Though Ken Duke and Chris Stroud entered the final round of the Travelers having zero combined PGA Tour victories and trailing co-leaders Bubba Watson, Charley Hoffman, and Graham DeLaet, by Sunday evening, Duke had won his first title, on the second hole of a playoff with Stroud, while Stroud took home his largest ever check. The final round featured two critical moments; the first when solo leader Bubba Watson dropped his drive on the par 3 16th in the water, making triple bogey and torpedoing his chance to win and the second when, having overshot the 18th green and facing a make-or-break situation, Stroud drained his chip to force a playoff with Duke.
To evaluate how Duke and Stroud made it to the playoff Sunday, I copied down each shot taken on the back nine Sunday using the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data. I then employed the Strokes Gained method popularized by Mark Broadie to evaluate the quality of each tee shot, approach, chip, pitch, and putt. This method uses distance from the hole and location of the ball to generate the average number of shots a PGA Tour golfer will take to complete the hole at the end of each shot. If that average is more than one shot less than at the end of the previous shot, the golfer “gained” strokes on the field, while if the average is less than one shot lower than at the end of the previous shot, the golfer “lost” strokes on the field. The strokes gained method does not factor in anything but location of the ball, so severity of the rough or bunkers, speed of the greens, intensity of the wind, etc. are not explicitly accounted for, however, TPC River Highlands played essentially to par this week (70.2 Field Average compared to a Par of 70).
Ken Duke entered the final round at -8, two back of the three leaders and one behind Stroud. He played the front nine in -1 and entered the back nine with a chance to win, as none of those who entered the day ahead of him had placed any more distance between them. Duke made four birdies on the back nine, two set-up by fantastic approach shots and two on long putts.
On the long 462 yard par 4 10th, Duke hammered his drive 316 yards, an above-average drive, and followed with a beautiful approach to 5 feet. That approach took Duke from 2.90 expected strokes to only 1.25 expected strokes, a gain of 0.65 strokes, his 4th most important shot of the back nine. However, that was his only notable above-average “long” shot on the back nine. Most of his remaining tee shots and approaches were quite poor.
Instead, he relied on his short game and putting to survive. On the par 4 12th, Duke hit a poor tee shot and then a poor approach into the rough around 13 yards from the hole. From there, most players take 2.42 strokes to finish. Duke chipped to less than a foot, a shot worth 0.42 strokes gained. Then on the short par 4 15th after he ended up in the rough from around 40 yards off the tee. Duke hit a perfect pitch shot to six feet, setting up a great birdie opportunity which he converted. The average player sitting in the rough from 40 yards takes 2.75 strokes to finish up; Duke’s pitch to six feet was worth 0.35 strokes. On 18, after hitting an extremely nervy tee shot and getting his second to just shy of the green, Duke chipped across the surface to less than two feet, almost guaranteeing a par on the hole. That shot was worth 0.36 strokes gained.
His putting was also very strong though. His birdie putt on 15 from six feet was worth 0.40 strokes, but that was only his third most important putt of the day. Coming off a birdie at 10, Duke hit a quality approach to seventeen feet, removing the threat of bogey, but birdie was doubtful as only around 20% of putts are holed from that distance. However, Duke rolled it in for a gain of 0.80 strokes. His most important putt was on 13 though. Three straight below average shots had left Duke on the green, but at 46 feet birdie was looking extremely unlikely. PGA golfers hole less than 3% of their 40+ foot putts, while three putting almost 15% of the time. On the shorter par 5, Duke was looking at a legitimate possibility of bogeying. Instead, he meandered his 46 foot putt in for birdie, a putt worth an enormous 1.07 strokes gained, his best of the round.
In contrast to Duke, who had eight shots that gained more than a 1/3rd of a stroke – seven of which were putts or short shots (pitches, chips, etc.) – Stroud had only two shots that gained more than 1/3rd of a stroke and two shots that lost him over 0.5 strokes against the field.
Stroud entered the back nine -1 for the day and -10 for the tournament and reeled off three straight pars without any excitement on 10 through 12. On 13, he hit a wonderful short approach from 22 yards that left him with a seven foot putt for birdie. While such a putt isn’t a guarantee, the average player makes it around 60% of the time. Stroud’s miss was worth -0.55 strokes gained. Stroud rebounded on the short par 4 15th by holing a ten footer for birdie, 0.60 strokes gained.
As Duke finished up his round at -12, Stroud teed off on 18 needing a birdie to force a playoff. After an ideal drive left him with only 2.78 expected strokes, Stroud flew his 93 yard approach shot well over the green, a miserable shot that cost him -0.54 strokes and all but eliminated him from contention. From 17 yards, the average PGA player takes 2.32 strokes to finish up. When Stroud rolled in his chip, he gained a whopping 1.32 strokes on the field and forced Duke into a playoff for the Championship.
The two took different paths to the playoff; Duke rode a series of high quality chips, pitches, and putts to birdies and par saves, while Stroud relied on steady play and that one huge moment on 18.