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Tee-shot Strategy at the Open

Choosing which club to hit on par 4/5 tee-shots is one of the major strategic decisions a pro faces on a hole. Hitting driver is regularly worth an extra 30 yards of distance, but shots hit with driver are on average hit further off-target than shorter clubs. This introduces larger risk of hitting into the rough, fairway bunkers, or OOB, and the larger carry of the driver takes moderate misses and compounds the damage. On most holes there isn’t much risk of a catastrophic miss (water or OOB) and the value of the extra distance with driver easily makes up for the slightly larger chance of ending up in the rough or a fairway bunker. However, on certain holes the safe zone (width between water/OOB/trees on one side and water/OOB/trees on the other side is more narrow, increasing the likelihood of a catastrophic miss. On other holes the fairway narrows dramatically in driver range and it becomes much more likely that a player will hit into the rough or a fairway bunker with driver – negating the extra distance. In both cases players regularly hit 3 wood, 5 wood, hybrids, or long irons off the tee.

To properly evaluate club selection strategy you have to know how golfers performed in general on each hole depending on whether they chose driver or a lay-up. However, no one tracks club selection and even collecting that data from broadcasts is an impossible task (were one even inclined to manually charting) because broadcasters show par 4/5 tee-shots less than any other type of shot. To address this I developed a model that estimates the probability that a player hit driver, 3 wood, or a shorter club based on 1) the distance of the shot (300+ yards almost always means driver; <250 yards means a lay-up), 2) location of the shot after tee-shot (the fairway adds a few yards, rough/bunkers subtract a few yards), 3) angle off-line the shot is hit (larger misses travel shorter than shots down the middle), 4) golf course conditions (general altitude of the course, specific elevation of the hole, firmness of fairways, atmospheric considerations, etc.), and 5) player driving distance ability (represented by their driving distance stats).

Applying the Model to the Open:

Impact of Lie/Angle:

The graph below shows a general model to adjust distance based on lie. This is important because tee-shots that are flown into fairway bunkers/rough generally roll shorter distances than tee-shots that might roll along the fairway before settling into the rough or a fairway bunker. In general, the roll portion of a tee-shot represents about 20-25 yards of distance. This evaluates the distance gained/lost relative to others on that hole based on the lie (rough/intermediate/bunker/fairway) and the degrees off-line from the center of the fairway. The graph is specific to the 1st Round at the Frys.


Impact of Conditions:

Silverado CC is located near sea level which eliminates any impact due to altitude. Certain holes are slightly uphill or downhill, so I’ve adjusted those holes to add or subtract distance. The impact is largest on the 3rd hole (uphill tee-shot subtracts roughly 6 yards of distance) and the 9th hole (downhill tee-shot adds roughly 10 yards of distance). The course conditions varied throughout the week. I estimate the first three rounds were played in conditions slightly drier than average (adding roughly 1-2 yards per tee-shot) while the conditions in the final round were much drier (adding roughly 5 yards per tee-shot).

Player Ability:

The most important factor is how far each player can hit driver. That’s estimated fairly well for regular Tour players through their measured driving distance. I used that for both returning PGA Tour and for returning players (with an adjustment to correct for longer courses played). For the few players without that data I used PGA Tour average driving distance of 289 yards. I estimated that each player hits 3 wood approximately 30 yards shorter than driver – which is consistent with player estimates and Trackman data. Obviously not all players carry a 3 wood, but it works as a general approximation.

Model Results for Open:

The chart below summarizes the basic results. Players hit driver between 63% and 71% of the holes and regularly chose something shorter than driver on five holes. This is slightly less than PGA Tour average where driver is hit around 70% of holes.

Click to Enlarge

Evaluating Decision Making Hole by Hole:

I evaluate the decision to hit driver or a shorter club based on the position after the approach shot. This method considers the distance from the pin and lie after the 2nd shot on a par 4 and par 5 in terms of average strokes remaining to hole out from that position.

4th Hole (407 yard par 4):

Players roughly split for the week between driver and a shorter club. Many were wary of the fairway bunker down the right side between 270-300 yards, choosing to hit 3 wood instead. The fairway also narrows from around 38 yards to around 28 yards after 270 yards. The advantage to hitting driver was consistently around 0.1 strokes better performance in all four rounds.

8th Hole (366 yard par 4):

Few players hit driver on this hole, maxing out at 25% in Round 4. This is a short par 4 where the fairway narrows considerably at driver length. Overall, those hitting driver here played about 0.06 strokes better across all four rounds, though all of that over-performance relative to shorter clubs was in the 2nd round. I’m still unsure to what level driver vs. shorter club performance is repeatable between rounds.

12th Hole (391 yard par 4):

Around 40% of players hit driver on this hole, consistent throughout all four rounds. There are two fairway bunkers here – one ending at 250 yards and one beginning around 280 yards. The fairway narrows from 38 yards to 28 yards at the second bunker, and to the right is out of bounds. Players hitting driver were slightly advantaged by 0.08 strokes throughout all four rounds.

14th Hole (422 yard par 4):

Around 40% of players hit driver here, also consistent throughout all four rounds. The concern here is a fairway bunker right at around 265-290 yards off the tee. Players who hit driver were slightly advantaged here to the tune of 0.06 strokes over four rounds.

17th Hole (375 yard par 4):

This hole played as a drivable (~300 yard) hole in Round 3. 33% of players hit driver over the four rounds – 42% in the 3rd Round. The landing area for a driver is dominated by a fairway bunker left. A bad miss left ends up in the bunker or trees, while a bad miss right could end up behind a tree. The pin positions in the 1st & 2nd Rounds also required an accurate approach to miss the pot bunker just short of the green.The 3rd Round was the only round where there was an advantage to using driver (0.17 strokes), which makes sense because the benefit of hitting the green off the tee on a par 4 is an almost assured birdie. The other rounds showed an advantage to laying-up with 3 wood or shorter.

Estimating Player Decision-making:

I haven’t evaluated the player by player results against reality, so these are absolutely estimates. In general, shorter players hit driver more often. This is because 1) they need to hit driver to keep up with the field, 2) because when they hit driver they can avoid many of the bunkers/narrowed fairways that are set-up to capture longer shots, and 3) because their bad side-to-side misses will travel shorter and into less dangerous positions. You can see this based on the difference between a player’s measured driving distance and driving distance on all shots. Shorter players have less of a gap, indicating fewer non-driver shots.

More Drivers Hit:

Jerry Kelly, Tim Clark, and Jon Curran (all very short off the tee) were the three leaders in % of drivers hit at above 85%. Matt Kuchar (slightly shorter than average) also was aggressive off the tee hitting driver an estimated 84% of the time. This fits prior data; Kuchar is normally quite aggressive off the tee, which compensates for his shorter overall driving ability. Last year, Brooks Koepka had one of the largest gaps between measured and actual driving distance (17 yards), indicating he laid-up off often off the tee despite being one of the longest hitters on Tour. He was extremely aggressive this week – 9th in % drivers hit at 79%. The winner, Sang-Moon Bae, finished 14th in % of drivers hit at 75%.

Fewer Drivers Hit:

Tyrone van Aswegen finished last in % of drivers hit with only 44%. Of notable players, Marc Leishman, Graham DeLaet, Jimmy Walker, and Hideki Matsuyama were all in the bottom 15 of players that made the cut (less than 55% drivers). DeLaet opted against driver more often than most last year. Jason Kokrak was the most likely of the very long hitters last season to lay-up (56% approximately) and he hit driver only 56% of the time this week.


One response to “Tee-shot Strategy at the Open

  1. Pingback: Tee-shot Strategy at Las Vegas | Golf Analytics

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