Many of us are familiar with the expression “Lies, damn lies and statistics”. This is a semi-frequently used quote to doubt the validity of statistical analysis. While the term was used in the writings of American author Mark Twain, he always attributed it to the long-ago British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Nobody really knows who originated the phrase.
The modern era of golf has been heavily influenced by statistics. In the post-WWII era, the only statistical evidence we seemed to know about Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead was their score, the number of greens they hit in good standing and the number of putts they had. In the early 1980s, the PGA Tour recognized journeyman Gary McCord for leading the tour in putting. In accepting his award, McCord argued that the reason he topped the putt count category was because he missed more greens than anyone else and spent his season at get closer and make the par putts. Same as a par of two putts. Fewer putts.
These days we have a slew of stats that the tour and ShotLink track. There are several strokes earned categories that compare each individual pro to the rest of the golfers on the course. There is a strokes gained tee at the green, strokes gained putting, strokes gained near the green, strokes gained around the green, strokes gained off the tee and total strokes gained. These stats go hand-in-hand with some of the more traditional numbers in golf such as driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation, putts, green saves, and sand saves. The tour also counts birdies, eagles and the overall score average.
Last week’s RBC Heritage Tournament at Harbor Town Golf Links in South Carolina was one of those classic examples of statistics that don’t necessarily add up to final results. Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth won for the 13th time in his relatively young career, beating reigning Fed Ex Cup holder Patrick Cantlay in a one-hole elimination match. Spieth has struggled with his game for the past four years and had real problems getting his swing under control. He’s always been able to hang in there as a top notch pro as he’s often considered the best putter of the modern era, following in the footsteps of Bobby Locke, Billy Casper, Dave Stockton, Brad Faxon and Ben Crenshaw .
Yet despite winning for the second year in a row on an Easter Sunday, Jordan Spieth’s golf stats are a total headache from my distant perspective.
I sound pretty sick in the world of golf journalism when I talk about the quality of a Jordan Spieth putter. Right now in the 2021-22 PGA Tour loop season, Jordan is the 179th ranked putter on tour according to the folks at Shots Gained. Yes, I know we sometimes see a putting hiccup from Spieth, like the missed 18-incher he had Saturday afternoon on the last hole. The ball went around the cup and did not fall. Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe that the 125 exempt golfers on tour alongside 53 other non-exempt golfers had a better putting year than Jordan Spieth. Ouch!
Spieth spent a lot of time looking for his swing. From winning the 2017 British Open to winning the 2021 Texas Open last April, Spieth had stayed away from the path to victory. He was still considered high enough to play on the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup teams for Team USA, but something was wrong with his swing and Jordan often looked lost on the course. He admitted that he spent an inordinate amount of time working on loosening his swing, and that may be the reason for his misfortunes. Nevertheless, the 179th in shots won is still quite difficult to understand.
Some of Spieth’s other stats are equally baffling. For example, he is the 37th longest driver on the circuit, averaging 306 yards from the tee. Although it is longer than most of its brethren on the circuit, it is just as imprecise from the start, ranking 126th in steering precision. With all that time in the rough, you’d think he’d spend a lot of time sending it back down the fairway, or even worse, dropping along the water hazard and taking his penalty stroke. . Still, Spieth is 24th on the circuit to hit the greens in regulation time. His winning shots from tee to green put him in 19th place and his added ability to scramble when not touching the green put him in 24th place. Add it all up and you also have the most confusing statistic of all. Jordan Spieth, who sits 11th in Fed Ex Cup points, is ranked 95th on the circuit in scoring average.
Speaking of winning, eight of the top 10 golfers in the World Golf Rankings in January 2022 are yet to win a tournament this year. Only Sam Burns in the United States and Viktor Hovland in Europe have won tournaments. Of course, with all the wins Scottie Scheffler and Cam Smith had accumulated, there weren’t nearly as many chances for the other pros to pick up those wins. Win on a hot week or win on a state of mind?
Last week, Jordan Spieth led all pros at Harbor Town in a crucial stat. He was ranked No. 1 last week in shots gained from tee to green. That same formula was successful in winning Sam Burns at Sanderson Farms, Joaquin Niemann in Los Angeles and Sungjae Im in Las Vegas earlier this season. While it makes sense that hitting the fairways, hitting the greens and avoiding the big numbers is the way to set yourself up to win a tournament, you still need to putt in your share to win. Does all of this mean we need to rethink that old golf phrase, “Drive for show and putt for dough?” Or could it be that because everyone is gifted and talented on the American PGA Tour and the European Tour, winning comes down to putting it all together for just four days? Then again, how do we explain exactly what’s going on with Scottie Scheffler? Can we define the greatness of golf with statistics?
The big positive that comes out of all this is that for one week, Jordan Spieth was better than 143 other golf professionals. This may bode well for Jordan. After all, we’re only about three weeks away from the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa. Spieth has a Masters, a US Open and a British Open under his belt. For the 28-year-old from Austin, Texas, a win at Southern Hills in May would be the last piece in the quad when it comes to golf’s career grand slam. Or could this all just be a case of “lies, damned lies and statistics”.