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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.

Valero Texas Open Preview – 2015

The Tour shifted to TPC San Antonio in 2010, hoping a more modern track would be a more competitive venue than the previous birdie-fest at the La Cantera resort course. Unfortunately, the course is widely panned among Tour pros – who consider it too long and difficult. They are certainly correct that it’s difficult (73.5 stroke average since 2011 on a par of 72); pros have only hit 55% of fairways and 56% of greens here since 2011. TPC San Antonio also has a lot of what the Tour calls “native area” (brush, desert, etc. – pretty much where Kevin Na made his 16 from in 2011) in play. Last year, it was among the leaders in terms of courses where players ended up in the native area off the tee.

Course fit:
I wrote in last year’s preview that the course favored the longer/inaccurate hitters over the more accurate/shorter hitters. Concentrating on everyone who had played the course from 2011-2013, golfers who hit for more distance during the tournament played better than those who hit more fairways. Looking at 2014, Steven Bowditch and Andrew Loupe both had their best finishes on the season – they’re the archetype of the very long and very inaccurate hitter on Tour. That’s not to say every long/inaccurate hitter will play well, but when I broke the field up into seven different groups based on their accuracy and distance off the tee and compared just their tee to green play from 2014, the longest/least accurate group played the best last season – even better than the group of similarly long, but more accurate pros.

Performance at Texas 2014

The important question is why the course doesn’t punish inaccuracy to the level of a normal PGA Tour course. Most importantly, the rough here just isn’t very difficult to play out of. I only have shot-by-shot data for the final round in 2014, but the rough played the easiest of any course on Tour in that round (relative to the difficulty of fairway shots). What this means is that when I compare the results of shots hit from the rough to shots hit from the fairway on the same hole, shots hit from the rough only resulted in scoring 0.15 strokes worse than shots from the fairway. Normally that number is around 0.30 strokes. Sample size issues are a concern with only one round of data, but this measure tends to be consistent across the four rounds of an event. This is certainly an advantage for guys like Bowditch or Loupe who play from the rough more often.

Distance is critical also because the par 5s are so long at TPC San Antonio, only the longest hitters have a chance to go at them in two shots. In last year’s final round, pros who normally hit their drives over 295 yards went for the green in two on 46% of their opportunities; pros who normally hit their drives under 280 yards went for the green in two on only 2% of their opportunities. Now, long hitters typically have a large advantage in going for the green chances, but normally more like 65% to 35%. Here, short hitters are basically forced into lay-ups by the length – regardless of how they would like to play the hole. That turns the par 5s (already extremely difficult) into par holes for anyone who’s not long off the tee.

Masters Invite Watch:
The focus this week has to be on the bubble boys for Masters qualification. The top 50 in the OWGR after this weekend’s events earn invites to the Masters. Right now, Paul Casey is in the most precarious position – unqualified and not in this week’s event, but sitting only 49th in the world right now. Of those out of the field Marc Warren chose to enter this week’s PGA event rather than the European Tour event in Morocco. I have him projected for between 2 to 2.5 OWGR points in either location, which is basically too close to call on his chances to get in the field.

Harris English has a good argument to be the best guy not invited to the Masters; he’s got an outside shot with a top ten in San Antonio. My rooting interests are the young guys playing well so far this year. Augusta will be better with one (or both) of Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger in the field.

Below is the full break-down of what the guys out of the field need to do to get in this week. If you’re at all interested in tracking this/anything about the Official World Golf Rankings, follow @VC606.

Best Course History:
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 TPC San Antonio performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 2 starts here since 2010).

1. Charley Hoffman
2. Fredrik Jacobson
3. Martin Flores
4. Martin Laird
5. Ben Curtis
6. Pat Perez
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brian Harman
9. Daniel Summerhays
10. Cameron Tringale

View the full field course history at this Google Doc.

Tampa Bay Preview – 2015

Innisbrook’s Copperhead course is a tree-lined track just inland from the Gulf. It offers a distribution of 4 par 5/5 par 3/9 par 4s for a par of 71. It had played close to par until 2013; the scoring average has ballooned over 72 for the past two tournaments. The course offers the potential to play out to almost 7350 yards from the tips – long for a par 71 with 5 par 3s. This is another three wood heavy track – despite a number of downhill tee-shots, pros only hit it 272 yards off the tee in last year’s final round. Most notably, about 7% of tee shots last year ended up in what the Tour defines as Tree Outline – in the trees off the fairway. This course is regularly near the top of the list in terms of courses with drives ending up somewhere other the the fairway, rough, or bunkers.

This is often talked about as a ball-strikers haven, and it is. There just aren’t many wedges into these greens. Pros who are comfortable hitting the mid to long irons will be most successful here – not only because of some of the brutally long par 4s, but because four of the five par 3s can play over 200 yards.

What I’m Watching:
I touched on a number of the most improved players on Tour for 2015 yesterday. One I didn’t discuss in Ryan Palmer. Palmer’s really upped his game at the end of last year and beginning of this year by dramatically improving his results on approach shots (+1.1 strokes gained/round better in 2015). He’s seen serious regression in his performance off the tee however (-0.5 strokes/round worse) – driven by a loss of distance and a major decrease in accuracy. I wrote in my most improved piece that my research has shown that tee to green improvements tend to be retained much more than putting improvements. So for Palmer, his tee to green play has still improved considerably (+0.6 strokes/round better).

However, as I’ve expanded my shot-by-shot database it turns out that when I sub-divide the tee to green game into performance on drives, approach shot performance, and short game performance it turns out that performance on drives is the most stable indicator of performance. In other words, golfers who improve or decline on their drives tend to retain almost all of that improvement or decline, while golfers who improve or decline on approach shot performance or short game performance retain less of those improvements or declines.If that’s true, Ryan Palmer may be in for a decline soon as his approach shot performance erodes and his struggles off the tee continue.

When I was looking through the data for yesterday’s piece, Brendon Todd’s name came up as a guy who has dramatically improved his tee to green game in the first two months of the season. However, he wasn’t anywhere close to the top of the list of most improved. It turns out the culprit there has been his normally outstanding putting. Todd was 6th best on Tour last year at +0.66 strokes/round, following up a great season in 2012 and what looks like an outstanding putting season on the Tour in 2013.

In 19 rounds to start 2015 he’s been basically average. Todd has historically putted about a third of a stroke better on bermuda greens, so he could be in for a natural rebound in Florida. If he can go back to putting as well as in the past three seasons, he could emerge as a very good all-around player, instead of someone who relies on their putting/short game to carry them.

Best Course History:
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 Innisbrook performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Sang-moon Bae
2. Justin Leonard
3. Gary Woodland
4. Luke Donald
5. Retief Goosen
6. Chez Reavie
7. Jason Dufner
8. John Senden
9. Jim Furyk
10. Jonathan Byrd

The value of my approach is best illustrated by Justin Leonard. Leonard has been a mediocre player for years now, but has consistently raised his game at Innisbrook. A good finish for him normally is just making the cut, but since 2010 he’s 5/5 in making the cut with a T4 and two T20s. Innisbrook has provided his best, 4th best, 5th best, and 4th best finishes in 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

Honda Classic Preview – 2015

PGA National’s been hosting this event for the past eight seasons. It’s one of the most difficult courses the Tour visits (71.4 on a par 70 layout last four years), largely because of the windy conditions and how the course restricts driving distance. About half of the par 4 or 5 tee-shots here will be lay-ups for the typical pro, which produces very long approach shots (~170 yards on par 4s). The scorecard may not look long, but all those three woods stretch it out significantly.

What I’m Watching:
This is Rory McIlroy’s first PGA Tour start of the season after going 2nd-1st in his Middle East swing. Rory’s won this event (2012) and lost in a playoff (2014), but also has some disappointing results (W/D, T40, T70) in past seasons. It’s important to realize that while he has played well here, it’s not necessarily a course that sets up ideally for him because of all the fairway woods/irons that players have to hit off the tee. In fact, he’s actually played worse here than you would otherwise expect based on his results in all other events. In other words, his past success here is more a factor of “#1 player in the world” than anything to do with the venue.

I’ve written about Rory’s combination of length and accuracy off the tee before. For comparison’s sake, I’ve attached a graph of tee shot performance from last year from everyone who I had at least 15 rounds of data for. X-axis is driving distance on all shots, adjusted for the course; Y-axis is average degrees off-line from the center of the fairway. Obviously more distance is good, and fewer degrees off-line means a player’s tee shots were more likely to be in the fairway. Rory is marked with the red dot.

tee shot performance 2014

What is ridiculous about Rory is not only that he’s the longest player on the chart, but also that he’s ~12 yards longer than anyone who ranks as more accurate than him. In other words, he’s the platonic ideal of a bomber.

Also, notice the player most similar to Rory – Patrick Rodgers. Rodgers was an outstanding collegiate golfer who turned pro last summer. He just recorded his first win on the Tour a few weeks ago, and he’s in the field at PGA National this week. The rest of his game is still very shaky, but judging by his placement on that graph the sky is the limit.

Bermuda grass Putting:
The Tour has spent the last few weeks on the West Coast swing, mostly putting on poa annua or mixed greens. The Honda kicks off a stretch of four weeks putting on bermudagrass. Below is a chart of the top 15 and bottom 15 of those who putt better or worse (in terms of strokes gained putting) on bermudagrass greens relative to all other rounds (2011-14).

bermuda grass putting (11-14)

Best Course History:
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 PGA National performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Will MacKenzie
2. Alex Cejka
3. Russell Henley
4. Y.E. Yang
5. Fredrik Jacobson
6. Erik Compton
7. Rory Sabbatini
8. Michael Thompson
9. Chris Stroud
10. Nicholas Thompson

Riviera Preview – 2015

Riviera CC is a classic course, regularly praised as one of the best stops on Tour by the pros. It’s 7350 yards for a par 71 off the tee, but it’s deceptively long. With a very short par 5 and a drivable par 4 the length collects in seven brutal, long par 4s. All seven play well over par. Over the past four years, the pros have hit only 54% of their fairways and 57% of their greens – largely because of those long approach shots, but also the small (5000 sq. ft.) greens. The rough here isn’t brutal, but it is ubiquitous. This is not the place for players who can’t handle playing out of the rough half a dozen times per round.

Two of the best on Tour at playing out of the rough are Sergio and Bubba Watson. Sergio has played only slightly better than normal here, but Bubba won last year and has generally well out-performed his career numbers here despite two MCs.

Take a look at a great evaluation of the drivable par 4 10th by Rich Hunt here. The 10th provides the choice of a layup-wedge or driver off the tee, but the green is well protected by bunkers. His findings show that going for the green is the right call for the front/middle pin positions, while laying back proved prudent for the back positions. Other notable holes are the par 3 6th – for the novelty of the mid-green bunker, Hogan’s “best par 3 in America” – the long par 3 4th, and the uphill finish towards the closing par 4 18th.

What I’m Watching For:
This is Sergio’s first US start after making two appearances in the Middle East. Sergio enters this year as, by the numbers, one of the best golfers in the world. I rate his abilities right up there in that 2nd tier of guys behind Rory. The thing is, Sergio hasn’t had this high level putting ability and elite long game play before in his career. His putting renaissance since Dave Stockton convinced him to modify his grip/stroke in 2011 has turned him into a legitimately good putter (average of ~0.4 strokes gained/round since 2012). Combined with the return of his amazing ball-striking over the past two years, and Sergio is primed to contend across the big events this year.

Webb Simpson’s start to the season (T13, T7) couldn’t have been better timed to wipe away last year’s frustrations. He entered the year as the 10th best in the world by my numbers, but fell as low as 35th after a really disappointing run in the Playoffs. He followed that by getting blown out and benched in the Ryder Cup. All year, his problems stemmed from how struggles with his approach shots. Webb’s breakout and three year run of 4 wins including the US Open was all a result of vastly improved long game play. He had been an ace putter in his first two years on Tour, but was well-below average in both tee shots and approach shots. In fact, in his 2011 breakout year he improved his long game play by about 1.5 strokes!

Unfortunately, last year was his worst year with the irons/wedges and off the tee since 2010. The major culprit there was the complete collapse of his ability to play out of the rough. His rough proximity to hole dropped from 56th/11th/15th in 2011-13 to 153rd in 2014. My own numbers which adjust for the difficulty of the rough show that he had one of the largest disparities on Tour between his approach shots from the fairway (where he was among the best) and his approach shots from the rough (where he was a bit below average). Being able to play out of the rough is particularly important for Webb as he is fairly aggressive in hitting driver off the tee and his accuracy off the tee is only average. I’m very interested to see how he handles the kikuyu this week.

Best Course History/Fit:
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 Riviera performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. J.B. Holmes
2. K.J. Choi
3. Cameron Tringale
4. George McNeill
5. Jimmy Walker
6. Aaron Baddeley
7. Bill Haas
8. Dustin Johnson
9. Erik Compton
10. Fred Couples

Half of those guys are legitimately wild off the tee, which is in line with what the stats say. Since 2008, the golfers with the most success have generally fit the mold of long and not accurate off the tee. That’s someone like Angel Cabrera or Morgan Hoffmann. As I mentioned earlier, playing out of the rough is more important than normal here; Geoff Ogilvy and Martin Flores are some of the below the radar guys who do that well.

Pebble Beach Preview – 2015

Pebble Beach is well-known to even the most casual golf fans. It’s short on the scorecard for a par 72, but the combination of natural hazards, extreme elevation changes, and prevailing winds really limit most golfers off the tee. Despite being the shortest course on Tour, the 2nd shots here are as long as at an average course and they’re targeted at tiny, well-bunkered greens. There are opportunities for aggressive play off the tee here – Dustin Johnson out-drove his closest competitor by 12 yards in last year’s 4th round by pulling driver when others were laying-up – but this course is very much a 2nd shot golf course.

Spyglass also plays much longer than its scorecard length because for the most part the par 3s play downhill and the par 4s play uphill. The 2nd shots here also require precision to small greens. The Shore course plays mostly exposed along the coast. The four par 5s provide scoring opportunities, and in general the fairways are spacious. All three courses have poa annua greens; Pebble Beach in particular regularly has the most difficult to putt greens on Tour.

Best Course History:
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 Pebble Beach performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

1. Steven Bowditch
2. David Duval
3. Dustin Johnson
4. Sam Saunders
5. Greg Owen
6. Robert Garrigus
7. Spencer Levin
8. Bryce Molder
9. Dudley Hart
10. Jimmy Walker

Dustin Johnson’s success here is well publicized – not only his back to back wins in this event, but the first three rounds of the US Open in 2010 and three other top tens. Looking at how he’s played the course, he has the right amount of power to take advantage of certain holes – hit over the mid-fairway bunker on #15, smash it up the hill on #11, drive the green when the tees are up on #4, etc. Lots of guys play this course very cautiously – hitting fairways so they can control their shots into the tiny greens. My estimate is that the pros used driver only about 60% of the time last year versus 70%+ on an average course.

Torrey Pines Preview – 2015

Dual course event this week, but Torrey Pines South will be used for three of the four rounds. Torrey Pines North is a much easier venue – by around three strokes/round – largely because it’s almost 600 yards shorter at the same par 72. The par 5s are all scoring holes – unlike at the sister course to the south.

Torrey Pines South is a stiffer test. It’s the longest course the Tour visits in scorecard length, and it plays as one of the longest if you look at average approach shot distance. It’s particularly long when you focus just on par 4 length (only Valhalla (PGA Championship) and PGA National (Honda) challenged it last year). The rough is nasty here; it played nearly the most difficult on Tour last year.

This is a course that requires the game that most elite players possess – long enough to score on the long par 4s and par 5s, accurate enough to not live in the rough, and good with the mid and long irons that almost every hole requires.

What I’m Watching For:
Jordan Spieth has been the best golfer in the world since October (minimum 16 rounds), with wins in Australia and at Tiger’s event and a back-door top ten in Phoenix last week. Spieth started last season hotter than just about anyone, but fell off towards the summer because he completely lost his game off the tee. In 2013, he combined above-average distance with nearly the most accurate tee shot on Tour and ranked in the top ten in performance on drives. Beginning at some point last spring/summer, he started spraying it everywhere off the tee, costing him a huge amount of his advantage on drives. It’s only one tournament of data, but last week he was great off the tee – gaining about a stroke/round on drives and hitting it as straight as in 2013.

top ten since october

Shane Lowry making a rare US start this week. He’s a guy most PGA Tour fans won’t be that familiar with, but last year was his first big year on the European Tour. He started off ridiculously cold missing six of eight cuts, but contended all the way in the European flagship event in May. From May onward he played at the level of a top 20 golfer in the world and hasn’t missed a cut since June. No clue how Lowry will do in his first start at Torrey Pines, but he’s a legitimate contender in this field at the level of Harris English or Marc Leishman.

Best Long Course Golfers:
These numbers are illustrative only, but these are the best and worst on long courses since 2010. Long courses are the top 25% of PGA Tour courses in average approach shot length (these include Torrey Pines South, PGA National, & Congressional) and this is performance with putting removed. I’ve compared performance on long courses to performance in all others rounds. The 219 golfer sample yielded 19 golfers with statistically significantly different performances (negative z-scores below indicate better performances on long courses).

differences on long vs short coursesOn the positive end, Keegan Bradley and Kyle Stanley  are the most notable to play much better on long courses. On the negative end, Tim Clark and J.B. Holmes struggled the most on long courses.

Doing the reverse analysis and measuring performance differences on the shortest 25% of courses reveals some of the same names. Graham DeLaet and Kevin Na stuggle most notably on shorter tracks, while Jason Day stands out as by far the most extreme in favor of short courses.

Now, those numbers just use aggregate performance on all strokes and are surely distorted by all kinds of random variation. However, it makes sense that golfers who play better on longer courses would hit their long irons better, while those who are better on short courses hit their wedges better. Looking deeper at shot-by-shot stats over the past year, DeLaet, Stanley, and Bradley all hit their mid to long irons much better than their wedges, while Tim Clark and Jason Day both have huge splits in favor of hitting their wedges better. The only player whose stats don’t back up his performance is J.B. Holmes.

Best Course History:
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 Torrey Pines performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

1. Lucas Glover
2. Jhonattan Vegas
3. Tom Gillis
4. Justin Leonard
5. Marc Leishman
6. Bill Haas
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brandt Snedeker
9. Stewart Cink
10. D.A. Points

Sony Open Preview – 2015

Waialae CC‘s a par 70 track tucked away in Honolulu. The fairways are pretty narrow (~50% fairways hit in recent tournaments), approach shots are shorter than average, and overall the course plays below par. Nothing else really stands out except that both par 5s are reachable in two by anyone in the field.

Looking at some stats, it’s normally been the case that guys who are less accurate off the tee have been fine here (Charles Howell III normally kills here, Jimmy Walker won last year, etc.). For what it’s worth, my numbers say guys who play better from the fairway than the rough have been more successful here – which makes no sense intuitively because half your approach shots are coming from the rough. If true, Chad Campbell, Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk, etc. are the guys who are better from the fairway than the rough, typically.

What I’m Looking For:
Luke Donald’s easily the most interesting guy in the field this week. Last season was a pretty large step down from his recent play – mostly manifested in how he hit his short irons and wedges. He moved on from longtime coach Pat Goss in 2013 saying he was looking to focus more on his ball-striking. His longer irons improved from 2012-13, but inside of <150 yards he completely fell off a cliff. He was one of the absolute best in the world with a short iron or wedge in his hand prior to this year, but posted numbers that were at or below Tour average in 2014. He decided to go back to Goss this fall; Goss said they immediately began focusing on “his strengths; putter, short game, bunker, wedges, shots inside 150 yards” (last year was also Donald’s worst season around the green in at least the last five years). Putting and short game play is more variable, but I’ll definitely be looking closely at how he’s hitting his irons/wedges this week.

I don’t think Donald’s ever going to get back to his 2011 peak where he was the best in the world, but if he can play well inside 150 yards, rediscover the short game touch, and continue to be among the world’s best putters, he can return to being one of the best 20 or so in the game. That combination probably will not win him a major (recent major winners have been heavily biased towards guys who are better with long irons), but he’ll contend often. I think some folks have forgotten he came within a Matt Kuchar hole-out of winning at Harbour Town just eight months ago and had three other top tens by May.

I’ll also be keeping an eye on Matt Kuchar going forward. Ever since he injured his back prior to the PGA Championship he’s been getting more or less similar results, but driven by different parts of his game. Prior to the injury he let his long game (approach shots+tee shots) carry him, but afterwards its been all about the short game and the long game has fallen off. He said he was healthy as soon as the Barclays, but it’s something to keep an eye on if he keeps struggling with those longer shots.

New Guys:
Rookies Tony Finau and Justin Thomas both rate out as above-average Tour players already based off their results in 2014. Finau had easily the most impressive debut of any rookie in the fall portion, earning two top 10s and two more top 20s in five starts. Come for the ridiculous power he can generate with the driver (#4 in club head speed in 2015), but stay for his approach shots (almost a full stroke better than the field so far). If he can retain any of that performance going forward he’ll contend for a win and Rookie of the Year honors.

Thomas’s debut was sloppier, but he scored a top 5 in Mississippi after a trio of bad outings to start the year.

This also marks the earliest we’ve ever seen Francesco Molinari appear in the US for a full field event. He’s mostly spent his time in Europe, appearing only a handful of times in the US for normal PGA Tour tournaments. He’s long had the talent to hang around at the top of leaderboards so he could make a significant splash if he starts playing a lot of US events this year. Molinari’s one of the most accurate guys in the world off the tee.

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

1. Brendon Todd
2. Brian Stuard
3. Chris Kirk
4. Marc Leishman
5. Charles Howell III

I don’t put a lot of stock in these because they’re a bit polluted by putting luck and only represent a handful of rounds.

Quick Thoughts on Kapalua/Hyundai T of C

Kapalua is one of the most unique courses the Tour visits each year. The extreme landscape, including over 500 feet of elevation change, and resort set-up produce some pretty ridiculous stats. Players at Kapalua almost always produce the highest GIR and driving accuracy for the season, while the extremely slow and undulating greens are the 2nd hardest to putt on on Tour behind Pebble Beach. Kapalua is also the only course on Tour with more par 5s (4) than par 3s (3). These characteristics do combine to favor certain types of golfers.

1. Golfers with poor short games

Most golfers hit around 14-15 greens per round here versus only about 11 at the typical Tour course. Golfers who struggle to get it close from around the green find that part of their game less exposed at Kapalua. This week, Russell Henley and Angel Cabrera are among the guys most likely to benefit from avoiding scrambling shots. On the flip-side, Jason Day has a great short game that he’ll need less often this week.

2. Golfers who are great from the fairway

The pros regularly hit over 80% of Kapalua’s comically wide fairways, meaning they’re hitting from the fairway about 12 times a round, versus 8-9 at a typical Tour stop. Certain golfers struggle from the rough, while excelling from the fairway (relative to Tour average). Those guys won’t have to contend with the rough on most holes. Ryan Moore and Camilo Villegas stand out as guys who are much more successful from the fairway than from the rough. On the flip-side Hunter Mahan derives a large advantage over the field from how well he plays out of the rough. That will be negated a bit this week.

3. Great wedge players

Kapalua is always thought of as a bomber’s paradise, but the dirty secret is that it actually plays very short despite its 7400+ yard layout. Fully eight of the ten par 4s can set-up as wedge holes, leaving only five medium or long iron shots on par 3s or 4s. Hideki Matsuyama dominated with wedges or short irons last season and he’ll be able to feast in his first visit to Kapalua. Tim Clark is another great wedge player.

Top Twenty Golfers for 2015

This three week break between seasons doesn’t provide for a lot of time to digest the 2013-14 PGA Tour season and preview the 2014-15 season. I’m still digging through the data from last year, trying to highlight which players took genuine steps forward, who’s stats are throwing up red flags, etc. However, these are my top twenty golfers for next season. The criteria is a bit murky, but it’s basically the twenty guys who will make the largest on-course impact on Tour – whether it’s cashing checks, winning tournaments, or even winning majors. Most of these guys are obvious (it’s no secret that Rory is a beast), but maybe a few won’t be so intuitive.

Honorable Mentions:

Luke Donald’s fall from grace this season was unexpected, but he both regressed sharply in his long game (tee shots/approach shots), but also slumped with the putter over the last half of the season. Guys who fall off sharply in their long games tend not to rebound much the next year. Kevin Na finally had his break-out season and no one seemed to notice. After an injury riddled 2013, Na came back with the 17th best season on Tour – all because of a huge improvement off the tee and with his irons. Billy Horschel’s end of the season FedEx run was awesome. He was my last cut from the list, mostly because I want to see how he deals with being the guy with the target on his back this year. Chris Kirk had a bit of a break-out season as well, winning the McGladrey early and the Deutsche Bank late. It looks like a lot of his success was more of a putting surge than anything. My numbers still love Steve Stricker, but he’s going to be 48 and his long game cratered this year. He’ll still pop up a few times this year, but his run at the top is done. I could write a whole post on why I think Phil Mickelson is done as an elite player, but the below chart sums it up pretty well. His tee to green game has been in terminal decline for years, covered up by miraculous putting in 2012-13. He’s just so reliant on his short game/putting these days that it’s hard to see him contending that often.


#20 – Hideki Matsuyama

Matsuyama’s first full season on Tour was an obvious success. After a mixed bag in the opening few months (a pair of top tens to go with three injury W/Ds), Matsuyama broke through with his first victory in a playoff at the Memorial. At only 22, he’s already proven himself as one of the ten best ball-strikers on Tour – particularly on the short/medium approach shots. His putting was disappointing – 156th in SG Putting and pretty terrible on the short putts that really show off a golfer’s true talent – but that’s his only weakness. Perhaps most importantly his two year exemption from winning the Memorial means he’ll be able to compete this season without any pressure to retain his card.

#19 – Jimmy Walker

2013-14 was his true break-out, winning three times and earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team where he was one of the only Americans to impress. Walker’s early season run was built on wildly unsustainable putting success, and he regressed sharply to his career averages as the season went on. However his tee to green game got even better after his third win; even though he putted worse than PGA Tour average down the stretch, he still earned two top tens and finished T26 or better in six of seven events. He’s the prototype of a long, but wild hitter off the tee. His emergence the past two seasons has been down to his vastly improved iron play. It’s really unlikely he has anything like the success on 2013-14, but another trip to the Tour Championship and a Presidents Cup spot wouldn’t be surprising at all.

#18 – Zach Johnson

Zach Johnson really fell off the radar this year. His only win came at Kapalua in January when no one is paying attention, then suddenly he was playing in the Ryder Cup. The culprit for Zach this year was just not making putts. He’s been one of the best putters on Tour for years, but slumped this year. I have no doubt he’ll putt better this season and if he does I expect we’ll hear from him a bit more often because his tee to green game was as sharp as ever last year.

#17 – Graeme McDowell

G-Mac benefited the most last season from a lucky and/or much improved putter. His career SG Putting was around average entering the season, but he finished #1 on Tour in SG Putting by the end of the season. Everything I’ve ever researched regarding changes in putting performance suggest he’s going to regress sharply next season. However, McDowell was already consistently excellent at long putts, and his improvement was almost entirely in putts inside 15 feet – the kind of putts where talent shows more strongly over a season. Long story short, G-Mac’s putting improved a lot, but I think he has a good shot at retaining a lot of that improvement and really establishing himself as an above-average putter.

#16 – Keegan Bradley

I think there was a lot of sense this year that Keegan Bradley wasn’t living up to expectations. He was consistently strong all season, but never really contended in a major event and missed the cut at the Masters, PGA, and Players. All in all though, he was a solid top 20 player on Tour – he just missed out on the wins. I expect he’ll find a win this year and earn his way into the Tour Championship without much problem.

#15 – Charl Schwartzel

Schwartzel was another guy that just wasn’t on the Tour’s radar at all this year. He delivered the kind of elite tee to green performances that it takes to win at the Memorial and WGC-Bridgestone, but the putter let him down both weeks. He’s always really strong tee to green, especially with his irons. Predicting a win is always tough – especially for guys like Schwartzel who always play strong fields – but no one should be surprised if Schwartzel wins this year.

#14 – Henrik Stenson

After last summer/fall’s run where Stenson won both the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, he still managed to record one of the best seasons on Tour, though without a win this year. Stenson’s game is built around long, accurate driving – he’s one of the top five on Tour off the tee – and is great with his irons as well. His length and accuracy also give him the green light to attack most par 5 greens in two, making him one of the more aggressive players on Tour. His only flaw is his putting; it likely cost him a win at Bay Hill this year.

#13 – Jordan Spieth

There were few guys in the world getting better results over the first half of the season than Spieth. By the time he finished 2nd at the Players, he had six top tens in fourteen starts and had contended down the stretch at two huge tournaments. He didn’t play awful in the second half, but he struggled off the tee and his approach shots weren’t that great. Struggles in those long game components tend to stick around for awhile, so priority #1 for Spieth has to be getting his tee to green game squared away. His short game and putting were really solid again this year, so no problems on that front. I’m going to regret ranking him here if he gets his long game squared away because he was a legit top five in the world player early in 2014.

#12 – Tiger Woods

Now we get to the biggest question mark of the season, how will Tiger return? I think there’s some sense that Tiger wasn’t a stud in 2012-13 because he didn’t win a major (we forget he had three top tens in eight tries in majors). Based off that and how terrible he was when injured this year, people are expecting the worst for Tiger next year. I’ve even weighed him from an analytics perspective and highlighted how aging is going to prove his highest hurdle in the coming years. Let there be no question that Tiger has shown the ability since 2009 to be the best golfer in the world. Between 2012-13, after he got healthy and adopted his new swing under Foley, he was the best golfer in the world. He won eight times on Tour – including against strong fields at the Players and WGC events – and posted the best scoring average relative to the field over those two seasons.

The question is whether he can get healthy again. He’s missed significant time due to these nagging injuries twice now in the last four seasons. If he can get as healthy as he was in 2012-13, I expect him to play to the level of no worse than 2nd best in the world. That means 2-3 wins and contending consistently. I think it’s unlikely he ever returns best in the world, simply because Rory has been essentially equal to him the last few years and aging from the late 30s on saps a lot of golfers’s performance. And he’s not going to equal or best Jack’s record unless he has a lengthy run of healthy seasons.

#11 – Bubba Watson

Bubba was nuclear hot early in the season – 2nd in Phoenix, win at Riviera, 2nd at Doral, and win at Augusta. Later on, he was an errant drive away from likely winning the Memorial and his tee to green game was dominant enough to win at the BMW Championship, but he couldn’t make a putt all weekend. I still think there’s some sense around the Tour that Bubba’s driving makes him a one trick pony. That might have been fair in 2010, but he’s improved his short game and putting so that they’re not dragging him down, and his irons are good enough. He’s also much less wild than normally perceived – he was about average in hitting fairways this year and cut his number of Other drives (tee shots that land out of bounds, in the water, or in the trees) down to nearly Tour average this year. His ability to out-hit the field will always make him deadly on Augusta’s comically wide fairways, but he performed great at the Memorial this year and that course probably has the toughest rough of the normal Tour season.

#10 – Dustin Johnson

Suspension or “leave of absence” aside, Dustin Johnson was having his best season as a pro in 2014. He beat a great field in China to start the season before some near misses to Jimmy Walker (Pebble Beach), Bubba (at Riviera), and Patrick Reed (Doral). He only missed three cuts all year and had high finishes at both the US Open and Open Championship. Assuming he comes back healthy and focused from this sabbatical, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to play at a top ten level. His hypothetical six month suspension expires just before the Tour heads to Pebble Beach – the course he’s had both his most professional success and worst professional moment.

#9 – Bill Haas

I’ve written fondly about Haas’s game quite a bit the last few months. His performance this year was nearly flawless, with only a W/D at the Heritage to mar 27 made cuts in 28 starts. Haas isn’t just making cuts either; he had five top tens and seventeen top 25s. Inexplicably left off the Ryder Cup team, Haas figures to be a sure bet to make the 2015 Presidents Cup squad with another similar season. Despite winning five times in the last five years and taking home the FedEx Cup, there are still people sleeping on Haas as an elite player. He earned just over $2.8 million last year and I’d peg him as extremely likely to eclipse that total if he stays healthy this year.

#8 – Rickie Fowler

After the start to the season Rickie Fowler had – five missed cuts by March and only a 3rd at Match Play – people were obviously way down on him. He and Butch Harmon had changed his swing and his game was a mess, especially the putting. Starting with the US Open though, his swing clicked and he started to hole nearly every putt, and only Rory and Furyk were better from June to September. He’ll be lucky to ever putt that well over a few months, but his tee to green game really improved over previous seasons. He’s at a level right now where he’ll be a stud even when the putting regresses to normal.

#7 – Jim Furyk

I’ve written at least half a dozen posts about aging this year, and with each one I marvel a little more at what Jim Furyk has been able to accomplish. Ignore that he hasn’t won in four seasons; this guy is as good now as he was ten years ago and just had his best season since his mid thirties. He continues to churn out top ten tee to green seasons. His game is just perfectly calibrated to hit fairways, hit greens, and scramble in the rare case he misses one. He had four seconds this year! At 45! I think he’ll fall off a bit this year, but he’s still going to be a huge factor every week.

#6 – Matt Kuchar

Kuchar’s season can be summed up in two hole-outs. First, he lost in Houston when Matt Jones holed out to win their sudden death playoff. Kuchar then holed out to win the Heritage two weeks later. Kuchar never seriously contended for the rest of the season (though he added four more top tens – 11 for the season). Only Jason Day has a better all-around game; Kuchar’s solid off the tee, hits his irons well, and his short game is good. He really shines with the putter, where he’s around the top ten on Tour consistently. In terms of week-to-week earnings, Kuchar’s as solid as anyone on this list but McIlroy because of how many starts he makes. One of these days he’s going to run into a major win or FedEx Cup.

#5 – Jason Day

Given the thumb injury Day was suffering through for almost the entire PGA Tour season, it’s remarkable he was able to have so much success. Day ended up top twenty on Tour tee to green, despite that injured digit, and turned in another great putting season. Fully healthy, there’s no doubt Day is going to improve off the tee and with his irons, and his short game is already ridiculously good. Add in that he’s a legitimately great putter and there’s not much doubt that Day’s going to be a stud in 2015. He’s consistently been a monster in majors, so it’s a question of when, not if, he’s going to win one.

#4 – Sergio Garcia

Sergio went winless on Tour this year, an amazing fact since he played two of the ten best tournaments of the season relative to the field. Unfortunately, Rory McIlroy beat him both times (Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone). This was a textbook Sergio season; he was one of the best in the world with his irons and continued his recent success with the putter. If there’s ever a season where he’ll win a major, 2015 looks like the ideal one. Sergio has always been strong at the links set-ups, and this year the majors visit three links style courses. Sergio is as good a pick as any to win one of them.

#3 – Justin Rose

There’s really not much to say about Rose. He’s simply one of the best ball-strikers in the world and has emerged the past few seasons as one of the best players in the world. This year might’ve seemed like a bit of a disappointment after the US Open win in 2013, but he won twice (at Congressional and the Scottish Open) and dominated at the Ryder Cup. Like the guys right above and below him on this list, he’s right in the middle of his prime and playing great. He’s a threat to win any time he can string together four above-average rounds with the putter.

#2 – Adam Scott

In the rush to anoint Rory as The Best in The World (and he is), everyone missed the season Adam Scott put together. He only won once (Colonial), but his worst finish this year was T38 at the Players and he didn’t fall below T16 after that. Early in the year he rode a hot putter, but when that cooled down down the stretch he was still stockpiling top tens. He has a top five long game in the world, and has shown the past few years that he can be just average with the putter. This year he’ll likely start experimenting with some modified putting technique because his method of anchoring will be illegal in 2016, but I doubt he’ll face any long term trouble from that. More importantly, he’s coming off a dominant three year stretch where only Rory and Tiger have hit higher heights and he’s smack in the middle of his prime. Another major title and multiple wins should be the goal this year.

#1 – Rory McIlroy

Rory had a season for the record books. The best season by my ratings since Tiger Woods in 2009, the best driving season in the Shot Link era, two major wins, and two more victories in huge events. Most importantly, he absolutely killed the narrative that he can’t hold onto a lead – he responded to blowing great first rounds at the Memorial and Scottish Open by pulling away from the field in the 2nd round at the Open Championship. His combo of distance and accuracy is ridiculous; he not only can outhit the field by 20+ yards every time, but during his run in July-September he almost never lost a drive out of bounds or in the water. Typically the long hitters are restrained by that inaccuracy, but Rory knows he’s going to be able to keep those 310 yard bombs in play.

The rest of his game was great this year. When you’re gaining over a stroke on the field just off the tee, you can afford an average short game. His irons were top ten on Tour, which is just unfair. And I’ve written about his putting. It’s impossible to putt as well as he did in July-August long-term. What he did in the FedEx Playoffs when he was essentially Tour average is much more indicative of his long-term putting abilities. That’s fine, but it’s what separates him from ~2000 or 2005-08 Tiger Woods. That version of Tiger was the best in the world tee to green, but also was one of the best putters in the world. Rory still has time to work on his putting and get to that level, but all of his putting improvement this year was on long putts. Performance on long putts is extremely noisy even over multi-year samples. Despite all that, Rory enters every tournament as the favorite from now on.