Every shot counts is a consistent refrain you hear in golf, particularly when talking about the pro game. At that level, of course, the shots count for more than just numbers on players’ scorecards but also dollars in the bank accounts.
But just how much do they count? And does one shot count more than another?
With the conclusion of the 2018-’19 PGA Tour season, we went through the results of every tour event to do some investigating and answer a few questions. The working query was this: If a tour pro shot even par in every round of golf the entire season, how would he fare? How about shooting one under par every round? Or two under par? We went a step further and looked at what might happen if you shot a ½-stroke under par or 1½ strokes. How would this change things?
In crunching the numbers, we left out the WGC-Dell Match Play and the Zurich Classic, because of their variance from individual stroke-play competition, and the three FedEx Cup Playoff events, in an attempt to simulate how players would do in the regular season. That leaves 41 tournaments, counting majors, World Golf Championships and events opposite the WGCs, to gauge how many dollars and FedEx Cup points tour pros would earn at the different levels of proficiency. That number is obviously higher than any PGA Tour member plays in a regular season; the average number of starts for the 125 players on the final regular-season FedEx Cup points list was 21.5. But allow us to use it as a starting point.
So here is what happens if a golfer played every tournament and shot even par in every round he played:
As you can see, shooting even par on the PGA Tour isn’t a bad thing—a golfer would keep his tour card by ranking 118th on the FedEx Cup points list and be able to boast that he cleared a million bucks in one year—but it isn’t going to turn anybody into a household name. The problem here, however, is that the data is skewed because even par at the PGA Championship left you in seventh place. The next best finish for the tour pro who shot even par in every round of every event was a 21st at the WGC-HSCB Champions. The PGA Championship becomes a bit of an outlier. Additionally, no golfer could play in two tournaments in the same week.
So let’s take out the majors and the WGCs, and keep the other events. This means we’re counting 34 tournaments, still well above the tour average but in the interest of our experiment, it’s a reasonable jumping off point (we would rather not bias our results by randomly taking out other regular-season tour events). Here’s the new break down:
Not quite as impressive. Now a golfer is heading to the Korn Ferry Final series in hopes of getting back his PGA Tour for next year.
OK, so what if a golfer played incrementally better, shooting the equivalent of a ½-stroke under par each round rather than even par? Under this scenario, players would be sitting on one under par after 36 holes in every tournament (and hoping that was good enough to make the cut) then would finish at two under par in every 72-hole tournament. Here is how those golfers would fare, broken down by all events, then pulling out majors and pulling out majors and WGCs.
Understandably, majors and WGCs continue to prop up the overall numbers, given that these events are ones where the scores are highest so ½-stroke under par goes a lot farther than it does at the Desert Classic. But if you’re a rank-and-file member of the PGA Tour who isn't necessarily eligible for all those tournaments in the first place, and you then play a healthy diet of regular-season events, shooting a shot or two under par every few rounds isn’t really going to cut it either. Ultimately, you’d still be outside the top 125 on the FedEx Cup points list and needing to figure out another way to get back on the PGA Tour. (And again, we're working off 34 starts, which is higher than anyone played in 2018-’19; the tour leader was Sungjae Im at 32.)
Next up: What if a tour pro shot one stroke under par each round? The math is simple enough: This golfer is shooting a two-under total for Thursday and Friday and finishes four under at the end of play on Sunday (if he’s made the cut). Here are the results:
The good news? You’re making more cuts. Where the even-par shooter was only playing on the weekend 35.2 percent of the time in non-major/WGC events, the one-under shooter does it at a 64.7-percent rate. There’s also a few top-10 and top-20 finishes now being recorded, allowing players to bank some money and FedEx Cup points. For the first time you’re comfortably keeping your tour card and even putting yourself in a position to play more than just one FedEx Cup playoff event.
So what happens if a tour pro is shooting 1½ strokes under par? This means he’s three under through 36 holes and six under for the tournament. Here’s how the data breaks down:
In this case, you’d have posted top-10 finishes in three of the majors (only T-18 at the Masters), so the numbers counting all events put you in the top-10 in earnings and FedEx Cup points. Weed out the majors, and the WGCs as well, and you’ve still got nine top-20 finishes, three top-10s and are on the cusp of getting into the Tour Championship if you can perform well in the first two FedEx Cup playoff events.
Lastly, let’s look at what happens if a tour pro shoots two under par every round. The results shouldn’t necessarily be surprising.
First off: Congratulations are in order! If you shot eight under par in every tournament, you would have been a two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2018-'19. And a major champion to boot, having taken the PGA Championship title at Bethpage in May. Once again, if we weed out the majors and WGCs, you’d still be a winner, as eight-under-par 276 won Paul Casey the title this year at the Valspar Championship.
As you can see, shooting two under per round will allow you to finish in the top 20 more than a third of the time and in the top 10 in nearly a quarter of your starts.
So what are the biggest takeaways from all this? (And don’t be a smart aleck and say you win more money if you shoot lower scores!) Let’s take a look at two more charts. The first is the performances on tour broken down by stroke levels (even par, ½-stroke under, one stroke under, etc.). The second is money and FedEx Cup points earned, also broken down by the stroke levels.
What’s interesting is the non-linear way an extra ½-stroke helps as your scoring already is getting lower. Going from even-par shooting to ½-stroke under par lets you jump in earnings (about $300,000) and FedEx Cup points (roughly 130), but that extra ½-stroke if you’re already at one under par a round moves you up the earnings/points rankings by a larger margin (nearly $1 million and about 390 points). And another extra ½-stroke to go from 1½ strokes under to two under is worth $2.6 million and nearly 1,000 FedEx Cup points. This is a by-product of the fact the tour awards more dollars and FedEx Cup points for higher finishes, but it serves as a good lesson to all tour pros—and any fans who watch them compete.
Yes, every stroke counts, but the strokes and ½-strokes that take you from the good to the very good range on the PGA Tour “count” incrementally even more.