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Why strokes gained is the most important statistic in golf

January 31, 2020

In any sport, a stat is usually more interesting and relevant if it’s associated with a player’s or team’s success. In baseball, for example, OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) quickly gained acceptance because of its correlation with a team’s ability to score runs. A similar approach in golf would investigate a player’s ability to score green—call it money earned per event (MPE)—based on rank in various stat categories.

In 2019, the top 10 players in proximity to the hole (on approach shots) rank averaged $69K per event. Nice, but no comparison to the players in the top 10 in GIR ($92K) nor those in the top 10 in strokes gained on approach shots ($164K). If you include Nos. 11 and 12 in SG approach (Koepka and McIlroy), that MPE value balloons to $211K! These dramatic differences help explain why strokes gained, like OPS, has gained mass acceptance.

If you’re still on the fence on SG’s value, this will help. Picture a ball in the fairway, 160 yards from the pin. On average, it takes a PGA Tour player three strokes from this distance to finish the hole. Say a player knocks it to 30 feet. That’s “average,” because it takes a Tour player, on average, two strokes to get in the hole from 30 feet. Now, if the player knocks it to eight feet, where the average number of strokes to hole out is 1.5, he’s in business—he just gained a half-stroke relative to the field, in essence by advancing the ball 1.5 strokes closer to the hole instead of just one stroke in the previous example.

Computing SG requires knowing the PGA Tour average strokes to hole out from all locations on the course. That data is readily available, and is constantly being updated. Getting to know some of these values not only helps in understanding (and accepting) SG as a legit rating tool (and how it relates to GIR and proximity to pin) but how approach shots—both good and bad—affect your own game.

For any approach from 100 to 225 yards, a shot into a penalty situation (awful!) has an SG of –1.7 (i.e., it loses 1.7 strokes). A shot that simply misses the green has an SG of –0.3. A shot that hits the green outside of 20 feet from the hole gains zero strokes, but one that lands within eight feet gains 0.7! SG quantifies in fractional strokes what we know to be true: Hitting a green is better than missing, and hitting it closer is better than farther. For Tour players, these fractional gains can add up to a lot of money.

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