A common storyline on the PGA Tour over the last few seasons has been the rise of the bomber — players with massive length off the tee and little regard for hitting fairways. These long hitters are fundamentally changing the game with their distance — or so we’ve been told. But when looking at the statistical data, longer hitters aren’t winning any more frequently now than they were in decades past. In fact, the inherent advantage that comes with longer distance simply hasn’t changed. What has changed is that hitting fairways isn’t nearly as important when it comes to winning tournaments as it used to be.
The best golfers have almost always come from the ranks of the longest hitters. While we only have official PGA Tour stats for Jack Nicklaus from after his prime, in 1980, when he won his 16th and 17th major championships, he ranked 10th in driving distance — at age 40. Looking at the five best PGA Tour regulars of the post-Nicklaus/pre-Tiger Woods era (Greg Norman, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Payne Stewart, and Fred Couples), both Norman and Couples were extremely long while the others all boasted longer than average drives. Of course, Tiger Woods relied on his enormous power off the tee to dominate the game for over a decade, and guys like Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els all had great length. Among today’s newly anointed Big Three, both Rory McIlroy and Jason Day are extremely long hitters.
But what set the superstars of yesteryear apart was the relative importance of hitting fairways. Nicklaus ranked 13th in driving accuracy in 1980 — the same year he finished 10th in distance. Of the top five players of the pre-Tiger era, only Couples struggled to hit fairways, while other elite players like Tom Kite, Loren Roberts, and Bruce Lietzke were all precise off the tee. In fact, looking at the list of pre-Tiger era stars, aside from Couples and Davis Love III, it’s tough to find any standouts who didn’t place importance on finding the short grass.
You can see this shift very clearly in the chart below. I’ve divided every PGA Tour golfer since 1988 into one of nine groups corresponding to their rank relative to the field in hitting fairways and driving distance. I’ve then compared the proportion of wins each of those nine groups accounted for over four different periods (1988-1994, 1994-2001, 2002-2013, and 2014-2015). Groups marked in blue accounted for a larger proportion of wins during that time period and those in orange accounted for a smaller proportion of wins. For example, the bottom left box from 1988-1994 corresponds to the shortest and least accurate hitters of the era; they won 49% less often in those seasons than they won over the entire 1988-2015 time span.
The most apparent trend is the shift between the more accurate groups on the top row and the less accurate groups on the bottom row. The top middle group – corresponding to the more accurate, average length golfers – won more often in the 1980s and 1990s than in recent seasons. That trend was reversed for the less accurate groups on the bottom row. They won much less often in the 1980s and 1990s than in recent years — even among inaccurate, but average length players (bottom-middle.) In other words, it’s not just the Dustin Johnson’s of the world who have begun to win more often.
In total, the most accurate golfers won 46% of all events from 1988-1994, but only 22% from 2002-2013 and 20% from 2014- 2015. That’s a 50% decline in just 25 years. Meanwhile, the longest hitters won 31% of all events from 1988-1994 and between 35% and 37% in the years since.
The lessened importance of accuracy is illustrated further in the next graph. Here is a scatterplot of each of the above periods with players listed by their distance and accuracy relative to average. The number of wins is indicated by the size of each circle and scoring average is shown by the intensity of the color. When accuracy was more important to winning events in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of wins are found above the X axis, indicating that those players hit more fairways than average and therefore found the most success. But around the early 2000s, that trend starts to reverse, with the majority of the low scores plotted below the X axis, indicating that those players were still successful despite hitting fewer that average fairways.
So the next time you hear a former-star-turned-announcer touting the importance of hitting fairways, remember that it’s simply a different game now. Hitting fairways is still a big plus — just ask Jordan Spieth or Henrik Stenson — but when it comes to winning, it’s simply not as important as it was just a generation ago.