What DIDN’T D.J. do well in the FedEx Playoffs?

Nothing really! I looked long and hard at the three events:

  1. Northern Trust: DJ blew the field away by 11 shots.
  2. BMW: Lost to Jon Rahm in the most dramatic playoff I’ve ever seen.
  3. Tour Championship: Started with a lead and played well enough to maintain it.

My goal was to find the one thing that stood out. What was it that he did clearly better than the other great players that were hot on his heels? I scoured eleven of what I believe to be the most important PGA Tour performance stats. Obviously including the four Strokes Gained stats and others that highlight the major skills in the game.

In the three events, DJ was ranked #1 in only four of my key stats. No surprise that 3 of the 4 fell in his dominance of the Northern Trust:

  1. .453 Strokes Gained Tee to Green (Northern Trust)
  2. 90% Greens-in-Regulation (Northern Trust). Winners average 70%.
  3. 28′ 1″ Proximity to the Hole (Northern Trust)
  4. 100% Going for the Green, on Par 5’s (Tour Championship).

My comparison of the “OTHER-9” top finishers in the playoffs did not reveal any bombshells. But in running my own analysis of the ShotLink data to uncover “Niblicks of Truth” that the PGA Tour does not look for or display. Frequency and Severity of ERRORS proved to be the difference I was looking for!

If you’ve read my work before, you know I like to programmatically cull out the number and cost of the errors that have such an impact at every level of the game – even the Tour. Very briefly they are:

Driving – Balls hit out of play and requiring recovery shots or penalty results.

Approach – Penalty results

Short Game (Chip/Pitch or Sand shots within 50 yards of the hole) – Shots that miss the green AND require 4 or more strokes to hole out.

Putting – While not every 3-Putt is an error, for the purposes of this study I am going to consider that they are.

My gotcha moment was the discovery that Dustin’s errors were not only significantly fewer (58%) than the Other-9 and the field (50%), but when they did sneak into his game they were only 50% as costly. Bottom line, Dustin distanced himself from 2nd place in the three events by 14 shots. I estimate that 8 shots, or 57% of his cushion, can be directly attributed to his avoidance of and recovery from ERRORS.

Jon Rahm Putts for Dough. What are the Odds?

By now, everyone understands Strokes Gained – or do they? Briefly, every position (fairway, rough or sand) on a golf course has what I call a “Down-In” value based upon the distance from the hole. On the PGA Tour these down-in or Strokes Gained values are based upon the number of strokes it takes for the average Tour player to hole out. In ShotByShot.com, our Strokes Gained model is based upon the performance of the Scratch (zero handicap) golfer. The two performance models are not all that different. For example, the Tour’s 50% make distance, or 1.50 Strokes Gained for putting, is 8 feet. The ShotByShot value at 8 feet is 1.56 or 44% 1-Putt.

Why all this talk of Strokes Gained values? We all had to be impressed with DJ’s dramatic, 43-foot downhill, side-winder on the 18th hole to force a playoff in the BMW. But then Jon Rahm burst DJ’s balloon with an even more difficult 66-foot birdie on the first hole of the playoff.

More than that, Rahm made FOUR birdies on the final back-9 to take a one stroke lead. I thought it would be interesting to share the relative odds of Rahm making the FIVE birdie putts (the 5th in the playoff) that he needed to pull off a stunning win. Please bear in mind that the percentages below reflect our ShotByShot Strokes Gained model. The Tour’s percentages would display slightly higher 1-Putt percentages, but you’ll get my point.

Even more impressive about his winning 66-foot putt is that Jon’s odds of making it were less than 1%, while the odds were more than 32 times as great that he would 3-Putt. Pile on the circumstances and the extreme difficulty of the speed and break, it borders on MIRACLE status. I am sure that we will see it many, many times over the years and because of the situation possibly even more often than Tiger’s “better than most” bomb on the 17th island green at the TPC.

Was TPC Boston really as easy as DJ made it look?

Having had the good fortune to play TPC Boston on two occasions, I remember it as a very stout test. That said, from the vantage point of my living room couch, the rough looked far from punishing and the fescue rather tame (most likely due to lack of rain). My impressions are supported by its #31 ranking of 39 of the Toughest Courses played in the 2020 season. Coincidently, Dustin recently beat up on #30 in his win at TPC River Highlands. Courses for horses?

But minus 30 easy? The 2nd lowest score in PGA Tour history? Ernie Els beat him by ONE (-31) in the 2003 Mercedes Championship at The Plantation Course at Kapalua. Incidentally, the 54th Toughest Course of the 56 played that year. Ernie’s 8 shot margin pales in comparison to DJ’s 11 shot victory.

Suffice it to say, DJ’s performance was truly remarkable. Worth noting are the areas of his game that stood out the most. For this, I compared DJ to a. The FIELD at this tournament, and b. the average of all of WINNERS thus far in the 2020 season. Represented by the colored arrows below.

Driving: DJ’s combination of distance (ranked 2nd in the FIELD), accuracy (29th) and avoidance of errors was outstanding. (Errors = drives hit out of play requiring recovery shots or penalty results). He had one minor error that led to one of only three bogeys. These blemishes were overwhelmed by five eagles and 23 birdies. Below, I compare DJ’s (yellow arrow) Strokes Gained Off-the-Tee, Fairway Hit and Driving Errors to the 2020 Winners (blue arrow) and the FIELD:

Approach Shots: His best skill of the week, and where he left the FIELD in his dust, was his Approach accuracy. Ranked #1 in all three categories – Strokes Gained Approach the Green, GIR’s and Proximity to the Hole – a rare hat trick! Consider that going into this event, DJ was ranked 80th on Tour in Strokes Gained Approach and #109 in GIR’s (12/round). I cannot remember seeing 16 GIR’s in over 30 years of studying the PGA Tour.

DJ’s frank explanation of his long game efficiency and accuracy was that he rediscovered his reliable cut. This is the dependable, slight fade that allows him to swing freely at EVERYTHING. If he can hang on to this through the Majors, watch out!

How does 55+5+4+3 = 1? Just ask Jim Herman!

Jim Herman was not the Strokes Gained best at ANYTHING in his win at the Wyndham Championship last weekend. BUT he was good enough at all of the things that mattered the most.

Let’s go through exactly what mattered:

  1. DRIVING – Strokes Gained Off the Tee: 1.069 (5th)

Distance: Jim is not a long hitter by any means. He averaged 289 yards (51st) vs. 303 yards for the FIELD.

Accuracy: Here is where Jim stood out. He was 4th, hitting 82% of the fairways (11.5/round) vs. only 64% (9/round) for the FIELD. The rough was clearly difficult and protected the course effectively against the bombers.

Errors: Driving errors (drives either hit out of play requiring recovery shots or resulting in penalties) are an important but rarely recognized component of accuracy on Tour. While the FIELD averaged a fairly typical .63 driving errors per round (2.5 in 4 rounds), Jim had NONE.

2. APPROACH ACCURACY – Strokes Gained Approach the Green: 1.47 (4th)

Jim hit the green with 90% of his fairway approach shots and 60% from the rough vs. 78% and 49% respectively for the FIELD. This led to 87.5% Greens in Regulation (1st) vs. 73% for the FIELD. All this with no mishaps (penalties).

3. PUTTING – Strokes Gained Putting: 1.56 (3rd)

The Donald Ross greens at Sedgefield Country Club were treacherous and 3-Putts were 31% more frequent than the 2019 Tour average (.67/round vs. .51/round in 2019 season). Jim was not immune and suffered three from 52, 51 & 24 feet. These stumbles were more than offset by his 1-Putt performance including TEN putts holed (over three times the FIELD average) in the 11 to 30 foot range and a bomb for eagle from 59 feet.

4. Short Game – Strokes Gained Around the Greens: -.187 (55th)

In spite of the negative Strokes Gained number, there were two good things about Jim’s short game performance. First, there were only 11 attempts. When you are #1 in GIR’s, you will not face many short game SAVE opportunities. Second, he made NO ERRORS. (I consider a short game error to be a shot that misses the green AND requires 4 or more strokes to hole out.) In a nutshell, Jim’s short game was inconsequential.

Jim Herman’s win is a nice tortoise and hare story. His game is not flashy but was extremely steady this week. In the last three years, Jim has missed twice the number of cuts than he has made (32 Cuts vs. 16 Cuts made). While anything but a household name in his 10th year on the PGA Tour, Jim has now won three times and made over $7,000,000. Well done!

Morikawa Putts for Dough

One thing that my studies of the PGA Tour and work with its players has taught me is that putting is a differentiator in terms of relative success. In particular, putts up to 10 feet – especially 6 to 10 feet – separate the good putters on Tour from the rest. Further, putts from 11 to 20 feet separate the winners on Tour. Why? Because the average “make %” falls off dramatically outside 10 feet and these longer distances tend to represent birdie opportunities.

In the graph below, I have compared Collin Morikawa’s 1-Putt success to that of the FIELD in the PGA Championship. Note:

A. 22 of 25 attempts up to 10 feet while the FIELD (if it had the same opportunities) would have been four stokes shy at 18 of 25.

B. 6 of 18 (33%) from 11 to 20 feet. The FIELD would have made only 4 of 18 (22%).

With this success offset by only one 3-Putt, it is no wonder that Collin was ranked #1 in Strokes Gained Putting.

The 70% Rule – Still Valid!

The 2020 PGA Championship was compelling and exciting. Harding Park defended itself admirably against the big bombers. The ultimate winner, Collin Morikawa, prevailed with surgical skill and accuracy. I was glad to see that ShotLink data and Strokes Gained Analysis was used and published, but disappointed that the raw ShotLink data, that I use to process my Shot By Shot analysis, was not available. As a result, I could clearly see each player’s Strokes Gained numbers and ranking but could not uncover the exact reasons WHY.

I decided to fall back on an article that I wrote in April 2010, a year before the PGA Tour launched Strokes Gained Putting (the Tour’s first toe in the Strokes Gained pool. I had been studying the winners on Tour for years and discovered a fairly simple “70% Rule” that most Tour winners had in common – that is at least 70% success in three critical stats:

Greens Hit in Regulation, Scrambling and 1-Putts 5 – 10 feet

I decided to see how the Top 3 finishers in the PGA Championship stood up to this simple test. As you can see in the chart below, only Collin Morikawa passed, exceeding 70% in all three areas. Dustin fell short in GIR’s and 1-Putts from 5 to 10 feet and Paul Casey similarly fell short in 1-Putts.

There are obviously other important stats and outcomes that contribute to the final scores and the two shots that separated Collin from Dustin and Paul. One could argue that Collin’s spectacular drive to reach the Par 4, 16th green leading to an eagle was the difference. It certainly appeared to result in the difference but then how does one account for all four rounds? For this major, I am satisfied that my 70% Rule is still valid.

Never Up, Never In!

My ears perked up when I heard Frank Nobilo’s comment about distance control during Saturday’s telecast of the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational. One of the leaders had just left a longish lag putt close to – but short of – the hole. Frank said something like: The best putters more often than not leave their lag putts short and avoid running the ball 7 feet past the hole. Frank is a terrific analyst and I am confident that this was simply an attempt to compliment the player. Nonetheless, I tweeted that it is not true and promised to follow up on my statement.

In early 2016, GOLF Magazine asked me if I had any unique insight on Jordan Spieth’s phenomenal 2015 season. Spieth’s 2015 highlight reel included FIVE wins including two majors (Masters, US Open), as well as finishing 4th in The Open and 2nd in the PGA Championship.

And yes, in fact, I did have insight into Spieth’s secret sauce! For that magical year, Spieth was ranked #7 in Strokes Gained Putting (.571) behind #1 Aaron Baddeley (.722). But I had recently studied Jordan’s outstanding Distance Control in relation to Baddeley and the four previous #1 Strokes Gained putters: Graeme McDowell (2014), Greg Chalmers (2013), Brandt Snedeker (2012) and Luke Donald (2011). I found that Jordan’s putting and especially his distance control (putts from 20 feet and greater) was better than ALL of them. I contend that if his performances in the majors had been included in the ShotLink data, he would have ranked #1 in Strokes Gained Putting.

I break down Distance Control into four different skills. In the exhibits below, Jordan is represented by a YELLOW arrow, the five #1 Strokes Gained are in RED and the 2015 PGA Tour average in BLUE.

Average Start and Leave Distances

There is less that a foot difference in the average start distances, but Jordan is the only player to achieve an average leave for the entire season UNDER 2 feet.

% 1-Putts vs. 3-Putts

Bear in mind that this is all putts starting at 20 feet or greater, which on tour is 38% of first putts. Jordan’s 1-putt success from this distance was almost twice that of the tour average, 26% more than the #1’s AND with an impressive lack of 3-putts.

Successful Lags vs. Distance Control Errors

I consider a lag to be successful when it finishes within 7% of the start distance OR within 3 feet. I consider a lag to be an error if it does not finish within 10% of the start distance AND is outside 3 feet.

Putts Holed or Left Beyond the Hole – Never Up Never In!

Clearly, even the average Tour player gets the majority of lag putts to the hole. I submit that this highlights Jordan’s distance control skill and why his long range 1-Putt vs. 3-Putt numbers are so good.

How to break 100

The pandemic has driven lots of new golfers to the game.  Golf can be frustrating until one develops enough of a game to be able to enjoy it.  The first hurdle is reaching the point where keeping score even makes sense.  Next, we want to record increasingly better scores.  And the first scoring barrier is breaking 100.

In studying the game for 30+ years, I have learned that the #1 deterrent to scoring at every level is costly ERRORS.  I recently ran a study of 1,800 rounds from the ShotByShot.com database of male golfers that shot 100.  On average, their rounds contained slightly more than TEN errors, each of which cost at least a stroke.  The ShotByShot.com program categorizes these errors as follows:

Driving Errors: 

  1. No Shot – Ball hit out of play requiring an advancement or recovery shot to return to normal play.
  2. Penalty – Requires a penalty stroke and drop from the penalty area.
  3. Lost/OB – Stroke and distance penalty.  The ball must be replayed from the tee (playing 3rd shot).

Approach Shot Errors

  1. Penalty – Requires a penalty stroke and drop from the penalty area.
  2. The first approach attempt was missed so badly that it leaves a 2nd approach from 50+ yards of the hole.  (In Shotbyshot.com language we refer to this as a “Penalty/2nd”)

Chip/Pitch (shots within 50 yards of the hole, not in sand) or Sand (shots in sand within 50 yards of the hole) Errors:

  1. The shot misses the green, either chunked short or skulled long, AND requires four or more strokes to hole out from the original position.

Putting Errors: 

  1. 3-Putts from within 30 feet of the hole.
  2. Missed putt from within 3 feet of the hole.

The chart below shows the number of these errors in the average 100 score.  I submit that the quickest way to improve will be to track your errors for a few rounds to see how they compare to the chart.  I have included a mock scorecard to illustrate tracking the errors described above.

I promise that you will find one or two common errors more prevalent in your game than the averages.  Once identified, you can work with your instructor to reduce that number and see your scores drop. 

When you have conquered that error, you can tackle the next!

In the sample scorecard above, the player has twice the Driving errors as the average male 100 shooter.

More on Bryson’s Driving and his lofty Strokes Gained Ranking.

Just a week after I had praised Bryson’s Driving prowess in Distance AND Accuracy (20 yards farther with a miraculously lower than Tour Average ERRORS), he blows up and misses the cut at Jack’s Memorial.  The low point was scoring a TEN on the 15th hole in his 2nd, and final, round.

I was intrigued because double digits are true rare occurrences on Tour and because it was the mercurial golf scientist.  It is the worst I have seen since Kevin Na recorded a 16 in the 2011 Valero Texas Open.  (You can YouTube the good-natured Kevin detailing his difficulties to a film crew at the scene.)  I became obsessed with Bryson’s troubles when I noticed that the Tour stats allocated the huge, negative Strokes Gained (SG) number to the wrong facet – his Approach the Green game.

In a nutshell, here is what happened to Bryson on this potentially reachable par 5: 

  1. His Drive was pulled left, well into the trees and into a Penalty Area, 287 yards from the hole. 
  2. Penalty/Drop near the point of entry – fairly deep in the woods.
  3. He obviously tried to hit a big hook, with a wooden club, to ADVANCE the ball to where he could Approach the green.  The result was long, but too straight, across the fairway and OB (over a neighbor’s boundary fence).
  4. Penalty/Drop back at the point of entry
  5. An exact repeat of #3 above.  This time his ball ended up against the fence.  After some contentious debate his ball was indeed confirmed to be OB.
  6. Penalty/Drop back at the point of entry
  7. Same thing but this time more hook got him into the right rough with an Approach to the green.
  8. Approach shot successfully on the green 30 feet from the pin
  9. Putt to 4 feet
  10. Putt holed

   I have TWO issues with the Tour’s handling of this hole from a statistical standpoint:

  1. In both cases, they do NOT properly designate the results of shots #3 and #5 as Out of Bounds (OB).  Instead, they call it “Unknown”.  Fun Fact: There is no such thing as OB in the Tour’s healthy list of shot results.  The Tour rules official can clearly be heard confirming that the ball was OB. Why not simply call it what it IS?
  2. Each of the three advancement attempts were mis-categorized for Strokes Gained purposes as Approach the Green.  But they were clearly Advancement shots or “Recovery Shots”  which is part of the Tour’s Strokes Gained designations.  Did the on-course statistician simply make a mistake?  And the technicians in the truck also overlook it?  Or, was there a conscious decision made to protect the ranking of the young star’s marque skill?

WHO CARES?  I do, and Bryson and the Tour should too!  As a result, Bryson’s Driving (Off the Tee) SG for the event was a false +2.12 and he remains #1 in SG Driving on Tour.  In ShotByShot.com, all FIVE strokes lost on this hole would be allocated to his Driving facet.  (We consider Recovery shots following Driving errors to be part of the Driving facet.).  Additionally, Bryson made two more Driving errors @ Memorial that would have added at least another -2.0 SG.  This potentially negative SEVEN SG in only 2 rounds would have shocked his Driving numbers.

At the same time, Bryson’s Approach SG for the event was -3.12.  This dropped his Approach position for the year to date from 36 to 62. Not a big deal?

Morikawa’s Miracle

I have been studying the PGA Tour for 30+ years. I’m fascinated by the unique performance of the event winners on Tour – both what they tend to have in common and what stands out and occasionally breaks the mold. Collin Morikawa’s performance was one of the latter in his narrow victory this Sunday at the Workday Charity Open.

Collin had a disappointing 72 (even par) on Saturday to relinquish a 3 stroke lead over Justin Thomas and 5 strokes over Victor Hovland. Simply stated, he lost the feel and direction of his approach game in hitting only 9 of 18 greens/targets. His Approach Strokes Gained for the day was -1.54. Not a winning number, and I imagine that the pundits gave the youngster little chance of a bounce-back against the now grizzled veteran, 12-time winner, Justin Thomas.

BUT bounce back he did by magically transforming his approach game. In the 4th round Collin hit 12 of 13 greens from the fairway producing a phenomenal 5.87 Approach Strokes Gained. To be clear, this means that Collin beat the FIELD by almost SIX strokes in his approach game alone. Six strokes in a part of the game that consisted of only 18 shots, or gaining .33 strokes with each Approach shot. To lend some perspective, IF the FIELD had hit all the greens that Collin hit in his incredible 4th round AND to their average of 32 feet from the hole, Collin’s average putting distance would have been 21 feet closer on EVERY shot – 11 feet from the hole.

Collin’s 5.87 Strokes Gained is the highest single round # that I can remember seeing. The graph below displays his 3rd and 4th round approach accuracy vs. the field. Collin’s single missed approach shot was from very long range – 250-275 yards.

I can’t help but wonder: What turned his approach game around? Was it a serious talk with a coach or an epiphany on the range before tee off? Collin, if you see this let us know!

For a complete Strokes Gained analysis of your game, go to ShotByShot.com.

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