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Is Distance or Accuracy Preferable Off the Tee?

The driving distance vs. driving accuracy debate is one of the longest running in the golf community. You cannot go a single televised round without a commentator stating the critical importance of hitting fairways, while a lot of the new statistical research supports the idea of driving distance being of preeminent importance. Players have also shaped their games towards one of the extremes; Tiger Woods under Sean Foley struggled with hitting fairways, so he often opted for irons/woods off the tee – shorter distance, but more accuracy. What I have found is that you can find information to support both view points depending on what stats you’re looking at, but in terms of producing lower scores distance is king.

Impact on Hitting Greens:

Greens in regulation is the best of the traditional stats in judging performance in professional golf. Each missed green relative to the field average costs a player around 0.6 strokes – a huge sum. In comparison, each missed fairway relative to the field costs only around 0.3 strokes. One of my first posts examined the relationship between driving distance and accuracy (it’s negative: R = -0.48) and how driving distance and accuracy predict greens in regulation (pretty well: R^2 = 0.49). A linear regression of driving distance and driving accuracy on greens in regulation showed that distance and accuracy were almost equally predictive of greens in regulation [1]. That means that long/inaccurate hitters hit about as many greens as short/accurate hitters.

I replicated this study with 2014 season data and found almost the exact same results. The only difference was that accuracy was slightly superior in producing greens in regulation than distance. But in general the results were consistent; if hitting greens is a player’s main concern, it doesn’t matter whether they’re long/inaccurate or short/accurate.

Impact on Scoring:

However, that’s not the conclusion reached when you look deeper into the data. I have calculated Strokes Gained Driving for all qualifying Tour players this season. Strokes Gained Driving was invented by Mark Broadie (look here & here) and measures the value of all par 4 and par 5 tee shots depending on how far they end up from the pin and whether they’re in the rough, fairway, first cut, bunker, out of bounds, water, etc. In short, it tells you how well each player drove the ball this season. Mark has posts here and here on PGA discussing the leaders and the results are pretty intuitive on who is normally seen as good at driving.

Using driving distance and accuracy, I attempted to predict Strokes Gained Driving using a linear regression. The two stats were highly predictive (R^2 = 0.88), but driving distance was more valuable to predicting Strokes Gained Driving [2]. In fact, a PGA Tour player in the top ten in driving distance and near the bottom in accuracy (think Dustin Johnson or Jimmy Walker) gains about 0.45 strokes per round on another player who is near the bottom in driving distance and top ten in accuracy (think Zach Johnson or Graeme McDowell). The same relationship holds closer to average: it’s preferable to be slightly longer than slightly more accurate in general. You hit closer approach shots which produce easier looks at birdie.

Impact on Birdie & Bogey Rates:

I finally looked at the impact of driving distance and accuracy on Birdie% and Bogey%. For Birdie% I used the PGA Tour’s Par 4 Birdie or Better stat and for Bogey% I used the PGA Tour’s Bogey Avoidance stat. Both were the best available, though they aren’t adjusted for course difficulty which may limit these results. Distance and accuracy proved much less predictive of Birdie% and Bogey% than they were of Strokes Gained Driving and GIR (which makes sense because we’re ignoring scrambling ability and putting). The R^2 for predicting Birdie% was only 0.15 and only 0.06 for predicting Bogey%.

However, the results for Birdie% showed a clear advantage for those long and inaccurate drivers in generating birdies (about 1% more Birdies for long/inaccurate hitters) [3]. The results for Bogey% showed a clear disadvantage for those long and inaccurate drivers in avoiding bogeys (about 1% more Bogeys for long/inaccurate hitters) [4]. Long hitters make more birdies, but also more bogeys. Short hitters make fewer birdies, but avoid bogeys. That’s fairly intuitive.

Summing it all up:

Based on these results it’s clear that long/inaccurate hitters hit about as many greens as short/accurate hitters, but they produce way more value with their tee-shots. They hit their approach shots from easier positions in general than the shorter hitters and produce more birdies. However, they¬† hit into dangerous areas slightly more and make more bogeys than the short/accurate hitters. In fact, these results indicate that it’s easier to consistently hit greens when you’re in the fairway, but it’s easier to produce those close approach shots that turn into birdies when you’re closer to the pin

The main take-away though is that long/inaccurate hitters produce more value with their drives over the course of the season. They’re constantly hitting closer approach shots which leads to more birdies. The only advantage possessed by short/accurate hitters is avoiding bogeys, but at the cost of making fewer birdies.



[1] the coefficients were: 0.003 for yards above PGA Tour average and 0.447 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[2] the coefficients were: 0.0645 for yards above PGA Tour average and 4.504 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[3] the coefficients were: 0.1595 for the intercept, 0.00121 for yards above PGA Tour average, and 0.0635 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[4] the coefficients were: 0.1709 for the intercept, -0.00032 for yards above PGA Tour average, and 0.0981 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[5] All stats here have been adjusted for course except for the Birdie% and Bogey%