are at their best, playing to their handicap level, versus the OTHER rounds.
Use the Filter Rounds:
1. Run an analysis on the Most Recent 20 rounds. It can be more or less rounds and can also be further filtered by type and format (e.g., Tournament, Stroke play… and even by Course).
2. From the Rounds/Scoring page of the analysis, record:
Average Score – In the example below the average score was 70.
Date of the oldest round analyzed (this will be the anchor for the BEST and WORST analysis).
3. BEST – Select: Score Less then or Equal to the average score (again, here it was 70). Also, anchor the analysis on the Start Date of the oldest round recorded in #2 above. This will produce the BEST analysis. If it is not exactly 10 or half, you may have to adjust the Score selected up or down by 1.
4. Review the BEST analysis and record the average score and strokes gained numbers listed in the example below.
5. WORST – select: Score Greater than or Equal to: One stroke above the score used in the BEST analysis above and again anchor the start date of the analysis. Record the appropriate numbers listed in the example below and compute the differences.
The greatest negative difference will be the part of the game that changes the most and is costing the player the most strokes on average when NOT at their BEST. The case above is an actual study that I did for a mini Tour player. It was somewhat of a surprise that Putting was the main culprit as it has long been one of his strengths. When we looked deeper, it was clear as to why. First, his % 1-Putts, in the always critical range of 6-10 ft., dropped from 56% (50% is the PGA Tour Avg.) down to 37%. This is a significant drop off. Second, his 3-Putts jumped from a tidy 2% (PGA Tour Avg. is 3%) to 5%. This information gave him something very specific to focus on improving. Clearly, good to know!
I’ve been in the golf business for 32 years and playing golf seriously for even longer. Like most golf fanatics, I usually can’t wait to play the courses that I see the pros play on TV. I watched The PGA Championship with heightened interest this weekend because I vividly remember the dramatic “War on the Shore” Ryder Cup. Think about it – how many golf events bring a top player to tears AND the U.S.A. a victory?
As I was glued to this weekend’s PGA, I found myself thinking that it may be way more fun to watch this event than to play in it. Even allowing that I would play from more appropriate, forward tees, just how many golf balls might I need to finish a round at Kiawah? I’m officially in no rush to test my diminishing skills on this spectacular course.
There were two things that I found unusual and remarkable about this tournament?
There were NO Errors from the green-side sand this week! Why? Because contrary to what we saw, there was no green-side sand. All that plentiful white stuff was “waste area.” So, the clutch shot that Phil Mickelson holed in the final round on the 5th hole was NOT a great sand shot but a great shot from a “waste bunker.” Think I’m wrong? There is no sand data for this event on PGA Tour.com. EVERY shot from within 30 yards of the edge of the green fell into the Tour’s Short Game or Around the Green stats with no distinction between sand, fairway or rough. The important takeaway from this for the rest of us is to know where you are. If the sand is a waste area, we can take practice swings and ground our clubs.
The difficulty of the driving! The wind and changing wind directions were a significant factor. Sir Nick repeatedly mentioned the difficulty of players finding their target lines with the changing winds. Every time I looked for a “target” from a shot behind the players, all I could see was TROUBLE. That said, fairways hit per round at Kiawah (8.3) were almost identical to the 2020 Tour average (8.4). The major difference was in the frequency and severity of the misses – ERRORS! If you have read my articles or blogs, you know that I emphasize driving errors and the significant influence that they have on scoring. These errors fall into three categories:
No Shot – A drive hit out of play requiring an advancement to return to normal play. The average cost for this error on the PGA Tour is .75 shots.
Penalty-1 – Ball hit into a penalty area or unplayable lie. This requires a drop and results in a cost of 1.3 strokes on Tour.
OB/Lost ball – Stroke and distance penalty requiring replaying the shot. These have a cost of 2+ shots. This happens on Tour – but rarely. Tiger had one years ago on his way to a win at Bay Hill.
The ShotByShot.com game analysis program measures driving errors in two ways:
Frequency – # per round.
Severity – The cost, in strokes lost, per error.
In the 2020 PGA Tour season, .63 driving errors were recorded per round at a cost of .89 strokes each. The less costly No Shot errors represent 70% of the Tour total with an average cost of .75 strokes. Obviously, the winners and the TOP-5 made significantly less errors at lower cost than the field.
This holds true for Kiawah, but the average frequency of driving errors was far greater [1.14/round, or +81%] and more severe [average cost 1.12 strokes, or 26% more severe].
I immediately went to look for comparisons. Could we be looking at a new high for Driving difficulty? Bay Hill, with all of its water off the tee, came close with 1.06 errors/round in 2020. But Bethpage Black, home of the 2019 PGA Championship, produced a whopping 1.6 driving errors per round, making Kiawah look like a walk in the park. However, due to very little water or OB at Bethpage, the average cost was only .87 strokes.
In the chart below, I have inserted the Driving error numbers for two male handicap groups from our database. How perilous was the driving at Bethpage Black when the best players in the world made 35% more driving errors than the average, 15-19 handicap golfer?
For a complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game log on to: ShotByShot.com
Putting is 40% of the game at all levels and Mr. 18 only needs to save 1 stroke to match Mr. 9. EASY, Mr. 18 simply needs to reduce his 3-putts from 3 per round to 2 (Mr. 9 is actually 1.8 3-Putts per round). Do this by working on distance control from 20 to 40 feet. Beyond 40 feet, think of it as more of an easy chip shot with your putter. You’re doing well if you leave it within 10 percent of the original distance and below the hole. For reference, the PGA Tour average lag from 20+ feet is to 7% of the start distance (i.e. 57 feet to 4 feet). I recommend 10% for us mere mortals because we are nowhere near the Tour skill level AND the math is much easier.
Finally, work on short putts in the 3 to 10-foot ranges. I recommend starting with 3 feet, then move to 4 to 5 feet. If you can get those ranges to Mr. 9’s one-putt numbers, you’re well on your way.
Here we are examining how to save half a shot in a very small part of the game—just 2 and 1.6 shots per round respectively for Mr. 18 and Mr. 9. The sand game is an underrated skill that produces more errors per attempt than any other part of the game. When I was learning the game, I was afraid of the gaping bunkers surrounding ALL of our 18 greens. I worked hard to gain confidence from the sand that made the greens seem larger and easier to hit.
As always, if you work to avoid errors you’ll solve this portion of the puzzle. Mr. 18 saves 12% of his sand opportunities (with 27% errors) vs. 21% saves for Mr. 9 (only 15% errors).
For a complete Strokes Gained analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com
How can we save two strokes in this less frequently used part of the game (ten shots per round for Mr. 18 vs. eight shots for Mr. 9). As always, please start with avoiding errors. In the short game, these are shots that miss the green AND require four or more strokes to hole out. My pro and mentor spent hours on the short game with me. First, valuable technique instruction. Then competitions @ $1 per shot—best lessons ever! His method was to break the short game shot opportunities into three categories, and this goes for the Sand game as well. Try it—it works.
Green light: Good lie/position, no trouble–try to hole it.
Yellow light: Difficult but doable–play conservatively and try to be left with an uphill, makable putt.
Red light: Very difficult with looming downside–just get the ball on the green and avoid the error.
Next, practice the type of shots that you face the most and especially those that tend to give you problems. Bottom line, hit more shots closer to the hole and avoid costly errors. While this sounds like annoyingly obvious advice, maybe it will help to consider that Mr. 18 saves only 21% of these opportunities vs. 32% for Mr. 9.
For a complete Strokes Gained analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com