Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

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.

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