Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

Tag Archives: previews

Ryder Cup Preview: The Course, Home Field, & Competition

I’ll be postng previews of each team individually, but I’d like to write a bit of an introduction to the course and the competition in this post.

This year’s Ryder Cup is at the Centenary Course at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland. This course normally hosts the Johnnie Walker Championship on the European Tour (it has been omitted from the schedule this year to prepare for the Ryder Cup). This year’s event comes on the heels of two consecutive one point European wins – to survive an American comeback in Wales in 2010 and to accomplish their own enormous comeback at Medinah in 2012. Overall, the Americans have won just twice, both on home soil, in the eight most recent events, though their recent form has been better than the three early 2000s beat-downs. This year the Americans enter the event missing perhaps three of their five best players (Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, and Dustin Johnson) and face-down a full strength European team with World #1 Rory McIlroy. Betting odds heavily favor the Europeans to win or retain the Cup at around 67%, and while I think that understates the US chances, they’re certainly underdogs going abroad.

The Course:

The Centenary Course at Gleneagles is a resort course, perhaps with more tooth than normal, but still completely familiar to professionals who play on both sides of the Atlantic. This is certainly not a links style course. This article suggests it is set-up in PGA Tour style with even levels of rough and pristine fairways, not the wild rough or pine straw that we’re accustomed to seeing in the Open Championship courses. That doesn’t favor either side, but this is certainly a course which will play conventionally.

In recent Johnnie Walker Championships the course hasn’t shown much of a bite. Fairways hit have been around 66% and GIR% around 67%, both marks would rank as fairly easy on the PGA Tour. It’s played to around the par of 72 on average in recent seasons, though it will play easier for the far superior Ryder Cup players, and so much will come down to how Paul McGinley chooses to set it up will factor hugely into how it ends up playing this weekend.

Looking at individual holes, in alternate shot (8 matches) the course splits up very well for teams with one aggressive long hitter and another who hits their irons well. The player who tees off on #1 (players alternate teeing off) will hit eight drives and have three opportunities to go for the green in two on par 5s. The other player will hit only six drives and one second shot on a par 5s, though they’ll have an advantage in long and medium iron shots of nine to three over the first player. This set-up is tailor made to arrange pairings that emphasize a player’s talents and hide their weaknesses. I’ll talk more about some ideal pairings to exploit this in the individual team previews, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

Home Field/Continent Advantage:

Home advantage is often alluded to in Ryder Cup discussions, but not in a precise manner. There’s some advantage to playing in front of more supportive crowds for sure, but there’s no doubt that both sides make themselves heard no matter the location of the event. More important is the simple effect of traveling to compete on another continent and adjusting to the local time zone. Professionals golfers definitely have to face travel issues all the time, but Europeans who play on the European Tour surely face it more often as they travel between Asia, the Middle East, North America, and Europe. As a contrast, most Americans on the PGA Tour leave North America only twice to compete – the Open Championship in Britain in July and WGC-HSBC in China in November.

To attempt to quantify the disadvantage of playing away from ones home continent I set-up a study using 2013 & 2014 data. I split all players’s performance data into three groups – United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere – and discarded the elsewhere group. I then weighted each group of data based on the harmonic mean between the number of USA rounds and Western Europe rounds (for example, Patrick Reed had 81 USA rounds and only two Western Europe rounds for a harmonic mean of 3.9). I divided the players up into three groups – Americans who played on the PGA Tour, Europeans who played mostly on the PGA Tour, and Europeans who played mostly on the European Tour (almost no Americans played mostly on the European Tour). I didn’t take into account where players currently live, only their birthplace. I then calculated the performance of each group, weighted using the harmonic mean, in USA rounds and Western Europe rounds.

The results were shocking. European players who play on the PGA Tour suffered no penalty moving between Western Europe and the USA. They had identical performances. European players who play on the European Tour lost about 0.5 strokes in performance between Western Europe and the USA. Americans on the PGA Tour lost around 0.5 strokes in performance between the USA and Western Europe. This suggests that the penalty for Americans who play the PGA Tour going to Europe is about equal to the penalty suffered by Europeans going to the US.

At first I was worried that a lot of this had something to do with Americans who hardly play links golf coming over to play the Open Championship. In fact, 40% of my sample only played in Western Europe for the Open Championship. I tossed out the Open Championship rounds which yielded a penalty of only 0.2 strokes for Americans playing in Western Europe, but the sample of rounds is fairly small. I’ve chosen for the rest of this post to simply average my original penalty with this non-Open Championship penalty and say Americans suffer approximately a 0.35 stroke penalty when traveling to play in Europe.

Here’s an important caveat though. A rating based on aggregate performance (like mine) already has some of this travel penalty mixed into the Europeans results because more than half of the rounds for Europeans who play on the European Tour come away from home – Asia, the Middle East, and the US. In comparison, almost none of the rounds for Americans who play on the PGA Tour come away from the US. Adjusting for this produces the below chart.

rydercupHFA(In strokes, negative numbers indicate better performance)

All that means at least half of the Europeans suffer no penalty moving between US Ryder Cups and European Ryder Cups, while the other half suffers similarly to Americans traveling to a European Ryder Cup. The entire American team suffers an enormous penalty going across to play in Europe, but gets no advantage from playing on home soil. In short, for US based Cups, the US team has an advantage of about 0.2 strokes – equal to a 52-48 edge in a generic match – while, for European based Cups, the European team has an advantage twice that size (0.4 strokes) – equal to a 54-46 edge in a generic match.

In fact, if this home advantage holds for the earlier years (and I’m guessing it does as European players have consistently had to travel more, and particularly travel for major events in the US, in the last at least 20 years) it explains much of Europe’s dominance of this event. Going back to 1997, Europe has won 56% of points at home and 52% in the US – almost exactly what we’d expect give the above HFA. The Americans typically have a slightly advantage in talent – maybe 0.1-0.15 strokes per match or 1% per match – but the Europeans benefit from double the home field advantage of the Americans.

Applying home advantage to this Cup, I’d estimate that on average the European teams will be around 0.4 strokes better than the American teams without considering talent. This is enough to start Europe out at 54% to win a generic match. I’ll talk about talent in the team previews and, of course, team strategy may give one side a slight edge.

Basic Strategy:

Richie Hunt wrote a great article about potential US captain’s picks a month ago and in it laid out a few statistically informed ways to approach the Ryder Cup. I don’t agree with all of his points, but #4 & #5 about tailoring players for the formats that fit their games is very important. Richie wrote “Four-ball format is about birdies”. Absolutely. On a normal hole, PGA Tour pros are split with about 20% birdies, 16% bogeys, and 64% pars. In a four-ball format where each team has two balls the chance of both players on the other team making bogey on a generic hole are only ~3%. That means par will almost never win a hole; you need birdies.

Every golfer has their own distribution of birdies/pars/bogeys; more aggressive players make more birdies/eagles, but also more bogeys, while more conservative players make fewer birdies, but also avoid making bogeys. Both strategies are seen among elite players, but only the more aggressive player is rewarded in four-ball. Both captains would do well to make sure they get their more aggressive players out in these sessions.

Richie’s other point was that alternate shot is about avoiding bogeys (each team only has one ball and so pars win holes more often) and pairing players who play similarly. You don’t want to pair someone who’s wild off the tee (Phil) with someone who’s much more comfortable playing off the fairway (Furyk). Also important, as I wrote above, is matching players based on the shots they’ll be hitting. One player in each pairing this year will hit two extra drives and two extra par 5 approach shots, while the other player will hit six extra iron shots. You don’t want to pair your two best iron players or two most aggressive, long hitters with each other because you’ll be wasting one of them on shots they don’t excel at. I’ll talk more about a few of the ideal pairings in each team preview.

Advertisements

FedEx Cup Preview

The seventh FedEx Cup Playoffs begin tomorrow at The Barclays at Ridgewood CC – the site of dramatic playoffs between Vijay & Sergio in 2008 and Matt Kuchar & Martin Laird in 2010. This year it hosts Rory McIlroy’s charge for a fourth straight victory and his first FedEx Cup title. Rory enters the Playoffs sitting first overall in points and is obviously best positioned to take home the trophy, but it’s much more likely the FedEx Cup goes to someone else. In five years under this format the Cup has gone to the favorite entering the Playoffs only once (Tiger in 2009) and has gone to the winner of the Tour Championship in four of five years. This year, I estimate around a 40% chance of a player winning the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship (about half of Rory’s wins will come in this fashion).

Projections:

Below are projections for the four main accomplishments – winning the FedEx Cup, making the Tour Championship (top 30), making the BMW Championship (top 70), and making the Deutsche Bank (top 100). I’ve listed the top ten most likely to win the FedEx Cup and then the ten bubble players to earn spots in each event.

fedex cup projection 820

No surprise that Rory is significantly in front as he’s #1 in the the standings and the best in the world. The rest of the top five is straight-forward as well; Sergio, Rose, Scott, and Kuchar are the next four best players and in the FedEx Cup being very good at golf gives you a slightly better chance to win than having a bunch of points built up. That’s why Jimmy Walker (#2) is less likely to win it. However, further down the list Jason Day (#34) is the 10th most likely to win it, despite missing months of the season with a thumb injury.

Besides that, Phil will need a good run to make his eighth straight Tour Championship.

PGA Championship Preview

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

The Course:

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

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

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

 

Contenders:

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

 

Randomness of Long Putts:

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

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

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

Quicken Loans National Preview

congo 2013

This is the former AT&T National, still at Congressional CC. Tiger Woods returns from his three month hiatus this weekend at his tournament. That’s the main story obviously this week; Tiger’s season had hardly even begun when he hobbled home for his last competitive rounds at Doral (only 4 events played), but it certainly hadn’t been successful – only a withdrawal, a made the cut/did not finish, T41, and T25. That said, Tiger has been the best player in the world statistically and in terms of tournaments won over the two previous seasons. An in-form, pain-free Tiger is the best player in the world still, for my money. He’s alluded to some rust from lack of preparation so I wouldn’t get too wound up about him contending this week, but I’ll try to update everyone on how he’s hitting his longer shots in the early rounds. He’s been putting and playing shorter shots for awhile now, but he said he’s only recently been extending himself and getting distance back. If he’s hitting long and accurately, it might indicate he’s back in business a little earlier than we might expect.

The Course:

Onto the course, Congressional is the brute of the PGA Tour, measuring at nearly 7600 yards for a par 71 – it’s the longest regular course on Tour by True Distance (which adjusts for the par of the course). The course averaged 72.6 over 2012-13 (4th hardest on Tour), largely because of that distance, but also because it has some of the most difficult to putt greens on Tour. Congressional also plays harder than average on middle/short length approach shots (<175 yards) based on my limited data.

Off the tee the course is very long with narrow (~25-27 yard) fairways which yield a normally low driving accuracy. However, the course is actually very easy off the tee, rewarding long drives and rarely punishing wild ones. The fairways are cut narrow, but the area given over to the rough is expansive. In last year’s final round, only 1% of drives ended up somewhere besides the fairway/rough/fairway bunker (trees, out of bounds, water, etc.). The Tour average is around 3-4%. This means that a lot of drives are missing the fairway, but fewer than normal are ending up with those catastrophic misses that cost big strokes. The rough at Congressional isn’t particularly penal and the fairway bunkers are statistically pretty easy to play out of, meaning a strategy based on hitting for distance and not worrying about accuracy is ideal here. The results bear that out; in 2012-13, players who hit for more distance were advantaged relative to the shorter hitters. Bump up J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland a bit.

One thing that holds the longer hitters back a bit is that it’s pretty difficult to hit the par 5s in two. The 9th measures 636 yards and if the length wasn’t enough, a ravine right before the green makes it a certain layup. Both the 6th (water) and 16th (multiple greenside bunkers) are very well defended to dissuade anyone who didn’t hit a perfect drive. There isn’t a drivable par 4 on the course either.

True Sleepers for the US Open

Most prognosticators seem to think sleeper = anyone who’s not one of the top 20 or so golfers in an event. In an effort to not duplicate others’ “efforts” here are some true sleepers that even regular PGA Tour fans might not be familiar with, but who could emerge as contenders this weekend.

Francesco Molinari (Italy, age 31):

I’ll start with the most borderline of sleepers – Molinari is actually going off around 100/1 this week. Molinari represents a dying breed of European Tour golfers who don’t yet play regularly in the US (only three non-Major/WGCs in last two years), but he’s still among one of the 40 best players in the world. He was a staple at the top of my rankings through 2012, but last year was a down year compared to his normal standards. He’s back this year though, with high finishes at the European PGA Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Players Championship adding up to a top 25 season by my numbers.

Molinari is basically as good as Harris English, Brandt Snedeker, or Gary Woodland, but is going off at worse odds than all three.

Joost Luiten (Netherlands, age 28):

Luiten is easily my favorite under the radar guy. He plays almost exclusively on the European Tour, racking up three wins so far in six and a half years on Tour. Last year was the first year he really emerged as a stud, winning twice and contending at the Race to Dubai Final, but more importantly reeling off a full-season of contending results. His aggregate performance was 33rd best in the world by my ratings. He’s been even better this year (4 top tens in Europe and high finishes at the WGC at Doral and the European PGA Championship); he’s up to 18th in the world by my numbers just this season.

He isn’t receiving attention, but he fits the profile of a very good player who could string four good rounds together and contend. I certainly rate his chances as superior to Victor Dubuisson, another younger Euro who has the high profile finish at the WGC Match Play, but has been worse than Luiten in 2014, 2013, and over 2010-2012, or Jonas Blixt, who has the PGA Tour card, wins, and Masters top five, but has been inconsistent and nowhere close to Luiten in terms of aggregate performance against the field. Luiten is going off at around 125/1, better odds than Dubuisson at 80/1 or Blixt at 90/1.

Justin Thomas (USA, age 21):

Thomas almost certainly won’t win this event, but of the guys in the field without a PGA or European Tour card he’s the most likely to win. Thomas starred at Alabama for two seasons where he was probably the best collegiate golfer (he finished #1 and #6 in the Sagarin ratings). He’s been playing on the Web.com Tour with a handful of PGA events so far this season, finishing top five in 3/9 events in the minors and scoring a top 10 at Torrey Pines. His performance so far as a pro already puts him solidly above PGA Tour average.

Despite his listed 5’10 145 lb frame, the best part of his game is his ability to bomb drives. He’s been among the leaders in distance on the Web.com Tour and his small sample of Trackman results reveal a guy who generates a ton of length and one of the highest ball flights on Tour. Based on his age, college performance, and play so far he looks like a very good player for the future, but for now he’s clearly the best golfer at Pinehurst without a spot on the major Tours.

 

US Open 2014 Statistical Preview

Introduction:

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.

Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Preview

Introduction:

The Wells Fargo Championship has been played at the Quail Hollow Club since 2003 under several different names. The par 72 is a firm test that usually plays slightly above par, though it ballooned to a full stroke over par during last year’s championship. The Club was awarded the 2017 PGA Championship and was given a minor renovation over the past year; this tournament will be the first played under the new conditions. The most important change is the conversion of the greens, which were oft-criticized, from bent grass to bermuda grass. Of all courses measured by the Shot Link system Quail Hollow’s greens were the 4th toughest to putt on over the last decade (half a stroke/round harder than average). By my count, there were also minor changes to three holes that should slightly affect play and one complete re-design of the 16th hole that dramatically changes how it plays. I anticipate the new greens will cause the course to play to par on average, possibly lower with better conditions than last year.

Off the Tee:

Quail Hollow is notable, first off, for the extremely low rate of fairways hit in recent tournaments. The pros have hit only 49% of their fairways since 2011 – the worst of any PGA Tour course. However, the inaccuracy hasn’t affected scoring much. Once the difficulty of the greens and length of the course are accounted for, Quail Hollow plays much more like a course where 60%+ fairways are hit. Last year’s conditions depressed driving distance some, but most years see driving distances at about PGA Tour average. My numbers indicate the rough is about average in terms of difficulty (a shot in the rough typically adds 0.2 strokes to what a player would score from the fairway). There are some danger areas on certain holes to catch wayward drives, but the longer hitters while be advantaged here.

Going for the Greens:

There are four par 5s – all able to be reached with the right two shots – and both the par 4 8th (not last year) and the par 4 14th (final round last year) can be set-up to encourage players to go for the green. Overall, longer hitters were advantaged in attacking the greens. In the final round last year, the longest third of hitters went for 61% of greens in two (average 60%), the middle third of hitters went for 38% of greens (average 50%), and the shortest third went for only 19% of greens (average 38%). That means longer hitters go for more greens than normal here and shorter hitters go for fewer greens than normal here; that’s clearly an edge for the longer and more aggressive pros, especially if #8 or #14 are played as drivable par 4s.

QH GFG

Important Holes:

#1 – Par 4 – 418 yards

The danger here is off the tee. The fairway bunker to the right gobbled up 20% of drives last year and shots played out of it were 0.4 strokes worse than those played out of the fairway. The rough penalty here was no worse than normal (0.2 strokes). Only the very longest hitters have to be concerned about driving it too far and ending up in the trees long left. The pros split 50/50 in terms of targeting right or left off the tee; shots towards the left ended up 0.1 strokes easier than those targeted right.

QH #1

#7 – Par 5 – 532 yards

This is the shortest par 5, and one that’s easy to hit in two if you get to the right position off the tee. There’s a creek right that has to be avoided. A better miss is to the left; the bunkers played only 0.25 strokes harder than the fairway last year and 6/10 of guys who ended up there attacked the green in two. The left also provides a safer angle to attack the green without bringing the water to the front right of the green into play – particularly important with the front right pin position. Shots targeted left played 0.1 strokes easier than those targeted right.

QH #7

#8 – Par 4 – 350 yards

Short on the card, but this wasn’t played as a drivable par 4 last tournament. Most opted to lay-up to around 70-80 yards to go. Bunkers were added to the left of where players lay-up which might indicate they’re going to move the tees up at least one round. Otherwise, the lay-up and wedge game will continue; only 14% of approach shots ended up in the rough or bunkers.

#10 – Par 5 – 591 yards

Only 17% of pros went for this green in two, though it’s possible with a long and accurate drive. The real challenge is off the tee; the bunker left is a danger, but playing right brings the trees into play and eliminates any hope of getting it around the green in two, especially when the pin position is to right. The fairway played to 4.65, the rough 4.84, the bunker 5.08, and the trees areas to 5.38. Only 29% of pros hit the fairway here, with most almost everyone else ending up in the rough/trees right.

QH #10

#12 – Par 4 – 456 yards

I think the pros were too cautious here last year and gave up distance on the drive just to hit the fairway. Yes, the fairway here is very narrow and the trees are dangerous, but the pros gave up 20 yards of distance and only shot 0.15 strokes better from the fairway – even including some obstructed shots from the rough.

#14 – Par 4 – 345 yards

This hole was set-up to drive the green in the final round last year. The tees were moved forward 20 yards, the hole location was set at the very front of the green, and the result was 29 birdies, a near chip-in eagle for Phil Mickelson, and a lot of excitement coming down the stretch. With the tees pushed forward, almost half the field went for the green off the tee. With the tees back, the drive becomes a little dangerous with water left and bunkers on either side of the landing area.

#18 – Par 4 – 478 yards

This is the very difficult finishing hole. There’s danger here from the creek down the left, but as with most long par 4s, the main danger is the rough. This hole saw the largest rough penalty of any hole at Quail Hollow (0.5 strokes). 24% of players couldn’t even get to within 50 yards of the pin with their approach shot last year.

 

All images taken from the Quail Hollow Course Tour. Flyovers for all 18 holes are available at that link.

RBC Heritage Preview

Introduction:

The Heritage has been played at the Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, SC since its inception in 1969. Much has been written about the unique challenge the tight, tree-lined fairways offer and, analytically, this is one of the most interesting tournaments and courses on Tour. Harbour Town has the reputation of favoring short, accurate drivers who can work their way around the narrow fairways and awkward approach shot angles, but it’s important to realize that longer, inaccurate hitters like Stewart Cink, Davis Love III, and Carl Pettersson have won this tournament, Cink and DL3 multiple times. Don’t be snake-charmed by the short hitters among the recent winners – Furyk, McDowell, and Snedeker are all very good in general and Gay won in the midst of a career year in 2009. I’ll discuss later the limitations of a game built on driving distance later, but know that the high distance/low accuracy game is not necessarily disqualified from winning.

The Course:

Harbour Town is a par 71 which has played just short of a stroke over par on average the last three seasons (8th most difficult to par of the regular Tour courses). It builds its defense on narrow fairways, awkward approach angles, and the smallest greens on Tour. Golfers have hit only 56% of their greens since 2011, despite facing no longer than average approach shots and hitting an average number of fairways. In fact, while the Heritage is a short course, the limitations it places on driving distance (2nd shortest drives on Tour in recent seasons) mean that it plays longer than the scorecard would indicate. Add in the test that the narrow fairways and trees provide and the tee-to-green test is one of the sternest on Tour.

The highlights are the par 3s; at only the Memorial did the par 3s play more difficult than at Harbour Town. Again, the defense here is not length – the four par 3s rank 30th in length on Tour and none play over 200 yards. Hazards, in the form of water on #4 and #14 and sand on #7 and #17, provide the teeth. The 14th is a particularly brutal carry over water to a long, narrow green. It plays 3.30 strokes overall in 2013, with a 3.51 using the final round pin position last season.

The par 5s run the gamut: #2 is short (502 yards) and easily reached in two, #5 is longer, but just as amenable to scoring, and #15 is a 588 yard beast that demands a straight drive to miss the overhanging trees, and it’s lined by bunkers and water down both sides of the fairway. It plays nearly to par, largely because reaching it in two is unthinkable.

Who the Course “Fits”:

I performed an analysis of how driving performance (distance and accuracy) has affected scoring using the last three years of data. Methodology can be found in previous tournament previews (Texas, Honda). I’ve performed this type of analysis for most of the PGA Tour courses and Harbour Town is the only one I’ve found in which longer driving distance comes out as a negative. The effect is small, but performing a standard deviation above PGA Tour average in driving distance (~12 yards) has cost players 0.1 strokes/round in the past three tournaments. A similar over-performance in driving accuracy (~5% more fairways hit) has saved players 0.3 strokes/round. Typically, high distance/low accuracy drivers will be around 0.10 strokes/round better than average distance/average accuracy drivers; at Harbour Town those golfers perform around 0.40 strokes/round worse than the average drivers. So there definitely is something to the idea of longer hitters being disadvantaged. That may cost some of the longer hitters (Charl Schwartzel and Harris English among the favorites) and reward the most accurate off the tee (Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson). But again, nothing disqualifies Schwartzel or English from winning – driving performance doesn’t play a larger role in determining the winner here compared to other courses.

As to why Harbour Town places a penalty on distance, I’d refer you to Mark Broadie’s finding that longer hitters miss more fairways because their misses travel further away from the center of the fairway. On many courses long misses are more often able to be played out of trees or desert areas; at Harbour Town, carrying a miss ten yards further off-line means you’re hitting a recovery shot much more often than normal. Even a small miss may leave a golfer without a usable angle to the green for their approach shot.

Strokes Gained by Long HittersThis shows the advantage, solely from driving distance & accuracy performance, that long/inaccurate hitters have over average length/average accuracy drivers per round. Negative numbers indicate strokes gained on the field.

Going for the Green:

I’ve done some limited collection of going for the green data just from the 2013 Final Round, and Harbour Town offers fewer opportunities to go for the green and less chances for success hitting the green in two than a normal course. Much of a longer hitter’s advantage comes in their ability to reach the green or around the green in two shots on a par 5. This allows them to putt for eagle or play a short shot (<30 yards) on their third shot, while shorter hitters are forced to lay-up and play longer third shots from 75-125 yards. On average, Tour pros score nearly half a stroke better per hole when they go for the green (hit the 2nd shot within 30 yards of the green) on par 5s, as opposed to laying up further back. There are certainly selection effects in that golfers go for greens on easier holes and don’t on harder holes, but in general it makes sense that going for the green is the superior play – if you are able.

Whether a golfer can go for the green largely depends on how far they drive the ball. The first graph below shows the relationship between Going for the Green % (percent of par 5s where a going for the green shot was played) and driving distance for all qualifying golfers in 2013 using all tournament rounds with the Shot Link system. The longer hitters (>295 yards) go for the green 60% or more, while the shorter hitters (<283 yards) go for the green 40% or less. There’s also a clear relationship between Going for the Green % and overall par 5 scoring average. The chart below shows that the longest hitters, who can go for the green the most, gain around 0.06 strokes/par 5 on average hitters and around 0.12 strokes/par 5 on the shortest hitters. That is a small advantage, even added up over 2-4 par 5s/round, but it forms around 20% of the advantage Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson have over the field.

GFG% DistanceGFG Scoring

Overall, Tour pros go for the green on around 50% of their opportunities and successfully hit the green around 25% of the time. At Harbour Town, golfers almost all go for the 2nd green (76%), while rarely attempting to take on the 5th green (21%). No one went for the 15th green in two. All told, my sample only went for 32% of the greens I measured and, of those, only successfully hit the green 15% of the time. These numbers are obviously well short of the averages I quoted above. This may indicate that Harbour Town eliminates the advantage longer hitters have in being able to go for par 5 greens in two. The 2nd hole is accessible to almost every Tour pro, while the 15th is accessible to none of the pros. That would limit the advantage long hitters gain to only the 5th hole. This is certainly an area that deserves more investigation.

Harbour Town GFG

 

Valero Texas Open Preview

The Course:

The Tour moves to the TPC San Antonio Oaks Course this week, site of the Valero Texas Open. Quite simply, this course is a beast to navigate. Relative to par, only PGA National (Honda Classic) and Congressional (AT&T Classic) have played more difficult over the last three years. Unfortunately this year the field is fairly weak; it’s headlined by Mickelson (first appearance in two decades), Spieth, Zach Johnson, Furyk, Kuchar, and three-time winner Jimmy Walker, but the kind of secondary talent that has been present in recent weeks at the Honda and Arnold Palmer just hasn’t shown up.

Unlike Congressional CC, the Oaks Course doesn’t primarily rely on distance as its defense. It is slightly longer than a normal par 72 course, but that distance is concentrated in the par 3s and par 5s (4th and 5th longest on Tour), while the par 4s are the 7th shortest. The main difficulty is hitting the greens; in the last three years golfers only hit 56% of the greens – one of the fewest on Tour. The other notable feature is how difficult it is to successfully scramble. Golfers only made par or better on 47% of their missed greens in last year’s tournament, by far the lowest on Tour last year. If that poor performance is maintained into this year’s tournament golfers who hit more greens will be advantaged by over 0.1 strokes/round simply because hitting greens is more valuable than normal this week.

Course Effects:

Beyond the aforementioned scrambling effect, I wanted to test whether this course provided an advantage to either longer golfers or more accurate golfers. I gathered the Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy stats for everyone who played the course from 2011 to 2013 and regressed those independent variables on the dependent variable of performance in strokes vs. the field. I also stripping out putting performance by subtracting the strokes gained putting from the overall performance. My regression attempted to predict performance tee-to-green relative to the field using simply driving distance and driving accuracy.

Unsurprisingly, the model worked as an overall proxy predicting nearly 20% of the variance in performance vs. the field (R^2 0.18). Both distance and accuracy were highly significant at the <.001 level (N=310 golfers). The results indicated that the course has favored good drivers over the more accurate golfers over the past three seasons. Long/inaccurate drivers performed 0.1 strokes better than the field, while Short/accurate drivers performed 0.4 strokes worse than the field. There’s no guarantee that that will continue over this tournament, but it may indicate an advantage for the longer/inaccurate golfers (guys like Jimmy Walker or Ryan Palmer), rather than shorter/accurate golfers (Furyk, Zach Johnson).

Honda Classic Preview

Introduction:

The tournament is played at the PGA National Champions course. The course has bermuda grass greens (the first appearance of bermuda grass greens in over a month) and is most notable for the amount of water hazards the golfers will navigate this week. At least four holes require shots to be played over water where it will be directly in play and several other holes have water in play left or right of the green. In the finishing four holes, there are two par 3s with shots entirely over water and a par 5 where going for the green requires a shot entirely over water to a difficult pin.

2013 averages: Driving Distance – 283 yards, Driving Accuracy – 62%, GIRs – 59%, Scrambling – 55%

Relative to average, the course depresses driving distance, greens in regulation, and scrambling.

Past Performance:

The tournament has been held at the PGA National since 2007, meaning past data is limited. Only 17 players in the field this week have 20+ rounds at the course and the median number of prior rounds is 10. Among the notable favorites, Phil Mickelson has never played the Honda at PGA National, while Adam Scott has only 2 rounds.

Because of the limited samples of prior performance here, there are hardly any golfers who have shown a statistically significant difference in their performance at PGA National versus in all other tournaments. I took each player’s 2007-2013 Honda Classic average performance and their average performance in all tournament from 2007-2013 (weighted by # of rounds played in a season so that if a golfer did not play in 2010, his 2010 performance did not factor into their overall average).

I used a t-test to check for statistical significance. Only three golfers entered this week have played better or worse at a statistically significant level – Erik Compton (12 rounds, better), Geoff Ogilvy (4 rounds, better), and Will MacKenzie (16 rounds, better). It’s important to note that we would expect a similar number of golfers to be significantly better by chance alone. There’s simply not enough data for this tournament, at this venue, to make conclusive statements about how certain golfers over or under-perform here.

Who Do the Stats Fit?:

More generally, I wondered whether PGA National fits a certain type of golfer’s game. Does it favor those who drive for distance? Or accuracy? I gathered individual player data for driving distance and driving accuracy for 2011 to 2013, standardizing the values to the average observed over both years. I then gathered corresponding performance in standard deviations from the mean for each player, stripping out their putting performance using each golfer’s strokes gained putting. For example, Michael Thompson was 1.48 standard deviations better than the field last year. 0.49 of that was from putting, meaning he played tee to green in ~1.0 standard deviation better than the field per round. I then regressed driving distance and accuracy on each golfer’s performance tee to green relative to the field.

The results suggested that there’s a slight bias towards those who drive the ball longer at PGA National. Golfers who were above-average in distance/below-average in accuracy outperformed golfers who were below-average in distance/above-average in accuracy by 0.6 strokes/round, which is fairly significant. For all tournaments in 2013, +drivers/-accuracy outperformed -drivers/+accuracy by roughly 0.2 strokes/round. This suggests that driving for distance is more important at PGA National than in the average PGA Tour tournament. A regression based on only 360 rounds over three years is not airtight, but it does suggest PGA National is biased towards those who hit for more distance.

Distance & Difficulty:

I have a stat to measure the distance a course plays called True Distance. True Distance standardizes the length of each hole based on whether it’s a par 3, 4, or 5. This is necessary because the main factor that effects the listed length of courses is the number of this number of par 3 and par 5s. PGA Tour courses with only 2 par 5s play to 7177 yards on average, while those with 4 par 5s play to 7337 yards. That extra yardage doesn’t make those courses with extra par 5s more difficult.

To find the True Distance of a course I compare the length of each hole to the average length of all PGA Tour holes of that particular par. The average par 3 on Tour is 198 yards, par 4 is 433 yards, and par 5 is 563 yards. A 500 yard par 4 is +67 yards in true distance while a 160 yard par 3 is -38 in true distance. I sum the true distance value for each hole to determine the course total. A table of course, tournament, scorecard yardage, and True Distance is below.

PGA Tour Courses

Immediately it’s obvious why judging a course by its True Distance is superior. Kapalua, site of the season opening Tournament of Champions, is typically considered a bomber’s paradise, but it actually plays as one of the shortest courses on Tour once you factor in that it’s a par 73 with only 3 par 3s. It plays short because 8/11 par 4s and 3/4 par 5s are below average in terms of distance. Opposite of Kapalua are a half-dozen par 70 courses which play as some of the longest courses on Tour, despite having scorecard lengths considered roughly average.

PGA National is one of those par 70s that plays much longer than it is listed. Eight holes play at least 20 yards longer than average, while only 4 holes play at least 20 yards shorter than average. That’s a major reason why this course has played an average of 6.7 strokes over par since 2007.