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We Need to Talk About Jimmy

After his win at last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-am, Jimmy Walker has run his 2013-14 PGA Tour record to 3 wins, another top-ten, only 1 missed cut, and 1st place in the FedEx Cup standings. Prior to his win at the Open in October, Walker was certainly a strong PGA Tour player, but not widely considered among the elite golfers in the world. His world ranking peaked at 59th after the Players Championship in 2013, but has shot to 45th after winning the Open, 32nd after winning the Sony Open, and 24th this week. All of a sudden, Walker is entering tournaments as one of the touted favorites. What I’d like to do is to show where Jimmy Walker has come from and why you should be skeptical that he should be considered one of the Tour’s elite players.

Walker emerged as a PGA Tour regular in 2008 after bouncing around between the Nationwide Tour and PGA Tour between 2004-2007. Initially, he wasn’t a particularly good player. My Z-Score ratings have him at +0.16 in 2008, +0.16 in 2009, and -0.08 in 2010. For context, 0.00 is set as the average of all players who play on the Tour (down to the lowest qualifier, past champion, and club pro who competes in a tournament) while around -0.10 is the average player who holds a PGA Tour card. His seasons reflected those underlying stats; he was forced to re-earn his card at Q-School in 2008 and finished outside the top 100 on the money list in each of the next two seasons. Up to the beginning of 2011, Walker was a 32 year old who had never won a PGA tournament. It was as likely as not that he would fall off the PGA Tour in the next five years at that point.

But then something changed. Walker posted his best season in 2011 by actual results and underlying performance. His -0.24 Z-Score was well above PGA Tour average and he recorded four top-tens (including at Pebble Beach, Riviera CC, and the Sony Open). He followed that success up with a -0.31 Z-Score and five top-tens (again at Pebble Beach and Riviera CC) in 2012. Entering last year, Walker had posted consecutive solid seasons, but certainly no one was touting him as someone due to win a tournament. In fact, in this Golf Channel article from 2012 his name isn’t mentioned among eight guys (including Jeff Overton, Charlie Wi, and Brendon de Jonge).

Statistically up to 2012, Walker was decidedly a bomber. His average driving distance rank was 45th between 2008-12, while his average accuracy rank was 181st. He showed little ability to consistently hit greens, finishing no higher than 116th in GIR from 2008-12. Mostly, he putted well – he averaged 0.18 strokes gained putting over that period, solidly above PGA Tour average.

With all that context, Walker’s emergence looked unlikely as 2013 began. However, he played even better in the first half of the season, continuing a streak of 25 straight made cuts from the 2012 John Deere Classic to the 2013 Memorial. That run included four top-tens (again at Pebble Beach). From the Memorial onward, he missed six of nine cuts, crashed out of both Majors he competed in, and failed to reach the Tour Championship. For 2013 as a whole, Walker posted a Z-Score of -0.46 (including his fall swing) which is roughly what is expected out of a top 20 player in the world. The he went out in 2014 and won twice in four starts.

So did something change for Walker in 2013 that he carried over this year? Or is he suddenly a different player this season? In 2013, he remained wedded to distance above accuracy with his drives, finishing ~25th best in distance, but outside the top 150 in accuracy. He also putted about as well as he did in the previous five years, finishing with an average strokes gained putting of 0.27. What did change was his ability to hit greens. This article claims that Jimmy changed his aggressive style to chase pars on par 3/4s. It’s possible to imagine a more conservative game plan for attacking pins would lead to more greens hit, but his average proximity in 2013 was two feet closer to the pin than in 2012. What we’re likely looking at instead is a general improvement in Walker’s approach game. He was hitting more greens and hitting it closer because he was playing his irons better.

In his eight 2013-14 tournaments, Walker’s stats (adjusted for field and course conditions) are basically exact copies of his 2013 performance in terms of driving distance, driving accuracy, and greens in regulation. In fact, the only major statistical indicators that are different are his scrambling (surged from 60% to 65% this season) and his putting (he’s gained an additional +1.06 strokes on the field each round due to his putting). Now, obviously scrambling well is a typical result of putting well. I examined his proximity to the hole after the scrambling shot for 2014 and prior seasons to see if he was hitting it closer. Instead, he’s actually hitting it around 2 feet further from the pin, leaving himself more difficult putts to earn his par. From that, all I can conclude is that his putting results are driving all of his improvement from 2013 to this new season.

That conclusion is all well and good, but is it realistic to expect him to maintain such a putting improvement? In short, no. Since the Tour started tracking shot-by-shot data in 2004, only one player (Ben Crane 2005) has maintained a SGP above +1.00 per round. Most seasons, the leader is around +0.90 and those leaders are players who are demonstrated elite putters (Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Greg Chalmers, etc.) who have multiple seasons of near that level of play. Walker only has one such elite season (+0.46 in 2012). Right now his SGP for 2014 is based on only 19 recorded rounds. There’s a ton of room for randomness to creep in over such a small number of rounds. In comparison, he has over 300 rounds of prior play that show that he is an above-average, but not elite putter. Being a proper Bayesian, that’s not enough to convince me that he’s significantly better going forward. At most, I’d place him as something like a +0.30 to +0.40 putter, enough to be in the top 20 putters on Tour, but not nearly the +1.33 figure he’s sporting so far.

Now that doesn’t mean Walker isn’t going to continue to be a very good player. He didn’t receive nearly the recognition he deserved over the past two seasons when he was legitimately playing at a top-50 in the world level. His three wins, 25 tournament streak of made cuts, and -0.36 Z-Score from 2011 to present are fantastic achievements for a guy who didn’t look like he’d ever contend for anything as recently as 2010. He’s has to be considered a favorite to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team as a bonus. But no one should expect him to continue playing like he has since October. His putting is likely being driven by a ton of luck right now and luck cannot be relied on to stick around. Going forward, he’s probably not going to be able to putt nearly as well as he has; that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be successful, just that he shouldn’t be considered one of the favorites in a field with Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, and Matt Kuchar.