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How Golfers Win

Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Barclays Round 1 Recap

Bo Van Pelt (-6) leads eight others including former FedEx Champ Jim Furyk after the first round at The Barclays. The main story in golf the last month has been the dominance of Rory McIlroy (three straight wins) and Rickie Fowler (two 2nds in majors), and what their success at a young age means to the future of golf. Rory struggled across the board Thursday – breaking a streak of fourteen straight above-average rounds dating back to early July – while Rickie delivered another solid round to end up three off the lead. Most notable from Thursday was the continued great play of Jim Furyk; he’s racked up three top tens and a T15 in the last month behind great iron play and a hot putter.

The Course:

Ridgewood was set-up at an average length Thursday and yielded fairly normal course stats in terms of accuracy (64%), GIR (67%), and scoring (70.8 on a par of 71). Where it’s really difficult is from the rough. It was in the upper tier of PGA Tour courses in terms of difficulty. The par 5s also play mostly as three shot holes; the pros only went for the green in two 17% of the time (average of 50%) and hit the green in two 2% of the time (average 14%).

Drivable Par 4 5th:

The 5th is a drivable par 4, playing 283 yards on Thursday, that is one of the best examples of a drivable par 4 all season. If you take a look below you’ll see the elevated green is narrow and tiny, measuring 9 yards wide and only 2200 square feet (microscopic by PGA Tour standards). The green is surrounded by bunkers to dissuade some from attacking it off the tee; lay-ups are made to around 85 yards. Driving the green requires a carry of around 270 yards, 40 feet uphill, and is best done with a right-handed fade. Just over half the field went for the green off the tee, scoring about 0.1 stroke better than those who laid-up.

Because of the carry required, none of the shortest hitters who went for the green hit it or made birdie. Because there isn’t a ton of difference between the expected values of each strategy, the shorter hitters and anyone who’s really good with a wedge from 100 yards in should probably lay-up. Anyone with average or better distance should absolutely take-on the green though. Average or longer hitters who went for the green scored at 3.60, everyone else at 3.91. The real pay-off isn’t really being close to the green – a 25 yard bunker shot isn’t much easier than a 75 yarder from the fairway – it’s instead in actually hitting the green. All five who hit the green made birdie, which is expected when the longest possible putt you can face is 50 feet. You can see the distribution by score below.

#5ridgewood1stround

What’s Ahead for Rory:

With Rory’s run of success every poor round is apt to be magnified beyond proportions. Even great players play poorly some days. Rory’s expected to have a round as bad as Thursday’s only around once every 25 rounds, so this is likely as poor as we’re apt to see him play for awhile. What’s important isn’t really this round, but how he’s had success so far this year. Rory emerged as a star and won his first two majors in 2011 and 2012 while being wholly dependent on his driver/irons for success. He was the best in the world on those long shots in 2011-12, while his putting was average or a bit worse. Last year, his driving was wild and he lost a lot his long game that had made him great. This year, the driving is as good as ever and his irons are great, but what’s really different is his success with the putter. He’s jumped to 21st on Tour in putting, gaining about half a stroke from putting compared to the last few seasons. Over this latest run of wins his putter has been nuclear hot (+1.20 strokes vs. the field). That’s been enough to take him from one of a group of 3-4 elite players to the best in the world.

The problem is putting is hugely random. Players putt well above their talent level for months and then regress. Up until July, McIlroy had putted at +0.16 strokes gained for the season and slightly below average for his career. Since then he’s at +1.20 strokes gained. This post deals with the small sample randomness involved with putting; nothing McIlroy is doing on the greens indicates to me that he’s going to sustain the level of putting that won him two majors in the last month. When his putting returns to his career norms, he’ll still be the best player in the world, but as more of a 1A to Sergio, Adam Scott, and Justin Rose than the next Tiger/Jack that he’s been made out as the last few weeks. His long game (driving/approach shots) is the best in the world largely because he’s in another universe off the tee. When Tiger was dominant for a decade he combined the best long game in the world with top ten putting; nothing Rory has done shows that he’s capable of putting that well for the long haul.

mcilroySG11-14McIlroy’s Strokes Gained per Shot Link tournament since 2011. His putting surge in the last few months is obvious.

Rickie Fowler’s Putting:

Much of the previous section applies to Rickie Fowler as well. Fowler took on a highly publicized swing change with Butch Harmon at the beginning of the season which left his game a mess for months, but which looks great now. His tee to green game has been the best of his career the last two months – a testament to the work he put in with Butch earlier this season. However, what’s really fueled him to four straight top tens in major tournaments has been a ridiculous run of putting. He’s putting about a stroke better per round than he ever has since June. He’s a solid putter in his career, but he’ll look mortal when this hot streak ends.

fowlerSGRickie Fowler’s Performance in Strokes relative to the field (positive is better)

Today’s round is a good example; his very good long game was erratic and his short game was awful. What saved him was gaining 4.5 putts on the field including two 13′ and two 11′ putts to save par after missing greens. You look real good when you hit all four of those, but most of the time you hit only 1-2. That’s why Rickie’s sitting on a -3 instead of a -1.

Shot of the Day:

The PGA Tour chose Bo Van Pelt’s eagle chip-in on #17. You can see on the video that it was a long chip (48 feet), but from right off the green. It ranked 6th among non-putts in terms of strokes gained (+1.3 strokes).

My highest ranked shot was Chris Stroud’s 20 yard hole-out from the bunker on the 7th (+1.5 strokes), for which there is no video available. Andrew Svoboda’s drive onto the the green 30 feet away at the drivable 5th hole was the best tee or approach shot of the day (+1.2 strokes), setting up a two putt birdie.

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FedEx Cup Preview

The seventh FedEx Cup Playoffs begin tomorrow at The Barclays at Ridgewood CC – the site of dramatic playoffs between Vijay & Sergio in 2008 and Matt Kuchar & Martin Laird in 2010. This year it hosts Rory McIlroy’s charge for a fourth straight victory and his first FedEx Cup title. Rory enters the Playoffs sitting first overall in points and is obviously best positioned to take home the trophy, but it’s much more likely the FedEx Cup goes to someone else. In five years under this format the Cup has gone to the favorite entering the Playoffs only once (Tiger in 2009) and has gone to the winner of the Tour Championship in four of five years. This year, I estimate around a 40% chance of a player winning the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship (about half of Rory’s wins will come in this fashion).

Projections:

Below are projections for the four main accomplishments – winning the FedEx Cup, making the Tour Championship (top 30), making the BMW Championship (top 70), and making the Deutsche Bank (top 100). I’ve listed the top ten most likely to win the FedEx Cup and then the ten bubble players to earn spots in each event.

fedex cup projection 820

No surprise that Rory is significantly in front as he’s #1 in the the standings and the best in the world. The rest of the top five is straight-forward as well; Sergio, Rose, Scott, and Kuchar are the next four best players and in the FedEx Cup being very good at golf gives you a slightly better chance to win than having a bunch of points built up. That’s why Jimmy Walker (#2) is less likely to win it. However, further down the list Jason Day (#34) is the 10th most likely to win it, despite missing months of the season with a thumb injury.

Besides that, Phil will need a good run to make his eighth straight Tour Championship.

Weekend in Review: Wyndham Championship

The Wyndham Championship really acts as a breather in the PGA Tour schedule; following a run of two majors and a WGC event and preceding four playoff events in five weeks it’s not surprising that most of the best players skip this event. Instead of focusing on the best, this is mainly a week for those fighting to hold their tour card and earn a spot in the FedEx Playoffs by finishing top 125. It’s a week where everyone outside on the top 125 can dream of a top five finish or win that will get them in. Going into the final round both Heath Slocum and Brad Fritsch were poised to earn enough points to move into the Playoffs and keep their cards, but neither did enough in the end and only Sang-moon Bae (who started 126th this week) moved into the Playoffs and secured his card for next season.

Villegas Breaks Four Year Win Drought:

Going into the 2010 FedEx Playoffs, Camilo Villegas was 29, a three time PGA Tour winner already, and one of the thirty best golfers in the world. He had ridden a very special tee to green game to the top and looked poised to be one of the best on Tour for the next decade. His game was a mess for the next two years though; he fell as low as 160th in my rankings and 290th in the OWGR. He ranked in the top 25 of all PGA Tour players between 2003-2012 in approach shot play according to Mark Broadie’s numbers, and he was one of the more aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two. He’s lost a lot of that ability since, but his last two seasons have been more promising and he’s been steadily climbing back into the top 100 in my rankings (he’s 115th now).

villegas

Now, I doubt Camilo is back. His numbers haven’t been impressive all season and there have been no flashes of brilliance (he had zero top tens entering this week). This week his game was classic Villegas – drive it well, fire at the pins, make enough birdies. In all, he gained the 2nd most shots from his driving and approach shot play in the field. He hadn’t played this well tee to green since the 2011 Barclays – almost three years ago.

Ryder Cup Captain’s Picks:

Tom Watson still has two more tournaments to evaluate who he’s going to fill out the US Ryder Cup squad with, but he could do a lot worse than to pick the three Americans near the top at the Wyndham. Ignoring the injured Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, and Brandt Snedeker are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best Americans not on the team according to my rankings (behind Keegan Bradley) and all three recorded top five finishes this week. Snedeker has been hot recently, with high finishes in the last three events fueled by quality tee to green play that he hadn’t shown all season. Simpson has scuffled a bit this year, but his game’s been a lot stronger than he’s been given credit for and he has the mystical Ryder Cup experience the captains look for. Haas has had a way better season than he’s gotten credit for – he hasn’t missed a cut since last September and he has four top tens this year – and he has experience playing in team events from the 2011 & 2013 Presidents Cup. The Wyndham is the closest he’s gotten to a win this year, but he’s been a close to a sure thing to have a solid week as anyone Watson might consider.

Bernhard Langer Is Destroying the Champions Tour:

I don’t think I’ve written anything about the Champions Tour, but Bernhard Langer is currently dominating it so thoroughly that I have to spend a little time talking about it. Langer has made sixteen Champions Tour starts this year and finished 1st/2nd/3rd eleven times, including five wins. In his only PGA Tour start at the Masters he finished 8th. In short, he’s been ridiculously good this year. He’s been four strokes better than field average, over a stroke better than any of the other senior players. My adjustment for the Champions Tour is a little rough, but generally an average PGA Tour cardholder could expect to dominate that Tour – basically playing at a level similar to Tiger, Rory, or Adam Scott over the last few years. That’s pretty consistent with the fact that the best guys on the senior Tour like Kenny Perry or Fred Couples are normally competitive, but not much better than average when they play PGA Tour golf.

Adjusting Langer’s performance using that scale means he’s played roughly as well this year as the 15th best golfer in the world would be expected to (basically Keegan Bradley or Charl Schwartzel level). That’s absolutely ridiculous. Now, I’m not saying he’s actually that good or that he would be that good if he played on the PGA Tour. Champions Tour courses are set-up to fit the shorter hitting senior game and the greens/fairways are much easier to hit than PGA Tour courses. But what Langer is doing is almost unprecedented performance-wise; in the last 15 years, only 50 year old, fresh from the PGA Tour Fred Couples matched his level of performance in 2010, and he only won four times. Langer does need to add four more victories to match Hale Irwin’s nine wins in 1997.

PGA Championship Round 2 Thoughts

A wet day at Valhalla, but one hardly touched by the expected severe weather. Wet conditions did have a significant impact on how the course played. Driving distance was slashed, dropping from 284 yards on average Thursday to 272 yards Friday. This left the average approach shot at 190 yards; the course definitely played long today despite no real effort to stretch out the tees. The wet conditions left the par 5 10th as a three shot hole for the entire field and lengthened the par 5 7th so much that eleven Tour players splashed their 2nd shot into the green. Approach shots played slightly easier, but the greens were destroyed by the end of the day. Short putts were bouncing like crazy near the hole; the early wave putted 0.5 strokes better than the the late wave because of how damaged the greens were in the afternoon.

Rory…Again:

After an opening round 66, Rory jumped into the lead at the close of Friday with a second round 67. Rory again showed off his all-around game, though his driving was noticeably less impressive than on Thursday – only 8/14 fairways. What carried him was a hot putter. He started slowly, missing a thirteen foot birdie putt on #10 and a ten foot putt for par on #12, but rebounded immediately with a birdie on #13 and an eight foot par save on #14. His longest of the round was a 31 foot bomb for eagle on 18. In all, he gained +2.2 strokes from putting, 10th best in the field.

Rory’s putting hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as his ridiculous driving or consistent iron play, but it’s played a huge role in his great season and recent surge to demi-god status this summer. In his previous few seasons on Tour he’s been a slightly below average putter, but this season he’s jumped to gaining +0.4 strokes on the field with the putter – good for top 20 on Tour. That doesn’t even include his victories in the European PGA at Wentworth or Open Championship where we don’t have strokes gained data, but where he surely putted well.

In his six rounds at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone and this week’s Championship, he’s gaining +1.5 strokes per round on the field from putting. That’s way better than anyone can sustain (the very best approach +1 stroke gained). Sure he’s driving the ball at a heretofore unseen level and, yes, the rest of his game is great too, but the main reason he’s destroying everyone the last few weeks is because he’s making everything. At some point he’ll stop making everything – he may even regress back into an average putter (hot putting is the most fickle mistress in golf). The crazy thing is that he’s still probably the best player in golf even if he’s an average putter.

Jason Day’s Tee to Green Game:

The best part of the afternoon wave today was watching the show Jason Day was putting on tee to green. His front nine was a collection of bombed drives, darts to inside ten feet, and green after green hit (he missed his first on #10). His 240 yard iron to fifteen feet to set-up eagle on #7 was a ridiculously good shot, but I think his best hole was the 324 yard drive on #2, followed by a high approach to 17 feet, and a birdie. Not bad for a hole that played hardest on the course and where only a quarter of the field even hit the green. In all, his drives and approach shots gained +4.9 strokes on the field Friday, the best of either round.

Day was great tee to green on Thursday as well (+4.3 strokes), but didn’t make anything on the greens. The putter heated up Friday and he surged into a tie for 2nd. In the post-round interview he still claimed his thumb wasn’t 100% so it’s kind of crazy to see him so sharp on these long shots.

7th Hole Summary from Friday:

Same methods used as yesterday. Players who drove right actually played this hole 0.07 strokes better than those who played left a complete flip-flop from yesterday. The proportions choosing each side stayed the same, but because of the wet conditions I think some players just misjudged what length shot they’d be left with from the left fairway. There were eleven water balls from the left side today, compared to just four yesterday, and about half of those driving left ended up laying up to the right fairway because they didn’t have the length to challenge the green in two. Same color scheme – left drives in gold, right in blue.

valhalla7thround2Notice how muddled the lay-up zone is with the second shots of guys who drove it left.

How Bad are the Club Professionals?

The PGA Championship is unique among PGA Tour tournaments in that it qualifies the best twenty club professionals to participate. These guys rarely make the cut – Ryan Heliminen was top this year at T75 – and typically finish dozens of strokes off the lead. But just how bad are they? Are they uncompetitive off the tee, while solid putters? Using the two rounds of strokes gained stats I’ve gathered, it turns out that they’re pretty uniformly bad at everything. If you take the worst PGA Tour player in each of the major shot types – Kyle Stanley’s putting, Mike Weir’s driving, Robert Garrigus’s short game, etc. – you pretty much have the typical PGA club professional.

None of this is meant to disparage them. During TNT’s feature on club pro Michael Block he stated that he only hit about one bucket of balls a week. PGA Tour players are playing half the weeks out of the year, and you have to practice constantly to maintain even the ability to be a bad PGA Tour player. That a club pro can show even near-PGA Tour-level talent without all that practice time is impressive.

American Ryder Cup Hopefuls:

Six US players have already essentially qualified for the Ryder Cup squad, leaving three automatic spots to be decided at the conclusion of the PGA Championship and three more captain’s picks. I ran a simulation to determine who is in the best shape as of the end of round 2 to get one of those remaining three spots. Right now, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner, and Zach Johnson are slightly in front of a group of players including Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Brendon Todd, and Ryan Moore. Keegan Bradley missed the cut, meaning he’s completely out of automatic qualification (though everyone suspects he’ll reprise his 2012 pairing with Phil Mickelson through a captain’s pick). Jason Dufner also has no way to earn additional points, as he withdrew with a neck injury.

Patrick Reed made the cut and looks almost certain (95%) to earn automatic qualification to the team. Reed would have to be passed by three US players to drop off the team, which is obviously unlikely as only Mickelson, of the group right behind him in the points ranking, is projected to finish high. Zach Johnson also looks like a pretty sure bet to make the team (81%). Johnson sits in 9th currently, but should pass at least Dufner simply by completing the tournament. Phil’s big move today propelled him into great position to qualify (67%). In his easiest scenario to qualify, Phil needs to finish around 15th or better to pass Dufner. If no one else makes significant moves among Moore, Todd, or others further down, that should be enough to get him on the team.

Of the longer shots, Dufner is still around 19% to maintain his spot. It’s completely up in the air whether he’ll be healthy enough to play, but the event is still almost two months away. Ryan Palmer (12%) can qualify with a very high finish – he’ll probably need at least a two way tie for 2nd to get on the team. Ryan Moore (12%) has an outside shot at qualification, though he’ll need to make a serious move and probably finish top ten. Steve Stricker (3%) needs to win to have any hope of getting in. A half-dozen others like Brian Harman, Billy Horschel, Bill Haas, and Brandt Snedeker could get in with wins or second place finishes.

 

Ken Pomeroy’s numbers are below. Pinnacle Sports is dealing Rory +124 which is…something.

PGA Championship Round 1 Thoughts

Some quick thoughts after seeing how the pros played Valhalla Thursday:

Rory’s Driving:

I already touched on this Monday, but what Rory is doing off the tee right now is just ridiculous. His distance relative to the field was only +18 yards, tied with Jason Day for best in the field, compared to +28 at the WGC-Bridgestone, but he again maintained superb control of his shots. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and was never forced to hit a recovery shot off his drive. His strokes gained driving was 2.5, tied with Justin Rose for best in the field. On his closing four holes (#15-18) – where he finished birdie-par-par-birdie – he hit every fairway and bombed it 31 yards past the field average. It’s become almost a cliche that the longest hitters come with wildness in their games, but Rory is pushing the limits of the distance and accuracy combination right now.

Lee Westwood’s Major Quest Resumes:

After last summer’s disappointment at Muirfield where Westwood slept on a two shot lead going into Sunday, only to slog around for a 75 and watch Phil blitz the field with a 66, I figured Westwood’s major window was almost closed. He’s been declining from elite to merely good based on my numbers for the past few seasons. A lot of that should be attributed to age, but his decline from that 2009-2010 peak has been sharp. This round today was a masterclass in iron play and putting though. He had great iron shots into #4 and #17 to set up short birdies, but what was most impressive was how he consistently hit it inside 25 feet. So much of winning golf tournaments comes down to making putts, and when you give yourself twelve putts inside 25 feet sometimes you get lucky and sink eight of them like Westwood did. He finished the round 8th in putting, but more importantly 3rd in approach shots. He’s coming off a brilliant Sunday round at the WGC-Bridgestone.

The Split Fairway 7th hole:

A lot was made this week about the choice facing players on #7. It’s a split fairway – left shortens the hole by ~40 yards, while right is more conventional and doesn’t require carrying it over water – par 5 with water coming into play around the green. Left was seen as the “bold” play I suppose, while right was seen as safer and more apt to be preferred by the shorter players. Thursday’s pin was very challenging – just twelve feet from the edge of the water hazard – which may have scared some guys off. Going off one day of numbers, it certainly looks like driving left gives the most advantage.

Players going left (89) averaged 4.63, while going right (46) averaged 4.78. Those numbers remove club pros from the mix as they almost all skewed towards the safer right side. Shorter players did prefer the right side – perhaps because they were scared to take on the 225+ yard carry over water, but even many of those who played right didn’t actually fire at the pin, instead laying up towards the end of the fairway. Below I’ve plotted the first and second shots; gold are drives left and their second shots, blue are drives right and their second shots, drives in the middle water are in red, and the pin is marked by the white cross.

valhalla7thround1

Notice mainly how it was almost impossible for anyone driving the ball to the right to take on the green in two shots. Playing left not only shortens the second shot, but it’s almost the only realistic way to reach the green in two. Of the nine players to hit the green in two, eight played left. Of the 59 players able to go for the green in two, 56 played left. Now, hitting the green in two isn’t everyone’s objective on par 5s. Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, and a few others are more than happy to lay-up and fire in third shot wedges from <100 yards because they’re the best in the game at that shot. There’s no reason for Phil, Tiger, Billy Horschel, Marc Leishman, and several others to be playing that game though. Those guys are the players they are because they can hit greens in two. Hopefully with more forgiving pins located further back on the green we’ll see some of those guys drive it left and then let loose with a fairway wood.

General Course Stats:

For a major championship course, Valhalla played exactly as a normal PGA Tour course on Thursday. The course average came in at +1 (72.1), though the PGA Tour players played it in 71.5. The rough wasn’t particularly penal compared to any other PGA Tour set-up (0.35 strokes harder than shots from the fairway, slightly easier than the WGC-Bridgestone last week) and it didn’t hold players back from firing at the greens. Only 5% of drives required a recovery shot afterwards, right in line with PGA Tour averages. And even though there’s danger lurking off the tee in the form of trees, water, and native areas, the percentage of non-fairway/bunker/rough drives was right in line with PGA Tour averages as well.

The commentators seemed shocked that the course was so receptive to scoring, but it really isn’t any harder than these guys are used to playing. And it’s certainly not playing as long as the 7500 yard figure they kept quoting on TV today. Today’s tees/pins were set-up so it played around 7300; that’s barely longer than the average par 72 course. For this weekend, and especially after Friday’s rain softens the greens, the scores should remain reasonably low.

Thanks to Ken Pomeroy for providing his in-play win probabilities. Here are his numbers after Round 1.

PGA Championship Preview

This week’s PGA Championship returns to Valhalla Golf Club, site of the 1996 & 2000 PGA Championships and the 2008 Ryder Cup. This tournament comes at a nearly perfect time as the major stars of the game have just been destroying everyone for the last month. Rory McIlroy won the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone, Justin Rose won at Congressional and at the Scottish Open, Sergio Garcia has multiple runner-up finishes, and Adam Scott is playing as well as he has in his career. If you ignore the question of whether Tiger will play or not, there’s still a ton of story lines this week.

The Course:

Valhalla is built out of parkland outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Playing from the tips it measures 7458 yards for a par of 71, longer than most courses the pros face week to week, but not notably long compared to recent PGA Championship courses. Water comes into play on around half of the holes – mainly in the form of a creek along the fairway or pools near the greens. The fairways aren’t wide and the rough will be penal, so I don’t think this is a course where you want to spray it around too much. At the same time, about half the fairways are lined only with rough and bunkers. That limits the danger of an errant drive.

Valhalla, then, is a long test. It will absolutely reward the best iron players, but most courses do. Outside of the eternal question of whether to lay-up or hit driver, it is a course that forces you into shots, rather than allowing for multiple options. The short par 4 4th could be set-up as a drivable par 4, but if not it’s a boring 3 wood-wedge hole. The par 4 6th hole’s fairway ends ~300 yards from the tee, meaning everyone’s going to be left with the same 200+ yard approach shot. The par 4 12th runs out of fairway around 300 yards as well, leaving everyone again hitting to around 275 to avoid hitting out of the rough off a down slope. The par 4 13th features an elevated island green, but will be a certain lay-up and wedge for every player this week.

The one hole that offers any choice in real strategy is the par 5 7th. It offers a split fairway – the left fairway offers a shorter route to the green, but the approach shot requires at least a 225 yard carry over water, while the right fairway adds 40 yards to the hole and will limit opportunities to go for the green in two. The long hitters would be out of their minds not to hit it left; it’s an obvious birdie hole going left, while going right will make it play much closer to par. There will be talk all week from the commentators about risk and reward with this hole, but there’s plenty of room on the left fairway and even an average hitter can carry a hybrid 225 yards. It’s a different story for the shorter hitters though. Guys like Furyk, Luke Donald, and even G-Mac may not have the stick to play left.

 

Contenders:

The four obvious names are Rory, Sergio, Adam Scott, and Justin Rose. They’re the four best in my ratings, the four best so far this year, and four of the six best in the last two months (Furyk, Fowler are the others). That’s as close to clear-cut as you’ll ever get in golf. Beyond them, this might be Furyk‘s best chance to win another major. He hasn’t been this high in my ratings since he won the FedEx Cup in 2010. Bill Haas hasn’t received any attention all year, but he’s in that second group of guys with ~2% chance to win. Further down, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pump up Francesco Molinari’s chances again. He’s going to be as good or better than a half dozen guys on the European Ryder Cup team, so it’d be nice to see him make it on merit.

 

Randomness of Long Putts:

Long putts are the most random element of golf. Pros hit about 15% of their 15-25 foot putts and face around seven putts of that length per round. Hitting an extra 5% of your 15-25 footers, even just from chance, will cut almost a third of a stroke off your score – enough to take a player from 100th in putting to 40th. The problem analytically is that putting from this range fluctuates wildly year to year for the pros; it’s common for a pro to lose or gain 5% between seasons. Ryan Moore finished 2nd on Tour in 2012 and 7th to last in 2013. Rickie Fowler finished 4th in 2011 and 2nd to last in 2012. John Merrick sandwiched an 8th place finish in 2011 between two well below-average ones in 2010 and 2012.

I averaged conversion rates from 15-25 feet for everyone on Tour between 2010 and 2013 and compared them to 2014. The results show performance even over multiple seasons regresses by 75% to the mean. That means if you’re the best on Tour one year, you’ll finish more like 50th on Tour the next season. In short, putting from 15-25 feet isn’t consistent at all year to year. Instead, aggregating performance across multiple seasons gives a much better indication of expected performance.

That’s a problem analytically because, as shown above, a hot streak can really lower a player’s score. Each extra putt sunk from 15-25 feet is worth 0.85 strokes gained. Taken to the extreme, Bubba Watson (12% average between 2010-13, 25% average this season) has gained around 0.75 strokes just from 15-25 foot putts. We have no idea whether that represents a genuine change in his putting ability or, more likely, just a hot streak. In fact, the three largest over-achievers in strokes gained putting this season (relative to recent seasons) are all in the top ten for over-achieving in putting from 15-25 feet (relative to recent seasons). That may indicate some regression ahead for Matt Every, Graeme McDowell, and Adam Scott (AimPoint though). Among trailers, Kevin Stadler could cut around 0.4 strokes off his scoring just by putting at his career average from 15-25 feet.

Weekend in Review – WGC-Bridgestone

Golf fans were rewarded Sunday with another battle between the best players in the world, not only for the WGC title, but also for the in-reality-meaningless #1 world ranking. Sergio began the day three strokes up on Rory with around a 70% chance to win, but three straight birdies for McIlroy to open and a pair of missed 6 footers for Sergio gave Rory the lead after only three holes. The rest of the round merely served as a coronation for Rory. On a day where soft, wet conditions allowed players to fire at pins, Sergio generated only four birdie looks from ten feet in – missing each one. He applied no pressure at all on the back-nine, allowing Rory to bomb drives, hit greens, make pars, and ultimately win by two strokes.

Rory entered the day looking to secure the #1 world ranking with a win and an outside the top five finish by Adam Scott. His hot start propelled him into the lead and Adam Scott played poorly down the stretch to fall to 8th. He loses the #1 ranking he held since May, but him and McIlroy remain in a virtual dead heat in my rankings. These two have clearly been the best in the world all spring and summer.

 

Rory’s Driving:

CBS’s golf team raved about Rory’s driving all day on Sunday and rightfully so. His display of power and control on his drives was almost super-human; he was out-hitting Sergio by ~25 yards all day and avoided trouble all weekend. I have an adjusted driving stat that shows by how each golfer is performing on each hole relative to the rest of the field. Anything above 15 yards is elite. Rory was at 28 yards for the weekend, better even than Bubba Watson.

Rory’s always been a long hitter though, what stood out Sunday was the control he exerted over his drives. He hit 61% of his fairways for the week, only slightly better than average, but he avoided trouble on every single one of his 56 drives this week. I track how often a player is unable to play towards the green on a par 4 after their drive (a recovery shot). Typically this happens just less than once a round, and is a major cause of bogeys because the player is forced to get up-and-down from >50 yards. Rory was one of only three players who didn’t face a single recovery shot all week (Sergio and J.B. Holmes were the others). Not only was he longer than everyone, but he never once faced any trouble from the rough or trees.

All that adds up to the best driving performance of the season per Mark Broadie’s strokes gained stats. Broadie has Rory as by far the best driver on Tour this season, gaining nearly 1.5 strokes/round on the field just off the tee. For comparison, only 18 others have played that well OVERALL this season. This combination of power and control is pushing the boundaries of what is even possible in professional golf.

 

Tiger Injured Again:

Tiger’s injury Sunday was a huge let-down to anyone who wanted to see what he could do next week. He had been hitting full shots for a month as of this week and while he hadn’t looked particularly good in nine rounds since he returned, he was at least healthy and able to work on his game. This injury should put a halt to that. Tiger’s calendar is now clear of commitments until at least late October. It’s possible if he WDs this week that we won’t see him in action until his tournament in December or at Torrey Pines in January.

I’ll reiterate that I see no reason why a healthy Tiger can’t return to the best-in-the-world peak he enjoyed in 2012 and 2013.

 

PGA Championship:

All the talk this week has to be about whether Rory will take home another major title at Valhalla. There was some talk about how Valhalla “fits his game” – apparently it is forgiving off the tee and rewards high ball hitters. I’m hoping to touch on “course fits” in my preview, but the course doesn’t impact a tournament much week to week. Rory is the favorite, clearly, though Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Sergio are all very close – I’d give odds of 16-1 for Rory and Adam Scott and 25-1 for Rose and Sergio. Remember that all three of those guys finished top ten this week, two of them finished top five at The Open Championship, and Justin Rose has won twice in his last four starts.

As for others who looked good this past week, Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama finished 2nd/3rd best in non-putting performance (all strokes but putts). I like to look at that because putting has been shown to be extremely random in small samples. If there is carry-over next week, those are an obvious pair to look at.