Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

Tag Archives: phil mickelson

Quick Masters Thoughts

This is just a quick run-through of my thoughts on some of the big names and a few others for this week.

Rory McIlroy
It seems like there’s some trepidation over installing McIlroy as the favorite this week, despite him playing clearly the best golf of anyone in the world for the past year. I’ve seen some insisting that Bubba is the favorite – two Green Jackets in three years and all – while others think Jordan Spieth’s success here last year and hot run over the past month plus means he’s the favorite. Sport fans struggle with perspective, especially around the biggest stars, and in the case of McIlroy and the Masters, perspective is critical.

It’s true that his PGA Tour play this season has been spotty (MC-9th-11th in three events in Florida), but his missed cut came on a 3 wood heavy course that he’s generally struggled at over his career. Rory relies so much on the advantage of blowing his driver 20 yards past the field that when he’s forced to ease up off the tee he’s a different golfer. Besides that MC, Rory has finished 2nd at a strong European Tour event, won another strong European Tour event, and then finished around 10th at two strong PGA Tour events. The quality of his golf in 2015 has been the same as in 2014.

As for his Masters history, it’s mostly mediocre for a player of his caliber, but this is a course which clearly favors guys who can bomb it around and feast on par 5s. However, during his career at Augusta National McIlroy has suffered from an inability to score on the par 5s (4.76 average compared to 4.70 for the field) and a tendency towards big numbers (3.5% double/triple bogey rate compared to 2.5% for the field). Basically, if you think McIlroy will struggle here you believe that he’s unable to score on the par 5s here (with that huge, high draw I think that’s unlikely) and uniquely snake-bitten in terms of posting big numbers (rather than the victim of bad luck).

Adam Scott
Perhaps because of his sparse schedule, Adam Scott hasn’t gotten enough credit for the three year run he put together between 2012 and 2014: 48 official Tour events, 47 made cuts, 21 top 10s, and three victories including the 2013 Masters. Perhaps some criticism of his lack of wins is warranted, but he plays at events with mostly very strong fields and he’s taken a very solid 6% of his events. Until McIlroy hit the gas last summer, there was definitely a debate over whether he or Scott was the best in the world. Obviously not now, but in my estimation Adam Scott enters this year’s Masters Tournament as the solid second best in the field.

Scott has great course history here, which is to be expected with his distance and ability to hit his irons so well, and he’s entering with his tee to green game looking really sharp. His performance on the Florida swing was consistently elite tee to green (+1.5, +1.7, +1.7 strokes gained/round against strong fields), but he struggled while trying out the short putter and that absolutely torpedoed his overall results in Tampa and Orlando. He’s back to the anchored long putter this week and if he can just be his normal mediocre self on the greens, he’ll be in line for a high finish.

Phil Mickelson
Phil has owned Augusta National to the tune of three wins and a yearly tradition of top finishes, but the results the past couple years just haven’t been there. What’s illuminating is that when you plot Phil’s average driving distance alongside his Masters performances, there’s a pretty obvious trend. Prior to 2012, his worst finish in driving distance was 35th. During this period his combination of power off the tee, great irons/wedges, and a really strong short game made him one of the best in the world (and made up for the fact he had no clue where his tee shots were going). In 2012 he slipped to 53rd on Tour in driving distance, then 93rd and 70th the next two years.

Mickelson Driving Distance Masters Play

Along with that distance decline, his Masters results in 2013 and 2014 were both his worst since missing the cut in 1997. Phil went from scoring an average of 4.36 on the par 5s between 2008-12 to 4.70 in 2013-14. Now, this year it looks like he’s got some of his power back (driving distance and club head speed are both up), so there’s definitely some hope he’ll return to former levels of success here.

Jordan Spieth
Spieth’s run over the past two months has been great to watch and he’s fully recovered from his struggles off the tee in the second half of last season. What is interesting is how he’s changed his game even from his rookie year in 2013. Spieth was one of the most accurate guys on Tour that season, with above-average distance. Last year, his driving numbers weren’t nearly as strong and he spent the last half of the season spraying his drives off the tee, making a bid for the Tour Sauce Hall of Fame. This year he’s gotten significantly longer (~5 yards), and he’s kept his tee shots in play like in his rookie season. That’s driven his long game to elite levels.

He’s riding a bit of a lucky putter right now so it’s important to view his recent play in a slightly skeptical light. But he is one of the top 10-15 putters on Tour, so it’s not like he’s going to fall off much.

Keegan Bradley
I haven’t heard Keegan’s name mentioned at all this week, which shows the power prior play at Augusta National has over people. Keegan’s three starts here have been mediocre as a whole, especially for a guy who’s been around the 20th best in the world over that time, but he absolutely fits the mold of a guy who should shine here. He launches the ball off the tee with a solid draw, he doesn’t struggle on bentgrass greens, and he has putted better than average on similar lightning quick greens at Firestone, Houston, and Muirfield Village.

Chris Kirk
Kirk played well last year in his first Masters trip and stands out as a pretty attractive long-shot pick. His game has been messy this year, especially when contrasted with his successes at the end of last season. The common theme so far has been just really poor putting. Kirk’s established himself as a very strong putter over the last few years, but he’s not making anything so far in 2015. Kirk’s been especially poor at making long putts (2% of his 25+ footers have gone in), despite a recent history where he’s one of the best on Tour at making putts from distance over 2011-14. I’ve written about how long putting seems to be especially random, driving putting results up or down without reflecting genuine improvements or declines in putting ability. Based on that, I expect Kirk to start producing better results on the greens and overall.

The forecast looks wet all weekend which I’ve seen taken as evidence that McIlroy, in particular, will be in good shape considering his wet weather record (his WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship wins last year were both on wet courses). I took a look at how players with high or low ball flights played in a handful of clearly wet rounds (WGC-Bridgestone 4th round & PGA Championship rounds 2-4). Players who bring it in high onto damp greens should be able to stick it closer than those who bring it in low.

It turns out that just looking at those four rounds (~250 individual rounds), that hypothesis was borne out in the data. I specifically measured Strokes Gained on Iron shots (par 4/5 approach shots & par 3 tee shots) and compared performance in these specific rounds to all the data I have more a player since last season. This controls for talent hitting irons. The correlation with the PGA Tour’s Trackman derived Apex Height stat wasn’t strong, but the coefficients suggest a player with an extremely high ball-flight – J.B. Holmes, Keegan Bradley – could gain about a 0.15 or more strokes from their normal level of play just on their iron shots if the course plays wet this week.

Apex Height vs Wet Weather play

This is definitely a subject worth a more formal investigation, but the data points to high ball-flight players being advantaged to a small degree in wet weather.

2015 Humana Challenge Preview

A trio of easy resort courses are in play this week – PGA West (Palmer), PGA West (Nicklaus), and La Quinta CC. This week is typically the easiest scoring week of the year for the pros. Expect a lot of fairways hit, a lot of wedge approach shots, and a lot of birdies overall. It’s tough to do anything regarding course form here as the event courses have changed a lot over the year; perhaps most important for the pros is being able to deal with the pro-am format while still staying in the competitive zone.

What I’m Looking At:
This marks Phil Mickelson’s 2015 debut and his first start since he bowed out of the Playoffs early in September. A lot has been written about Phil’s down season last year and what it means for his career and his performance going forward. However, a lot of that “down season” stuff is solely based on him not winning a tournament for the first time since 2003. And yeah, the big results weren’t there (though he had two 2nds), but his overall performance was only down slightly from 2011-2013 – mostly because he wasn’t sinking essentially every putt. The expectations for him week to week on Tour are ridiculous; he’s more like the 20th best player in the world and it’s completely normal for that guy to go a year without winning.

Over the past few years, Phil has lost a ton of club head speed. Five years ago he was 13th on Tour in driving distance and in the top 10-15% in terms of driving performance on Tour. Last year he was 70th and basically average in driving performance. This is entirely normal for a golfer in his mid 40s and he’s responding the right way by trying to get in better shape. We’ll see if it translates at all to his performance this year. He’s also been one of the most aggressive in terms of using driver on holes where others are laying-up.

This week also marks Jason Dufner’s 2015 debut. He was sidelined from August to October with a neck injury after having a disappointing 2014 season. However, he returned in a three week Asian swing where he played more like he had been playing in 2012-13. The most important question for Dufner going forward revolves around his putting. In the past six seasons he’s had three mostly average putting years by Strokes Gained Putting and two disastrous years. When he putts at an average level, his ball-striking makes him a clear top 25 player. When he putts as poorly as last season, he’s simply not a factor. Last year he was only in contention once in sixteen events after something like nine or ten times in 48 events in 2012-13. That all comes down to whether he can not be awful on the greens.

Patrick Reed’s Title Defense:
I wrote about Patrick Reed after he won the Hyundai ToC two weeks ago, saying he displayed a very wide spread of results and especially way more wins than his aggregate performance suggested. Most ridiculously, he has four tournament wins, but only six other top tens. Dividing his results into three groups – good (around top 10 and better), average, bad (missed cut or low finish in the money), he’s at 33% good, 30% average, and 37% bad since 2013. The average spread for guys who are approximately as good as he is is 25% good, 43% average, and 32% bad; instead of those average results he’s racking up some really good performances and some really awful performances.

Now, this could be part of his game or it could be just how the chips have fallen in ~50 tournaments. I ran the same numbers for golfers of similar talent to him for 2011-12 and compared their percentiles to their results in 2013-14. First, Patrick Reed’s results were more extreme than any of the ~75 golfers I compared him to. He had about 12% more good performances than he should’ve based on his talent. Looking ahead to 2013-14, the golfers who had more good performances than they should have still had more good performances, but only slightly. For every three “extra” good performances they retained only one “extra” good performance in 2013-14. Applying that to Reed, we should expect him to fall more into a bell-curve like performance distribution with fewer extreme tournaments, and more average ones.

The interesting question is whether Reed’s aggregate performance is dragged down by him playing especially poorly when he’s not in contention. I examined whether golfers “gave-up” in the fall and concluded that there was only evidence of “giving-up” for golfers who were 10 strokes behind starting the 2nd round and 15 strokes behind starting the 4th round (ie, guys who are going to miss the cut and guys who are locked into 65th place). Golfers in those places play, on average, between 0.25 and 0.5 strokes worse than normal.

Reed’s results are very extreme. When he starts the 2nd round within five strokes of the lead he’s played 1.1 strokes better than expected. When he starts the 2nd round in any worse position he’s played 0.6 strokes worse than expected. That certainly explains why he’s missed so many cuts. Looking deeper, the same phenomenon occurs in the 3rd round where he plays well near the lead, but not when far off the pace. In the 4th round though, the trend completely reverses and he plays slightly worse near the lead, but way better when far off the pace.

It’s impossible to conclude anything about his motivations from this analysis of ~60 tournaments; it’s just not very much data and easily influenced by chance. I’m sure I could find similar results from other golfers. It does, however, go some way towards explaining why his performances have tended towards the extreme.

Best Past Results:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Humana/Bob Hope performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Chad Collins
2. Colt Knost
3. Matt Jones
4. Zach Johnson
5. Daniel Summerhays

Again, these are polluted by putting luck and there are multiple course histories represented.

Golfers After 40: How Age Erodes Performance

I’ve written at length about aging – general aging curve, putting aging curve, & aging curves for driving, approach shots, and the short game – because it’s a critically important topic when discussing the trajectory of golfers’s careers and projecting their performance going forward. What I’ve generally found is that golfers improve slightly from the early to late 20s, peak for most of their 30s, and then begin declining in the late 30s, with that decline accelerating in the mid 40s. A golfer who’s one of the best in the world in the mid 30s – think Adam Scott or Sergio currently – will decline to around PGA Tour average by the time they’re 50. This piece today will specifically focus on how golfers change between their late 30s and early 40s, basically the stage of his career that Tiger Woods is currently going through.

How Much is Performance Affected by Turning 40?

I gathered a huge sample of PGA Tour golfers for this study, including everyone with at least three years worth of results between ages 35-39 and three more between ages 40-44. I used the PGA Tour’s adjusted scoring average as my metric of choice; it’s only available going back to 1988 so my sample is golfers born between 1951 and 1972 (Tom Watson to Phil Mickelson essentially). That left me with 131 golfers. Then I averaged their performances in each season between 35-39 and 40-44 and compared.

The average for the 35-39 sample was 70.66 (approximately equal to the 50th best player in the world) and the average for the 40-44 sample was 71.03 (approximately equal to the average PGA Tour cardholder/100th best player in the world). That indicates a decline of around a third of a stroke. My method is different from the delta method I used in the above studies; this study discards any golfers without enough data in the 35-39 or 40-44 group. Almost everyone discarded didn’t have any qualifying performance between 40-44 – meaning they weren’t good enough and dropped off the PGA Tour in their forties. This likely indicates that the decline is greater than a third of a stroke. The above general aging curve predicts a decline of half a stroke.

What about Vijay (or Phil, Stricker, etc.)?

There are certainly exceptions to this general rule of aging. Vijay Singh is often brought up when people talk about golfers aging because he had his two best seasons (and two of the best non-Tiger seasons ever) at age 40 and 41. Unfortunately, few players age as well as Vijay. Only five of my 131 golfers performed better than Vijay (who was 0.6 strokes better after 40 than before) and only 22% of my sample improved at all. Most of this improvement came from guys who weren’t at the top of the sport before turning 40 (Steve Stricker, Fred Funk, Hal Sutton), but improved after 40. Only two golfers who were top 25 level before 40 improved after 40 (Vijay and Nick Price, who only improved slightly). Every other top 25 golfer (Goosen, Mickelson, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Greg Norman, Tom Lehman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, etc) declined after 40.

Steve Stricker is another guy held up as an example of golfers play great into the 40s. He had his big renaissance after years on the fringes of the Tour at age 39 and has been a top five player in the world in the last decade. Only Vijay has been better in his 40s – at least since the 1980s (Nicklaus, Ray Floyd perhaps). However, he’s also an enormous outlier. The tableau visualization at the end of this post indicates such. Stricker’s not an example of anything except that sometimes something crazy happens. It’s vastly more likely that a golfer will follow the general trend than pull a Stricker.

It’s important now to talk about what indicates a decline. I’ve chosen to use aggregate performance to measure performance – meaning I count performance in all PGA Tour rounds equally. When I say Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els has declined since 40 I mean that their overall level of play has declined. I understand both have won majors since 40, but they’re contending less overall (much less in Ernie’s case). Turning 40 doesn’t signal the end of a golfer’s professional career, but it does indicate they’ll be playing worse, contending less, and winning less going forward.

What this means for Tiger Woods:

When Tiger returns in 2015 it will be his age 39 season. His age 35-38 sample includes 2011 (69.9) when he was injured/changing his swing, 2012 & 2013 (68.9,68.9) when he was on top of the world, and 2014 (71.1) when he was injured again. Simply aggregating those seasons equally yields an average of 69.7 which would be the 9th best age 35-39 in my sample. Simply applying the amount of decline I found above to Tiger would leave him as something like the 15th-20th best player in the world in his early 40s. All that ignores any more specific injury concerns and just applies my general model.


That shows what an uphill battle Tiger is facing to remain towards the top of the sport. Even if he comes back healthy from this back injury, age is still going to erode his abilities steadily over the next half decade.

Here’s a link to my Tableau viz of the golfers in my sample and their data

US Open 2014 Statistical Preview


This year’s US Open returns to a renovated Pinehurst #2, site of Michael Campbell’s shock win in 2005 and Payne Stewart’s final major victory in 1999. Pinehurst underwent significant renovations in 2011 to return it largely to the original Donald Ross designed conditions. Most importantly, the thick, bermuda rough of 1999/2005 has been removed, replaced by waste areas of sand, pine straw,  and wire grass, and the fairways have been widened by 50%. The course has also been lengthened to over 7500 yards. The extremely difficult greens weren’t modified; they remain small and harshly sloped.

The Course:

The 1999/2005 course was a traditional US Open set-up – thick rough/narrow fairways off the tee, hard to hit greens, and fast, firm conditions on the green. Traditional US Open set-ups are believed to favor accurate drivers, but my analysis of the last 10 US Opens doesn’t indicate a bias towards either distance or accuracy off the tee [1]. This is very important. Much discussion is made of the need to avoid the rough at a US Open, however avoiding the rough seems to confer no greater advantage at a US Open set-up than week-to-week on the PGA Tour. This year’s US Open course will have wider than normal fairways compared to PGA Tour courses and the same green conditions as before. The change is certainly the replacement of the thick rough with those sandy waste areas. While before any shot into the rough was a difficult approach because of the thickness of the rough, this year a shot off the fairway will be a random draw – sometimes you’ll end up with a good lie on the sand and other times you’ll be stuck behind a patch of wire grass or pine straw. In addition, the fairways will be firm and fast, waiting to usher slightly off-line drives to roll into the waste areas.

All in all, I don’t think this set-up favors distance over accuracy or vice-versa; in many ways it introduces more randomness into the tee to green game with the variability of lie if you miss the fairway. There are courses on Tour where wayward drivers are heavily penalized (Harbour Town) and others where length is the most important (Kapalua). US Opens, especially ones on long courses, fall into the middle. Hit it short to avoid trouble and you’re hitting a long approach shot into a fast and firm green. Hit it long and you’re at greater risk of landing in trouble. As with any US Open set-up, golfers who hit their irons precisely out of trouble will do well this week. On most courses week-to-week it pays to fire at most pins and generate birdie opportunities; most of the time at US Open set-ups you’re just aiming to hit the greens. As always, the very best golfers are in the best shape to win.

Course History:

A lot will be made of how Phil Mickelson is well set to contend and possibly win this week, completing his career Grand Slam. This is mostly wishcasting by the media. Phil did finish 2nd here in 1999, but he finished tied for 33rd in 2005, below what we would expect considering he was a top 5 golfer in the world that year. I’ll write more about Phil later in the week, but it’s important to note he is not the golfer he was in 1999 or 2005. Age has eroded his talent from top 5 in the world to more like top 15 in the world.

As with any course that has been used competitively three times in 15 years (1999/2005 US Open, 2008 US Amateur), a huge grain of salt must accompany any recitation of past performance. And once you factor in the substantial renovations that completely change the course off the tee, I don’t think it’s important at all how a player finished in 1999 or 2005.

The numbers back that up. There was no correlation in performance for the 48 golfers who played in both the 1999 and 2005 tournaments. That fails to control for a bunch of different factors (age, change in ability, etc.), but there was genuinely no correlation at all. In fact, the fact that those 48 golfers had previously competed at Pinehurst didn’t confer any extra advantage – they played 0.75 strokes better than the field on average in 1999 and 0.76 strokes better in 2005. Add in that this is a totally different course and I wouldn’t put any stock in prior results.

Course Statistics:

Par: 70, with two normal par 5s converted to par 4s. #3 will also play as a driveable par 4 for at least some of the rounds.

Length: using True Distance it will play +377 yards, longer than any normal PGA Tour set-up except Congressional (+455). Much longer than Merion (-197), Olympic Club (+52), or Pebble Beach (-210) and comparable to Bethpage (+308) among recent US Open venues.

Course Average (2005): 296.5, with a winning score of even par 280.


[1] – My analysis compared a golfer’s driving distance and % of drives that ended in locations besides the rough/fairway with their performance in the US Open, controlling for overall ability. Those drives in non-rough/fairway locations are catastrophic drives (water/trees/out of bounds/etc.), typically costing the player ~0.67 strokes. Only golfers with qualifying PGA Tour performances that season were included, yielding a sample of 823 tournaments over the past ten years. Both distance and % of catastrophic drives were only significant at the 0.10 level, while overall ability was significant at the 0.0001 level. Both distance and accuracy were roughly equally predictive of US Open performance, though overall ability is vastly more important (~25 times more important). This analysis explains ~40% of US Open performance.

A second analysis which included scrambling ability again revealed that the overwhelming factor in US Open performance is overall ability. The ability to scramble successfully, driving distance, and avoiding catastrophic drives were all small positive factors – of which avoiding catastrophic drives was the most valuable. Scrambling successfully is important because US Open courses often feature low GIR rates, meaning a golfer must hit 1-2 additional scrambling shots/round. In short, golfers who are good scramblers could pick up a very small advantage relative to normal.