Traditional Golf Statistics – Not the Best Performance Yardsticks

My father was an engineer. He taught me that numbers are your friend, and that they don’t lie. I took up golf seriously 25 years ago and became determined to improve. I started tracking the statistics that I read about in the golf magazines: Fairways Hit, Greens-in-Regulation, Sand Saves and Total Putts.

I quickly became frustrated as I encountered two major problems. The numbers are not always your friend, and while they don’t lie, they don’t always tell the whole truth.

First, the only numbers I had to compare myself against were those published for the PGA Tour. As a 14 handicap, these numbers were not friendly – the tour golfers were obviously playing a dramatically different game from mine. Second, even using these statistics to compare my own best and worst rounds was of limited value. I found that there was at times a disconnect between my statistical performance and my scoring performance.

And as I said, traditional golf statistics don’t lie – they just don’t give the whole truth. This is because golf is a multifaceted game, played in three dimensions – up, down, right, left, long and short. But unfortunately, traditional statistics provide flat, YES or NO answers to one-dimensional questions.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

Fairways Hit

This may be the best example of the shortcoming of traditional stats. Did a golfer hit the fairway – or not? With traditional stats, a YES answer is always presumed to be a better outcome than a NO answer. But is this correct? Which would you rather have – a drive that ends up only 175 yards out but in the middle of the fairway, or a 275 yard rocket that ends up in the first cut of rough? And if you miss the fairway, wouldn’t you prefer the 275 yard rocket over a ball hit Out of Bounds or Lost? The Fairways Hit stat treats those two misses equally.

Greens-in-regulation (GIR’s)

This is by far the most useful of the old-world stats because a YES tells us something definite and positive about the way that hole was played. There are two problems, however. First, most amateurs do not hit very many greens. The average, male 18 handicapper will hit less than 4 of 18 greens each round. Along with this, there is no indication of what happened – or how bad the miss was – on all of those other holes. So a big part of the story goes untold.

Sand Saves

Also known as a 1-putt following a greenside sand shot, the Sand Save stat actually encompasses two facets of the game – sand play and putting. Because it is a blend of the two, it can mask an unusual strength or weakness in one area or the other. And again, this stat tells a golfer nothing useful about the sand shots that miss the green. (And unfortunately traditional stats ignore the rest of the short game, which usually comprises a far greater number of shots per round.)

# Putts per Round

This statistic is relatively easy to keep but has a major flaw in that it ignores the distances of the putting opportunities. A 2-putt from 3 feet counts exactly the same as a 2-putt from 75 feet. It’s like balancing your checkbook based upon the number of checks you wrote, and ignoring the dollar amount of the checks. Not a recommended bookkeeping approach!