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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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Phoenix Open Preview – 2015

Course:

This is the first tournament played on the newly renovated TPC Scottsdale Stadium course. Beyond the visual upgrades (new bunkers, re-seeded greens/fairways/rough, new cart paths, etc.), several green complexes were completely re-done and the 14th was lengthened into a 490 yard beast of a par 4. Most importantly, designer Tom Weiskopf completely altered the bunkering on many of the tee-shots, moving the bunkers into areas where Shot Link said the pros had been hitting their tee-shots. Bill Rand discusses some of the notable changes – including a resized bunker on 18 that will completely alter how the hole is played. Anytime a designer can make the course fresher, while also maintaining the signature stretches (15/16/17 here), it’s a win for the fans. I’m most interested this week in who adapts their tee-shot strategy and executes those shots.

Beyond the changes, TPC Scottsdale is still a fairly easy course. It has played to around 69.8 on a par of 71 and is about average in length. However, it has definitely been a course where guys could step-up and hit driver on most shots. Bubba Watson in particular has played extremely well here recently because he could be aggressive and hit over the fairway bunkers. The renovated bunkering off the tee should at least force the pros to adapt their strategies. All par 5s are gettable in two shots, while the par 4 17th offers one of the best risk/reward par 4s in the game.

What I’m Watching:

Tiger is the story this week. Suffice to say if he’s healthy for the whole season he should be one of the best on Tour. In 2012 and 2013 Tiger played about as well as anyone has in the past five seasons and won eight tournaments. He combined top ten putting ability with his always strong iron play; there’s not really any reason to doubt that a healthy, focused Tiger can’t recreate those seasons. If so, he’ll be in line for multiple wins, Player of the Year, and dare I say possibly a major.

Top ten since 2010

For this week, I’m interested in the short game after how disastrous he was around the green at his event in December. That performance was a sign that he just wasn’t in tournament shape and hadn’t put enough work in. Also, what kind of distance is he able to generate off the tee? Amid the injuries last year, he lost 3 mph of club head speed from 2013 and 5 mph from 2012. The basic rule of thumb is about 2 yards per mph, meaning his max distance with driver fell by around 10 yards in two seasons. That’s worth around 2/3rds of a stroke per round; regaining some of that distance is critical for him to remain an elite player.

In the same vein, Tiger started laying-up a ton off the tee in 2013. He went from about Tour average in laying-up in 2012 to one of the most likely to lay-up in 2013. Whether it was not trusting his swing with driver or some sort of physical issue, he can’t afford to lay-up on 1-2 extra holes each round – especially if he’s not hitting driver 295 anymore.

Looking beyond Tiger, this week is the stateside debut for Rickie Fowler. Fowler’s game was clearly the most improved last year after reworking his swing with Butch Harmon. Mark Broadie wrote on Golf.com in October that Rickie Fowler gained 7 yards off the tee in distance over 2013 – largest on Tour. He also became more aggressive off the tee and jumped from 60th to 13th in terms of how often he went for a par 5 in two. He won’t putt like he did in the summer (over 1.0 strokes gained/round), but in his last six tournaments of the year he improved by a full stroke versus the field on tee-shots/approach shots/short game.

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 Phoenix performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Scott Piercy
2. Brendan Steele (and off a 2nd place last week)
3. Matt Every
4. William McGirt
5. Spencer Levin

Among the favorites, Bubba has typically killed it here – even without lucky putting – and Gary Woodland has been very strong as well.

 

How He Won: Kevin Stadler (Phoenix Open)

Most posts here are focused on the macro-level of how to predict performance. That’s my main interest and the most valuable research in terms of the big picture of golf analytics. However, occasionally it’s nice to delve into individual performances and look at how golfers win each week. This week, Kevin Stadler finally broke through and won his first PGA tournament at the Phoenix Open. Stadler’s performance over the 2008-Present period has been approximately that of the 150th best player in the world, though he’s played much better in the last two seasons. Guys like that (even with famous fathers) rarely play their way into a 4th round lead at a tournament, so it’s nice to see Stadler break-through.

How he won is interesting though. This post detailed some quick stats on how PGA tournament winners putted during the 2013 season. The average winner gained ~1.5 strokes on the field each round due to putting. The winner normally gains 14-15 strokes on the field during the week, so putting normally accounts for at least 40% of the winner’s strokes gained on the field. However, Stadler totaled just short of 2 strokes gained due to putting for the entire week, while he finished 14.6 strokes better than the field in total. I don’t have detailed figures for other tournaments at my fingertips, but he must’ve far outperformed the field in all other phases of the game to finish so highly while putting (comparatively) poorly among PGA tournament winners.

TPC Scottsdale is a fairly easy course overall, with the field averaging 70.6 strokes/round for the week. The field averaged 301 yards off the tee (well above PGA average of 287 yards), hit 59% of fairways (slightly short of PGA average of 59%), hit 68% of greens (PGA average of 64%), and successfully scrambled 57% of the time (PGA average 58%). It’s clear that a combination of easy distance and little penalty for missing the fairway made hitting the green more likely.

Stadler as a player is definitely a much better ball-striker/driver than he is at putting or scrambling. He’s finished near the bottom in strokes gained putting in the last several years and he’s finished outside the top 100 in scrambling three of the last five seasons. In comparison, he’s been above-average in both driving distance and accuracy in the last few seasons, parlaying that and his approach shot skill into rankings of 33/26/8 in greens in regulation. We’re talking about a clear top top tier player from tee to green.

This week, Stadler simply played to his strengths, out-driving the field by 8 yards, hitting 9% more fairways, and using that great driving to hit 10% more greens than the field. His proximity to the pin was also 5 feet closer than field average. It helped that he successfully scrambled 12 of the 16 times he missed a green, which likely gained him something like 3 strokes on the field. However, his ability to put the ball in the fairway, further than most others, and then hit the green won him this tournament.

Digging deeper on his final round, I attempted to estimate his strokes gained for different types of shots. Prior work in this vein is here and here. I’m pretty confident in my numbers overall because 1) the course played roughly average in difficulty on Sunday and 2) my strokes gained on putts figure is within 0.3 strokes of the official PGA Tour number. My numbers show that three of Stadler’s best four shots on Sunday were approaches to the green – his approach to 3 feet on #14, his drive onto #17 green, and his approach to 4 feet on #9. In total he gained +2.1 strokes with his par 4/5 driving (14 shots), +1.3 strokes with his approach shots (4 shots), and +0.5 strokes with his par 3 tee-shots (14 shots), while he lost -0.4 strokes on 3 short shots around the green. I show his putting as having gained him no shots on the field in total.

I can explore this further, but it’s likely that Kevin Stadler played unusually well from tee to green for PGA tournament winners. His driving was superb in both distance and accuracy (a rare but potent combination) and he cashed in on those great positions by knocking his approach shots on the green and close.