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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.


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.

Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Friday

Quick recap of the day’s stats:

All courses in the rotation played more difficult today, with a uniform increase in difficulty of 2-2.5 strokes across the board. Monterrey Peninsula played to 71.3, Pebble Beach to 74.1, and Spyglass Hill to 73.2. The uniform increase means there wasn’t much of an advantage in which courses a golfer played so far. We’ll see if that holds up tomorrow. Pebble Beach, which played as a fairly innocuous course on Thursday (71.6) revealed its teeth Friday. Driving distance plummeted by 9 yards which resulted in a GIR rate of 58%, compared to 66% on Thursday. Average proximity to the hole after approach was 43 feet, 8 more than Thursday.

Looking ahead to Saturday, Hunter Mahan and Jimmy Walker will move to the much easier Monterrey Peninsula course, while Jordan Spieth will play Pebble Beach. If the differentials seen on the first two days hold up, Mahan and Walker will play a course 2.5-3 strokes easier than Spieth, enough to make those two comfortable favorites going into the weekend.

For those playing Pebble Beach tomorrow, the stretch from #9-12 looms large. #9 and #10 are par 4s playing a third of a stroke over par, while #12 is a preposterously difficult par 3 playing a similar third of a stroke over par. Daniel Summerhays recorded perhaps the second best round of the day today, primarily by playing #9-12 at even par. After parring #9, he scrambled successfully from right off the green on #10, before generating birdie putts of 7 and 12 feet on #11 & #12. Summerhays beat the field by 5 strokes, most of that coming with his play from tee to green. Only Victor Dubuisson played better today (67, 7 strokes better than the field), though he relied heavily on his putter (>3 strokes gained there). Dubuisson dropped putts of 37 and 20 feet, but his shot of the day might have been his 2nd shot to 21 feet for eagle on #18. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, this round followed a disastrous Thursday where he blundered around Monterrey Peninsula four shots worse than the field.

Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Thursday

Just a short wrap-up of the important stats for Thursday:

The pro-am is played on three different courses, Monterrey Peninsula, Spyglass Hill, and Pebble Beach. Monterrey Peninsula is typically the easiest track;  on Thursday it played to 69.01 strokes. Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach were more comparable at 71.15 and 71.62.

The driving stats were: 276.3 yards/77% fairways at Monterrey Peninsula, 282.5 yards/60% fairways at Spyglass Hill, and 278.6 yards/74% fairways at Pebble Beach [1]. Spyglass lived up to its reputation as having tough-to-hit fairways, though players got a little extra distance. It’s important to note that while Monterrey Peninsula is listed at only 6867 yards, that’s because it has a fifth par-3. Monterrey’s par 4/5 average hole length is actually 456 yards, longer than Pebble Beach (439 yards) and Spyglass Hill (449 yards).

Despite the extra length, Monterrey Peninsula’s greens were easy to hit at 80%. MP is one of the easiest courses in terms of GIR the Tour will visit all season. The other two tracks proved more difficult as Spyglass (66%) defends itself with the narrow fairways/rough and Pebble (68%) defends itself with microscopic greens. All three courses played easier in GIR terms than the average PGA track however. The proximity to hole stats from Pebble suggest that the competitors were hitting it to an average of 35.1 feet on their approaches, almost exactly PGA Tour average.

Notably among the leaders, Jimmy Walker posted a strokes gained putting of only 0.76, despite finishing 5.6 strokes better than the average golfer at Pebble Beach (meaning he gained 4.8 strokes elsewhere). Most importantly, Walker holed his scrambling shots on #10 and #14, from 40 and 21 yards. From the fairway from those distances the average golfer takes ~2.5 strokes to finish the hole, meaning Walker netted around 3 strokes on the field just from those hole-outs. Walker also hit a ton of shots close, generating a birdie probability of 4.4 birdies (this sums the expected probabilities of Walker birdieing a hole based on where his approach shot came to rest). He had putts of 5, 5, 6, 8, 10, and 10 feet for birdie, converting 4 of those in addition to his hole-outs.

The pros unsurprisingly eviscerated the two front-nine par 5s at Pebble Beach. #2 (502 yards) yielded a 4.40 average and #6 (513 yards) yielded a 4.49 average. Both had comically easy to hit fairways (79% and 76%) and over 90% of the field hit the green in regulation. It’s a cliche most places, but a par genuinely is almost like a bogey on those holes.

[1] – Driving distance stats for MP and SH include only the two holes designated to be measured each round. PB driving distance stats include all par 4/5s. This likely overstates the distance achieved on those two courses by around ~8 yards; PGA players last year achieved 8 yards more distance when measuring only two designated holes versus all par 4/5s.