With Jordan Spieth’s massive success so far this season – three wins, including the first two majors of the season – it’s become common to attribute his success to either his fantastic putting (especially from long range) or his, in general, well-rounded overall game. This phenomenon represents a continuation of Spieth being cast as a generic blank canvas onto which fans can paint any picture they want. But more importantly, it’s incorrect. Not only is Spieth a fantastic putter, but his elite driving ability has fueled his greatness this season.
The bomb and gauge mentality has so infused the PGA Tour in the past decades that driving ability is almost completely conflated with distance off the tee. Sure there’s some lip service paid to the idea that accuracy is important, but when we talk about the best drivers in the game we talk about the longest guys – Rory, DJ, Bubba, etc. However, along with the guys who bomb it out there 310 yards, there’s another more rare category of driving stars: those who can hit for average or slightly better length while hitting it extremely straight. In this category, you normally see Henrik Stenson, Billy Horschel, and Hunter Mahan – guys who hit it longer than average, while keeping it play more than almost anyone else on Tour.
In 2013, Jordan Spieth was also in this group of guys. He drove the ball slightly longer than average (283 yards vs. 280 average), while hitting 68% of his fairways (16th best on Tour). My estimate of his driving performance shows him gaining strokes at a top 10 rate – similar to Mahan and Stenson. Things went sour for him in 2014; despite an overall game that was buoyed to a top 25 level by an elite short-game and strong putting, Spieth slipped well down the list in terms of driving performance. He again hit it about 3 yards further than average, but he was spraying drives everywhere – hitting only 58% of his fairways. This put him in trouble often, and led him to rank in the 90s in terms of his strokes gained on drives.
This year, it’s clear that he’s hitting his drives at or better than the level we saw in 2013, but not because he’s added much distance to his game. He’s still out-hitting the average pro by 3-5 yards, just like in 2013 and 2014. However, he’s doing a much better job of keeping his drives in play. He’s hitting 63% of his fairways and he’s also greatly reduced his average miss using driver – indicating he’s hitting that club much straighter. And it’s clearly paying off on the course; he’s gaining about 0.04 strokes/drive more with his driver this year than last year. To put that in context, it’s increasing his chance of birdie by 4% or reducing his chance of bogey by 4%.
Where he’s really seeing gains is in his par 5 scoring. Last year, he made birdie or better on par 5s 45% of the time. The Tour’s stats had him going for the green in two on half his opportunities (roughly average for the Tour). He putted well overall on par 5s, gaining about 0.01 strokes/non-gimme putt. This year, he’s making birdie or better on par 5s 47% of the time, despite really struggling with the putter (-0.02 strokes/non-gimme putt). So he’s scoring better on the par 5s, despite a cold putter. Most of that can be attributed to him upping his going for the green rate to 58%.
That’s where the impact of his re-found accuracy really shows through. Spieth’s decision making on par 5 second shots mirrors an average Tour player; ie, he’ll normally go for it in the fairway, but lay-up in the rough. His ability to be aggressive on par 5s is completely determined by how well he’s hitting it off the tee. The bombers on Tour can be more aggressive from the rough because they’re facing shorter shots. Last year, when Spieth wasn’t consistently hitting fairways, he wasn’t able to keep up with the bombers who were going for greens. This year, he’s at least able to compete with those guys despite not hitting it anywhere near their distance.
With Spieth and Rory McIlroy holding all four major trophies and being in their twenties, it seems almost certain that the game will be centered around them for the next decade and a half. What’s great about their coming rivalry is the contrast in their games. The battles between Tiger, Phil, and Vijay Singh in the 2000s were ones of pure power – each had great distance off the tee, allowing them to play aggressively. Rory mirrors this approach, gaining most of his advantage off the tee. On the other hand, it’s Spieth’s accuracy off the tee that’s fueling his success, along with a reliable short game and one of the top putting strokes on Tour.