In mid June, after years of close calls, Dustin Johnson won his first major: the U.S. Open, at Oakmont. Then, after a week of R & R, he closed out the Bridgestone Invitational for back-to-back victories. In both events, he ranked No. 1 in Strokes Gained driving. It made me wonder how typical or unusual this is: winning on the strength of driving.
There are, of course, many different ways to win a golf tournament, but a clear pattern emerged when I analyzed a large sample of results on the PGA Tour since 2013. The typical winner is a better-than-Tour-average player whose primary strength is great approach play. For the season, golfers who’ve won on Tour play 1.1 strokes better per round than the field, with 42 percent of that gain coming from approach shots, 35 percent from driving, 22 percent from putting and 15 percent from the short game. Do the math, and you’ll see that superior ballstriking (driving and approach play) accounts for a significant 77 percent of the typical winner’s advantage.
During the week of a typical Tour winner’s victory, that player gains about 3.6 strokes per round on the field, so he has to play about 2.5 strokes per round better than his season average to win. Where do these additional strokes come from? First and foremost, from better putting. That contributes an additional one stroke per round (that is, a two-putt is replaced with a one-putt). Better approach play contributes another 0.8 strokes (by, for example, knocking one approach shot to five feet instead of 35 feet). An improved short game accounts for 0.4 strokes (sticking one wedge shot to five feet instead of 10 feet, for instance). And better drives are good for 0.3 strokes (such as from hitting one more fairway per round).
Week in and week out, the best ballstrikers tend to rise to the top of the leaderboard. Winners, on the other hand, are usually the best putters among the best ballstrikers. Putting is so highly regarded because a drained putt here or there often determines the outcome in a given week. What’s the message for weekend golfers, and those trying to hammer it like DJ? Consistently good approach play is the key to scoring throughout the season—and those times when you putt great, you’ll really clean up against your pals.