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McGladrey Classic Preview

The PGA Tour returns to Sea Island for the fifth McGladrey Classic this week. The par 70 Seaside Course winds through tidal flats, marshes, and dunes to create a fairly unique course among the venues visited by the PGA Tour. Most fairways are exposed to the wind, like on many coastal courses, but hazards also threaten on about half the tee shots – often left and right. This places a premium on controlling ball-flight and hitting fairways. Players hit fewer drivers here than on almost any other course the Tour plays just for that reason. The course is relatively short, even for a par 70, and doesn’t require many long carries with an iron.

The field isn’t particularly strong – though no worse than the past two weeks – and has some star power at the top with three Ryder Cuppers, Chris Kirk, and Bill Haas. The attention this week will be on the rookies – particularly the long hitting Tony Finau, who is working off a T12 and T7 to start the season. Seaside is a course that harshly punishes bad misses off the tee; learning where you can miss while still playing a proactive, birdie-seeking game is important for the rookies. Interestingly, the rough is very benign compared to normal. A player who misses fairways, but doesn’t find the hazards will do fine this week.

Course Fit:

Recognizing that the course history here is only four years and ~500 players, I looked into what types of players succeed here. I controlled for putting performance, meaning I’m looking at performance relative to the field ignoring any shots on the green. I’m interested in how a player’s tee to green style affects their performance at Seaside. I also controlled for player ability as represented by my z-score ratings; unsurprisingly these proved to be the most important piece of the predictive puzzle. However, I also looked at measured driving distance (ie, how far can you hit tee-shots), driving accuracy, and greens in regulation.

The results showed that players who hit more fairways on average (and this can be a result of cautious play off the tee and/or greater accuracy off the tee) perform better than normal at Seaside. Each extra fairway hit above PGA Tour average is worth about 0.4 strokes better performance than at an average PGA Tour event. In comparison, ability to hit for distance off the tee showed no correlation with success here. That’s likely because of how few drivers are hit off the tee here; the long hitters have few opportunities to shine here. Hitting greens isn’t much of a separator either because they’re large and easy to hit.

The ideal player here is one who builds their success off their mid-irons – Webb Simpson and Chad Campbell come to mind. Most players can get around this course by staying out of trouble off the tee and hitting the greens. To actually win you can’t be suckered into that survival game because there are birdies available for good iron players.

Tee-shot Strategy:

Overall, I estimate players hit driver on only 59% of their par 4/5 tee-shots last season – substantially fewer than the around 70% Tour average. Lay-ups are most common on #1, #2, #4, #8, #10, #13, and #14; players hit driver less than half the time on those holes last year. I don’t have enough data to map out trends in successful strategies.

At #1, the fairway is very wide up until around 265 yards off the tee, before it tapers quickly and two bunkers lurk to the right. Playing a lay-up results in a 160+ yard second shot, but allows for a straight-forward shot from the fairway.

At #2, there’s water/marsh in play on both left and right misses and the tee-shot is completely exposed to a left-right wind. The play here for most was the lay-up into the 250-280 yard range where the fairway is inviting and the worst miss is left into a fairway bunker.

#4 is the signature hole on the course for me. It’s an extreme dog leg left with the marsh in play off the left side and a bunker long to capture anyone playing aggressively down the right side. Most laid-up to the fat part of the fairway leaving ~170 to the pin.

#8 only offers trouble long. The green falls just short of drivable from the back tees. A shot of < 260 yards onto the extremely wide fairway is safe; anything beyond must avoid a waste area left, two bunkers guarding either side at 260-280 yards, and a bunker in front of the greens, as well as hit a fairway that’s as narrow as 16 yards. Any miss right aiming towards the green is swallowed by the trees short left.

#10 has water left off the tee and a large bunker right. The safe zone for longer hitters hitting driver is less than 45 yards between the water and bunker, making driver off the tee an extremely dangerous shot. Anything short of 280 yards is likely fine absent an extremely wide miss to the left.

#13 has bunkers long and right and a marshy channel right. In the limited sample of data I have driver was the better option for longer hitters; there’s not a ton of risk with the water far to the left.

#14 is the last lay-up hole before almost everyone takes out driver down the stretch. This hole offers a completely exposed tee-shot next to the water, aiming at a tiny safe landing area between trees right and marsh/native area left. The cautious play is anything between 260 and 280 – avoiding the bunker/tree right. That does leave almost 190 yards for the second shot.