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Riviera Preview – 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Course History/Fit:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Riviera performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

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

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

Sergio at the 17th at Cherry Hills

Sergio Garcia addressed his 2nd shot on the par 5 17th on Sunday two shots back of leader Billy Horschel. The 17th is a 550 yard par 5 with an island green that forces a 225 yard carry to stay out of the water. Making things more difficult are a trio of cross-bunkers at 310 yards which block most pros from hitting their drive as far as they can. Sergio had taken a little off his drive and sat in the fairway with 251 yards to the pin and at least 230 yards to carry the water. Sergio needed at least a birdie to have a chance of winning the tournament, and he initially looked like he was going to take-on the green in two, but reined himself in at the last moment and laid-up to 83 yards. He went on to hit an awful wedge over the green, chipped into the water from there, and made a triple bogey. Ignoring everything that happened after his 2nd shot, did Sergio make the right play to lay-up?

On its face, the decision to go for the green comes down to one question: which approach leads to the lowest score? On the 17th at Cherry Hills, pros who went for the green scored a 4.54 while those who laid-up scored a 4.86. However, you also have to consider the situation prior to the 2nd shot. 83% of pros who went for the green at 17 were playing from the fairway, while only 34% of pros who laid-up were playing from the fairway. Pros who went for the green were also playing slightly shorter shots (241 yards to-go vs. 248 yards to-go). Sergio therefore needed birdie and was in the fairway, meaning most pros in his shoes had been choosing to attack the green in two.

It’s also important to consider Sergio’s risk aversion to losing his 2nd place position. Placed where he was it’s reasonable to assume he would’ve finished no worse than tied for 2nd with two pars on 17 and 18. He would’ve been around 8th in the FedEx Cup standings going into the Tour Championship in that scenario. Obviously a bogey or worse on 17 would drop him lower (eventually it did to 13th in the standings). Of players who laid-up from the fairway, only one all week had bogeyed 17. Obviously if Sergio indeed was just trying to get a par and get to 18 he was right in thinking he should be pretty safe by laying-up. Going for it introduces the risk of bogey (14% on GFG shots ended in bogey) from hitting it in the water. For the week, 26% of players who went for it hit their 2nd shot into the water (27% in the 4th round), however half of those players went on to make par (Zach Johnson even holed his 4th shot for birdie!). Now, I disagree with his decision to go for par over going for a chance to win the tournament because Sergio has had a paucity of big wins recently for a player of his caliber. A win at the BMW (which really would’ve taken birdie-birdie & win the play-off) not only gets Sergio a million+ check, but also moves him to third in the FedEx standings and gives him a very real chance of winning the FedEx Cup.

Here’s the results of all drives in all four rounds on 17. You can see that Sergio’s 2nd shot was further back among those who went for the green, but centrally located in a group that mostly went for the green.

Drives17CherryHills(click to enlarge)

And here are the results in terms of eagle/birdie/par/bogey or worse based on whether a player laid-up or went for it in two. Sergio is again marked with the yellow cross; he laid-up to an area that mostly yielded pars. These charts don’t distinguish between rounds; the 1st round pin position in the front-center of the green played much harder (4.99) than the other pins which were back-center (2nd round – 4.54), left (3rd round – 4.65), and right (4th round – 4.70).

2ndShots17CherryHills

(click to enlarge)

All in all, I’m sure Sergio thought he was making the safe play. Pros think they’re invincible with a wedge from ~75 yards. I’m sure his anger at himself was more over his atrocious third shot wedge and beyond awful 4th shot chip into the water, but he should save a little for his decision to lay-up. It eliminated his chances of winning the tournament for no real gain in safety.