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Tag Archives: 2015

Quick Masters Thoughts

This is just a quick run-through of my thoughts on some of the big names and a few others for this week.

Rory McIlroy
It seems like there’s some trepidation over installing McIlroy as the favorite this week, despite him playing clearly the best golf of anyone in the world for the past year. I’ve seen some insisting that Bubba is the favorite – two Green Jackets in three years and all – while others think Jordan Spieth’s success here last year and hot run over the past month plus means he’s the favorite. Sport fans struggle with perspective, especially around the biggest stars, and in the case of McIlroy and the Masters, perspective is critical.

It’s true that his PGA Tour play this season has been spotty (MC-9th-11th in three events in Florida), but his missed cut came on a 3 wood heavy course that he’s generally struggled at over his career. Rory relies so much on the advantage of blowing his driver 20 yards past the field that when he’s forced to ease up off the tee he’s a different golfer. Besides that MC, Rory has finished 2nd at a strong European Tour event, won another strong European Tour event, and then finished around 10th at two strong PGA Tour events. The quality of his golf in 2015 has been the same as in 2014.

As for his Masters history, it’s mostly mediocre for a player of his caliber, but this is a course which clearly favors guys who can bomb it around and feast on par 5s. However, during his career at Augusta National McIlroy has suffered from an inability to score on the par 5s (4.76 average compared to 4.70 for the field) and a tendency towards big numbers (3.5% double/triple bogey rate compared to 2.5% for the field). Basically, if you think McIlroy will struggle here you believe that he’s unable to score on the par 5s here (with that huge, high draw I think that’s unlikely) and uniquely snake-bitten in terms of posting big numbers (rather than the victim of bad luck).

Adam Scott
Perhaps because of his sparse schedule, Adam Scott hasn’t gotten enough credit for the three year run he put together between 2012 and 2014: 48 official Tour events, 47 made cuts, 21 top 10s, and three victories including the 2013 Masters. Perhaps some criticism of his lack of wins is warranted, but he plays at events with mostly very strong fields and he’s taken a very solid 6% of his events. Until McIlroy hit the gas last summer, there was definitely a debate over whether he or Scott was the best in the world. Obviously not now, but in my estimation Adam Scott enters this year’s Masters Tournament as the solid second best in the field.

Scott has great course history here, which is to be expected with his distance and ability to hit his irons so well, and he’s entering with his tee to green game looking really sharp. His performance on the Florida swing was consistently elite tee to green (+1.5, +1.7, +1.7 strokes gained/round against strong fields), but he struggled while trying out the short putter and that absolutely torpedoed his overall results in Tampa and Orlando. He’s back to the anchored long putter this week and if he can just be his normal mediocre self on the greens, he’ll be in line for a high finish.

Phil Mickelson
Phil has owned Augusta National to the tune of three wins and a yearly tradition of top finishes, but the results the past couple years just haven’t been there. What’s illuminating is that when you plot Phil’s average driving distance alongside his Masters performances, there’s a pretty obvious trend. Prior to 2012, his worst finish in driving distance was 35th. During this period his combination of power off the tee, great irons/wedges, and a really strong short game made him one of the best in the world (and made up for the fact he had no clue where his tee shots were going). In 2012 he slipped to 53rd on Tour in driving distance, then 93rd and 70th the next two years.

Mickelson Driving Distance Masters Play

Along with that distance decline, his Masters results in 2013 and 2014 were both his worst since missing the cut in 1997. Phil went from scoring an average of 4.36 on the par 5s between 2008-12 to 4.70 in 2013-14. Now, this year it looks like he’s got some of his power back (driving distance and club head speed are both up), so there’s definitely some hope he’ll return to former levels of success here.

Jordan Spieth
Spieth’s run over the past two months has been great to watch and he’s fully recovered from his struggles off the tee in the second half of last season. What is interesting is how he’s changed his game even from his rookie year in 2013. Spieth was one of the most accurate guys on Tour that season, with above-average distance. Last year, his driving numbers weren’t nearly as strong and he spent the last half of the season spraying his drives off the tee, making a bid for the Tour Sauce Hall of Fame. This year he’s gotten significantly longer (~5 yards), and he’s kept his tee shots in play like in his rookie season. That’s driven his long game to elite levels.

He’s riding a bit of a lucky putter right now so it’s important to view his recent play in a slightly skeptical light. But he is one of the top 10-15 putters on Tour, so it’s not like he’s going to fall off much.

Keegan Bradley
I haven’t heard Keegan’s name mentioned at all this week, which shows the power prior play at Augusta National has over people. Keegan’s three starts here have been mediocre as a whole, especially for a guy who’s been around the 20th best in the world over that time, but he absolutely fits the mold of a guy who should shine here. He launches the ball off the tee with a solid draw, he doesn’t struggle on bentgrass greens, and he has putted better than average on similar lightning quick greens at Firestone, Houston, and Muirfield Village.

Chris Kirk
Kirk played well last year in his first Masters trip and stands out as a pretty attractive long-shot pick. His game has been messy this year, especially when contrasted with his successes at the end of last season. The common theme so far has been just really poor putting. Kirk’s established himself as a very strong putter over the last few years, but he’s not making anything so far in 2015. Kirk’s been especially poor at making long putts (2% of his 25+ footers have gone in), despite a recent history where he’s one of the best on Tour at making putts from distance over 2011-14. I’ve written about how long putting seems to be especially random, driving putting results up or down without reflecting genuine improvements or declines in putting ability. Based on that, I expect Kirk to start producing better results on the greens and overall.

Weather
The forecast looks wet all weekend which I’ve seen taken as evidence that McIlroy, in particular, will be in good shape considering his wet weather record (his WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship wins last year were both on wet courses). I took a look at how players with high or low ball flights played in a handful of clearly wet rounds (WGC-Bridgestone 4th round & PGA Championship rounds 2-4). Players who bring it in high onto damp greens should be able to stick it closer than those who bring it in low.

It turns out that just looking at those four rounds (~250 individual rounds), that hypothesis was borne out in the data. I specifically measured Strokes Gained on Iron shots (par 4/5 approach shots & par 3 tee shots) and compared performance in these specific rounds to all the data I have more a player since last season. This controls for talent hitting irons. The correlation with the PGA Tour’s Trackman derived Apex Height stat wasn’t strong, but the coefficients suggest a player with an extremely high ball-flight – J.B. Holmes, Keegan Bradley – could gain about a 0.15 or more strokes from their normal level of play just on their iron shots if the course plays wet this week.

Apex Height vs Wet Weather play

This is definitely a subject worth a more formal investigation, but the data points to high ball-flight players being advantaged to a small degree in wet weather.

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Valero Texas Open Preview – 2015

Course:
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.

Tampa Bay Preview – 2015

Course:
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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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.

Honda Classic Preview – 2015

Course:
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 Web.com 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

Riviera Preview – 2015

Course:
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.

Pebble Beach Preview – 2015

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

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

Best Course History:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Pebble Beach performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

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

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

Torrey Pines Preview – 2015

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

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

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

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

top ten since october

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

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

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

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

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

Best Course History:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Torrey Pines performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

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

Koepka Wins in Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix Open Preview – 2015

Course:

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

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

What I’m Watching:

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

Top ten since 2010

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

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

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

Best Past Results:

These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Phoenix performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

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

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