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Honda Classic Preview – 2015

Course:
PGA National’s been hosting this event for the past eight seasons. It’s one of the most difficult courses the Tour visits (71.4 on a par 70 layout last four years), largely because of the windy conditions and how the course restricts driving distance. About half of the par 4 or 5 tee-shots here will be lay-ups for the typical pro, which produces very long approach shots (~170 yards on par 4s). The scorecard may not look long, but all those three woods stretch it out significantly.

What I’m Watching:
This is Rory McIlroy’s first PGA Tour start of the season after going 2nd-1st in his Middle East swing. Rory’s won this event (2012) and lost in a playoff (2014), but also has some disappointing results (W/D, T40, T70) in past seasons. It’s important to realize that while he has played well here, it’s not necessarily a course that sets up ideally for him because of all the fairway woods/irons that players have to hit off the tee. In fact, he’s actually played worse here than you would otherwise expect based on his results in all other events. In other words, his past success here is more a factor of “#1 player in the world” than anything to do with the venue.

I’ve written about Rory’s combination of length and accuracy off the tee before. For comparison’s sake, I’ve attached a graph of tee shot performance from last year from everyone who I had at least 15 rounds of data for. X-axis is driving distance on all shots, adjusted for the course; Y-axis is average degrees off-line from the center of the fairway. Obviously more distance is good, and fewer degrees off-line means a player’s tee shots were more likely to be in the fairway. Rory is marked with the red dot.

tee shot performance 2014

What is ridiculous about Rory is not only that he’s the longest player on the chart, but also that he’s ~12 yards longer than anyone who ranks as more accurate than him. In other words, he’s the platonic ideal of a bomber.

Also, notice the player most similar to Rory – Patrick Rodgers. Rodgers was an outstanding collegiate golfer who turned pro last summer. He just recorded his first win on the Web.com Tour a few weeks ago, and he’s in the field at PGA National this week. The rest of his game is still very shaky, but judging by his placement on that graph the sky is the limit.

Bermuda grass Putting:
The Tour has spent the last few weeks on the West Coast swing, mostly putting on poa annua or mixed greens. The Honda kicks off a stretch of four weeks putting on bermudagrass. Below is a chart of the top 15 and bottom 15 of those who putt better or worse (in terms of strokes gained putting) on bermudagrass greens relative to all other rounds (2011-14).

bermuda grass putting (11-14)

Best Course History:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their PGA National performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Will MacKenzie
2. Alex Cejka
3. Russell Henley
4. Y.E. Yang
5. Fredrik Jacobson
6. Erik Compton
7. Rory Sabbatini
8. Michael Thompson
9. Chris Stroud
10. Nicholas Thompson

Honda Classic Preview

Introduction:

The tournament is played at the PGA National Champions course. The course has bermuda grass greens (the first appearance of bermuda grass greens in over a month) and is most notable for the amount of water hazards the golfers will navigate this week. At least four holes require shots to be played over water where it will be directly in play and several other holes have water in play left or right of the green. In the finishing four holes, there are two par 3s with shots entirely over water and a par 5 where going for the green requires a shot entirely over water to a difficult pin.

2013 averages: Driving Distance – 283 yards, Driving Accuracy – 62%, GIRs – 59%, Scrambling – 55%

Relative to average, the course depresses driving distance, greens in regulation, and scrambling.

Past Performance:

The tournament has been held at the PGA National since 2007, meaning past data is limited. Only 17 players in the field this week have 20+ rounds at the course and the median number of prior rounds is 10. Among the notable favorites, Phil Mickelson has never played the Honda at PGA National, while Adam Scott has only 2 rounds.

Because of the limited samples of prior performance here, there are hardly any golfers who have shown a statistically significant difference in their performance at PGA National versus in all other tournaments. I took each player’s 2007-2013 Honda Classic average performance and their average performance in all tournament from 2007-2013 (weighted by # of rounds played in a season so that if a golfer did not play in 2010, his 2010 performance did not factor into their overall average).

I used a t-test to check for statistical significance. Only three golfers entered this week have played better or worse at a statistically significant level – Erik Compton (12 rounds, better), Geoff Ogilvy (4 rounds, better), and Will MacKenzie (16 rounds, better). It’s important to note that we would expect a similar number of golfers to be significantly better by chance alone. There’s simply not enough data for this tournament, at this venue, to make conclusive statements about how certain golfers over or under-perform here.

Who Do the Stats Fit?:

More generally, I wondered whether PGA National fits a certain type of golfer’s game. Does it favor those who drive for distance? Or accuracy? I gathered individual player data for driving distance and driving accuracy for 2011 to 2013, standardizing the values to the average observed over both years. I then gathered corresponding performance in standard deviations from the mean for each player, stripping out their putting performance using each golfer’s strokes gained putting. For example, Michael Thompson was 1.48 standard deviations better than the field last year. 0.49 of that was from putting, meaning he played tee to green in ~1.0 standard deviation better than the field per round. I then regressed driving distance and accuracy on each golfer’s performance tee to green relative to the field.

The results suggested that there’s a slight bias towards those who drive the ball longer at PGA National. Golfers who were above-average in distance/below-average in accuracy outperformed golfers who were below-average in distance/above-average in accuracy by 0.6 strokes/round, which is fairly significant. For all tournaments in 2013, +drivers/-accuracy outperformed -drivers/+accuracy by roughly 0.2 strokes/round. This suggests that driving for distance is more important at PGA National than in the average PGA Tour tournament. A regression based on only 360 rounds over three years is not airtight, but it does suggest PGA National is biased towards those who hit for more distance.

Distance & Difficulty:

I have a stat to measure the distance a course plays called True Distance. True Distance standardizes the length of each hole based on whether it’s a par 3, 4, or 5. This is necessary because the main factor that effects the listed length of courses is the number of this number of par 3 and par 5s. PGA Tour courses with only 2 par 5s play to 7177 yards on average, while those with 4 par 5s play to 7337 yards. That extra yardage doesn’t make those courses with extra par 5s more difficult.

To find the True Distance of a course I compare the length of each hole to the average length of all PGA Tour holes of that particular par. The average par 3 on Tour is 198 yards, par 4 is 433 yards, and par 5 is 563 yards. A 500 yard par 4 is +67 yards in true distance while a 160 yard par 3 is -38 in true distance. I sum the true distance value for each hole to determine the course total. A table of course, tournament, scorecard yardage, and True Distance is below.

PGA Tour Courses

Immediately it’s obvious why judging a course by its True Distance is superior. Kapalua, site of the season opening Tournament of Champions, is typically considered a bomber’s paradise, but it actually plays as one of the shortest courses on Tour once you factor in that it’s a par 73 with only 3 par 3s. It plays short because 8/11 par 4s and 3/4 par 5s are below average in terms of distance. Opposite of Kapalua are a half-dozen par 70 courses which play as some of the longest courses on Tour, despite having scorecard lengths considered roughly average.

PGA National is one of those par 70s that plays much longer than it is listed. Eight holes play at least 20 yards longer than average, while only 4 holes play at least 20 yards shorter than average. That’s a major reason why this course has played an average of 6.7 strokes over par since 2007.