How do pros dominate par-5s? The answer lies in the second shot

Wednesday February 15th, 2017
Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 16th hole during day four of the BMW South African Open Championship
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At an average of 560 yards, par-5 holes on the PGA Tour are brutes. The longest one—No. 16 on Firestone Country Club's South course—clocks in at 667 yards. Despite the length, Tour pros average 0.3 strokes under par on par-5 holes (compared with an average slightly over par on par 3s and 4s), and the top pros go even lower than that.

Who are the Tour's fiercest par-5 slayers? And what contributes most to their success?

To answer the first question, I ranked players by their scoring advantage relative to the field (taking into account that some courses are stocked with tough par 5s while others have easier ones). In 2016, Rory McIlroy gained an incredible 0.26 strokes per par 5 versus the field. The next best players, in order of par-5 dominance, were Henrik Stenson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. This group scored an average of 0.2 strokes better on par 5s compared with the typical Tour pro.

How did these players dismantle the game's longest holes? About 43 percent of their total gain came from tee shots, which averaged 13 yards longer than the field, while hitting virtually the same number of fairways. After aggressive second shots, these six players were within 40 yards of the hole 63 percent of the time, a leap above the field average of 49 percent. Amazingly, after two shots, McIlroy finished within 40 yards of the hole 76 percent of the time. In total, these six players gained 65 percent of their scoring advantage with their first two shots.

Who are the best par-5 players in the world? You'll find most of them in the top 10 of the world ranking.
Illustration by Paul Crawford

Among those whose par-5 tee shots were shorter than Tour average in 2016, the best in par-5 scoring versus the field included Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter, Francesco Molinari and Zach Johnson. The top six in this category averaged 0.09 strokes better on par 5s compared with average Tour pros, with 78 percent of their gain coming from shot No. 3 and later. Better wedge play and putting allowed them to outscore the field on par 5s, but not crush the field like McIlroy and company.

After two shots, even the shorter-hitting six got within 40 yards of par-5 holes 47 percent of the time.

The lessons for weekend golfers? On par 5s and long par 4s, try to get as close as possible to the green in two shots—which, of course, requires keeping your ball out of the hay and other hazards. Even if you drive it shorter than your peers, you can still outscore them with superior wedge play and putting.

Out on Tour, certain players absolutely light up par 5s—and vice versa

2016 leaders in reaching par-5 greens in two:

Rory McIlroy (26% of the time)

Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau (25%)

Stewart Cink (24%)

Harold Varner III, Adam Scott, Jason Kokrak, Gary Woodland, Henrik Stenson and Justin Thomas (23%)

Best par-5 scoring relative to the field since 1996:

Tiger Woods, who, in 2000, gained 0.40 strokes on the field per par-5 hole. From 1996 to 2016, Woods led the Tour 12 times in this stat.

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