What’s the best way to identify the best player in a given week? This question has plagued tournament directors for decades. In recent years, conventional wisdom has settled on narrow fairways and long, punishing rough. This type of setup has reined in scoring, but I’ve often wondered whether it has truly elevated skill and rewarded stellar play.

Recent data compiled by Lou Stagner suggests that it has not.

The data

First, Stagner compared the top 30 players in the Strokes Gained: Approach statistic to those ranked 141 to 170 in average proximity to the pin from the fairway between 2013 and 2018. Stagner’s graph showed the performance of each group in ten-yard increments from 50 to 230 yards.

These shots from the fairway produce predictable results: the best iron players separate themselves from the relatively poor ones. The separation grows as they get farther away from the flag. The longer the approach, the larger the advantage a superior iron player has. No surprises there.

The data from the rough, however, is eye-opening. There is no real trend in the differences between the top and bottom iron players on the PGA Tour. In fact, from some distances in the rough, the 141-170 group even manages to beat the 1-30 group. And since the average proximity to the hole has moved outside 20 feet, good birdie looks have become more rare for everyone. So it seems that the unpredictability of rough—the randomness of lie, spin, and flight—levels the playing field, limiting the advantage that elite iron players would normally have.

My hypothesis is that narrow courses, where even accurate drivers will often be approaching greens from the rough, close the gap between the best and the worst ball-strikers. As a result, leaderboards tend to be more bunched. At wide courses, on the other hand, excellent iron players have a better chance of setting themselves apart by hitting precise approaches from the fairway and giving themselves a lot of makeable putts. The result will often be more spaced-out leaderboards.

(One caveat: it’s possible that extremely punitive rough allows muscular guys such as Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson to set themselves apart. To prove this theory, however, we would need finer-grained tournament data. We would also want to consider whether a test of raw strength out of the rough makes for compelling golf.)

In its two years as a Tour venue, Trinity Forest had the widest fairways on the schedule. The scores were low, and many viewers and pundits objected. Trinity Forest did, however, produce two of the most separated leaderboards of the year. In 2018, Aaron Wise won after shooting 23-under par, three clear of runner-up Marc Leishman and eight ahead of T-9. He was first in the field in SG: Approach. Last year, Sung Kang took the title, again with a score of 23-under, which was seven better than T-10.

What it means

While this is a small, basic analysis, it hints at some important ideas. Stagner’s data suggests that at courses where the field hits a lot of fairways, the most talented iron players will be able to distinguish themselves. Further, recent trends at Trinity Forest suggest that wider fairways may produce more separation on leaderboards, offering a clearer picture of which players truly excelled in a given week.

Unfortunately for golf fans, Trinity Forest—a one-of-a-kind Coore & Crenshaw design that produced fun, unusual competitive dynamics—is no longer on the PGA Tour. After just two editions of the Byron Nelson, a subpar in-person viewing experience along with a torrent of player complaints led to the course’s unceremonious removal from the schedule. Trinity Forest’s replacement, TPC Craig Ranch, has less character and narrower fairways.

To go back to an analogy I used after the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, a narrow fairway is golf’s equivalent of a tiny strike zone. The smaller the strike zone, the more precision pitchers, who make their living on the corners of the plate, will struggle. (Think Greg Maddux.) If all pitchers have to stuff it down the middle, only those with overwhelming power will thrive. (Think Randy Johnson.)

In golf, courses with narrow fairways have a similar effect. At these venues, even the most accurate players have a hard time keeping it in the short grass. As a result, getting as close to the green as possible off the tee—i.e., power—becomes the only reliable way to gain an advantage on approach. Wider fairways, on the other hand, still give power players an advantage, but they also allow precise ball-strikers to do their thing: attack pins from the short grass.

Of course, all facets of the game are intertwined. You could contend that widening fairways deemphasizes the skill of accuracy off the tee. But I would argue that this is probably true only in extreme cases. At the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, for instance, the combination of wide playing corridors and tough native areas ended up rewarding those who drove it accurately. Those who didn’t went home before the weekend.

Ultimately, to speak confidently about the relationship between course setup and player skill, we need more and better data. But if Lou Stagner’s charts can tell us one thing, it’s that championship courses should see short grass not as a leveler but as a potential separator. They might be surprised by which players rise to the top.