The 10 greatest unsung statistical feats of the ShotLink era
The statistical revolution in professional golf has been glorious, and even if it continues to be under-utilized by media and fans, it’s been wonderful to watch the PGA Tour jump into the analytics movement with both feet. It’s more than you can say for some other sports (cough tennis *cough), and it gets better all the time. I can say without reservation that being able to look at advanced statistics like Strokes Gained from angles both broad (who is the best putter?) and narrow (who hits the best wedges between 150 and 159 yards?) has enhanced my enjoyment of the game. And that’s what the best stats do—make an already great sport that much more enjoyable.
One thing I think the media writ large could do a little better—and I include myself in this criticism—is to identify when one player is extremely good at a specific part of the game, as revealed by ShotLink data. Just as we wouldn’t ignore a player with 80 stolen bases or 60 home runs even if his team was bad, we shouldn’t miss an incredible driving year, or a player who spends a season knocking down flags with his long irons, just because that player doesn’t win a big tournament.
That said, with the help of the tour’s advanced stats, here are 10 of the greatest unsung feats of the ShotLink era—accomplishments that you’d never notice in the grand scheme of weekly winners and losers, but that are nonetheless somewhere on the spectrum between “impressive” and “staggering.”
(Note: If you’re new to Strokes Gained, it might help to read this primer, though I’ll try to contextualize everything in simple language. Generally, it’s a way to measure how much a better player performs at a given skill than the tour average.)
10: Charles Howell III and the 16-Bombs Club
There’s nothing more fun than watching a really long putt go down, and lucky for us, the PGA Tour has compiled season totals for made putts of 35 feet and longer going back to 2002. In that time, there are five players who have managed to make 15 bombs in a season. Four of them are Beau Hossler (2018), Hunter Mahan (2011), Brent Geiberger (2006) and Patrick Sheehan (2004). The fifth, Charles Howell III, is the only man to make 16 in a season, which he accomplished in 2003. And sure, this stat depends a lot on luck and opportunity, but that’s part of what makes it fun. So the next time you think of Howell, don’t think of the long-suffering journeyman. Think of golf’s sorta-kinda equivalent of basketball’s three-point rainmakers.
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9. The 11-Foot Men: Mike Weir and Robert Streb
One way to measure a player’s effectiveness on approach shots is by proximity to the hole, and the tour keeps stats for various distances. Since 2004, there are only two men who have averaged a proximity closer than 12 feet to the hole from approach shots inside 100 yards. Those men are Robert Streb, who managed 11 feet, 6 inches in 54 attempts last year, and Mike Weir, who put up 11 feet, 9 inches in 50 attempts in 2010. These are the best “short approach” seasons of the millennium.
8. Calvin Peete, the Driving Machine
OK, this one is technically before the Shotlink era, but the tour’s driving accuracy stats go back to 1980, and I have to use this space to honor Calvin Peete, an accuracy machine off the tee. In his best year, 1983, he hit 1,029 of 1,217 fairways, for a driving percentage of 84.55 percent, the best on record. Even crazier? The guy was the most accurate driver on tour for every single year between 1981 and 1990. That’s a 10-peat! Or, since I guess I have to do this: 10-Peete. That’s the kind of consistency we’re never, ever going to see again. (For those who don’t know Peete, he was the most successful African-American player on Tour before the emergence of one Tiger Woods, and he won 12 times, including the ‘95 Players Championship.)
7. The Sandmen: Mike Weir and Tim Clark
Weir again! In the same year that he dominated in the “approach from inside 100 yards” category, the Canadian also put up the greatest season since at least 2002 in pure sand play. In 77 shots from bunkers in 2010, he averaged a proximity of 5 feet, 9 inches to the hole. Similarly, Tim Clark hit 87 shots out of the sand in 2007, and averaged 5 feet, 10 inches to the pin, good for second all-time. They’re the only two tour players to beat the six-foot mark since the stats have been kept.
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6. Wagner, the Fringe God
This is what I secretly love the most about comprehensive stats: Nobody cares about how well you do from the fringe. It’s not really an important stat in any way—it’s just normal putting and/or chipping with a few inches of slightly longer grass at the start—and it entails a high degree of luck. Nor are the sample sizes very big. BUT, it can be measured! And so we know that Johnson Wagner had the best single season of putting from the fringe in recorded history (since 2002), getting his fringe putts/chips to an average distance of 19 inches from the pin in 2018. He narrowly edged out Jordan Spieth, who set the world record (that we know of) of 20 inches in 2015.
5. Luke Donald’s SG: Putting Three-Peat
To me, strokes gained/putting is the ultimate advanced metric in golf. It’s a beautiful measure of how much better a given player is than the "average" golfer, and I think it succeeds marvelously in what it sets out to do, which is to identify the game’s best putter. And that makes what Donald did from 2009 to 2011 so impressive—each year, he won the SG/Putting category, meaning he was essentially the best putter in the world for three straight seasons. Since 2004, when the measurements begin, only Ben Crane and Greg Chalmers have won even two SG/P titles, and Donald almost made it four in a row when he finished second to Snedeker in 2012. Even in 2017, long after his prime, Donald was good enough to finish third. There’s a great argument to be made that Donald is the best putter of his generation.
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4. Approaching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Look, I knew Tiger Woods was good at approach shots, but I’m not sure I knew how good. Strokes gained/approach-the-green is exactly what it sounds like: A measure of player’s talent on approach shots compared to the average, on a round-by-round basis. There have been some great seasons, but only one player has ever averaged more than 1.5 strokes gained per round in this specific category. (And other than Adam Scott, who put up a 1.491 number in 2016, nobody has even come close.) It is, of course, Tiger, who did it three times. But his best season of all, post-2004, came in 2006, when he went into beast mode and finished the season averaging 2.072 SG in his measured rounds. The scary part is, there’s a really good chance that his totals were even higher in the 1998 to 2002 years.
3. The Norman Three-Putt Gauntlet
Sue me: Another pre-ShotLink stat. Going back to 1992, Greg Norman is the only PGA Tour golfer to make it through an entire season three-putting on less than 1 percent of his holes. It happened in 1994, when he three-putted 11 times in 1,134 total holes, just dipping under that 1 percent mark at .97 (one more three putt, and he’d have missed it). It’s an astonishing figure, and only Rick Fehr (1996) has given him a real scare since—Fehr finished with one three-putt too many that year, ending at 1.05 percent. This, to me, is the closest thing golf statistics has to an unbreakable record.
2. Tiger, the Bogey Evader
Did you need more evidence to back up the claim that Tiger Woods’ 2000 season was great in ways that “historical” doesn’t begin to cover? Well, here you go—since stats were compiled in 1983, there has only been one man to make bogey on less than 10 percent of the holes he played. That would be Woods, who made 134 bogeys on 1,368 holes played in 2000 for a 9.80 “makes bogey” percent. There are very, very few people who have done better than 12 percent, even less who have been lower than 11 percent, but Tiger’s 2000 is a year the likes of which we’ll likely never reach again.
1. Jason Day’s 1.130 strokes gained putting in 2016
The tour’s SG/Putting stats go back to 2004, and in that time, only one man has ever managed to average more than one stroke gained/putting for an entire season: Jason Day. It was 2016, and Day’s 1.130 figure was almost .4 better than second place (Jordan Spieth), and doubled the total of every single player outside the top 10. What that means, on a basic level, is that only one player has ever been a full stroke better on the greens than the average tour pro in a given round for 12 months. Even more simply: 2016 was the greatest putting year in recent history, and maybe ever.
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