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Ryder Cup Preview: Team Europe

The Europeans enter this event not only with the expectations of having won four straight Ryder Cups on European soil, but also under the expectation that they have the best players this time around – not always the case at the Ryder Cup. Europeans took home three of the four majors this season plus the Players Championship and WGC-Bridgestone, and they have four of the six highest ranked players in the Official World Golf Ranking. There should be concerns about how top heavy the Euro team is, but in general most of their players are in form. In terms of betting odds, they’re trading at around 67% to win or tie to retain the Cup.

The Elite:

Rory McIlroy:

McIlroy’s season was amazing. Coming off a disappointing 2013, Rory won two majors and two other important events, while also playing the best of any player in terms of my z-score rating since Tiger Woods in 2009. While his performance, like all mere mortals, fell short of peak Tiger Woods, he was still the best player tee to green in the world and rode a hot putting streak to his three straight victories in July and August. He’s the obvious best golfer in the world and will be relied on as the core of a pretty top heavy European team.

McIlroy’s aggressive, birdie heavy game fits the four-ball format perfectly. He’s also paired with compatriot Graeme McDowell in all four of his foursomes matches (2.5/4 points) in his career. I expect that pairing will be relied upon again. I explained in the first part of this preview that Gleneagles sets-up well in foursomes for a mix of a long, aggressive player and a good iron player because of the distribution of the holes. Rory and G-Mac have a more or less perfect mix of talent to exploit that set-up.

Graeme McDowell:

The Irishman put up perhaps the quietest elite season of anyone this year, finishing top ten in stroke play events seven times in the US, but only better than 7th once. Though short off the tee, G-Mac’s long had a very good tee to green game built around hitting fairways and greens; this year his putting surged from average to best on Tour. I’ve written extensively about how short-term putting regresses going forward, so don’t expect him to putt at an elite level. His best skill is hitting his wedges/irons. He’sone of five European players who are clearly superior to the rest of the team; it’ll be interesting to see how heavily those five (Stenson/Rose/Rory/G-Mac/Sergio) are relied upon in these matches.

I expect he’ll play with Rory twice in foursomes and then play at least another four-ball match.

Sergio Garcia:

Sergio’s returned to his top ten in the world standard for the last few years, but it feels like this year was the first time it was really acknowledged – probably thanks to his contending alongside Rory in several high profile tournaments. He finished top five at the Players, British Open, WGC-Bridgestone, and BMW, though he only won once this year in Qatar. Though commentators were quick to talk about his putting improvements recently, it’s been more important that he’s refined his normally fantastic tee to green game back into one of the best in the world. No one on Tour hit their irons better this year and Sergio also finished near the top in driving and short game. He’s most ideal in the foursomes format where his iron play and scrambling allow him to avoid bogeys better than anyone on Tour not named Jim Furyk.

Sergio carries a 16-8-4 record into these matches and I expect he’ll be relied upon to play all five matches. His approach play and ability to play out of the rough (he’s one of the best on Tour) make a good foursomes partner for one of the longer, aggressive, even wild European players – Lee Westwood, Victor Dubuisson, or Jamie Donaldson come to mind.

Henrik Stenson:

Stenson’s comeback from completely losing his game in 2010-11 has been well documented; he’s back to being one of the best golfers in the world now. Stenson’s a unique player, especially off the tee. He’s simultaneously extremely accurate while also out-hitting 75% of the Tour. That combination makes him one of the best drivers on Tour, but he also hits his irons well and is one of the most aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two on par 5s. He’s a great four-ball player, but also matches up well in foursomes with someone like Kaymer who is much better playing from the fairway than the rough and is also fairly aggressive.

Justin Rose:

Rose is the last of the five elite Europeans who I would consider playing all five matches. After his break-through US Open win last year, he’s flown under the radar this year with only two world-wide victories. Nevertheless, he remains one of the truly elite players in the world. He’s another guy who relies on his fantastic tee to green game; his short game and iron play has always been great and he’s driving it really well this year. Rose’s putting has always been spotty, but it’s never been a liability. He’s another guy like Sergio who really hits out of the rough well. His all-around game makes him ideal for both formats; he’s probably the guy I’d play with Poulter in foursomes.

Veterans:

Ian Poulter:

Poulter is the most accomplished Ryder Cupper since the event expanded to include all Europeans in 1979. His record of 12 points in 15 matches blows away the rest of the competition, which is why he was selected despite a very down year to date. Poulter’s hung around at ~25th by my ratings over the last five years, but his recent stretch of awful play has pushed him more towards 40th. I don’t anticipate any of that will play into Captain Paul McGinley’s plans however; he’ll use Poulter extensively in both formats. Poulter’s tee to green game has never been that strong, but he’s an above-average putter and has a very good short game. That will give him an edge in foursomes, possibly with someone like Justin Rose who won’t be uncomfortable playing Poulter’s short drives and mediocre approach shots.

Lee Westwood:

Westwood’s been a Ryder Cup stalwart for Europe since his first matches in 1997, racking up 21 points in 37 matches and participating in every Cup during that period. Just three years ago he was one of the best in the world, but he’s slipped quickly – especially this season – to 33rd in my ratings right now. Even worse, his decline has been sharp in terms of tee to green play. At one point his long game was one of the best in the world, but his iron play has really slipped. Westwood is showing the tell-tale signs of losing his game due to agre: 1) his long game (approach shots/driving) has collapsed and 2) he’s over 40. The reason he hasn’t slipped too much overall is that his putting has surged from poor to above-average after a career of poor putting, masking that tee to green decline. I’m not saying he’s going to fall off the Tour, but his days of contending for majors and being a Ryder Cup beast are likely over.

Westwood’s driving remains solid and he’s aggressive in chasing birdies, so he’s ideal for four-ball play.

Thomas Bjorn:

Bjorn is one of two Euros left from the 1997 team that snuck past the Americans at Valderrama (Westwood is the other). Despite a solid career in Europe, Bjorn’s only returned to one further Ryder Cup team. He’s had a bit of a renaissance entering his 40s, but at 44 the end is near. He’s poor off the tee and not impressive with his irons, but is a good putter. Overall his he’s probably the second worst Euro and is best utilized for maybe one foursomes match, but that’s it. Even if there’s a penalty for playing all five matches, Bjorn is so far inferior to the five elite guys that I’d leave him on the bench.

Martin Kaymer:

Kaymer’s reputation is probably the most inflated beyond his abilities of anyone in the world thanks to his victories in the Players Championship and US Open and prior #1 in the world ranking in 2011. Unfortunately, Kaymer hasn’t played anything like he did in 2009-11 (consistently top ten in the world by my ratings) in 2012-14 (outside the top 20 since early 2013 by my ratings). His winning performances at the Players and US Open were obviously his best performances, but he’s been incredibly inconsistent – finishing with performances below PGA Tour average in nine of 22 tournaments this year. That’s just not indicative of an elite player.

Kaymer’s strong suit is his aggressive style. He makes a ton of birdies and goes for par 5s in two consistently, but he’s more prone than most to bogeys. He’s clearly best suited to play four-balls, though, as I said above, he’d be a good foursomes partner for Henrik Stenson.

Rookies:

Victor Dubuisson:

Dubuisson – at only 24 – is one of Europe’s main hopes for the future as they phase out the Poulter/Stenson/Westwood/Donald generation over the next few Cups. He’s been solidly inside the top 100 in the world for a few years, but really emerged last fall with a win and a 3rd place in the final two Race to Dubai playoff events. PGA Tour fans saw him in action in Match Play in February where he famously got up and down from cacti on consecutive holes to continue his finals match with Jason Day. More impressive were his major top-tens at the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

Dubuisson’s game is built on his driving distance (he’s 6th on the European Tour in distance and top 20 among PGA Tour players with at least nine tournaments played). Despite his highlights, his short game hasn’t been better than average, and his putting has been very poor this season – easily the worst of anyone in this event. He’s perfect for the four-ball matches because he’ll be able to bomb it with impunity, ideally partnered with someone like Rose or Sergio who consistently keeps it in play.

Jamie Donaldson:

Donaldson’s one of those European players who plays great golf and contends regularly, but is relatively anonymous to PGA Tour fans who only see them if they contend at a major or WGC. Donaldson’s been consistently good for the last 3-4 seasons and has been very hot lately – win & two top-tens in the past month.. He has a good tee to green game and could really surprise people with his performance this week. I’d fit him alongside Sergio in foursomes, but he’d be fine in four-ball as well.

Stephen Gallacher:

Gallacher was a pretty terrible captains pick. Not only is he inferior to Luke Donald (10.5 points in 15 career matches) and Francesco Molinari in overall ability, Gallacher is a rookie who is riding an outlier year of hot putting. This is by a significant margin the best he’s ever putted in recent seasons and it just so happens that this is the best he’s played in recent seasons. I expect once his luck with the putter runs out he’ll be back to being an average player. The Euros have to hope that doesn’t happen this week. I expect they’ll regret not bringing Luke Donald who, while seriously out of form, still turned in an equal season to Gallacher and at least would be a strong asset in foursomes with his putting and short game brilliance. I’d bench Gallacher for all four rounds and hope he runs hot in his singles match.

My Pairings:

Four-balls:

McIlroy, Dubuisson, Stenson, Kaymer, Rose, Sergio, Westwood, & Poulter or McDowell

Foursomes:

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Kaymer

and

McIlroy/McDowell; Sergio/Donaldson; Rose/Poulter; Stenson/Bjorn

The Stats:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Ryder Cup Thoughts

US Captain Tom Watson is set to announce his three selections to round out the US team tonight, while European Captain Paul McGinley made his selections this morning (Lee Westwood, Stephen Gallacher, and Ian Poulter) – a day after the nine automatic European spots were decided. I’m going to review the possible American selections and say who I think should be picked, and then I’ll talk some about the European team and McGinley’s picks.

American Prospects:

Selecting captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup is a unique responsibility in golf. Evaluating which players are best is essential for coaches or front offices in the team sports to such a degree that player evaluation is considered one of the most important traits to be hired for a coaching or front office job. In golf there’s no impetus to correctly evaluate who is better than someone else. Certainly the PGA of America and European Tour don’t consider whether a potential captain knows how to evaluate who are the best twelve golfers for their teams. Combine that lack of interest finding someone to evaluate who are the better players with the sheer randomness of 28 golf matches that make up the Ryder Cup, and there’s no accountability in the selection process.

In picking Ryder Cup players the most important factor by far is how good they are at golf. There is stuff that matters on the boundaries – ability to respond under pressure, attitude/showing up in shape and ready to play, demeanor on the course and in the clubhouse, perhaps how their game fits with other players – but what really matters is picking the players who have shown over hundreds of rounds that they’re the best at golf. The margins between guys up for captains picks are narrow (no more than half a stroke/round really), but large enough to matter in the context of hoisting the trophy on Sunday.

Based on the US having around half the top 25 players in the world, the cut-off for a Ryder Cup pick is being around the 25th best player in the world. In parenthesis is the current rank in my ratings among healthy Americans. The nine automatic picks rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 26th.

Keegan Bradley (5th)

Everyone seems to agree Keegan is certain to be a captain’s pick because not only is he one of the best available Americans, but he also played great along with Phil in the 2012 Ryder Cup and 2013 Presidents Cup (6.5 points from 7 matches). That alone would be a stupid reason to pick him, but he’s the best American left by my rankings who’s also healthy, so he’s a fairly easy selection – whether he pairs with Phil again or not.

Hunter Mahan (11th)

There’s a time where Mahan would’ve been an easy pick here – he was one of the best in the game between 2008-2011 – but he’s definitely regressed from that level. His win last week definitely put him in the mix for a pick, but his game has been a mess most of the season. I’m guessing he’ll be picked because of Ryder Cup experience and his good recent play, but he’s step down in talent from other guys available. He wouldn’t be a bad pick, more of a missed opportunity for someone better.

Brandt Snedeker (14th)

Snedeker’s run from 2011 to 2013 where he won four times, took home the FedEx Cup, finished top ten 19 more times, and made the US teams in 2012 and 2013 has to seem like a long time ago. He rode a vastly improved long game in those seasons, but that’s completely disappeared this year. He’s had three top tens this year and has even looked lost with his putter – his one elite skill. He’d be a poor selection in terms of overall ability and recent play.

Chris Kirk (13th)

Chris Kirk really put his name in the running with his victory yesterday, but all along this season he’s been consistently pretty good (17th in the FedEx standings coming into this week). Kirk has been reliably a top 50 player in the world over the past few seasons, but there are ten other Americans with similar talent to him who would all be equally as a good in the Ryder Cup. For me, Kirk just isn’t good enough to get a pick. That he won yesterday isn’t that important for me. My work has shown “form” and recent play carries over to a small degree between weeks, but the Ryder Cup is in four weeks. There’s no guarantee that Kirk will still be playing well after two more tournaments and a week off.

Billy Horschel (22nd)

Horschel’s another guy who at least has put his name in the mix based on his play this week. He was always expected to play well based on his NCAA career, but never really put it together due to injuries. He emerged with a win last year largely because he putted way above his head for six months (something he acknowledged in an interview yesterday), but has established himself as a solid pro on the edge of the top 50 guys in the world. As such, he’d be a bad Ryder Cup pick. I’m not really in the position to judge intangibles either, but Horschel is a known hot-head on course and seems like an easy pick for the most likely guy to blow-up mid-round and lose 7&6 (non-Kevin Na of course).

Ryan Moore (15th)

Moore’s season has been very interesting. He made his way on Tour up until 2013 largely on the strength of his putting – that was his elite skill. He’s short off the tee, but good enough with his irons to be a consistent top 50 guy, but never better. He’s lost that putting ability the past two seasons – long enough that I think it’s a sign that he’s changed something (allocation of practice time would be my guess) and isn’t an elite putter any more. He’s made up for that with dramatically improved iron play this year. He’s hitting more greens and generating a lot more birdie chances, and his overall game has improved so much that he’s having his best season ever. He’s definitely good enough that he wouldn’t be a bad pick, but I’m not sure how seriously he’s being considered after playing poorly the past two weeks.

Brendon Todd (23rd)

Between turning pro in 2007 and 2012, Todd was one of the worst players to play on the PGA Tour. In his two years with a PGA Tour card (2009 & 2012) he was pretty much the worst player tee to green on Tour, but had developed into a very good putter by 2012. Last year he played great on the Web.com Tour – improving tee to green and keeping up the fantastic putting. This year has been more of the same. He’s already one of the ten best putters on Tour and his overall game is finally good enough that he’s a top 50 or so player in the world. He hasn’t shown the consistent play that should be required of a Ryder Cupper however. He has less of a track record than Kirk. I think he’d be the worst pick of the guys under consideration.

Bill Haas (4th)

I’ve touted Haas all season because he’s been consistently very good. He hasn’t missed a cut since last season, but more importantly he has a track record (4/5 last seasons in the top 25 on Tour) of being very good. In my mind, if you’re looking for one guy on this list to show up in Scotland and give you five good rounds of golf, Haas is the most likely to do it. He doesn’t have wins this year, but he has five in the previous four seasons – so you can’t ding him for “not knowing how to win”. He also has the bonus of playing in the Presidents Cup in 2011 and 2013. Again though, the main reason to pick him is because he’s one of the three best Americans left in terms of talent. He’s proven that over the last five years.

Webb Simpson (7th)

Webb’s another clear selection for me. His track record is four straight seasons of elite level golf since his emergence in 2011. He’s played on three straight US teams in these events. There’s a slight concern that he’s relied a little more on outlier level putting this year, but he’s still been very good.

My Picks: Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Keegan Bradley

All three are fairly easy picks as the three best Americans left healthy in terms of my rankings. All three have positive US team experience, and in terms of intangibles they aren’t risky picks at all. Watson might find a reason to leave Haas or Webb off in favor of someone else, but these three are the best guys available.

Watson’s Picks: Keegan Bradley and two of Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Chris Kirk

The Europeans:

The automatic picks hit on pretty much everyone deserving of a spot on the team on merit. Thomas Bjorn is probably the weak link, but I have him right on the periphery of the team in terms of ability. McGinley was in a bit of a bind with his captain’s pick though. Poulter, Westwood, and Luke Donald have all been some of the best in the world in recent seasons and have Ryder Cup experience, but all three have been way below expectations this year. McGinley brought Poulter – because who wouldn’t after 2012 – and Westwood rather than Donald, which isn’t so much an error as it is relying on guys who have delivered in the past.

I feel for Donald being left off as he’s one of the twelve best Euros by my ratings. My numbers consider recent play in the context of prior performances, so it sees Donald playing below expectations for the last two years, but also sees that he was one of the best in the world in 2011-12. His long game has been a disaster this year (way below 2011-2012), so I think there’s legitimate concern he’s not anything like that guy anymore. There’s similar concerns with Westwood; his long game hasn’t been anything like it was in recent years and he’s getting to the age where driving and iron play start to collapse. I’m guessing this will be his last Ryder Cup.

As for Poulter, I have him rated as one of the twelve best guys and he’s a guy you can count on showing up in form ready to play. I’m not sure how much stock I put in his 12-3 lifetime record, but he definitely takes the event seriously and handles the pressure. This was as obvious a pick as any.

I have Gallacher ranked 18th among the Euros, making him a pretty poor pick; he’s one of the peripheral guys who isn’t that good in the Nicolas Colsaerts 2012/Oliver Wilson 2008 mold. McGinley must’ve had some sympathy seeing as he came within one spot of qualifying on Sunday, but there were half a dozen alternatives. I would’ve liked to see Francesco Molinari picked because he’s clearly one of the twelve best Europeans and has some experience at the Ryder Cup. Molinari’s just been better across the board compared to Gallacher. I’d rather have him than any of the guys McGinley actually picked.

Overall, the Europeans have more elite guys (Rory, Sergio, Justin Rose), but less depth (I rate at least Dubuisson, Donaldson, Bjorn, and Gallacher below everyone likely to be on the US team besides Patrick Reed). That will be mitigated by the home continent advantage so the Euros are still the favorites.

 

Weekend in Review: Wyndham Championship

The Wyndham Championship really acts as a breather in the PGA Tour schedule; following a run of two majors and a WGC event and preceding four playoff events in five weeks it’s not surprising that most of the best players skip this event. Instead of focusing on the best, this is mainly a week for those fighting to hold their tour card and earn a spot in the FedEx Playoffs by finishing top 125. It’s a week where everyone outside on the top 125 can dream of a top five finish or win that will get them in. Going into the final round both Heath Slocum and Brad Fritsch were poised to earn enough points to move into the Playoffs and keep their cards, but neither did enough in the end and only Sang-moon Bae (who started 126th this week) moved into the Playoffs and secured his card for next season.

Villegas Breaks Four Year Win Drought:

Going into the 2010 FedEx Playoffs, Camilo Villegas was 29, a three time PGA Tour winner already, and one of the thirty best golfers in the world. He had ridden a very special tee to green game to the top and looked poised to be one of the best on Tour for the next decade. His game was a mess for the next two years though; he fell as low as 160th in my rankings and 290th in the OWGR. He ranked in the top 25 of all PGA Tour players between 2003-2012 in approach shot play according to Mark Broadie’s numbers, and he was one of the more aggressive players on Tour in terms of going for the green in two. He’s lost a lot of that ability since, but his last two seasons have been more promising and he’s been steadily climbing back into the top 100 in my rankings (he’s 115th now).

villegas

Now, I doubt Camilo is back. His numbers haven’t been impressive all season and there have been no flashes of brilliance (he had zero top tens entering this week). This week his game was classic Villegas – drive it well, fire at the pins, make enough birdies. In all, he gained the 2nd most shots from his driving and approach shot play in the field. He hadn’t played this well tee to green since the 2011 Barclays – almost three years ago.

Ryder Cup Captain’s Picks:

Tom Watson still has two more tournaments to evaluate who he’s going to fill out the US Ryder Cup squad with, but he could do a lot worse than to pick the three Americans near the top at the Wyndham. Ignoring the injured Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, and Brandt Snedeker are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best Americans not on the team according to my rankings (behind Keegan Bradley) and all three recorded top five finishes this week. Snedeker has been hot recently, with high finishes in the last three events fueled by quality tee to green play that he hadn’t shown all season. Simpson has scuffled a bit this year, but his game’s been a lot stronger than he’s been given credit for and he has the mystical Ryder Cup experience the captains look for. Haas has had a way better season than he’s gotten credit for – he hasn’t missed a cut since last September and he has four top tens this year – and he has experience playing in team events from the 2011 & 2013 Presidents Cup. The Wyndham is the closest he’s gotten to a win this year, but he’s been a close to a sure thing to have a solid week as anyone Watson might consider.

Bernhard Langer Is Destroying the Champions Tour:

I don’t think I’ve written anything about the Champions Tour, but Bernhard Langer is currently dominating it so thoroughly that I have to spend a little time talking about it. Langer has made sixteen Champions Tour starts this year and finished 1st/2nd/3rd eleven times, including five wins. In his only PGA Tour start at the Masters he finished 8th. In short, he’s been ridiculously good this year. He’s been four strokes better than field average, over a stroke better than any of the other senior players. My adjustment for the Champions Tour is a little rough, but generally an average PGA Tour cardholder could expect to dominate that Tour – basically playing at a level similar to Tiger, Rory, or Adam Scott over the last few years. That’s pretty consistent with the fact that the best guys on the senior Tour like Kenny Perry or Fred Couples are normally competitive, but not much better than average when they play PGA Tour golf.

Adjusting Langer’s performance using that scale means he’s played roughly as well this year as the 15th best golfer in the world would be expected to (basically Keegan Bradley or Charl Schwartzel level). That’s absolutely ridiculous. Now, I’m not saying he’s actually that good or that he would be that good if he played on the PGA Tour. Champions Tour courses are set-up to fit the shorter hitting senior game and the greens/fairways are much easier to hit than PGA Tour courses. But what Langer is doing is almost unprecedented performance-wise; in the last 15 years, only 50 year old, fresh from the PGA Tour Fred Couples matched his level of performance in 2010, and he only won four times. Langer does need to add four more victories to match Hale Irwin’s nine wins in 1997.

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.