By Christopher Powers
Shane Lowry. Photo by Golffile
Despite the success of our expert panel of golf handicappers over the last year, we’d never tell you that predicting winners is easy. Truth is, picking which tour pro will be the one holding the trophy on Sunday is much tougher than, say, betting on a football game with only a few outcomes. To think you can consistently predict the winner of these tournaments is downright foolish.
The evolution of stats and data to better predict golf events has grown rapidly in a short amount of time. And that makes it easier than ever to make what a “sharp” bettor would call a “good bet.” The trick here is that with so many “new” stats at your fingertips, picking and choosing which ones to focus on can be a challenge. Plus, as Pat Mayo of “The Pat Mayo Experience” and Mayo Media Network says, you should try to use as many as you can.
“Isolating one stat doesn’t do anyone a service,” Mayo says. “The point is to get a full view so you can map out how a player scored like he did.”
While Mayo is right, there are a handful of key stats that you should be focusing on when making your picks. In speaking to Mayo—and some of the most respected experts in the industry—plus listening to and reading all of the gambling content available to us, here are the smart stats you should be utilizing when you’re betting on golf.
Strokes gained/approach-the-green (SG/APP)
If you read our column, listen to any betting podcast (“Be Right” preferably) or spend any time scrolling through gambling Twitter, strokes gained/approach-the-green is the one stat that comes up most. By definition, SG/APP is: “the number of approach strokes a player takes from specific locations and distances as measured against a statistical baseline to determine the player’s strokes gained or lost on a hole.” In short, being at the top of SG/APP means you are an elite iron player.
“I’d say SG/approach holds the most value,” said Drew Mathews, who won the 2018 DraftKings Millionaire Maker Contest. “While it’s always nice to see stats like strokes gained/off-the-tee supplement the ‘why’ behind SG/APP numbers, it does tell me the most about where someone’s game is at leading into that week. Being able to see approach numbers is very valuable for a betting card.”
Last season on the PGA Tour, Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa ranked first and second, respectively, in SG/APP. They combined for five wins, including a major, 17 top 10s and more than $12.5 million in earnings. It’s no wonder that Brandon Gdula, managing editor and analyst at numberFire, FanDuel’s analytics platform, starts his handicapping each week by looking at the SG/APP numbers.
“Over the 2018-’19 PGA Tour season, a golfer’s made-cut percentage correlated strongly with his strokes gained/approach number,” says Gdula, noting the actual correlation (or “r” for real stat geeks) was 0.59, followed distantly by strokes gained/around the green (0.44), off-the-tee (0.37) and putting (0.29). “What this tells us is that consistency stems largely from iron play, which makes sense, intuitively. Strokes gained/approach comes into play on virtually every hole, including tee shots on par 3s.”
Justin Thomas finished the 2019-'20 PGA Tour season first in strokes gained/approach-the-green.
Gdula goes further by noting that, according to datagolf.com, 34.7 percent of the scoring dispersion—how golfers separate from the field—on the average PGA Tour course historcially is explained by SG/APP. That’s greater than strokes gained/off-the-tee and strokes gained/around the green combined (29.5 percent). And while strokes gained/putting is a little higher than approach at 35.8 percent, putting is harder to predict each week than iron play is.
An easy way to view why that’s important, Gdula says, is to consider what the field leader in a PGA Tour event adds, on average, based on each category from 2020 PGA Tour events—SG/off-the-tee: +5.3 strokes; SG/APP: +8.1 strokes; SG/ around-the-green: +5.4 strokes; SG/putting: +8.4 strokes.
In other words, the best driver in a golf field adds an average of +5.3 strokes from the tee. But that is only 66 percent as many strokes as the best approach player nets in a week from his irons. If you’re aiming to add the most strokes on the field, the best way to do it tee-to-green is from approach play.
“Golfers still have to putt well to win and contend in a given week,” Gdula says, “but without good iron play, they’ll need to get extremely lucky to be in the mix.”
To find strokes gained/approach-the-green stats leaders, click here.
Strokes gained/ball-striking (SG/BS)
This metric, which Mayo says is his starting point each week when researching a tournament, is an unofficial PGA Tour stat that combines a players’ strokes gained/off-the-tee numbers and their strokes gained/approach numbers. Data scientist Rick Gehman, founder of RickRunGood.com and the RickRunGood YouTube channel, also swears by this statistic.
“This stat not only passes the eye-test, but it also gets the nod from the math,” Gehman says. “SG/APP, by itself, is the most important single stat. It’s the one stat that most strongly correlates with finishing position. Meaning that the best approach players in the world find themselves near the top of the leader board more often than the best putters in the world. … The next most correlated stat to success is strokes gained/off-the-tee. There’s a reason that Bryson DeChambeau chases distance with the driver. If you can hit the ball further and straighter than your peers, you are at a significant competitive advantage.”
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Xander Schauffele was among the top 20 in strokes gained/ball-striking last season.
So, naturally, when you combine the two to get strokes gained/ball-striking that accounts for the majority of shots that a golfer takes in a single round and most accurately predicts success, Gehman says. He notes that it should be no surprise that the top 10 golfers in SG/BS since the start of 2020 have accounted for 13 wins in the 32 events played this calendar year, a 40.6 winning percentage.
To find strokes gained/ball-striking stats leaders, click here.
At the end of the 2019-’20 season, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Scottie Scheffler, Harris English, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson and Jon Rahm were among those who finished inside the top 20 of the SG/BS stat. This group of ball-strikers is also very good in our next key statistical area.
Strokes gained/tee-to-green (SG/T2G)
Similar to ball-striking, SG/T2G gives you a better understanding of how good a player is throughout his bag, rather than just with the driver or just with the irons. By definition, SG/T2G is the “per round average of the number of strokes the player was better or worse than the field average on the same course and event minus the players strokes gained/putting value.” In layman’s terms, SG/T2G is an encapsulation of a player’s entire game, including his around-the-green play, but not his putting. While Gdula believes SG/APP is the most important stat to focus on, T2G is a close second. “If you can only pick one stat to rely on in a given week,” Gdula says, “it should really be strokes gained/tee-to-green.”
To find strokes gained/tee-to-green stats leaders, click here
Jon Rahm isn't just long off the tee, but accurate as well, explaining his No. 2 ranking in Total Driving in the 2019-'20 season.
While driving distance is all the rage, it still helps to keep it in the fairway, even if DeChambeau proved at Winged Foot that fairways hit can be overrated. But on many PGA Tour courses, keeping it in the short stuff is still key. The “total driving” stat factors in a player’s driving distance and their driving accuracy, which is the percentage of time a player’s tee shot comes to rest in the fairway regardless of club. The players who rank high in total driving are ones you’ll often see at the top of the leader board, like Paul Casey (first in total driving in 2019-’20), Jon Rahm (second), Tommy Fleetwood (sixth), Scottie Scheffler (seventh) and Sungjae Im (10th).
To find total driving stats leaders, click here.
Now we’re getting into the not-so-traditional stats, ones you’ll have to pay up to find. FantasyNational.com, datagolf.com and fansharesports.com are all excellent resources for gamblers, and that’s where you’ll find a lot of these deeper stats. One of them being Opportunities Gained, which keeps track of how many “scoring” opportunities—basically birdie opportunities—a player is gaining on the field. Fantasy National describes a scoring opportunity as a birdie opportunity inside of 15 feet on the green or the fringe, plus greens/fringe “under” regulation, which is an eagle opportunity. You’ll often see some of the better iron players in the world lead this stat, like Emiliano Grillo. Unfortunately, guys like Grillo or Kyle Stanley and other world-class approach players don’t always capitalize on these opportunities with the putter.
Birdie-or-Better Gained/Birdie or Better Percentage
The Birdies or Better percentage, which you can find on PGATour.com, is exactly what you think it is: the percent of time a birdie or better is recorded by the player. On FantasyNational.com, they go a step deeper: They keep track of the number of birdies or better a player has gained on the field. Both will give you an idea of who can really fill it up. Webb Simpson, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Tyrrell Hatton and Bryson DeChambeau were the top five players in this category last season. Sounds like a winning stat to us.