How pro golf has changed off the tee since 1980 is even more staggering than you might think

By Daniel Wilco
Published on
How pro golf has changed off the tee since 1980 is even more staggering than you might think

Since 1980, play from the tee box has changed drastically in professional golf.

To understand exactly how, let’s look at two stats: average driving distance and average driving accuracy (percentage of fairways hit).

We charted the progress of each stat for every year that the PGA Tour has recorded, going all the way back to 1980.

Here’s what that looks like:

Let’s focus on that middle section. Driving accuracy — which reached an all-time high of 70 percent in 1998 — begins to dip drastically. At the same time, driving distance turns on the jets, making huge strides into the high 280s, and finally breaking 290 for the first time ever in 2011. John Daly, by the way, became the first golfer to average 300 yards off the tee in 1997.

The long ball is a double-edged sword. Power became the focus, and with it, average accuracy fell by the wayside. In 1995, when drives averaged just 264 yards, landing on the fairway was paramount, and pros averaged a 69 percent driving accuracy. In 2017, with drives travelling an average of 293 yards, precise placement isn't as vital — thus, the 60 percent driving accuracy across the Tour.

RELATED: The 15 longest drives on the PGA Tour since 2010

So, what caused the simultaneous changes?

Until the 1990s, persimmon drivers were the norm on the PGA Tour. But larger metal driver heads and lighter graphite shafts became the norm, and by the late 90s, virtually no one had a persimmon driver in the bag. The last person to win a major with a persimmon driver was Bernhard Langer at the 1993 Masters.

There have been other changes to the game as well — more advanced balls and more physically fit players — none of which have effects that are simple to quantify, but a change in drivers seems the most directly related. 

So Tour players are hitting the ball further than ever but are missing more fairways. We went to the expert to find out exactly what that means.

That's Columbia Business School Professor Mark N. Broadie, sometimes known as the godfather of golf analytics. He's one of the inventors of the strokes gained metric which has moved golf analytics into the modern age.

Broadie says that in his research, driving distance contributes approximately two-thirds, and accuracy one-third to strokes gained driving.

You can see this by looking at the top drivers on the PGA Tour, who tend to hit roughly 20 yards further on average.

"Each of those extra 20 yards contributes one tenth of a stroke (gained)," Broadie said. "If they do that on roughly 14 Par 4s and 5s in a round, they’ve gained 1.4 strokes on the field based on their 20 yards extra distance. However, they tend not to be as accurate, and not as accurate means they miss about one more fairway per round. And that fairway costs them about three-tenths of a stroke. And so net, they end up gaining (approximately) 1.1 in strokes gained driving over the field, taking into account both their added distance and their decreased accuracy."

Those numbers tell a different story from the current perception of golf.

"I think a lot of people get it wrong," he said. "They say the game has become ‘Bomb and Gouge.’ You just take out a driver, hit as far as you want, it’s going to be in the rough, and then you hack it out. And I think what that misses is that the longest drivers miss an average of one more fairway per round. And that’s not missing every fairway. That’s slightly less accurate. That’s way more accurate than most amateurs, even when they’re hitting it as far as they’re hitting it. So I don’t think of it as ‘Bomb and Gouge.’ I think of it as they’re bombing it, and they’re slightly less accurate."

RELATED: Drills to help you drive better

But what effect did this have on scorecards? We charted the average scoring per round during the same time periods:

In the late 1980s, average scoring on PGA Tour events plummeted by more than one stroke per round, but that drop seems to have no correlation with a change in driving distances. Since the late 90s, scoring has fallen about 0.4 strokes per round, a number that is too small to make any definite claims about.

A few other fun facts from the data:

Calvin Peete

  • In 1980, Jack Nicklaus was the 10th longest driver (at 269 yards per drive), and the 13th most accurate (at 71.6 percent). No other golfer has ever placed in the Top 15 of both categories in the same year.
  • No one in the modern history of golf was as straight off the tee as Calvin Peete (right). Peete holds the top five single-season driving accuracy records, and seven of the top 10. In his best year — 1983 — Peete hit 84.6 percent of possible fairways. Only 12 of the 1,139 golfers included in these records has ever even broke 80 percent for a full season. Peete did it nine times.
  • Just 28 players have ever missed more fairways than they’ve hit, with the lowest percentage for a full season belonging to John Daly at 41.9 percent in 2007. That year, Daly averaged 312.9 yards per drive, which was the ninth-highest season-long average ever at that point.