It’s well-established that golfers who can hit the ball further have a scoring advantage, but chasing speed is often presented as a cautionary in golf. The common logic is that longer drivers are less accurate, but the data suggests that that logic is misguided for a number of reasons.
First of all, the data indicates that this is not true. Longer drivers are not less accurate, they just have greater dispersion. What does this mean? To understand this you have to consider the relationship between launch angle and distance.
Here’s Rapsodo Golf advisor Dr. Sasho MacKenzie:
The players that hit it the farthest are not the least accurate. According to Mark Broadie’s book, the opposite is true. The longest drivers tend to be the straightest drivers. For example, I carry a driver about 270. Bubba Watson carries his driver over 300. Our dispersion could be similar if you looked at lateral distance from the target line, but his deviation angle is going to be a lot tighter. The further you go, the further off line you’re going to be at a given angle. When Mark looked at that, he found that the longest hitters are in fact some of the most accurate.
So long hitters aren’t necessarily less accurate, they just have a great dispersion. Think about this example. A bit extreme, but will illustrate why lack of accuracy with a driver is more penal than with a wedge.
If you hit a ball 5° offline (assume club path and face angle are identical so no curve), you’ll miss your target by about 8.5 yards at 100 yards, but you’ll miss your target by 25 yards at 300 yards. With a wedge in your hand, missing a target 100 yards away by ~30 feet isn’t always disaster. With a driver in your hand, missing your target by 75 feet could cost you a stroke.
The second factor in distance vs accuracy was on display at last weekends PGA Championship.
Eventual winner Collin Morikawa led the field in driving accuracy, hitting 39 of 56 fairways (70%) and averaged roughly 290 yards off the tee.
The tournament’s most prolific bombers, Cameron Champ and Bryson Dechambeau, hit 28 and 29 of the 56 fairways, respectively. They averaged closer to 320 off the tee.
10 less fairways for 10% more distance might seem like a bad trade, but the stats suggest it’s not. Bryson led the field by averaging 1.8 strokes gained off the tee per round. Cameron was third with 1.57. Collin was 18th at 0.701.
Morikawa didn’t separate himself from the field because he hit 10 more fairways, he won because he is a transcendent iron-player (#1 SG Approach) and with a hot putter.
The reason why elite drivers are able to manage their dispersion despite more speed is elite control of the club face. More than path, the club face is the most important factor in managing the launch direction.
With a mid-iron, the club face controls 75% of the launch direction. With a driver, the club face is responsible for 85% of the launch direction. That means that with a driver, if your face angle is +2 and your club path is +4, the launch direction will be MUCH closer to 2 than 4 (between 2.2 – 2.4).
So while distance is one of the most important factors in creating a scoring advantage, it’s only helpful if you’re able to manage your face angle and, therefore, your launch direction.