DJ’s gutsy drive stole the show Sunday, but his wedge shot was more valuable

August 29, 2017

Rarely has the difference between Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth’s games been displayed more vividly than it was on Sunday evening at the Northern Trust Open when the CBS broadcast’s Protracer illustrated their tee shots on the first playoff hole, the 18th at Glen Oaks Club.

It was as revealing an image as televised tee shots can offer.

Johnson’s 341-yard blast not so much cut the corner of the dog-leg as obliterated it, leaving him just 95 yards into the hole. Spieth’s drive, meager by comparison, went 315 yards, dead straight and into the center of the fairway, leaving him 174 yards to the hole. According to golf statistician and Columbia business professor Mark Broadie, the difference in their drives created a quarter-shot advantage for Johnson.

The drive, with all its visualities cast across TV screens, looked so important, and it was. A quarter of a shot, Broadie wrote in an email, is a “huge difference,” but it was not the only difference. In fact, Johnson’s second shot was even more valuable, twice as much actually, and that should come as no surprise, though all everyone wants to talk about is his tee ball. 

Spieth hit a 6-iron to the back fringe, an average shot from that distance in the fairway at the Northern Trust, according to Broadie. What has been slightly lost in all the buzz around Johnson’s booming tee shot (which proved to be the longest of the week on the 18th hole) was that his wedge shot to just 3.5 feet created an additional .65-stroke advantage over Spieth. Which means, according to Broadie’s strokes-gained model, DJ’s approach shot was actually more valuable toward creating the victory than his tee shot.

Ian Poulter, Wesley Bryan and Kevin Kisner all chimed in on Twitter to say, in different ways, that the 18th hole was not worthy of hosting a playoff as it afforded Johnson the opportunity to use his supreme length over Spieth and gain an incredible advantage. They weren’t wrong in that his driving prowess created a great advantage, but was it really unfair? Spieth answered that question on his own afterward.

“He outdrove me by 25 [yards], but that’s just the difference in the angle,” Spieth said. “I had it downwind in a practice round from the back of the tee box and carried [the water] and so I should have stepped up there and taken that line. But the wind was flipping all day.”

Instead he took the more conservative route while Johnson made the most of his length. Many people would say pounding a drive 340 yards is a skill. It is — and so is sticking a wedge to three feet.