Who Is the PGA Tour's best driver? The stats say it's Bubba Watson
Let's kick off this column by looking at tee shots. How can we identify the best driver on the PGA Tour? The two traditional measures of driving performance are Driving Distance and Fairways Hit. Both have their flaws. At each week's Tour stop, Driving Distance is measured using only two holes, but this ignores most of a course's par 4s and par 5s! As for Fairways Hit, that category fails to distinguish drives that finish in the first cut from those that finish in the water—both simply count as a missed fairway. Combining two flawed stats to create the Total Driving category is like trying to make a cake out of sour milk and spoiled eggs. There's a better way.
Combining two flawed stats to create the Total Driving category is like trying to make a cake out of sour milk and spoiled eggs. There's a better way.
My new approach (which the Tour is planning to adopt) is called "Strokes Gained Driving." It works like this. Suppose the average score for Tour pros on a given par 4 is 4.0. One player hits a long drive down the middle of the fairway to a position where the average to hole out is 2.8 strokes. The drive moved the pro 1.2 strokes closer to the hole. Since an average drive moves the player 1.0 stroke closer to the hole, this drive "gained" 0.2 strokes against his competition. Do this for all tee shots on par 4s and par 5s—not just on two holes—and calculate the results. The result is Strokes Gained Driving, which has properties that just make sense: Longer in the fairway is better than shorter in the fairway. Fairway is better than rough. Rough is better than hitting into the drink.
So who's the best "driver" on Tour—that is, the best from the tee on par 4s and par 5s, which includes drivers but also woods and some irons, too? One man has finished either first or second in Strokes Gained Driving the last four years: current Masters champion Bubba Watson. (As a comparison, he finished T-75, T-35, 31 and 22 in Total Driving in those years.) From 2010 to 2013, Watson gained a whopping 1.1 strokes per round against his Tour competition from his driving. He reaches more par 5s in two, hits shorter irons into par 4s, and can drive shorter par 4s. Those advantages add up. To put his 1.1-stroke advantage into perspective, the putting leaders over the last four years gained an average of about 0.9 strokes per round.
You might be thinking, "But I can't hit it as far as Bubba." True. But you can be more Bubba-like in other ways off the tee. For example, on average, Watson hits into a penalty situation only 1.7 percent of the time off the tee. The typical 90-shooter does that twice as often. Cut your penalty shots off the tee by half and you'll save one or more strokes per round. After all, every shot counts.
How to Drive It Like Bubba
"What frees Bubba to be so aggressive off the tee is a clear mental picture of his shot shape," says Top 100 Teacher Brady Riggs. "To swing freely like him, fully commit to the kind of shot you want to hit—draw, cut, high, low. Making this your dominant mental image takes your mind off what could go wrong. It's liberating. The 90-shooter is too dogmatic about 'just hit it straight.' High handicappers can hook it or fade it 30 yards with practice. So get creative with your shot shape, and visualize it. That's Bubba Golf!"
PGA Tour leaders in Strokes Gained Driving [per round, through Shell Houston Open]
1. Bubba Watson - 1.25
2. Dustin Johnson - 1.09
3. Ryan Palmer - 0.83
4. Adam Scott - 0.78
5. Gary Woodland - 0.76