“Drive for Show, Putt for Dough”: True or False?

“Drive for show, putt for dough.” It’s one of the most famous maxims in golf. And, while it is beyond question that the ability to turn a two-putt green into a one-putt is what gets players below par—where they must be to place high on tournament leaderboards—it is not quite true that the putting game is the main determinant of the highest-performing players.

Think about your last round of golf. How many greens did you three-putt? In all likelihood, each of those three-putts represented a lost stroke with respect to one or more of your playing companions, right?

Now, think about your game off the tee. How many fairways did you miss with your drive? For example, did you slice into the woods off the tee? If you did, you probably chipped back into the fairway, then tried to make up for your errant drive with your second shot. So, assuming that your recovery shot went as planned, your bad drive cost you a stroke—the same as that three-putt.

But let’s say that instead of merely leaking to the right, your drive went out of bounds. Now, you’ve got a penalty stroke and another stroke to put the ball legally in play. With luck, your mind was clear and your recovery drive was true. But your OB drive has still cost you two strokes. The same goes for a drive that ends in a water hazard; you drop a new ball at the closest legal position, and then you’re hitting a recovery shot, often from a less than desirable lie—and you’re two strokes behind.

Do you see the idea? A bad putt is nearly always going to cost you a stroke, but a bad drive will often cost you two strokes, if not more.

On the professional circuit, this holds true in spades. In fact, in his new book, Every Shot Counts, author Mark Broadie, professor of business at Columbia University, crunches the numbers to demonstrate that the best predictor of tour success is the long game. He says, “The long game is the best separator between the best tour pros and average tour pros … [It] explains about two-thirds of scoring.”

Sean Foley, swing instructor for pros like Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, and Tiger Woods, agrees. “If I have the choice of giving someone five extra miles per hour in clubhead speed or have him hit the corresponding amount of more fairways,” Foley says, “net earnings will increase more from the extra swing speed.”

So, what’s the takeaway? You should definitely spend a lot of time with that putter, honing and improving the consistency of your stroke on the green. But don’t neglect your driver. The ability to place the ball at the right spot on the fairway will enable you to hit more greens in regulation, which will directly benefit your score.

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