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.
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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).
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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.