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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.

PGA Championship Round 1 Thoughts

Some quick thoughts after seeing how the pros played Valhalla Thursday:

Rory’s Driving:

I already touched on this Monday, but what Rory is doing off the tee right now is just ridiculous. His distance relative to the field was only +18 yards, tied with Jason Day for best in the field, compared to +28 at the WGC-Bridgestone, but he again maintained superb control of his shots. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and was never forced to hit a recovery shot off his drive. His strokes gained driving was 2.5, tied with Justin Rose for best in the field. On his closing four holes (#15-18) – where he finished birdie-par-par-birdie – he hit every fairway and bombed it 31 yards past the field average. It’s become almost a cliche that the longest hitters come with wildness in their games, but Rory is pushing the limits of the distance and accuracy combination right now.

Lee Westwood’s Major Quest Resumes:

After last summer’s disappointment at Muirfield where Westwood slept on a two shot lead going into Sunday, only to slog around for a 75 and watch Phil blitz the field with a 66, I figured Westwood’s major window was almost closed. He’s been declining from elite to merely good based on my numbers for the past few seasons. A lot of that should be attributed to age, but his decline from that 2009-2010 peak has been sharp. This round today was a masterclass in iron play and putting though. He had great iron shots into #4 and #17 to set up short birdies, but what was most impressive was how he consistently hit it inside 25 feet. So much of winning golf tournaments comes down to making putts, and when you give yourself twelve putts inside 25 feet sometimes you get lucky and sink eight of them like Westwood did. He finished the round 8th in putting, but more importantly 3rd in approach shots. He’s coming off a brilliant Sunday round at the WGC-Bridgestone.

The Split Fairway 7th hole:

A lot was made this week about the choice facing players on #7. It’s a split fairway – left shortens the hole by ~40 yards, while right is more conventional and doesn’t require carrying it over water – par 5 with water coming into play around the green. Left was seen as the “bold” play I suppose, while right was seen as safer and more apt to be preferred by the shorter players. Thursday’s pin was very challenging – just twelve feet from the edge of the water hazard – which may have scared some guys off. Going off one day of numbers, it certainly looks like driving left gives the most advantage.

Players going left (89) averaged 4.63, while going right (46) averaged 4.78. Those numbers remove club pros from the mix as they almost all skewed towards the safer right side. Shorter players did prefer the right side – perhaps because they were scared to take on the 225+ yard carry over water, but even many of those who played right didn’t actually fire at the pin, instead laying up towards the end of the fairway. Below I’ve plotted the first and second shots; gold are drives left and their second shots, blue are drives right and their second shots, drives in the middle water are in red, and the pin is marked by the white cross.

valhalla7thround1

Notice mainly how it was almost impossible for anyone driving the ball to the right to take on the green in two shots. Playing left not only shortens the second shot, but it’s almost the only realistic way to reach the green in two. Of the nine players to hit the green in two, eight played left. Of the 59 players able to go for the green in two, 56 played left. Now, hitting the green in two isn’t everyone’s objective on par 5s. Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, and a few others are more than happy to lay-up and fire in third shot wedges from <100 yards because they’re the best in the game at that shot. There’s no reason for Phil, Tiger, Billy Horschel, Marc Leishman, and several others to be playing that game though. Those guys are the players they are because they can hit greens in two. Hopefully with more forgiving pins located further back on the green we’ll see some of those guys drive it left and then let loose with a fairway wood.

General Course Stats:

For a major championship course, Valhalla played exactly as a normal PGA Tour course on Thursday. The course average came in at +1 (72.1), though the PGA Tour players played it in 71.5. The rough wasn’t particularly penal compared to any other PGA Tour set-up (0.35 strokes harder than shots from the fairway, slightly easier than the WGC-Bridgestone last week) and it didn’t hold players back from firing at the greens. Only 5% of drives required a recovery shot afterwards, right in line with PGA Tour averages. And even though there’s danger lurking off the tee in the form of trees, water, and native areas, the percentage of non-fairway/bunker/rough drives was right in line with PGA Tour averages as well.

The commentators seemed shocked that the course was so receptive to scoring, but it really isn’t any harder than these guys are used to playing. And it’s certainly not playing as long as the 7500 yard figure they kept quoting on TV today. Today’s tees/pins were set-up so it played around 7300; that’s barely longer than the average par 72 course. For this weekend, and especially after Friday’s rain softens the greens, the scores should remain reasonably low.

Thanks to Ken Pomeroy for providing his in-play win probabilities. Here are his numbers after Round 1.

PGA Championship Preview

This week’s PGA Championship returns to Valhalla Golf Club, site of the 1996 & 2000 PGA Championships and the 2008 Ryder Cup. This tournament comes at a nearly perfect time as the major stars of the game have just been destroying everyone for the last month. Rory McIlroy won the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone, Justin Rose won at Congressional and at the Scottish Open, Sergio Garcia has multiple runner-up finishes, and Adam Scott is playing as well as he has in his career. If you ignore the question of whether Tiger will play or not, there’s still a ton of story lines this week.

The Course:

Valhalla is built out of parkland outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Playing from the tips it measures 7458 yards for a par of 71, longer than most courses the pros face week to week, but not notably long compared to recent PGA Championship courses. Water comes into play on around half of the holes – mainly in the form of a creek along the fairway or pools near the greens. The fairways aren’t wide and the rough will be penal, so I don’t think this is a course where you want to spray it around too much. At the same time, about half the fairways are lined only with rough and bunkers. That limits the danger of an errant drive.

Valhalla, then, is a long test. It will absolutely reward the best iron players, but most courses do. Outside of the eternal question of whether to lay-up or hit driver, it is a course that forces you into shots, rather than allowing for multiple options. The short par 4 4th could be set-up as a drivable par 4, but if not it’s a boring 3 wood-wedge hole. The par 4 6th hole’s fairway ends ~300 yards from the tee, meaning everyone’s going to be left with the same 200+ yard approach shot. The par 4 12th runs out of fairway around 300 yards as well, leaving everyone again hitting to around 275 to avoid hitting out of the rough off a down slope. The par 4 13th features an elevated island green, but will be a certain lay-up and wedge for every player this week.

The one hole that offers any choice in real strategy is the par 5 7th. It offers a split fairway – the left fairway offers a shorter route to the green, but the approach shot requires at least a 225 yard carry over water, while the right fairway adds 40 yards to the hole and will limit opportunities to go for the green in two. The long hitters would be out of their minds not to hit it left; it’s an obvious birdie hole going left, while going right will make it play much closer to par. There will be talk all week from the commentators about risk and reward with this hole, but there’s plenty of room on the left fairway and even an average hitter can carry a hybrid 225 yards. It’s a different story for the shorter hitters though. Guys like Furyk, Luke Donald, and even G-Mac may not have the stick to play left.

 

Contenders:

The four obvious names are Rory, Sergio, Adam Scott, and Justin Rose. They’re the four best in my ratings, the four best so far this year, and four of the six best in the last two months (Furyk, Fowler are the others). That’s as close to clear-cut as you’ll ever get in golf. Beyond them, this might be Furyk‘s best chance to win another major. He hasn’t been this high in my ratings since he won the FedEx Cup in 2010. Bill Haas hasn’t received any attention all year, but he’s in that second group of guys with ~2% chance to win. Further down, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pump up Francesco Molinari’s chances again. He’s going to be as good or better than a half dozen guys on the European Ryder Cup team, so it’d be nice to see him make it on merit.

 

Randomness of Long Putts:

Long putts are the most random element of golf. Pros hit about 15% of their 15-25 foot putts and face around seven putts of that length per round. Hitting an extra 5% of your 15-25 footers, even just from chance, will cut almost a third of a stroke off your score – enough to take a player from 100th in putting to 40th. The problem analytically is that putting from this range fluctuates wildly year to year for the pros; it’s common for a pro to lose or gain 5% between seasons. Ryan Moore finished 2nd on Tour in 2012 and 7th to last in 2013. Rickie Fowler finished 4th in 2011 and 2nd to last in 2012. John Merrick sandwiched an 8th place finish in 2011 between two well below-average ones in 2010 and 2012.

I averaged conversion rates from 15-25 feet for everyone on Tour between 2010 and 2013 and compared them to 2014. The results show performance even over multiple seasons regresses by 75% to the mean. That means if you’re the best on Tour one year, you’ll finish more like 50th on Tour the next season. In short, putting from 15-25 feet isn’t consistent at all year to year. Instead, aggregating performance across multiple seasons gives a much better indication of expected performance.

That’s a problem analytically because, as shown above, a hot streak can really lower a player’s score. Each extra putt sunk from 15-25 feet is worth 0.85 strokes gained. Taken to the extreme, Bubba Watson (12% average between 2010-13, 25% average this season) has gained around 0.75 strokes just from 15-25 foot putts. We have no idea whether that represents a genuine change in his putting ability or, more likely, just a hot streak. In fact, the three largest over-achievers in strokes gained putting this season (relative to recent seasons) are all in the top ten for over-achieving in putting from 15-25 feet (relative to recent seasons). That may indicate some regression ahead for Matt Every, Graeme McDowell, and Adam Scott (AimPoint though). Among trailers, Kevin Stadler could cut around 0.4 strokes off his scoring just by putting at his career average from 15-25 feet.