If you find yourself wondering if you read that correctly, you did. The old golf adage really goes, “Drive for show, putt for dough,” which implies a golfer who hits the ball far may look flashy and impressive, but what really matters is how well a golfer putts. With the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs under way, we figured it would be a topic worth addressing.
The question at hand essentially breaks down into two parts:
- Which of the two skills, driving and putting, are statistically relevant to a golfer’s success?
- If both are relevant, which one is of greater value?
Naturally, this begs the question as to what other skills add value. To answer that, we examined seven different player skills:
- Driving distance.
- Driving accuracy.
- Iron play – skill used to hit approach shots toward the green.
- Recovery – ability to hit proficient shots from difficult situations and ball placements (e.g., from behind a tree).
- Chipping – skill used to hit short shots from around the green.
- Sand play – skill used to hit shots from sand bunkers.
Using data from 10 seasons of PGA Tour golf and regression analysis, we found evidence suggesting putting and driving distance both play a statistically significant role in determining a golfer’s success.[i] More specifically, it was implied putting had a greater marginal value than driving distance and the greatest marginal value overall.[ii] In the hierarchy of marginal values, on average, driving distance was third, right behind iron play in second. As such, it would appear the old adage is neither entirely true nor entirely false. Both skills were significant, yet putting was of greater value, hence the title of this post: “Drive for Dough, Putt for Dough.”
Furthermore, the recovery skill came in fourth in terms of marginal value, which comes as no real surprise considering it isn’t used often by the world’s best golfers. One notable exception: Bubba Watson’s shot during sudden death in the 2012 Masters (Figure 1). For those not familiar, Bubba was caught far to the right of the fairway when he hit the shot of his life out of the trees and onto the green.
Needless to say, Bubba’s ability to hit that shot was essential to his victory.
As for the other skills examined, chipping followed the recovery skill at fifth in value, and sand play brought up the rear of statistically significant factors. The only skill found to be statistically insignificant was driving accuracy.
But wait, there’s more. In typical nerd fashion, we upped the ante by employing quantile regressions. Sparing you the economic mumbo jumbo, these types of regressions allow you to analyze the marginal values of skill at various overall levels of golf proficiency. In other words, it’s possible to see whether the values of these skills change as a golfer gets better overall.
The results of these regressions offer perhaps the most insight, as three notable trends arise along with one other tidbit. Unsurprisingly, the three trends concern the three most valuable skills—driving distance, iron play and putting—and the tidbit involves driving accuracy.
What we ultimately find is that as a golfer becomes more skilled overall (Tiger Woods v. you), the marginal values for iron play and putting tend to decrease, whereas the marginal value for driving distance tends to increase. In fact, it increases so much that at the highest levels of overall skill, driving distance adds the next most value behind only putting.
The results seem to be intuitive. As a golfer becomes more skilled overall, said golfer will relatively gain more benefit from longer drives. This is because longer drives result in closer approach shots. And because the golfer is more skilled in general, said golfer is better suited to take advantage of the better positioned shot. Then, since a closer approach shot increases the likelihood of a shot closer in proximity to the hole, the golfer will likely face a shorter putt, which is again advantageous. Thus, a more skilled golfer will benefit from longer drives more so than one of lesser skill.
As for the tidbit of information, we find driving accuracy to be statistically significant exclusively at the lowest levels of overall skill. Again, this is not surprising because a golfer who is of lesser skill overall will likely need to be in or around the fairway to have a legitimate chance at reaching the green.
To recap, the results suggest putting returns the greatest value for golfers. In general, the next skill in terms of value was iron play, which was followed closely by driving distance. The rest of the observed skills in order were recovery, chipping and sand play. Further, as a golfer becomes more skilled overall, they will benefit relatively more from increases in driving distance and less from increases in putting and iron play. Lastly, the ability to drive accurately was statistically significant exclusively at the lowest overall skill levels.
So the next time you’re practicing the world’s longest drive, you can rest a bit easier knowing you’re adding value to your game. Just consider heading to the putting green after you’re done.