Since the start of July, Henrik Stenson has played six events. He is a combined 52-under par for those events, finishing inside the top-3 five times, shooting 20 of 24 rounds of par or better, and now finds himself ranked No. 6 in the world.
Notice I didn’t say a “career-high” No. 6 in the world.
Having broken into the top 100 in the world in May 2001, Stenson had fallen to 621st by May 2003. He has been as low as No. 4 (May 2009) and exactly four years ago, he was where he is now, No. 6 in the world.
It’s been an up-and-down few years for the Swede:
So why the sudden comeback to form?
Greens In Regulation
It is a known fact in golf that it is a lot easier to make birdie from on the green, than off it. Hitting greens leads to birdies as much as it prevents making bogies.
Stenson hit 61 of 72 greens at the Deutsche Bank Championship last week (most in the field), en route to winning his first PGA Tour event in over four years (2009 Players Championship). That is a shade under 85% and that is very good.
All year Stenson has been hitting greens at a high level. His 2013 GIR percentage of 71.92% leads the PGA Tour and continues a trend in his ball striking in recent years:
Accuracy off the tee has become an interesting topic of debate for the game’s best players. Whilst players like Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson (136th, 144th and 176th in driving accuracy in 2013) prefer to sacrifice accuracy in favour of getting closer to the green, many players value the fairway more.
Tiger Woods has initiated a new game plan over the last 18 months or so, choosing to hit fairway woods and irons more regularly off the tee improve his chances of finding the fairway, and thus finding the green on his second shot.
Phil Mickelson has taken driver out of play all together on several occasions, including his win at the 2013 Open Championship. He is happy to give up 10-30 yards off the tee in favour of finding the shorter grass of the fairway.
So what about Stenson? Well, he seems to favour both distance and accuracy.
Stenson ranks 4th in total driving which is a combination of both driving distance and driving accuracy. He is the only player on the PGA Tour that currently averages more than 290 yards off the tee whilst hitting more than 70% of fairways.
Tiger Woods hasn’t found more than 70% of fairways since his record-breaking season in 2000, and Phil Mickelson hasn’t hit over 70% of fairways in over 18 years.
So if Stenson is hitting it so straight and long, how come he’s not lifting more trophies?
Not Hitting It Close
Hitting greens is all well and good, but the average green on the PGA Tour is 6,000 square feet, if you’re not hitting it close, you are going to be more likely to 3-putt for bogey than 1-putt for birdie. That is one of Stenson’s issues.
This graph shows how close the Swede hits it on average compared to the Median and best (Leader) on the PGA Tour. Whilst the differences seem small, they are telling.
Surprisingly, Stenson hasn’t ranked inside the top-100 in “Proximity To The Hole” over the past five years (ranking 161st, 186th, 185th, 188th and currently 105th).
Yes, hitting greens is great, but unless you hit it close you’re not making effective use of your ball striking.
“Drive for show, putt for dough” right? Putting may be the best statistic for computing how a player will finish on the leaderboard any given week. Often the player lifting the trophy on Sunday is the one who led the event in putting.
That is where Stenson struggles.
On average Stenson is a below average putter, giving up -.043 shots per round on the greens. That ranks him 117th on the PGA Tour, his worst ranking in more than seven years.
If you’re not going to putt well on Tour, you need to make sure you don’t putt bad, and Stenson struggles there too. He three putts more than 4% of the greens he visits, ranking 157th on Tour. He hasn’t ranked inside the top 120 players on Tour in 3-putt avoidance in any of the last five years.
Stenson is one of only 15 players on the PGA Tour that average more than 30 putts per round. A lot of that is due to the high number of greens he hits, but you have to question his ability on the greens.
What this shows is that if you want to consistently “win” on Tour, you need to be putting well. If you want to compete and improve your ranking, hit fairways and greens.
So there you have it, he hits it long and straight and if he putts well he can win. If he just did this (below) more often, he wouldn’t need to putt: