The best and worst players from the rough, according to the stats

How do PGA Tour players fare when they miss the fairway?

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We talk a lot about booming drives and distance, and how bomb-and-gouge is transforming the game in a variety of radical ways. But what about what happens when players miss the fairway?

With the 2021-22 PGA Tour season in the books, there’s no better time to do a quick dive into the stats, to see what interesting things we can find. In this case: which tour players are impacted by the rough the most. To find out, we used a simple process: We took every PGA Tour players’ birdie-or-better percentage from the fairway, and compared it to their birdie-or-better percentage from the rough to see how much it dropped off.

On average, tour players make a birdie about 22 percent of the time from the fairway, a rate that drops to about 15 percent when they miss the fairway. Comparing the two for each player isn’t a perfect process by any means. Players who are especially good at making birdies from the fairway, like tour-leader Justin Thomas, will see his percentage dip more drastically than someone who makes fewer birdies from the fairway. That’s not because he’s bad from the rough (he’s not!), he’s just silly good from the fairway.

All of which is to say, take the findings with a grain of salt. But nevertheless, they’re quite interesting.

Best Rough Players

Only two players on tour — Ian Poulter and Cameron Percy — actually improve when they miss the fairway. And even then, their birdie percentage only increases by less than five percent. Everyone else gets slightly worse when they miss the short stuff.

% birdies from fairway% birdies from rough% change
Ian Poulter21.3822.11+3.4
Cameron Percy21.2421.77+2.5
Taylor Moore22.4822.5+0.1
Erik van Rooyen22.121.85-1.1
Wesley Bryan21.4820.96-2.4

Worst Rough Players

It’s the LIV-bound Abraham Ancer who fares the worst when coming from the rough. He’s above average at making birdies from the fairway, but his birdie percentage falls off a cliff when he misses them. Clearly, hitting fairways is a key ingredient to his success, so it’s a good thing he hits lots of them (he ranks 4th on tour in Driving Accuracy)

% birdies from fairway% birdies from rough% change
Ryan Armour19.718.82-55.3
Dawie van der Walt22.659.55-57.8
Austin Smotherman24.8510.38-58.2
Matthew NeSmith23.229.67-58.4
Abraham Ancer24.177.81-67.7

How do the top players compare to each other?

As for the very best players? Below is a chart of the top 20 money earners on the PGA Tour last season. Of these 20 players, Xander Schauffele has the rare distinction of ranking inside the top five in birdies from the fairway, and the bottom five from the rough. In a nutshell, that means Schauffele is specifically good from the fairway, and specifically less good from the rough.

On the other end, Joaquin Neimann is the opposite. Of these players, his 25 percent birdie percentage from the fairway puts him in the bottom five, but his 20 percent percentage from the rough ranks third.

The % change in Birdie Percentage from the rough vs. the fairway

Matt Fitzpatrick and Billy Horschel are the only two players of this group to rank inside the bottom five of both fairway and rough birdie percentage among this elite group, but both are consistent from both the fairway and the rough. Their misses, it would suggest, are probably small and rarely leave them at much disadvantage.

Needless to say, if you’re on the PGA Tour, you’ve figured out how to be elite from whatever lie you find yourself in. We’re nitpicking at perfection here. Yet as we’ve all learned: In golf, the quest to improve never ends.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.

An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.