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Does â€˜drive for show, putt for doughâ€™ still apply in the modern game?
Posted by: Nick Bonfield on Fri 29 Jun 2012
We have all heard and been frustrated by the old adage that creeps into our head when we three-putt after finding the green in regulation: ‘drive for show, putt for dough’. Whilst putting is, and will always continue to be, the most important facet of the amateur game, the professional game has changed almost unrecognisably over the past 50 years: par-4s over 500 yards are now commonplace, courses regularly exceed 7,500 yards in length and ‘long’ par-4s are routinely reduced to a driver and a pitching wedge. But has the emphasis shifted in the professional game? Has the significance placed on putting prowess now given way to the ability to bludgeon the ball from the tee? Is the short-hitter disadvantaged nowadays? Driving distance is an unquestionable advantage in the modern professional game, and such questions will be increasingly debated online and in clubhouses up and down the country, but the simple reality is on any professional tour, as with the amateur game, good putting will always be the precursor to success.
Solheim and Coltart
Driving distance is so widely discussed nowadays that you would think it is by far and away the most important statistic; that being able to hit the ball a mile is a guarantee of success. Indeed, there have been proposals in recent times, most notably by PING Chairman John Solheim, to introduce ways of reducing driving distances. Whilst Solheim’s proposal - to modify golf balls used on tour - wasn’t an attack on the big hitting culture per se, it marks an increased dialogue on the subject. As Solheim put it: “For as long as I can remember, golf has been challenged by concerns over driving distance”; concerns which have been amplified in recent times.
So is driving distance an issue, and has it usurped putting average as the main reason for success on tour? There are certainly arguments to support such a viewpoint, Andrew Coltart’s retirement from professional golf at the age of 41 being one of them. He cited inability to compete due to lack of distance as the main factor:
“Courses these days are set up to benefit those who hit the ball miles. Length is everything. For me, golf is not just about hitting a long ball. It’s about knowing how to hit straight shots, draws and fades, high and low shots. But a lot of that has gone from the game at the professional level. It’s very one-dimensional these days.” His retirement also prompted Lee Westwood into making a comment on the subject. “The game at the top level has almost become one for bombers. You can’t survive out there if you are short by tour standards,” he said.
Whilst it is unfortunate a golfer of such pedigree felt he was forced to retire because of perceived inadequacies with his long game, the truth of the matter is you can compete at the top level with a modest driving distance average. The most significant moment in Coltart’s career came in 2009 when he lost his European Tour for the last time. Looking at statistics for that season is very revealing. Yes, Coltart only averaged 273.3 yards from the tee, but he ranked 146th in putts per round and 164th in putts per G.I.R, and confessed after his retirement he had enormous problems with his mental game, self esteem and confidence. Was length off the tee the real issue, or mental issues and poor putting?
Length = survival?
Many players have proved you don’t have to be long to survive on tour. On the European Tour this season, Soren Kjeldsen averages 273.3 yards from the tee – exactly the same as Coltart in 2009 - yet he is 39th in the Race to Dubai after three top-five finishes this season. Matteo Manassero averages 272.8 yards from the tee box, but currently sits in the top 25 in the Race to Dubai standings. Why? A variety of reasons, but principally because he is 12th in putting average. On the PGA Tour, Luke Donald is the 8th shortest hitter (274 yards), but 14th in the Fed-Ex Cup, with a win already to his name this season. Why? The fact he is second in strokes gained: putting and first in scrambling presumably has something to do with it. I’m not saying the ability to hit a long ball isn’t a massive advantage, but there is so much more to the game. As the statistics show, putting prowess is far more significant than big hitting.
Now, let us consider some more statistics. Last season, the top 10 in putts per G.I.R on the European Tour had far more victories than the top 10 in driving distance (one/seven). So far this season on the PGA Tour, every winner has been in the top third in putting, but some, like Mark Wilson, have been comfortably outside the top half in driving distance. Last season, the top 10 in strokes gained: putting on the PGA Tour averaged 45th on the money list, whereas the top 10 in driving distance averaged 65th. Furthermore, of the top 10 in the 2011 Nationwide Tour driving distance standings, only one gained a 2012 PGA Tour card, but four of the top 10 in putting average gained exemptions. The mean position on the Nationwide Tour money list for the top 10 in driving distance was 82; the same statistic for the top 10 in putting average was 32.
The reality is driving distance will never outweigh putting in terms of importance. Winners of tournaments always have a good putting week, but driving distance varies – putting is the constant. Big hitting is a definite advantage, but there is a huge difference between advantage and advantage translating to success. What turns it into success? Having all facets of your game working; putting being the most important. Who could honestly say they would rather be J.B. Holmes or Steven Bowditch than Donald or Steve Stricker? ‘Drive for show, put for dough’ will always apply; let’s hope this realisation dawns on those attempting to restrict driving distance. Moreover, let’s hope governing bodies start to realise - by looking at tournaments such as Memorial and the Andalucia Masters - courses don’t have to be 7,800 yards to cause huge problems for professionals.
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