Henrik Stenson is an anomaly, and not just because he’s one of the best golfers on the planet. Of 225 pros who have appeared regularly in PGA Tour events in 2014 & 2015, Stenson has used something less than driver on his tee shots the 2nd most. Across the Tour, golfers use driver on approximately 72% of par 4/5 holes. For longer hitters the percentage falls to around 64% and for shorter hitters the percentage rises to around 81%. Stenson, however, uses driver only 33% of the time. Despite this, Stenson ranks around 25th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Driving over the past two seasons. However, based on how well he hits driver, he could rank among the truly elite of the sport off the tee if he would only use the club more often
To establish how much of an anomaly Stenson’s driver usage is, take a look at the graph below. I have plotted the driving distance and driving accuracy for all regular Tour golfers when using driver only. Driving distance is shown as yards and accuracy as degrees off-line from center (in other words, less means straighter drives). The color indicates the percentage of holes where each golfer used driver – with blue indicating most often and orange indicating least often. The further towards the upper right corner a golfer is, the better his drives. Unsurprisingly, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, and Adam Scott are in that range, while a little further down are the long, super-accurate guys like Hideki Matsuyama. Henrik Stenson (the dark orange dot) is directly between those two groups – meaning he’s both very long (11th longest) and accurate (64th best) with driver. You’ll notice that of the golfers near Stenson, all of them are hitting driver at least 62% of the time. They recognize that their length provides a huge advantage and their accuracy allows them to keep it in play most of the time when they do use driver. However, Stenson only uses driver 33% of the time, much less often than even the wildest guys like Aaron Baddeley and John Daly.
Below I’ve charted Stenson’s tee shot strategy (driver vs. fairway wood) based on how often the field is hitting driver (>67%, 33-67%, <33% of the time). You can see on holes where more than two thirds of the field hits driver, Stenson performs 0.06 strokes better when he uses driver. On these holes where the field sees an advantage to hitting driver, but Stenson plays very conservative golf, using driver only 41% of the time. Stenson only makes the aggressive play – using driver when the field mostly lays-up – on 8 of 129 holes (6%). I compared the Strokes Gained with driver vs. fairway wood for my sample and the gap for Stenson between driver and fairway wood was the twelfth largest (of 225 golfers). In other words, when he chooses fairway wood over driver, he loses the twelfth most strokes on Tour. The top ten on this list uses driver on 69% of holes; Stenson on only 33% of holes. I came up with three reasonable hypotheses for why Stenson could be making the right play by hitting so few drivers. I’ll address them one by one.
1. The course dictated lay-ups: In the fifteen Shot Link events Stenson has played since the start of 2014, the field has used driver on between 61% (Valspar 2015) and 87% (WGC-Bridgestone 2014) of holes. The average is 71% on the courses he has played compared to 72% on an average Tour course. The courses he has played do not explain why he doesn’t use driver more often.
2. Stenson actually hits fairway woods better than driver: Stenson does actually hit his fairway woods better than almost every other golfer on Tour. He has ranked 14th in distance and 15th in accuracy with a fairway wood (compared to everyone else with a fairway wood) over 2014-15, so it is clearly the strength that everyone thinks it is. However, as stated above, he has ranked 11th in distance and 64th in accuracy with driver, so his driver is similarly strong. It’s not as if he’s wild with the driver. In fact, Stenson hits driver well enough that he gains the 4th most strokes on the field when he uses driver (only McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Bubba rank ahead of him). Stenson performs well with fairway wood also, but gains only the 42nd most strokes with a fairway wood because he lays-up so often on holes where most other golfers are hitting driver. His ~278 yard drives with a fairway wood are being compared to 290 yard drives by the rest of the field. In total, he gains about 0.07 strokes more per drive with driver compared to fairway wood.
3. Stenson’s game requires him to hit fairways, so he plays conservatively: Most Tour pros (~80%) are more accurate when hitting fairway wood than driver. In general, this equates to hitting 67% of fairways with fairway wood and 57% with driver. For Henrik Stenson, the gap is slightly larger – 72% of fairways with fairway wood and 55% with driver. If Stenson is hitting fairway wood in order to hit more fairways, he’s achieving that goal. And that could be valuable for Stenson because he has one of the largest gaps between his approach shot play from the fairway versus from the rough. Golfer ability from the fairway versus rough varies like any other skill; those who play best from the fairway gain around 0.07 strokes on fairway shots versus rough shots and vice-versa for those who play best from the rough. For a pro that falls on the ‘better from the fairway’ side of the spectrum, prioritizing hitting fairways makes some sense because each extra fairway hit leverages his skill at playing from the fairway. Stenson falls into this category – gaining 0.07 strokes on the field on approach shots from the fairway and losing -0.01 strokes on approach shots from the rough.
So if Stenson is hitting a lot of fairway woods because he prioritizes hitting fairways, is he making the right play? In short, no. Using a fairway wood only increases his odds of hitting the fairway by 17%. Multiply that 17% by the 0.08 strokes better he performs on approach shots from the fairway and he gains only 0.01 strokes worth of value per hole from hitting more fairways off of lay-ups. Contrast that with the value he loses because he is hitting fairway wood shorter than driver. He loses 0.07 strokes for each fairway wood he hits, all because he is losing an average of 28 yards of distance when using the shorter club. He hits about four more fairway woods than the average bomber each round, meaning he is losing a quarter of a stroke just because of his club selection.
Stenson is already one of the best in the world, but he has the real opportunity to change up his strategy and gain a huge amount of on-course value. I quoted a figure of 0.25 strokes gained if he adopts a similar club selection strategy to other bombers like Adam Scott. Such a gain would jump him from 24th best on Drives to 5th best. Playing more aggressively in situations where the field is hitting driver and he is currently hitting fairway wood would allow him to better exploit his ridiculous length and accuracy with driver, gaining that quarter of a stroke on the field and drawing closer to McIlroy and Spieth’s level at the top of the game.
All Henrik Stenson drives (2014-15) are linked here.