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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.

Weather
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.

Honda Classic Preview – 2015

Course:
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 Web.com 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

Best and Worst of 2013-14 PGA Tour

Best rounds:

In strokes, adjusted for the ability of the field and the difficulty of the course that day.

1. Brendon de Jonge, 2nd Round Wells Fargo Championship

de Jonge shot a 62 when the course played to 72.4 and the field was solidly PGA Tour average. Unfortunately it followed a 1st round 80. He made the cut, shot two sub 70 rounds on the weekend, and captured one of only two top tens of his season.

2. Adam Scott, 1st Round Arnold Palmer Invitational

I remember tweeting after this round that it was the best of the season so far and it held up for another two months. Scott shot a 62 when the field played to 71.8 and was a bit above-average. Scott would hold the lead for most of the rest of the tournament until he blew-up with a 76 in the final round to finish solo 3rd. Scott would get his only win of the season two months later at the Colonial – beginning a ten tournament streak where he finished top 20 in every event and top ten in seven of them. His season remains ridiculously underrated.

3. Sergio Garcia, 2nd Round WGC-Bridgestone

This is the round that propelled Sergio into the lead and set-up Rory’s Sunday comeback to secure his 2nd of three wins over ridiculously strong fields. Sergio’s 61 bested the field by nine strokes, but the Bridgestone field was the fourth strongest of the year which boosts him a lot.

4. Troy Matteson, 2nd Round Greenbrier Classic

I have no recollection of this round and no recollection of ever seeing Matteson’s name this year. He sandwiched this 61 (field average of 70.9) between three others which were below average and finished T45.

5. Rory McIlroy, 1st Round Memorial

Some wonderful soul uploaded this round (along with Adam Scott & Jason Day) to Youtube. Rory’s 63 when a strong field played to 72.2 put him in the lead by three strokes, but he followed it up with a 78 on Friday and faded to T15 over the weekend. Remember the narrative that Rory couldn’t follow-up good first rounds? He blew this lead and one at the Scottish Open in July, but then followed up a 1st Round 66 at the Open Championship with an even better (relatively speaking) 66 to solidify his lead. I’d say he’s killed that narrative.

Honorable Mentions:

I can’t help but mention Andres Romero’s 1st Round at the Las Vegas event – the 25th best of the season. He opened with a 61 when the field averaged 69.5 (amazingly this was also the day J.J. Henry shot a 60). Much more notable is his 2nd Round 81 (!). His 81 was eleven shots worse than the field (the worst round by far that anyone among the top 100 rounds shot in the same tournament). He unbelievably ended up missing the cut by two strokes, making this the only one of the best 200 rounds this year where the player missed the cut.

George McNeill’s final round 61 at the Greenbrier, played right after he found out of his sister’s death, was the 15th best of the season. He finished two back of Angel Cabrera ultimately, but cheers to that round.

Worst Rounds:

I’m ignoring anyone who doesn’t at least pretend to compete regularly. #1 may or may not meet that criteria.

1. John Daly, 2nd Round at Innisbrook (Valspar Championship) – 90 when the field played to 72.7

2. Matt Every, 3rd Round at the Deutsche Bank – 86

3. Michael Bradley, 1st Round at John Deere Classic – 84

4. Toru Taniguchi, 3rd Round at US Open – 88 on the hardest day at Pinehurst

5. David Duval, 2nd Round at Travelers – 83

Honorable Mentions:

Bubba Watson’s allergy marred 1st round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was 10th worst by a touring professional. He withdrew, unsurprisingly. Both Paul Stankowski and David Duval shot 81 in the first round of the John Deere Classic, giving that round three of the worst thirteen results of the season. Duval withdrew, but Stankowski saw out the second round with a 78 – the worst first two rounds of the season among touring pros.

Best Tournaments:

1. Martin Kaymer – US Open

2. Dustin Johnson – WGC-HSBC

3. Rory McIlroy – Open Championship

4. Rory McIlroy – WGC-Bridgestone

5. Rory McIlroy – PGA Championship

Rory had himself quite the run late summer.

Honorable Mentions:

Sergio had the 7th and 10th best tournaments of the season, back to back, but lost to Rory both times (Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone). All four major winners were in the top fifteen (Bubba’s Masters win was 14th). Webb Simpson’s -24 win in Las Vegas (6th best) came against a poor field and on one of the easiest courses, but he torched the field to win by six shots.

Best Expected Performances:

This is based off my expected performance ratings which project every pro in my database every week. It gives you an idea not only who was the best player, but when they were the best. I’ll just mention the best guys once.

1. Rory McIlroy entering the Barclays

Unsurprisingly the best player’s peak came after his three straight victories. He also holds the next five spots – three in the other FedEx Cup events and the others at the PGA and Memorial. Safe to say he was best in August/September.

7. Adam Scott entering the Tour Championship

Remember that insane ten event run I mentioned earlier? This was the culmination of his season, and he played to expectation to finish T9.

15. Tiger Woods entering the event at Torrey Pines

After being the best in the world over 2012-13, Tiger entered 2014 at the top of my ratings. This was his first event, a T80 that resulted in a MDF. He followed with a T41 in Dubai a week later. Things unraveled from there, but this was when he was supposedly at his peak.

23. Sergio Garcia entering the PGA Championship

After being so unlucky to play amazing and lose in his previous two events, Sergio entered the PGA in his best form of the year. He never really threatened however.

27. Justin Rose entering the Barclays

Another guy who didn’t get much attention this year, despite shipping two quality events (at Congressional and the Scottish Open).

Most Unlikely Performances:

These are the tournament performances that were furthest away from my expectations in the positive direction.

1. Mike Weir at the Byron Nelson

Weir was a fringe elite player for most of the 2000s, but inexplicably lost his game around 2011. He’s less awful than he was around 2011-12, but was still projected around the level of an average Web.com Tour player in May. He finished solo second, two back of winner Brendon Todd. It was Weir’s only finish above T44 all season.

2. Martin Kaymer at the US Open

This is unsurprisingly seeing how it was the #1 performance overall above. Kaymer is a very good player, so this is less likely than McIlroy or Adam Scott playing this well, but the degree to which he destroyed that field on that course is awesome.

3. Jim Renner at the Pebble Beach Pro-am

Jim Renner is thoroughly anonymous as a pro; he’s about Web.com Tour average, but played nearly well enough to win in February. He settled for a T2 with Dustin Johnson, one back of Jimmy Walker. This finish represented over 75% of his earnings for the season.

4. Tim Clark at the Canadian Open

Clark entered the final round three back of Jim Furyk. On what was the fifth easiest round on Tour all season, Clark shot a 65 to win by a stroke. Once a peripheral top 25 player around when he won the 2010 Players, Clark’s fallen on hard times. This season – with a win, 2nd, and 5th – represents a bit of a comeback.

5. Patrick Reed at the Humana

Despite winning in 2013, Reed entered 2014 rated as essentially an average PGA Tour player. His hot streak from the Humana onward cemented him as a Ryder Cupper. He started in Palm Springs with three straight 63s and held on to win by two.

Honorable Mentions:

Billy Horschel’s back-to-back wins ranked 29th and 33rd. Rory’s Open Championship win ranks 85th – right ahead of Phil’s T2 at the PGA Championship.

The Barclays Round 1 Recap

Bo Van Pelt (-6) leads eight others including former FedEx Champ Jim Furyk after the first round at The Barclays. The main story in golf the last month has been the dominance of Rory McIlroy (three straight wins) and Rickie Fowler (two 2nds in majors), and what their success at a young age means to the future of golf. Rory struggled across the board Thursday – breaking a streak of fourteen straight above-average rounds dating back to early July – while Rickie delivered another solid round to end up three off the lead. Most notable from Thursday was the continued great play of Jim Furyk; he’s racked up three top tens and a T15 in the last month behind great iron play and a hot putter.

The Course:

Ridgewood was set-up at an average length Thursday and yielded fairly normal course stats in terms of accuracy (64%), GIR (67%), and scoring (70.8 on a par of 71). Where it’s really difficult is from the rough. It was in the upper tier of PGA Tour courses in terms of difficulty. The par 5s also play mostly as three shot holes; the pros only went for the green in two 17% of the time (average of 50%) and hit the green in two 2% of the time (average 14%).

Drivable Par 4 5th:

The 5th is a drivable par 4, playing 283 yards on Thursday, that is one of the best examples of a drivable par 4 all season. If you take a look below you’ll see the elevated green is narrow and tiny, measuring 9 yards wide and only 2200 square feet (microscopic by PGA Tour standards). The green is surrounded by bunkers to dissuade some from attacking it off the tee; lay-ups are made to around 85 yards. Driving the green requires a carry of around 270 yards, 40 feet uphill, and is best done with a right-handed fade. Just over half the field went for the green off the tee, scoring about 0.1 stroke better than those who laid-up.

Because of the carry required, none of the shortest hitters who went for the green hit it or made birdie. Because there isn’t a ton of difference between the expected values of each strategy, the shorter hitters and anyone who’s really good with a wedge from 100 yards in should probably lay-up. Anyone with average or better distance should absolutely take-on the green though. Average or longer hitters who went for the green scored at 3.60, everyone else at 3.91. The real pay-off isn’t really being close to the green – a 25 yard bunker shot isn’t much easier than a 75 yarder from the fairway – it’s instead in actually hitting the green. All five who hit the green made birdie, which is expected when the longest possible putt you can face is 50 feet. You can see the distribution by score below.

#5ridgewood1stround

What’s Ahead for Rory:

With Rory’s run of success every poor round is apt to be magnified beyond proportions. Even great players play poorly some days. Rory’s expected to have a round as bad as Thursday’s only around once every 25 rounds, so this is likely as poor as we’re apt to see him play for awhile. What’s important isn’t really this round, but how he’s had success so far this year. Rory emerged as a star and won his first two majors in 2011 and 2012 while being wholly dependent on his driver/irons for success. He was the best in the world on those long shots in 2011-12, while his putting was average or a bit worse. Last year, his driving was wild and he lost a lot his long game that had made him great. This year, the driving is as good as ever and his irons are great, but what’s really different is his success with the putter. He’s jumped to 21st on Tour in putting, gaining about half a stroke from putting compared to the last few seasons. Over this latest run of wins his putter has been nuclear hot (+1.20 strokes vs. the field). That’s been enough to take him from one of a group of 3-4 elite players to the best in the world.

The problem is putting is hugely random. Players putt well above their talent level for months and then regress. Up until July, McIlroy had putted at +0.16 strokes gained for the season and slightly below average for his career. Since then he’s at +1.20 strokes gained. This post deals with the small sample randomness involved with putting; nothing McIlroy is doing on the greens indicates to me that he’s going to sustain the level of putting that won him two majors in the last month. When his putting returns to his career norms, he’ll still be the best player in the world, but as more of a 1A to Sergio, Adam Scott, and Justin Rose than the next Tiger/Jack that he’s been made out as the last few weeks. His long game (driving/approach shots) is the best in the world largely because he’s in another universe off the tee. When Tiger was dominant for a decade he combined the best long game in the world with top ten putting; nothing Rory has done shows that he’s capable of putting that well for the long haul.

mcilroySG11-14McIlroy’s Strokes Gained per Shot Link tournament since 2011. His putting surge in the last few months is obvious.

Rickie Fowler’s Putting:

Much of the previous section applies to Rickie Fowler as well. Fowler took on a highly publicized swing change with Butch Harmon at the beginning of the season which left his game a mess for months, but which looks great now. His tee to green game has been the best of his career the last two months – a testament to the work he put in with Butch earlier this season. However, what’s really fueled him to four straight top tens in major tournaments has been a ridiculous run of putting. He’s putting about a stroke better per round than he ever has since June. He’s a solid putter in his career, but he’ll look mortal when this hot streak ends.

fowlerSGRickie Fowler’s Performance in Strokes relative to the field (positive is better)

Today’s round is a good example; his very good long game was erratic and his short game was awful. What saved him was gaining 4.5 putts on the field including two 13′ and two 11′ putts to save par after missing greens. You look real good when you hit all four of those, but most of the time you hit only 1-2. That’s why Rickie’s sitting on a -3 instead of a -1.

Shot of the Day:

The PGA Tour chose Bo Van Pelt’s eagle chip-in on #17. You can see on the video that it was a long chip (48 feet), but from right off the green. It ranked 6th among non-putts in terms of strokes gained (+1.3 strokes).

My highest ranked shot was Chris Stroud’s 20 yard hole-out from the bunker on the 7th (+1.5 strokes), for which there is no video available. Andrew Svoboda’s drive onto the the green 30 feet away at the drivable 5th hole was the best tee or approach shot of the day (+1.2 strokes), setting up a two putt birdie.

PGA Championship Round 2 Thoughts

A wet day at Valhalla, but one hardly touched by the expected severe weather. Wet conditions did have a significant impact on how the course played. Driving distance was slashed, dropping from 284 yards on average Thursday to 272 yards Friday. This left the average approach shot at 190 yards; the course definitely played long today despite no real effort to stretch out the tees. The wet conditions left the par 5 10th as a three shot hole for the entire field and lengthened the par 5 7th so much that eleven Tour players splashed their 2nd shot into the green. Approach shots played slightly easier, but the greens were destroyed by the end of the day. Short putts were bouncing like crazy near the hole; the early wave putted 0.5 strokes better than the the late wave because of how damaged the greens were in the afternoon.

Rory…Again:

After an opening round 66, Rory jumped into the lead at the close of Friday with a second round 67. Rory again showed off his all-around game, though his driving was noticeably less impressive than on Thursday – only 8/14 fairways. What carried him was a hot putter. He started slowly, missing a thirteen foot birdie putt on #10 and a ten foot putt for par on #12, but rebounded immediately with a birdie on #13 and an eight foot par save on #14. His longest of the round was a 31 foot bomb for eagle on 18. In all, he gained +2.2 strokes from putting, 10th best in the field.

Rory’s putting hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as his ridiculous driving or consistent iron play, but it’s played a huge role in his great season and recent surge to demi-god status this summer. In his previous few seasons on Tour he’s been a slightly below average putter, but this season he’s jumped to gaining +0.4 strokes on the field with the putter – good for top 20 on Tour. That doesn’t even include his victories in the European PGA at Wentworth or Open Championship where we don’t have strokes gained data, but where he surely putted well.

In his six rounds at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone and this week’s Championship, he’s gaining +1.5 strokes per round on the field from putting. That’s way better than anyone can sustain (the very best approach +1 stroke gained). Sure he’s driving the ball at a heretofore unseen level and, yes, the rest of his game is great too, but the main reason he’s destroying everyone the last few weeks is because he’s making everything. At some point he’ll stop making everything – he may even regress back into an average putter (hot putting is the most fickle mistress in golf). The crazy thing is that he’s still probably the best player in golf even if he’s an average putter.

Jason Day’s Tee to Green Game:

The best part of the afternoon wave today was watching the show Jason Day was putting on tee to green. His front nine was a collection of bombed drives, darts to inside ten feet, and green after green hit (he missed his first on #10). His 240 yard iron to fifteen feet to set-up eagle on #7 was a ridiculously good shot, but I think his best hole was the 324 yard drive on #2, followed by a high approach to 17 feet, and a birdie. Not bad for a hole that played hardest on the course and where only a quarter of the field even hit the green. In all, his drives and approach shots gained +4.9 strokes on the field Friday, the best of either round.

Day was great tee to green on Thursday as well (+4.3 strokes), but didn’t make anything on the greens. The putter heated up Friday and he surged into a tie for 2nd. In the post-round interview he still claimed his thumb wasn’t 100% so it’s kind of crazy to see him so sharp on these long shots.

7th Hole Summary from Friday:

Same methods used as yesterday. Players who drove right actually played this hole 0.07 strokes better than those who played left a complete flip-flop from yesterday. The proportions choosing each side stayed the same, but because of the wet conditions I think some players just misjudged what length shot they’d be left with from the left fairway. There were eleven water balls from the left side today, compared to just four yesterday, and about half of those driving left ended up laying up to the right fairway because they didn’t have the length to challenge the green in two. Same color scheme – left drives in gold, right in blue.

valhalla7thround2Notice how muddled the lay-up zone is with the second shots of guys who drove it left.

How Bad are the Club Professionals?

The PGA Championship is unique among PGA Tour tournaments in that it qualifies the best twenty club professionals to participate. These guys rarely make the cut – Ryan Heliminen was top this year at T75 – and typically finish dozens of strokes off the lead. But just how bad are they? Are they uncompetitive off the tee, while solid putters? Using the two rounds of strokes gained stats I’ve gathered, it turns out that they’re pretty uniformly bad at everything. If you take the worst PGA Tour player in each of the major shot types – Kyle Stanley’s putting, Mike Weir’s driving, Robert Garrigus’s short game, etc. – you pretty much have the typical PGA club professional.

None of this is meant to disparage them. During TNT’s feature on club pro Michael Block he stated that he only hit about one bucket of balls a week. PGA Tour players are playing half the weeks out of the year, and you have to practice constantly to maintain even the ability to be a bad PGA Tour player. That a club pro can show even near-PGA Tour-level talent without all that practice time is impressive.

American Ryder Cup Hopefuls:

Six US players have already essentially qualified for the Ryder Cup squad, leaving three automatic spots to be decided at the conclusion of the PGA Championship and three more captain’s picks. I ran a simulation to determine who is in the best shape as of the end of round 2 to get one of those remaining three spots. Right now, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner, and Zach Johnson are slightly in front of a group of players including Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Brendon Todd, and Ryan Moore. Keegan Bradley missed the cut, meaning he’s completely out of automatic qualification (though everyone suspects he’ll reprise his 2012 pairing with Phil Mickelson through a captain’s pick). Jason Dufner also has no way to earn additional points, as he withdrew with a neck injury.

Patrick Reed made the cut and looks almost certain (95%) to earn automatic qualification to the team. Reed would have to be passed by three US players to drop off the team, which is obviously unlikely as only Mickelson, of the group right behind him in the points ranking, is projected to finish high. Zach Johnson also looks like a pretty sure bet to make the team (81%). Johnson sits in 9th currently, but should pass at least Dufner simply by completing the tournament. Phil’s big move today propelled him into great position to qualify (67%). In his easiest scenario to qualify, Phil needs to finish around 15th or better to pass Dufner. If no one else makes significant moves among Moore, Todd, or others further down, that should be enough to get him on the team.

Of the longer shots, Dufner is still around 19% to maintain his spot. It’s completely up in the air whether he’ll be healthy enough to play, but the event is still almost two months away. Ryan Palmer (12%) can qualify with a very high finish – he’ll probably need at least a two way tie for 2nd to get on the team. Ryan Moore (12%) has an outside shot at qualification, though he’ll need to make a serious move and probably finish top ten. Steve Stricker (3%) needs to win to have any hope of getting in. A half-dozen others like Brian Harman, Billy Horschel, Bill Haas, and Brandt Snedeker could get in with wins or second place finishes.

 

Ken Pomeroy’s numbers are below. Pinnacle Sports is dealing Rory +124 which is…something.

PGA Championship Round 1 Thoughts

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

Rory’s Driving:

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

Lee Westwood’s Major Quest Resumes:

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

The Split Fairway 7th hole:

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

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

valhalla7thround1

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

General Course Stats:

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

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

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

Weekend in Review – WGC-Bridgestone

Golf fans were rewarded Sunday with another battle between the best players in the world, not only for the WGC title, but also for the in-reality-meaningless #1 world ranking. Sergio began the day three strokes up on Rory with around a 70% chance to win, but three straight birdies for McIlroy to open and a pair of missed 6 footers for Sergio gave Rory the lead after only three holes. The rest of the round merely served as a coronation for Rory. On a day where soft, wet conditions allowed players to fire at pins, Sergio generated only four birdie looks from ten feet in – missing each one. He applied no pressure at all on the back-nine, allowing Rory to bomb drives, hit greens, make pars, and ultimately win by two strokes.

Rory entered the day looking to secure the #1 world ranking with a win and an outside the top five finish by Adam Scott. His hot start propelled him into the lead and Adam Scott played poorly down the stretch to fall to 8th. He loses the #1 ranking he held since May, but him and McIlroy remain in a virtual dead heat in my rankings. These two have clearly been the best in the world all spring and summer.

 

Rory’s Driving:

CBS’s golf team raved about Rory’s driving all day on Sunday and rightfully so. His display of power and control on his drives was almost super-human; he was out-hitting Sergio by ~25 yards all day and avoided trouble all weekend. I have an adjusted driving stat that shows by how each golfer is performing on each hole relative to the rest of the field. Anything above 15 yards is elite. Rory was at 28 yards for the weekend, better even than Bubba Watson.

Rory’s always been a long hitter though, what stood out Sunday was the control he exerted over his drives. He hit 61% of his fairways for the week, only slightly better than average, but he avoided trouble on every single one of his 56 drives this week. I track how often a player is unable to play towards the green on a par 4 after their drive (a recovery shot). Typically this happens just less than once a round, and is a major cause of bogeys because the player is forced to get up-and-down from >50 yards. Rory was one of only three players who didn’t face a single recovery shot all week (Sergio and J.B. Holmes were the others). Not only was he longer than everyone, but he never once faced any trouble from the rough or trees.

All that adds up to the best driving performance of the season per Mark Broadie’s strokes gained stats. Broadie has Rory as by far the best driver on Tour this season, gaining nearly 1.5 strokes/round on the field just off the tee. For comparison, only 18 others have played that well OVERALL this season. This combination of power and control is pushing the boundaries of what is even possible in professional golf.

 

Tiger Injured Again:

Tiger’s injury Sunday was a huge let-down to anyone who wanted to see what he could do next week. He had been hitting full shots for a month as of this week and while he hadn’t looked particularly good in nine rounds since he returned, he was at least healthy and able to work on his game. This injury should put a halt to that. Tiger’s calendar is now clear of commitments until at least late October. It’s possible if he WDs this week that we won’t see him in action until his tournament in December or at Torrey Pines in January.

I’ll reiterate that I see no reason why a healthy Tiger can’t return to the best-in-the-world peak he enjoyed in 2012 and 2013.

 

PGA Championship:

All the talk this week has to be about whether Rory will take home another major title at Valhalla. There was some talk about how Valhalla “fits his game” – apparently it is forgiving off the tee and rewards high ball hitters. I’m hoping to touch on “course fits” in my preview, but the course doesn’t impact a tournament much week to week. Rory is the favorite, clearly, though Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Sergio are all very close – I’d give odds of 16-1 for Rory and Adam Scott and 25-1 for Rose and Sergio. Remember that all three of those guys finished top ten this week, two of them finished top five at The Open Championship, and Justin Rose has won twice in his last four starts.

As for others who looked good this past week, Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama finished 2nd/3rd best in non-putting performance (all strokes but putts). I like to look at that because putting has been shown to be extremely random in small samples. If there is carry-over next week, those are an obvious pair to look at.