Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

Monthly Archives: January 2015

Phoenix Open Preview – 2015

Course:

This is the first tournament played on the newly renovated TPC Scottsdale Stadium course. Beyond the visual upgrades (new bunkers, re-seeded greens/fairways/rough, new cart paths, etc.), several green complexes were completely re-done and the 14th was lengthened into a 490 yard beast of a par 4. Most importantly, designer Tom Weiskopf completely altered the bunkering on many of the tee-shots, moving the bunkers into areas where Shot Link said the pros had been hitting their tee-shots. Bill Rand discusses some of the notable changes – including a resized bunker on 18 that will completely alter how the hole is played. Anytime a designer can make the course fresher, while also maintaining the signature stretches (15/16/17 here), it’s a win for the fans. I’m most interested this week in who adapts their tee-shot strategy and executes those shots.

Beyond the changes, TPC Scottsdale is still a fairly easy course. It has played to around 69.8 on a par of 71 and is about average in length. However, it has definitely been a course where guys could step-up and hit driver on most shots. Bubba Watson in particular has played extremely well here recently because he could be aggressive and hit over the fairway bunkers. The renovated bunkering off the tee should at least force the pros to adapt their strategies. All par 5s are gettable in two shots, while the par 4 17th offers one of the best risk/reward par 4s in the game.

What I’m Watching:

Tiger is the story this week. Suffice to say if he’s healthy for the whole season he should be one of the best on Tour. In 2012 and 2013 Tiger played about as well as anyone has in the past five seasons and won eight tournaments. He combined top ten putting ability with his always strong iron play; there’s not really any reason to doubt that a healthy, focused Tiger can’t recreate those seasons. If so, he’ll be in line for multiple wins, Player of the Year, and dare I say possibly a major.

Top ten since 2010

For this week, I’m interested in the short game after how disastrous he was around the green at his event in December. That performance was a sign that he just wasn’t in tournament shape and hadn’t put enough work in. Also, what kind of distance is he able to generate off the tee? Amid the injuries last year, he lost 3 mph of club head speed from 2013 and 5 mph from 2012. The basic rule of thumb is about 2 yards per mph, meaning his max distance with driver fell by around 10 yards in two seasons. That’s worth around 2/3rds of a stroke per round; regaining some of that distance is critical for him to remain an elite player.

In the same vein, Tiger started laying-up a ton off the tee in 2013. He went from about Tour average in laying-up in 2012 to one of the most likely to lay-up in 2013. Whether it was not trusting his swing with driver or some sort of physical issue, he can’t afford to lay-up on 1-2 extra holes each round – especially if he’s not hitting driver 295 anymore.

Looking beyond Tiger, this week is the stateside debut for Rickie Fowler. Fowler’s game was clearly the most improved last year after reworking his swing with Butch Harmon. Mark Broadie wrote on Golf.com in October that Rickie Fowler gained 7 yards off the tee in distance over 2013 – largest on Tour. He also became more aggressive off the tee and jumped from 60th to 13th in terms of how often he went for a par 5 in two. He won’t putt like he did in the summer (over 1.0 strokes gained/round), but in his last six tournaments of the year he improved by a full stroke versus the field on tee-shots/approach shots/short game.

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 Phoenix performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Scott Piercy
2. Brendan Steele (and off a 2nd place last week)
3. Matt Every
4. William McGirt
5. Spencer Levin

Among the favorites, Bubba has typically killed it here – even without lucky putting – and Gary Woodland has been very strong as well.

 

Looking Closer at Bill Haas

Bill Haas won the Humana Challenge Sunday, holding off a host of others to win his sixth PGA Tour event. Despite those six wins and a FedEx Cup title, Haas still has a fairly low profile. In fact, Haas wasn’t even listed among the PGA Tour’s Top 30 Golfers to Watch in 2015 – despite finishing 15th and 16th in scoring in 2013 and 2014. I’m going to take a look at two of the most defining factors about Haas and then try to figure out his deserved place inside the Tour’s hierarchy.

Haas Avoids Awful Weeks:
Last season in 28 starts on Tour, Bill Haas made 27 cuts – withdrawing only once at the Heritage with a wrist injury. Using my ratings which adjust performance based on strength of field and difficulty of the course, Haas only played poor enough to miss the cut 19% of the time since 2013. That’s better than Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Jordan Spieth, and a host of others more highly touted. Why Haas doesn’t get much attention is because he results have mostly fallen in the middle – that is, he’s avoiding missing the cut, but also failing to finish near the lead more than everyone in his peer group of fifteen similar golfers other than Bubba Watson.

I’ve attached a chart of some of those golfers compared to Haas below. It plots each tournament finish in order of performance relative to the field. You can see that Haas’s black line has comparatively much better bad performances, but he hasn’t reached the heights that most other near-elite guys have in their best outings.

Haas compared

In the last two weeks, I’ve discussed how Patrick Reed’s results look a lot different than anyone else who are considered top players on Tour. Reed has won in four of the ten times he’s finished top ten, but also played poorly in an alarming number of weeks. Haas, on the other hand, produces the results week-to-week that we see from other near-elite golfers, but hasn’t been in contention nearly as much as those other near-elite golfers.

Results in Majors Haven’t Been There:
Adam Sarson included a chart of Haas’s finishes in majors in his Humana recap. Long story short, they’re not very good. Haas has been eligible for 19 of the last 20 majors, but has only six top 25s. His results haven’t necessarily been bad – of the 150 golfers with at least 20 major rounds since 2010, he ranks 36th in adjusted scoring average – but they haven’t reached the near-elite level he’s played at in regular Tour rounds (19th during that span).

Is there any rhyme or reason to this? Perhaps, but this is a guy who has closed out six PGA Tour tournaments (including at three difficult classic venues – East Lake, Riviera, and Congressional) and executed maybe the most ridiculous shot in recent memory to win $10,000,000. It’s really easy to look for reasons why golfers don’t perform at majors, but you can quickly tie yourself up in narratives. Haas’s under-performance during 2010-14 ranks 113th out of 150 golfers, meaning he played 38th worst relative to how he plays in normal Tour events. However, a few spots behind him is multiple major winner Vijay Singh, major winners Zach Johnson, Justin Rose, and Webb Simpson are right around Haas, and Jordan Spieth is behind him. It’s correct to say Haas is the best golfer to never contend in a major, but there’s certainly no reason to expect him not to be there in the future.

Haas’s Place on Tour:
Since 2010, Haas in one of seven golfers to win six events on Tour and one of only twenty to win at least four times. On the below chart, Haas is the red dot among every golfer to win at least one tournament during 2010-2014. Performance relative to the field in all tournament 2010-14 is on the x-axis. Not only is Haas’s aggregate performance near the top guys, but his six wins compare very favorably to Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson – among others.

Popular perception of golfers is driven almost entirely by their major wins or possibly near misses. Obviously winning a major is important, but with only four a year and with dozens of good golfers competing for them, it’s important to not lose sight of guys like Bill Haas who have built ridiculously impressive careers based consistently making cuts, finishing in solid positions, and winning most years.

 

2015 Humana Challenge Preview

Courses:
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.

Is Going Low a Skill?

Winning a PGA Tour tournament normally requires besting the field average by 12-15 strokes. However, Tour courses vary widely in difficulty between the US Open tracks which normally play several strokes over par and the easier resort style courses which can play several strokes under par. On the former, winning scores hover around par, while on the latter it often takes -25 under par to win the tournament. On difficult courses making mostly pars puts you in contention, while on easy courses a golfer needs to make a lot of birdies to even have a chance. What I was interested in is whether certain types of golfers perform better on difficult or easy courses. That is, are golfers who make more birdies than the field better set to tackle courses where you have to go low? And are golfers whose games are built on avoiding bogeys a better bet on hard courses where you have to grind for par? My research showed that there was a small affect in each direction, but one that doesn’t significantly impact most golfers’ results.

To set-up my study I collected the results for every golfer who played a qualifying number of rounds on the PGA Tour in 2013 and 2014 (~360 golfer seasons). I then adjusted their rates of birdie holes and bogey holes to account for the courses they played each season. In most cases the adjustments weren’t significant, but the better golfers tend to play harder courses and the worse golfers tend to play easier courses (there is positive relationship between the prestige of the tournament and the difficulty of the course). That yielded a relative birdie% and relative bogey% for each golfer. By subtracting bogey% from birdie%, you can find how dependent each golfer is on making birdies versus avoiding bogey for their scoring.

Last year, Rory McIlroy ranked 1st in birdie% and 4th in bogey%; he was more dependent on making birdies for his scoring. Jim Furyk ranked 39th in birdie% and 1st in bogey%; he was more dependent on avoiding bogeys for his scoring. I divided every golfer into one of six groups depending on how dependent they were on making birdies or avoiding bogeys. I’ll refer to those dependent on making birdies as Birdie Generators and those dependent on avoiding bogeys as Bogey Avoiders.

I then gathered the course specific scoring averages for each event, adjusted them by the quality of the field, and compared them to each courses’ par. For example, at the Sony Open in 2014 the field averaged 69.3, the field was 0.3 strokes worse than PGA Tour average, and the course par was 70. Adding all that together, an average field would have played that course in 1 strokes under par (70-(69.3-0.3)). For the 2014 Masters, the field averaged 73.95, the field was -0.3 strokes better than PGA Tour average, and the course par was 72. An average field would have played that course in 2.2 strokes over par (72-(73.95+0.3)). I then divided those courses into four groups based on their average difficulty; Easiest (>1 stroke under par), Easy (0-1 stroke under par), Hard (0-1 stroke over par), and Hardest (>1 stroke over par).

bogey vs birdie course fit study

Read the chart with more negative values indicating better performance. The “Difference” column indicates the difference between performance on the easiest courses and hardest courses. Negative values indicate golfers in that group performed better on the easiest courses.

The results indicate that the most extreme Bogey Avoiders perform almost 0.2 strokes worse on the easiest courses relative to the hardest courses. The most extreme Birdie Generators don’t display the reverse, but with only eleven golfers, those results may reflect randomness because the next two less extreme groups of Birdie Generators definitely perform better on the easiest courses.

However, the results also indicate these values are not impacting tournament results for most golfers. Perhaps the most extreme Bogey Avoiders should be downgraded slightly on the easiest courses (like at the Humana this week), while it looks like the Birdie Generators definitely do play slightly better on easy courses and slightly worse on hard courses. However, even for the most extreme golfers, playing an unfavorable courses is only worth between 0.1 and 0.2 strokes different from their regular performance – enough to shift the odds of winning by around 1% for the best golfers and by much smaller fractions for lesser golfers. Going low is a skill, but it only makes a very small impact on real-world results.

Sony Open Recap

Jimmy Walker’s your winner, beating the field by nine strokes (!) with a dominant Sunday performance. His performance relative to the field was the best since Martin Kaymer stomped everyone at Pinehurst last June and his winning margin was the largest on Tour in six years. Adam Sarson has a great recap here.

Walker’s Fourth Win:

Walker’s win was comprehensive – he led the tournament in putting and was 2nd in long game (tee shots+approach shots) play (to K.J. Choi no less). In fact, if he had just putted at an average level this tournament, he would’ve tied English, Woodland, and Kuchar for 2nd place.  Coming into the week, I talked about how the Sony doesn’t seem to punish guys who are wayward off the tee. Walker is the team captain of the wild-off-the-tee guys. Of course, you have to be able to bring it with the irons (Walker certainly can) and putt well (yup), but wildness is not penalized here.

What’s interesting about Walker’s performance is that he’s putted extremely well in the Hawaii events since returning to the PGA Tour full-time in 2008. Between 2008 and 2013, Walker putted about 0.3 strokes better per round in the Sony Open. In the four Hawaiian events since (two wins and a 2nd), he’s putted 0.8 strokes better per round. For the whole period (36 rounds), he’s exceeded his normal putting performance by over half a stroke. Perhaps that’s random noise or perhaps there’s some level of comfort with the bermuda grass greens at Kapalua and Waialae, but anytime you can start a tournament with a half a stroke edge each round, you’re a lot more likely to win.

This is his fourth win since the start of 2013 (tied with Patrick Reed for top on Tour). It propels him to 1st place in the FedEx Cup standings – a familiar position that he held from this point until Rory’s dominant run last summer. Walker’s also pretty much assured his place on the Presidents Cup team this fall. He’ll look to defend at Pebble Beach in a few weeks.

What I’m Looking At:

Before the tournament I was very interested to see how Luke Donald played this week – especially with his irons/wedges/short game. His struggles last season were all about how poorly he was playing inside 150 yards and the hope was that his return to Pat Goss was going to help him on that front. In his first start, the signs were promising. He finished T51, driven by a typically great putting performance. Donald will always be able to keep his head above the water with his best in the world putting. The rest of his game definitely showed up too.

He’s never hit driver well and didn’t this week. However, he was solidly above-average with his approach shots – despite this course offering few chances for the very short <125 yard shots he used to excel the most at. Despite hitting only 43% of fairways and losing nine yards to the field off the tee, Donald hit 71% of greens and was above-average on wedge shots, short and mid iron shots, and long iron shots for the week. So far so good.

Matt Kuchar’s performance was up to expectations this week. The long game looked fine and he putted out of his mind – especially on par putts. My numbers had his short game performance as average, but he managed to scramble successfully 83% of the time. That means he was money on short par putts all weekend. He has to be disappointed to have played so poorly on the weekend, but his game looks fine going into the California swing.

It was nice to see rookie Justin Thomas break-through with a top ten. He got a lot of attention from the broadcast crew for his absurd length off the tee (he easily hits driver 25+ yards past Tour average), but it looks like he was laying up off the tee with irons/hybrids often. That’s not that rare for the longest guys, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him do it a lot this year as he’s feeling his way around the PGA Tour courses.

Sony Open Preview – 2015

Course:
Waialae CC‘s a par 70 track tucked away in Honolulu. The fairways are pretty narrow (~50% fairways hit in recent tournaments), approach shots are shorter than average, and overall the course plays below par. Nothing else really stands out except that both par 5s are reachable in two by anyone in the field.

Looking at some stats, it’s normally been the case that guys who are less accurate off the tee have been fine here (Charles Howell III normally kills here, Jimmy Walker won last year, etc.). For what it’s worth, my numbers say guys who play better from the fairway than the rough have been more successful here – which makes no sense intuitively because half your approach shots are coming from the rough. If true, Chad Campbell, Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk, etc. are the guys who are better from the fairway than the rough, typically.

What I’m Looking For:
Luke Donald’s easily the most interesting guy in the field this week. Last season was a pretty large step down from his recent play – mostly manifested in how he hit his short irons and wedges. He moved on from longtime coach Pat Goss in 2013 saying he was looking to focus more on his ball-striking. His longer irons improved from 2012-13, but inside of <150 yards he completely fell off a cliff. He was one of the absolute best in the world with a short iron or wedge in his hand prior to this year, but posted numbers that were at or below Tour average in 2014. He decided to go back to Goss this fall; Goss said they immediately began focusing on “his strengths; putter, short game, bunker, wedges, shots inside 150 yards” (last year was also Donald’s worst season around the green in at least the last five years). Putting and short game play is more variable, but I’ll definitely be looking closely at how he’s hitting his irons/wedges this week.

I don’t think Donald’s ever going to get back to his 2011 peak where he was the best in the world, but if he can play well inside 150 yards, rediscover the short game touch, and continue to be among the world’s best putters, he can return to being one of the best 20 or so in the game. That combination probably will not win him a major (recent major winners have been heavily biased towards guys who are better with long irons), but he’ll contend often. I think some folks have forgotten he came within a Matt Kuchar hole-out of winning at Harbour Town just eight months ago and had three other top tens by May.

I’ll also be keeping an eye on Matt Kuchar going forward. Ever since he injured his back prior to the PGA Championship he’s been getting more or less similar results, but driven by different parts of his game. Prior to the injury he let his long game (approach shots+tee shots) carry him, but afterwards its been all about the short game and the long game has fallen off. He said he was healthy as soon as the Barclays, but it’s something to keep an eye on if he keeps struggling with those longer shots.

New Guys:
Rookies Tony Finau and Justin Thomas both rate out as above-average Tour players already based off their results in 2014. Finau had easily the most impressive debut of any rookie in the fall portion, earning two top 10s and two more top 20s in five starts. Come for the ridiculous power he can generate with the driver (#4 in club head speed in 2015), but stay for his approach shots (almost a full stroke better than the field so far). If he can retain any of that performance going forward he’ll contend for a win and Rookie of the Year honors.

Thomas’s debut was sloppier, but he scored a top 5 in Mississippi after a trio of bad outings to start the year.

This also marks the earliest we’ve ever seen Francesco Molinari appear in the US for a full field event. He’s mostly spent his time in Europe, appearing only a handful of times in the US for normal PGA Tour tournaments. He’s long had the talent to hang around at the top of leaderboards so he could make a significant splash if he starts playing a lot of US events this year. Molinari’s one of the most accurate guys in the world off the tee.

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 Sony performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Brendon Todd
2. Brian Stuard
3. Chris Kirk
4. Marc Leishman
5. Charles Howell III

I don’t put a lot of stock in these because they’re a bit polluted by putting luck and only represent a handful of rounds.

Hyundai TOC Recap – 2015

Patrick Reed’s your winner – his 4th win before age 25 – thanks to splashing an 80 yard wedge on 16 and making back to back birdies on 18 to close out his round and beat Jimmy Walker in the playoff. Great recap from Adam Sarson here.

Patrick Reed’s 4th Win:

This win makes Reed the fourth golfer to win four times on Tour before their 25th birthday – Tiger, Rory, and Sergio are the fairly obvious others. Looking forward, Jordan Spieth has 3.5 years to capture three more official wins and I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Hideki Matsuyama reached that total either. Regardless, it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Reed’s career to this point has been pretty amazing to watch. He spent 2012 Monday qualifying (6 times!) and playing on sponsor’s exemptions before winning his Tour card in the last Q-School. He then faced down fellow rookie Jordan Spieth to win his first title at the Wyndham in 2013 and came out last year and won twice in the first three months – including over a stacked field at Doral. The funny thing is he hasn’t played that well outside of those wins; he has four career titles and only six other top tens. In fact, the PGA Tour has him ranked 69th and 52nd in scoring average the past two seasons. He just hasn’t brought it consistently every week.

That disconnect between his results in the large majority of events versus his wins make him one of the most interesting guys this upcoming season. Below is a graph of his results since the start of 2013 subdivided into one of seven bins based on his performance relative to the field. Anything on the left side of the graph is usually a missed cut or a very low finish, anything to the right is top ten territory or a potential win. I’ve compared Reed to golfers similar to his performance suggested by his scoring average and to golfers who have elite performance.

Patrick Reed Performance

You can see Reed’s best performances compare favorably to the elite guys (Keegan, Webb, Dufner, etc.), but quickly drop below even guys with comparable overall performances. He just has more of the awful weeks than he should based on his performance. That’s the challenge for him this year; everyone knows he can win on a great week, but part of being an elite golfer is grinding out those top 10s and top 25s. Reed’s definitely worthy of more research and discussion.

Outlook for Jason Day:

Day’s flashed his ridiculous upside with seven top tens in seventeen major starts and consistent high level play since he was 21. He’s sort of the opposite of Patrick Reed in that he’s reeled off a bunch of great finishes in Tour events, but only captured two wins. He’s also has a weird combination of skills in that he hits it really well off the tee, putts at a consistently high level, and has a good short game, but hasn’t shown much ability to hit his irons well. Last year was his best year with his irons though, despite back, thumb, and hip injuries.

Through the first tournament, things are looking good for him. In a week where the putter and short game weren’t that impressive, Day still finished on top of the long game rankings (Tee shots + approach shots). He showed huge distance off the tee (2nd to Bubba) and hit the 2nd most greens. Day’s already a top ten guy in the world based on his performance; any improvement with the irons would propel him near Rory territory.

 

Quick Thoughts on Kapalua/Hyundai T of C

Kapalua is one of the most unique courses the Tour visits each year. The extreme landscape, including over 500 feet of elevation change, and resort set-up produce some pretty ridiculous stats. Players at Kapalua almost always produce the highest GIR and driving accuracy for the season, while the extremely slow and undulating greens are the 2nd hardest to putt on on Tour behind Pebble Beach. Kapalua is also the only course on Tour with more par 5s (4) than par 3s (3). These characteristics do combine to favor certain types of golfers.

1. Golfers with poor short games

Most golfers hit around 14-15 greens per round here versus only about 11 at the typical Tour course. Golfers who struggle to get it close from around the green find that part of their game less exposed at Kapalua. This week, Russell Henley and Angel Cabrera are among the guys most likely to benefit from avoiding scrambling shots. On the flip-side, Jason Day has a great short game that he’ll need less often this week.

2. Golfers who are great from the fairway

The pros regularly hit over 80% of Kapalua’s comically wide fairways, meaning they’re hitting from the fairway about 12 times a round, versus 8-9 at a typical Tour stop. Certain golfers struggle from the rough, while excelling from the fairway (relative to Tour average). Those guys won’t have to contend with the rough on most holes. Ryan Moore and Camilo Villegas stand out as guys who are much more successful from the fairway than from the rough. On the flip-side Hunter Mahan derives a large advantage over the field from how well he plays out of the rough. That will be negated a bit this week.

3. Great wedge players

Kapalua is always thought of as a bomber’s paradise, but the dirty secret is that it actually plays very short despite its 7400+ yard layout. Fully eight of the ten par 4s can set-up as wedge holes, leaving only five medium or long iron shots on par 3s or 4s. Hideki Matsuyama dominated with wedges or short irons last season and he’ll be able to feast in his first visit to Kapalua. Tim Clark is another great wedge player.

Similarity Model Projections for 2015

I’ve been playing around with a projection model based on comparing golfers to past golfers to attempt to predict performance for the upcoming season. These types of models are common; most notably, Baseball Prospectus has PECOTA for MLB and Kevin Pelton has SCHOENE for the NBA. They work by certain identifying characteristics (stats, physical measurements, age, etc.) and then generating a list of comparable players who are most similar to each player being projected. From those comparable players you can generate statistical projections, confidence intervals, breakout/decline probabilities, etc. The hope is that by comparing players to thousands of past player seasons you can identify characteristics of players who improve or decline that aren’t immediately obvious if you just have point estimates of their talent level.

For my model, I selected six inputs (N=season prior to the one being projected): performance in seasons N, N-1, and N-2, change in performance between seasons N-2 and N-1 and between N-1 and N, and age in the middle of season N+1. For this year’s projections that means I’m using performance in 2012, 2013, and 2014, change in performance between 2012 to 2013 and 2013 to 2014, and age as of 7/1/2015. Based of these inputs I’ve generated a list of the 100 most comparable golfers from 1992-2013 (or fewer if that golfer had fewer comparables that met my threshold). All projections are based on the subsequent performance of those comparable golfers.

I’ve generated probabilities for each golfer to breakout (improve by 0.5 strokes/round), collapse (decline by 0.5 strokes/round), improve (any improvement), and decline (any decline). I’ve also generated a mean projection and 95% confidence interval for each golfer’s performance this season. Each golfer’s five most comparable seasons is listed, as well as the number of comparable golfers that met my threshold (no one reaches 100 because of the presence of a handful of 2014 seasons; these are ignored). I’ve attached the results in the Google Doc at the end.

Back-testing using the projections for last season this model predicted that 18% of golfers would breakout and 22% would collapse. In reality, 16% broke-out and 24% collapsed. 94% of projected golfers fell within their 95% confidence intervals. The correlation between projected and actual mean performance was 0.75, which is slightly stronger than past attempts to project simply using prior performance. The mean absolute error was 0.5 strokes, meaning the average projection missed by 0.5 strokes in either direction.

Most likely to breakout:

1. Webb Simpson

2. Charl Schwartzel

3. Hideki Matsuyama

4. Ryo Ishikawa

5. Brandt Snedeker

My use of breakout is to say a golfer will play significantly better (0.5 strokes) than they did the year before. Examples are G-Mac, Jason Kokrak, and Ryan Palmer last year. Simpson, Schwartzel, and Snedeker all had down years last year, but the model sees outstanding prior performance and ideal age and predicts a comeback. Matsuyama’s 2014 compared very favorably to a lot of outstanding seasons by young players including McIlroy, Sergio, Jason Day, and Justin Leonard. Ishikawa gets credit for consistently average play at a young age.

Most likely to collapse:

1. Rory McIlroy (50%)

2. Angel Cabrera (44%)

3. Jim Furyk (44%)

4. Bubba Watson (42%)

5. Jason Kokrak (41%)

I define a collapse when a golfer declines in performance by 0.5 strokes. Examples are Tiger Woods, Jason Dufner, and Nicolas Colsaerts last year. McIlroy’s place here will likely look stupid in 12 months, but his projection is generated from a very short list of comparables. Almost no one has had the up-and-down last three seasons that he has had while also playing at an absurdly high level. The model is most unsure about his projection of any of the 200+ guys projected. The model hates older golfers – it gives Angel only a 28% chance of playing better than he did last year – and John Senden, Thongchai Jaidee, and Robert Karlsson all appear near the top.

 

Link to projections (Google Doc)

 

Anatomy of a Breakout

Predicting breakouts and new tournament winners are some of the main allures in golf prognostication. Not only do you get the satisfaction that comes from watching a golfer that you’ve touted succeed, you also can bask in the glow of having identified that golfer before other golf pundits (and brag on Twitter). What we as a golf community don’t have is a good understanding of what goes into a breakout. Who typically breaks out, what type of guys win their first PGA Tour tournament, do guys sustain these breakouts in following seasons, etc. My research has concluded that 1. younger players are more likely to dramatically improve their performance than middle-aged or older golfers, 2. break-outs are more likely for bad players (even for bad players with a consistent track record of poor performance), 3. most first time Tour winners are above-average or better PGA Tour players already, 4. most first time winners are established as good players (that this, they don’t play much better in the season when they first win), and 4. first time winners don’t carry-over any particular boost in their performance the following season.

To judge performance I’m using my z-score ratings based on performance relative to the field and to judge expected performance I’m using my projected z-score ratings that I generate weekly based on overall performance, adjusted for recency. I gathered a sample of every golfer between the PGA, European, Web.com, and Challenge Tours who played at least 25 rounds in consecutive seasons. I compared their performance over the 2nd season to their projected performance from after the 1st season. That yielded a change in performance. On average, my sample improved slightly (by around 0.1 strokes/round), likely because I’m excluding some players who performed so poorly in their 1st season rounds that they didn’t record enough rounds in the 2nd season.

I found that for golfers under 30, 33% improved their performance by at least 0.5 strokes/round. Improving by that amount would generally improve an average PGA Tour golfer from 125th in FedEx Cup points to around 65th – a fairly clear breakout. For both golfers in their 30s and their 40s, only 25% broke-out to such an extent. Players rated at around the level of an average Web.com or Challenge Tour player broke-out at a 39% rate, while those established as very good or better PGA Tour players broke out at only a 22% rate. And these situations aren’t examples of guys like Paul Casey or Mike Weir completely losing their games and bouncing back. On average guys who break-out in a big way show fairly consistent performance in the three seasons prior to their breakout.

So these large improvements in performance season to season are more likely for the worst pros (the idea that there’s nowhere to go but up) and for younger golfers (which is certainly intuitive).

Next I wanted to look just at first time PGA Tour winners. I gathered 63 players who had won for the first time since 2010 (51 who had won for the first time in 2010-2013). These guys ran the gamut from Charl Schwartzel at the 2011 Masters to Matt Bettencourt, Bill Lunde, and Arjun Atwal in a two month stretch in 2010. The first thing I found was that their performance in the season they won for the first time hardly increased from the previous year (0.15 strokes versus the 0.1 strokes I found a few paragraphs ago in the general pro population who played 25+ rounds). That is, first time winners generally play only slightly better in the season they win as they did in the previous season. For every Jason Dufner or Graeme McDowell who goes from solid Tour pro to superstar in the season they first win, there’s a Matt Jones (declined by 0.75 strokes) or Tommy Gainey (declined by 0.60 strokes).

The average first time winner played about 0.3 strokes better than PGA Tour average the year they won (approximately around 50th best in the world).

What about the following season, though? Do first time winners carry momentum over and perform better the next season? Of the 51 first time winners from 2010-2013, they didn’t perform any better than in their previous season (in fact losing around 0.1 strokes). Youth is no guarantee here, as for every McIlroy or Patrick Reed who reached new heights in the season after they first won there’s Gary Woodland or Kyle Stanley who slumped.

In general, predicting first time winners mainly comes down to identifying who the clearly above-average PGA Tour golfers are and then waiting. Of the top fifty golfers in my predictive ratings at the beginning of 2010, twenty had never won a PGA Tour tournament. Of those, there are ten mainly European based players (guys like Francesco Molinari or Anders Hansen). Of the remaining ten who spent a lot of time playing in the US, seven won in 2010 or 2011.

The guys who clearly stand-out as the most likely to be first time winners this year who both hold PGA Tour membership and are good at golf are the obvious names like Brooks Koepka, Victor Dubuisson, and Graham DeLaet and elite rookies like Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, and Blayne Barber, but also established pros like Russell Knox, David Hearn, and Brendon de Jonge.