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How Golfers Win

Monthly Archives: February 2015

Honda Classic Preview – 2015

PGA National’s been hosting this event for the past eight seasons. It’s one of the most difficult courses the Tour visits (71.4 on a par 70 layout last four years), largely because of the windy conditions and how the course restricts driving distance. About half of the par 4 or 5 tee-shots here will be lay-ups for the typical pro, which produces very long approach shots (~170 yards on par 4s). The scorecard may not look long, but all those three woods stretch it out significantly.

What I’m Watching:
This is Rory McIlroy’s first PGA Tour start of the season after going 2nd-1st in his Middle East swing. Rory’s won this event (2012) and lost in a playoff (2014), but also has some disappointing results (W/D, T40, T70) in past seasons. It’s important to realize that while he has played well here, it’s not necessarily a course that sets up ideally for him because of all the fairway woods/irons that players have to hit off the tee. In fact, he’s actually played worse here than you would otherwise expect based on his results in all other events. In other words, his past success here is more a factor of “#1 player in the world” than anything to do with the venue.

I’ve written about Rory’s combination of length and accuracy off the tee before. For comparison’s sake, I’ve attached a graph of tee shot performance from last year from everyone who I had at least 15 rounds of data for. X-axis is driving distance on all shots, adjusted for the course; Y-axis is average degrees off-line from the center of the fairway. Obviously more distance is good, and fewer degrees off-line means a player’s tee shots were more likely to be in the fairway. Rory is marked with the red dot.

tee shot performance 2014

What is ridiculous about Rory is not only that he’s the longest player on the chart, but also that he’s ~12 yards longer than anyone who ranks as more accurate than him. In other words, he’s the platonic ideal of a bomber.

Also, notice the player most similar to Rory – Patrick Rodgers. Rodgers was an outstanding collegiate golfer who turned pro last summer. He just recorded his first win on the Tour a few weeks ago, and he’s in the field at PGA National this week. The rest of his game is still very shaky, but judging by his placement on that graph the sky is the limit.

Bermuda grass Putting:
The Tour has spent the last few weeks on the West Coast swing, mostly putting on poa annua or mixed greens. The Honda kicks off a stretch of four weeks putting on bermudagrass. Below is a chart of the top 15 and bottom 15 of those who putt better or worse (in terms of strokes gained putting) on bermudagrass greens relative to all other rounds (2011-14).

bermuda grass putting (11-14)

Best Course History:
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 PGA National performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Will MacKenzie
2. Alex Cejka
3. Russell Henley
4. Y.E. Yang
5. Fredrik Jacobson
6. Erik Compton
7. Rory Sabbatini
8. Michael Thompson
9. Chris Stroud
10. Nicholas Thompson

The Most Exciting Courses on the PGA Tour

About one day before hitting the shot of his career, Phil Mickelson stood over an eagle putt on the 13th green at Augusta National. He started that 2010 third round two back of the lead and had played at one under so far, dropping to five shots behind leader Lee Westwood. He needed a strong run to finish his round and set himself up for Sunday. Of course, Mickelson rolled home the eagle putt, holed out for eagle from the fairway on the 14th hole, and birdied the par 5 15th hole (barely missing eagle) – walking off the 15th green at twelve under and leading the tournament. He would go on to win his third green jacket the next day, providing more evidence that 13-14-15 at Augusta is the most exciting stretch of holes in tournament golf.

To find an objective measure of how exciting a stretch or entire course of holes is, one first has to consider what exciting means in the context of golf. In team sports, exciting stretches of the game are almost always when the game is closest and where the lead bounces back and forth. In fact, in many sports the game becomes boring if one team is playing cautiously and protecting a lead (think about a soccer team parking the bus or a football team running the ball to eat clock). Applying this idea to golf, excitement is generated by the idea that a golfer can gain or lose strokes on a hole. Which hole is more likely to hold your attention: a long par 3 where most golfers will make par or a risk/reward par 5 where anything from eagle to double bogey is in play? What creates excitement is the possibility of movement on the leaderboard, and that’s more likely on holes where anything from two under to two over is in play.

The basis of my Excitement Index is just that, how likely is a golfer to gain or lose strokes on the field when they play the hole? For example, a hole where 20% of players make birdie, 60% par, and 20% bogey will result in a golfer gaining strokes on the field 28% of the time and losing strokes on the field 28% of the time [math at the end]. It turns out that 28% is slightly above average on the PGA Tour; across all holes in 2013 and 2014, golfers gained strokes on 25% and lost strokes on 25% of all holes.

After calculating the Excitement Index for every hole and every course the PGA Tour visited in 2013 and 2014, it turns out that par 5 holes are slightly more exciting (~28%), while par 4s come in at around 25% and par 3s at 23%. This makes intuitive sense as par 5s have more possible outcomes in terms of eagle to double bogey, but also fewer pars than any other hole. It turns out that Excitement Index has a negative correlation with the percentage of golfers who make par; making par doesn’t change the tournament like birdie or bogey does.

Applying Excitement Index to Courses:

Of courses the PGA Tour visited in both 2013 and 2014, Muirfield Village (site of the Memorial Tournament) had the highest average Excitement Index both years, closely followed by Augusta National (site of the Masters) and TPC Sawgrass (site of the Players Championship). Excitement Index is strongly correlated between seasons (R=0.76), indicating that it is measuring something very real and consistent about the course. Namely, that tournaments held at the high Excitement Index courses have more shifts on the leaderboard as golfers gain or lose strokes on the field. I’ve listed all the 2014 courses below; Ex. Index is the % chance of gaining strokes on the field on a hole.

Not only does Augusta National feature the aforementioned 13-14-15 stretch, but the par 5 2nd and par 4 7th both feature in the top 50 most exciting holes on Tour (of 864 holes total). Only TPC Sawgrass also had four holes in the 50 most exciting (though not the white-knuckled 17th hole).

2014 excitement index course

Averaging the Excitement Index for stretches of three holes shows that the stretch of 13-14-15 at Augusta National ss the most exciting stretch on the PGA Tour. The 13th is well known as the risk/reward par 5 closing hole of Amen Corner. The 14th is a difficult par 4 which relies on a sloped green, yielding few birdies and bringing bogey in play for a lot of the field. The 15th is another risk/reward par 5 requiring a carry of the pond to reach it in two. This is the part of the course to make up ground or to fall completely out of contention.

An underrated stretch in a low profile tournament is the same 13-14-15 stretch at TPC River Highlands (site of the Travelers Championship). The 13th is a par 5 with out of bounds on the left and water right on the tee shot. In 2014, the hole yielded 19 eagles, but also 18 double bogeys. The 14th is a fairly generic par 4, but the par 4 15th is drivable for the whole field, but the lake looms to catch errant shots left. The 15th also brings anything from eagle to double bogey into play.

More to come on Excitement Index, including a look at the most exciting holes on Tour.


[math from above]: 20% of the time a golfer makes birdie and gains on everyone who doesn’t make birdie (80%), 60% of the time a golfer makes birdie and gains on everyone who makes worse than par (20%). Multiply 20%*80% = 16% and 60%*20% = 12% and you get 28%.

Riviera Preview – 2015

Riviera CC is a classic course, regularly praised as one of the best stops on Tour by the pros. It’s 7350 yards for a par 71 off the tee, but it’s deceptively long. With a very short par 5 and a drivable par 4 the length collects in seven brutal, long par 4s. All seven play well over par. Over the past four years, the pros have hit only 54% of their fairways and 57% of their greens – largely because of those long approach shots, but also the small (5000 sq. ft.) greens. The rough here isn’t brutal, but it is ubiquitous. This is not the place for players who can’t handle playing out of the rough half a dozen times per round.

Two of the best on Tour at playing out of the rough are Sergio and Bubba Watson. Sergio has played only slightly better than normal here, but Bubba won last year and has generally well out-performed his career numbers here despite two MCs.

Take a look at a great evaluation of the drivable par 4 10th by Rich Hunt here. The 10th provides the choice of a layup-wedge or driver off the tee, but the green is well protected by bunkers. His findings show that going for the green is the right call for the front/middle pin positions, while laying back proved prudent for the back positions. Other notable holes are the par 3 6th – for the novelty of the mid-green bunker, Hogan’s “best par 3 in America” – the long par 3 4th, and the uphill finish towards the closing par 4 18th.

What I’m Watching For:
This is Sergio’s first US start after making two appearances in the Middle East. Sergio enters this year as, by the numbers, one of the best golfers in the world. I rate his abilities right up there in that 2nd tier of guys behind Rory. The thing is, Sergio hasn’t had this high level putting ability and elite long game play before in his career. His putting renaissance since Dave Stockton convinced him to modify his grip/stroke in 2011 has turned him into a legitimately good putter (average of ~0.4 strokes gained/round since 2012). Combined with the return of his amazing ball-striking over the past two years, and Sergio is primed to contend across the big events this year.

Webb Simpson’s start to the season (T13, T7) couldn’t have been better timed to wipe away last year’s frustrations. He entered the year as the 10th best in the world by my numbers, but fell as low as 35th after a really disappointing run in the Playoffs. He followed that by getting blown out and benched in the Ryder Cup. All year, his problems stemmed from how struggles with his approach shots. Webb’s breakout and three year run of 4 wins including the US Open was all a result of vastly improved long game play. He had been an ace putter in his first two years on Tour, but was well-below average in both tee shots and approach shots. In fact, in his 2011 breakout year he improved his long game play by about 1.5 strokes!

Unfortunately, last year was his worst year with the irons/wedges and off the tee since 2010. The major culprit there was the complete collapse of his ability to play out of the rough. His rough proximity to hole dropped from 56th/11th/15th in 2011-13 to 153rd in 2014. My own numbers which adjust for the difficulty of the rough show that he had one of the largest disparities on Tour between his approach shots from the fairway (where he was among the best) and his approach shots from the rough (where he was a bit below average). Being able to play out of the rough is particularly important for Webb as he is fairly aggressive in hitting driver off the tee and his accuracy off the tee is only average. I’m very interested to see how he handles the kikuyu this week.

Best Course History/Fit:
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 Riviera performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. J.B. Holmes
2. K.J. Choi
3. Cameron Tringale
4. George McNeill
5. Jimmy Walker
6. Aaron Baddeley
7. Bill Haas
8. Dustin Johnson
9. Erik Compton
10. Fred Couples

Half of those guys are legitimately wild off the tee, which is in line with what the stats say. Since 2008, the golfers with the most success have generally fit the mold of long and not accurate off the tee. That’s someone like Angel Cabrera or Morgan Hoffmann. As I mentioned earlier, playing out of the rough is more important than normal here; Geoff Ogilvy and Martin Flores are some of the below the radar guys who do that well.

Bias in the Official World Golf Ranking

On Monday, I wrote about how Brandt Snedeker had just re-entered the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings after his win at Pebble Beach, earning enough points where he will likely be invited to all the majors and WGC events which use OWGR as a criterium for entry. Snedeker had fallen outside the top 50 – despite playing at a level that placed him around 30th in the world in actual on-course performance – largely because he hadn’t won since July 2013. He had slipped behind a host of European Tour golfers who had won on their Tour, but whose actual on-course performance was inferior towards Snedeker’s over the past two seasons. I’m going to go into a bit more detail about how the OWGR harms US based golfers, transferring exemptions into majors and important WGC events to lesser golfers from non-PGA Tour circuits.

Broadie and Rendleman (2012) went into a lot of detail about the bias inherent in the OWGR. A encourage you to at least peruse that paper. They basically rated all golfers from 2002-2010 using actual on-course performance and then compared those ratings to the OWGR. Their findings indicate that PGA Tour golfers are ranked significantly lower than golfers from the other major tours when controlling for on-course performance. Basically, the fields in non-PGA Tour events are systematically overrated, making a win in the Malaysian Open or Nordea Masters look more comparable to a win in a full field PGA Tour event.

This bias is starkly visible. Below I’ve plotted the percentage of rounds the golfers in the OWGR top 100 played on the European Tour in the past two years (2/2013-2/2015) and the difference between where both my rating system and the Sagarin/Golfweek rating system rank golfers and where the OWGR ranks them. For example, my rating has Brooks Koepka 33rd, while OWGR has him 19th. That is represented on the chart as +14. I’ve included the Sagarin/Golfweek numbers as they’re the best publicly available objective system to compare to.

mine vs owgr

sagarin vs OWGR

Note that most of the golfers who have played mostly on the European Tour appear above the origin, indicating they are rated higher in my objective system and Sagarin’s objective system than they are in the OWGR. This means they’re earning places into majors/WGC events which their performance doesn’t necessarily show they deserve.

What actually happens with the OWGR is it does not properly evaluate the strength of field. The way the ratings are calculated, even objectively very weak European Tour fields receive a minimum number of ranking points comparable to PGA Tour events. The ratings are also recursive, meaning that events receive credit for all top 200 OWGR ranked players who enter, which means overrated European Tour fields lead to overrated European Tour players which leads to more overrated European Tour fields. At no point is the OWGR designed to step back and ask in reality, how good is this field?

When you compare an average PGA Tour event (Zurich Classic) to an average European Tour event (Omega Masters), the difference in field quality is stark. I’ve plotted the number of golfers in nine different bins of quality, from elite (those -2.3 strokes better than average or more) to those who are awful (those +2.3 strokes worse than average or more).

omega zurich comp

So two very different fields. A good player would have a small chance of winning the Zurich (perhaps 2-3% for a player of Brandt Snedeker’s ability), while that same player would be one of the favorites in the Omega Masters (perhaps 6-7% to win). The catch is that the OWGR awarded 30 points to the Omega Masters winner and only 36 points to the Zurich winner. These differences continue all the way down the leaderboard, systematically awarding more points in European Tour events than for comparable PGA Tour performances.

The difference in field quality is reinforced when you consider all the events on each Tour – even ignoring the co-sponsored WGCs and majors. Ranking them side by side as below, the comparable European event has a field approximately half a stroke worse in overall quality than a similar PGA Tour event. Field quality is in terms of strokes better than an average pro (approximately the 200th best golfer in the world).

field quality PGA vs EURO

Combining the objective quality of field with the OWGR points awarded to the winner of each tournament produces the graph below. I’ve charted all 2014 PGA Tour, European Tour, and majors/WGCs. The best fit line is the amount of points each tournament should award if the points were solely based on objective quality of the field.

field vs owgr pts

Notice the cluster of events in the bottom left; those 15 tournaments have the field quality of Tour events while awarding an average of 22 points. The bias inherent in the OWGR largely stems from those 15 tournaments – mainly events in South Africa and Asia like the Malaysian Open, Thailand Classic, and South African Open which were played in the past two months. In fact, right now the OWGR is likely as biased towards European Tour golfers as it will get all year – just in time to award exemptions into the WGC event at Doral, the Masters, and the WGC match-play event.



Pebble Beach Recap – 2015

Brandt Snedeker’s your winner, coming from one back of Jim Furyk to win by three strokes. This is Snedeker’s seventh Tour win and is a bit of a return to form for him after a down year in 2014. Sunday marked another 4th round disappointment for Jim Furyk. One shot leads are never safe (this piece from Justin Ray makes that clear), but Furyk entered the day as a good bet (~1/3) to win the tournament. An early run of birdies by Snedeker and Watney and two front-nine bogeys by Furyk ended that quickly. This is Furyk’s tenth straight blown 4th round lead. I’ll try to place his 4th round struggles in context.

Snedeker’s Win
This win earns Snedeker a Masters invitation and should make him eligible for all the no-cut WGC tournaments throughout the year. The fact that he wasn’t already eligible underscores the absurdity of using the Official World Golf Rankings to qualify golfers into major tournaments. Simply put, they do a poor job of adjusting for the strength of the field in each tournament. Does anyone actually think that guys like Lahiri, Jaidee, Gallacher, Bjorn, Jimenez, Warren, and Grace would be able to achieve what Snedeker has playing on the PGA Tour? I think it’s pretty unlikely; those guys feast on the weaker European/Asian Tour events (Lahiri won in Malaysia last week in an event that was barely stronger than your average Tour field). Non-elite PGA Tour players like Snedeker get hurt in the OWGR because if they’re not winning events, they’re losing ground to inferior Euro/Asian based players who are winning against these weaker fields.

Regardless, Snedeker’s win allows us to again appreciate his achievements. Only Bubba, Rory, and Tiger have won more on Tour since 2010. Snedeker has been outstanding at putting ever since joining the Tour in 2007. He’s in that truly elite group with Luke Donald, Aaron Baddeley, and a few others. However, his emergence as major factor on Tour is all down to his improvements off the tee in 2011. Prior to that year he was short off the tee, hitting a solid number of fairways, but averaging only about 275 yards. In the four years since, he’s averaged 280 yards and has retained his accuracy. Five yards might seem like a small amount, but for Snedeker it was improving a clear deficiency in his game to average.

He definitely had a down year last year after the standard he established from 2011-13, but most of that can be chalked up to his worst year with the putter since 2008. Putting bounces around year to year, but the guys who are consistently elite tend to retain that ability. In 18 rounds so far this year, Snedeker is back to putting as well as his career numbers suggest he should. I wrote about him as a big candidate to dramatically improve this year because of his record of top level play in more recent seasons.

Jim Furyk’s 4th Round Struggles
I posted this mid-4th round:

Those were the numbers from 2008 up until July 2014. Re-running up until present, the numbers look pretty similar, but Furyk falls to the 6th worst of anybody with at least ten 4th rounds played starting within three strokes of the lead.


Whether these numbers reflect actual clutch ability or just the way the cookie has crumbled is outside the purview of this piece. What is clear is that they drive a lot of the narrative around who knows how to win and who doesn’t. The performances of Keegan Bradley, Jimmy Walker, and Bubba Watson have been largely comparable in the past few seasons, but Bubba has two majors, Jimmy Walker has a bunch of wins, and Keegan “needs to win more”.

Moving back to Furyk, his record is pretty awful at this point; ten straight blown 4th round leads since 2011, including three now (Canadian, Barclays, and Pebble Beach) just since July. His struggles haven’t been consistent in one area either; he blew the Canadian Open with awful putting (-2.4 strokes gained) despite a strong day tee to green, while he putted great at the Barclays, but couldn’t bring it tee to green. Yesterday was another miserable day on the greens (-3.0 strokes gained), but he didn’t do himself any favors off the tee, hitting into two fairway bunkers leading to bogeys and that shot that rolled down the slope on the gettable par 5 6th.

In the Justin Ray piece I referenced earlier, he shows that Furyk’s career “clutch” record was actually very strong (10 wins in 17 opportunities). He appears on the not-clutch list alongside several other elite players. Much of Furyk’s late-career legacy will be decided based on these clutch moments going forward. He’s so good otherwise that he’s going to end up near the top of another half-dozen leaderboards this season. It’s all about finding a way to close out.

Pebble Beach Preview – 2015

Pebble Beach is well-known to even the most casual golf fans. It’s short on the scorecard for a par 72, but the combination of natural hazards, extreme elevation changes, and prevailing winds really limit most golfers off the tee. Despite being the shortest course on Tour, the 2nd shots here are as long as at an average course and they’re targeted at tiny, well-bunkered greens. There are opportunities for aggressive play off the tee here – Dustin Johnson out-drove his closest competitor by 12 yards in last year’s 4th round by pulling driver when others were laying-up – but this course is very much a 2nd shot golf course.

Spyglass also plays much longer than its scorecard length because for the most part the par 3s play downhill and the par 4s play uphill. The 2nd shots here also require precision to small greens. The Shore course plays mostly exposed along the coast. The four par 5s provide scoring opportunities, and in general the fairways are spacious. All three courses have poa annua greens; Pebble Beach in particular regularly has the most difficult to putt greens on Tour.

Best Course History:
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 Pebble Beach performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

1. Steven Bowditch
2. David Duval
3. Dustin Johnson
4. Sam Saunders
5. Greg Owen
6. Robert Garrigus
7. Spencer Levin
8. Bryce Molder
9. Dudley Hart
10. Jimmy Walker

Dustin Johnson’s success here is well publicized – not only his back to back wins in this event, but the first three rounds of the US Open in 2010 and three other top tens. Looking at how he’s played the course, he has the right amount of power to take advantage of certain holes – hit over the mid-fairway bunker on #15, smash it up the hill on #11, drive the green when the tees are up on #4, etc. Lots of guys play this course very cautiously – hitting fairways so they can control their shots into the tiny greens. My estimate is that the pros used driver only about 60% of the time last year versus 70%+ on an average course.

Don’t Trust a Hot Putter

I have written a lot about predicting putting performance. I’ve found that 1st round putting performance provides no information to predict 2nd round putting performance. I’ve found that players who improve their putting at the beginning of a season tend to retain little of that improvement going forward. I’ve found that putting improvements driven by making more long putts tend to disappear the following season because making long putts is largely a matter of luck. I’ve found that putting performance over a quarter of the season provides almost no information on how well a player will putt in the next quarter of a season. All of these studies indicate that putting performance is highly affected by luck.

What I have not done is test the influence of very recent putting on one week of putting performance. If one believed that putting came in streaks – perhaps someone got “hot” or “in the groove” for a few weeks before returning to normal – you would expect very recent performance (prior week or prior month) to have a strong impact on putting performance in the current week’s event. As I’ll show, that is not the case. My results over several different methodologies again show that short-term putting is driven mostly by luck and that recent putting performance provides almost no information on how well a player will putt going forward.

I collected the following data from 2011-2015 for all qualifying PGA Tour golfers: 1. their average putting performance in strokes gained versus the field over the previous three seasons (2008-2010 for 2011, 2009-2011 for 2012, etc.), 2. their putting performance in the month prior to every event they played, 3. their putting performance in the week prior to every event they played, and 4. their putting performance in each event they played. I ignored majors and Tour events outside the US for which strokes gained data was not available.

Once I had matched that data for every qualifying golfer for each tournament they played, I discarded any data points for which the player had not played the week before. These two samples of performance (played prior week and did not play prior week) were not different in a statistical sense. Each data point contains putting data from 1. prior seasons, 2. the prior month, and 3. the prior week.

Influence of the prior week
I had nearly 3100 pairs of tournaments to compare. Just comparing performance in the prior week to the current week yielded almost no predictive value (R^2 = .006). For every stroke better than the field a player putted in the prior week, they’re expected to putt 0.08 strokes better in the next week.

prior week to current SGP

Influence of the prior month
Using the same 3100 pairs of tournaments and comparing performance in the prior month to the current week again yielded almost no predictive value (R^2 = .006). For every stroke better than the field a player putted in the prior month, they’re expected to putt 0.09 strokes better in the next week.

prior month to current SGP

Influence of the prior three seasons
Using the same process and comparing performance over the previous three seasons to the current week yielded more predictive value (R^2 = .057). For every stroke better than the field a player putted over the previous three seasons, they’re expected to putt 0.91 strokes better in the next week.

priorseasons to current SGP

Combined model
Including all three pieces of data and predicting the current week resulted in the following equation:

Putting estimate = (0.02 * Prior week) + (0.04 * Prior month) + (0.86 * Prior seasons)

This indicates that when attempting to predict putting performance, how a player has putted in the previous few seasons provides about fourteen times more information than how they have been putting recently.

What this means for this week

Putting performance is almost entirely driven by how well a player putts in general, rather than any hot or cold streak in recent weeks. Looking at the field this week, Nick Watney sticks out as a guy whose poor putting has cost him recently. Of players with at least 6 rounds of putting data in 2015, Watney is 2nd to last despite being generally a fairly average putter by the numbers. Poor putting likely cost him at least a spot in the playoff at Torrey Pines on Sunday.

Kevin Streelman’s putter has also been cold to start the season – he’s putted about half a stroke worse than expected over his first four events. He’s wasted three strong tee to green performances at Kapalua, Waialae, and Scottsdale by putting poorly, and managed only a T30 as his best finish there.

Day Plays to Win at Torrey Pines

After a final round where the winner was in doubt throughout, Jason Day emerged as the winner of the four man playoff to win at Torrey Pines. Day went for the green in two at 18 in regulation and again in the playoff, making par the first time to stay at -9 and making birdie the second time advance in the playoff. Runner-up J.B. Holmes did not go for the green in regulation, and after a good wedge in, missed a downhill birdie putt to win. The immediate reaction from myself & others on Twitter was that Holmes should have gone for the green because it gave him a better chance at birdie. I’ll try to provide some context to why he played a lay-up and also what the numbers say in that situation.

Day’s Win
This was Jason Day’s first stroke play win since 2010. Day’s been generating monster performances now for the last two seasons – despite injuries sapping much of 2014 – and he’s always looked right on the edge of something truly special. Perhaps that starts this season. Day’s game is built around his effortless power off the tee, but on these tough courses his short game really shines through. He scrambles with the best on Tour and his putting is outstanding; that gives him something to lean back on when the field is only hitting ten greens a round. He hit some ridiculously good shots on Sunday tee to green, but he was also 5/5 in scrambling. He talked about how he “liked to grind it out” in his post-tournament presser. I’m not sure there’s anyone else better at doing that right now.

This sets Day up for an enormous year. Right now, he’s in that elite group at the very top who are the favorites whenever the big guns tee it up together.

Going for the 18th in Two
J.B. Holmes sat in the middle of the fairway on 18 at -9, with 235 yards to the pin. Scott Stallings and Day were in the clubhouse at -9 and Harris English could get to -9 as well with a birdie on 18. Holmes needed a birdie to win outright; a par would only earn him a 1/3 or 1/4 shot in a playoff – with the defending champion and another clearly superior player. Holmes eventually chose to lay up, claiming the lie wasn’t ideal and that he was afraid he’d hook it long and left. With the lay-up, Holmes still had about a 1/4 chance of birdie. He spun a wedge to 19 feet and rolled his birdie putt just past.

On a typical par 5, it would be lunacy not to go for the green from 235 yards in the fairway. Tour pros go for that shot about 90% of the time and are rewarded with birdie about 55% of the time. 18 at Torrey Pines seems like an atypical par 5 though. Hit enough club to carry the water just short of the pin and you risk rolling it into the thick rough long. That earns a wicked downhill chip that (as we saw with Jason Day) brings the water into play. The question becomes, does going for the green in two earn a significantly better chance at birdie, at least enough to outweigh the chance of making a bogey by hitting it into the water either on the 2nd shot or the 3rd shot.

Based on data from Sunday, 17 pros went for the 18th in two shots. Eight players made birdie, eight made par, and one made bogey after a three putt. That 47% birdie rate right there is pretty damning to Holmes’s decision. The positions those 17 players attacked the green from were very similar to Holmes – an average of 239 yards to the pin and 14/17 in the fairway. In fact, Holmes was one of only three guys to lay up from inside 245 yards in the fairway all day. Last year, 12/21 players (57%) made birdie after going for it in two. It seems like a reasonable assumptions that the result of Holmes’s 2nd shot would be similar to those 38 other players who went for it from similar positions. I could also adjust the expectations based on Holmes’s ability on long approach shots vs. wedge shots, but he’s equal on those based on my shot by shot numbers from the past year.

I’ve plotted the results from 2014 & 2015 below. Birdies in gold, bogeys in red. Hitting the green yielded birdie 6/7 times, long in the rough yielded birdie 6/11 times, long left yielded birdie 2/5 times, short left 3/4 times, right of the green 1/5 times, and short of the green 2/6 times with three water balls. In short, pretty much anywhere Holmes hit his 2nd shot he was more likely to make birdie than with a wedge from 100 yards. And only one player out of 35 who carried the water made bogey.


I think it’s pretty clear Holmes made the wrong play here. Making tactical errors in situations like this are very common on Tour because players get fixated on the information that easily comes to mind – I’ve hooked long approach shots before, Lucas Glover hit the water right before me, I hit a wedge to 10 feet last year (which Holmes did to this pin position). They fail to realize that a handful of shots provide far less information than the results of the other 155 players in the field. The outcomes of the 38 guys who went for the green in two over the past two years provides FAR more information about the possible outcomes of your own shot.

Part of using numbers in golf is knowing what is likely to happen if you hit an average shot from a given lie and distance. While the differences between Tour players may seem magnified in terms of outcomes (money, wins, FedEx points), they’re all within in pretty narrow range of golfing ability. This means you can generalize potential outcomes for most shots similarly to what I’ve done above and choose a strategy from there.

In Holmes’s case, he went from nearly 50% to birdie if he went for the green to about 25% to birdie by laying-up. I have him at above 60% to win if he goes for the green and about 48% to win if he lays up. In terms of earnings, he cost himself about $100,000 by laying up.

Here is the data for all those who went for the green in two on 18 in 2014 & 2015

Torrey Pines Preview – 2015

Dual course event this week, but Torrey Pines South will be used for three of the four rounds. Torrey Pines North is a much easier venue – by around three strokes/round – largely because it’s almost 600 yards shorter at the same par 72. The par 5s are all scoring holes – unlike at the sister course to the south.

Torrey Pines South is a stiffer test. It’s the longest course the Tour visits in scorecard length, and it plays as one of the longest if you look at average approach shot distance. It’s particularly long when you focus just on par 4 length (only Valhalla (PGA Championship) and PGA National (Honda) challenged it last year). The rough is nasty here; it played nearly the most difficult on Tour last year.

This is a course that requires the game that most elite players possess – long enough to score on the long par 4s and par 5s, accurate enough to not live in the rough, and good with the mid and long irons that almost every hole requires.

What I’m Watching For:
Jordan Spieth has been the best golfer in the world since October (minimum 16 rounds), with wins in Australia and at Tiger’s event and a back-door top ten in Phoenix last week. Spieth started last season hotter than just about anyone, but fell off towards the summer because he completely lost his game off the tee. In 2013, he combined above-average distance with nearly the most accurate tee shot on Tour and ranked in the top ten in performance on drives. Beginning at some point last spring/summer, he started spraying it everywhere off the tee, costing him a huge amount of his advantage on drives. It’s only one tournament of data, but last week he was great off the tee – gaining about a stroke/round on drives and hitting it as straight as in 2013.

top ten since october

Shane Lowry making a rare US start this week. He’s a guy most PGA Tour fans won’t be that familiar with, but last year was his first big year on the European Tour. He started off ridiculously cold missing six of eight cuts, but contended all the way in the European flagship event in May. From May onward he played at the level of a top 20 golfer in the world and hasn’t missed a cut since June. No clue how Lowry will do in his first start at Torrey Pines, but he’s a legitimate contender in this field at the level of Harris English or Marc Leishman.

Best Long Course Golfers:
These numbers are illustrative only, but these are the best and worst on long courses since 2010. Long courses are the top 25% of PGA Tour courses in average approach shot length (these include Torrey Pines South, PGA National, & Congressional) and this is performance with putting removed. I’ve compared performance on long courses to performance in all others rounds. The 219 golfer sample yielded 19 golfers with statistically significantly different performances (negative z-scores below indicate better performances on long courses).

differences on long vs short coursesOn the positive end, Keegan Bradley and Kyle Stanley  are the most notable to play much better on long courses. On the negative end, Tim Clark and J.B. Holmes struggled the most on long courses.

Doing the reverse analysis and measuring performance differences on the shortest 25% of courses reveals some of the same names. Graham DeLaet and Kevin Na stuggle most notably on shorter tracks, while Jason Day stands out as by far the most extreme in favor of short courses.

Now, those numbers just use aggregate performance on all strokes and are surely distorted by all kinds of random variation. However, it makes sense that golfers who play better on longer courses would hit their long irons better, while those who are better on short courses hit their wedges better. Looking deeper at shot-by-shot stats over the past year, DeLaet, Stanley, and Bradley all hit their mid to long irons much better than their wedges, while Tim Clark and Jason Day both have huge splits in favor of hitting their wedges better. The only player whose stats don’t back up his performance is J.B. Holmes.

Best Course History:
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 Torrey Pines performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

1. Lucas Glover
2. Jhonattan Vegas
3. Tom Gillis
4. Justin Leonard
5. Marc Leishman
6. Bill Haas
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brandt Snedeker
9. Stewart Cink
10. D.A. Points

Koepka Wins in Phoenix

Brooks Koepka is your winner. No one else covered themselves in glory down the stretch, though. Martin Laird hit two awful tee shots on 17 and 18 to ruin a weekend of clutch putting, Matsuyama missed almost every putt down the stretch, and Bubba couldn’t make birdies on the par 5 15th or drivable 17th. Koepka’s eagle from off the green on 15 was the decisive blow and he held on with two bombed drives to set up pars on 17 and 18. Adam Sarson has the recap and the GIFs (including a borderline NSFW drive by Koepka on 18). Koepka’s pretty anonymous to casual golf fans, but he’s been lurking on the edges for at least the last year waiting to breakthrough in the US.

What’s his game like?
Did you see the final round? Oh yeah, CBS didn’t show his shots until the 16th hole. Anyway, he puts immense power behind the ball, generating some of the fastest club head speed on Tour. He can hit driver as far as anybody on Tour. He was pretty wild last year, but he’s straightened things out through the first few events this year. When you can hit it 310 with accuracy, well, that’s Rory McIlroy territory. He started last season pretty cautious off the tee, hitting three wood a lot on unfamiliar courses. Towards the end of the season and into 2014-15 he started hitting driver more often and he’s really reaped the rewards. Since August, only Rory, Bubba, and Lucas Glover have played better on tee shots.

Koepka’s not a one trick pony though; he was well above Tour average last year on iron/wedge shots and is extremely aggressive in going for par 5s in two. He also hasn’t shown any deficiencies with the short game.And through about 70 measured rounds, he’s putting solidly above average. In short, this kid hasn’t really shown ANY weaknesses.

Where did he come from?
Koepka graduated from Florida St. in 2012 and started playing on the European minor league tour soon after, winning four times by the summer of 2013 and earning his European Tour card. He made a cameo alongside Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2013 PGA Championship, then spent the 2013-14 season bouncing between European and PGA Tour events, eventually earning his PGA Tour card. He finished top ten in his first two starts as a Tour cardholder, then got his first big time win in Turkey last fall. The European Tour named him Rookie of the Year soon after (and made this awful video to celebrate).

Koepka was putting up great finishes almost from the beginning. His 2012 half-season was played at PGA Tour average, and he kept up the pace in 2013 – posting a top 75 season despite making starts on four continents. He jumped into the top 50 in my ratings last September. This win moves him to 19th in the OWGR (I have him around 30th best in the world).

What about going forward?
Full-speed ahead right now for Koepka. In 2.5 seasons, he’s already won two big tournaments, finished top ten at a major, and jumped into the top 20 in the world. He’ll be at all the majors this year (his game sets up perfectly for Augusta by the way), looks like a good bet for the Presidents Cup team, and could easily contend a few more times this year. What struck me most about the win was how nonchalant he was about it. He’s not a young kid with stars in his eyes, just happy to have a win and rest on his laurels; it’s obvious he expects to win every time he tees it up.

Martin Laird’s 5 wood on 18:
Laird blocked his 5 wood into the gallery on 17, ruining his chance of birdie and actually leading to bogey. He stood on the 18th tee one back and watched Koepka bomb it 320+ down the middle of the fairway. From that position (~115 in fairway), Koepka makes at least par over 90% of the time. If you want to win you have to play whatever shot leads to birdie most often. Laird had hit 5 wood on this tee shot in the first three rounds (fairway/rough/fairway) and made two pars and a bogey. The Tour pros on average make birdie on ~13% of their holes from where his 5 wood would’ve ended up on average, versus about 18% of their holes from where his driver would’ve ended up. The choice is pretty clear then – 5 wood wasn’t putting him in position to make birdie on that hole. He then hooked his drive well into the water and had no chance.

What’s most interesting is that Laird is actually pretty long off the tee (he can hit driver about 300 yards) and could’ve put himself down to about 130-140 yards. However, he spent the whole week in Phoenix laying up off the tee (more than all but one pro who made the cut and way less than Koepka and the other leaders). He had relied on his putting and short game to that point. Perhaps he wasn’t confident in driver or perhaps he didn’t like the new bunker positions, but he gave away fractions of a stroke off the tee all week and it finally caught up to him when it mattered.