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Overrated? That’s not what the stats say about Rickie Fowler

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One of the most publicized swing changes this season has been Rickie Fowler’s decision to alter some of his swing mechanics with instructor Butch Harmon.

Fowler had his first career victory in 2012 and finished 40th on the 2013 Money List. Since he began making swing changes with Harmon in December, however, he has missed the cut in three of five events. But Fowler played terrific in his most recent tournament, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he finished third. And when I look at Fowler’s metrics, the projections show him playing more like he did at the Accenture Match play than in his previous four events.

First, let’s take a look at Fowler’s rankings in the key scoring metrics in 2013. These rankings are based out of 180 players.

Chart 1

Typically, the ranking in Adjusted Scoring Average and Money List ranking tend to be very similar. If they are a bit off, then the Money List Ranking tends to eventually match the Adjusted Scoring Average ranking. In this case, Fowler’s Adjusted Scoring Average ranking is noticeably worse (67th) than his Money List ranking (40th). This is because Fowler ranked 20th in purse size per event. He was playing in more lucrative events and that allowed him to rank higher in earnings than his Adjusted Scoring Average indicated. However, Fowler had good reason to be concerned since his play in 2013 ran the risk of not being good enough to qualify him for the more lucrative events he was able to play in 2013.

With that said, Fowler’s rankings are pretty solid. Par-4 play is the most important metric, and he performed well on par-4’s in 2013. He also was in the top-10th percentile on the par-5’s. Even his Bogey Rate and Birdie Rate are pretty good. However, he was one of the leaders in double bogeys last year, which is what the bogey rate metric does not quite show. So every time he made a double bogey, he now had to make two birdies in order to break even. Lastly, if he wants to get to an elite status as a golfer, he needs to get into the top-10th percentile in par-4 play and Bogey Rate.

Here are Fowler’s rankings in the key performance metrics in 2013

Chart 2

These metrics are not overly impressive, but not poor either. And he was very good at the two parts of the game that correlate most to success on Tour: Danger Zone play and Putts Gained.

When we consider his trouble with double bogeys, I normally take a look at his driving and some key precision metrics:

Chart 3

Again, Fowler was not great at these metrics, but he was not poor by Tour standards either. The Missed Fairway – Other % is essentially any tee shot that finds a hazard, O.B. or results in a rescue shot, and he was still better than the Tour average there. However, I did find something very peculiar about his driving with his radar metrics.

Chart 7

Generally, a golfer’s driving distance ranking and club head speed ranking should come close to matching. If there is a large discrepancy, it is usually due to the golfer hitting upward or downward on the ball. In Fowler’s case, his driving distance is far less than his club head speed ranking. This would indicate that he is hitting down on the ball too much. However, his launch angle and Max Height indicate that he likes to hit up on the ball. Meanwhile, his high spin rate is more indicative a downward attack angle.

So, which is it?

Fowler ranked 55th in Ball Speed and given his ranking in club head speed it indicates that he was making quality strikes with his driver as his smash factor was rather high. I think he probably was hitting up a little on the driver and he was ill-fitted from an equipment standpoint. This would cause the ball to balloon, which would explain his high Max Height and it would come down with a lot of spin so he was not getting any roll. And this was causing Fowler to lose one of his strengths, in his ability to hit the ball far.

Still, I do not see the driving as the major culprit for his double bogey woes. He simply did not miss big off the tee frequently. Instead, I think he had a major problem from the Safe Zone (125-to-175 yards) as he was putting himself in pretty good position off the tee, but only ranked 102nd from that distance. Most of the high birdie makers that are not ‘Bubba-long’ tend to play very well from the Safe Zone and Fowler’s below average play also cost him some birdies. In the end, I could see why Fowler was looking for a new perspective. His game was slipping a little and he probably did not want to have to change too much when it was too late.

Here are his key performance metrics for the 2013-2014 season (out of 174 players):

Chart 4

Fowler’s iron play has improved quite dramatically. While he is slightly worse from the Danger Zone, the important metric to keep in mind is shots from the fairway as that is the greatest indicator of a Tour player’s pure iron skill. Fowler ranked 91st in the metric in 2013 and is now the best from the fairway on Tour. So if his Danger Zone play has dropped slightly, it is more due to him hitting a few more shots from the rough.

And while the driving effectiveness is roughly the same, the key radar metrics indicate that it will get better.

Chart 5

Fowler is not only hitting the ball farther, but he is generating more club head speed. And his driving distance ranking and club head speed ranking match. The other radar metrics are virtually the same except that his spin rate has lowered by about 450 rpm. He has regained his advantage of hitting the ball a long ways and his iron play has greatly improved.

The only thing that has hampered Fowler is his putting, as he currently ranks last in Putts Gained. Here are his rankings in Putts Gained each year since turning pro:

Chart 6

Fowler has been a pretty good putter on Tour throughout his career. I feel that he is on the right path with his ball striking to get to that next level of winning a major. He has regained his power with his driving and has been striking his irons at an elite level. His short game has been sound and the only thing lacking has been his putting, which has probably suffered due to him focusing more of his attention on his swing.

I have my doubts about him contending in the majors this year. But, if he can continue to improve at this rate with his irons, fine tune his driving and get his putting back, Fowler could have a breakout year in 2015.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

Mondays Off

Mondays Off: How is the new PGA schedule looking? Gross golf bag cleaning story!

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The new PGA schedule is out and how will so much major golf look in the fall. What golf gear would you buy with your stimulus check if you could blow it all on golf? Knudson has a gross story about cleaning out a golf bag.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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19th Hole

Tiger at the Masters: The 3 that got away

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This time last year, Tiger Woods earned his fifth green jacket at the 2019 Masters, breaking a 14-year drought at Augusta National and completing a storybook career comeback (see Tiger Woods’ 2019 Masters WITB here).

Between his 2005 and 2019 victories, Woods gave himself several chances to reclaim the green jacket, but for one reason or another, the championship continuously eluded the 15-time major winner.

Looking back on that drought, three years in particular stick out in my mind where Woods (being the ruthless closer that he is) could, and maybe should, have capitalized on massive opportunities.

2007 Masters

A unique tournament broke out at the 2007 Masters with chilly and windy conditions meaning we would see an over-par score winning the event for the first time in a generation.

Unusually however was the fact that Tiger Woods had got himself into a fantastic position heading into the final day’s play—one stroke back of the lead and in the final group.

By the first hole on Sunday, Woods had a share of the lead. A couple of holes later, and he was the sole leader. But instead of the game’s greatest ever closer doing what he does best, we saw the first small chink in Tiger’s major armor.

Unable to keep up with the improved scoring on Sunday, Woods finished the championship two strokes behind Zach Johnson. It was the first time Woods lost a major in which he held the lead at some point in the final round.

11th hole Sunday. Woods saved par.

Summing up after the round why things hadn’t turned out the way the entire golf world expected, Woods said

“Looking back over the week I basically blew this tournament with two rounds where I had bogey, bogey finishes. That’s 4-over in two holes. The last two holes, you just can’t afford to do that and win major championships.”

2011 Masters

In one of the most exciting final rounds in Masters history, an electric front-nine charge from Woods coupled with a Rory McIlroy collapse saw the then 35-year-old tied for the lead heading into the back nine.

After back-to-back pars on the challenging 10th and 11th holes, Woods found the green on the 12th before it all slipped away. A disastrous three-putt was followed by a deflating five on the par-5 13th and an agonizing near-miss for birdie on 14.

In typical defiant fashion, Woods then flushed a long iron on the par-5 15th to give him five feet for eagle and what would have been the outright lead. But he couldn’t find the cup.

Directly following his round, a visibly miffed Woods said

“I should have shot an easy 3- or 4-under on the back nine and I only posted even. But I’m right there in the thick of it and a bunch of guys have a chance. We’ll see what happens.”

What happened was eventual champion Charl Schwartzel did what Woods said he should have done—shooting 4 under on the back to win his first major.

2013 Masters

Luck, or lack of, is a contentious topic when it comes to sports fans, but at the 2013 Masters, Woods’ shocking fate played out as if those on Mount Olympus were orchestrating the tournament.

Woods entered the 2013 Masters as the World Number One, brimming with confidence having won three out of his first five tournaments to start the year.

By Friday afternoon, Woods had cruised into a share of the lead, before crisply striking a wedge on the par-5 15th as he hunted for another birdie.

In a cruel twist of fate, Woods’ ball struck the pin and ricocheted back into the water. “Royally cheated!” shouted on-course announcer David Feherty. Nobody could argue otherwise.

A subsequent “bad drop” turned a probable birdie into a triple-bogey placing Woods behind the proverbial 8-ball for the rest of the tournament. The game’s ultimate closer should have been in the lead with two rounds to play on a front-runner’s paradise of a course; instead, he was in chase-mode. (From 1991-2012, 19 of the 22 winners came from the final group).

Woods tried to rally over the weekend, but if he didn’t think the 2013 Masters was ill-fated for himself by Friday evening, then he would have been excused to do so on the eighth hole on Saturday.

 

Had Woods’ golf ball missed the pin at 15 on that hot and humid Spring afternoon in 2013, then he not only wins, but he likely wins going away.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Power Leak No. 1: Your grip

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One of the things I like the best is when a friend or stranger asks me to take a look at their swing to see if I can help them. I never get into the “lesson” business, because that is the domain of our golf staff at the club. But I have spent a lifetime in this game, and have studied the golf swing pretty relentlessly. I also have been blessed with a pretty good eye.

So, the other day, I was out hitting some balls in the afternoon, and a good friend from the club asked if I’d take a look at where he is losing power. Darrell is a big guy and a good player, but not nearly as long as you would think he’d be. He plays with the “big dog” money game, which has a few really big hitters that can be quite intimidating.

I’ve played with Darrell enough to know exactly where his power leaks were, so when he came out to the range, I watched him hit a few and dropped the first one on him.

“It’s your grip!”

He, like so many amateur golfers, was holding the club too far out on the end, and much too high in his palms — not low in the fingers like you should. I’ve always been of the opinion that the grip is the most important fundamental in the entire golf swing. Without a solid and fundamentally sound hold on the golf club, the rest of the swing cannot function at its best. Hogan thought it was so important, he dedicated a whole chapter of “Five Lessons” to the subject.

You’ll see the occasional pretty good scorer at the club with a funky grip, but you never see a bad grip on tour. The golfer who has mastered a great grip is the most teachable there is.

In my opinion, the grip is only ‘personal’ to a small degree. Whether you like to overlap, interlock or use the full finger grip (not baseball)…whether you like to rotate your hands a little stronger or weaker . . . the fundamentals are the same, and they aren’t negotiable.

The club has to be in your fingers to allow the “lag” that builds power, and to allow or even force the optimum release of the club through impact. The last three fingers of the left hand have to control the club so that it can be pulled through the impact zone. The right hand hold is limited to the curling of the two middle fingers around the grip, and neither set of forefingers and thumbs should be engaged much at all. One of the best drills for any golfer is to hit balls with the right forefinger and thumb totally disengaged from the grip. Google “Hogan grip photos” and study them!!!!!!

So, with the changes in the grip I had Darrell make, he immediately began ripping drivers 15-20 yards further downrange than he had. The ball flight and even sound of the ball off the driver was more impressive. So we went out to play a few holes to see what happened.

Historically, Darrell is only 5-10 yards longer than me at best, and sometimes I outdrive him. But not anymore!! On those five holes we played late that afternoon, he consistently flew it out there 20-25 yards past my best drives.

And that made us both really happy!

Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about the second in this series on Power Leaks.

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