Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

What’s Wrong With Justin Rose?

I’ve rated Justin Rose as a top five golfer in the world since 2013, but his awful start to the season has dropped him to 11th in my ratings – the lowest level since his re-emergence as a star in 2012. Rose has missed the cut in three of his four PGA Tour starts in 2015, only staying to play the weekend at the no-cut WGC event at Doral where he was a non-factor and finished 55th. He’s always relied on a combination of great iron play and one of the pre-eminent short games in the world to contend, hitting it close to generate birdies and scrambling really well when he missed the green. Putting has always been circumspect (normally at or below PGA Tour average in Strokes Gained Putting), but the rest of his game has been so good it hasn’t mattered.

Rose PGA Tour stats

Well, this season it hasn’t worked. Rose would rank 178th on the Tour in scoring average if he had enough rounds to qualify, and instead of the top five Tee to Green game he’s had the past three years, he’s fallen to PGA Tour average. Looking at his stats, it’s easy to identify the main culprit in his collapse this year. His Strokes Gained Putting is just completely awful; he’s losing over a stroke per round with the putter – similar to what you would expect from Boo Weekley or Lucas Glover. His misses have mainly been focused on the short putts (4 to 12 feet), so that’s where he should be making adjustments. I’ve made the case the putting is subject to extreme fluctuations in small samples (Rose has only 9 rounds tracked this season), so it’s likely that his putting will rebound to his career levels in the coming tournaments. That’s not a significant concern in my mind.

What is concerning is the state of the rest of his game. I’ve charted his results across a wide range of shot types between 2014 and 2015 below. Adj. Dist measures his driving distance on all holes relative to the field. Rel. Accuracy measures how much more accurate he’s hitting his drives than the field; +20% is Jim Furyk level elite and -20% is Andrew Loupe level wild. Other Drives measures the number of par 4/5 tee shots that end up in water/out-of-bounds/trees/desert/etc. Hit Greens measures how many more greens he’s hitting relative to the average Tour pro on his par 4 2nd shots. The rest are measuring strokes gained relative to the field on each shot type.

Rose SG Stats

Rose’s decline has been spread across a number of shots. His SG on drives has declined, his SG on short game shots has fallen from elite to awful, and he’s lost a ton of ground on par 4 approach shots. In other words, his strengths last year (short game and par 4 approach shots) have turned into weaknesses. Now is the time to state again that this is only 9 rounds. In fact, right before this stretch of misery, Rose played back-to-back tournaments in the Middle East and finished T12 and T13. However, this is a guy who has missed six cuts in three years; this is as close to panic as it’s likely to get for Rose.

One interesting thing that pops out of his numbers is that Rose is hitting more greens with his 2nd shots than last year, but he’s not hitting anything close to the hole to generate birdie looks. That’s not good with the Masters looming; at Augusta simply bailing out and hitting the greens won’t be enough. If Rose isn’t able to hit his spots with his irons, he’ll be facing a bunch of long, slippery chances and likely racking up the three putts. That’s just the way it is on those huge, undulating greens. I’m very interested to see how he’s playing in Houston this week after two weeks off to reassess his game. Ignore his putting results and how many greens he’s hitting; focus instead on how often he’s able to get it inside 20 feet and set-up birdie.

Valero Texas Open Preview – 2015

The Tour shifted to TPC San Antonio in 2010, hoping a more modern track would be a more competitive venue than the previous birdie-fest at the La Cantera resort course. Unfortunately, the course is widely panned among Tour pros – who consider it too long and difficult. They are certainly correct that it’s difficult (73.5 stroke average since 2011 on a par of 72); pros have only hit 55% of fairways and 56% of greens here since 2011. TPC San Antonio also has a lot of what the Tour calls “native area” (brush, desert, etc. – pretty much where Kevin Na made his 16 from in 2011) in play. Last year, it was among the leaders in terms of courses where players ended up in the native area off the tee.

Course fit:
I wrote in last year’s preview that the course favored the longer/inaccurate hitters over the more accurate/shorter hitters. Concentrating on everyone who had played the course from 2011-2013, golfers who hit for more distance during the tournament played better than those who hit more fairways. Looking at 2014, Steven Bowditch and Andrew Loupe both had their best finishes on the season – they’re the archetype of the very long and very inaccurate hitter on Tour. That’s not to say every long/inaccurate hitter will play well, but when I broke the field up into seven different groups based on their accuracy and distance off the tee and compared just their tee to green play from 2014, the longest/least accurate group played the best last season – even better than the group of similarly long, but more accurate pros.

Performance at Texas 2014

The important question is why the course doesn’t punish inaccuracy to the level of a normal PGA Tour course. Most importantly, the rough here just isn’t very difficult to play out of. I only have shot-by-shot data for the final round in 2014, but the rough played the easiest of any course on Tour in that round (relative to the difficulty of fairway shots). What this means is that when I compare the results of shots hit from the rough to shots hit from the fairway on the same hole, shots hit from the rough only resulted in scoring 0.15 strokes worse than shots from the fairway. Normally that number is around 0.30 strokes. Sample size issues are a concern with only one round of data, but this measure tends to be consistent across the four rounds of an event. This is certainly an advantage for guys like Bowditch or Loupe who play from the rough more often.

Distance is critical also because the par 5s are so long at TPC San Antonio, only the longest hitters have a chance to go at them in two shots. In last year’s final round, pros who normally hit their drives over 295 yards went for the green in two on 46% of their opportunities; pros who normally hit their drives under 280 yards went for the green in two on only 2% of their opportunities. Now, long hitters typically have a large advantage in going for the green chances, but normally more like 65% to 35%. Here, short hitters are basically forced into lay-ups by the length – regardless of how they would like to play the hole. That turns the par 5s (already extremely difficult) into par holes for anyone who’s not long off the tee.

Masters Invite Watch:
The focus this week has to be on the bubble boys for Masters qualification. The top 50 in the OWGR after this weekend’s events earn invites to the Masters. Right now, Paul Casey is in the most precarious position – unqualified and not in this week’s event, but sitting only 49th in the world right now. Of those out of the field Marc Warren chose to enter this week’s PGA event rather than the European Tour event in Morocco. I have him projected for between 2 to 2.5 OWGR points in either location, which is basically too close to call on his chances to get in the field.

Harris English has a good argument to be the best guy not invited to the Masters; he’s got an outside shot with a top ten in San Antonio. My rooting interests are the young guys playing well so far this year. Augusta will be better with one (or both) of Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger in the field.

Below is the full break-down of what the guys out of the field need to do to get in this week. If you’re at all interested in tracking this/anything about the Official World Golf Rankings, follow @VC606.

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 TPC San Antonio performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 2 starts here since 2010).

1. Charley Hoffman
2. Fredrik Jacobson
3. Martin Flores
4. Martin Laird
5. Ben Curtis
6. Pat Perez
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brian Harman
9. Daniel Summerhays
10. Cameron Tringale

View the full field course history at this Google Doc.

Why Rickie Fowler Doesn’t Win More

Amid Rickie Fowler’s torrid summer last year – which included top five finishes in each major championship – the collective golf media was focused on Fowler’s need to win tournaments to validate his status as one of the big stars on Tour. Bring up Rickie’s name among golf fans now, and the question immediately turns to why he doesn’t win more often. These sorts of questions are nothing new. Phil Mickelson was hounded about his inability to win a major for years before he broke through at the Masters. Up to a week before McIlroy’s Open Championship win last summer there were questions about his ability to close out tournaments when he jumped into the lead. And just last week, Jordan Spieth captured his second PGA Tour win – hopefully distracting the critics who think he needs to win more often for a few months.

Read more at No Laying Up

Tampa Bay Preview – 2015

Innisbrook’s Copperhead course is a tree-lined track just inland from the Gulf. It offers a distribution of 4 par 5/5 par 3/9 par 4s for a par of 71. It had played close to par until 2013; the scoring average has ballooned over 72 for the past two tournaments. The course offers the potential to play out to almost 7350 yards from the tips – long for a par 71 with 5 par 3s. This is another three wood heavy track – despite a number of downhill tee-shots, pros only hit it 272 yards off the tee in last year’s final round. Most notably, about 7% of tee shots last year ended up in what the Tour defines as Tree Outline – in the trees off the fairway. This course is regularly near the top of the list in terms of courses with drives ending up somewhere other the the fairway, rough, or bunkers.

This is often talked about as a ball-strikers haven, and it is. There just aren’t many wedges into these greens. Pros who are comfortable hitting the mid to long irons will be most successful here – not only because of some of the brutally long par 4s, but because four of the five par 3s can play over 200 yards.

What I’m Watching:
I touched on a number of the most improved players on Tour for 2015 yesterday. One I didn’t discuss in Ryan Palmer. Palmer’s really upped his game at the end of last year and beginning of this year by dramatically improving his results on approach shots (+1.1 strokes gained/round better in 2015). He’s seen serious regression in his performance off the tee however (-0.5 strokes/round worse) – driven by a loss of distance and a major decrease in accuracy. I wrote in my most improved piece that my research has shown that tee to green improvements tend to be retained much more than putting improvements. So for Palmer, his tee to green play has still improved considerably (+0.6 strokes/round better).

However, as I’ve expanded my shot-by-shot database it turns out that when I sub-divide the tee to green game into performance on drives, approach shot performance, and short game performance it turns out that performance on drives is the most stable indicator of performance. In other words, golfers who improve or decline on their drives tend to retain almost all of that improvement or decline, while golfers who improve or decline on approach shot performance or short game performance retain less of those improvements or declines.If that’s true, Ryan Palmer may be in for a decline soon as his approach shot performance erodes and his struggles off the tee continue.

When I was looking through the data for yesterday’s piece, Brendon Todd’s name came up as a guy who has dramatically improved his tee to green game in the first two months of the season. However, he wasn’t anywhere close to the top of the list of most improved. It turns out the culprit there has been his normally outstanding putting. Todd was 6th best on Tour last year at +0.66 strokes/round, following up a great season in 2012 and what looks like an outstanding putting season on the Tour in 2013.

In 19 rounds to start 2015 he’s been basically average. Todd has historically putted about a third of a stroke better on bermuda greens, so he could be in for a natural rebound in Florida. If he can go back to putting as well as in the past three seasons, he could emerge as a very good all-around player, instead of someone who relies on their putting/short game to carry them.

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

1. Sang-moon Bae
2. Justin Leonard
3. Gary Woodland
4. Luke Donald
5. Retief Goosen
6. Chez Reavie
7. Jason Dufner
8. John Senden
9. Jim Furyk
10. Jonathan Byrd

The value of my approach is best illustrated by Justin Leonard. Leonard has been a mediocre player for years now, but has consistently raised his game at Innisbrook. A good finish for him normally is just making the cut, but since 2010 he’s 5/5 in making the cut with a T4 and two T20s. Innisbrook has provided his best, 4th best, 5th best, and 4th best finishes in 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

Most Improved in 2015

This is about the time of the season when small-sample issues start to wash away and genuine performances changes can be detected. Last year around this time I wrote these pieces which attempted to tease out 1. how much weight to place on performance in the first two months of the season, 2. whether age was a meaningful factor to answering #1, and 3. whether it mattered if the change in performance was occurring in the tee to green game, with the putter, or both.

I found that past performance should be weighted about 3.5 times more than performance in the first two months. Also, younger golfers who show a lot of improvement tend to retain that improvement more than middle-aged or older golfers. It also turns out that golfers who have improved their putting tend to play worse going forward than those who improved their tee to green play.

What about 2015:
The ten most improved PGA Tour players in 2015 [1] are listed below:

most improved 2015

Coming into 2015, I had Daniel Berger rated as a below-average Tour player – largely because he hadn’t particularly stood-out in his 2014 season on the Tour (he performed slightly below what you’d expect an average PGA Tour player to do on that tour). Berger clearly had potential – he had finished as Golfweek/Sagarin’s 7th best NCAA golfer in his final season in 2012-13 – but he hadn’t clearly emerged as a future star like the similarly aged Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth. Well, all that is moot after Berger’s start on Tour; 5/6 made cuts, performance similar to what you’d expect from a top 10 player in the world, and a playoff defeat in his twelfth PGA Tour event.

Applying the criteria from above – young players and those with improved tee to green play retain more of their improvement – Berger grades out well. Not only is Berger only turning 22 in April, but he’s dramatically improved his long game play in his 2015 Shot Link rounds compared to his 2014 Fall Series Shot Link rounds. He was carried a bit in the fall by a hot putter (+0.9 strokes gained/round), but this season’s success has been entirely driven by his play with his irons/driver (+2.5 strokes gained/round). I doubt Berger will continue to play at a top ten in the world level, but he already looks like a clear future star.

James Hahn has already won in his break-out 2015 season. Coming into 2015 he didn’t project as particularly likely to remain on Tour. In fact, I had Hahn rated as 205th out of all players with any PGA Tour status entering the season. Hahn has improved across the board in all key stats: he’s improved his iron shots by +0.5 strokes/round, his drives by +0.2 strokes/round, his putting by +0.5 strokes/round, and his short game by +0.5 strokes/round. I’m still not totally sold on Hahn as he’s has seasons worth of play at below Tour average, but he’s certainly moving in the right direction.

It seems like a long time since Brendan Steele’s rookie year win at the Texas Open in 2011. That win earned Steele notoriety and regular place in the Mickelson practice round matches. Designed in part to prepare guys for the rigors of Ryder Cup play, Steele watched Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler earn spots on those teams, while he suffered through a string of mediocre (at least in terms of performance) seasons. However, last year was his best yet on Tour and he’s kept the momentum going so far in 2015 – 5/5 in cuts and a 2nd at the Humana. Steele isn’t that young, but has improved across the board, especially in the long game (+0.5 strokes/round over last year and he’s hitting his drives 5 yards further).

Two other notables are Lucas Glover and Boo Weekley. Both have long track records of being awful at putting, but both have improved their putting numbers a ton in the past few months (Glover is now merely one of the worst rather than the absolute worst of all time). Neither have made many strides in the rest of their games, so I seriously doubt whether Boo Weekley especially can continue to play at this level. He has a decade of awful putting in his past and it strains credulity that he has all of a sudden become average.

Quickly running through the others, Wheatcroft and Laird are hitting their irons much better this year, Knost is relying on putting+short game improvements, and Collins is also riding a great short game. Zac Blair stands out as a young guy who should have no trouble keeping his card as a rookie.

Improvements among the stars:
Of golfers who entered the year in my top 50, the ten most improved are below:

MIP 2015 stars

Of these Shane Lowry sticks out. Lowry has played great in three US stops so far in 2015, earning enough FexEx points where he would be inside the top 100 in only four events. In my ratings he’s climbed all the way to 33rd after spending last year hovering around 100th. Lowry is only 28 and his success this year has been fueled by great long game (approach shots+drives), so I like his chances to remain around his current ranking. Lowry also has a very good shot at earning his Tour card for next year. He’s already at 222 FedEx Cup points – only 216 short of last year’s 125th finisher – and is pretty much guaranteed entry into at least seven more events plus any regular events he qualifies for or earns sponsors invites into.

My numbers are also coming around slowly on Patrick Reed. Reed’s career to this point has been marked by turmoil – four wins but also a lot of MCs and really inconsistent overall play – but he hasn’t missed a cut since July and his play this year has been driven by increases in his driving distance (+5 yards) and better approach shot play (+0.4 strokes/round). I’m not sold on Reed as a top ten player, but he’s definitely better than my numbers thought two months ago.

[1] – For this, first I calculated their performance in terms of strokes better than the field per round and then I compared that to their projection from the first of week of January 2015. I realize this is a bit of a black-box, but basically I try to find who is playing much better than my system expected going into the season. I’ve included only golfers with at least eight rounds played in 2015.

Golfer Statistical Comparables

I often find it useful when I’m watching a round or previewing a tournament to look at which types of golfers are doing well at a course, or more generally which types of golfers are similar to each other in terms of the results they are achieving. Commentators will normally focus on similarities between different golfers’s swings or their ball-flights, but I’m more interested in the results of their shots. I’ve generated some simple statistical comparables to use in comparing which golfers are most similar or most unique.

Methodology was fairly basic; I took every player who had at least 20 Shot Link rounds in my database and I standardized all of their results in six categories – driving distance, driving accuracy, greens hit above/below expected [1], strokes gained on approach shots/tee shots, strokes gained on the greens, and strokes gained with the short game. All of these numbers are adjusted for the field and include the results for almost 200 pros from about April 2014-present. I then found the “distance” each golfer was away from the others in each category and ranked each golfer from most to least similar to each other.

I’ve linked a Google doc with a top twenty and bottom five for each golfer here.

Robert Streb and Bill Haas were the most similar to the largest number of golfers, appearing in the top five most similar for 11 of 192 pros. Jim Furyk was easily the most unique, appearing in the bottom five least similar for 78 of 192 pros! Furyk is obviously an extreme outlier in fairways hit, greens hit, and approach shot SG.

As for the most similar players, some were fairly obvious. Bubba Watson’s top comp was Rory McIlroy, which makes sense as they are both very long, average in fairways hit, and don’t really move the needle much in terms of putting/short game. Zach Johnson is matched up with good ball-strikers who are short/accurate off the tee (Ryan Moore, Tim Clark, etc.). Dustin Johnson matches up with Rory, Adam Scott, and Jimmy Walker as guys with elite long games (drives+approach shots).

The value in this exercise comes in the surprising comparables though. Daniel Berger, contender last week at the Honda, has Horschel, Keegan, Paul Casey, Watney, and DeLaet as his top five, which shows just how fantastic his debut on Tour has been. Another rookie Carlos Ortiz shows up as similar to Russell Henley, showing he’ll make his money by driving the ball well and holing putts. Brendan Steele’s top matches just show the kind of potential his game holds: Jimmy Walker & Ryan Palmer.

My favorite comp is easily Bill Haas being the #1 match with the guy who weaseled his way onto the Ryder Cup team in his place, Webb Simpson.

These can be taken in a bunch of different directions, but I’m hoping to present some expanded comparables in the future. These will take into account actual predictive factors that can be used to judge course fit: ability to play from the rough, putting ability on different green surfaces, likelihood to aim for the center of the green vs. hunt for pins, etc. Today is just to show some basic similiarities between golfers. Again, the list of comps is linked here.

[1] This basically asks: from 156 yards to the pin in the rough, 189 yards to the pin from the fairway, etc. how often does the average PGA Tour golfer hit the green. So, (each pros actual GIR) – (expected GIR based on all their approach shot distances/lies).

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.