News & Opinion

The death of finesse: It’s a different game

I work at home, and I like to have the television on low volume in the background. And when I get tired of the hissing contests on cable news, the best thing about the holidays is Golf Channel’s rebroadcasts of final rounds of PGA Tour events.

It’s perfectly gentle white noise. But the other afternoon, I perked up when I heard from CBS that Ollie Schniederjans was hitting a pitching wedge from 180 yards on the par-3 17th at Harbour Town during the final round of the RBC Heritage. A pitching wedge? Even the CBS announcers questioned the club choice.

Schniederjans, who was in the hunt, pulled the wedge shot into the left greenside bunker, made bogey and shot himself right out of contention. No wonder.

Part of the residue of the ball going too far in the modern professional game has been the death of finesse. It sounds so quaintly old school in this era of smashmouth golf, but it’s rare that you find players who take too much club and massage it into a hole location with curve and/or trajectory.

Today’s player regularly will mash a high, spinning lob wedge from 120-130 yards and hope that the ball somehow gets close to the hole, which it doesn’t most of the time. The statistics bear that out.

Three players – Rory Sabbatini, Brandt Snedeker and Kyle Stanley – tied for the 2017 lead in average proximity to the hole from 125-150 yards, at 20 feet, 1 inch. Nearly all players on today’s Tour hit some kind of wedge from that distance. Tied for 89th was 23 feet, and the worst – No. 190 – was Rory McIlroy, at 29 feet, 6 inches.

Tour players averaged about 1½ attempts per round from that distance, and the top three averaged making birdie 17 percent of the time. McIlroy was 1 under in 73 attempts.

Much has been made of World No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s improved wedge play in the last year or so. He was tied for 13th at 21 feet and made birdie 14 percent of the time in 122 attempts.

Tour players get marginally better as they get closer to the hole. Justin Thomas led the category from 50-125 yards with an average of 15 feet, 6 inches. Players get about two attempts per round from that distance, and the top players make birdies an average of 24 percent of the time. Tied for 83rd was a group at 19 feet, which included Jordan Spieth, who averaged birdie 18 percent of the time.

Tiger Woods, who is widely regarded as the best shotmaker of his generation, led the 50-125 category in 2004 at 15 feet, 3 inches and made birdie 31 percent of the time.

Players from the previous era insist that they were much better wedge players. Johnny Miller insisted that if he didn’t get the ball to within 8 feet from 100 yards, he considered it a bad shot. Other players of that generation, including Greg Norman, have bemoaned the ability of today’s player with a wedge in his hands.

Some people will blame today’s ball, which they say is not as maneuverable as the old wound balata balls. Some will point to razor’s-edge hole locations on firm greens as a reason why it’s more difficult to get closer to the hole.

Some will say that manufacturing shots from short distances is not taught nearly as much as it once was. Others, most notably the European coach Pete Cowen, think that players getting bigger and stronger have an adverse effect on results with the finesse clubs.

Because this is the modern game, players adopt high-tech methods. Johnson and Justin Rose, among others, use TrackMan to dial in wedge distances. But when you’re under tournament pressure, you have to rely on feel and instinct, don’t you?

All of which points to the modern game’s reliance on distance to produce the bulk of the scoring. The longest hitters are playing some kind of wedge most of the time on par-4 holes, and almost no one lays up on par 5s any more, except after driving the ball into trouble.

Make birdie on the par 5s, convert for birdie on the wedge holes once or twice per nine and you’ve shot yourself a good score. Maybe there’s no emphasis on finesse today because it’s not needed any longer.

It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter@mikepurkeygolf