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Koepka Wins in Phoenix

Brooks Koepka is your winner. No one else covered themselves in glory down the stretch, though. Martin Laird hit two awful tee shots on 17 and 18 to ruin a weekend of clutch putting, Matsuyama missed almost every putt down the stretch, and Bubba couldn’t make birdies on the par 5 15th or drivable 17th. Koepka’s eagle from off the green on 15 was the decisive blow and he held on with two bombed drives to set up pars on 17 and 18. Adam Sarson has the recap and the GIFs (including a borderline NSFW drive by Koepka on 18). Koepka’s pretty anonymous to casual golf fans, but he’s been lurking on the edges for at least the last year waiting to breakthrough in the US.

What’s his game like?
Did you see the final round? Oh yeah, CBS didn’t show his shots until the 16th hole. Anyway, he puts immense power behind the ball, generating some of the fastest club head speed on Tour. He can hit driver as far as anybody on Tour. He was pretty wild last year, but he’s straightened things out through the first few events this year. When you can hit it 310 with accuracy, well, that’s Rory McIlroy territory. He started last season pretty cautious off the tee, hitting three wood a lot on unfamiliar courses. Towards the end of the season and into 2014-15 he started hitting driver more often and he’s really reaped the rewards. Since August, only Rory, Bubba, and Lucas Glover have played better on tee shots.

Koepka’s not a one trick pony though; he was well above Tour average last year on iron/wedge shots and is extremely aggressive in going for par 5s in two. He also hasn’t shown any deficiencies with the short game.And through about 70 measured rounds, he’s putting solidly above average. In short, this kid hasn’t really shown ANY weaknesses.

Where did he come from?
Koepka graduated from Florida St. in 2012 and started playing on the European minor league tour soon after, winning four times by the summer of 2013 and earning his European Tour card. He made a cameo alongside Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2013 PGA Championship, then spent the 2013-14 season bouncing between European and PGA Tour events, eventually earning his PGA Tour card. He finished top ten in his first two starts as a Tour cardholder, then got his first big time win in Turkey last fall. The European Tour named him Rookie of the Year soon after (and made this awful video to celebrate).

Koepka was putting up great finishes almost from the beginning. His 2012 half-season was played at PGA Tour average, and he kept up the pace in 2013 – posting a top 75 season despite making starts on four continents. He jumped into the top 50 in my ratings last September. This win moves him to 19th in the OWGR (I have him around 30th best in the world).

What about going forward?
Full-speed ahead right now for Koepka. In 2.5 seasons, he’s already won two big tournaments, finished top ten at a major, and jumped into the top 20 in the world. He’ll be at all the majors this year (his game sets up perfectly for Augusta by the way), looks like a good bet for the Presidents Cup team, and could easily contend a few more times this year. What struck me most about the win was how nonchalant he was about it. He’s not a young kid with stars in his eyes, just happy to have a win and rest on his laurels; it’s obvious he expects to win every time he tees it up.

Martin Laird’s 5 wood on 18:
Laird blocked his 5 wood into the gallery on 17, ruining his chance of birdie and actually leading to bogey. He stood on the 18th tee one back and watched Koepka bomb it 320+ down the middle of the fairway. From that position (~115 in fairway), Koepka makes at least par over 90% of the time. If you want to win you have to play whatever shot leads to birdie most often. Laird had hit 5 wood on this tee shot in the first three rounds (fairway/rough/fairway) and made two pars and a bogey. The Tour pros on average make birdie on ~13% of their holes from where his 5 wood would’ve ended up on average, versus about 18% of their holes from where his driver would’ve ended up. The choice is pretty clear then – 5 wood wasn’t putting him in position to make birdie on that hole. He then hooked his drive well into the water and had no chance.

What’s most interesting is that Laird is actually pretty long off the tee (he can hit driver about 300 yards) and could’ve put himself down to about 130-140 yards. However, he spent the whole week in Phoenix laying up off the tee (more than all but one pro who made the cut and way less than Koepka and the other leaders). He had relied on his putting and short game to that point. Perhaps he wasn’t confident in driver or perhaps he didn’t like the new bunker positions, but he gave away fractions of a stroke off the tee all week and it finally caught up to him when it mattered.

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