A trio of easy resort courses are in play this week – PGA West (Palmer), PGA West (Nicklaus), and La Quinta CC. This week is typically the easiest scoring week of the year for the pros. Expect a lot of fairways hit, a lot of wedge approach shots, and a lot of birdies overall. It’s tough to do anything regarding course form here as the event courses have changed a lot over the year; perhaps most important for the pros is being able to deal with the pro-am format while still staying in the competitive zone.
What I’m Looking At:
This marks Phil Mickelson’s 2015 debut and his first start since he bowed out of the Playoffs early in September. A lot has been written about Phil’s down season last year and what it means for his career and his performance going forward. However, a lot of that “down season” stuff is solely based on him not winning a tournament for the first time since 2003. And yeah, the big results weren’t there (though he had two 2nds), but his overall performance was only down slightly from 2011-2013 – mostly because he wasn’t sinking essentially every putt. The expectations for him week to week on Tour are ridiculous; he’s more like the 20th best player in the world and it’s completely normal for that guy to go a year without winning.
Over the past few years, Phil has lost a ton of club head speed. Five years ago he was 13th on Tour in driving distance and in the top 10-15% in terms of driving performance on Tour. Last year he was 70th and basically average in driving performance. This is entirely normal for a golfer in his mid 40s and he’s responding the right way by trying to get in better shape. We’ll see if it translates at all to his performance this year. He’s also been one of the most aggressive in terms of using driver on holes where others are laying-up.
This week also marks Jason Dufner’s 2015 debut. He was sidelined from August to October with a neck injury after having a disappointing 2014 season. However, he returned in a three week Asian swing where he played more like he had been playing in 2012-13. The most important question for Dufner going forward revolves around his putting. In the past six seasons he’s had three mostly average putting years by Strokes Gained Putting and two disastrous years. When he putts at an average level, his ball-striking makes him a clear top 25 player. When he putts as poorly as last season, he’s simply not a factor. Last year he was only in contention once in sixteen events after something like nine or ten times in 48 events in 2012-13. That all comes down to whether he can not be awful on the greens.
Patrick Reed’s Title Defense:
I wrote about Patrick Reed after he won the Hyundai ToC two weeks ago, saying he displayed a very wide spread of results and especially way more wins than his aggregate performance suggested. Most ridiculously, he has four tournament wins, but only six other top tens. Dividing his results into three groups – good (around top 10 and better), average, bad (missed cut or low finish in the money), he’s at 33% good, 30% average, and 37% bad since 2013. The average spread for guys who are approximately as good as he is is 25% good, 43% average, and 32% bad; instead of those average results he’s racking up some really good performances and some really awful performances.
Now, this could be part of his game or it could be just how the chips have fallen in ~50 tournaments. I ran the same numbers for golfers of similar talent to him for 2011-12 and compared their percentiles to their results in 2013-14. First, Patrick Reed’s results were more extreme than any of the ~75 golfers I compared him to. He had about 12% more good performances than he should’ve based on his talent. Looking ahead to 2013-14, the golfers who had more good performances than they should have still had more good performances, but only slightly. For every three “extra” good performances they retained only one “extra” good performance in 2013-14. Applying that to Reed, we should expect him to fall more into a bell-curve like performance distribution with fewer extreme tournaments, and more average ones.
The interesting question is whether Reed’s aggregate performance is dragged down by him playing especially poorly when he’s not in contention. I examined whether golfers “gave-up” in the fall and concluded that there was only evidence of “giving-up” for golfers who were 10 strokes behind starting the 2nd round and 15 strokes behind starting the 4th round (ie, guys who are going to miss the cut and guys who are locked into 65th place). Golfers in those places play, on average, between 0.25 and 0.5 strokes worse than normal.
Reed’s results are very extreme. When he starts the 2nd round within five strokes of the lead he’s played 1.1 strokes better than expected. When he starts the 2nd round in any worse position he’s played 0.6 strokes worse than expected. That certainly explains why he’s missed so many cuts. Looking deeper, the same phenomenon occurs in the 3rd round where he plays well near the lead, but not when far off the pace. In the 4th round though, the trend completely reverses and he plays slightly worse near the lead, but way better when far off the pace.
It’s impossible to conclude anything about his motivations from this analysis of ~60 tournaments; it’s just not very much data and easily influenced by chance. I’m sure I could find similar results from other golfers. It does, however, go some way towards explaining why his performances have tended towards the extreme.
Best Past Results:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Humana/Bob Hope performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).
1. Chad Collins
2. Colt Knost
3. Matt Jones
4. Zach Johnson
5. Daniel Summerhays
Again, these are polluted by putting luck and there are multiple course histories represented.