By Austin Tymins
Since the early days of the game, golf enthusiasts have been inspired and amazed by the long ball. The herculean viciousness of the long drive has long enraptured fans with the captivating pop off the clubface, the soaring height, and the heroic carry. In the lead up to this past weekend’s U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay, many analysts were predicting strong finishes from those capable of hitting the long ball. This narrative was largely formed on the incredible length of Chambers Bay—7,906 yards when maxed out. While total yardage is likely a good indication of which courses are best for long hitters, it is possible that there are courses that favor long-hitters irrespective of total yardage.
The Masters tournament has to be the foremost example of a tournament in which long-hitters are believed to have a distinct advantage. Over the years, long-hitters have donned many a green jacket including Jack Nicklaus (6), Tiger Woods (4), Phil Mickelson (3), and Bubba Watson (2). Additionally, a look at recent Masters champions seems to support this notion. The list of recent champions includes many long-hitters including Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Phil Mickelson, and Angel Cabrera. The long-ball dominance at Augusta is supposedly based on the relative importance of being able to reach the par-5s in two since all four holes are reachable for long hitters.
The only short hitters to have won at Augusta in the last 20 years have been Zach Johnson in 2007 and Mike Weir in 2003. Zach Johnson won while laying up on every single par 5 over the course of 72 holes and instead outpaced the field with brilliant wedge play. Interestingly enough, Weir and Johnson, who both won in bad weather conditions, also share the two highest aggregate totals for Masters winners in the last 20 years. Furthermore, this year’s Grand-Slam-chasing Jordan Spieth won the 2015 Masters while only ranking 71st on tour in driving distance hitting it 291.5 on average, which puts him right in the middle of the driving distance peloton. See the histogram below for Average Driving Distances from 2010-2014 on tour next to the normal distribution.
I set out to determine which tournaments and courses present the biggest advantage for long-hitters over the field. To do this, I looked at the last five years of PGA and major tournament results and the current season’s driving statistics at year-end. This analysis is done for 43 different tournaments and produced nearly 30,000 observations. I then regressed the individual player’s average round score at each tournament on their average driving distance from the current season. This was done so as to include the variation presented by cut players and to avoid potential selection bias.
Before I get to the results, a couple quick notes. I presented values for the Quicken Loans/AT&T National, BMW Championship, Sanderson Farms Championship, The Barclays, the Frys.com Open, and the three rotating majors even though these tournaments took place on more than a single course from 2010-2014. Additionally, the Farmers Insurance Open, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and Humana Challenge are traditionally played on more than one course. For these reasons, it may be best to view these results with the proverbial grain of salt since one would expect the distance advantage to be seen most clearly on repeated playing on a singular course layout.
Below are the results with the majors highlighted in yellow. The regression results and t-statistics are shown in the middle columns (SeasonDriving, Constant). The BubbaWatson and JustinLeonard columns show the fitted average score values for someone of Bubba’s driving distance (314.3 yards) and Justin Leonard’s driving distance (270.3 yards), the longest and shortest drivers on tour in 2014. The final column is the stroke difference between the expected Bubba score and the expected Leonard score. As we can see, -2.6 strokes per round in the most extreme case is very clearly meaningful in a real world sense.
Perhaps the most interesting finding is that major championships seem to drastically favor the long-ball hitter when compared to other golf events. The Open Championship is first on the list for long-hitter dominance, the U.S. Open is third, the Masters is sixth, and the PGA Championship is in the top half. Additionally, the long-hitter effect is statistically significant below the 1% level at the Open Championship and U.S. Open, and below the 5% significance level for the Masters.
The scatterplot and fitted line for the Open Championship are presented below. As we can see, the obvious negative relationship matches up well with the regression results.
At the very bottom of the table, we are presented with a few tournaments in which long-hitting ability is disadvantageous. It is interesting to note that many of these tournaments take place on the shorter end of the spectrum of PGA Tour courses. Short courses such as Harbour Town GL are well known for penalizing inaccuracy off the tee while rewarding precision and ball placement. In this way, it is very possible that this reverse long-hitter effect we see is just affirming the relative importance of driving accuracy in these tournaments. Previous studies have shown that driving distance and accuracy are strongly negatively correlated and it is very likely these results are simply expressing that point.
An obvious follow-up question pertains to total course yardage. How important is a tournament’s total yardage in determining the long-hitter advantage? To do this, I simply regressed the fitted Stroke Difference values from above on the course yardage (for tournaments with many courses, I weighted accordingly). The scatterplot and fitted line are below.
This regression produces the formula Y=16.3313-.0023(CourseYardage) and a p-value of 0.0097, below the 1% level for statistical significance. While there are likely many factors that determine if a course is gainful for long-hitters or not, yardage is certainly the easiest, and most informative place to look as a first approximation.