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How Golfers Win

Monthly Archives: June 2014

Quicken Loans National Preview

congo 2013

This is the former AT&T National, still at Congressional CC. Tiger Woods returns from his three month hiatus this weekend at his tournament. That’s the main story obviously this week; Tiger’s season had hardly even begun when he hobbled home for his last competitive rounds at Doral (only 4 events played), but it certainly hadn’t been successful – only a withdrawal, a made the cut/did not finish, T41, and T25. That said, Tiger has been the best player in the world statistically and in terms of tournaments won over the two previous seasons. An in-form, pain-free Tiger is the best player in the world still, for my money. He’s alluded to some rust from lack of preparation so I wouldn’t get too wound up about him contending this week, but I’ll try to update everyone on how he’s hitting his longer shots in the early rounds. He’s been putting and playing shorter shots for awhile now, but he said he’s only recently been extending himself and getting distance back. If he’s hitting long and accurately, it might indicate he’s back in business a little earlier than we might expect.

The Course:

Onto the course, Congressional is the brute of the PGA Tour, measuring at nearly 7600 yards for a par 71 – it’s the longest regular course on Tour by True Distance (which adjusts for the par of the course). The course averaged 72.6 over 2012-13 (4th hardest on Tour), largely because of that distance, but also because it has some of the most difficult to putt greens on Tour. Congressional also plays harder than average on middle/short length approach shots (<175 yards) based on my limited data.

Off the tee the course is very long with narrow (~25-27 yard) fairways which yield a normally low driving accuracy. However, the course is actually very easy off the tee, rewarding long drives and rarely punishing wild ones. The fairways are cut narrow, but the area given over to the rough is expansive. In last year’s final round, only 1% of drives ended up somewhere besides the fairway/rough/fairway bunker (trees, out of bounds, water, etc.). The Tour average is around 3-4%. This means that a lot of drives are missing the fairway, but fewer than normal are ending up with those catastrophic misses that cost big strokes. The rough at Congressional isn’t particularly penal and the fairway bunkers are statistically pretty easy to play out of, meaning a strategy based on hitting for distance and not worrying about accuracy is ideal here. The results bear that out; in 2012-13, players who hit for more distance were advantaged relative to the shorter hitters. Bump up J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland a bit.

One thing that holds the longer hitters back a bit is that it’s pretty difficult to hit the par 5s in two. The 9th measures 636 yards and if the length wasn’t enough, a ravine right before the green makes it a certain layup. Both the 6th (water) and 16th (multiple greenside bunkers) are very well defended to dissuade anyone who didn’t hit a perfect drive. There isn’t a drivable par 4 on the course either.

Statistical Lessons from Rounds 1-2 at US Open

Pinehurst #2 has played fairly tame so far this week, yielding a scoring average of around 73 (versus 74.5 in 2005) through two rounds as Martin Kaymer built a six shot lead. A lot of that is due to the speed of the course, or lack thereof. The USGA had the greens watered before the first round and a thunderstorm Thursday night made them play slower than normal again on Friday. The USGA is caught in a bit of a bind this week as far as their course management is concerned. They cannot dry the course out too much because they’re hosting the Womens US Open at Pinehurst next week. Making the ladies play fairways and greens that are more desert than golf course would be farcical. It sounds like they’re letting them dry out this weekend, meaning fewer greens hit, harder putts/chips, and higher scores over the weekend.

The main story as far as the course this week is the replacement of the normal US Open rough with the sandy natural areas. I wrote Monday about how this was going to turn driving the ball into a bit of Russian roulette, with off-line drives ending up with good lies on packed sand sometimes and buried in wire grass or pine straw other times. That’s largely been the case so far, except the players haven’t really been taking the course on off the tee. Through two rounds, on roughly average size fairways, players are hitting about 71% (20/28) of their fairways; that’s well above the 61% average for the PGA Tour (17/28 hit). They’re not converting all those hit fairways into greens in regulation or good scores though; the field is hitting 57% of their greens – even though the greens have been softer and more receptive than players expected earlier in the week.

Hitting 71% of fairways is at the very high end of the normal PGA Tour scale. Tournaments with fairways that easy to hit usually have high GIR numbers and lower scoring relative to par. That’s not the case this week because of the difficulty of the greens, but there’s almost no correlation between fairways hit and greens hit (R=0.14) and fairways hit and scoring (R=-0.11) this week. That’s fairly low compared to other tournaments, especially since there’s a larger than normal penalty for missing the fairway (0.5 strokes compared to ~0.2 normally). This indicates that the players in general are laying back off the tee, trading a few extra fairways for longer and harder second shots. That explains the field driving distance of 279 yards, compared to around 290 yards in 2005. Note that they’re playing a course that’s played 150-200 yards longer than in 2005.
That’s not going to be a winning strategy for anyone but Martin Kaymer the rest of the weekend. Kaymer’s likely to give up part of his ten stroke lead to someone, but he still projects to finish around -5, assuming the course doesn’t get drastically harder. No one else projects better than +2. That means anyone that still wants to win needs to find a way to start making birdies as often as possible. That means launch your drives whenever possible and get the closest second shot possible. You’re about 2-3% more likely to birdie a hole from 170 than 190. We’ve seen guys all week hit shots at the pins from the natural areas; ending up in them is only penal if you get a bad lie. Someone might follow this strategy and end up with crappy lies, but someone else might get all clean lies, be able to fire at pins, and start ripping off birdies. Everyone trailing Kaymer is <5% to win right now. Every one of them needs some luck to win. Being aggressive just gives them a slightly better chance at doing so.

The Most Overrated Golfers at the US Open

Golfers get overrated in Majors by the media in very predictable ways; good not great players who win Majors will be permanently over-hyped in subsequent events (Graeme McDowell), elite guys will still get a ton of attention even when their careers have taken them from the top to merely very good (Phil Mickelson), and a guy who comes out of nowhere with a good tournament will still receive attention a couple years later even though they’re not good (Ricky Barnes). Below are a few players who are being given entirely too much attention this week.

Billy Horschel:

Horschel was a great collegiate golfer at Florida, but stumbled around on the PGA Tour his first few years playing well below Tour average. Last year he supposedly arrived, riding an anomalous putting fueled surge to his first PGA Tour victory and a T4 at the US Open at Merion. Horschel faded fast down the stretch though; he had one top ten in thirteen post-US Open events in 2013. Horschel’s season so far hasn’t been particularly inspiring¬† – he’s 87th in the world by my numbers – though I’ve seen people claim his T15/T6 the last two weeks are signs of him rounding into form. He’s the classic case of a guy putting out of his mind for a few months and then losing the “magic” completely. He had never posted a strokes gained putting season better than average before putting up an awesome +0.60 in 2013 up to the US Open. He’s been exactly average since.

Horschel doesn’t exactly fit into the Ricky Barnes role of contending in their first Major and struggling to stay on Tour two years later because he’s a bit better than Barnes ever was, but a guy of Horschel’s ability will top ten at a Major only once every four years or so. He’s going off at 80/1 – possibly the worst bet on the board.

Graeme McDowell:

G-Mac’s victory at Pebble Beach placed him permanently on the list of guys who have “it” to win US Opens, whatever that “it” is. There’s a huge portion of the golf media that basically think an accurate driver with a solid all-around game like McDowell is the perfect antidote to the deadly US Open rough. Like I showed in my post Monday, that has no statistical support. Golfers certainly play poorly out of US Open rough – worse than on a generic PGA Tour set-up – but many US Open venues also are very long, requiring more >175 yard approach shots than normal aimed at fast and firm greens. It’s an advantage to avoid the rough, but not if it also means facing 20 yard longer approach shots to impossible greens.

McDowell was heavily touted going into Merion last year for the above reason; in the Open he hit 61% of his fairways, but finished +13 and MC’d. This year’s course doesn’t set-up any better for him – it’s ~25 yards longer/hole than Merion – and he’s going off at 50/1 instead of the 20/1 last year. G-Mac has the 28th best aggregate performance since 2012, but is going off at lower odds than Schwartzel (19th), Stricker (6th), Poulter (22nd), Haas (23rd), and Bradley (20th).

Phil Mickelson:

In many ways this week is about Phil and should be about Phil. He’s the only guy other than Tiger to tee it up for his first crack at the career Grand Slam since Ray Floyd played the British in 1986. What he’s accomplished is awesome and I’m glad his first crack will come without the oxygen stealing Tiger Woods show around. All that said, Phil can’t be considered the favorite to win this week and he’s probably not going to win. He’s declined a lot due to age from his early 2000s peak as one of the three best in the game. Right now, he’s more like the 15th best by my numbers.

That’s to be expected though; my aging research has shown that guys lose a lot of ability from 35 to 44 (Phil’s decline has been typical in this regard). That decline is largely concentrated in less driving distance and diminished iron play – both things Phil has suffered in the past two seasons. Curiously, Phil has posted two extremely anomalous putting seasons to go along with that decline in his long game. That hasn’t continued into this season. His season hasn’t been bad or disappointing this year, but it hasn’t been up there with the rightful favorites – McIlroy, Scott, or Bubba.

Phil’s only silver lining is that he typically over-performs his aggregate talent level in the US Open. Since 1999, Phil’s played around 0.5 strokes better per round in the US Open than in all other PGA Tour rounds. You can credit his preparation, focus, “clutch” ability, or randomness. Whether this represents reality or not, I can’t say for sure. It’s unlikely a player would perform that much better over 15 years of rounds just due to randomness, but that doesn’t mean Phil will continue to outperform his aggregate performance going forward. Only if you credit him for his full value of over-performance does Phil come close in expected performance to the favorites.

Regardless, so much of the touting of Phil by the media this week is total wish-casting. The media loves the idea of Phil winning, mainly so they can bask in the attention of the sports mainstream which will have its attention on the NBA Finals/World Cup without Tiger competing. Phil is actually more likely to miss the cut than he is to complete the career Grand Slam this week.

True Sleepers for the US Open

Most prognosticators seem to think sleeper = anyone who’s not one of the top 20 or so golfers in an event. In an effort to not duplicate others’ “efforts” here are some true sleepers that even regular PGA Tour fans might not be familiar with, but who could emerge as contenders this weekend.

Francesco Molinari (Italy, age 31):

I’ll start with the most borderline of sleepers – Molinari is actually going off around 100/1 this week. Molinari represents a dying breed of European Tour golfers who don’t yet play regularly in the US (only three non-Major/WGCs in last two years), but he’s still among one of the 40 best players in the world. He was a staple at the top of my rankings through 2012, but last year was a down year compared to his normal standards. He’s back this year though, with high finishes at the European PGA Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Players Championship adding up to a top 25 season by my numbers.

Molinari is basically as good as Harris English, Brandt Snedeker, or Gary Woodland, but is going off at worse odds than all three.

Joost Luiten (Netherlands, age 28):

Luiten is easily my favorite under the radar guy. He plays almost exclusively on the European Tour, racking up three wins so far in six and a half years on Tour. Last year was the first year he really emerged as a stud, winning twice and contending at the Race to Dubai Final, but more importantly reeling off a full-season of contending results. His aggregate performance was 33rd best in the world by my ratings. He’s been even better this year (4 top tens in Europe and high finishes at the WGC at Doral and the European PGA Championship); he’s up to 18th in the world by my numbers just this season.

He isn’t receiving attention, but he fits the profile of a very good player who could string four good rounds together and contend. I certainly rate his chances as superior to Victor Dubuisson, another younger Euro who has the high profile finish at the WGC Match Play, but has been worse than Luiten in 2014, 2013, and over 2010-2012, or Jonas Blixt, who has the PGA Tour card, wins, and Masters top five, but has been inconsistent and nowhere close to Luiten in terms of aggregate performance against the field. Luiten is going off at around 125/1, better odds than Dubuisson at 80/1 or Blixt at 90/1.

Justin Thomas (USA, age 21):

Thomas almost certainly won’t win this event, but of the guys in the field without a PGA or European Tour card he’s the most likely to win. Thomas starred at Alabama for two seasons where he was probably the best collegiate golfer (he finished #1 and #6 in the Sagarin ratings). He’s been playing on the Tour with a handful of PGA events so far this season, finishing top five in 3/9 events in the minors and scoring a top 10 at Torrey Pines. His performance so far as a pro already puts him solidly above PGA Tour average.

Despite his listed 5’10 145 lb frame, the best part of his game is his ability to bomb drives. He’s been among the leaders in distance on the Tour and his small sample of Trackman results reveal a guy who generates a ton of length and one of the highest ball flights on Tour. Based on his age, college performance, and play so far he looks like a very good player for the future, but for now he’s clearly the best golfer at Pinehurst without a spot on the major Tours.


US Open 2014 Statistical Preview


This year’s US Open returns to a renovated Pinehurst #2, site of Michael Campbell’s shock win in 2005 and Payne Stewart’s final major victory in 1999. Pinehurst underwent significant renovations in 2011 to return it largely to the original Donald Ross designed conditions. Most importantly, the thick, bermuda rough of 1999/2005 has been removed, replaced by waste areas of sand, pine straw,¬† and wire grass, and the fairways have been widened by 50%. The course has also been lengthened to over 7500 yards. The extremely difficult greens weren’t modified; they remain small and harshly sloped.

The Course:

The 1999/2005 course was a traditional US Open set-up – thick rough/narrow fairways off the tee, hard to hit greens, and fast, firm conditions on the green. Traditional US Open set-ups are believed to favor accurate drivers, but my analysis of the last 10 US Opens doesn’t indicate a bias towards either distance or accuracy off the tee [1]. This is very important. Much discussion is made of the need to avoid the rough at a US Open, however avoiding the rough seems to confer no greater advantage at a US Open set-up than week-to-week on the PGA Tour. This year’s US Open course will have wider than normal fairways compared to PGA Tour courses and the same green conditions as before. The change is certainly the replacement of the thick rough with those sandy waste areas. While before any shot into the rough was a difficult approach because of the thickness of the rough, this year a shot off the fairway will be a random draw – sometimes you’ll end up with a good lie on the sand and other times you’ll be stuck behind a patch of wire grass or pine straw. In addition, the fairways will be firm and fast, waiting to usher slightly off-line drives to roll into the waste areas.

All in all, I don’t think this set-up favors distance over accuracy or vice-versa; in many ways it introduces more randomness into the tee to green game with the variability of lie if you miss the fairway. There are courses on Tour where wayward drivers are heavily penalized (Harbour Town) and others where length is the most important (Kapalua). US Opens, especially ones on long courses, fall into the middle. Hit it short to avoid trouble and you’re hitting a long approach shot into a fast and firm green. Hit it long and you’re at greater risk of landing in trouble. As with any US Open set-up, golfers who hit their irons precisely out of trouble will do well this week. On most courses week-to-week it pays to fire at most pins and generate birdie opportunities; most of the time at US Open set-ups you’re just aiming to hit the greens. As always, the very best golfers are in the best shape to win.

Course History:

A lot will be made of how Phil Mickelson is well set to contend and possibly win this week, completing his career Grand Slam. This is mostly wishcasting by the media. Phil did finish 2nd here in 1999, but he finished tied for 33rd in 2005, below what we would expect considering he was a top 5 golfer in the world that year. I’ll write more about Phil later in the week, but it’s important to note he is not the golfer he was in 1999 or 2005. Age has eroded his talent from top 5 in the world to more like top 15 in the world.

As with any course that has been used competitively three times in 15 years (1999/2005 US Open, 2008 US Amateur), a huge grain of salt must accompany any recitation of past performance. And once you factor in the substantial renovations that completely change the course off the tee, I don’t think it’s important at all how a player finished in 1999 or 2005.

The numbers back that up. There was no correlation in performance for the 48 golfers who played in both the 1999 and 2005 tournaments. That fails to control for a bunch of different factors (age, change in ability, etc.), but there was genuinely no correlation at all. In fact, the fact that those 48 golfers had previously competed at Pinehurst didn’t confer any extra advantage – they played 0.75 strokes better than the field on average in 1999 and 0.76 strokes better in 2005. Add in that this is a totally different course and I wouldn’t put any stock in prior results.

Course Statistics:

Par: 70, with two normal par 5s converted to par 4s. #3 will also play as a driveable par 4 for at least some of the rounds.

Length: using True Distance it will play +377 yards, longer than any normal PGA Tour set-up except Congressional (+455). Much longer than Merion (-197), Olympic Club (+52), or Pebble Beach (-210) and comparable to Bethpage (+308) among recent US Open venues.

Course Average (2005): 296.5, with a winning score of even par 280.


[1] – My analysis compared a golfer’s driving distance and % of drives that ended in locations besides the rough/fairway with their performance in the US Open, controlling for overall ability. Those drives in non-rough/fairway locations are catastrophic drives (water/trees/out of bounds/etc.), typically costing the player ~0.67 strokes. Only golfers with qualifying PGA Tour performances that season were included, yielding a sample of 823 tournaments over the past ten years. Both distance and % of catastrophic drives were only significant at the 0.10 level, while overall ability was significant at the 0.0001 level. Both distance and accuracy were roughly equally predictive of US Open performance, though overall ability is vastly more important (~25 times more important). This analysis explains ~40% of US Open performance.

A second analysis which included scrambling ability again revealed that the overwhelming factor in US Open performance is overall ability. The ability to scramble successfully, driving distance, and avoiding catastrophic drives were all small positive factors – of which avoiding catastrophic drives was the most valuable. Scrambling successfully is important because US Open courses often feature low GIR rates, meaning a golfer must hit 1-2 additional scrambling shots/round. In short, golfers who are good scramblers could pick up a very small advantage relative to normal.