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Tag Archives: 2014

Best and Worst of 2013-14 PGA Tour

Best rounds:

In strokes, adjusted for the ability of the field and the difficulty of the course that day.

1. Brendon de Jonge, 2nd Round Wells Fargo Championship

de Jonge shot a 62 when the course played to 72.4 and the field was solidly PGA Tour average. Unfortunately it followed a 1st round 80. He made the cut, shot two sub 70 rounds on the weekend, and captured one of only two top tens of his season.

2. Adam Scott, 1st Round Arnold Palmer Invitational

I remember tweeting after this round that it was the best of the season so far and it held up for another two months. Scott shot a 62 when the field played to 71.8 and was a bit above-average. Scott would hold the lead for most of the rest of the tournament until he blew-up with a 76 in the final round to finish solo 3rd. Scott would get his only win of the season two months later at the Colonial – beginning a ten tournament streak where he finished top 20 in every event and top ten in seven of them. His season remains ridiculously underrated.

3. Sergio Garcia, 2nd Round WGC-Bridgestone

This is the round that propelled Sergio into the lead and set-up Rory’s Sunday comeback to secure his 2nd of three wins over ridiculously strong fields. Sergio’s 61 bested the field by nine strokes, but the Bridgestone field was the fourth strongest of the year which boosts him a lot.

4. Troy Matteson, 2nd Round Greenbrier Classic

I have no recollection of this round and no recollection of ever seeing Matteson’s name this year. He sandwiched this 61 (field average of 70.9) between three others which were below average and finished T45.

5. Rory McIlroy, 1st Round Memorial

Some wonderful soul uploaded this round (along with Adam Scott & Jason Day) to Youtube. Rory’s 63 when a strong field played to 72.2 put him in the lead by three strokes, but he followed it up with a 78 on Friday and faded to T15 over the weekend. Remember the narrative that Rory couldn’t follow-up good first rounds? He blew this lead and one at the Scottish Open in July, but then followed up a 1st Round 66 at the Open Championship with an even better (relatively speaking) 66 to solidify his lead. I’d say he’s killed that narrative.

Honorable Mentions:

I can’t help but mention Andres Romero’s 1st Round at the Las Vegas event – the 25th best of the season. He opened with a 61 when the field averaged 69.5 (amazingly this was also the day J.J. Henry shot a 60). Much more notable is his 2nd Round 81 (!). His 81 was eleven shots worse than the field (the worst round by far that anyone among the top 100 rounds shot in the same tournament). He unbelievably ended up missing the cut by two strokes, making this the only one of the best 200 rounds this year where the player missed the cut.

George McNeill’s final round 61 at the Greenbrier, played right after he found out of his sister’s death, was the 15th best of the season. He finished two back of Angel Cabrera ultimately, but cheers to that round.

Worst Rounds:

I’m ignoring anyone who doesn’t at least pretend to compete regularly. #1 may or may not meet that criteria.

1. John Daly, 2nd Round at Innisbrook (Valspar Championship) – 90 when the field played to 72.7

2. Matt Every, 3rd Round at the Deutsche Bank – 86

3. Michael Bradley, 1st Round at John Deere Classic – 84

4. Toru Taniguchi, 3rd Round at US Open – 88 on the hardest day at Pinehurst

5. David Duval, 2nd Round at Travelers – 83

Honorable Mentions:

Bubba Watson’s allergy marred 1st round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was 10th worst by a touring professional. He withdrew, unsurprisingly. Both Paul Stankowski and David Duval shot 81 in the first round of the John Deere Classic, giving that round three of the worst thirteen results of the season. Duval withdrew, but Stankowski saw out the second round with a 78 – the worst first two rounds of the season among touring pros.

Best Tournaments:

1. Martin Kaymer – US Open

2. Dustin Johnson – WGC-HSBC

3. Rory McIlroy – Open Championship

4. Rory McIlroy – WGC-Bridgestone

5. Rory McIlroy – PGA Championship

Rory had himself quite the run late summer.

Honorable Mentions:

Sergio had the 7th and 10th best tournaments of the season, back to back, but lost to Rory both times (Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone). All four major winners were in the top fifteen (Bubba’s Masters win was 14th). Webb Simpson’s -24 win in Las Vegas (6th best) came against a poor field and on one of the easiest courses, but he torched the field to win by six shots.

Best Expected Performances:

This is based off my expected performance ratings which project every pro in my database every week. It gives you an idea not only who was the best player, but when they were the best. I’ll just mention the best guys once.

1. Rory McIlroy entering the Barclays

Unsurprisingly the best player’s peak came after his three straight victories. He also holds the next five spots – three in the other FedEx Cup events and the others at the PGA and Memorial. Safe to say he was best in August/September.

7. Adam Scott entering the Tour Championship

Remember that insane ten event run I mentioned earlier? This was the culmination of his season, and he played to expectation to finish T9.

15. Tiger Woods entering the event at Torrey Pines

After being the best in the world over 2012-13, Tiger entered 2014 at the top of my ratings. This was his first event, a T80 that resulted in a MDF. He followed with a T41 in Dubai a week later. Things unraveled from there, but this was when he was supposedly at his peak.

23. Sergio Garcia entering the PGA Championship

After being so unlucky to play amazing and lose in his previous two events, Sergio entered the PGA in his best form of the year. He never really threatened however.

27. Justin Rose entering the Barclays

Another guy who didn’t get much attention this year, despite shipping two quality events (at Congressional and the Scottish Open).

Most Unlikely Performances:

These are the tournament performances that were furthest away from my expectations in the positive direction.

1. Mike Weir at the Byron Nelson

Weir was a fringe elite player for most of the 2000s, but inexplicably lost his game around 2011. He’s less awful than he was around 2011-12, but was still projected around the level of an average Web.com Tour player in May. He finished solo second, two back of winner Brendon Todd. It was Weir’s only finish above T44 all season.

2. Martin Kaymer at the US Open

This is unsurprisingly seeing how it was the #1 performance overall above. Kaymer is a very good player, so this is less likely than McIlroy or Adam Scott playing this well, but the degree to which he destroyed that field on that course is awesome.

3. Jim Renner at the Pebble Beach Pro-am

Jim Renner is thoroughly anonymous as a pro; he’s about Web.com Tour average, but played nearly well enough to win in February. He settled for a T2 with Dustin Johnson, one back of Jimmy Walker. This finish represented over 75% of his earnings for the season.

4. Tim Clark at the Canadian Open

Clark entered the final round three back of Jim Furyk. On what was the fifth easiest round on Tour all season, Clark shot a 65 to win by a stroke. Once a peripheral top 25 player around when he won the 2010 Players, Clark’s fallen on hard times. This season – with a win, 2nd, and 5th – represents a bit of a comeback.

5. Patrick Reed at the Humana

Despite winning in 2013, Reed entered 2014 rated as essentially an average PGA Tour player. His hot streak from the Humana onward cemented him as a Ryder Cupper. He started in Palm Springs with three straight 63s and held on to win by two.

Honorable Mentions:

Billy Horschel’s back-to-back wins ranked 29th and 33rd. Rory’s Open Championship win ranks 85th – right ahead of Phil’s T2 at the PGA Championship.

Ryder Cup Preview: Team Europe

The Europeans enter this event not only with the expectations of having won four straight Ryder Cups on European soil, but also under the expectation that they have the best players this time around – not always the case at the Ryder Cup. Europeans took home three of the four majors this season plus the Players Championship and WGC-Bridgestone, and they have four of the six highest ranked players in the Official World Golf Ranking. There should be concerns about how top heavy the Euro team is, but in general most of their players are in form. In terms of betting odds, they’re trading at around 67% to win or tie to retain the Cup.

The Elite:

Rory McIlroy:

McIlroy’s season was amazing. Coming off a disappointing 2013, Rory won two majors and two other important events, while also playing the best of any player in terms of my z-score rating since Tiger Woods in 2009. While his performance, like all mere mortals, fell short of peak Tiger Woods, he was still the best player tee to green in the world and rode a hot putting streak to his three straight victories in July and August. He’s the obvious best golfer in the world and will be relied on as the core of a pretty top heavy European team.

McIlroy’s aggressive, birdie heavy game fits the four-ball format perfectly. He’s also paired with compatriot Graeme McDowell in all four of his foursomes matches (2.5/4 points) in his career. I expect that pairing will be relied upon again. I explained in the first part of this preview that Gleneagles sets-up well in foursomes for a mix of a long, aggressive player and a good iron player because of the distribution of the holes. Rory and G-Mac have a more or less perfect mix of talent to exploit that set-up.

Graeme McDowell:

The Irishman put up perhaps the quietest elite season of anyone this year, finishing top ten in stroke play events seven times in the US, but only better than 7th once. Though short off the tee, G-Mac’s long had a very good tee to green game built around hitting fairways and greens; this year his putting surged from average to best on Tour. I’ve written extensively about how short-term putting regresses going forward, so don’t expect him to putt at an elite level. His best skill is hitting his wedges/irons. He’sone of five European players who are clearly superior to the rest of the team; it’ll be interesting to see how heavily those five (Stenson/Rose/Rory/G-Mac/Sergio) are relied upon in these matches.

I expect he’ll play with Rory twice in foursomes and then play at least another four-ball match.

Sergio Garcia:

Sergio’s returned to his top ten in the world standard for the last few years, but it feels like this year was the first time it was really acknowledged – probably thanks to his contending alongside Rory in several high profile tournaments. He finished top five at the Players, British Open, WGC-Bridgestone, and BMW, though he only won once this year in Qatar. Though commentators were quick to talk about his putting improvements recently, it’s been more important that he’s refined his normally fantastic tee to green game back into one of the best in the world. No one on Tour hit their irons better this year and Sergio also finished near the top in driving and short game. He’s most ideal in the foursomes format where his iron play and scrambling allow him to avoid bogeys better than anyone on Tour not named Jim Furyk.

Sergio carries a 16-8-4 record into these matches and I expect he’ll be relied upon to play all five matches. His approach play and ability to play out of the rough (he’s one of the best on Tour) make a good foursomes partner for one of the longer, aggressive, even wild European players – Lee Westwood, Victor Dubuisson, or Jamie Donaldson come to mind.

Henrik Stenson:

Stenson’s comeback from completely losing his game in 2010-11 has been well documented; he’s back to being one of the best golfers in the world now. Stenson’s a unique player, especially off the tee. He’s simultaneously extremely accurate while also out-hitting 75% of the Tour. That combination makes him one of the best drivers on Tour, but he also hits his irons well and is one of the most aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two on par 5s. He’s a great four-ball player, but also matches up well in foursomes with someone like Kaymer who is much better playing from the fairway than the rough and is also fairly aggressive.

Justin Rose:

Rose is the last of the five elite Europeans who I would consider playing all five matches. After his break-through US Open win last year, he’s flown under the radar this year with only two world-wide victories. Nevertheless, he remains one of the truly elite players in the world. He’s another guy who relies on his fantastic tee to green game; his short game and iron play has always been great and he’s driving it really well this year. Rose’s putting has always been spotty, but it’s never been a liability. He’s another guy like Sergio who really hits out of the rough well. His all-around game makes him ideal for both formats; he’s probably the guy I’d play with Poulter in foursomes.

Veterans:

Ian Poulter:

Poulter is the most accomplished Ryder Cupper since the event expanded to include all Europeans in 1979. His record of 12 points in 15 matches blows away the rest of the competition, which is why he was selected despite a very down year to date. Poulter’s hung around at ~25th by my ratings over the last five years, but his recent stretch of awful play has pushed him more towards 40th. I don’t anticipate any of that will play into Captain Paul McGinley’s plans however; he’ll use Poulter extensively in both formats. Poulter’s tee to green game has never been that strong, but he’s an above-average putter and has a very good short game. That will give him an edge in foursomes, possibly with someone like Justin Rose who won’t be uncomfortable playing Poulter’s short drives and mediocre approach shots.

Lee Westwood:

Westwood’s been a Ryder Cup stalwart for Europe since his first matches in 1997, racking up 21 points in 37 matches and participating in every Cup during that period. Just three years ago he was one of the best in the world, but he’s slipped quickly – especially this season – to 33rd in my ratings right now. Even worse, his decline has been sharp in terms of tee to green play. At one point his long game was one of the best in the world, but his iron play has really slipped. Westwood is showing the tell-tale signs of losing his game due to agre: 1) his long game (approach shots/driving) has collapsed and 2) he’s over 40. The reason he hasn’t slipped too much overall is that his putting has surged from poor to above-average after a career of poor putting, masking that tee to green decline. I’m not saying he’s going to fall off the Tour, but his days of contending for majors and being a Ryder Cup beast are likely over.

Westwood’s driving remains solid and he’s aggressive in chasing birdies, so he’s ideal for four-ball play.

Thomas Bjorn:

Bjorn is one of two Euros left from the 1997 team that snuck past the Americans at Valderrama (Westwood is the other). Despite a solid career in Europe, Bjorn’s only returned to one further Ryder Cup team. He’s had a bit of a renaissance entering his 40s, but at 44 the end is near. He’s poor off the tee and not impressive with his irons, but is a good putter. Overall his he’s probably the second worst Euro and is best utilized for maybe one foursomes match, but that’s it. Even if there’s a penalty for playing all five matches, Bjorn is so far inferior to the five elite guys that I’d leave him on the bench.

Martin Kaymer:

Kaymer’s reputation is probably the most inflated beyond his abilities of anyone in the world thanks to his victories in the Players Championship and US Open and prior #1 in the world ranking in 2011. Unfortunately, Kaymer hasn’t played anything like he did in 2009-11 (consistently top ten in the world by my ratings) in 2012-14 (outside the top 20 since early 2013 by my ratings). His winning performances at the Players and US Open were obviously his best performances, but he’s been incredibly inconsistent – finishing with performances below PGA Tour average in nine of 22 tournaments this year. That’s just not indicative of an elite player.

Kaymer’s strong suit is his aggressive style. He makes a ton of birdies and goes for par 5s in two consistently, but he’s more prone than most to bogeys. He’s clearly best suited to play four-balls, though, as I said above, he’d be a good foursomes partner for Henrik Stenson.

Rookies:

Victor Dubuisson:

Dubuisson – at only 24 – is one of Europe’s main hopes for the future as they phase out the Poulter/Stenson/Westwood/Donald generation over the next few Cups. He’s been solidly inside the top 100 in the world for a few years, but really emerged last fall with a win and a 3rd place in the final two Race to Dubai playoff events. PGA Tour fans saw him in action in Match Play in February where he famously got up and down from cacti on consecutive holes to continue his finals match with Jason Day. More impressive were his major top-tens at the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

Dubuisson’s game is built on his driving distance (he’s 6th on the European Tour in distance and top 20 among PGA Tour players with at least nine tournaments played). Despite his highlights, his short game hasn’t been better than average, and his putting has been very poor this season – easily the worst of anyone in this event. He’s perfect for the four-ball matches because he’ll be able to bomb it with impunity, ideally partnered with someone like Rose or Sergio who consistently keeps it in play.

Jamie Donaldson:

Donaldson’s one of those European players who plays great golf and contends regularly, but is relatively anonymous to PGA Tour fans who only see them if they contend at a major or WGC. Donaldson’s been consistently good for the last 3-4 seasons and has been very hot lately – win & two top-tens in the past month.. He has a good tee to green game and could really surprise people with his performance this week. I’d fit him alongside Sergio in foursomes, but he’d be fine in four-ball as well.

Stephen Gallacher:

Gallacher was a pretty terrible captains pick. Not only is he inferior to Luke Donald (10.5 points in 15 career matches) and Francesco Molinari in overall ability, Gallacher is a rookie who is riding an outlier year of hot putting. This is by a significant margin the best he’s ever putted in recent seasons and it just so happens that this is the best he’s played in recent seasons. I expect once his luck with the putter runs out he’ll be back to being an average player. The Euros have to hope that doesn’t happen this week. I expect they’ll regret not bringing Luke Donald who, while seriously out of form, still turned in an equal season to Gallacher and at least would be a strong asset in foursomes with his putting and short game brilliance. I’d bench Gallacher for all four rounds and hope he runs hot in his singles match.

My Pairings:

Four-balls:

McIlroy, Dubuisson, Stenson, Kaymer, Rose, Sergio, Westwood, & Poulter or McDowell

Foursomes:

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Kaymer

and

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Bjorn

The Stats:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ryder Cup Preview: The Course, Home Field, & Competition

I’ll be postng previews of each team individually, but I’d like to write a bit of an introduction to the course and the competition in this post.

This year’s Ryder Cup is at the Centenary Course at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland. This course normally hosts the Johnnie Walker Championship on the European Tour (it has been omitted from the schedule this year to prepare for the Ryder Cup). This year’s event comes on the heels of two consecutive one point European wins – to survive an American comeback in Wales in 2010 and to accomplish their own enormous comeback at Medinah in 2012. Overall, the Americans have won just twice, both on home soil, in the eight most recent events, though their recent form has been better than the three early 2000s beat-downs. This year the Americans enter the event missing perhaps three of their five best players (Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, and Dustin Johnson) and face-down a full strength European team with World #1 Rory McIlroy. Betting odds heavily favor the Europeans to win or retain the Cup at around 67%, and while I think that understates the US chances, they’re certainly underdogs going abroad.

The Course:

The Centenary Course at Gleneagles is a resort course, perhaps with more tooth than normal, but still completely familiar to professionals who play on both sides of the Atlantic. This is certainly not a links style course. This article suggests it is set-up in PGA Tour style with even levels of rough and pristine fairways, not the wild rough or pine straw that we’re accustomed to seeing in the Open Championship courses. That doesn’t favor either side, but this is certainly a course which will play conventionally.

In recent Johnnie Walker Championships the course hasn’t shown much of a bite. Fairways hit have been around 66% and GIR% around 67%, both marks would rank as fairly easy on the PGA Tour. It’s played to around the par of 72 on average in recent seasons, though it will play easier for the far superior Ryder Cup players, and so much will come down to how Paul McGinley chooses to set it up will factor hugely into how it ends up playing this weekend.

Looking at individual holes, in alternate shot (8 matches) the course splits up very well for teams with one aggressive long hitter and another who hits their irons well. The player who tees off on #1 (players alternate teeing off) will hit eight drives and have three opportunities to go for the green in two on par 5s. The other player will hit only six drives and one second shot on a par 5s, though they’ll have an advantage in long and medium iron shots of nine to three over the first player. This set-up is tailor made to arrange pairings that emphasize a player’s talents and hide their weaknesses. I’ll talk more about some ideal pairings to exploit this in the individual team previews, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

Home Field/Continent Advantage:

Home advantage is often alluded to in Ryder Cup discussions, but not in a precise manner. There’s some advantage to playing in front of more supportive crowds for sure, but there’s no doubt that both sides make themselves heard no matter the location of the event. More important is the simple effect of traveling to compete on another continent and adjusting to the local time zone. Professionals golfers definitely have to face travel issues all the time, but Europeans who play on the European Tour surely face it more often as they travel between Asia, the Middle East, North America, and Europe. As a contrast, most Americans on the PGA Tour leave North America only twice to compete – the Open Championship in Britain in July and WGC-HSBC in China in November.

To attempt to quantify the disadvantage of playing away from ones home continent I set-up a study using 2013 & 2014 data. I split all players’s performance data into three groups – United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere – and discarded the elsewhere group. I then weighted each group of data based on the harmonic mean between the number of USA rounds and Western Europe rounds (for example, Patrick Reed had 81 USA rounds and only two Western Europe rounds for a harmonic mean of 3.9). I divided the players up into three groups – Americans who played on the PGA Tour, Europeans who played mostly on the PGA Tour, and Europeans who played mostly on the European Tour (almost no Americans played mostly on the European Tour). I didn’t take into account where players currently live, only their birthplace. I then calculated the performance of each group, weighted using the harmonic mean, in USA rounds and Western Europe rounds.

The results were shocking. European players who play on the PGA Tour suffered no penalty moving between Western Europe and the USA. They had identical performances. European players who play on the European Tour lost about 0.5 strokes in performance between Western Europe and the USA. Americans on the PGA Tour lost around 0.5 strokes in performance between the USA and Western Europe. This suggests that the penalty for Americans who play the PGA Tour going to Europe is about equal to the penalty suffered by Europeans going to the US.

At first I was worried that a lot of this had something to do with Americans who hardly play links golf coming over to play the Open Championship. In fact, 40% of my sample only played in Western Europe for the Open Championship. I tossed out the Open Championship rounds which yielded a penalty of only 0.2 strokes for Americans playing in Western Europe, but the sample of rounds is fairly small. I’ve chosen for the rest of this post to simply average my original penalty with this non-Open Championship penalty and say Americans suffer approximately a 0.35 stroke penalty when traveling to play in Europe.

Here’s an important caveat though. A rating based on aggregate performance (like mine) already has some of this travel penalty mixed into the Europeans results because more than half of the rounds for Europeans who play on the European Tour come away from home – Asia, the Middle East, and the US. In comparison, almost none of the rounds for Americans who play on the PGA Tour come away from the US. Adjusting for this produces the below chart.

rydercupHFA(In strokes, negative numbers indicate better performance)

All that means at least half of the Europeans suffer no penalty moving between US Ryder Cups and European Ryder Cups, while the other half suffers similarly to Americans traveling to a European Ryder Cup. The entire American team suffers an enormous penalty going across to play in Europe, but gets no advantage from playing on home soil. In short, for US based Cups, the US team has an advantage of about 0.2 strokes – equal to a 52-48 edge in a generic match – while, for European based Cups, the European team has an advantage twice that size (0.4 strokes) – equal to a 54-46 edge in a generic match.

In fact, if this home advantage holds for the earlier years (and I’m guessing it does as European players have consistently had to travel more, and particularly travel for major events in the US, in the last at least 20 years) it explains much of Europe’s dominance of this event. Going back to 1997, Europe has won 56% of points at home and 52% in the US – almost exactly what we’d expect give the above HFA. The Americans typically have a slightly advantage in talent – maybe 0.1-0.15 strokes per match or 1% per match – but the Europeans benefit from double the home field advantage of the Americans.

Applying home advantage to this Cup, I’d estimate that on average the European teams will be around 0.4 strokes better than the American teams without considering talent. This is enough to start Europe out at 54% to win a generic match. I’ll talk about talent in the team previews and, of course, team strategy may give one side a slight edge.

Basic Strategy:

Richie Hunt wrote a great article about potential US captain’s picks a month ago and in it laid out a few statistically informed ways to approach the Ryder Cup. I don’t agree with all of his points, but #4 & #5 about tailoring players for the formats that fit their games is very important. Richie wrote “Four-ball format is about birdies”. Absolutely. On a normal hole, PGA Tour pros are split with about 20% birdies, 16% bogeys, and 64% pars. In a four-ball format where each team has two balls the chance of both players on the other team making bogey on a generic hole are only ~3%. That means par will almost never win a hole; you need birdies.

Every golfer has their own distribution of birdies/pars/bogeys; more aggressive players make more birdies/eagles, but also more bogeys, while more conservative players make fewer birdies, but also avoid making bogeys. Both strategies are seen among elite players, but only the more aggressive player is rewarded in four-ball. Both captains would do well to make sure they get their more aggressive players out in these sessions.

Richie’s other point was that alternate shot is about avoiding bogeys (each team only has one ball and so pars win holes more often) and pairing players who play similarly. You don’t want to pair someone who’s wild off the tee (Phil) with someone who’s much more comfortable playing off the fairway (Furyk). Also important, as I wrote above, is matching players based on the shots they’ll be hitting. One player in each pairing this year will hit two extra drives and two extra par 5 approach shots, while the other player will hit six extra iron shots. You don’t want to pair your two best iron players or two most aggressive, long hitters with each other because you’ll be wasting one of them on shots they don’t excel at. I’ll talk more about a few of the ideal pairings in each team preview.

Sergio at the 17th at Cherry Hills

Sergio Garcia addressed his 2nd shot on the par 5 17th on Sunday two shots back of leader Billy Horschel. The 17th is a 550 yard par 5 with an island green that forces a 225 yard carry to stay out of the water. Making things more difficult are a trio of cross-bunkers at 310 yards which block most pros from hitting their drive as far as they can. Sergio had taken a little off his drive and sat in the fairway with 251 yards to the pin and at least 230 yards to carry the water. Sergio needed at least a birdie to have a chance of winning the tournament, and he initially looked like he was going to take-on the green in two, but reined himself in at the last moment and laid-up to 83 yards. He went on to hit an awful wedge over the green, chipped into the water from there, and made a triple bogey. Ignoring everything that happened after his 2nd shot, did Sergio make the right play to lay-up?

On its face, the decision to go for the green comes down to one question: which approach leads to the lowest score? On the 17th at Cherry Hills, pros who went for the green scored a 4.54 while those who laid-up scored a 4.86. However, you also have to consider the situation prior to the 2nd shot. 83% of pros who went for the green at 17 were playing from the fairway, while only 34% of pros who laid-up were playing from the fairway. Pros who went for the green were also playing slightly shorter shots (241 yards to-go vs. 248 yards to-go). Sergio therefore needed birdie and was in the fairway, meaning most pros in his shoes had been choosing to attack the green in two.

It’s also important to consider Sergio’s risk aversion to losing his 2nd place position. Placed where he was it’s reasonable to assume he would’ve finished no worse than tied for 2nd with two pars on 17 and 18. He would’ve been around 8th in the FedEx Cup standings going into the Tour Championship in that scenario. Obviously a bogey or worse on 17 would drop him lower (eventually it did to 13th in the standings). Of players who laid-up from the fairway, only one all week had bogeyed 17. Obviously if Sergio indeed was just trying to get a par and get to 18 he was right in thinking he should be pretty safe by laying-up. Going for it introduces the risk of bogey (14% on GFG shots ended in bogey) from hitting it in the water. For the week, 26% of players who went for it hit their 2nd shot into the water (27% in the 4th round), however half of those players went on to make par (Zach Johnson even holed his 4th shot for birdie!). Now, I disagree with his decision to go for par over going for a chance to win the tournament because Sergio has had a paucity of big wins recently for a player of his caliber. A win at the BMW (which really would’ve taken birdie-birdie & win the play-off) not only gets Sergio a million+ check, but also moves him to third in the FedEx standings and gives him a very real chance of winning the FedEx Cup.

Here’s the results of all drives in all four rounds on 17. You can see that Sergio’s 2nd shot was further back among those who went for the green, but centrally located in a group that mostly went for the green.

Drives17CherryHills(click to enlarge)

And here are the results in terms of eagle/birdie/par/bogey or worse based on whether a player laid-up or went for it in two. Sergio is again marked with the yellow cross; he laid-up to an area that mostly yielded pars. These charts don’t distinguish between rounds; the 1st round pin position in the front-center of the green played much harder (4.99) than the other pins which were back-center (2nd round – 4.54), left (3rd round – 4.65), and right (4th round – 4.70).

2ndShots17CherryHills

(click to enlarge)

All in all, I’m sure Sergio thought he was making the safe play. Pros think they’re invincible with a wedge from ~75 yards. I’m sure his anger at himself was more over his atrocious third shot wedge and beyond awful 4th shot chip into the water, but he should save a little for his decision to lay-up. It eliminated his chances of winning the tournament for no real gain in safety.

Ryder Cup Thoughts

US Captain Tom Watson is set to announce his three selections to round out the US team tonight, while European Captain Paul McGinley made his selections this morning (Lee Westwood, Stephen Gallacher, and Ian Poulter) – a day after the nine automatic European spots were decided. I’m going to review the possible American selections and say who I think should be picked, and then I’ll talk some about the European team and McGinley’s picks.

American Prospects:

Selecting captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup is a unique responsibility in golf. Evaluating which players are best is essential for coaches or front offices in the team sports to such a degree that player evaluation is considered one of the most important traits to be hired for a coaching or front office job. In golf there’s no impetus to correctly evaluate who is better than someone else. Certainly the PGA of America and European Tour don’t consider whether a potential captain knows how to evaluate who are the best twelve golfers for their teams. Combine that lack of interest finding someone to evaluate who are the better players with the sheer randomness of 28 golf matches that make up the Ryder Cup, and there’s no accountability in the selection process.

In picking Ryder Cup players the most important factor by far is how good they are at golf. There is stuff that matters on the boundaries – ability to respond under pressure, attitude/showing up in shape and ready to play, demeanor on the course and in the clubhouse, perhaps how their game fits with other players – but what really matters is picking the players who have shown over hundreds of rounds that they’re the best at golf. The margins between guys up for captains picks are narrow (no more than half a stroke/round really), but large enough to matter in the context of hoisting the trophy on Sunday.

Based on the US having around half the top 25 players in the world, the cut-off for a Ryder Cup pick is being around the 25th best player in the world. In parenthesis is the current rank in my ratings among healthy Americans. The nine automatic picks rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 26th.

Keegan Bradley (5th)

Everyone seems to agree Keegan is certain to be a captain’s pick because not only is he one of the best available Americans, but he also played great along with Phil in the 2012 Ryder Cup and 2013 Presidents Cup (6.5 points from 7 matches). That alone would be a stupid reason to pick him, but he’s the best American left by my rankings who’s also healthy, so he’s a fairly easy selection – whether he pairs with Phil again or not.

Hunter Mahan (11th)

There’s a time where Mahan would’ve been an easy pick here – he was one of the best in the game between 2008-2011 – but he’s definitely regressed from that level. His win last week definitely put him in the mix for a pick, but his game has been a mess most of the season. I’m guessing he’ll be picked because of Ryder Cup experience and his good recent play, but he’s step down in talent from other guys available. He wouldn’t be a bad pick, more of a missed opportunity for someone better.

Brandt Snedeker (14th)

Snedeker’s run from 2011 to 2013 where he won four times, took home the FedEx Cup, finished top ten 19 more times, and made the US teams in 2012 and 2013 has to seem like a long time ago. He rode a vastly improved long game in those seasons, but that’s completely disappeared this year. He’s had three top tens this year and has even looked lost with his putter – his one elite skill. He’d be a poor selection in terms of overall ability and recent play.

Chris Kirk (13th)

Chris Kirk really put his name in the running with his victory yesterday, but all along this season he’s been consistently pretty good (17th in the FedEx standings coming into this week). Kirk has been reliably a top 50 player in the world over the past few seasons, but there are ten other Americans with similar talent to him who would all be equally as a good in the Ryder Cup. For me, Kirk just isn’t good enough to get a pick. That he won yesterday isn’t that important for me. My work has shown “form” and recent play carries over to a small degree between weeks, but the Ryder Cup is in four weeks. There’s no guarantee that Kirk will still be playing well after two more tournaments and a week off.

Billy Horschel (22nd)

Horschel’s another guy who at least has put his name in the mix based on his play this week. He was always expected to play well based on his NCAA career, but never really put it together due to injuries. He emerged with a win last year largely because he putted way above his head for six months (something he acknowledged in an interview yesterday), but has established himself as a solid pro on the edge of the top 50 guys in the world. As such, he’d be a bad Ryder Cup pick. I’m not really in the position to judge intangibles either, but Horschel is a known hot-head on course and seems like an easy pick for the most likely guy to blow-up mid-round and lose 7&6 (non-Kevin Na of course).

Ryan Moore (15th)

Moore’s season has been very interesting. He made his way on Tour up until 2013 largely on the strength of his putting – that was his elite skill. He’s short off the tee, but good enough with his irons to be a consistent top 50 guy, but never better. He’s lost that putting ability the past two seasons – long enough that I think it’s a sign that he’s changed something (allocation of practice time would be my guess) and isn’t an elite putter any more. He’s made up for that with dramatically improved iron play this year. He’s hitting more greens and generating a lot more birdie chances, and his overall game has improved so much that he’s having his best season ever. He’s definitely good enough that he wouldn’t be a bad pick, but I’m not sure how seriously he’s being considered after playing poorly the past two weeks.

Brendon Todd (23rd)

Between turning pro in 2007 and 2012, Todd was one of the worst players to play on the PGA Tour. In his two years with a PGA Tour card (2009 & 2012) he was pretty much the worst player tee to green on Tour, but had developed into a very good putter by 2012. Last year he played great on the Web.com Tour – improving tee to green and keeping up the fantastic putting. This year has been more of the same. He’s already one of the ten best putters on Tour and his overall game is finally good enough that he’s a top 50 or so player in the world. He hasn’t shown the consistent play that should be required of a Ryder Cupper however. He has less of a track record than Kirk. I think he’d be the worst pick of the guys under consideration.

Bill Haas (4th)

I’ve touted Haas all season because he’s been consistently very good. He hasn’t missed a cut since last season, but more importantly he has a track record (4/5 last seasons in the top 25 on Tour) of being very good. In my mind, if you’re looking for one guy on this list to show up in Scotland and give you five good rounds of golf, Haas is the most likely to do it. He doesn’t have wins this year, but he has five in the previous four seasons – so you can’t ding him for “not knowing how to win”. He also has the bonus of playing in the Presidents Cup in 2011 and 2013. Again though, the main reason to pick him is because he’s one of the three best Americans left in terms of talent. He’s proven that over the last five years.

Webb Simpson (7th)

Webb’s another clear selection for me. His track record is four straight seasons of elite level golf since his emergence in 2011. He’s played on three straight US teams in these events. There’s a slight concern that he’s relied a little more on outlier level putting this year, but he’s still been very good.

My Picks: Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Keegan Bradley

All three are fairly easy picks as the three best Americans left healthy in terms of my rankings. All three have positive US team experience, and in terms of intangibles they aren’t risky picks at all. Watson might find a reason to leave Haas or Webb off in favor of someone else, but these three are the best guys available.

Watson’s Picks: Keegan Bradley and two of Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Chris Kirk

The Europeans:

The automatic picks hit on pretty much everyone deserving of a spot on the team on merit. Thomas Bjorn is probably the weak link, but I have him right on the periphery of the team in terms of ability. McGinley was in a bit of a bind with his captain’s pick though. Poulter, Westwood, and Luke Donald have all been some of the best in the world in recent seasons and have Ryder Cup experience, but all three have been way below expectations this year. McGinley brought Poulter – because who wouldn’t after 2012 – and Westwood rather than Donald, which isn’t so much an error as it is relying on guys who have delivered in the past.

I feel for Donald being left off as he’s one of the twelve best Euros by my ratings. My numbers consider recent play in the context of prior performances, so it sees Donald playing below expectations for the last two years, but also sees that he was one of the best in the world in 2011-12. His long game has been a disaster this year (way below 2011-2012), so I think there’s legitimate concern he’s not anything like that guy anymore. There’s similar concerns with Westwood; his long game hasn’t been anything like it was in recent years and he’s getting to the age where driving and iron play start to collapse. I’m guessing this will be his last Ryder Cup.

As for Poulter, I have him rated as one of the twelve best guys and he’s a guy you can count on showing up in form ready to play. I’m not sure how much stock I put in his 12-3 lifetime record, but he definitely takes the event seriously and handles the pressure. This was as obvious a pick as any.

I have Gallacher ranked 18th among the Euros, making him a pretty poor pick; he’s one of the peripheral guys who isn’t that good in the Nicolas Colsaerts 2012/Oliver Wilson 2008 mold. McGinley must’ve had some sympathy seeing as he came within one spot of qualifying on Sunday, but there were half a dozen alternatives. I would’ve liked to see Francesco Molinari picked because he’s clearly one of the twelve best Europeans and has some experience at the Ryder Cup. Molinari’s just been better across the board compared to Gallacher. I’d rather have him than any of the guys McGinley actually picked.

Overall, the Europeans have more elite guys (Rory, Sergio, Justin Rose), but less depth (I rate at least Dubuisson, Donaldson, Bjorn, and Gallacher below everyone likely to be on the US team besides Patrick Reed). That will be mitigated by the home continent advantage so the Euros are still the favorites.

 

The Barclays Round 1 Recap

Bo Van Pelt (-6) leads eight others including former FedEx Champ Jim Furyk after the first round at The Barclays. The main story in golf the last month has been the dominance of Rory McIlroy (three straight wins) and Rickie Fowler (two 2nds in majors), and what their success at a young age means to the future of golf. Rory struggled across the board Thursday – breaking a streak of fourteen straight above-average rounds dating back to early July – while Rickie delivered another solid round to end up three off the lead. Most notable from Thursday was the continued great play of Jim Furyk; he’s racked up three top tens and a T15 in the last month behind great iron play and a hot putter.

The Course:

Ridgewood was set-up at an average length Thursday and yielded fairly normal course stats in terms of accuracy (64%), GIR (67%), and scoring (70.8 on a par of 71). Where it’s really difficult is from the rough. It was in the upper tier of PGA Tour courses in terms of difficulty. The par 5s also play mostly as three shot holes; the pros only went for the green in two 17% of the time (average of 50%) and hit the green in two 2% of the time (average 14%).

Drivable Par 4 5th:

The 5th is a drivable par 4, playing 283 yards on Thursday, that is one of the best examples of a drivable par 4 all season. If you take a look below you’ll see the elevated green is narrow and tiny, measuring 9 yards wide and only 2200 square feet (microscopic by PGA Tour standards). The green is surrounded by bunkers to dissuade some from attacking it off the tee; lay-ups are made to around 85 yards. Driving the green requires a carry of around 270 yards, 40 feet uphill, and is best done with a right-handed fade. Just over half the field went for the green off the tee, scoring about 0.1 stroke better than those who laid-up.

Because of the carry required, none of the shortest hitters who went for the green hit it or made birdie. Because there isn’t a ton of difference between the expected values of each strategy, the shorter hitters and anyone who’s really good with a wedge from 100 yards in should probably lay-up. Anyone with average or better distance should absolutely take-on the green though. Average or longer hitters who went for the green scored at 3.60, everyone else at 3.91. The real pay-off isn’t really being close to the green – a 25 yard bunker shot isn’t much easier than a 75 yarder from the fairway – it’s instead in actually hitting the green. All five who hit the green made birdie, which is expected when the longest possible putt you can face is 50 feet. You can see the distribution by score below.

#5ridgewood1stround

What’s Ahead for Rory:

With Rory’s run of success every poor round is apt to be magnified beyond proportions. Even great players play poorly some days. Rory’s expected to have a round as bad as Thursday’s only around once every 25 rounds, so this is likely as poor as we’re apt to see him play for awhile. What’s important isn’t really this round, but how he’s had success so far this year. Rory emerged as a star and won his first two majors in 2011 and 2012 while being wholly dependent on his driver/irons for success. He was the best in the world on those long shots in 2011-12, while his putting was average or a bit worse. Last year, his driving was wild and he lost a lot his long game that had made him great. This year, the driving is as good as ever and his irons are great, but what’s really different is his success with the putter. He’s jumped to 21st on Tour in putting, gaining about half a stroke from putting compared to the last few seasons. Over this latest run of wins his putter has been nuclear hot (+1.20 strokes vs. the field). That’s been enough to take him from one of a group of 3-4 elite players to the best in the world.

The problem is putting is hugely random. Players putt well above their talent level for months and then regress. Up until July, McIlroy had putted at +0.16 strokes gained for the season and slightly below average for his career. Since then he’s at +1.20 strokes gained. This post deals with the small sample randomness involved with putting; nothing McIlroy is doing on the greens indicates to me that he’s going to sustain the level of putting that won him two majors in the last month. When his putting returns to his career norms, he’ll still be the best player in the world, but as more of a 1A to Sergio, Adam Scott, and Justin Rose than the next Tiger/Jack that he’s been made out as the last few weeks. His long game (driving/approach shots) is the best in the world largely because he’s in another universe off the tee. When Tiger was dominant for a decade he combined the best long game in the world with top ten putting; nothing Rory has done shows that he’s capable of putting that well for the long haul.

mcilroySG11-14McIlroy’s Strokes Gained per Shot Link tournament since 2011. His putting surge in the last few months is obvious.

Rickie Fowler’s Putting:

Much of the previous section applies to Rickie Fowler as well. Fowler took on a highly publicized swing change with Butch Harmon at the beginning of the season which left his game a mess for months, but which looks great now. His tee to green game has been the best of his career the last two months – a testament to the work he put in with Butch earlier this season. However, what’s really fueled him to four straight top tens in major tournaments has been a ridiculous run of putting. He’s putting about a stroke better per round than he ever has since June. He’s a solid putter in his career, but he’ll look mortal when this hot streak ends.

fowlerSGRickie Fowler’s Performance in Strokes relative to the field (positive is better)

Today’s round is a good example; his very good long game was erratic and his short game was awful. What saved him was gaining 4.5 putts on the field including two 13′ and two 11′ putts to save par after missing greens. You look real good when you hit all four of those, but most of the time you hit only 1-2. That’s why Rickie’s sitting on a -3 instead of a -1.

Shot of the Day:

The PGA Tour chose Bo Van Pelt’s eagle chip-in on #17. You can see on the video that it was a long chip (48 feet), but from right off the green. It ranked 6th among non-putts in terms of strokes gained (+1.3 strokes).

My highest ranked shot was Chris Stroud’s 20 yard hole-out from the bunker on the 7th (+1.5 strokes), for which there is no video available. Andrew Svoboda’s drive onto the the green 30 feet away at the drivable 5th hole was the best tee or approach shot of the day (+1.2 strokes), setting up a two putt birdie.

FedEx Cup Preview

The seventh FedEx Cup Playoffs begin tomorrow at The Barclays at Ridgewood CC – the site of dramatic playoffs between Vijay & Sergio in 2008 and Matt Kuchar & Martin Laird in 2010. This year it hosts Rory McIlroy’s charge for a fourth straight victory and his first FedEx Cup title. Rory enters the Playoffs sitting first overall in points and is obviously best positioned to take home the trophy, but it’s much more likely the FedEx Cup goes to someone else. In five years under this format the Cup has gone to the favorite entering the Playoffs only once (Tiger in 2009) and has gone to the winner of the Tour Championship in four of five years. This year, I estimate around a 40% chance of a player winning the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship (about half of Rory’s wins will come in this fashion).

Projections:

Below are projections for the four main accomplishments – winning the FedEx Cup, making the Tour Championship (top 30), making the BMW Championship (top 70), and making the Deutsche Bank (top 100). I’ve listed the top ten most likely to win the FedEx Cup and then the ten bubble players to earn spots in each event.

fedex cup projection 820

No surprise that Rory is significantly in front as he’s #1 in the the standings and the best in the world. The rest of the top five is straight-forward as well; Sergio, Rose, Scott, and Kuchar are the next four best players and in the FedEx Cup being very good at golf gives you a slightly better chance to win than having a bunch of points built up. That’s why Jimmy Walker (#2) is less likely to win it. However, further down the list Jason Day (#34) is the 10th most likely to win it, despite missing months of the season with a thumb injury.

Besides that, Phil will need a good run to make his eighth straight Tour Championship.

Weekend in Review: Wyndham Championship

The Wyndham Championship really acts as a breather in the PGA Tour schedule; following a run of two majors and a WGC event and preceding four playoff events in five weeks it’s not surprising that most of the best players skip this event. Instead of focusing on the best, this is mainly a week for those fighting to hold their tour card and earn a spot in the FedEx Playoffs by finishing top 125. It’s a week where everyone outside on the top 125 can dream of a top five finish or win that will get them in. Going into the final round both Heath Slocum and Brad Fritsch were poised to earn enough points to move into the Playoffs and keep their cards, but neither did enough in the end and only Sang-moon Bae (who started 126th this week) moved into the Playoffs and secured his card for next season.

Villegas Breaks Four Year Win Drought:

Going into the 2010 FedEx Playoffs, Camilo Villegas was 29, a three time PGA Tour winner already, and one of the thirty best golfers in the world. He had ridden a very special tee to green game to the top and looked poised to be one of the best on Tour for the next decade. His game was a mess for the next two years though; he fell as low as 160th in my rankings and 290th in the OWGR. He ranked in the top 25 of all PGA Tour players between 2003-2012 in approach shot play according to Mark Broadie’s numbers, and he was one of the more aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two. He’s lost a lot of that ability since, but his last two seasons have been more promising and he’s been steadily climbing back into the top 100 in my rankings (he’s 115th now).

villegas

Now, I doubt Camilo is back. His numbers haven’t been impressive all season and there have been no flashes of brilliance (he had zero top tens entering this week). This week his game was classic Villegas – drive it well, fire at the pins, make enough birdies. In all, he gained the 2nd most shots from his driving and approach shot play in the field. He hadn’t played this well tee to green since the 2011 Barclays – almost three years ago.

Ryder Cup Captain’s Picks:

Tom Watson still has two more tournaments to evaluate who he’s going to fill out the US Ryder Cup squad with, but he could do a lot worse than to pick the three Americans near the top at the Wyndham. Ignoring the injured Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, and Brandt Snedeker are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best Americans not on the team according to my rankings (behind Keegan Bradley) and all three recorded top five finishes this week. Snedeker has been hot recently, with high finishes in the last three events fueled by quality tee to green play that he hadn’t shown all season. Simpson has scuffled a bit this year, but his game’s been a lot stronger than he’s been given credit for and he has the mystical Ryder Cup experience the captains look for. Haas has had a way better season than he’s gotten credit for – he hasn’t missed a cut since last September and he has four top tens this year – and he has experience playing in team events from the 2011 & 2013 Presidents Cup. The Wyndham is the closest he’s gotten to a win this year, but he’s been a close to a sure thing to have a solid week as anyone Watson might consider.

Bernhard Langer Is Destroying the Champions Tour:

I don’t think I’ve written anything about the Champions Tour, but Bernhard Langer is currently dominating it so thoroughly that I have to spend a little time talking about it. Langer has made sixteen Champions Tour starts this year and finished 1st/2nd/3rd eleven times, including five wins. In his only PGA Tour start at the Masters he finished 8th. In short, he’s been ridiculously good this year. He’s been four strokes better than field average, over a stroke better than any of the other senior players. My adjustment for the Champions Tour is a little rough, but generally an average PGA Tour cardholder could expect to dominate that Tour – basically playing at a level similar to Tiger, Rory, or Adam Scott over the last few years. That’s pretty consistent with the fact that the best guys on the senior Tour like Kenny Perry or Fred Couples are normally competitive, but not much better than average when they play PGA Tour golf.

Adjusting Langer’s performance using that scale means he’s played roughly as well this year as the 15th best golfer in the world would be expected to (basically Keegan Bradley or Charl Schwartzel level). That’s absolutely ridiculous. Now, I’m not saying he’s actually that good or that he would be that good if he played on the PGA Tour. Champions Tour courses are set-up to fit the shorter hitting senior game and the greens/fairways are much easier to hit than PGA Tour courses. But what Langer is doing is almost unprecedented performance-wise; in the last 15 years, only 50 year old, fresh from the PGA Tour Fred Couples matched his level of performance in 2010, and he only won four times. Langer does need to add four more victories to match Hale Irwin’s nine wins in 1997.

PGA Championship Round 2 Thoughts

A wet day at Valhalla, but one hardly touched by the expected severe weather. Wet conditions did have a significant impact on how the course played. Driving distance was slashed, dropping from 284 yards on average Thursday to 272 yards Friday. This left the average approach shot at 190 yards; the course definitely played long today despite no real effort to stretch out the tees. The wet conditions left the par 5 10th as a three shot hole for the entire field and lengthened the par 5 7th so much that eleven Tour players splashed their 2nd shot into the green. Approach shots played slightly easier, but the greens were destroyed by the end of the day. Short putts were bouncing like crazy near the hole; the early wave putted 0.5 strokes better than the the late wave because of how damaged the greens were in the afternoon.

Rory…Again:

After an opening round 66, Rory jumped into the lead at the close of Friday with a second round 67. Rory again showed off his all-around game, though his driving was noticeably less impressive than on Thursday – only 8/14 fairways. What carried him was a hot putter. He started slowly, missing a thirteen foot birdie putt on #10 and a ten foot putt for par on #12, but rebounded immediately with a birdie on #13 and an eight foot par save on #14. His longest of the round was a 31 foot bomb for eagle on 18. In all, he gained +2.2 strokes from putting, 10th best in the field.

Rory’s putting hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as his ridiculous driving or consistent iron play, but it’s played a huge role in his great season and recent surge to demi-god status this summer. In his previous few seasons on Tour he’s been a slightly below average putter, but this season he’s jumped to gaining +0.4 strokes on the field with the putter – good for top 20 on Tour. That doesn’t even include his victories in the European PGA at Wentworth or Open Championship where we don’t have strokes gained data, but where he surely putted well.

In his six rounds at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone and this week’s Championship, he’s gaining +1.5 strokes per round on the field from putting. That’s way better than anyone can sustain (the very best approach +1 stroke gained). Sure he’s driving the ball at a heretofore unseen level and, yes, the rest of his game is great too, but the main reason he’s destroying everyone the last few weeks is because he’s making everything. At some point he’ll stop making everything – he may even regress back into an average putter (hot putting is the most fickle mistress in golf). The crazy thing is that he’s still probably the best player in golf even if he’s an average putter.

Jason Day’s Tee to Green Game:

The best part of the afternoon wave today was watching the show Jason Day was putting on tee to green. His front nine was a collection of bombed drives, darts to inside ten feet, and green after green hit (he missed his first on #10). His 240 yard iron to fifteen feet to set-up eagle on #7 was a ridiculously good shot, but I think his best hole was the 324 yard drive on #2, followed by a high approach to 17 feet, and a birdie. Not bad for a hole that played hardest on the course and where only a quarter of the field even hit the green. In all, his drives and approach shots gained +4.9 strokes on the field Friday, the best of either round.

Day was great tee to green on Thursday as well (+4.3 strokes), but didn’t make anything on the greens. The putter heated up Friday and he surged into a tie for 2nd. In the post-round interview he still claimed his thumb wasn’t 100% so it’s kind of crazy to see him so sharp on these long shots.

7th Hole Summary from Friday:

Same methods used as yesterday. Players who drove right actually played this hole 0.07 strokes better than those who played left a complete flip-flop from yesterday. The proportions choosing each side stayed the same, but because of the wet conditions I think some players just misjudged what length shot they’d be left with from the left fairway. There were eleven water balls from the left side today, compared to just four yesterday, and about half of those driving left ended up laying up to the right fairway because they didn’t have the length to challenge the green in two. Same color scheme – left drives in gold, right in blue.

valhalla7thround2Notice how muddled the lay-up zone is with the second shots of guys who drove it left.

How Bad are the Club Professionals?

The PGA Championship is unique among PGA Tour tournaments in that it qualifies the best twenty club professionals to participate. These guys rarely make the cut – Ryan Heliminen was top this year at T75 – and typically finish dozens of strokes off the lead. But just how bad are they? Are they uncompetitive off the tee, while solid putters? Using the two rounds of strokes gained stats I’ve gathered, it turns out that they’re pretty uniformly bad at everything. If you take the worst PGA Tour player in each of the major shot types – Kyle Stanley’s putting, Mike Weir’s driving, Robert Garrigus’s short game, etc. – you pretty much have the typical PGA club professional.

None of this is meant to disparage them. During TNT’s feature on club pro Michael Block he stated that he only hit about one bucket of balls a week. PGA Tour players are playing half the weeks out of the year, and you have to practice constantly to maintain even the ability to be a bad PGA Tour player. That a club pro can show even near-PGA Tour-level talent without all that practice time is impressive.

American Ryder Cup Hopefuls:

Six US players have already essentially qualified for the Ryder Cup squad, leaving three automatic spots to be decided at the conclusion of the PGA Championship and three more captain’s picks. I ran a simulation to determine who is in the best shape as of the end of round 2 to get one of those remaining three spots. Right now, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner, and Zach Johnson are slightly in front of a group of players including Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Brendon Todd, and Ryan Moore. Keegan Bradley missed the cut, meaning he’s completely out of automatic qualification (though everyone suspects he’ll reprise his 2012 pairing with Phil Mickelson through a captain’s pick). Jason Dufner also has no way to earn additional points, as he withdrew with a neck injury.

Patrick Reed made the cut and looks almost certain (95%) to earn automatic qualification to the team. Reed would have to be passed by three US players to drop off the team, which is obviously unlikely as only Mickelson, of the group right behind him in the points ranking, is projected to finish high. Zach Johnson also looks like a pretty sure bet to make the team (81%). Johnson sits in 9th currently, but should pass at least Dufner simply by completing the tournament. Phil’s big move today propelled him into great position to qualify (67%). In his easiest scenario to qualify, Phil needs to finish around 15th or better to pass Dufner. If no one else makes significant moves among Moore, Todd, or others further down, that should be enough to get him on the team.

Of the longer shots, Dufner is still around 19% to maintain his spot. It’s completely up in the air whether he’ll be healthy enough to play, but the event is still almost two months away. Ryan Palmer (12%) can qualify with a very high finish – he’ll probably need at least a two way tie for 2nd to get on the team. Ryan Moore (12%) has an outside shot at qualification, though he’ll need to make a serious move and probably finish top ten. Steve Stricker (3%) needs to win to have any hope of getting in. A half-dozen others like Brian Harman, Billy Horschel, Bill Haas, and Brandt Snedeker could get in with wins or second place finishes.

 

Ken Pomeroy’s numbers are below. Pinnacle Sports is dealing Rory +124 which is…something.

PGA Championship Round 1 Thoughts

Some quick thoughts after seeing how the pros played Valhalla Thursday:

Rory’s Driving:

I already touched on this Monday, but what Rory is doing off the tee right now is just ridiculous. His distance relative to the field was only +18 yards, tied with Jason Day for best in the field, compared to +28 at the WGC-Bridgestone, but he again maintained superb control of his shots. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and was never forced to hit a recovery shot off his drive. His strokes gained driving was 2.5, tied with Justin Rose for best in the field. On his closing four holes (#15-18) – where he finished birdie-par-par-birdie – he hit every fairway and bombed it 31 yards past the field average. It’s become almost a cliche that the longest hitters come with wildness in their games, but Rory is pushing the limits of the distance and accuracy combination right now.

Lee Westwood’s Major Quest Resumes:

After last summer’s disappointment at Muirfield where Westwood slept on a two shot lead going into Sunday, only to slog around for a 75 and watch Phil blitz the field with a 66, I figured Westwood’s major window was almost closed. He’s been declining from elite to merely good based on my numbers for the past few seasons. A lot of that should be attributed to age, but his decline from that 2009-2010 peak has been sharp. This round today was a masterclass in iron play and putting though. He had great iron shots into #4 and #17 to set up short birdies, but what was most impressive was how he consistently hit it inside 25 feet. So much of winning golf tournaments comes down to making putts, and when you give yourself twelve putts inside 25 feet sometimes you get lucky and sink eight of them like Westwood did. He finished the round 8th in putting, but more importantly 3rd in approach shots. He’s coming off a brilliant Sunday round at the WGC-Bridgestone.

The Split Fairway 7th hole:

A lot was made this week about the choice facing players on #7. It’s a split fairway – left shortens the hole by ~40 yards, while right is more conventional and doesn’t require carrying it over water – par 5 with water coming into play around the green. Left was seen as the “bold” play I suppose, while right was seen as safer and more apt to be preferred by the shorter players. Thursday’s pin was very challenging – just twelve feet from the edge of the water hazard – which may have scared some guys off. Going off one day of numbers, it certainly looks like driving left gives the most advantage.

Players going left (89) averaged 4.63, while going right (46) averaged 4.78. Those numbers remove club pros from the mix as they almost all skewed towards the safer right side. Shorter players did prefer the right side – perhaps because they were scared to take on the 225+ yard carry over water, but even many of those who played right didn’t actually fire at the pin, instead laying up towards the end of the fairway. Below I’ve plotted the first and second shots; gold are drives left and their second shots, blue are drives right and their second shots, drives in the middle water are in red, and the pin is marked by the white cross.

valhalla7thround1

Notice mainly how it was almost impossible for anyone driving the ball to the right to take on the green in two shots. Playing left not only shortens the second shot, but it’s almost the only realistic way to reach the green in two. Of the nine players to hit the green in two, eight played left. Of the 59 players able to go for the green in two, 56 played left. Now, hitting the green in two isn’t everyone’s objective on par 5s. Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, and a few others are more than happy to lay-up and fire in third shot wedges from <100 yards because they’re the best in the game at that shot. There’s no reason for Phil, Tiger, Billy Horschel, Marc Leishman, and several others to be playing that game though. Those guys are the players they are because they can hit greens in two. Hopefully with more forgiving pins located further back on the green we’ll see some of those guys drive it left and then let loose with a fairway wood.

General Course Stats:

For a major championship course, Valhalla played exactly as a normal PGA Tour course on Thursday. The course average came in at +1 (72.1), though the PGA Tour players played it in 71.5. The rough wasn’t particularly penal compared to any other PGA Tour set-up (0.35 strokes harder than shots from the fairway, slightly easier than the WGC-Bridgestone last week) and it didn’t hold players back from firing at the greens. Only 5% of drives required a recovery shot afterwards, right in line with PGA Tour averages. And even though there’s danger lurking off the tee in the form of trees, water, and native areas, the percentage of non-fairway/bunker/rough drives was right in line with PGA Tour averages as well.

The commentators seemed shocked that the course was so receptive to scoring, but it really isn’t any harder than these guys are used to playing. And it’s certainly not playing as long as the 7500 yard figure they kept quoting on TV today. Today’s tees/pins were set-up so it played around 7300; that’s barely longer than the average par 72 course. For this weekend, and especially after Friday’s rain softens the greens, the scores should remain reasonably low.

Thanks to Ken Pomeroy for providing his in-play win probabilities. Here are his numbers after Round 1.