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Sony Open Recap

Jimmy Walker’s your winner, beating the field by nine strokes (!) with a dominant Sunday performance. His performance relative to the field was the best since Martin Kaymer stomped everyone at Pinehurst last June and his winning margin was the largest on Tour in six years. Adam Sarson has a great recap here.

Walker’s Fourth Win:

Walker’s win was comprehensive – he led the tournament in putting and was 2nd in long game (tee shots+approach shots) play (to K.J. Choi no less). In fact, if he had just putted at an average level this tournament, he would’ve tied English, Woodland, and Kuchar for 2nd place.  Coming into the week, I talked about how the Sony doesn’t seem to punish guys who are wayward off the tee. Walker is the team captain of the wild-off-the-tee guys. Of course, you have to be able to bring it with the irons (Walker certainly can) and putt well (yup), but wildness is not penalized here.

What’s interesting about Walker’s performance is that he’s putted extremely well in the Hawaii events since returning to the PGA Tour full-time in 2008. Between 2008 and 2013, Walker putted about 0.3 strokes better per round in the Sony Open. In the four Hawaiian events since (two wins and a 2nd), he’s putted 0.8 strokes better per round. For the whole period (36 rounds), he’s exceeded his normal putting performance by over half a stroke. Perhaps that’s random noise or perhaps there’s some level of comfort with the bermuda grass greens at Kapalua and Waialae, but anytime you can start a tournament with a half a stroke edge each round, you’re a lot more likely to win.

This is his fourth win since the start of 2013 (tied with Patrick Reed for top on Tour). It propels him to 1st place in the FedEx Cup standings – a familiar position that he held from this point until Rory’s dominant run last summer. Walker’s also pretty much assured his place on the Presidents Cup team this fall. He’ll look to defend at Pebble Beach in a few weeks.

What I’m Looking At:

Before the tournament I was very interested to see how Luke Donald played this week – especially with his irons/wedges/short game. His struggles last season were all about how poorly he was playing inside 150 yards and the hope was that his return to Pat Goss was going to help him on that front. In his first start, the signs were promising. He finished T51, driven by a typically great putting performance. Donald will always be able to keep his head above the water with his best in the world putting. The rest of his game definitely showed up too.

He’s never hit driver well and didn’t this week. However, he was solidly above-average with his approach shots – despite this course offering few chances for the very short <125 yard shots he used to excel the most at. Despite hitting only 43% of fairways and losing nine yards to the field off the tee, Donald hit 71% of greens and was above-average on wedge shots, short and mid iron shots, and long iron shots for the week. So far so good.

Matt Kuchar’s performance was up to expectations this week. The long game looked fine and he putted out of his mind – especially on par putts. My numbers had his short game performance as average, but he managed to scramble successfully 83% of the time. That means he was money on short par putts all weekend. He has to be disappointed to have played so poorly on the weekend, but his game looks fine going into the California swing.

It was nice to see rookie Justin Thomas break-through with a top ten. He got a lot of attention from the broadcast crew for his absurd length off the tee (he easily hits driver 25+ yards past Tour average), but it looks like he was laying up off the tee with irons/hybrids often. That’s not that rare for the longest guys, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him do it a lot this year as he’s feeling his way around the PGA Tour courses.

Sony Open Preview – 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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