What is Strokes Gained? What golf bettors need to know

How bettors can use this important group of stats to their advantage.

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Strokes Gained has become a wildly popular golf stat among bettors, daily fantasy players, and hardcore golf aficionados alike. The stat gained popularity in betting circles as the rise of daily fantasy golf led to more people seeking a deeper statistical knowledge of the sport. Below we take a look at how Strokes Gained stats work, what the term really means, and how bettors can use this important group of stats to their advantage. 

What does “Strokes Gained” mean?

Strokes Gained is a term coined by Columbia University professor Mark Broadie, who developed the stat using ShotLink data. The PGA Tour uses ShotLink to track the yardage and totals of every shot a player makes, and it’s how most bettors track their golfers online – using the PGA Tours scoreboard app – when live coverage isn’t going. ShotLink allows for more accurate data while also enabling you to follow exactly what your player is doing on the course. Needless to say, these are valuable tools for any bettor.

Strokes Gained tries to make sense of all the data by measuring each player’s performance, providing more nuanced stats in the process. As it was in baseball before the introduction of advanced stats, golf used to rely solely on more simplistic metrics like Driving Accuracy, Greens in Regulation, and Putts Per Round. While these give us some idea of what a player may be accomplishing during a round, they are also very simplistic and can be misleading. 

For example, take two players who both hit 88% of their greens in regulation during a round. 

  • Player A, 16 out of 18 greens, average proximity to hole 12 feet
  • Player B, 16 out of 18 greens, average proximity to hole 35 feet

As we can see, when adding in proximity stats for these two despite both reaching 16 out of 18 greens in regulation, their performances varied wildly. Player A may have hit all 16 of his greens in regulation within 15 feet of the hole, giving himself great shots at birdies on all 16 shots. Meanwhile, Player B may have hit all his shots outside of 30 feet from the hole, making his performance far worse than Player A. However, despite this huge discrepancy in performance, both players would have had the exact same rank in GIR stats (88%) since they both would have been credited for 16/18 greens hit.

Strokes Gained, on the other hand, provides much more specific data by measuring player performance relative to the field they are competing against. It works like this: All golfers start each round at zero sum. They can then either gain or lose strokes during the round depending on their performance relative to the PGA Tour “average strokes to hole out from all locations on the course”. This “average” is held in a database by the Tour that is constantly being updated for future events, and is used to judge players and award them a Strokes Gained value at the end of each round for their performance. 

This result – whether negative or positive – is then compared to the performance of the rest of the field, and the player is assigned a final positive or negative strokes gained value. Below is an example from the Tour site:

“Ex: Average number of putts to hole out from 7 feet, 10 inches is 1.5.

If a player one-putts from that distance, he gains 0.5 strokes.

If he two-putts, he loses 0.5 strokes.

If he three-putts, he loses 1.5 strokes.

The player’s strokes gained or lost are then compared to the field.

Ex: If a player gained 3 strokes over the round, while the field only gained 1 stroke, the player’s “Strokes Gained Against the Field” would be 2.”

In our prior example, Player A’s Strokes Gained: Approach score would have been much better than Player B’s. Even though both he and Player B both hit 16/18 greens, he hit the ball much closer to the pin on average, and would have likely beaten both the average proximity to the hole and the field average for that round. Player B’s performance would have been graded much worse than Player A’s, although it is possible both men would have ended up with positive strokes gained for the round after being compared to the field. 

Here’s a more specific example from Brodie himself that explains the nuance of the Strokes Gained stat and how it quantifies different levels of performance:

“For any approach from 100 to 225 yards, a shot into a penalty situation (awful!) has an SG of –1.7 (i.e., it loses 1.7 strokes). A shot that simply misses the green has an SG of –0.3. A shot that hits the green outside of 20 feet from the hole gains zero strokes, but one that lands within eight feet gains 0.7! SG quantifies in fractional strokes what we know to be true: Hitting a green is better than missing, and hitting it closer is better than farther.”

Strokes Gained stats

We’ve only discussed Strokes Gained relative to approach shots thus far, but Strokes Gained – which actually started out as a putting stat – now applies to all parts of a player’s game. Strokes Gained: Total comprises four different aspects of the game, which can now all be tracked individually for bettors who want to analyze a particular aspect of a golfer’s skill. The configuration works like this:

Player A completes a round. He gets Strokes Gained values in:

  • Off the Tee (SG:OTT) 
  • Approach (SG:APP) 
  • Around the Green (SG:ARG) 
  • Putting (SG:PUTT) 
  • His Strokes Gained Total (SG:TOT) for the round = (SG:OTT) + (SG:APP) + (SG:ARG) + (SG:PUTT) 

There is also the Tee to Green metric (SG:TTG), which tracks all shots taken from the tee box onward, until a player hits the green (meaning it doesn’t include Strokes Gained: Putting). This can often be an important statistic for betting purposes and we’ll discuss why a bit later. For now though, let’s break down how each metric works, what part of a player’s game they actually measure, and generally why they are important.

Strokes Gained: Off the Tee

SG:OTT does just what it says, tracking a player’s performance off the Tee. This stat only applies to Par 4s and 5s, which is something to keep in mind since a solid driver of the ball can still struggle with Par 3s even if their performance is off the charts in this category. As discussed in my PGA Championship and US Open previews, distance and general consistency off the tee has been an attribute of several past major winners, making this a stat to keep an eye on throughout the season. A consistent long game generally means the player will have fewer long stretches of regression over time, giving him more chances at a big week over the long-term. 

Strokes Gained: Approach 

This measures all the shots a player takes on a hole that isn’t from the tee on a Par 4 or Par 5, but also measures tee shots from Par 3s. Any shot not taken on the green, but within 30-yards of the hole, would be considered under SG:ATG. From a more general perspective, when you hear about a player excelling in the SG:APP category, you’ll often hear him spoken about as being a great iron player, although technically the stat includes any fairway metals or hybrids that a player strikes that aren’t from the tee, on a Par 4 or Par 5 as well. 

Strokes Gained: Around the Green

Around the Green stats track performance on any shot from within 30 yards of the green, calculated from the edge. This doesn’t include any strokes taken on the green, but would include things like sand shots and shots from the fairway that were within the prescribed distance. While you’ll often hear people equate solid approach play with being a good iron player, we also often equate solid around the green players with having a good short game. 

Strokes Gained: Putting

The most simplistic of the bunch. This stat measures how a player is doing on the greens and, more specifically, how many strokes a player is losing or gaining on the greens relative to the benchmark Strokes Gained stats (aka the field).

Strokes Gained: Tee to Green

As mentioned previously, Tee to Green stats track what a player does from the moment he tees off to the moment he finally hits the green. So essentially it’s tracking 75% of what you’d see in a player’s SG:TOT stats:

Off the Tee (SG:OTT) + Approach (SG:APP) + Around the Green (SG:ARG) = SG: Tee to Green (TTG). 

Since putting performances for players can vary wildly week to week, SG: TTG stats can be more predictive in the long term, allowing us to track players who might be playing well but who have yet to break through simply due to the fact they haven’t put in a “ceiling” type week with their putter yet. 

Sep 3, 2017; Norton, MA, USA; Phil Mickelson , Marc Leishman and Bryson DeChambeau watch as they let the group behind them hit onto the 4th green during the third round of the Dell Technologies Championship golf tournament at TPC of Boston. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

How bettors can use Strokes Gained

Strokes Gained data gives golf bettors a detailed window into player performance and is a great tool to help evaluate how well a golfer is actually playing.  As opposed to just looking at a player’s recent tournament results, which gives us the final result without analyzing how it was achieved, looking into a player’s Strokes Gained stats enables us to see how the result was achieved and – most importantly – to make a determination as to whether the result is sustainable or just a one time fluke. For betting purposes, certain Strokes Gained areas will always be better to focus on for predictive usages. 

Ball striking over putting

Strokes Gained: Tee to Green is a powerful stat that gives us an isolated picture of a player’s long game and takes out what they are doing with the putter, a club that almost every player struggles with for consistency. To understand this last point better, we need only to look at the ranks of some of the top players in SG: TTG and SG:PUTT stats over a multi-year basis. 

Take Dustin Johnson. Between 2016 to 2019, Johnson was one of the top golfers in the world, ranking number one in the OWGR for long stretches, including most of 2017. Johnson achieved ranks of 3rd-1st-1st-8th in SG: TTG stats on Tour over this four year period, but for the same span only ranked 37th-96th-25th-74th in SG: PUTT. 

While Johnson was able to maintain his consistency in the ball-striking department – he ranked inside the top-5 in SG:OTT for all four seasons as well – his SG:PUTT numbers fluctuated wildly. This sort of performance perfectly underlines how top level players are often able to remain consistent in their ball striking, while underscoring how difficult it is for even the best players to remain at the top level of their baseline for putting. 

For golf betting purposes then, focusing on a player’s ball striking stats can often be a way to identify solid value bets in a field. Players who have been putting up good SG:Tee to Green stats – or SG:Ball Striking stats (SG:OTT + SG:APP) – but underperforming on the greens, can make for good betting targets as their odds will often only reflect their poor finishes, and not the fact they have been performing consistently everywhere but on the greens. 

Gary Woodland, winner of the 2019 US Open, is a great example of how this can often work out for golf bettors. Leading into the US Open last June, Woodland had been one of the most consistent ball-strikers on Tour for most of the year (and his career), but had struggled with his putter and finished the year ranked just 133rd in SG: PUTT. Then, at the US Open, he broke through and gained 7.1 Strokes Putting for the week, which put him over the top for his first major win. Bettors who looked past his lack of wins and relied more on his fantastic tee to green stats to make their wagers, were paid off handsomely. 

Course fit

The last area we should touch on is how different courses can emphasize different skill sets. Much like how no two ballparks in Major League Baseball play the same – some allowing home runs at well above the league rate and others well below it – no two PGA venues are the same either. Different courses tend to put more emphasis on different aspects of the game, which can often give certain styles of play an edge. 

While it’s important to remember that good ball striking and off the tee play translate well to every course, shorter courses that don’t have a ton of penal rough often bring more variance into play, allowing putting and short games to have a greater effect on the outcome. As a result, players who tend to have more “spike weeks” with their putter will often be great at racking up wins at these sorts of venues. Brandt Snedeker is a great example of just this type of player. Despite never recording a win at a major championship, he’s still been able to grab nine PGA wins over his career, while never ranking better than 44th for the year in SG:TTG rankings since 2010. 

A great way to gain an understanding of how certain venues play is by looking back at past year’s statistics – either at the PGA Tour website (which stores data for past seasons and events), or pay-to-use databases that are popping up with more regularity thanks to the rise of Daily Fantasy Sports. A winner’s statistics at certain venues give us a decent window into how a victory was ultimately achieved, and a clue as to what sort of golfer we should be looking at for the week as well. 

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Geoff Ulrich
Geoff Ulrich has been involved in the daily fantasy and sports betting world as a writer for some time now. His focus has always been on the NFL, PGA and NHL, and he enjoys breaking down the more complex subjects of the gambling and fantasy sports world into simpler terms for his readers. An inquisitive person by nature, you can often find him on twitter (@thefantasygrind) tilting his latest bet or going over his favorite plays for the upcoming NFL or Golf slates.