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Valero Texas Open Preview – 2015

The Tour shifted to TPC San Antonio in 2010, hoping a more modern track would be a more competitive venue than the previous birdie-fest at the La Cantera resort course. Unfortunately, the course is widely panned among Tour pros – who consider it too long and difficult. They are certainly correct that it’s difficult (73.5 stroke average since 2011 on a par of 72); pros have only hit 55% of fairways and 56% of greens here since 2011. TPC San Antonio also has a lot of what the Tour calls “native area” (brush, desert, etc. – pretty much where Kevin Na made his 16 from in 2011) in play. Last year, it was among the leaders in terms of courses where players ended up in the native area off the tee.

Course fit:
I wrote in last year’s preview that the course favored the longer/inaccurate hitters over the more accurate/shorter hitters. Concentrating on everyone who had played the course from 2011-2013, golfers who hit for more distance during the tournament played better than those who hit more fairways. Looking at 2014, Steven Bowditch and Andrew Loupe both had their best finishes on the season – they’re the archetype of the very long and very inaccurate hitter on Tour. That’s not to say every long/inaccurate hitter will play well, but when I broke the field up into seven different groups based on their accuracy and distance off the tee and compared just their tee to green play from 2014, the longest/least accurate group played the best last season – even better than the group of similarly long, but more accurate pros.

Performance at Texas 2014

The important question is why the course doesn’t punish inaccuracy to the level of a normal PGA Tour course. Most importantly, the rough here just isn’t very difficult to play out of. I only have shot-by-shot data for the final round in 2014, but the rough played the easiest of any course on Tour in that round (relative to the difficulty of fairway shots). What this means is that when I compare the results of shots hit from the rough to shots hit from the fairway on the same hole, shots hit from the rough only resulted in scoring 0.15 strokes worse than shots from the fairway. Normally that number is around 0.30 strokes. Sample size issues are a concern with only one round of data, but this measure tends to be consistent across the four rounds of an event. This is certainly an advantage for guys like Bowditch or Loupe who play from the rough more often.

Distance is critical also because the par 5s are so long at TPC San Antonio, only the longest hitters have a chance to go at them in two shots. In last year’s final round, pros who normally hit their drives over 295 yards went for the green in two on 46% of their opportunities; pros who normally hit their drives under 280 yards went for the green in two on only 2% of their opportunities. Now, long hitters typically have a large advantage in going for the green chances, but normally more like 65% to 35%. Here, short hitters are basically forced into lay-ups by the length – regardless of how they would like to play the hole. That turns the par 5s (already extremely difficult) into par holes for anyone who’s not long off the tee.

Masters Invite Watch:
The focus this week has to be on the bubble boys for Masters qualification. The top 50 in the OWGR after this weekend’s events earn invites to the Masters. Right now, Paul Casey is in the most precarious position – unqualified and not in this week’s event, but sitting only 49th in the world right now. Of those out of the field Marc Warren chose to enter this week’s PGA event rather than the European Tour event in Morocco. I have him projected for between 2 to 2.5 OWGR points in either location, which is basically too close to call on his chances to get in the field.

Harris English has a good argument to be the best guy not invited to the Masters; he’s got an outside shot with a top ten in San Antonio. My rooting interests are the young guys playing well so far this year. Augusta will be better with one (or both) of Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger in the field.

Below is the full break-down of what the guys out of the field need to do to get in this week. If you’re at all interested in tracking this/anything about the Official World Golf Rankings, follow @VC606.

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 TPC San Antonio performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 2 starts here since 2010).

1. Charley Hoffman
2. Fredrik Jacobson
3. Martin Flores
4. Martin Laird
5. Ben Curtis
6. Pat Perez
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brian Harman
9. Daniel Summerhays
10. Cameron Tringale

View the full field course history at this Google Doc.

Valero Texas Open Preview

The Course:

The Tour moves to the TPC San Antonio Oaks Course this week, site of the Valero Texas Open. Quite simply, this course is a beast to navigate. Relative to par, only PGA National (Honda Classic) and Congressional (AT&T Classic) have played more difficult over the last three years. Unfortunately this year the field is fairly weak; it’s headlined by Mickelson (first appearance in two decades), Spieth, Zach Johnson, Furyk, Kuchar, and three-time winner Jimmy Walker, but the kind of secondary talent that has been present in recent weeks at the Honda and Arnold Palmer just hasn’t shown up.

Unlike Congressional CC, the Oaks Course doesn’t primarily rely on distance as its defense. It is slightly longer than a normal par 72 course, but that distance is concentrated in the par 3s and par 5s (4th and 5th longest on Tour), while the par 4s are the 7th shortest. The main difficulty is hitting the greens; in the last three years golfers only hit 56% of the greens – one of the fewest on Tour. The other notable feature is how difficult it is to successfully scramble. Golfers only made par or better on 47% of their missed greens in last year’s tournament, by far the lowest on Tour last year. If that poor performance is maintained into this year’s tournament golfers who hit more greens will be advantaged by over 0.1 strokes/round simply because hitting greens is more valuable than normal this week.

Course Effects:

Beyond the aforementioned scrambling effect, I wanted to test whether this course provided an advantage to either longer golfers or more accurate golfers. I gathered the Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy stats for everyone who played the course from 2011 to 2013 and regressed those independent variables on the dependent variable of performance in strokes vs. the field. I also stripping out putting performance by subtracting the strokes gained putting from the overall performance. My regression attempted to predict performance tee-to-green relative to the field using simply driving distance and driving accuracy.

Unsurprisingly, the model worked as an overall proxy predicting nearly 20% of the variance in performance vs. the field (R^2 0.18). Both distance and accuracy were highly significant at the <.001 level (N=310 golfers). The results indicated that the course has favored good drivers over the more accurate golfers over the past three seasons. Long/inaccurate drivers performed 0.1 strokes better than the field, while Short/accurate drivers performed 0.4 strokes worse than the field. There’s no guarantee that that will continue over this tournament, but it may indicate an advantage for the longer/inaccurate golfers (guys like Jimmy Walker or Ryan Palmer), rather than shorter/accurate golfers (Furyk, Zach Johnson).