This Is How You Master The Masters

Masters rookie Jon Rahm, 22, heads to Augusta this week with history decidedly not on his side: No player making his debut at the tournament has won it since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. But the Spanish golfer does have a secret weapon of sorts, one that might help him overcome the weight of history. So far this season, he ranks second on the PGA Tour — ahead of the likes of Jason Day and Jordan Spieth — in a statistical category called “strokes gained: tee-to-green” that measures how well a player hits the ball on all shots other than putts. And despite Augusta National’s longtime reputation as a putting test, it’s this ball-striking ability that will likely determine who wins this week — just like it does every other week on tour.

How to gain (and lose) strokes

Before we can isolate the quality of a player’s long game, we need a framework for evaluating every single shot he takes. That’s where “strokes gained” comes in: Developed by Mark Broadie, a business professor at Columbia University,1 the statistic uses data from ShotLink — a laser-tracking system that records the location of the ball on every shot — to estimate how many strokes a typical player would need to get the ball into the hole from any given spot on the course. In turn, those numbers can be used to evaluate every player on the PGA Tour, by comparing his performance on each incremental shot in a round to the average.

Here’s an example: Let’s say a player tees off on a hole where the average is 4.2 strokes to hole out. He hits a great drive down the middle, his ball coming to rest in a spot on the fairway from which the average player would take an additional 2.8 strokes to hole out. In other words, that one shot essentially did the work of 1.4 shots by an average player — his drive “gained” him 0.4 strokes on the field.2 Add up these marginal gains and losses, and you get a sense of not only who the best players are, but also why they’re so great — where on the course they gain their edge over the field.

The PGA Tour breaks “strokes gained” down into four categories: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. There are also two aggregate categories: total strokes gained, which is the sum of all categories, and strokes gained: tee-to-green, which is the sum of the non-putting categories. Each stroke a player gains is important, but the driving and approach categories — the ones Rahm excels in — are where great players separate themselves the most from their peers.

“Drive for show, putt for dough” is a myth

There’s an old golf adage, attributed to four-time major winner Bobby Locke (who was renowned for his putting ability), that you “drive for show and putt for dough.” In other words, even though long shots are flashy and crowd-pleasing, putting is what wins tournaments. But the data makes clear that the top players gain more strokes from their long games than from their short games.

To investigate this, I gathered stats from every PGA Tour season (excluding the handful of tournaments where ShotLink data wasn’t tracked) since 2004 — the first season for which “strokes gained” was calculated — and separated players into groups based on their ranking on the tour’s money list for each season. By taking the average strokes gained for each group, I found that players who finish among the top 10 on the money list average about 1.5 strokes gained per round, which break down by category like this:

  • 0.4 strokes gained off the tee
  • 0.6, approaching the green
  • 0.2, around the green
  • 0.3, putting