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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.

Tee-shot Strategy at Las Vegas

This post applies my method explained in last week’s Open post to evaluate club selection using a mathematical model. Club selection is not noted in the play-by-play, requiring it to be estimated using a number of criteria to evaluate tee-shot strategy.

Applying the Model at TPC Summerlin:

Impact of Lie/Angle:

The results of tee-shots must be adjusted based on the resulting lie and angle off-line from center that they come to rest. A drive six degrees off-line into the rough will roll a shorter distance than one that is hit down the middle of the fairway. Sometimes a driver hit into the rough or bunker will travel a shorter distance than a 3 wood hit into the fairway, just because it doesn’t roll 20-25 yards after landing. I adjust for angle/lie for each round through a linear process which shows the amount of yards that should be added or subtracted to the shot distance. The approximate equations used to derive these values are (where x = degrees off-line from center and y = adjustment value in yards):

Rough: y = -3x + 5
Intermediate: y = -4x + 9
Bunker: y = -6x + 19
Fairway: y = -0.3x + 3
Other (Desert, Out of bounds, Water, etc.): y = -13
Green-side Bunker: y = 5

Impact of Conditions:

Las Vegas is one of the highest altitudes (~2500 ft.) visited by the Tour during the year which increases the carry of drives by around 5%. My estimates say that driving distances were between 12-15 yards longer than at a normal Tour event, largely due to the elevation. I’ve also adjusted for the elevation (uphill or downhill shots) on individual holes. This amount varies between the extremes of the 2nd hole (downhill, adding 11 yards of distance) and the 3rd and 16th holes (uphill, subtracting 6 yards of distance).

Model Results for TPC Summerlin:

The chart below summarizes some basic results. I estimate players hit driver on between 68% and 71% of holes over the four rounds, roughly in line with normal expectations. They regularly hit something less than driver on six holes (1, 2, 6, 7, 10, and 15).

TEESHOTlasvegasNegative numbers indicate lower scores

Evaluating Decision Making Hole by Hole:

1st Hole – 408 yard Par 4:

Players hit driver here about 56% of the time. The fairway is narrow, with trees on both sides of the normal landing area. There’s only one fairway bunker to fear at around 295 yards to the right. This hole had the largest gap between the percentage of drivers hit by long hitters and short hitters with long hitters hitting driver only 40% of the time vs. 74% for shorter hitters. Long hitters performed roughly similarly with 3 wood or driver, while shorter hitters saw slightly better results from hitting driver.

2nd Hole – 469 yard Par 4:

This is a long downhill tee-shot over desert to a wide fairway. Two bunkers catch long shots while the desert can capture shots hit too far right. About 67% of players hit driver here, split as normal for a par 4, with longer hitters hitting driver around 60% of the time and shorter ones around 80% of the time. The results showed longer hitters performed roughly equal with 3 wood or driver, while shorter hitters performed slightly better with driver.

6th Hole – 430 yard Par 4:

Players hit driver around 62% of the time. This hole requires a slightly uphill tee-shot to a sinuous, narrow fairway with desert in play on both sides. Long hitters were cautious here, pulling driver only 40% of the time vs. 70% for shorter hitters. Long hitters performed slightly worse with driver, while shorter hitters performed equally well with either club.

7th Hole – 382 yard Par 4:

This hole requires either a lay-up to a narrow fairway (leaving ~125 yard approach) or a longer shot to a landing area surrounded by bunkers (leaving ~80 yard approach). Few long hitters took on the risky shot (8%), though players who hit driver performed no worse than those who hit hybrids/5 woods/irons. Driver was the worse play for shorter hitters (25%). Overall driver was hit around 14% of the time.

10th Hole – 420 yard Par 4:

There’s a bunker at around 295 yards on the left right where the fairway narrows from 33 yards to 18 yards. Players hit driver here half the time, with the long hitters hitting driver only 28% of the time vs. 59% for shorter players. Long players were best when they hit a lay-up with an iron/hybrid/5 wood, while 3 wood was the best option for shorter players.

15th Hole – Drivable Par 4:

Club selection here is solely based on what you need to drive the green because everyone chooses that option. At this altitude that means 3 wood for long hitters and driver for shorter hitters.

Player Decision Making:

In general over full-seasons, golfers who hit driver shorter distances hit driver more often than those who hit for longer distance. The longest players hit driver around 55% vs. around 85% for the shortest players. Keep that in mind when evaluating players below. Often times it would be a bad strategic decision for a very long hitter to hit driver, while a shorter hitter can comfortably hit driver on the same hole.

More Drivers Hit:

I estimate Nick Taylor, Colt Knost, and Troy Merritt all hit driver on almost every possible hole (87%+ drivers). None of those guys are long hitters at all, indicating that they were likely very aggressive off the tee. Runner-up Kevin Streelman also hit a lot of drivers (79%). He’s about average in terms of driving distance ability, though he’s one of the most aggressive players in hitting driver normally. When you drive it well for a week that pays off; Streelman gained 0.7 strokes/round on the field driving in his win at the Travelers and 0.5 strokes/round on the field this week.

Fewer Drivers Hit:

After playing very aggressive off the tee at the Frys last week, Brooks Koepka reined it in this week. He was one of the most cautious off the tee last year and was fairly cautious again this week. Hudson Swafford was a lay-up machine again; that fits what he did last week and his strategy from last year. Among the rookies, Tony Finau has impressed me the most with his tee-shot/approach shot game. He’s has the potential to bomb it off the tee, but has held back – like most long hitters – through the first two events.