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How He Won: Jimmy Walker (Pebble Beach Pro-am)

Jimmy Walker did it again. After taking home both the 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.

Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Friday

Quick recap of the day’s stats:

All courses in the rotation played more difficult today, with a uniform increase in difficulty of 2-2.5 strokes across the board. Monterrey Peninsula played to 71.3, Pebble Beach to 74.1, and Spyglass Hill to 73.2. The uniform increase means there wasn’t much of an advantage in which courses a golfer played so far. We’ll see if that holds up tomorrow. Pebble Beach, which played as a fairly innocuous course on Thursday (71.6) revealed its teeth Friday. Driving distance plummeted by 9 yards which resulted in a GIR rate of 58%, compared to 66% on Thursday. Average proximity to the hole after approach was 43 feet, 8 more than Thursday.

Looking ahead to Saturday, Hunter Mahan and Jimmy Walker will move to the much easier Monterrey Peninsula course, while Jordan Spieth will play Pebble Beach. If the differentials seen on the first two days hold up, Mahan and Walker will play a course 2.5-3 strokes easier than Spieth, enough to make those two comfortable favorites going into the weekend.

For those playing Pebble Beach tomorrow, the stretch from #9-12 looms large. #9 and #10 are par 4s playing a third of a stroke over par, while #12 is a preposterously difficult par 3 playing a similar third of a stroke over par. Daniel Summerhays recorded perhaps the second best round of the day today, primarily by playing #9-12 at even par. After parring #9, he scrambled successfully from right off the green on #10, before generating birdie putts of 7 and 12 feet on #11 & #12. Summerhays beat the field by 5 strokes, most of that coming with his play from tee to green. Only Victor Dubuisson played better today (67, 7 strokes better than the field), though he relied heavily on his putter (>3 strokes gained there). Dubuisson dropped putts of 37 and 20 feet, but his shot of the day might have been his 2nd shot to 21 feet for eagle on #18. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, this round followed a disastrous Thursday where he blundered around Monterrey Peninsula four shots worse than the field.

Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Thursday

Just a short wrap-up of the important stats for Thursday:

The pro-am is played on three different courses, Monterrey Peninsula, Spyglass Hill, and Pebble Beach. Monterrey Peninsula is typically the easiest track;  on Thursday it played to 69.01 strokes. Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach were more comparable at 71.15 and 71.62.

The driving stats were: 276.3 yards/77% fairways at Monterrey Peninsula, 282.5 yards/60% fairways at Spyglass Hill, and 278.6 yards/74% fairways at Pebble Beach [1]. Spyglass lived up to its reputation as having tough-to-hit fairways, though players got a little extra distance. It’s important to note that while Monterrey Peninsula is listed at only 6867 yards, that’s because it has a fifth par-3. Monterrey’s par 4/5 average hole length is actually 456 yards, longer than Pebble Beach (439 yards) and Spyglass Hill (449 yards).

Despite the extra length, Monterrey Peninsula’s greens were easy to hit at 80%. MP is one of the easiest courses in terms of GIR the Tour will visit all season. The other two tracks proved more difficult as Spyglass (66%) defends itself with the narrow fairways/rough and Pebble (68%) defends itself with microscopic greens. All three courses played easier in GIR terms than the average PGA track however. The proximity to hole stats from Pebble suggest that the competitors were hitting it to an average of 35.1 feet on their approaches, almost exactly PGA Tour average.

Notably among the leaders, Jimmy Walker posted a strokes gained putting of only 0.76, despite finishing 5.6 strokes better than the average golfer at Pebble Beach (meaning he gained 4.8 strokes elsewhere). Most importantly, Walker holed his scrambling shots on #10 and #14, from 40 and 21 yards. From the fairway from those distances the average golfer takes ~2.5 strokes to finish the hole, meaning Walker netted around 3 strokes on the field just from those hole-outs. Walker also hit a ton of shots close, generating a birdie probability of 4.4 birdies (this sums the expected probabilities of Walker birdieing a hole based on where his approach shot came to rest). He had putts of 5, 5, 6, 8, 10, and 10 feet for birdie, converting 4 of those in addition to his hole-outs.

The pros unsurprisingly eviscerated the two front-nine par 5s at Pebble Beach. #2 (502 yards) yielded a 4.40 average and #6 (513 yards) yielded a 4.49 average. Both had comically easy to hit fairways (79% and 76%) and over 90% of the field hit the green in regulation. It’s a cliche most places, but a par genuinely is almost like a bogey on those holes.

[1] – Driving distance stats for MP and SH include only the two holes designated to be measured each round. PB driving distance stats include all par 4/5s. This likely overstates the distance achieved on those two courses by around ~8 yards; PGA players last year achieved 8 yards more distance when measuring only two designated holes versus all par 4/5s.