Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

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How He Won: Brendon Todd at the Byron Nelson

Some quick stats from Brendon Todd’s victory this weekend:

On average, PGA Tour winners putt much better than normal on the weeks they win. Since the start of 2013, the winners putted 1.3 strokes/round better than normal. Brendon Todd putted 1.9 strokes/round better than he normally does, a massive 2.4 strokes/round gained on the field. That putting performance would rank 7th among 2013-14 winners behind Bill Haas (AT&T National), Tiger Woods (Arnold Palmer), Russell Henley (Sony), Jimmy Walker (Frys), Webb Simpson (Las Vegas), and Matt Jones (Houston).

On average, PGA Tour winners also play tee to green much better than normal. Since the start of 2013, the winners played 1.8 strokes/round better tee to green than normal. Brendon Todd is basically average tee to green normally and he played in 1.65 fewer strokes/round. That over-performance is fairly low for winners; since 2013, only Tiger Woods (WGC-Cadillac), Jonas Blixt (Greenbrier), Jimmy Walker (Frys), and Matt Jones (Houston) were worse tee to green. Todd joins Blixt, Zach Johnson (Hyundai T of C), and Travelers champ Ken Duke as the only two winners in 2013 not to hit more greens than the field. Todd hit only 60% of his greens compared to 62% by the field, as well as driving it six yards shorter than the field off the tee. This was not a tournament won with the driver, woods, or long irons.

His tee to green performance was almost entirely a result of his scrambling. I don’t have shot-by-shot scrambling data for the other 2013-14 winners, but Todd gained 6.1 of 6.5 tee to green strokes from his short game – including three hole outs worth over a stroke a piece. I suspect that is abnormal. Some level of scrambling over-performance is a necessity to win on Tour, but I’m referring only to short game strokes. Gaining over six strokes in that manner seems extremely high.

It’s important to note that short term performance in putting and scrambling is much more random than other tee to green play. Based on that, it’s unsurprising that PGA Tour winners over-perform by so much in their putting. In fact since the start of 2013 only Steven Bowditch (Texas) has won a tournament putting worse than the field; only four others have gained fewer than two strokes on the field through putting over the weekend.

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.