Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Justin Rose’s fantastic run at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 British Open. As a 17-year-old amateur, he finished tied for fourth after pitching in from the left rough short of the 72nd green.
Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion, is now ranked No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking after back-to-back wins at the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Turkish Open.
Since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August, Rose has earned six consecutive top-10 finishes, and he concluded his 2016-17 PGA Tour season ranked ninth on the FedEx Cup point list.
Rose and his swing coach, Sean Foley, are among the most analytically savvy people in golf, using TrackMan regularly during practice sessions to hone the Englishman’s skills and keeping up on his statistical trends throughout the season. Foley’s philosophy, rooted in analytics, is at odds with conventional wisdom.
“I think that over time, statistics can help point us to where we need to focus,” Foley said. “People always say that you want to make your weaknesses better, but I’ve got to tell you that if I’m a guy like Dustin Johnson, I’m going to focus a lot of time on driving my ball because that is just so helpful. I wouldn’t even want to lose 10 percent of that.”
For decades, golfers have been encouraged to develop their shortcomings and try to create a game that has no weaknesses. No one would argue that a 20-handicap golfer who cannot get the ball out of a greenside bunker should ignore practicing sand shots, but at the professional level, Foley and a growing number of players are willing to be “average” in some phases of the game if they are elite in others.
For Rose, who is a solid driver and iron player, the weakness is putting. As the chart on these pages shows, Rose was a solid driver and a dependable iron player over the course of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, but his putting was slightly below average. Rose has finished four of the last five PGA Tour seasons with a strokes gained: putting average that was negative, which means his performance on the greens was worse than the average PGA Tour player. Last season that shortcoming was minimal at -0.06 strokes per round (123rd on the PGA Tour), but it meant Rose had to excel in the full-swing areas of the game to contend because he could not depend on his putter to save him.
Foley and Rose’s putting coach, Phil Kenyon, want him to become a better putter. Rose, who finished in the top 10 in all four FedEx Cup playoff events, worked hard to improve his putting and showed signs the work is paying off at the Dell Championship, the BMW Championship and in his victories in China and Turkey. (There are no ShotLink stats available from the WGC-HSBC Champions or the Turkish Open.) However, placing too much emphasis on putting could be costly for Rose.
Looking at it analytically, Foley notes that from about 30 yards away, it takes the average Tour player about 2.5 strokes to get the ball in the hole. From 200 yards away, he says it is approximately 2.7 strokes.
“What would be the use of spending hours practicing 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90-yard shots when the difference is about 0.18 or 0.2 strokes,” Foley said. “When I say things like this, people accuse me of thinking that wedges are not important. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is that 175-200 yards is where the game is played the best at the highest level. Why shouldn’t we spend more time on that?”
Foley wants to be sure the things that Rose practices are going to make a meaningful difference in his game. He thinks the work Rose put in with Kenyon on the practice green in 2017 is starting to pay off, but while Rose worked to improve his putting, Foley made sure they kept honing his driving and iron game, too. And because Rose had some back injuries early in 2017, he had to make some subtle swing changes that are only now starting to pay off.
“The tweaks that we’ve made (in 2017) may well take Justin to a level of ballstriking that he hasn’t been to yet, and I wasn’t sure that was possible,” Foley said.
If Rose’s back injury is a thing of the past and his driving and iron play improve, any improvement in his putting will be a bonus. He already has proved he can contend in big events while being a Tour-average putter. A Justin Rose who putts well would be bad news for his competition.
(Note: This story appears in the Nov. 13, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)