With the Ryder Cup upon us this year, I want to look at the status of the U.S. team from a statistical perspective throughout the season leading up to the event. The U.S. team will have Tom Watson as its captain with four of the 12 members being appointed by Watson. The other eight players will make the team based on points earned.
With that said, what makes for a good Ryder Cup player? This was one of the first things I examined as best as I could since most statistical data prior to 2004 is limited. In the end, I found that there were two player attributes that work very well in the Ryder Cup: a great short game from less than 20 yards around green and good putting.
Look at many of the great all-time Ryder Cup players and they tend to have this common trait: Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Jose Maria Olazabal, Billy Casper, Larry Nelson, Bernhard Langer and Arnold Palmer. I don’t think anything changes the momentum in a Ryder Cup match than a player who can get his team out of trouble and save crucial pars when the other team thinks it has the hole won.
Great iron play is a player attribute that is a bit less common than a great short game, but there have been plenty of great Ryder Cupper known for their precise iron play. Think of golfers like Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino. They were all great iron players, but they weren’t nearly as good at the other parts of the game.
What makes a good fourball pairing?
Fourball is often referred to as “best ball.” This is where the best score between two players on one team is matched against the best score between two players on the other team. All of the data concludes that the best fourball players make a lot of birdies. This is why Jim Furyk has struggled in the fourball pairings; he typically ranks low on the PGA Tour in birdie percentage.
I feel the best way to pair a fourball team is to look at the players who make a high percentage of birdies, and to pair them up based on their performance on par-3’s, par-4’s and par-5’s. For instance, if both players make a lot of birdies but only play the par-4’s well, they are likely to have difficulty winning the par-3’s and par-5’s. With that said, a captain should value par-4 play the most because there are nearly 2.5 times more par-4’s on the course than the par-3’s or par-5’s.
One of my all-time favorite pairings was J.B. Holmes and Boo Weekley in 2008. Weekley is one of the premier drivers on Tour and would tee off first. He was routinely blasting it 20 yards past Lee Westwood and still finding the fairway. When Weekley would find the fairway, that allowed Holmes to have a free rip at the ball and often times he would hit it 380 yards. If he was playable, he increased his odds of winning the hole outright. If it wasn’t, the steady ball striking of Weekley would still mean that the team had a good chance to win or tie the hole. After the front nine you could see Westwood was visibly frustrated playing the pair.
What make a good foursome pairing?
Foursome play is often referred to as “alternate shot.” Unlike the fourball play, the better players tend to be better at avoiding bogies than making birdies. Historical trends also show that the better foursome format players tend to be very good short game players around the green. Mistakes are going to be made in the foursome format and it helps to have players who can counter those mistakes and end up avoiding bogies.
It is vital for the captain to pair players based on their strengths and weaknesses as well. For instance, a poor pairing would be something like Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson. Johnson does not play well from the rough and Mickelson struggles to find the fairway. That’s why Johnson and Jason Dufner worked so well at Medinah. Dufner was one of the most effective drivers of the ball in the world at the time, and hit a lot of fairways. That played right into one of Johnson’s strengths of hitting shots from the fairway. And that year Dufner was one of the premier iron players from longer than 150 yards and had a great year with his short game.
Versatility, youth and experience
One of the key components to fielding a team is that the captain should favor player versatility and youth over experience. A captain should look for players who can be effective in both the fourball and foursome formats. If a player struggles badly in the Friday morning foursome matches, the captain may need to sit that player until the Sunday individual matches. And that will require the captain to find a replacement for that player in the Saturday foursome matches. The more versatile the roster is, the more options the captain has and the more the captain can hide the players who are playing poorly.
This leads us to the players who continually make the Ryder Cup based on their experience instead of their performance. We see this every Ryder Cup from the U.S. team. The captain ends up picking a player who usually has a poor Ryder Cup record, but has ample experience. In my opinion, that thinking is tragically flawed because it tells us that the player has experience at underperforming at the Ryder Cup. There are always players who never get that chance at the Ryder Cup, and we are left wondering how they would have performed if they were given the opportunity. But here we have certain players who have been given the opportunity to play in the Ryder Cup and we know that they will perform poorly.
Often times it is not the player’s fault. For instance, Davis Love III caught a lot of flak for making Jim Furyk a captain’s pick. Furyk played brilliantly in all of 2012 and actually played quite well at the Ryder Cup. His playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, played poorly and cost him a match with what was thought of as Europe’s best team in Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. And Furyk was within a small fraction of halving his match with Sergio Garcia. The issue with Furyk is that he is not a versatile player. He is only good for the foursome format and given his age, Love had to limit the matches he could play in order to keep him fresh. So if Furyk came out on fire, the captain can’t use him in the rest of the matches in fear of burning him out.
Here’s a look at the top-12 U.S. players in Ryder Cup points so far (accurate as of 9/10/14), as well as a breakdown of their strengths and potential best pairings.
1. Phil Mickelson
Mickelson’s getting up there in age, but he has developed a game that is more versatile for Ryder Cup play. He is usually best suited for fourball, but with his vast improvement in his putting since working with Dave Stockton he has made himself a much better Foursome player if he is paired with a player who can hit difficult shots out of the rough like Keegan Bradley or Bubba Watson. However, Watson is a weak putter and short game player and would not likely make a good foursome player.
So there are some limitations on what Phil can do given his age and style of play, but he is likely more effective of a Ryder Cup player than any other time in his career. Mickelson’s issues always come down to his driver, but he has actually struck the ball well off the tee so far this year.
2. Jason Dufner
If Dufner regains his 2012 form where he was an elite driver, iron player and short game artist, he is nearly ideal as a Ryder Cup player because he can play in either format with just about any type of player and make their job quite easy. Dufner’s iron play dropped off quite a bit in 2013 and then picked up before the PGA Championship. He’s never been a great putter, but if the rest of his game is like it was in 2012 then Watson should be able to work around it.
3. Dustin Johnson
For a bomber, Johnson is quite versatile because he has shown the ability to perform well in numerous parts of the game. For example, he ranked 12th in short game play in 2013. Johnson is still best suited for fourball given his ability to make birdies, and he performs extremely well on the par-3’s and par-5’s. He is one of those players that could get hot early on and Captain Watson could ride out for the rest of the tournament.
4. Ryan Moore
Moore is ranked 4th because of the start to his 2013-2014 season, as his 2013 season was not overly impressive. He tends to make more birdies than bogeys, and driving is typically the strength of his game. I think he is best suited for the fourball format with a golfer that can really bomb it off the tee and plays the par-3’s well (i.e. Dustin Johnson). I would have Moore tee off first and get his drive out there. If he executes, then let the bomber get a free rip at the ball. I am remain skeptical, however, that Moore can continue this pace and earn a spot on the U.S. team.
5. Harris English
English is only in his 2nd season on Tour so I have limited data on his game. He ranked 17th in Birdie Percentage in 2013, and was very good on the par-4’s and par-5’s. He is also a great putter (14th in Putts Gained in 2013) and a good driver of the ball. His iron play and short game will have to improve this year in order to consider him for the foursome format. For now, he is clearly a favorite for the fourball format and I would probably try to pair him with a strong par-3 and par-4 player (i.e. Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner, Phil Mickelson, etc).
6. Webb Simpson
Simpson had two very different years in terms of ballstriking in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, he was arguably the best iron player in the world, particularly from the fairway, but he struggled mightily off the tee. In 2013 he drove it fairly well (67th in Driving Effectiveness), but regressed into an above average iron player. He only ranked 77th on iron shots from the fairway.
Meanwhile, his putting and short game remained quite steady, being very good in both areas of the game. He is excellent at the par-3’s, par-4’s and par-5’s and is better at making birdies than bogeys, but ranks well in both categories. This makes for a versatile player, but he is better suited for fourball. I liked his pairing with Bubba Watson in the fourball in 2012, but not in the foursome format. It’s really going to depend on what style of play shows up for Simpson in 2014.
In 2012, the simulations favored Simpson playing with Jason Dufner in the foursome format. If the Ryder Cup was held in 2013, Brandt Snedeker would have been the most favorable partner for Simpson in the foursome format.
7. Jimmy Walker
Walker has been putting extremely well in the 2013-2014 season, which has led to his current ranking in Ryder Cup points. He hits it very long, but he was a mediocre driver of the ball last year (155th in Driving Effectiveness). He was also mediocre on iron shots from the fairway (124th), but excellent from the rough (16th). Walker ranked 26th in both Birdie Percentage and Bogey Avoidance and played the par-4’s and par-5’s very well. This leads me to believe at this moment he is not very versatile as a Ryder Cup player and is mostly suited for the fourball format.
I would pair Walker with a player that can play the par-3’s well like Dustin Johnson or Webb Simpson. If I had to put him in the foursome format, I would look for a long, but effective driver of the ball: someone who can hit it long so that it can make up for Walker’s weak iron play. And a player that has a good enough short game to clean up any of Walker’s misses. Dustin Johnson appears to be an ideal partner in this format.
8. Chris Kirk
Kirk has the makings of a breakout star if he makes the Ryder Cup. Just take a look at these rankings in key metrics in 2013:
Kirk would be best suited for fourball given his ability on the par-3’s and par-4’s, as well as his ability to make a lot of birdies. He would just need to be paired with a great par-5 player like Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods or Keegan Bradley.
Kirk could fit into the foursome format if he is paired with the right player. He will need a partner who drives it effectively while keeping the ball in the fairway. That will play right into Kirk’s strength of hitting iron shots from the fairway. And the longer and more accurate the golfer, the better it works for Kirk since he is so good from inside 175 yards. My simulations show that Kirk would work nicely with Keegan Bradley, Jordan Speith, Webb Simpson and Kevin Streelman.
9. Jim Furyk
Keep him out of the fourball format and you’re pretty much fine. I would also pair him with an accurate driver of the ball as hitting out of the rough is not one of Furyk’s specialties, as well as a golfer who hits it well from 175-or-more yards given Furyk’s lack of distance off the tee. Zach Johnson would be a nice pairing. The same goes for Jordan Spieth and Steve Stricker.
10. Jason Bohn
Bohn is a longshot to make the team, and is on this list based on his play at the Shriners Hospital For Children Open and OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He also turns 41 years old in April.
His strength has always been his iron play from inside 175 yards, particularly from the fairway. He did rank 35th in Birdie Percentage last year, but ranked 119th in Bogey Avoidance. I think he’s best suited for the fourball format with a partner who makes a lot of birdies, but also does a great job of avoiding bogeys and plays the par-5’s very well. The numbers would favor Bohn being paired with Tiger, Stricker or Keegan Bradley in the fourball format.
In the foursome format, he would probably only work well with Bubba Watson because of Watson’s length and overall effectiveness off the tee. Bohn is an unlikely Ryder Cup candidate, but stranger things have happened.
11. Gary Woodland
Woodland seems to finally be getting his game to click. He’s a power player and was struggling to play towards that strength. However, he is likely relegated towards the fourball format because he is one of the worst short game players on Tour. And despite his power, he has never been a great player on the Par-5’s.
Woodland ranked 27th in Birdie Percentage and 92nd in Bogey Avoidance in 2013. So, he would best off with a high-birdie-rate player who can avoid bogeys and play the par-4’s and par-5’s well in the fourball format. Webb Simpson could be an excellent fit for him. If he were to play in the foursome format, it would be best to stick him with an excellent iron player — particularly from the rough — who can putt well to make up for Woodland’s struggles from around the green. Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker top the list as the most suitable teammate for Woodland in the foursome format.
12. Brian Stuard
Stuard recorded three top-6 finishes in a row and also had a T15 at the Shriners, which has earned him his top-12 ranking thus far. Stuard is 31 years old and not a long hitter, but he drives it effectively off the tee (68th in 2013) and putts pretty decently (79th in Putts Gained in 2013). He’s a very steady, Jim Furyk-type of player who ranked 23rd in Bogey Avoidance and 138th in Birdie Percentage. This means that if he were to make the Ryder Cup, he would fit more into the foursome format and should avoid the fourball format at all costs.
Stuard would be best paired with a good iron player, particularly from the fairway to take advantage of his accurate driving and to avoid his need to scramble (Stuard was 131st in Short Game play in 2013). It would also help to have a partner who can find the fairway off the tee in order to help him with his below average iron play. Therefore, he would fit best with Furyk, Spieth, Tiger or Snedeker at this point in time.
Look for an update, Part 2 of this series, after the 2014 Masters!
Clark: A teacher’s take on Brandel Chamblee’s comments
Because I’m writing to a knowledgeable audience who follows the game closely, I’m sure the current Brandel Chamblee interview and ensuing controversy needs no introduction, so let’s get right to it.
Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player, now plays a role as a TV personality. He has built a “brand” around that role. The Golf Channel seems to relish the idea of Brandel as the “loose cannon” of the crew (not unlike Johnny Miller on NBC) saying exactly what he thinks with seeming impunity from his superiors.
I do not know the gentleman personally, but on-air, he seems like an intelligent, articulate golf professional, very much on top of his subject matter, which is mostly the PGA Tour. He was also a very capable player (anyone who played and won on the PGA Tour is/was a great player). But remember, nowadays he is not being judged by what scores he shoots, but by how many viewers/readers his show and his book have (ratings). Bold statements sell, humdrum ones do not.
For example, saying that a teacher’s idiocy was exposed is a bold controversial statement that will sell, but is at best only partly true and entirely craven. If the accuser is not willing to name the accused, he is being unfair and self-serving. However, I think it’s dangerous to throw the baby out with the bathwater here; Brandel is a student of the game and I like a lot of what he says and thinks.
His overriding message in that interview is that golf over the last “30-40 years” has been poorly taught. He says the teachers have been too concerned with aesthetics, not paying enough attention to function. There is some truth in that, but Brandel is painting with a very broad brush here. Many, myself included, eschewed method teaching years ago for just that reason. Method teachers are bound to help some and not others. Maybe the “X swing” one player finds very useful, another cannot use it all.
Brandel was asked specifically about Matthew Wolff’s unique swing: Lifting the left heel, crossing the line at the top, etc. He answered, “of course he can play because that’s how he plays.” The problem would be if someone tried to change that because it “looked odd.” Any teacher worth his weight in salt would not change a swing simply because it looked odd if it was repeating good impact. I learned from the great John Jacobs that it matters not what the swing looks like if it is producing great impact.
Now, if he is objecting exclusively to those method teachers who felt a certain pattern of motions was the one true way to get to solid impact, I agree with him 100 percent. Buy many teach on an individual, ball flight and impact basis and did not generalize a method. So to say “golf instruction over the last 30-40 years” has been this or that is far too broad a description and unfair.
He goes on to say that the “Top Teacher” lists are “ridiculous.” I agree, mostly. While I have been honored by the PGA and a few golf publications as a “top teacher,” I have never understood how or why. NOT ONE person who awarded me those honors ever saw me give one lesson! Nor have they have ever tracked one player I coached. I once had a 19 handicap come to me and two seasons later he won the club championship-championship flight! By that I mean with that student I had great success. But no one knew of that progress who gave me an award.
On the award form, I was asked about the best, or most well-known students I had taught. In the golf journals, a “this-is-the-teacher-who-can-help-you” message is the epitome of misdirection. Writing articles, appearing on TV, giving YouTube video tips, etc. is not the measure of a teacher. On the list of recognized names, I’m sure there are great teachers, but wouldn’t you like to see them teach as opposed to hearing them speak? I’m assuming the “ridiculous” ones Brandel refers to are those teaching a philosophy or theory of movement and trying to get everyone to do just that.
When it comes to his criticism of TrackMan, I disagree. TrackMan does much more than help “dial in yardage.” Video cannot measure impact, true path, face-to-path relationship, centeredness of contact, club speed, ball speed, plane etc. Comparing video with radar is unfair because the two systems serve different functions. And if real help is better ball flight, which of course only results from better impact, then we need both a video of the overall motion and a measure of impact.
Now the specific example he cites of Jordan Spieth’s struggles being something that can be corrected in “two seconds” is hyperbolic at least! Nothing can be corrected that quickly simply because the player has likely fallen into that swing flaw over time, and it will take time to correct it. My take on Jordan’s struggles is a bit different, but he is a GREAT player who will find his way back.
Brandel accuses Cameron McCormick (his teacher) of telling him to change his swing. Do we know that to be true, or did Jordan just fall into a habit and Cameron is not seeing the change? I agree there is a problem; his stats prove that, but before we pick a culprit, let’s get the whole story. Again back to the sensationalism which sells! (Briefly, I believe Jordan’s grip is and has always been a problem but his putter and confidence overcame it. An active body and “quiet” hands is the motion one might expect of a player with a strong grip-for obvious reason…but again just my two teacher cents)
Anyway, “bitch-slapped” got him in hot water for other reasons obviously, and he did apologize over his choice of words, and to be clear he did not condemn the PGA as a whole. But because I have disagreements with his reasoning here does not mean Brandel is not a bright articulate golf professional, I just hope he looks before he leaps the next time, and realizes none of us are always right.
Some of my regular readers will recall I “laid down my pen” a few years ago, but it occurred to me, I would be doing many teachers a disservice if I did not offer these thoughts on this particular topic!
A trip down Magnolia Memory Lane: Patron fashion at the 1991 Masters
Like a lot of golfers out there, I’ve been getting my fix thanks to the final round Masters broadcasts on YouTube via the Masters channel. Considering these broadcasts go back as far as 1968, there is a lot we could discuss—we could break down shots, equipment, how the course has changed, but instead I thought we could have a little fun taking a different direction—fashion.
However, I’m not talking players fashion, that’s fairly straight forward. Instead, I wanted to follow the action behind the action and see what we could find along the way – here are the 1991 Highlights.
I love the “Die Hard” series as much as anyone else but one fan took it to a new level of fandom by wearing a Die Hard 2 – Die Harder T-shirt to Sunday at the Masters. This patron was spotted during Ian Woosnam fourth shot into 13. Honorable mention goes to Woosie’s gold chain.
There is a lot going on here as Ben Crenshaw lines up his put on 17. First, we have the yellow-shirted man just left of center with perfectly paired Masters green pants to go along with his hat (he also bears a striking resemblance to Ping founder Karsten Solheim). Secondly, we have what I would imagine is his friend in the solid red pants—both these outfits are 10 out of 10. Last but not least, we have the man seen just to the right of Ben with sunglasses so big and tinted, I would expect to be receiving a ticket from him on the I20 on my way out of town.
If you don’t know the name Jack Hamm, consider yourself lucky you missed a lot of early 2000s late-night golf infomercials. OK so maybe it’s not the guy known for selling “The Hammer” driver but if you look under the peak of the cabin behind Woosie as he tees off on ten you can be forgiven for taking a double-take… This guy might show up later too. Honorable mention to the pastel-pink-shorted man with the binoculars and Hogan cap in the right of the frame.
Big proportions were still very much in style as the 80s transitioned into the early 90s. We get a peek into some serious style aficionados wardrobes behind the 15th green with a wide striped, stiff collared lilac polo, along with a full-length bright blue sweater and a head of hair that has no intention of being covered by a Masters hat.
Considering the modern tales of patrons (and Rickie Folwer) being requested to turn backward hats forward while on the grounds of Augusta National, it was a pretty big shock to see Gerry Pate’s caddy with his hat being worn in such an ungentlemanly manner during the final round.
Before going any further, I would like us all to take a moment to reflect on how far graphics during the Masters coverage has come in the last 30 years. In 2019 we had the ability to see every shot from every player on every hole…in 1991 we had this!
At first glance, early in the broadcast, these yellow hardhats threw me for a loop. I honestly thought that a spectator had chosen to wear one to take in the action. When Ian Woosnam smashed his driver left on 18 over the bunkers it became very apparent that anyone wearing a hard hat was not there for fun, they were part of the staff. If you look closely you can see hole numbers on the side of the helmets to easily identify what holes they were assigned to. Although they have less to do with fashion, I must admit I’m curious where these helmets are now, and what one might be worth as a piece of memorabilia.
Speaking of the 18th hole, full credit to the man in the yellow hat (golf clap to anyone that got the Curious George reference) who perfectly matched the Pantone of his hat to his shirt and also looked directly into the TV camera.
It could be said the following photo exemplifies early ’90s fashion. We have pleated Bermuda shorts, horizontal stripes all over the place and some pretty amazing hairstyles. Honorable mention to the young guys in the right of the frame that look like every ’80s movie antagonist “rich preppy boy.”
What else can I say except, khaki and oversized long sleeve polos certainly had their day in 1991? We have a bit of everything here as Tom Watson lines up his persimmon 3-wood on the 18th. The guy next to Ian Woosnam’s sleeves hit his mid-forearm, there are too many pleats to count, and somehow our Jack Hamm look-alike managed to find another tee box front row seat.
You can check out the full final-round broadcast of the 1991 Masters below.
The 19th Hole Episode 119: Gary Player joins the 19th Hole!
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