There is much debate these days about the golf ball. It goes too far, one contingent suddenly voices. It's fine the way it is, replies the other side. While professional golf finds itself embroiled in a philosophical debate about length off the tee, Augusta National will no doubt be used as evidence in this (probably) years-long standoff between the two sides.
One side will point to the fact that Augusta National must continue to expand its course to keep itself relevant. The other side will point to ... well, I don't really know what the other side will point to because I can't express the proper rebuttal.
The point here is that there are currently 58 golfers who average 300 or more yards off the tee. In 1997, when John Daly. Woods was second at 294.8 yards. By contrast, Woods is averaging 304.2 yards now 21 years later with a body that has endured four back surgeries. It's important to note two other things here. The first is that driving stats will likely decline as the year goes on, and the second is that Augusta National felt the need to increase the distance of its course because Woods was overpowering it when he was 10 yards shorter off the tee., there was one. It was
All of that to say: Driving is important at Augusta National. Driving is important everywhere, of course, but a scan of recent winners and their statistical profiles shows that it has become paramount at Augusta. I suspect this is because the primary way to gain strokes off the tee is to be long (even if you're inaccurate), and Augusta is one of the least-punishing courses when it comes to inaccuracy. Therefore, if the longest drivers are also the leaders in strokes gained, they probably find even greater success at a place like Augusta National.
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I asked the inventor of strokes gained, Mark Broadie, about the way strokes gained off the tee functions. He pointed out that it's more important to be closer from a greater distance than a shorter one. That is, you gain more from being 220 yards away than a person who is 230 than you do if those numbers are 160 and 170 yards, respectively. So, as Augusta has gotten longer over the years, it has actually given a greater advantage to longer hitters.
It's not really a secret that golfers who are great from tee to green are more likely to win the Masters than great putters. According to FiveThirtyEight, seven of the last nine winners who have data for the entire season have finished 95th or worse on the year in strokes gained putting. The only golfers who buck that trend are Jordan Spieth in 2015 and Angel Cabrera in 2009. That's astounding!
By contrast, of the last nine winners we have data on, seven have ranked in the top 40 in strokes gained off the tee (eight of 10 if you include Danny Willett's numbers from 2016, though he didn't play enough rounds to qualify). And six of those finished in the top 25. Here are the numbers.
|2008||Trevor Immelman|| 116th|
So remember this when you're picking a champion this year. And also remember that as courses (including Augusta) continue to debate whether they should increase their yardage, this will only help the Dustin Johnsons and Justin Thomases of the world.
Here's the list of golfers currently inside the top 40 in strokes gained off the tee who have also qualified for the 2018 Masters: Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Kevin Chappell, Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari, Bubba Watson, Brendan Steele, Louis Oosthuizen, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Gary Woodland, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Paul Casey, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Kyle Stanley, Si Woo Kim, Jason Day, Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton, Tony Finau