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Phoenix Open Preview – 2015

Course:

This is the first tournament played on the newly renovated TPC Scottsdale Stadium course. Beyond the visual upgrades (new bunkers, re-seeded greens/fairways/rough, new cart paths, etc.), several green complexes were completely re-done and the 14th was lengthened into a 490 yard beast of a par 4. Most importantly, designer Tom Weiskopf completely altered the bunkering on many of the tee-shots, moving the bunkers into areas where Shot Link said the pros had been hitting their tee-shots. Bill Rand discusses some of the notable changes – including a resized bunker on 18 that will completely alter how the hole is played. Anytime a designer can make the course fresher, while also maintaining the signature stretches (15/16/17 here), it’s a win for the fans. I’m most interested this week in who adapts their tee-shot strategy and executes those shots.

Beyond the changes, TPC Scottsdale is still a fairly easy course. It has played to around 69.8 on a par of 71 and is about average in length. However, it has definitely been a course where guys could step-up and hit driver on most shots. Bubba Watson in particular has played extremely well here recently because he could be aggressive and hit over the fairway bunkers. The renovated bunkering off the tee should at least force the pros to adapt their strategies. All par 5s are gettable in two shots, while the par 4 17th offers one of the best risk/reward par 4s in the game.

What I’m Watching:

Tiger is the story this week. Suffice to say if he’s healthy for the whole season he should be one of the best on Tour. In 2012 and 2013 Tiger played about as well as anyone has in the past five seasons and won eight tournaments. He combined top ten putting ability with his always strong iron play; there’s not really any reason to doubt that a healthy, focused Tiger can’t recreate those seasons. If so, he’ll be in line for multiple wins, Player of the Year, and dare I say possibly a major.

Top ten since 2010

For this week, I’m interested in the short game after how disastrous he was around the green at his event in December. That performance was a sign that he just wasn’t in tournament shape and hadn’t put enough work in. Also, what kind of distance is he able to generate off the tee? Amid the injuries last year, he lost 3 mph of club head speed from 2013 and 5 mph from 2012. The basic rule of thumb is about 2 yards per mph, meaning his max distance with driver fell by around 10 yards in two seasons. That’s worth around 2/3rds of a stroke per round; regaining some of that distance is critical for him to remain an elite player.

In the same vein, Tiger started laying-up a ton off the tee in 2013. He went from about Tour average in laying-up in 2012 to one of the most likely to lay-up in 2013. Whether it was not trusting his swing with driver or some sort of physical issue, he can’t afford to lay-up on 1-2 extra holes each round – especially if he’s not hitting driver 295 anymore.

Looking beyond Tiger, this week is the stateside debut for Rickie Fowler. Fowler’s game was clearly the most improved last year after reworking his swing with Butch Harmon. Mark Broadie wrote on Golf.com in October that Rickie Fowler gained 7 yards off the tee in distance over 2013 – largest on Tour. He also became more aggressive off the tee and jumped from 60th to 13th in terms of how often he went for a par 5 in two. He won’t putt like he did in the summer (over 1.0 strokes gained/round), but in his last six tournaments of the year he improved by a full stroke versus the field on tee-shots/approach shots/short game.

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 Phoenix performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).

1. Scott Piercy
2. Brendan Steele (and off a 2nd place last week)
3. Matt Every
4. William McGirt
5. Spencer Levin

Among the favorites, Bubba has typically killed it here – even without lucky putting – and Gary Woodland has been very strong as well.

 

Golfers After 40: How Age Erodes Performance

I’ve written at length about aging – general aging curve, putting aging curve, & aging curves for driving, approach shots, and the short game – because it’s a critically important topic when discussing the trajectory of golfers’s careers and projecting their performance going forward. What I’ve generally found is that golfers improve slightly from the early to late 20s, peak for most of their 30s, and then begin declining in the late 30s, with that decline accelerating in the mid 40s. A golfer who’s one of the best in the world in the mid 30s – think Adam Scott or Sergio currently – will decline to around PGA Tour average by the time they’re 50. This piece today will specifically focus on how golfers change between their late 30s and early 40s, basically the stage of his career that Tiger Woods is currently going through.

How Much is Performance Affected by Turning 40?

I gathered a huge sample of PGA Tour golfers for this study, including everyone with at least three years worth of results between ages 35-39 and three more between ages 40-44. I used the PGA Tour’s adjusted scoring average as my metric of choice; it’s only available going back to 1988 so my sample is golfers born between 1951 and 1972 (Tom Watson to Phil Mickelson essentially). That left me with 131 golfers. Then I averaged their performances in each season between 35-39 and 40-44 and compared.

The average for the 35-39 sample was 70.66 (approximately equal to the 50th best player in the world) and the average for the 40-44 sample was 71.03 (approximately equal to the average PGA Tour cardholder/100th best player in the world). That indicates a decline of around a third of a stroke. My method is different from the delta method I used in the above studies; this study discards any golfers without enough data in the 35-39 or 40-44 group. Almost everyone discarded didn’t have any qualifying performance between 40-44 – meaning they weren’t good enough and dropped off the PGA Tour in their forties. This likely indicates that the decline is greater than a third of a stroke. The above general aging curve predicts a decline of half a stroke.

What about Vijay (or Phil, Stricker, etc.)?

There are certainly exceptions to this general rule of aging. Vijay Singh is often brought up when people talk about golfers aging because he had his two best seasons (and two of the best non-Tiger seasons ever) at age 40 and 41. Unfortunately, few players age as well as Vijay. Only five of my 131 golfers performed better than Vijay (who was 0.6 strokes better after 40 than before) and only 22% of my sample improved at all. Most of this improvement came from guys who weren’t at the top of the sport before turning 40 (Steve Stricker, Fred Funk, Hal Sutton), but improved after 40. Only two golfers who were top 25 level before 40 improved after 40 (Vijay and Nick Price, who only improved slightly). Every other top 25 golfer (Goosen, Mickelson, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Greg Norman, Tom Lehman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, etc) declined after 40.

Steve Stricker is another guy held up as an example of golfers play great into the 40s. He had his big renaissance after years on the fringes of the Tour at age 39 and has been a top five player in the world in the last decade. Only Vijay has been better in his 40s – at least since the 1980s (Nicklaus, Ray Floyd perhaps). However, he’s also an enormous outlier. The tableau visualization at the end of this post indicates such. Stricker’s not an example of anything except that sometimes something crazy happens. It’s vastly more likely that a golfer will follow the general trend than pull a Stricker.

It’s important now to talk about what indicates a decline. I’ve chosen to use aggregate performance to measure performance – meaning I count performance in all PGA Tour rounds equally. When I say Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els has declined since 40 I mean that their overall level of play has declined. I understand both have won majors since 40, but they’re contending less overall (much less in Ernie’s case). Turning 40 doesn’t signal the end of a golfer’s professional career, but it does indicate they’ll be playing worse, contending less, and winning less going forward.

What this means for Tiger Woods:

When Tiger returns in 2015 it will be his age 39 season. His age 35-38 sample includes 2011 (69.9) when he was injured/changing his swing, 2012 & 2013 (68.9,68.9) when he was on top of the world, and 2014 (71.1) when he was injured again. Simply aggregating those seasons equally yields an average of 69.7 which would be the 9th best age 35-39 in my sample. Simply applying the amount of decline I found above to Tiger would leave him as something like the 15th-20th best player in the world in his early 40s. All that ignores any more specific injury concerns and just applies my general model.

tigerprojection

That shows what an uphill battle Tiger is facing to remain towards the top of the sport. Even if he comes back healthy from this back injury, age is still going to erode his abilities steadily over the next half decade.

Here’s a link to my Tableau viz of the golfers in my sample and their data

Weekend in Review – WGC-Bridgestone

Golf fans were rewarded Sunday with another battle between the best players in the world, not only for the WGC title, but also for the in-reality-meaningless #1 world ranking. Sergio began the day three strokes up on Rory with around a 70% chance to win, but three straight birdies for McIlroy to open and a pair of missed 6 footers for Sergio gave Rory the lead after only three holes. The rest of the round merely served as a coronation for Rory. On a day where soft, wet conditions allowed players to fire at pins, Sergio generated only four birdie looks from ten feet in – missing each one. He applied no pressure at all on the back-nine, allowing Rory to bomb drives, hit greens, make pars, and ultimately win by two strokes.

Rory entered the day looking to secure the #1 world ranking with a win and an outside the top five finish by Adam Scott. His hot start propelled him into the lead and Adam Scott played poorly down the stretch to fall to 8th. He loses the #1 ranking he held since May, but him and McIlroy remain in a virtual dead heat in my rankings. These two have clearly been the best in the world all spring and summer.

 

Rory’s Driving:

CBS’s golf team raved about Rory’s driving all day on Sunday and rightfully so. His display of power and control on his drives was almost super-human; he was out-hitting Sergio by ~25 yards all day and avoided trouble all weekend. I have an adjusted driving stat that shows by how each golfer is performing on each hole relative to the rest of the field. Anything above 15 yards is elite. Rory was at 28 yards for the weekend, better even than Bubba Watson.

Rory’s always been a long hitter though, what stood out Sunday was the control he exerted over his drives. He hit 61% of his fairways for the week, only slightly better than average, but he avoided trouble on every single one of his 56 drives this week. I track how often a player is unable to play towards the green on a par 4 after their drive (a recovery shot). Typically this happens just less than once a round, and is a major cause of bogeys because the player is forced to get up-and-down from >50 yards. Rory was one of only three players who didn’t face a single recovery shot all week (Sergio and J.B. Holmes were the others). Not only was he longer than everyone, but he never once faced any trouble from the rough or trees.

All that adds up to the best driving performance of the season per Mark Broadie’s strokes gained stats. Broadie has Rory as by far the best driver on Tour this season, gaining nearly 1.5 strokes/round on the field just off the tee. For comparison, only 18 others have played that well OVERALL this season. This combination of power and control is pushing the boundaries of what is even possible in professional golf.

 

Tiger Injured Again:

Tiger’s injury Sunday was a huge let-down to anyone who wanted to see what he could do next week. He had been hitting full shots for a month as of this week and while he hadn’t looked particularly good in nine rounds since he returned, he was at least healthy and able to work on his game. This injury should put a halt to that. Tiger’s calendar is now clear of commitments until at least late October. It’s possible if he WDs this week that we won’t see him in action until his tournament in December or at Torrey Pines in January.

I’ll reiterate that I see no reason why a healthy Tiger can’t return to the best-in-the-world peak he enjoyed in 2012 and 2013.

 

PGA Championship:

All the talk this week has to be about whether Rory will take home another major title at Valhalla. There was some talk about how Valhalla “fits his game” – apparently it is forgiving off the tee and rewards high ball hitters. I’m hoping to touch on “course fits” in my preview, but the course doesn’t impact a tournament much week to week. Rory is the favorite, clearly, though Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Sergio are all very close – I’d give odds of 16-1 for Rory and Adam Scott and 25-1 for Rose and Sergio. Remember that all three of those guys finished top ten this week, two of them finished top five at The Open Championship, and Justin Rose has won twice in his last four starts.

As for others who looked good this past week, Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama finished 2nd/3rd best in non-putting performance (all strokes but putts). I like to look at that because putting has been shown to be extremely random in small samples. If there is carry-over next week, those are an obvious pair to look at.

Quicken Loans National Preview

congo 2013

This is the former AT&T National, still at Congressional CC. Tiger Woods returns from his three month hiatus this weekend at his tournament. That’s the main story obviously this week; Tiger’s season had hardly even begun when he hobbled home for his last competitive rounds at Doral (only 4 events played), but it certainly hadn’t been successful – only a withdrawal, a made the cut/did not finish, T41, and T25. That said, Tiger has been the best player in the world statistically and in terms of tournaments won over the two previous seasons. An in-form, pain-free Tiger is the best player in the world still, for my money. He’s alluded to some rust from lack of preparation so I wouldn’t get too wound up about him contending this week, but I’ll try to update everyone on how he’s hitting his longer shots in the early rounds. He’s been putting and playing shorter shots for awhile now, but he said he’s only recently been extending himself and getting distance back. If he’s hitting long and accurately, it might indicate he’s back in business a little earlier than we might expect.

The Course:

Onto the course, Congressional is the brute of the PGA Tour, measuring at nearly 7600 yards for a par 71 – it’s the longest regular course on Tour by True Distance (which adjusts for the par of the course). The course averaged 72.6 over 2012-13 (4th hardest on Tour), largely because of that distance, but also because it has some of the most difficult to putt greens on Tour. Congressional also plays harder than average on middle/short length approach shots (<175 yards) based on my limited data.

Off the tee the course is very long with narrow (~25-27 yard) fairways which yield a normally low driving accuracy. However, the course is actually very easy off the tee, rewarding long drives and rarely punishing wild ones. The fairways are cut narrow, but the area given over to the rough is expansive. In last year’s final round, only 1% of drives ended up somewhere besides the fairway/rough/fairway bunker (trees, out of bounds, water, etc.). The Tour average is around 3-4%. This means that a lot of drives are missing the fairway, but fewer than normal are ending up with those catastrophic misses that cost big strokes. The rough at Congressional isn’t particularly penal and the fairway bunkers are statistically pretty easy to play out of, meaning a strategy based on hitting for distance and not worrying about accuracy is ideal here. The results bear that out; in 2012-13, players who hit for more distance were advantaged relative to the shorter hitters. Bump up J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland a bit.

One thing that holds the longer hitters back a bit is that it’s pretty difficult to hit the par 5s in two. The 9th measures 636 yards and if the length wasn’t enough, a ravine right before the green makes it a certain layup. Both the 6th (water) and 16th (multiple greenside bunkers) are very well defended to dissuade anyone who didn’t hit a perfect drive. There isn’t a drivable par 4 on the course either.