By The Numbers: Focus on wedge play lifts long-knocker Dustin Johnson to new heights

Sep 28, 2017; Jersey City, NJ, USA; Golfer Dustin Johnson hits out of the sand of the fourth hole during the first round foursomes match of The President's Cup golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

By The Numbers: Focus on wedge play lifts long-knocker Dustin Johnson to new heights

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By The Numbers: Focus on wedge play lifts long-knocker Dustin Johnson to new heights

At the end of the 2015 PGA Tour season, Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade’s vice president of Tour operations, contacted James Cornish, a research engineer with the company, and asked for a statistical breakdown of Dustin Johnson’s game. Johnson already was a top-10 player, but Sbarbaro, who helps fit Johnson into the proper equipment and has caddied for the South Carolinian, knew DJ could dominate.

“We put together a report trying to understand where maybe there were areas of opportunity in Dustin’s game,” Cornish said recently at a TaylorMade outing in Carlsbad, Calif. “But also where his real strengths were.”

As you might have suspected, Johnson’s strength was his driving, and he is still one of the best drivers of the ball in the world. The area Cornish and Sbarbaro identified as an opportunity was Johnson’s wedge game. On both approach shots from the fairway and smaller shots around the green, Johnson could be better.

The table below shows Johnson finished eighth in the Official World Golf Rankings in 2015, which is remarkable because he was ranked 160th in strokes gained: around-the-green that season with an average of -0.212. That means he gave away 0.848 shots over 72 holes to the average PGA Tour player. Jordan Spieth, who ranked seventh that year (0.471), had a 2.73-shot edge over Johnson that season over 72 holes based solely on the quality of his wedge game.

SG:
Around-the-green
Ranking
on Tour
OWGR rank (year-end)
2010 -0.179 154 14
2011 0.019 97 7
2012 -0.035 114 23
2013 -0.090 122 16
2014 -0.015 109 19
2015 -0.212 160 8
2016 0.070 75 3
2017 0.104 67 1

 

Made aware of the data, Johnson changed his practice routine.

“I really started spending time getting specific numbers and working on just that,” he said. “I don’t make it really complicated.

“I’ve got three shots with each wedge. Before, if I was laying up on a par 5, I would try to get it as close to the green as possible because I felt like the closer I was to the green, the easier it was going to be to hit it close to the hole. I’d try to squeeze it up into some areas that were not a very high-percentage shot per se, and if I missed the shot, then I would leave myself in a bad spot in the bunker or in the rough where I can’t get it close.

“Now, if I have a short par 4 or a long par 5 where I am laying up, I have a specific number that I want to lay it up to. It makes the game a lot easier for me, because then all I have to do is calculate how far I want to leave myself, and I know that if I put myself on one of those numbers that I’m going to hit it close.”

Because Johnson is so potent off the tee and from the fairway — he led the PGA Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green last season with a 1.809 average per 18 holes — he does not need to develop a wedge game like that of Spieth or Phil Mickelson to win. All Johnson really needs to do is make sure his wedge game is not a detriment.

Cornish and Sbarbaro have developed statistical reports for other TaylorMade staff players as well, most notably Jon Rahm. When TaylorMade was in the process of trying to sign Rahm to an endorsement deal, they showed the Spaniard where, if he sharpened his approach game, he might see meaningful benefits.

“We want our players to be the best they can be,” Cornish said. “If we can help that in some small way, then great.” Gwk

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