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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Is Distance or Accuracy Preferable Off the Tee?

The driving distance vs. driving accuracy debate is one of the longest running in the golf community. You cannot go a single televised round without a commentator stating the critical importance of hitting fairways, while a lot of the new statistical research supports the idea of driving distance being of preeminent importance. Players have also shaped their games towards one of the extremes; Tiger Woods under Sean Foley struggled with hitting fairways, so he often opted for irons/woods off the tee – shorter distance, but more accuracy. What I have found is that you can find information to support both view points depending on what stats you’re looking at, but in terms of producing lower scores distance is king.

Impact on Hitting Greens:

Greens in regulation is the best of the traditional stats in judging performance in professional golf. Each missed green relative to the field average costs a player around 0.6 strokes – a huge sum. In comparison, each missed fairway relative to the field costs only around 0.3 strokes. One of my first posts examined the relationship between driving distance and accuracy (it’s negative: R = -0.48) and how driving distance and accuracy predict greens in regulation (pretty well: R^2 = 0.49). A linear regression of driving distance and driving accuracy on greens in regulation showed that distance and accuracy were almost equally predictive of greens in regulation [1]. That means that long/inaccurate hitters hit about as many greens as short/accurate hitters.

I replicated this study with 2014 season data and found almost the exact same results. The only difference was that accuracy was slightly superior in producing greens in regulation than distance. But in general the results were consistent; if hitting greens is a player’s main concern, it doesn’t matter whether they’re long/inaccurate or short/accurate.

Impact on Scoring:

However, that’s not the conclusion reached when you look deeper into the data. I have calculated Strokes Gained Driving for all qualifying Tour players this season. Strokes Gained Driving was invented by Mark Broadie (look here & here) and measures the value of all par 4 and par 5 tee shots depending on how far they end up from the pin and whether they’re in the rough, fairway, first cut, bunker, out of bounds, water, etc. In short, it tells you how well each player drove the ball this season. Mark has posts here and here on PGA Tour.com discussing the leaders and the results are pretty intuitive on who is normally seen as good at driving.

Using driving distance and accuracy, I attempted to predict Strokes Gained Driving using a linear regression. The two stats were highly predictive (R^2 = 0.88), but driving distance was more valuable to predicting Strokes Gained Driving [2]. In fact, a PGA Tour player in the top ten in driving distance and near the bottom in accuracy (think Dustin Johnson or Jimmy Walker) gains about 0.45 strokes per round on another player who is near the bottom in driving distance and top ten in accuracy (think Zach Johnson or Graeme McDowell). The same relationship holds closer to average: it’s preferable to be slightly longer than slightly more accurate in general. You hit closer approach shots which produce easier looks at birdie.

Impact on Birdie & Bogey Rates:

I finally looked at the impact of driving distance and accuracy on Birdie% and Bogey%. For Birdie% I used the PGA Tour’s Par 4 Birdie or Better stat and for Bogey% I used the PGA Tour’s Bogey Avoidance stat. Both were the best available, though they aren’t adjusted for course difficulty which may limit these results. Distance and accuracy proved much less predictive of Birdie% and Bogey% than they were of Strokes Gained Driving and GIR (which makes sense because we’re ignoring scrambling ability and putting). The R^2 for predicting Birdie% was only 0.15 and only 0.06 for predicting Bogey%.

However, the results for Birdie% showed a clear advantage for those long and inaccurate drivers in generating birdies (about 1% more Birdies for long/inaccurate hitters) [3]. The results for Bogey% showed a clear disadvantage for those long and inaccurate drivers in avoiding bogeys (about 1% more Bogeys for long/inaccurate hitters) [4]. Long hitters make more birdies, but also more bogeys. Short hitters make fewer birdies, but avoid bogeys. That’s fairly intuitive.

Summing it all up:

Based on these results it’s clear that long/inaccurate hitters hit about as many greens as short/accurate hitters, but they produce way more value with their tee-shots. They hit their approach shots from easier positions in general than the shorter hitters and produce more birdies. However, they¬† hit into dangerous areas slightly more and make more bogeys than the short/accurate hitters. In fact, these results indicate that it’s easier to consistently hit greens when you’re in the fairway, but it’s easier to produce those close approach shots that turn into birdies when you’re closer to the pin

The main take-away though is that long/inaccurate hitters produce more value with their drives over the course of the season. They’re constantly hitting closer approach shots which leads to more birdies. The only advantage possessed by short/accurate hitters is avoiding bogeys, but at the cost of making fewer birdies.


 

Notes:

[1] the coefficients were: 0.003 for yards above PGA Tour average and 0.447 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[2] the coefficients were: 0.0645 for yards above PGA Tour average and 4.504 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[3] the coefficients were: 0.1595 for the intercept, 0.00121 for yards above PGA Tour average, and 0.0635 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[4] the coefficients were: 0.1709 for the intercept, -0.00032 for yards above PGA Tour average, and 0.0981 for % fairways hit above PGA Tour average

[5] All stats here have been adjusted for course except for the Birdie% and Bogey%

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Ryder Cup Preview: Team USA

The Americans enter this Ryder Cup having lost four straight on European soil, missing several key stars who were on the last two Ryder Cups teams, and with a general perception that many of their players are out of form. Fair or unfair, it hasn’t been a noteworthy summer for most of the American team. In the last 25 PGA Tour events (dating back to March) the US team has won only three times (Bubba at the Masters, Kuchar at the Heritage, and Mahan at the Barclays) versus eleven times for the Europeans (six on the PGA Tour and five in Europe). Now wins aren’t everything, but the Americans will bring that cloud of underachievement and the baggage of past disappointments on European soil with them to Scotland. That they’ll be without Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, and Dustin Johnson might be as large of a burden.

Are the Americans actually off form? What about the Europeans?

The perception is that the Americans have struggled this summer and the Europeans have thrived, but a lot of that is due to seeing Rory McIlroy trounce the field for a month. I looked at the performances of both teams over the last ten weeks relative to what my ratings expected and found little difference between the teams’ form. The Americans have their share of guys playing poorly (Spieth and Webb particularly), but Europeans Ian Poulter and Martin Kaymer have played awful in July-September. You can see the charts below. In all, the Europeans might have a couple more guys playing better than expected, but it’s not like most of their team is on fire.

expectationsRC

How much does Jim Furyk’s 1-8-1 four-balls record matter?

It obviously matters in terms of how Tom Watson deploys his team because Jim Furyk is the elite player least suited to play four-ball in the world. His game is built on hitting fairways, hitting greens, and scrambling – things that are great at saving par on tough courses, but don’t lead to birdies as often as guys with aggressive games, like Phil and Rory. I looked back through Furyk’s career four-ball matches and his record isn’t a fluke – he and his partners have averaged losing 2 & 1. The blame can be shared equally though; in the six matches I have hole-by-hole data for, Furyk won seven holes and his partner won eight.

The problem for the US is they only have seven guys who are clearly better than Furyk at four-balls. This year’s team is very conservative and built around guys who avoid bogeys more than they make birdies. Furyk’s Birdie% is eighth best on the team and he obviously blows away the competition in avoiding bogeys. I certainly wouldn’t fear playing Furyk over Webb or Patrick Reed in four-balls, at least for one match.

Veterans:

Phil Mickelson:

Phil’s obviously had a down year by his standards this year with only a single top-ten (his 2nd at the PGA Championship). Phil’s run as a top five elite player ended a few years ago when his iron play started to fall off, but he’s managed to paper that over for a few years with a run of great putting and his always amazing short game. This year the true decline started as he fell back to Earth on the greens and couldn’t get his long game back to standards. He’s still capable of contending in big events, but the real question is how juiced he’s going to be these matches. If he’s been working for the last few weeks to be in major shape, he’ll still be an asset for the US.

It’s almost set in stone that Phil will pair with Keegan Bradley after they went 3-0 in 2012 and 2-1-1 at the 2013 Presidents Cup.

Jim Furyk:

I discussed Furyk’s four-balls woes above. His record in that event is almost unbelievable at this point, but it obscures a .500 record in the other matches, which actually is respectable for an American playing in this recent run of European success. Furyk is playing as well now as he has in almost a decade; since returning from a month off at the Open Championship he’s been second only to McIlroy in performance versus the field. His brilliance with his irons is matched only by Sergio this year and his short game was fantastic. His hit fairways, hit greens, and scramble when necessary game is absolutely perfect for foursomes matches.

I’d be fine seeing him alongside Zach Johnson, another guy who has the perfect game for foursomes. Furyk has one of the largest disparities on Tour in his success from the fairway relative to his success from the rough, so it’s imperative that he play with a partner who hits fairways off the tee.

Matt Kuchar:

In his third Ryder Cup I think Kuchar’s probably ready to assume a role as veteran mentor to the younger guys. Kuchar’s emergence in 2010 began a five year run where he’s been the most consistent player in golf. He’s posted five straight nearly identical seasons and has remained in my world top ten ever since 2010. He’s often overlooked when we talk about the best out there, but he’s right up there in terms of performance with a guy like Justin Rose. He has a true all-around game that makes him ideal for both four-balls and foursomes and I expect he’ll play at least four matches. He kind of confirmed today he’ll be playing with Jordan Spieth which makes sense in terms of the veteran-rookie dynamic and also because they both have similar all-around games. He’s my guess to be the top scorer for the US.

Bubba Watson:

Bubba enters his third Ryder Cup as a veteran and the holder of the only US major title this season. He began the year white-hot with a win at Riviera, contention in Phoenix, a close 2nd to Patrick Reed at Doral, and the Masters title, but quieted in the 2nd half. Bubba was always great at driving the ball, but in the last few years he’s really taken off because he’s refined his approach shots and short game to acceptable levels. Everybody loves the comical distances he can hit the ball, but he’s also really good at hitting irons out of the rough (an important skill for how often he’s in it). His aggression/distance will make him great in four-balls, but he has enough of an all-around game to be fine in foursomes/singles despite the career record (0-4). Signs point to him reprising his partnership with Webb Simpson.

Hunter Mahan:

Mahan received a captains pick into this year’s matches – his second one after winning 3.5/5 points in 2008. Mahan’s season has been disappointing by recent standards and I think Tom Watson really overreacted to a few good weeks in August when he picked Mahan, but he shouldn’t be a huge liability for the Americans. As far as motivation, his chunked chip to end the US comeback in 2010 had to have given him a little extra when he’s been on the range the last few years. He may go out with Zach Johnson in foursomes to reprise their pairing from 2010. He’s ideal for a guy like Zach or Furyk who plays well out of the fairway because he’s one of the best on Tour in combining distance and accuracy off the tee.

Zach Johnson:

Zach’s gotten lost in the shuffle this season as his best performances have come early in the year when no one’s paying attention (Tournament of Champions and Humana) or right before the Open Championship (John Deere). He’s had another steady year, though without his normally great putting. If that returns this week, he becomes a lot more dangerous. Zach’s a lot similar to Furyk in terms of being short and accurate off the tee, though he typically putts it a little better. He’s an ideal foursomes player for the US, but I wouldn’t even consider playing him in four-balls because almost all of his value comes from avoiding bogeys rather than chasing birdies.

The Question Marks:

Webb Simpson:

No way to sugarcoat it, Webb’s had a pretty poor year. He entered the season around 10th in my ratings after a three year run that made him look like one of the American stars for the future, but contended in only three minor tour stops after February and has fallen to 32nd. His performances since the Open Championship have been poor in aggregate, but that’s been entirely driven by really poor (and out of character) putting. I expect Webb to rebound with the putter soon, maybe even to fuel the US this week. He has a solid all around game that should fit well next to Bubba, especially playing as the more conservative half of a four-ball pairing.

Patrick Reed:

Reed’s early season hot streak pushed him from 180th to 45th in my ratings in the span of only eleven weeks and prompted him to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the Tour. Despite not being able to back his comments up, he still finished the season respectably. His rating is the worst on the US team though, so my expectations for him are low. He practiced today with Zach Johnson, Mahan, and Furyk, which means Tom Watson is probably looking to hide him alongside a veteran in a foursomes match or two. That’s probably the ideal situation, though if the US is down Saturday they should keep him benched.

Jimmy Walker:

This is, I think it’s fair to say, the most important week of golf in Jimmy Walker’s life. After riding a hot putter to three wins to start this season, he continued to play well in big events (top tens in the Masters, Players, US Open, and PGA Championship). I’m very bullish on Walker this week because he has the aggressive mentality for the four-balls matches. Walker’s extremely long off the tee, but he’s so inaccurate that it’s mostly a wash. He’s taken off in the last two years with a much improved iron game and has always had a strong putter. It looks like we’ll see him paired with Rickie Fowler, which is the ultimate boom versus bust pairing for the Americans.

Young Guns:

Rickie Fowler:

Fowler enters his second Ryder Cup riding one of the hottest streaks of anyone in recent seasons. After undertaking a swing change with Butch Harmon early this season his tee to green game has been fantastic. I’ve written recently that he’s riding an unsustainably hot streak with the putter, but he’s typically been a good putter and even when that luck runs out he’ll be a top 20 player in the world. He’d fit with any of the other aggressive, longer players in both formats. He and Jimmy Walker are maybe the most likely pairing to win 5&4 or lose 5&4 while losing a few balls.

Jordan Spieth:

Spieth enters these matches in a huge slump. None of the 24 players here have struggled more in the last ten weeks than Spieth. In general, his long game (irons+drives) has been mediocre in the second half. That’s concerning because short-term struggles with the long game typically persist longer than struggles putting. I’d love to see someone look Spieth’s swing from January and compare it to his swing now because the results are monumentally different. Spieth is still statistically one of the better Americans because he’s been very successful prior to the last few months, but we could be looking at a completely different guy now.

Keegan Bradley:

Keegan exploded onto the scene at the 2012 Ryder Cup, pairing with Phil to win three straight matches and then succumbing to Rory at the previous height of his powers in singles. His season hasn’t really been noteworthy in terms of big results or wins; he’s just been very consistent at getting top-tens and twenties. Keegan’s main asset is a great long game. His combo of big, accurate drives and long irons allows him to stay out of trouble and hit a ton of greens. He’s kind of assumed to be a really aggressive player, but his game is more oriented to foursomes honestly. He looks likely to try to continue his success alongside Phil. Keegan would be my pick to go out five matches if the US needs it.

My Pairings:

Foursomes:

Keegan/Phil; Walker/Mahan; Webb/Bubba; Furyk/Johnson

and

Reed/Mahan; Kuchar/Spieth; Fowler/Keegan; Furyk/Johnson

Four-balls:

Keegan, Phil, Webb, Bubba, Walker, Fowler, Kuchar, Spieth

The Stats:

USRCstats

Ryder Cup Preview: Team Europe

The Europeans enter this event not only with the expectations of having won four straight Ryder Cups on European soil, but also under the expectation that they have the best players this time around – not always the case at the Ryder Cup. Europeans took home three of the four majors this season plus the Players Championship and WGC-Bridgestone, and they have four of the six highest ranked players in the Official World Golf Ranking. There should be concerns about how top heavy the Euro team is, but in general most of their players are in form. In terms of betting odds, they’re trading at around 67% to win or tie to retain the Cup.

The Elite:

Rory McIlroy:

McIlroy’s season was amazing. Coming off a disappointing 2013, Rory won two majors and two other important events, while also playing the best of any player in terms of my z-score rating since Tiger Woods in 2009. While his performance, like all mere mortals, fell short of peak Tiger Woods, he was still the best player tee to green in the world and rode a hot putting streak to his three straight victories in July and August. He’s the obvious best golfer in the world and will be relied on as the core of a pretty top heavy European team.

McIlroy’s aggressive, birdie heavy game fits the four-ball format perfectly. He’s also paired with compatriot Graeme McDowell in all four of his foursomes matches (2.5/4 points) in his career. I expect that pairing will be relied upon again. I explained in the first part of this preview that Gleneagles sets-up well in foursomes for a mix of a long, aggressive player and a good iron player because of the distribution of the holes. Rory and G-Mac have a more or less perfect mix of talent to exploit that set-up.

Graeme McDowell:

The Irishman put up perhaps the quietest elite season of anyone this year, finishing top ten in stroke play events seven times in the US, but only better than 7th once. Though short off the tee, G-Mac’s long had a very good tee to green game built around hitting fairways and greens; this year his putting surged from average to best on Tour. I’ve written extensively about how short-term putting regresses going forward, so don’t expect him to putt at an elite level. His best skill is hitting his wedges/irons. He’sone of five European players who are clearly superior to the rest of the team; it’ll be interesting to see how heavily those five (Stenson/Rose/Rory/G-Mac/Sergio) are relied upon in these matches.

I expect he’ll play with Rory twice in foursomes and then play at least another four-ball match.

Sergio Garcia:

Sergio’s returned to his top ten in the world standard for the last few years, but it feels like this year was the first time it was really acknowledged – probably thanks to his contending alongside Rory in several high profile tournaments. He finished top five at the Players, British Open, WGC-Bridgestone, and BMW, though he only won once this year in Qatar. Though commentators were quick to talk about his putting improvements recently, it’s been more important that he’s refined his normally fantastic tee to green game back into one of the best in the world. No one on Tour hit their irons better this year and Sergio also finished near the top in driving and short game. He’s most ideal in the foursomes format where his iron play and scrambling allow him to avoid bogeys better than anyone on Tour not named Jim Furyk.

Sergio carries a 16-8-4 record into these matches and I expect he’ll be relied upon to play all five matches. His approach play and ability to play out of the rough (he’s one of the best on Tour) make a good foursomes partner for one of the longer, aggressive, even wild European players – Lee Westwood, Victor Dubuisson, or Jamie Donaldson come to mind.

Henrik Stenson:

Stenson’s comeback from completely losing his game in 2010-11 has been well documented; he’s back to being one of the best golfers in the world now. Stenson’s a unique player, especially off the tee. He’s simultaneously extremely accurate while also out-hitting 75% of the Tour. That combination makes him one of the best drivers on Tour, but he also hits his irons well and is one of the most aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two on par 5s. He’s a great four-ball player, but also matches up well in foursomes with someone like Kaymer who is much better playing from the fairway than the rough and is also fairly aggressive.

Justin Rose:

Rose is the last of the five elite Europeans who I would consider playing all five matches. After his break-through US Open win last year, he’s flown under the radar this year with only two world-wide victories. Nevertheless, he remains one of the truly elite players in the world. He’s another guy who relies on his fantastic tee to green game; his short game and iron play has always been great and he’s driving it really well this year. Rose’s putting has always been spotty, but it’s never been a liability. He’s another guy like Sergio who really hits out of the rough well. His all-around game makes him ideal for both formats; he’s probably the guy I’d play with Poulter in foursomes.

Veterans:

Ian Poulter:

Poulter is the most accomplished Ryder Cupper since the event expanded to include all Europeans in 1979. His record of 12 points in 15 matches blows away the rest of the competition, which is why he was selected despite a very down year to date. Poulter’s hung around at ~25th by my ratings over the last five years, but his recent stretch of awful play has pushed him more towards 40th. I don’t anticipate any of that will play into Captain Paul McGinley’s plans however; he’ll use Poulter extensively in both formats. Poulter’s tee to green game has never been that strong, but he’s an above-average putter and has a very good short game. That will give him an edge in foursomes, possibly with someone like Justin Rose who won’t be uncomfortable playing Poulter’s short drives and mediocre approach shots.

Lee Westwood:

Westwood’s been a Ryder Cup stalwart for Europe since his first matches in 1997, racking up 21 points in 37 matches and participating in every Cup during that period. Just three years ago he was one of the best in the world, but he’s slipped quickly – especially this season – to 33rd in my ratings right now. Even worse, his decline has been sharp in terms of tee to green play. At one point his long game was one of the best in the world, but his iron play has really slipped. Westwood is showing the tell-tale signs of losing his game due to agre: 1) his long game (approach shots/driving) has collapsed and 2) he’s over 40. The reason he hasn’t slipped too much overall is that his putting has surged from poor to above-average after a career of poor putting, masking that tee to green decline. I’m not saying he’s going to fall off the Tour, but his days of contending for majors and being a Ryder Cup beast are likely over.

Westwood’s driving remains solid and he’s aggressive in chasing birdies, so he’s ideal for four-ball play.

Thomas Bjorn:

Bjorn is one of two Euros left from the 1997 team that snuck past the Americans at Valderrama (Westwood is the other). Despite a solid career in Europe, Bjorn’s only returned to one further Ryder Cup team. He’s had a bit of a renaissance entering his 40s, but at 44 the end is near. He’s poor off the tee and not impressive with his irons, but is a good putter. Overall his he’s probably the second worst Euro and is best utilized for maybe one foursomes match, but that’s it. Even if there’s a penalty for playing all five matches, Bjorn is so far inferior to the five elite guys that I’d leave him on the bench.

Martin Kaymer:

Kaymer’s reputation is probably the most inflated beyond his abilities of anyone in the world thanks to his victories in the Players Championship and US Open and prior #1 in the world ranking in 2011. Unfortunately, Kaymer hasn’t played anything like he did in 2009-11 (consistently top ten in the world by my ratings) in 2012-14 (outside the top 20 since early 2013 by my ratings). His winning performances at the Players and US Open were obviously his best performances, but he’s been incredibly inconsistent – finishing with performances below PGA Tour average in nine of 22 tournaments this year. That’s just not indicative of an elite player.

Kaymer’s strong suit is his aggressive style. He makes a ton of birdies and goes for par 5s in two consistently, but he’s more prone than most to bogeys. He’s clearly best suited to play four-balls, though, as I said above, he’d be a good foursomes partner for Henrik Stenson.

Rookies:

Victor Dubuisson:

Dubuisson – at only 24 – is one of Europe’s main hopes for the future as they phase out the Poulter/Stenson/Westwood/Donald generation over the next few Cups. He’s been solidly inside the top 100 in the world for a few years, but really emerged last fall with a win and a 3rd place in the final two Race to Dubai playoff events. PGA Tour fans saw him in action in Match Play in February where he famously got up and down from cacti on consecutive holes to continue his finals match with Jason Day. More impressive were his major top-tens at the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

Dubuisson’s game is built on his driving distance (he’s 6th on the European Tour in distance and top 20 among PGA Tour players with at least nine tournaments played). Despite his highlights, his short game hasn’t been better than average, and his putting has been very poor this season – easily the worst of anyone in this event. He’s perfect for the four-ball matches because he’ll be able to bomb it with impunity, ideally partnered with someone like Rose or Sergio who consistently keeps it in play.

Jamie Donaldson:

Donaldson’s one of those European players who plays great golf and contends regularly, but is relatively anonymous to PGA Tour fans who only see them if they contend at a major or WGC. Donaldson’s been consistently good for the last 3-4 seasons and has been very hot lately – win & two top-tens in the past month.. He has a good tee to green game and could really surprise people with his performance this week. I’d fit him alongside Sergio in foursomes, but he’d be fine in four-ball as well.

Stephen Gallacher:

Gallacher was a pretty terrible captains pick. Not only is he inferior to Luke Donald (10.5 points in 15 career matches) and Francesco Molinari in overall ability, Gallacher is a rookie who is riding an outlier year of hot putting. This is by a significant margin the best he’s ever putted in recent seasons and it just so happens that this is the best he’s played in recent seasons. I expect once his luck with the putter runs out he’ll be back to being an average player. The Euros have to hope that doesn’t happen this week. I expect they’ll regret not bringing Luke Donald who, while seriously out of form, still turned in an equal season to Gallacher and at least would be a strong asset in foursomes with his putting and short game brilliance. I’d bench Gallacher for all four rounds and hope he runs hot in his singles match.

My Pairings:

Four-balls:

McIlroy, Dubuisson, Stenson, Kaymer, Rose, Sergio, Westwood, & Poulter or McDowell

Foursomes:

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Kaymer

and

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Bjorn

The Stats:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ryder Cup Preview: The Course, Home Field, & Competition

I’ll be postng previews of each team individually, but I’d like to write a bit of an introduction to the course and the competition in this post.

This year’s Ryder Cup is at the Centenary Course at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland. This course normally hosts the Johnnie Walker Championship on the European Tour (it has been omitted from the schedule this year to prepare for the Ryder Cup). This year’s event comes on the heels of two consecutive one point European wins – to survive an American comeback in Wales in 2010 and to accomplish their own enormous comeback at Medinah in 2012. Overall, the Americans have won just twice, both on home soil, in the eight most recent events, though their recent form has been better than the three early 2000s beat-downs. This year the Americans enter the event missing perhaps three of their five best players (Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, and Dustin Johnson) and face-down a full strength European team with World #1 Rory McIlroy. Betting odds heavily favor the Europeans to win or retain the Cup at around 67%, and while I think that understates the US chances, they’re certainly underdogs going abroad.

The Course:

The Centenary Course at Gleneagles is a resort course, perhaps with more tooth than normal, but still completely familiar to professionals who play on both sides of the Atlantic. This is certainly not a links style course. This article suggests it is set-up in PGA Tour style with even levels of rough and pristine fairways, not the wild rough or pine straw that we’re accustomed to seeing in the Open Championship courses. That doesn’t favor either side, but this is certainly a course which will play conventionally.

In recent Johnnie Walker Championships the course hasn’t shown much of a bite. Fairways hit have been around 66% and GIR% around 67%, both marks would rank as fairly easy on the PGA Tour. It’s played to around the par of 72 on average in recent seasons, though it will play easier for the far superior Ryder Cup players, and so much will come down to how Paul McGinley chooses to set it up will factor hugely into how it ends up playing this weekend.

Looking at individual holes, in alternate shot (8 matches) the course splits up very well for teams with one aggressive long hitter and another who hits their irons well. The player who tees off on #1 (players alternate teeing off) will hit eight drives and have three opportunities to go for the green in two on par 5s. The other player will hit only six drives and one second shot on a par 5s, though they’ll have an advantage in long and medium iron shots of nine to three over the first player. This set-up is tailor made to arrange pairings that emphasize a player’s talents and hide their weaknesses. I’ll talk more about some ideal pairings to exploit this in the individual team previews, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

Home Field/Continent Advantage:

Home advantage is often alluded to in Ryder Cup discussions, but not in a precise manner. There’s some advantage to playing in front of more supportive crowds for sure, but there’s no doubt that both sides make themselves heard no matter the location of the event. More important is the simple effect of traveling to compete on another continent and adjusting to the local time zone. Professionals golfers definitely have to face travel issues all the time, but Europeans who play on the European Tour surely face it more often as they travel between Asia, the Middle East, North America, and Europe. As a contrast, most Americans on the PGA Tour leave North America only twice to compete – the Open Championship in Britain in July and WGC-HSBC in China in November.

To attempt to quantify the disadvantage of playing away from ones home continent I set-up a study using 2013 & 2014 data. I split all players’s performance data into three groups – United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere – and discarded the elsewhere group. I then weighted each group of data based on the harmonic mean between the number of USA rounds and Western Europe rounds (for example, Patrick Reed had 81 USA rounds and only two Western Europe rounds for a harmonic mean of 3.9). I divided the players up into three groups – Americans who played on the PGA Tour, Europeans who played mostly on the PGA Tour, and Europeans who played mostly on the European Tour (almost no Americans played mostly on the European Tour). I didn’t take into account where players currently live, only their birthplace. I then calculated the performance of each group, weighted using the harmonic mean, in USA rounds and Western Europe rounds.

The results were shocking. European players who play on the PGA Tour suffered no penalty moving between Western Europe and the USA. They had identical performances. European players who play on the European Tour lost about 0.5 strokes in performance between Western Europe and the USA. Americans on the PGA Tour lost around 0.5 strokes in performance between the USA and Western Europe. This suggests that the penalty for Americans who play the PGA Tour going to Europe is about equal to the penalty suffered by Europeans going to the US.

At first I was worried that a lot of this had something to do with Americans who hardly play links golf coming over to play the Open Championship. In fact, 40% of my sample only played in Western Europe for the Open Championship. I tossed out the Open Championship rounds which yielded a penalty of only 0.2 strokes for Americans playing in Western Europe, but the sample of rounds is fairly small. I’ve chosen for the rest of this post to simply average my original penalty with this non-Open Championship penalty and say Americans suffer approximately a 0.35 stroke penalty when traveling to play in Europe.

Here’s an important caveat though. A rating based on aggregate performance (like mine) already has some of this travel penalty mixed into the Europeans results because more than half of the rounds for Europeans who play on the European Tour come away from home – Asia, the Middle East, and the US. In comparison, almost none of the rounds for Americans who play on the PGA Tour come away from the US. Adjusting for this produces the below chart.

rydercupHFA(In strokes, negative numbers indicate better performance)

All that means at least half of the Europeans suffer no penalty moving between US Ryder Cups and European Ryder Cups, while the other half suffers similarly to Americans traveling to a European Ryder Cup. The entire American team suffers an enormous penalty going across to play in Europe, but gets no advantage from playing on home soil. In short, for US based Cups, the US team has an advantage of about 0.2 strokes – equal to a 52-48 edge in a generic match – while, for European based Cups, the European team has an advantage twice that size (0.4 strokes) – equal to a 54-46 edge in a generic match.

In fact, if this home advantage holds for the earlier years (and I’m guessing it does as European players have consistently had to travel more, and particularly travel for major events in the US, in the last at least 20 years) it explains much of Europe’s dominance of this event. Going back to 1997, Europe has won 56% of points at home and 52% in the US – almost exactly what we’d expect give the above HFA. The Americans typically have a slightly advantage in talent – maybe 0.1-0.15 strokes per match or 1% per match – but the Europeans benefit from double the home field advantage of the Americans.

Applying home advantage to this Cup, I’d estimate that on average the European teams will be around 0.4 strokes better than the American teams without considering talent. This is enough to start Europe out at 54% to win a generic match. I’ll talk about talent in the team previews and, of course, team strategy may give one side a slight edge.

Basic Strategy:

Richie Hunt wrote a great article about potential US captain’s picks a month ago and in it laid out a few statistically informed ways to approach the Ryder Cup. I don’t agree with all of his points, but #4 & #5 about tailoring players for the formats that fit their games is very important. Richie wrote “Four-ball format is about birdies”. Absolutely. On a normal hole, PGA Tour pros are split with about 20% birdies, 16% bogeys, and 64% pars. In a four-ball format where each team has two balls the chance of both players on the other team making bogey on a generic hole are only ~3%. That means par will almost never win a hole; you need birdies.

Every golfer has their own distribution of birdies/pars/bogeys; more aggressive players make more birdies/eagles, but also more bogeys, while more conservative players make fewer birdies, but also avoid making bogeys. Both strategies are seen among elite players, but only the more aggressive player is rewarded in four-ball. Both captains would do well to make sure they get their more aggressive players out in these sessions.

Richie’s other point was that alternate shot is about avoiding bogeys (each team only has one ball and so pars win holes more often) and pairing players who play similarly. You don’t want to pair someone who’s wild off the tee (Phil) with someone who’s much more comfortable playing off the fairway (Furyk). Also important, as I wrote above, is matching players based on the shots they’ll be hitting. One player in each pairing this year will hit two extra drives and two extra par 5 approach shots, while the other player will hit six extra iron shots. You don’t want to pair your two best iron players or two most aggressive, long hitters with each other because you’ll be wasting one of them on shots they don’t excel at. I’ll talk more about a few of the ideal pairings in each team preview.

How Real are Hot Streaks in Golf?

Whenever a golfer goes on a high profile hot streak – think Rickie Fowler since June, Billy Horschel for the FedEx Playoffs, Henrik Stenson at the end of last year – there’s always a ton of talk in the media and among fans about how their new swing/putting stroke finally clicked, or that player is returning to form, or they’re finally mature enough to win, etc. Humans love writing narratives to explain why things happen. The end result of all that talk is that a guy in the middle of a hot streak is considered to be much better than they would’ve been considered before the hot streak. No one thought Billy Horschel was deserving of a Ryder Cup pick a month ago, but now everyone thinks we should toss Webb/Mahan off to make room for him. No one thought Rickie Fowler was one of the 1-2 best American players in May, but now that’s almost assumed. Everyone around golf seems to think that hot streaks are real – that they actually predict who’s going to continue to play well. In this post I’ll provide evidence that shows that hot streaks are retained to a small degree – even months later – but that extreme performances still regress strongly to prior expectations.

Methodology:

I settled on using five week periods to measure performance. My sample was everyone who had recorded at least 8 rounds in a five week period and then recorded at least 8 rounds in the next five weeks. All my data is from the 2011-2014 seasons. The actual metric I used to measure performance was my z-score ratings, which are basically strokes better or worse than the field adjusted for the strength of the field. I compared each player’s z-score over that five week sample to my prior z-score rating. I have a prior rating for every player in my sample generated each week which mostly uses prior performance and very recent play to predict how well a player will play that week. They’re designed to be the most accurate prediction of performance. I subtract the prior expectation from the sample performance to get the change in performance which I’ll call the Initial Delta.

So my metric looks like this:

(Sample performance over 5 weeks) – (Prior expectation) = (Initial Delta)

I generated an Initial Delta for every player who qualified for my sample, generating over 27000 separate data points.

I then calculated a Subsequent Delta for every player using the same method only using the next five weeks as my Sample performance and the same Prior expectation used above (meaning I don’t consider any recent results). I then compare the Initial Delta to the Subsequent Delta. If players get hot and stay hot, the two should be strongly correlated. If whether a player has been hot or cold does not predict their subsequent performance, the two will not be correlated.

tl;dr of the above is I’m comparing how much better/worse a guy played over the first 5 or 10 weeks to how much better/worse he played over the next 5 weeks.

Results:

The results show that in general players retain only a small portion of their over or under-performance. Overall, about 20% of the Initial Delta is retained over the next five weeks. This means that if Billy Horschel played 1.8 strokes better than expected over the last five weeks, he should be expected to play about 0.36 strokes better than previously expected in the next five weeks. Now, 0.36 strokes is a large amount, but it’s not enough to bring him up to Bubba/Fowler/Keegan’s level (here is an example of the distribution of talent among the top 50 in the world). Right now, he should be considered slightly better than Mahan or Webb, but not to some ridiculous amount and certainly not to any degree that’s going to effect the outcome of the Cup.

5weekNOPRIOR

Looking Further Ahead:

The above shows that hot streaks can be retained to some degree over a short period of time, but how much is retained further down the road? Is Billy Horschel going to be able to retain any of that ability he showed to win the FedEx Cup going into next season? I set-up the same study as above, only instead of looking at performance in the next five weeks, I looked over the next four months (16 weeks to be precise). Everything is calculated the same, though I only included players with at least 20 rounds over that four month span.

The results here showed that about 18% of the Initial Delta is retained over the next four months, a similar amount to what is retained over the next five weeks. Golfers who play significantly better than expected over five weeks should perform better than previously expected, but only to a small degree. To give you a sense of when recent performance becomes mostly insignificant, if a player performs 0.5 strokes better than expected over five weeks (basically what Chris Kirk has done in the FedEx Cup Playoffs), he is expected to retain only around 0.1 strokes (which is insignificant, basically a rounding error in predictive terms).

4monthNOPRIOR

Adjusting Expectations:

I’ve attached a list of the top and bottom ten guys who have most over or under-performed over the last five weeks (PGA/European Tour only).

Movers9182014

Obviously Horschel is at the top along with some FedEx Playoff stalwarts like Palmer/Fowler/Day. Ryder Cupper Jamie Donaldson has been killing it over in Europe as well. Among the trailers, Phil’s name sticks out like a sore thumb. The US team has to hope his multiple weeks off can help him rediscover his game before the next week. Probably the most terrifying thing is how close Ryan Moore came to making this team – he finished 11th in points, but was only a stroke away from jumping Zach Johnson in points at the PGA Championship. Moore is dead last of 339 pro golfers in terms of his performance relative to expectation.

Sergio at the 17th at Cherry Hills

Sergio Garcia addressed his 2nd shot on the par 5 17th on Sunday two shots back of leader Billy Horschel. The 17th is a 550 yard par 5 with an island green that forces a 225 yard carry to stay out of the water. Making things more difficult are a trio of cross-bunkers at 310 yards which block most pros from hitting their drive as far as they can. Sergio had taken a little off his drive and sat in the fairway with 251 yards to the pin and at least 230 yards to carry the water. Sergio needed at least a birdie to have a chance of winning the tournament, and he initially looked like he was going to take-on the green in two, but reined himself in at the last moment and laid-up to 83 yards. He went on to hit an awful wedge over the green, chipped into the water from there, and made a triple bogey. Ignoring everything that happened after his 2nd shot, did Sergio make the right play to lay-up?

On its face, the decision to go for the green comes down to one question: which approach leads to the lowest score? On the 17th at Cherry Hills, pros who went for the green scored a 4.54 while those who laid-up scored a 4.86. However, you also have to consider the situation prior to the 2nd shot. 83% of pros who went for the green at 17 were playing from the fairway, while only 34% of pros who laid-up were playing from the fairway. Pros who went for the green were also playing slightly shorter shots (241 yards to-go vs. 248 yards to-go). Sergio therefore needed birdie and was in the fairway, meaning most pros in his shoes had been choosing to attack the green in two.

It’s also important to consider Sergio’s risk aversion to losing his 2nd place position. Placed where he was it’s reasonable to assume he would’ve finished no worse than tied for 2nd with two pars on 17 and 18. He would’ve been around 8th in the FedEx Cup standings going into the Tour Championship in that scenario. Obviously a bogey or worse on 17 would drop him lower (eventually it did to 13th in the standings). Of players who laid-up from the fairway, only one all week had bogeyed 17. Obviously if Sergio indeed was just trying to get a par and get to 18 he was right in thinking he should be pretty safe by laying-up. Going for it introduces the risk of bogey (14% on GFG shots ended in bogey) from hitting it in the water. For the week, 26% of players who went for it hit their 2nd shot into the water (27% in the 4th round), however half of those players went on to make par (Zach Johnson even holed his 4th shot for birdie!). Now, I disagree with his decision to go for par over going for a chance to win the tournament because Sergio has had a paucity of big wins recently for a player of his caliber. A win at the BMW (which really would’ve taken birdie-birdie & win the play-off) not only gets Sergio a million+ check, but also moves him to third in the FedEx standings and gives him a very real chance of winning the FedEx Cup.

Here’s the results of all drives in all four rounds on 17. You can see that Sergio’s 2nd shot was further back among those who went for the green, but centrally located in a group that mostly went for the green.

Drives17CherryHills(click to enlarge)

And here are the results in terms of eagle/birdie/par/bogey or worse based on whether a player laid-up or went for it in two. Sergio is again marked with the yellow cross; he laid-up to an area that mostly yielded pars. These charts don’t distinguish between rounds; the 1st round pin position in the front-center of the green played much harder (4.99) than the other pins which were back-center (2nd round – 4.54), left (3rd round – 4.65), and right (4th round – 4.70).

2ndShots17CherryHills

(click to enlarge)

All in all, I’m sure Sergio thought he was making the safe play. Pros think they’re invincible with a wedge from ~75 yards. I’m sure his anger at himself was more over his atrocious third shot wedge and beyond awful 4th shot chip into the water, but he should save a little for his decision to lay-up. It eliminated his chances of winning the tournament for no real gain in safety.

Golfers After 40: How Age Erodes Performance

I’ve written at length about aging – general aging curve, putting aging curve, & aging curves for driving, approach shots, and the short game – because it’s a critically important topic when discussing the trajectory of golfers’s careers and projecting their performance going forward. What I’ve generally found is that golfers improve slightly from the early to late 20s, peak for most of their 30s, and then begin declining in the late 30s, with that decline accelerating in the mid 40s. A golfer who’s one of the best in the world in the mid 30s – think Adam Scott or Sergio currently – will decline to around PGA Tour average by the time they’re 50. This piece today will specifically focus on how golfers change between their late 30s and early 40s, basically the stage of his career that Tiger Woods is currently going through.

How Much is Performance Affected by Turning 40?

I gathered a huge sample of PGA Tour golfers for this study, including everyone with at least three years worth of results between ages 35-39 and three more between ages 40-44. I used the PGA Tour’s adjusted scoring average as my metric of choice; it’s only available going back to 1988 so my sample is golfers born between 1951 and 1972 (Tom Watson to Phil Mickelson essentially). That left me with 131 golfers. Then I averaged their performances in each season between 35-39 and 40-44 and compared.

The average for the 35-39 sample was 70.66 (approximately equal to the 50th best player in the world) and the average for the 40-44 sample was 71.03 (approximately equal to the average PGA Tour cardholder/100th best player in the world). That indicates a decline of around a third of a stroke. My method is different from the delta method I used in the above studies; this study discards any golfers without enough data in the 35-39 or 40-44 group. Almost everyone discarded didn’t have any qualifying performance between 40-44 – meaning they weren’t good enough and dropped off the PGA Tour in their forties. This likely indicates that the decline is greater than a third of a stroke. The above general aging curve predicts a decline of half a stroke.

What about Vijay (or Phil, Stricker, etc.)?

There are certainly exceptions to this general rule of aging. Vijay Singh is often brought up when people talk about golfers aging because he had his two best seasons (and two of the best non-Tiger seasons ever) at age 40 and 41. Unfortunately, few players age as well as Vijay. Only five of my 131 golfers performed better than Vijay (who was 0.6 strokes better after 40 than before) and only 22% of my sample improved at all. Most of this improvement came from guys who weren’t at the top of the sport before turning 40 (Steve Stricker, Fred Funk, Hal Sutton), but improved after 40. Only two golfers who were top 25 level before 40 improved after 40 (Vijay and Nick Price, who only improved slightly). Every other top 25 golfer (Goosen, Mickelson, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Greg Norman, Tom Lehman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, etc) declined after 40.

Steve Stricker is another guy held up as an example of golfers play great into the 40s. He had his big renaissance after years on the fringes of the Tour at age 39 and has been a top five player in the world in the last decade. Only Vijay has been better in his 40s – at least since the 1980s (Nicklaus, Ray Floyd perhaps). However, he’s also an enormous outlier. The tableau visualization at the end of this post indicates such. Stricker’s not an example of anything except that sometimes something crazy happens. It’s vastly more likely that a golfer will follow the general trend than pull a Stricker.

It’s important now to talk about what indicates a decline. I’ve chosen to use aggregate performance to measure performance – meaning I count performance in all PGA Tour rounds equally. When I say Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els has declined since 40 I mean that their overall level of play has declined. I understand both have won majors since 40, but they’re contending less overall (much less in Ernie’s case). Turning 40 doesn’t signal the end of a golfer’s professional career, but it does indicate they’ll be playing worse, contending less, and winning less going forward.

What this means for Tiger Woods:

When Tiger returns in 2015 it will be his age 39 season. His age 35-38 sample includes 2011 (69.9) when he was injured/changing his swing, 2012 & 2013 (68.9,68.9) when he was on top of the world, and 2014 (71.1) when he was injured again. Simply aggregating those seasons equally yields an average of 69.7 which would be the 9th best age 35-39 in my sample. Simply applying the amount of decline I found above to Tiger would leave him as something like the 15th-20th best player in the world in his early 40s. All that ignores any more specific injury concerns and just applies my general model.

tigerprojection

That shows what an uphill battle Tiger is facing to remain towards the top of the sport. Even if he comes back healthy from this back injury, age is still going to erode his abilities steadily over the next half decade.

Here’s a link to my Tableau viz of the golfers in my sample and their data

Ryder Cup Thoughts

US Captain Tom Watson is set to announce his three selections to round out the US team tonight, while European Captain Paul McGinley made his selections this morning (Lee Westwood, Stephen Gallacher, and Ian Poulter) – a day after the nine automatic European spots were decided. I’m going to review the possible American selections and say who I think should be picked, and then I’ll talk some about the European team and McGinley’s picks.

American Prospects:

Selecting captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup is a unique responsibility in golf. Evaluating which players are best is essential for coaches or front offices in the team sports to such a degree that player evaluation is considered one of the most important traits to be hired for a coaching or front office job. In golf there’s no impetus to correctly evaluate who is better than someone else. Certainly the PGA of America and European Tour don’t consider whether a potential captain knows how to evaluate who are the best twelve golfers for their teams. Combine that lack of interest finding someone to evaluate who are the better players with the sheer randomness of 28 golf matches that make up the Ryder Cup, and there’s no accountability in the selection process.

In picking Ryder Cup players the most important factor by far is how good they are at golf. There is stuff that matters on the boundaries – ability to respond under pressure, attitude/showing up in shape and ready to play, demeanor on the course and in the clubhouse, perhaps how their game fits with other players – but what really matters is picking the players who have shown over hundreds of rounds that they’re the best at golf. The margins between guys up for captains picks are narrow (no more than half a stroke/round really), but large enough to matter in the context of hoisting the trophy on Sunday.

Based on the US having around half the top 25 players in the world, the cut-off for a Ryder Cup pick is being around the 25th best player in the world. In parenthesis is the current rank in my ratings among healthy Americans. The nine automatic picks rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 26th.

Keegan Bradley (5th)

Everyone seems to agree Keegan is certain to be a captain’s pick because not only is he one of the best available Americans, but he also played great along with Phil in the 2012 Ryder Cup and 2013 Presidents Cup (6.5 points from 7 matches). That alone would be a stupid reason to pick him, but he’s the best American left by my rankings who’s also healthy, so he’s a fairly easy selection – whether he pairs with Phil again or not.

Hunter Mahan (11th)

There’s a time where Mahan would’ve been an easy pick here – he was one of the best in the game between 2008-2011 – but he’s definitely regressed from that level. His win last week definitely put him in the mix for a pick, but his game has been a mess most of the season. I’m guessing he’ll be picked because of Ryder Cup experience and his good recent play, but he’s step down in talent from other guys available. He wouldn’t be a bad pick, more of a missed opportunity for someone better.

Brandt Snedeker (14th)

Snedeker’s run from 2011 to 2013 where he won four times, took home the FedEx Cup, finished top ten 19 more times, and made the US teams in 2012 and 2013 has to seem like a long time ago. He rode a vastly improved long game in those seasons, but that’s completely disappeared this year. He’s had three top tens this year and has even looked lost with his putter – his one elite skill. He’d be a poor selection in terms of overall ability and recent play.

Chris Kirk (13th)

Chris Kirk really put his name in the running with his victory yesterday, but all along this season he’s been consistently pretty good (17th in the FedEx standings coming into this week). Kirk has been reliably a top 50 player in the world over the past few seasons, but there are ten other Americans with similar talent to him who would all be equally as a good in the Ryder Cup. For me, Kirk just isn’t good enough to get a pick. That he won yesterday isn’t that important for me. My work has shown “form” and recent play carries over to a small degree between weeks, but the Ryder Cup is in four weeks. There’s no guarantee that Kirk will still be playing well after two more tournaments and a week off.

Billy Horschel (22nd)

Horschel’s another guy who at least has put his name in the mix based on his play this week. He was always expected to play well based on his NCAA career, but never really put it together due to injuries. He emerged with a win last year largely because he putted way above his head for six months (something he acknowledged in an interview yesterday), but has established himself as a solid pro on the edge of the top 50 guys in the world. As such, he’d be a bad Ryder Cup pick. I’m not really in the position to judge intangibles either, but Horschel is a known hot-head on course and seems like an easy pick for the most likely guy to blow-up mid-round and lose 7&6 (non-Kevin Na of course).

Ryan Moore (15th)

Moore’s season has been very interesting. He made his way on Tour up until 2013 largely on the strength of his putting – that was his elite skill. He’s short off the tee, but good enough with his irons to be a consistent top 50 guy, but never better. He’s lost that putting ability the past two seasons – long enough that I think it’s a sign that he’s changed something (allocation of practice time would be my guess) and isn’t an elite putter any more. He’s made up for that with dramatically improved iron play this year. He’s hitting more greens and generating a lot more birdie chances, and his overall game has improved so much that he’s having his best season ever. He’s definitely good enough that he wouldn’t be a bad pick, but I’m not sure how seriously he’s being considered after playing poorly the past two weeks.

Brendon Todd (23rd)

Between turning pro in 2007 and 2012, Todd was one of the worst players to play on the PGA Tour. In his two years with a PGA Tour card (2009 & 2012) he was pretty much the worst player tee to green on Tour, but had developed into a very good putter by 2012. Last year he played great on the Web.com Tour – improving tee to green and keeping up the fantastic putting. This year has been more of the same. He’s already one of the ten best putters on Tour and his overall game is finally good enough that he’s a top 50 or so player in the world. He hasn’t shown the consistent play that should be required of a Ryder Cupper however. He has less of a track record than Kirk. I think he’d be the worst pick of the guys under consideration.

Bill Haas (4th)

I’ve touted Haas all season because he’s been consistently very good. He hasn’t missed a cut since last season, but more importantly he has a track record (4/5 last seasons in the top 25 on Tour) of being very good. In my mind, if you’re looking for one guy on this list to show up in Scotland and give you five good rounds of golf, Haas is the most likely to do it. He doesn’t have wins this year, but he has five in the previous four seasons – so you can’t ding him for “not knowing how to win”. He also has the bonus of playing in the Presidents Cup in 2011 and 2013. Again though, the main reason to pick him is because he’s one of the three best Americans left in terms of talent. He’s proven that over the last five years.

Webb Simpson (7th)

Webb’s another clear selection for me. His track record is four straight seasons of elite level golf since his emergence in 2011. He’s played on three straight US teams in these events. There’s a slight concern that he’s relied a little more on outlier level putting this year, but he’s still been very good.

My Picks: Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Keegan Bradley

All three are fairly easy picks as the three best Americans left healthy in terms of my rankings. All three have positive US team experience, and in terms of intangibles they aren’t risky picks at all. Watson might find a reason to leave Haas or Webb off in favor of someone else, but these three are the best guys available.

Watson’s Picks: Keegan Bradley and two of Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Chris Kirk

The Europeans:

The automatic picks hit on pretty much everyone deserving of a spot on the team on merit. Thomas Bjorn is probably the weak link, but I have him right on the periphery of the team in terms of ability. McGinley was in a bit of a bind with his captain’s pick though. Poulter, Westwood, and Luke Donald have all been some of the best in the world in recent seasons and have Ryder Cup experience, but all three have been way below expectations this year. McGinley brought Poulter – because who wouldn’t after 2012 – and Westwood rather than Donald, which isn’t so much an error as it is relying on guys who have delivered in the past.

I feel for Donald being left off as he’s one of the twelve best Euros by my ratings. My numbers consider recent play in the context of prior performances, so it sees Donald playing below expectations for the last two years, but also sees that he was one of the best in the world in 2011-12. His long game has been a disaster this year (way below 2011-2012), so I think there’s legitimate concern he’s not anything like that guy anymore. There’s similar concerns with Westwood; his long game hasn’t been anything like it was in recent years and he’s getting to the age where driving and iron play start to collapse. I’m guessing this will be his last Ryder Cup.

As for Poulter, I have him rated as one of the twelve best guys and he’s a guy you can count on showing up in form ready to play. I’m not sure how much stock I put in his 12-3 lifetime record, but he definitely takes the event seriously and handles the pressure. This was as obvious a pick as any.

I have Gallacher ranked 18th among the Euros, making him a pretty poor pick; he’s one of the peripheral guys who isn’t that good in the Nicolas Colsaerts 2012/Oliver Wilson 2008 mold. McGinley must’ve had some sympathy seeing as he came within one spot of qualifying on Sunday, but there were half a dozen alternatives. I would’ve liked to see Francesco Molinari picked because he’s clearly one of the twelve best Europeans and has some experience at the Ryder Cup. Molinari’s just been better across the board compared to Gallacher. I’d rather have him than any of the guys McGinley actually picked.

Overall, the Europeans have more elite guys (Rory, Sergio, Justin Rose), but less depth (I rate at least Dubuisson, Donaldson, Bjorn, and Gallacher below everyone likely to be on the US team besides Patrick Reed). That will be mitigated by the home continent advantage so the Euros are still the favorites.