Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

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.

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