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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. The 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.

2ndshotsatTorrey18

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

Torrey Pines Preview – 2015

Course:
Dual course event this week, but Torrey Pines South will be used for three of the four rounds. Torrey Pines North is a much easier venue – by around three strokes/round – largely because it’s almost 600 yards shorter at the same par 72. The par 5s are all scoring holes – unlike at the sister course to the south.

Torrey Pines South is a stiffer test. It’s the longest course the Tour visits in scorecard length, and it plays as one of the longest if you look at average approach shot distance. It’s particularly long when you focus just on par 4 length (only Valhalla (PGA Championship) and PGA National (Honda) challenged it last year). The rough is nasty here; it played nearly the most difficult on Tour last year.

This is a course that requires the game that most elite players possess – long enough to score on the long par 4s and par 5s, accurate enough to not live in the rough, and good with the mid and long irons that almost every hole requires.

What I’m Watching For:
Jordan Spieth has been the best golfer in the world since October (minimum 16 rounds), with wins in Australia and at Tiger’s event and a back-door top ten in Phoenix last week. Spieth started last season hotter than just about anyone, but fell off towards the summer because he completely lost his game off the tee. In 2013, he combined above-average distance with nearly the most accurate tee shot on Tour and ranked in the top ten in performance on drives. Beginning at some point last spring/summer, he started spraying it everywhere off the tee, costing him a huge amount of his advantage on drives. It’s only one tournament of data, but last week he was great off the tee – gaining about a stroke/round on drives and hitting it as straight as in 2013.

top ten since october

Shane Lowry making a rare US start this week. He’s a guy most PGA Tour fans won’t be that familiar with, but last year was his first big year on the European Tour. He started off ridiculously cold missing six of eight cuts, but contended all the way in the European flagship event in May. From May onward he played at the level of a top 20 golfer in the world and hasn’t missed a cut since June. No clue how Lowry will do in his first start at Torrey Pines, but he’s a legitimate contender in this field at the level of Harris English or Marc Leishman.

Best Long Course Golfers:
These numbers are illustrative only, but these are the best and worst on long courses since 2010. Long courses are the top 25% of PGA Tour courses in average approach shot length (these include Torrey Pines South, PGA National, & Congressional) and this is performance with putting removed. I’ve compared performance on long courses to performance in all others rounds. The 219 golfer sample yielded 19 golfers with statistically significantly different performances (negative z-scores below indicate better performances on long courses).

differences on long vs short coursesOn the positive end, Keegan Bradley and Kyle Stanley  are the most notable to play much better on long courses. On the negative end, Tim Clark and J.B. Holmes struggled the most on long courses.

Doing the reverse analysis and measuring performance differences on the shortest 25% of courses reveals some of the same names. Graham DeLaet and Kevin Na stuggle most notably on shorter tracks, while Jason Day stands out as by far the most extreme in favor of short courses.

Now, those numbers just use aggregate performance on all strokes and are surely distorted by all kinds of random variation. However, it makes sense that golfers who play better on longer courses would hit their long irons better, while those who are better on short courses hit their wedges better. Looking deeper at shot-by-shot stats over the past year, DeLaet, Stanley, and Bradley all hit their mid to long irons much better than their wedges, while Tim Clark and Jason Day both have huge splits in favor of hitting their wedges better. The only player whose stats don’t back up his performance is J.B. Holmes.

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 Torrey Pines performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 4 starts here since 2008 including the US Open).

1. Lucas Glover
2. Jhonattan Vegas
3. Tom Gillis
4. Justin Leonard
5. Marc Leishman
6. Bill Haas
7. Brendan Steele
8. Brandt Snedeker
9. Stewart Cink
10. D.A. Points