The strokes gained methodology is the most accurate way to measure the overall skill of a golfer. It can assess a golfer's putting skill, chipping skill, approach shot skill, driving skill, or all of these combined into one statistic. It is a relative statistic based on average "benchmarks" for each type of shot.
During the Tour Championship, Tiger Woods gained 0.8 strokes putting, lost 0.3 strokes around the greens, gained 1.1 strokes on approach shots, and gained 0.2 strokes on drives. Overall, he gained 1.8 strokes on the field across his entire game during this tournament.
Strokes gained was an effort between Mark Broadie and the PGA Tour. The TOUR gave Broadie, an academic researcher access to the database of ShotLink data, which he then spent years researching, analyzing, and formulating what would become the "Strokes Gained Approach". This is now a statistic published by the PGA Tour for all events.
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Tired of hearing the phrase "strokes gained" from the guys in your fantasy golf league or Sunday foursome and not understanding it?
In this post, I'm breaking it all down—it's a lot easier than you think.
Strokes gained is a golf statistics methodology.
It is made up of four main components:
- Strokes gained off the tee
- Strokes gained approach
- Strokes gained around the green
- Strokes gained putting
The purpose of this method is to independently and objectively assess each part of a golfer's game.
It helps us accurately answer questions like:
- What is the strongest part of Rickie Fowler's game?
- Who putted the best at the Masters last year?
- Which golf course has the most challenging greens to putt on?
- How much did approach shots contribute to Tiger's victory at the Tour Championship?
The basic strokes gained formula is calculated on a shot-by-shot basis and is the following:
Strokes Gained = Benchmark Avg. Shots to Hole Out (start) - Benchmark Avg. Shots to Hole Out (end) - 1
Where "Benchmark" represents an average value calculated by looking at hundreds of thousands of golf shots hit by tour pros and captured by the ShotLink system.
For example, the "benchmark" may say that from 160 yards in the middle of the fairway, on average, a tour pro will take 2.98 shots to hole out, while a 10-foot putt will take an average of 1.61 shots to hole out. If a tour pro hits that 160-yard approach shot from the fairway to 10 feet, we could say their "strokes gained" on this shot was:
Strokes Gained = 2.98 - 1.61 - 1 = 0.37 strokes
In other words, they have reduced their "expected" shots to hole out by 1.37, and after we subtract the shot they just took (1), they gained 0.37 strokes against the "field".
While there are a growing number of ways for amateurs to track their own strokes gained statistics, I recommend purchasing the Arccos tracking system.
This shot-tracking system will track your shots automatically and show you a dashboard of your strokes gained statistics against players of a similar handicap to you.
Let's dive a little deeper.
What's the story behind strokes gained, and how does it really work?
While I'm not the one to ask for the full history and backstory (you can read Every Shot Counts for that), here are the cliff notes of how we got here:
- Early 2000s—The concept of "strokes gained" was developed by Mark Broadie, a quant-finance professor at Columbia Business School thanks to hundreds of thousands of shot data points collected by the Tour's ShotLink system
- 2011—In May of 2011, the PGA Tour officially adopted strokes gained putting and soon thereafter introduced the remaining statistics (approach, off the tee, around the green).
- Coaches and their players start using strokes gained stats to influence their practice strategy and on-course strategy.
- Shot tracking systems like Arccos begin incorporating these statistics in their ecosystems making these metrics available to amateur golfers for the first time ever (technically, GolfMetrics, developed by Broadie was first, but Arccos is far more popular nowadays)
Strokes gained data is primarily used for the following:
- Game improvement—gives golfers better insights of what they need to practice and how they should strategize while playing
- Live Broadcasts—gives announcers incredibly detailed metrics to share with viewers (e.g. "Tiger has never missed a putt inside 5 feet on this hole")
- Sports Betting (fantasy golf)—many sports betting models and algorithms incorporate strokes gained data
By a landslide.
While traditional statistics are easier to track and a great way to get started for amateur golfers, they come with some severe limitations:
- Not Independently Measured—traditional stats like GIR, scrambling, fairway percentage, and putts per round are not independent. For example, I could chunk a chip shot, make a 40 foot putt for par, and my "scrambling" stat will improve. Does this mean I'm great at chipping? No! It just means I made a lucky putt. These traditional stats are co-mingled.
- Do not account for external factors—if a golfer plays a course that has tight fairways, their driving accuracy will decline. This doesn't always mean they hit the ball poorly; it just means they played a TOUGH course!
These are just a few of the many problems that come with traditional stats.
I won't sit here and claim that strokes gained stats don't have any limitations, but they're significantly better than traditional golf stats.
Let's find out why.
In its most basic form, "strokes gained" measures how many strokes a golfer gains or loses against the "benchmark", which is generally historical shot data from players of similar skill levels.
The PGA Tour (and other tours) measure every shot a player takes during the competition using ShotLink, which then goes into their databases and is used to calculate the "benchmark".
The "benchmark" tells use the average number of strokes taken from various distances and locations (fairway, rough, sand) on the golf course.
Below are some sample benchmarks from Broadie's book, Every Shot Counts. These benchmarks represent PGA Tour data from 2004-2012.
In reality, strokes gained will be calculated from a benchmark table with thousands of distances and data points.
But how do we read this?
Here are a few examples:
- If a tour pro is hitting a 100-yard shot from the rough, we expect them to take 3.02 strokes to hole out from this scenario.
- If a tour pro is teeing off on a 400-yard par 4, we expect them to take 3.99 strokes to hole out
- A 400-yard par 4 is short for tour pros, so it makes sense that the average is under par
- If a tour pro is stuck behind a tree from 200 yards and has to chip out to the fairway, we expect them to take 3.87 shots to hole out (see "Recovery" column)
As you can see, the "average shots taken" benchmarks are a function of both location AND distance.
Similar to the first table, we have average benchmarks for putting at different distances.
These are pretty straightforward—if a tour pro has a 9-foot putt, we expect them to take 1.56 strokes to hole out. In other words, a 45% probability of making the putt.
As mentioned above, the strokes gained formula is:
Strokes Gained = Benchmark Avg. Shots to Hole Out (start) - Benchmark Avg. Shots to Hole Out (end) - 1
We take the benchmark number of strokes from the shot we are hitting, subtract the benchmark number of strokes from where we hit the shot to, and subtract 1 (because we hit 1 shot).
This formula is used on a shot-by-shot basis.
Imagine we are given the following "benchmark" tables for long game and putting:
Using this table, let's follow Tiger Woods as he plays the 18th hole at Pebble Beach.
Tiger's first shot is from the tee box from 540 yards. Looking at the sample table above, we can see that the "benchmark" at this location (tee) and from this distance (540 yards) is 4.65 strokes.
Tiger hits his drive down the middle (fairway) and ends up 240 yards (distance) from the pin, which from the table above, we know has a benchmark value of 3.45 strokes.
Given this information, we can calculate strokes gained off the tee for this shot:
Strokes Gained Off the Tee = 4.65 - 3.45 - 1 = 0.20 strokes
Tiger's next shot is from 240 yards in the fairway. He plays conservatively and hits a 4-iron 20 yards short of the green.
Let's grab our benchmarks at these starting and ending locations:
- 240 yards (distance) from fairway (location) has a benchmark value of 3.45 strokes
- 20 yards (distance) from the fairway (location) has a benchmark value of 2.40
So our strokes gained approach is:
Strokes Gained Approach = 3.45 - 2.40 - 1 = 0.05 strokes
So far, after two shots, Tiger has gained 0.20 + 0.05 = 0.25 shots on the field.
For Tiger's third shot, he chips it from 20 yards to a distance of 10-feet from the hole.
Not exactly what he was looking for, but he's got a makeable birdie putt!
Let's look up our benchmark averages for these two shots:
- 20-yard chip from the fairway has a benchmark value of 2.40
- 10-foot putt has a benchmark value of 1.61
Since Tiger is within 30 yards from the edge of the green, this shot qualifies as a strokes gained around the green calculation:
Strokes Gained Around the Green = 2.40 - 1.61 - 1 = -0.21 strokes
In this case, Tiger didn't hit a great chip, and therefore, has lost strokes on the field.
So far, through 3 shots, he has gained 0.20 + 0.05 - 0.21 = 0.04 strokes on the field this hole.
In this scenario, let's say Tiger nails his birdie putt from 10 feet.
Since a 10-foot putt has a benchmark average of 1.61, he gains 0.61 shots on the field with the strokes gained putting metric:
Strokes gained putting = 1.61 - 0 - 1 = 0.61
If we wanted to calculate the entire strokes gained value for this 18th hole, we just add the individual components together:
Strokes Gained = SG Tee + SG Approach + SG Around Green + SG Putting
Our final calculation is:
Strokes Gained (hole) = 0.20 + 0.05 - 0.21 + 0.61 = 0.65
And guess what?
The math all ties out. Remember how a 540-yard hole from the tee had an average of 4.65 strokes to hole out?
If we subtract Tiger's score, we arrive at the same value:
Strokes Gained = 4.65 - 4 = 0.65
As you can see, we can use this strokes gained methodology in all sorts of ways:
- By shot
- By hole
- By area of game (e.g. putting)
- By Course
- By tournament
- By a player's career
- By a player's season
Since we're dealing with the same base unit (strokes), we can mix and match however we want!
The overall methodology goes like this:
- Establish a baseline—to calculate strokes gained, you need a dataset that will allow you to establish your "benchmark" or "baseline" for shots of varying distances and locations (see table above)
- Calculate—you can then calculate individual strokes gained values
- Aggregate—and finally, aggregate them by hole, round, tournament, or however you can think of!
- Adjust—we haven't talked about this yet, but as you'll see in the strokes gained putting section below, some adjustments are made for official reporting on Tour.
As you may have noticed from our example hole at Pebble Beach above, I calculated strokes gained in several "buckets".
While the math is the same for each, it is useful to measure individual areas of a golfer's game.
Let's see what each represents:
Strokes gained off the tee measures all tee shots on par 4s and par 5s. It does NOT include par 3 tee shots.
This metric is a measure of both driving distance AND accuracy.
In his book, Every Shot Counts, Mark Broadie calculated that for every 20 yards added to tee shots, a tour player gains ~0.75 strokes on the field. Furthermore, he found a positive correlation between a player's distance off the tee and overall driving accuracy.
To learn more about this statistic, you can read my full post on strokes gained off the tee.
Strokes gained approach shots represent par 3 tee shots + any shot that is greater than 30 yards from the edge of the green (excluding par 4 and 5 tee shots)
In his prime, Tiger Woods led the tour in this stat by a large margin. In 2006, Tiger gained 2.1 strokes per round through his ball striking.
To learn more about this statistic, you can read my full post on strokes gained approach shots.
Strokes gained around the green measures all shots within 30 yards of the edge of the green that are not putts.
This metric measures a golfer's chipping, pitching, and bunker play inside 30 yards.
To learn more about this statistic, you can read my full post on strokes gained around the green.
Strokes gained putting measures all putts.
As you can probably guess, this tells us how skilled a golfer is with the flat stick.
Unlike other strokes gained stats, this metric is reported by the tour on an adjusted basis.
Let's imagine two pro golfers play in two separate tournaments.
At one tournament, the greens are wicked fast and dry. At the other tournament, it just rained, so the greens are much slower and relatively flat.
If we calculated strokes gained putting for each of these golfers, who do you think will have a better metric?
Of course, the golfer on the easy, slow greens!
Since strokes gained statistics are reported across tournaments, the PGA Tour needed a method for adjusting it based on the difficulty of the greens.
So on a per-round basis, strokes gained putting is adjusted based on historical performance of all pros at a given course. For example, Pebble Beach has notoriously challenging greens, and therefore, a player will get ~0.77 strokes added to their strokes gained putting metric for each round played at Pebble beach.
To learn more about this statistic, you can read my full post on strokes gained putting.
Strokes gained tee to green is an aggregate metric that combines strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained approach, and strokes gained around the green.
There's not much to say about this one. It's a measure of how well a golfer performs excluding putting.
Total strokes gained combines all non-aggregated metrics which includes off the tee, approach, around the green, and putting.
As we have discussed throughout this post, the aggregated strokes gained metric is an overall measurement of a golfer's skill.
In general, this is correlated with world golf rankings. The players leading this metric win lots of tournaments.
At the time of writing, the golf industry has come a long way with consumer-grade technology. With the proliferation of shot trackers and personal launch monitors, it has become easier for amateur golfers to assess their games with real on-course data.
That said, tracking strokes gained off the tee statistics still proves difficult for many golfers.
Because as we talked about earlier, strokes gained calculations require benchmark data.
This means that for a 15-handicap golfer to assess their game with strokes gained data, all of the following things must be tracked:
- Every shot must be tracked (ending location AND distance)
- Thousands of golfers who play to a 15 handicap must also track their shots
- All this data must be aggregated in one spot (ecosystem)
For the PGA Tour, this is easy. ShotLink tracks every golf shot from every tournament for every tour pro automatically.
For us amateurs, we don't have this luxury (and frankly, most of us probably don't want all of our shots tracked!)
There are a few options though and I'm excited to see how this evolves in the next decade!
In my opinion, automatic strokes gained tracking is the best option. Tracking every shot for every round you play is exhausting and most golfers do not have the discipline to keep this up over a long enough period for it to start helping their games.
At the time of writing, here are a few shot trackers that also have strokes gained statistics built-in to their ecosystems:
- Arccos Shot Trackers: The Arccos system has strokes gained calculations available to users (via the app) and thanks to all the amateur data they have collected, you can compare your rounds against golfers of similar skill levels. This is a huge benefit and allows for the most accurate strokes gained data.
- ShotScope Trackers: A close second to Arccos, ShotScope offers shot trackers and an app that calculates strokes gained data. From what I've seen, ShotScope does not have quite as many data points as Arccos, but is a great alternative.
Several apps allow you to track all of your shots manually and then review strokes gained data within the dashboard. While this can be cumbersome and exhausting to some golfers, it is a great option if you are highly disciplined and dedicated to improving your golf game.
Here are a few to check out:
- My Round Pro
- PinPoint Golf
- Decade Golf: This is more of a system than an app. While it does have an app, this is a premium service you pay for to help learn better golf strategy based on strokes gained data.
By now, you probably understand how strokes gained work, but may not see the benefit to your game yet.
I'll leave you with a few ideas of how you can use this to improve your game:
- It tells you what to practice—Unlike traditional stats, strokes gained clearly shows you what parts of your game stink
- You can manage expectations better—Have you ever gotten mad at yourself for missing a 10-footer? I know I have. But what if I told you that even the pros only make 40% of these? Feels a bit better right?
- It tells you where to aim—If you're hitting driver on a par 4 with OB right and rough left, strokes gained tells you that you might want to aim left of the fairway. For most golfers, the penalty for being in the rough is significantly less than the penalty of going out of bounds.