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Day Plays to Win at Torrey Pines

After a final round where the winner was in doubt throughout, Jason Day emerged as the winner of the four man playoff to win at Torrey Pines. Day went for the green in two at 18 in regulation and again in the playoff, making par the first time to stay at -9 and making birdie the second time advance in the playoff. Runner-up J.B. Holmes did not go for the green in regulation, and after a good wedge in, missed a downhill birdie putt to win. The immediate reaction from myself & others on Twitter was that Holmes should have gone for the green because it gave him a better chance at birdie. I’ll try to provide some context to why he played a lay-up and also what the numbers say in that situation.

Day’s Win
This was Jason Day’s first stroke play win since 2010. Day’s been generating monster performances now for the last two seasons – despite injuries sapping much of 2014 – and he’s always looked right on the edge of something truly special. Perhaps that starts this season. Day’s game is built around his effortless power off the tee, but on these tough courses his short game really shines through. He scrambles with the best on Tour and his putting is outstanding; that gives him something to lean back on when the field is only hitting ten greens a round. He hit some ridiculously good shots on Sunday tee to green, but he was also 5/5 in scrambling. He talked about how he “liked to grind it out” in his post-tournament presser. I’m not sure there’s anyone else better at doing that right now.

This sets Day up for an enormous year. Right now, he’s in that elite group at the very top who are the favorites whenever the big guns tee it up together.

Going for the 18th in Two
J.B. Holmes sat in the middle of the fairway on 18 at -9, with 235 yards to the pin. Scott Stallings and Day were in the clubhouse at -9 and Harris English could get to -9 as well with a birdie on 18. Holmes needed a birdie to win outright; a par would only earn him a 1/3 or 1/4 shot in a playoff – with the defending champion and another clearly superior player. Holmes eventually chose to lay up, claiming the lie wasn’t ideal and that he was afraid he’d hook it long and left. With the lay-up, Holmes still had about a 1/4 chance of birdie. He spun a wedge to 19 feet and rolled his birdie putt just past.

On a typical par 5, it would be lunacy not to go for the green from 235 yards in the fairway. Tour pros go for that shot about 90% of the time and are rewarded with birdie about 55% of the time. 18 at Torrey Pines seems like an atypical par 5 though. Hit enough club to carry the water just short of the pin and you risk rolling it into the thick rough long. That earns a wicked downhill chip that (as we saw with Jason Day) brings the water into play. The question becomes, does going for the green in two earn a significantly better chance at birdie, at least enough to outweigh the chance of making a bogey by hitting it into the water either on the 2nd shot or the 3rd shot.

Based on data from Sunday, 17 pros went for the 18th in two shots. Eight players made birdie, eight made par, and one made bogey after a three putt. That 47% birdie rate right there is pretty damning to Holmes’s decision. The positions those 17 players attacked the green from were very similar to Holmes – an average of 239 yards to the pin and 14/17 in the fairway. In fact, Holmes was one of only three guys to lay up from inside 245 yards in the fairway all day. Last year, 12/21 players (57%) made birdie after going for it in two. It seems like a reasonable assumptions that the result of Holmes’s 2nd shot would be similar to those 38 other players who went for it from similar positions. I could also adjust the expectations based on Holmes’s ability on long approach shots vs. wedge shots, but he’s equal on those based on my shot by shot numbers from the past year.

I’ve plotted the results from 2014 & 2015 below. Birdies in gold, bogeys in red. Hitting the green yielded birdie 6/7 times, long in the rough yielded birdie 6/11 times, long left yielded birdie 2/5 times, short left 3/4 times, right of the green 1/5 times, and short of the green 2/6 times with three water balls. In short, pretty much anywhere Holmes hit his 2nd shot he was more likely to make birdie than with a wedge from 100 yards. And only one player out of 35 who carried the water made bogey.

2ndshotsatTorrey18

I think it’s pretty clear Holmes made the wrong play here. Making tactical errors in situations like this are very common on Tour because players get fixated on the information that easily comes to mind – I’ve hooked long approach shots before, Lucas Glover hit the water right before me, I hit a wedge to 10 feet last year (which Holmes did to this pin position). They fail to realize that a handful of shots provide far less information than the results of the other 155 players in the field. The outcomes of the 38 guys who went for the green in two over the past two years provides FAR more information about the possible outcomes of your own shot.

Part of using numbers in golf is knowing what is likely to happen if you hit an average shot from a given lie and distance. While the differences between Tour players may seem magnified in terms of outcomes (money, wins, FedEx points), they’re all within in pretty narrow range of golfing ability. This means you can generalize potential outcomes for most shots similarly to what I’ve done above and choose a strategy from there.

In Holmes’s case, he went from nearly 50% to birdie if he went for the green to about 25% to birdie by laying-up. I have him at above 60% to win if he goes for the green and about 48% to win if he lays up. In terms of earnings, he cost himself about $100,000 by laying up.

Here is the data for all those who went for the green in two on 18 in 2014 & 2015

Hyundai TOC Recap – 2015

Patrick Reed’s your winner – his 4th win before age 25 – thanks to splashing an 80 yard wedge on 16 and making back to back birdies on 18 to close out his round and beat Jimmy Walker in the playoff. Great recap from Adam Sarson here.

Patrick Reed’s 4th Win:

This win makes Reed the fourth golfer to win four times on Tour before their 25th birthday – Tiger, Rory, and Sergio are the fairly obvious others. Looking forward, Jordan Spieth has 3.5 years to capture three more official wins and I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Hideki Matsuyama reached that total either. Regardless, it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Reed’s career to this point has been pretty amazing to watch. He spent 2012 Monday qualifying (6 times!) and playing on sponsor’s exemptions before winning his Tour card in the last Q-School. He then faced down fellow rookie Jordan Spieth to win his first title at the Wyndham in 2013 and came out last year and won twice in the first three months – including over a stacked field at Doral. The funny thing is he hasn’t played that well outside of those wins; he has four career titles and only six other top tens. In fact, the PGA Tour has him ranked 69th and 52nd in scoring average the past two seasons. He just hasn’t brought it consistently every week.

That disconnect between his results in the large majority of events versus his wins make him one of the most interesting guys this upcoming season. Below is a graph of his results since the start of 2013 subdivided into one of seven bins based on his performance relative to the field. Anything on the left side of the graph is usually a missed cut or a very low finish, anything to the right is top ten territory or a potential win. I’ve compared Reed to golfers similar to his performance suggested by his scoring average and to golfers who have elite performance.

Patrick Reed Performance

You can see Reed’s best performances compare favorably to the elite guys (Keegan, Webb, Dufner, etc.), but quickly drop below even guys with comparable overall performances. He just has more of the awful weeks than he should based on his performance. That’s the challenge for him this year; everyone knows he can win on a great week, but part of being an elite golfer is grinding out those top 10s and top 25s. Reed’s definitely worthy of more research and discussion.

Outlook for Jason Day:

Day’s flashed his ridiculous upside with seven top tens in seventeen major starts and consistent high level play since he was 21. He’s sort of the opposite of Patrick Reed in that he’s reeled off a bunch of great finishes in Tour events, but only captured two wins. He’s also has a weird combination of skills in that he hits it really well off the tee, putts at a consistently high level, and has a good short game, but hasn’t shown much ability to hit his irons well. Last year was his best year with his irons though, despite back, thumb, and hip injuries.

Through the first tournament, things are looking good for him. In a week where the putter and short game weren’t that impressive, Day still finished on top of the long game rankings (Tee shots + approach shots). He showed huge distance off the tee (2nd to Bubba) and hit the 2nd most greens. Day’s already a top ten guy in the world based on his performance; any improvement with the irons would propel him near Rory territory.

 

PGA Championship Round 2 Thoughts

A wet day at Valhalla, but one hardly touched by the expected severe weather. Wet conditions did have a significant impact on how the course played. Driving distance was slashed, dropping from 284 yards on average Thursday to 272 yards Friday. This left the average approach shot at 190 yards; the course definitely played long today despite no real effort to stretch out the tees. The wet conditions left the par 5 10th as a three shot hole for the entire field and lengthened the par 5 7th so much that eleven Tour players splashed their 2nd shot into the green. Approach shots played slightly easier, but the greens were destroyed by the end of the day. Short putts were bouncing like crazy near the hole; the early wave putted 0.5 strokes better than the the late wave because of how damaged the greens were in the afternoon.

Rory…Again:

After an opening round 66, Rory jumped into the lead at the close of Friday with a second round 67. Rory again showed off his all-around game, though his driving was noticeably less impressive than on Thursday – only 8/14 fairways. What carried him was a hot putter. He started slowly, missing a thirteen foot birdie putt on #10 and a ten foot putt for par on #12, but rebounded immediately with a birdie on #13 and an eight foot par save on #14. His longest of the round was a 31 foot bomb for eagle on 18. In all, he gained +2.2 strokes from putting, 10th best in the field.

Rory’s putting hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as his ridiculous driving or consistent iron play, but it’s played a huge role in his great season and recent surge to demi-god status this summer. In his previous few seasons on Tour he’s been a slightly below average putter, but this season he’s jumped to gaining +0.4 strokes on the field with the putter – good for top 20 on Tour. That doesn’t even include his victories in the European PGA at Wentworth or Open Championship where we don’t have strokes gained data, but where he surely putted well.

In his six rounds at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone and this week’s Championship, he’s gaining +1.5 strokes per round on the field from putting. That’s way better than anyone can sustain (the very best approach +1 stroke gained). Sure he’s driving the ball at a heretofore unseen level and, yes, the rest of his game is great too, but the main reason he’s destroying everyone the last few weeks is because he’s making everything. At some point he’ll stop making everything – he may even regress back into an average putter (hot putting is the most fickle mistress in golf). The crazy thing is that he’s still probably the best player in golf even if he’s an average putter.

Jason Day’s Tee to Green Game:

The best part of the afternoon wave today was watching the show Jason Day was putting on tee to green. His front nine was a collection of bombed drives, darts to inside ten feet, and green after green hit (he missed his first on #10). His 240 yard iron to fifteen feet to set-up eagle on #7 was a ridiculously good shot, but I think his best hole was the 324 yard drive on #2, followed by a high approach to 17 feet, and a birdie. Not bad for a hole that played hardest on the course and where only a quarter of the field even hit the green. In all, his drives and approach shots gained +4.9 strokes on the field Friday, the best of either round.

Day was great tee to green on Thursday as well (+4.3 strokes), but didn’t make anything on the greens. The putter heated up Friday and he surged into a tie for 2nd. In the post-round interview he still claimed his thumb wasn’t 100% so it’s kind of crazy to see him so sharp on these long shots.

7th Hole Summary from Friday:

Same methods used as yesterday. Players who drove right actually played this hole 0.07 strokes better than those who played left a complete flip-flop from yesterday. The proportions choosing each side stayed the same, but because of the wet conditions I think some players just misjudged what length shot they’d be left with from the left fairway. There were eleven water balls from the left side today, compared to just four yesterday, and about half of those driving left ended up laying up to the right fairway because they didn’t have the length to challenge the green in two. Same color scheme – left drives in gold, right in blue.

valhalla7thround2Notice how muddled the lay-up zone is with the second shots of guys who drove it left.

How Bad are the Club Professionals?

The PGA Championship is unique among PGA Tour tournaments in that it qualifies the best twenty club professionals to participate. These guys rarely make the cut – Ryan Heliminen was top this year at T75 – and typically finish dozens of strokes off the lead. But just how bad are they? Are they uncompetitive off the tee, while solid putters? Using the two rounds of strokes gained stats I’ve gathered, it turns out that they’re pretty uniformly bad at everything. If you take the worst PGA Tour player in each of the major shot types – Kyle Stanley’s putting, Mike Weir’s driving, Robert Garrigus’s short game, etc. – you pretty much have the typical PGA club professional.

None of this is meant to disparage them. During TNT’s feature on club pro Michael Block he stated that he only hit about one bucket of balls a week. PGA Tour players are playing half the weeks out of the year, and you have to practice constantly to maintain even the ability to be a bad PGA Tour player. That a club pro can show even near-PGA Tour-level talent without all that practice time is impressive.

American Ryder Cup Hopefuls:

Six US players have already essentially qualified for the Ryder Cup squad, leaving three automatic spots to be decided at the conclusion of the PGA Championship and three more captain’s picks. I ran a simulation to determine who is in the best shape as of the end of round 2 to get one of those remaining three spots. Right now, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner, and Zach Johnson are slightly in front of a group of players including Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Brendon Todd, and Ryan Moore. Keegan Bradley missed the cut, meaning he’s completely out of automatic qualification (though everyone suspects he’ll reprise his 2012 pairing with Phil Mickelson through a captain’s pick). Jason Dufner also has no way to earn additional points, as he withdrew with a neck injury.

Patrick Reed made the cut and looks almost certain (95%) to earn automatic qualification to the team. Reed would have to be passed by three US players to drop off the team, which is obviously unlikely as only Mickelson, of the group right behind him in the points ranking, is projected to finish high. Zach Johnson also looks like a pretty sure bet to make the team (81%). Johnson sits in 9th currently, but should pass at least Dufner simply by completing the tournament. Phil’s big move today propelled him into great position to qualify (67%). In his easiest scenario to qualify, Phil needs to finish around 15th or better to pass Dufner. If no one else makes significant moves among Moore, Todd, or others further down, that should be enough to get him on the team.

Of the longer shots, Dufner is still around 19% to maintain his spot. It’s completely up in the air whether he’ll be healthy enough to play, but the event is still almost two months away. Ryan Palmer (12%) can qualify with a very high finish – he’ll probably need at least a two way tie for 2nd to get on the team. Ryan Moore (12%) has an outside shot at qualification, though he’ll need to make a serious move and probably finish top ten. Steve Stricker (3%) needs to win to have any hope of getting in. A half-dozen others like Brian Harman, Billy Horschel, Bill Haas, and Brandt Snedeker could get in with wins or second place finishes.

 

Ken Pomeroy’s numbers are below. Pinnacle Sports is dealing Rory +124 which is…something.