Iron Play Rules All During 2021/22 PGA Season

Will Zalatoris, FedEx St. Jude Championship,Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports
Will Zalatoris, FedEx St. Jude Championship,Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2021-22 PGA Tour season is destined to be remembered for the LIV Tour-caused fracture. On the course, however, it also deserves to be remembered for the reassertion of the approach game as the principal path to victory.

During the just-concluded season, iron play reasserted its long-standing importance. That importance briefly waned during the 2020-21 season, when for the first time in the Strokes Gained era one’s play off the tee emerged as the most important characteristic of scoring.

But during the 2021-22 season, the correlation between a player’s approach game and his score was again most important. That correlation worked out to 68.7 percent, a strong but historically consistent correlation.

Since the Strokes Gained system was first devised to quantify the components of ability during the 2004 season, the correlation between Strokes Gained Approach and scoring average has, with one exception, always been strongest of the four major Strokes Gained elements,  the other elements being off the tee, around the green and putting.

That correlation has consistently averaged just under 70 percent.

The sole exception was last season, when Strokes Gained Off the tee made a quantum leap in importance as a driver of scoring average. During the 2020-21 PGA season, Strokes Gained Off the Tee had the strongest correlation to scoring average at 56.6 percent.

That was nearly a dozen percentage points higher than the correlation to iron play, which sank to an all-time low of 44.8 percent.

It appeared that the game’s many bombers had finally succeeded in taking control of tournament outcomes from those who favored precision approach play.

But the natural order of things was restored this past year. While the approach game again correlated with scores at historically normal levels, the importance of the driving game receded, if only a bit.

The correlation between driving and scoring fell to 54.7 percent, about two points less than during the 2020-21 PGA season.

And a full 14 points less than the correlation of iron play to scoring.

Historically, Strokes Gained Around the Green and Putting have always been the lesser correlatives to scoring, and that trend continued in 2021-22.

The correlation between Strokes Gained Around the Green and scoring rose this past season, but only from 42.9 percent to 46.7 percent.

On a week-to-week basis, putting is often the major determinant of success. But across the full season, putting has never been a significant driver of scoring average, possibly because putting seems to be one of those skills that comes and goes overnight.

In 2021-22, putting waned in importance, correlating to scoring average at only 39.1 percent. That’s about two percentage points lower than in 2020-21.

One gets a feel for this curious dichotomy by scanning the roster of the season’s 10 most effective putters. In order, they are Lucas Herbert, Denny McCarthy, Brendon Todd, Tyrrell Hatton, Beau Hossler, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Kelly Kraft, Cameron Smith, Kevin Kisner, and Sam Burns.

Collectively they averaged 70.37 strokes for the season, only about one-half stroke below the Tour average, and would have been good for only 42nd on the season-long scoring list. By contrast, the 10 best players in approach shots averaged a collective 69.69 strokes, a score that would have ranked ninth best on tour.

The 10 best drivers averaged exactly 70 strokes per round.

The table below lays out the final correlations between each of the four major Strokes Gained skills and the scoring averages of all of the 191 PGA Tour players who completed enough rounds to project a reliable stroke average. It also shows the comparable correlations for 2020-21 as well as the average correlation since 2004.

Skill                                  2021-22                2020-21                Average

SG Tee                                  54.7                       56.6                        51.2

SG Approach                      68.7                        44.8                        68.3

SG Around                          46.7                        42.9                        39.4

SG Putting                          39.1                        41.7                        37.5

Even setting aside the historical patterns, it should come as no surprise to anybody looking at PGA Tour statistics and tournament outcomes that the approach game was, as is usually the case, the single most important component to winning.

A quick look at the season-long approach game data would confirm as much. The 10 season-long leaders in Strokes Gained Approach were: Will Zalatoris, Russell Henley, Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Smith, Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Mito Pereira, and Shane Lowry.

Next. Restructuring The FedEx Cup Playoffs. dark

That list of 10 embraces three of the season’s four Major Champions, and 13 top 5 finishers in those signature events.