Welcome to this week’s By The Numbers smorgasbord, which includes The Players, HP Byron Nelson Championship and the Colonial Invitational! This should be educational. So, buckle up, stats geeks.
Each season on the PGA Tour often has a recurring theme. A couple of years ago, there were a deluge of playoffs, last year we saw some tremendous final-round comebacks, and it seems like this year’s winners have previously barely made a cut all year.
At the Byron Nelson Championship, we saw another example of that with Sang-Moon Bae. Just like there have been a variety of winners so far this season, there are many different ways to win golf tournaments. Most commonly, the champions have been able to excel in many contrasting parts of their game well over the course of the tournament, as we have seen multiple times over the course of the season — which is what Sang-Moon Bae did at the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
If, however, you want to win multiple times over the course of the year, you have to be able to win in many a variety of ways. The reality is that the amount of times a year when all facets of your game are clicking are very small. Tiger Woods, who has now won four times on Tour this year, exemplifies winning in many contrasting ways. As we will see in By the Numbers, he won the Players Championship in a different manner than he won at Bay Hill and Doral.
- On his way to winning the Byron Nelson, Bae putted very well (shocking, I know!). He finished second for the week in strokes gained putting, picking up almost 1.8 shots per round on the field. Keegan Bradley also had a good putting week, finishing fifth in strokes gained. Those listening to the broadcast, though, might be surprised to learn that Charl Schwartzel did not miss every putt. In fact, he finished a respectable 20th for the week in strokes gained putting, and he was 19th in the field on Sunday, when he made several good putts for par and some others throughout the round. It is not just about what you miss, it is also about what you make. And while Charl was giving himself birdie looks, even tour pros make very few 20-footers.
- The key to Bae’s win was that in addition to putting well, his ballstriking was strong. While Bae ranks 18th this year in strokes gained putting, he is only 79th in hitting greens in regulation, and a woeful 160th in driving accuracy — not good when you’re only 80th in distance. This past week at the Byron Nelson, though, Bae improved to ninth in greens in regulation. He was able to hit more greens than normal because he was hitting more fairways in relation to the rest of the field (T39) and hitting the ball further (8th in driving distance). A reminder of the old axiom: You can be short and straight, or long and crooked, but not short and crooked (unless you have Luke Donald’s game from 100 yards and in).
- Like Bae, Keegan putted well, but unlike Bae, he did not hit his irons quite as well, finishing T28th in greens in regulation, which translated to four fewer greens, which put increased pressure on his short game. However, while Bae finished 17th in scrambling, Keegan was T46th (scrambling, by the way, also includes up-and-downs on par-5s). Charl led the field in greens in regulation, but while his putting was not horrible, it was not to Bae’s level.
- Unlike Bae at the Nelson, Tiger did not play well in all facets of his game when he won The Players. Despite leading the Tour in strokes gained putting this year, he was only 38th at TPC Sawgrass. Tiger won the Players with his superior ballstriking. For the most part, he was able to keep the ball in play off the tee, ranking T19 for the tournament in driving accuracy, and from there, he was able to find the greens, ranking T3 for the week in greens in regulation. Even when he missed, it was (apparently) in the correct spots, as he said repeatedly. Despite not putting great, he was sixth for the week in scrambling.
- Tiger has won so often this year because he can win in a variety of ways. He won The Players in a nearly completely opposite manner compared to how he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. At Bay Hill, he was near last in the field in fairways hit (T71) and he was only T34 in greens in regulation, but he led the field in strokes gained putting.
So far, this season has shown that on the PGA Tour in any given week nearly anyone is good enough to win, if they get hot. But, if you want to consistently put yourself there and win, you have to be able to do it even when parts of your game are off.
As I said in last week’s By the Numbers, there are a number of ways to win PGA Tour events. Much of this year, the focus has been on putting, but similar to Tiger Woods at the Players, Boo Weekley won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial not by beating the field with his putting, but with his ballstriking. Sometimes, though, while there are a various methods to win, a golf course will favor a certain style, and as you will see in this weeks Numbers, that was certainly the case at Colonial.
- Boo Weekley did not win Colonial because of his putting, but he also did not lose because of his putting. Heading into Colonial, Boo was 185th on Tour in strokes gained putting so far this year. For the week, he was 33rd. Additionally, he was first for the week in total distance of putts made. What does that mean? Well, as we saw on Sunday he missed a few short ones, but he also made some longer putts — and hey, they all count as one stroke no matter the distance.
- Bottomline: Boo won at Colonial because of his superb ballstriking. For the week, Boo was fifth in reaching greens in regulation and first in proximity to the hole. Sometimes when a player hits a bunch of greens it’s because they aren’t firing at the pin, so while they don’t make any big mistakes, they also aren’t giving themselves good opportunities for birdies. In this case, the stats suggest that Boo hit a lot of greens, while also being aggressive and giving himself scoring opportunities.
- As I said, sometimes a course favors a certain style, and Colonial certainly favored ball striking, probably not a surprise at a tournament that honors Ben Hogan! At this year’s event, everyone in the top six at the end of the tournament finished inside the top 10 in greens in regulation. Plus, three of the top six were also in the top ten in approach shot proximity to the hole.
- Additionally, only two players in the top ten for the week finished top ten in putting: Matt Kuchar (seventh) and Tim Clark (first, hail the anchored putter).
There you have it, the Colonial edition of By the Numbers. See, the PGA Tour isn’t always a putting contest.