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How Golfers Win

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How He Won: Jimmy Walker (Pebble Beach Pro-am)

Jimmy Walker did it again. After taking home both the Frys.com Open and Sony Open to begin his season, Walker burst out to a huge lead after round 3 and survived a pretty poor 4th round to win by one at Pebble Beach. I wrote about Walker in my Thursday post, noting that he gained a lot on the field with two hole-outs for birdie from far off the green – overall scrambling 5/5 on Thursday. He kept that up at Monterrey Peninsula and Spyglass Hill, finishing Saturday having successfully scrambled 15 of 16 missed greens. Even considering his poor 2/5 on Sunday he finished at 81% for the tournament. The field, over all four rounds and three courses, scrambled at 56%; Walker gained over 5 strokes on the field just through his scrambling.

Walker’s other conventional stats were strong as well. He hit 72% of his greens for the week (field hit 63%) and out-drove the competition by 8 yards.

Thankfully this is the last multi-course event of the season so a clearer statistical picture will be available for the winners going forward. This week in particular I have no idea how much putting factored into Walker’s success because we don’t have Strokes Gained Putting numbers or even shot tracker data for Spyglass Hill or Monterrey Peninsula. As I noted on Thursday, Walker’s putting wasn’t particularly notable. His SGP figure was 0.76, which is great on average, but fairly low for being one of the best rounds of the day. His success was mostly driven by the aforementioned two hole-outs and a slew of approach shots hit close. Then on Sunday he putted horribly (-1.51 SGP). Despite generating 3.9 expected birdies, he only converted 3 of them.

Walker’s main issue on Sunday was leaving his birdie putts too far from the hole. He birdied 3 holes and had putts for par on 14 more (#10 he was forced to recover from the fairway bunker which cost him a stroke). Of those 14 par putts, he left his on #1, #12, and #13 beyond 10 feet – making bogey on all three holes. He almost did the same on #18 when he needed to par to win outright, but kept his par putt to 5 feet despite rolling it aggressively past the hole.

I hope to have more this week detailing just what Walker is doing differently this year that he didn’t last year, but  I don’t think I’ll find much. Walker rated very highly in the Z-Score model last year (and had five top tens) despite really not getting any attention (probably because he missed 6/9 cuts to close the season). Walker is just the third player in the last ten years to win twice before arriving at Riviera (counting his fall win is unfair to the competition). Phil began 2005 with two wins in six events before winning twice more, while Mark Wilson began 2011 with two wins in six events before basically reverting back to the average player he was prior to that run. It’s anyone’s guess what Walker will do the rest of the season, but with 3.6 million banked already, he should make arrangements to be in Scotland at the end of September.

How He Won: Kevin Stadler (Phoenix Open)

Most posts here are focused on the macro-level of how to predict performance. That’s my main interest and the most valuable research in terms of the big picture of golf analytics. However, occasionally it’s nice to delve into individual performances and look at how golfers win each week. This week, Kevin Stadler finally broke through and won his first PGA tournament at the Phoenix Open. Stadler’s performance over the 2008-Present period has been approximately that of the 150th best player in the world, though he’s played much better in the last two seasons. Guys like that (even with famous fathers) rarely play their way into a 4th round lead at a tournament, so it’s nice to see Stadler break-through.

How he won is interesting though. This post detailed some quick stats on how PGA tournament winners putted during the 2013 season. The average winner gained ~1.5 strokes on the field each round due to putting. The winner normally gains 14-15 strokes on the field during the week, so putting normally accounts for at least 40% of the winner’s strokes gained on the field. However, Stadler totaled just short of 2 strokes gained due to putting for the entire week, while he finished 14.6 strokes better than the field in total. I don’t have detailed figures for other tournaments at my fingertips, but he must’ve far outperformed the field in all other phases of the game to finish so highly while putting (comparatively) poorly among PGA tournament winners.

TPC Scottsdale is a fairly easy course overall, with the field averaging 70.6 strokes/round for the week. The field averaged 301 yards off the tee (well above PGA average of 287 yards), hit 59% of fairways (slightly short of PGA average of 59%), hit 68% of greens (PGA average of 64%), and successfully scrambled 57% of the time (PGA average 58%). It’s clear that a combination of easy distance and little penalty for missing the fairway made hitting the green more likely.

Stadler as a player is definitely a much better ball-striker/driver than he is at putting or scrambling. He’s finished near the bottom in strokes gained putting in the last several years and he’s finished outside the top 100 in scrambling three of the last five seasons. In comparison, he’s been above-average in both driving distance and accuracy in the last few seasons, parlaying that and his approach shot skill into rankings of 33/26/8 in greens in regulation. We’re talking about a clear top top tier player from tee to green.

This week, Stadler simply played to his strengths, out-driving the field by 8 yards, hitting 9% more fairways, and using that great driving to hit 10% more greens than the field. His proximity to the pin was also 5 feet closer than field average. It helped that he successfully scrambled 12 of the 16 times he missed a green, which likely gained him something like 3 strokes on the field. However, his ability to put the ball in the fairway, further than most others, and then hit the green won him this tournament.

Digging deeper on his final round, I attempted to estimate his strokes gained for different types of shots. Prior work in this vein is here and here. I’m pretty confident in my numbers overall because 1) the course played roughly average in difficulty on Sunday and 2) my strokes gained on putts figure is within 0.3 strokes of the official PGA Tour number. My numbers show that three of Stadler’s best four shots on Sunday were approaches to the green – his approach to 3 feet on #14, his drive onto #17 green, and his approach to 4 feet on #9. In total he gained +2.1 strokes with his par 4/5 driving (14 shots), +1.3 strokes with his approach shots (4 shots), and +0.5 strokes with his par 3 tee-shots (14 shots), while he lost -0.4 strokes on 3 short shots around the green. I show his putting as having gained him no shots on the field in total.

I can explore this further, but it’s likely that Kevin Stadler played unusually well from tee to green for PGA tournament winners. His driving was superb in both distance and accuracy (a rare but potent combination) and he cashed in on those great positions by knocking his approach shots on the green and close.

Greenbrier Classic – Final Round

If we ever needed a lesson that golf is inherently random and statistics can only do so much to predict what will happen, Sunday’s final round at the Greenbrier certainly provided it. Johnson Wagner entered the final round leading Jimmy Walker by two strokes, with Jonas Blixt sitting three back. By the time Wagner was teeing off on #10 to start the back nine, Walker had not managed to close the gap at all, while Blixt had birdied #9 and #10 to get within a single stroke. From there, Blixt used several fantastic approach shots to set-up birdies, while Wagner made three crucial bogeys to fall out of the lead – handing Blixt his second PGA victory in less than a year. My analysis of the back nine will attempt to quantify strokes gained and lost on the field by each shot Wagner and Blixt made on the back nine, similar to my look at the Travelers.

What was remarkable random about the back-nine was what shots Blixt hit to set-up birdies. Blixt is fairly categorized a player very reliant on his putting for success (he was 2nd in 2012 and 47th this season). He does not hit his approach shots well, sitting nearly at the bottom in GIR, even when we account for his below average performance on tee shots. However on Sunday, Blixt’s two best shots were his approaches on #12 and #16 that set-up birdies – both worth around 3/4ths of a stroke. On the flipside, his normally sterling putting failed him on #11, #13, and #17 setting up two bogeys and depriving him of what would’ve been a decisive birdie.

On the par 5 #12, Blixt sat 108 yards from the hole after his lay-up. From there the average player hits to around 20 feet. Instead, Blixt hit a beauty to five feet, setting up a birdie that tied him with Wagner at -13. Later at the par 4 #16, Blixt was 173 yards in the fairway, a location from which the average pro hits to around 30 feet. Blixt hit an iron to nine feet, producing a make-able birdie putt that he drained to draw ahead of Wagner at -13. His approach here was his 2nd best of the day, behind the approach on #12, and his subsequent putt was his 3rd best shot.

However, along with those great approaches came three awfully poor putts which resulted in a par and two bogeys. On the long par 4 #11, Blixt missed the green, but chipped to 6 feet. PGA players make 2/3rds of those putts; Blixt not only missed but ran it three feet past, leaving a miss-able putt for bogey that he made. He hit another equally poor putt on the long par 4 #13. After laying-up, Blixt hit to 7 feet, but blew his par putt four feet past the hole. He would make the four footer for bogey. Again on the par 5 #17, Blixt was standing over a 7 footer that would’ve put him three clear of Wagner. Seven footers are 55% putts normally, so Blixt’s miss cost him over half of stroke, but at least he didn’t blow it several feet past the hole.

In total, Blixt’s back nine shots were worth: -0.44 strokes (tee shots), +1.85 strokes (approach shots), +0.48 strokes (short game), and -0.35 strokes (putts).

blixtgreenbrier

Johnson Wagner’s back nine was, succinctly, a disaster. He began it with a two stroke lead over Blixt that was quickly shortened to one stroke after Blixt’s birdie ahead of him on #10. At this point, no one else was any better than -11, while Wagner sat at -14. From there, Wagner bogeyed three of the next five holes and watched Blixt draw two strokes ahead of him for the win. For a guy who has been a steadily good putter (29th, 39th, and 41st in Strokes Gained in 2011-13), the flat stick failed him on Sunday. Two of his three worst shots were missed par putts inside 10 feet (on #11 and #13).

It was #15 that really sunk him though. He started #15 even with Blixt at -12. As we saw earlier, Blixt would go onto birdie #16, but Wagner would not have been in terrible position if he had parred #15 and moved on, as 16-18 aren’t difficult holes. His tee shot on the par 3 #15 was poor, ending up in the rough 14 yards from the pin. From there, PGA players bogey about half the time. Wagner blew his next shot 33 feet past the pin, leaving him a nearly guaranteed bogey. Within 15 minutes between Wagner’s bogey on #15 and Blixt’s birdie on #16, the  tournament was all but over.

For the back-nine, Wagner finished -0.23 strokes (tee shots), -0.17 strokes (approach shots), -0.71 strokes (short game), and -1.29 strokes (putts), a thoroughly miserable performance for a guy who is a PGA Tour player because of his ability to putt.

wagnergreenbrier

greenbrier component stats

 

Travelers Championship – Final Round

Though Ken Duke and Chris Stroud entered the final round of the Travelers having zero combined PGA Tour victories and trailing co-leaders Bubba Watson, Charley Hoffman, and Graham DeLaet, by Sunday evening, Duke had won his first title, on the second hole of a playoff with Stroud, while Stroud took home his largest ever check. The final round featured two critical moments; the first when solo leader Bubba Watson dropped his drive on the par 3 16th in the water, making triple bogey and torpedoing his chance to win and the second when, having overshot the 18th green and facing a make-or-break situation, Stroud drained his chip to force a playoff with Duke.

To evaluate how Duke and Stroud made it to the playoff Sunday, I copied down each shot taken on the back nine Sunday using the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data. I then employed the Strokes Gained method popularized by Mark Broadie to evaluate the quality of each tee shot, approach, chip, pitch, and putt. This method uses distance from the hole and location of the ball to generate the average number of shots a PGA Tour golfer will take to complete the hole at the end of each shot. If that average is more than one shot less than at the end of the previous shot, the golfer “gained” strokes on the field, while if the average is less than one shot lower than at the end of the previous shot, the golfer “lost” strokes on the field. The strokes gained method does not factor in anything but location of the ball, so severity of the rough or bunkers, speed of the greens, intensity of the wind, etc. are not explicitly accounted for, however, TPC River Highlands played essentially to par this week (70.2 Field Average compared to a Par of 70).

Ken Duke entered the final round at -8, two back of the three leaders and one behind Stroud. He played the front nine in -1 and entered the back nine with a chance to win, as none of those who entered the day ahead of him had placed any more distance between them. Duke made four birdies on the back nine, two set-up by fantastic approach shots and two on long putts.

On the long 462 yard par 4 10th, Duke hammered his drive 316 yards, an above-average drive, and followed with a beautiful approach to 5 feet. That approach took Duke from 2.90 expected strokes to only 1.25 expected strokes, a gain of 0.65 strokes, his 4th most important shot of the back nine. However, that was his only notable above-average “long” shot on the back nine. Most of his remaining tee shots and approaches were quite poor.

Instead, he relied on his short game and putting to survive. On the par 4 12th, Duke hit a poor tee shot and then a poor approach into the rough around 13 yards from the hole. From there, most players take 2.42 strokes to finish. Duke chipped to less than a foot, a shot worth 0.42 strokes gained. Then on the short par 4 15th after he ended up in the rough from around 40 yards off the tee. Duke hit a perfect pitch shot to six feet, setting up a great birdie opportunity which he converted. The average player sitting in the rough from 40 yards takes 2.75 strokes to finish up; Duke’s pitch to six feet was worth 0.35 strokes. On 18, after hitting an extremely nervy tee shot and getting his second to just shy of the green, Duke chipped across the surface to less than two feet, almost guaranteeing a par on the hole. That shot was worth 0.36 strokes gained.

His putting was also very strong though. His birdie putt on 15 from six feet was worth 0.40 strokes, but that was only his third most important putt of the day. Coming off a birdie at 10, Duke hit a quality approach to seventeen feet, removing the threat of bogey, but birdie was doubtful as only around 20% of putts are holed from that distance. However, Duke rolled it in for a gain of 0.80 strokes. His most important putt was on 13 though. Three straight below average shots had left Duke on the green, but at 46 feet birdie was looking extremely unlikely. PGA golfers hole less than 3% of their 40+ foot putts, while three putting almost 15% of the time. On the shorter par 5, Duke was looking at a legitimate possibility of bogeying. Instead, he meandered his 46 foot putt in for birdie, a putt worth an enormous 1.07 strokes gained, his best of the round.

duketravelers

In contrast to Duke, who had eight shots that gained more than a 1/3rd of a stroke – seven of which were putts or short shots (pitches, chips, etc.) – Stroud had only two shots that gained more than 1/3rd of a stroke and two shots that lost him over 0.5 strokes against the field.

Stroud entered the back nine -1 for the day and -10 for the tournament and reeled off three straight pars without any excitement on 10 through 12. On 13, he hit a wonderful short approach from 22 yards that left him with a seven foot putt for birdie. While such a putt isn’t a guarantee, the average player makes it around 60% of the time. Stroud’s miss was worth -0.55 strokes gained. Stroud rebounded on the short par 4 15th by holing a ten footer for birdie, 0.60 strokes gained.

As Duke finished up his round at -12, Stroud teed off on 18 needing a birdie to force a playoff. After an ideal drive left him with only 2.78 expected strokes, Stroud flew his 93 yard approach shot well over the green, a miserable shot that cost him -0.54 strokes and all but eliminated him from contention. From 17 yards, the average PGA player takes 2.32 strokes to finish up. When Stroud rolled in his chip, he gained a whopping 1.32 strokes on the field and forced Duke into a playoff for the Championship.

stroudtravelers

The two took different paths to the playoff; Duke rode a series of high quality chips, pitches, and putts to birdies and par saves, while Stroud relied on steady play and that one huge moment on 18.