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Day Plays to Win at Torrey Pines

After a final round where the winner was in doubt throughout, Jason Day emerged as the winner of the four man playoff to win at Torrey Pines. Day went for the green in two at 18 in regulation and again in the playoff, making par the first time to stay at -9 and making birdie the second time advance in the playoff. Runner-up J.B. Holmes did not go for the green in regulation, and after a good wedge in, missed a downhill birdie putt to win. The immediate reaction from myself & others on Twitter was that Holmes should have gone for the green because it gave him a better chance at birdie. I’ll try to provide some context to why he played a lay-up and also what the numbers say in that situation.

Day’s Win
This was Jason Day’s first stroke play win since 2010. Day’s been generating monster performances now for the last two seasons – despite injuries sapping much of 2014 – and he’s always looked right on the edge of something truly special. Perhaps that starts this season. Day’s game is built around his effortless power off the tee, but on these tough courses his short game really shines through. He scrambles with the best on Tour and his putting is outstanding; that gives him something to lean back on when the field is only hitting ten greens a round. He hit some ridiculously good shots on Sunday tee to green, but he was also 5/5 in scrambling. He talked about how he “liked to grind it out” in his post-tournament presser. I’m not sure there’s anyone else better at doing that right now.

This sets Day up for an enormous year. Right now, he’s in that elite group at the very top who are the favorites whenever the big guns tee it up together.

Going for the 18th in Two
J.B. Holmes sat in the middle of the fairway on 18 at -9, with 235 yards to the pin. Scott Stallings and Day were in the clubhouse at -9 and Harris English could get to -9 as well with a birdie on 18. Holmes needed a birdie to win outright; a par would only earn him a 1/3 or 1/4 shot in a playoff – with the defending champion and another clearly superior player. Holmes eventually chose to lay up, claiming the lie wasn’t ideal and that he was afraid he’d hook it long and left. With the lay-up, Holmes still had about a 1/4 chance of birdie. He spun a wedge to 19 feet and rolled his birdie putt just past.

On a typical par 5, it would be lunacy not to go for the green from 235 yards in the fairway. Tour pros go for that shot about 90% of the time and are rewarded with birdie about 55% of the time. 18 at Torrey Pines seems like an atypical par 5 though. Hit enough club to carry the water just short of the pin and you risk rolling it into the thick rough long. That earns a wicked downhill chip that (as we saw with Jason Day) brings the water into play. The question becomes, does going for the green in two earn a significantly better chance at birdie, at least enough to outweigh the chance of making a bogey by hitting it into the water either on the 2nd shot or the 3rd shot.

Based on data from Sunday, 17 pros went for the 18th in two shots. Eight players made birdie, eight made par, and one made bogey after a three putt. That 47% birdie rate right there is pretty damning to Holmes’s decision.┬áThe positions those 17 players attacked the green from were very similar to Holmes – an average of 239 yards to the pin and 14/17 in the fairway. In fact, Holmes was one of only three guys to lay up from inside 245 yards in the fairway all day. Last year, 12/21 players (57%) made birdie after going for it in two. It seems like a reasonable assumptions that the result of Holmes’s 2nd shot would be similar to those 38 other players who went for it from similar positions. I could also adjust the expectations based on Holmes’s ability on long approach shots vs. wedge shots, but he’s equal on those based on my shot by shot numbers from the past year.

I’ve plotted the results from 2014 & 2015 below. Birdies in gold, bogeys in red. Hitting the green yielded birdie 6/7 times, long in the rough yielded birdie 6/11 times, long left yielded birdie 2/5 times, short left 3/4 times, right of the green 1/5 times, and short of the green 2/6 times with three water balls. In short, pretty much anywhere Holmes hit his 2nd shot he was more likely to make birdie than with a wedge from 100 yards. And only one player out of 35 who carried the water made bogey.


I think it’s pretty clear Holmes made the wrong play here. Making tactical errors in situations like this are very common on Tour because players get fixated on the information that easily comes to mind – I’ve hooked long approach shots before, Lucas Glover hit the water right before me, I hit a wedge to 10 feet last year (which Holmes did to this pin position). They fail to realize that a handful of shots provide far less information than the results of the other 155 players in the field. The outcomes of the 38 guys who went for the green in two over the past two years provides FAR more information about the possible outcomes of your own shot.

Part of using numbers in golf is knowing what is likely to happen if you hit an average shot from a given lie and distance. While the differences between Tour players may seem magnified in terms of outcomes (money, wins, FedEx points), they’re all within in pretty narrow range of golfing ability. This means you can generalize potential outcomes for most shots similarly to what I’ve done above and choose a strategy from there.

In Holmes’s case, he went from nearly 50% to birdie if he went for the green to about 25% to birdie by laying-up. I have him at above 60% to win if he goes for the green and about 48% to win if he lays up. In terms of earnings, he cost himself about $100,000 by laying up.

Here is the data for all those who went for the green in two on 18 in 2014 & 2015

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).


(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.