Ignore Total Driving: Analysing Rickie’s Driving
There has been a lot of discussion today after Rickie Fowler’s opening round 65 about how his driving performance has fueled his success both this year and in round 1. Several FOX personalities cited his #1 ranking in Total Driving as support for this and in a post-round interview with Shane Bacon Rickie traced his comfort and performance off the tee to the shorter 43.5 inch driver he put into play before his Honda Classic win in February. However, when we break-down Rickie’s driving performance over the past few seasons, 2017 stands out as his weakest season off the tee.
This first problem with building an analysis off Total Driving is that it does not explain driving performance as well as the PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained Off the Tee. Total Driving equally weights driving distance and driving accuracy (it’s more like 60/40 in favor of distance) and uses only measured driving distance (for two holes) rather than the distance on all drives in a round. In Rickie’s case, he ranks 33rd in measured driving distance, but only 58th in all drives driving distance. He’s also ranks higher in driving accuracy than driving distance, so he’s being overrated there by Total Driving.
When you analyse his driving performance by the PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained Off the Tee, Fowler ranks only 54th this season after ranking 15th in 2016. We’re firm proponents of Strokes Gained for analysis because it:
1) measures performance using strokes – the “currency” of golf
2) places your performance on the level of the field each round
3) looks at each shot independently of those that come before and after
By this metric, Fowler is not only not the best driver on Tour, but he’s hardly in the top third of players on Tour. In fact, he is gaining less per round on his drives than each of the other three Strokes Gained categories tracked by the PGA Tour – including gaining nearly 0.6 strokes per round more on the greens this season compared to 2016.
The graph below shows why Rickie is driving it objectively worse this season than in the past three years. He’s hitting driver less when compared to the field (about one fewer driver per round) and he’s lost about 6 yards per drive due to the shorter driver and more layups. He has transformed his driving accuracy (hitting about one extra fairway per round). A good short-hand for analyzing driving stats is that improving by one extra hit fairway per round is worth about 0.35 strokes gained and losing six yards per drive over a round is worth about 0.45 to 0.5 strokes lost. With that calculus, it’s not surprising that Rickie is gaining fewer strokes in 2017 than in 2016 despite hitting more fairways.
Fowler looks even weaker when we isolate his 2017 stats to cover only events since the Honda Classic. Fowler’s hit 9.6% more fairways, but is gaining 0 yards on the field in terms of overall distance. From the start of 2015 through the 2017 Honda Classic, Rickie gained 7 yards on the field and was exactly average in terms of driving accuracy. Working with the math from earlier, Rickie’s not only not improving with the shorter driver, but he’s even losing shots to the field.