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Launch monitors have changed the way tour players hit their drives

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I keep track of the radar metrics on the PGA Tour each week, and so far this season I’ve started to see some noticeable differences in the radar data being produced by the field than I have in years past. So I decided to look at the Tour averages for each season since the Tour started to record the radar data back in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing those averages each season.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 10.18.06 AM

Click the chart to enlarge it.

To draw an even clearer picture, here’s a comparison between this season’s radar metrics and the inaugural season in 2007. 

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Click the chart to enlarge it.

While the club speed and ball speed have picked up, the larger differences are in the Max Height and Spin Rate metrics. The other two factors that have seen a marked change are Smash Factor and Carry Efficiency, which are calculated using the formulas below.

  • Smash Factor = Ball Speed / Club Head Speed
  • Carry Efficiency = Carry Distance / Club Speed

While the percentage difference between these two metrics is smaller than the other metrics, we have to remember that USGA rules have a certain allowable Smash Factor that is roughly 1.50. So there is a ceiling with regards to Smash Factor and the same goes for Carry Efficiency.

What this shows is the effect that launch monitors have had on PGA Tour swings, as well as the golf equipment industry, which has been producing metal woods that launch the ball slightly higher and with less spin in recent years. I can also conclude from the metrics that fewer players are hitting their driver with a severely downward attack angle (-4 degrees or steeper), because:

  • Their launch angles are up.
  • Their carry efficiency is up.
  • Their max height is significantly up.
  • Their spin rate is down.

According to Trackman, with all things being equal, the lower a golfer’s Spin Loft the higher the Smash Factor. Spin Loft is a measurement of a golfer’s dynamic loft, which is the amount of loft they deliver to the ball at the moment of maximum ball compression, minus a golfer’s angle of attack, as shown below.

  • Spin Loft = Dynamic Loft – Attack Angle

So if Tour players are less steep with their attack angle and their dynamic loft is roughly the same, the Spin Loft has now decreased and that allows for a higher Smash Factor.

What is probably most interesting is that higher club-head speed players have resorted to more of an upward hit on the ball. In the past, the high club-speed players almost exclusively kept their launch low so they could keep the max height low and better control their drives. They would generally have a launch angle between 9 to 10 degrees with about 2,800 rpm of spin. Now, we see some of the higher club-head speed players on Tour with very high launch angles and low spin rates.

Two prime examples of this are rookies Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers, both of whom are 22 years old. It should be noted that Rodgers and Thomas are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in Max Height, respectively.

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Currently, Thomas ranks 73rd (out of 203 golfers) in my Driving Effectiveness ranking, while Rodgers ranks 59th. There is not a lot of data with regards to higher-speed players who produce very high launch numbers over a significant period of time, but the long hitters who are generally more effective off the tee average lower launch numbers like Bubba Watson, who currently first in Driving Effectiveness.

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I suspect that eventually players like Thomas and Rodgers will bring down their attack angles a bit in order to create a lower launch, a lower max height and a higher spin rate so they can drive ball more accurately and precisely like Bubba does. But young guns like Thomas and Rodgers, as well as the Tour radar statistics as a whole, show the great influence that launch monitors are having on the best golfers in the world.

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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, 2017 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

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. spanishflypro.net

    Jun 9, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    I read this article fully regarding the comparison of latest and previous technologies, it’s amazing article.

  2. Stat Man

    Jun 6, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    AoA -1

  3. Oldplayer

    Jun 6, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Is the ball at all responsible for the higher launch and lower spin that pros are getting in recent times?

  4. Jeez Utz

    Jun 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Stats are so padded and no one should really be interested in them

  5. Jeez Utz

    Jun 6, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    I don’t know why ppl put stock in stats
    Stats tell part of the story….
    3rd and 23, defense in full prevent..handoff up the middle rb gets 16 yds. That happens 3 or 4 times a game and he finishes with 103 yds total
    Outside that the rb will have 23 carries for 48 yds but if you look at the stats he’s shredding the defense
    Baseball would have you believe a save is a something that should be recorded as a stat
    One team is up 8-5 in the bottom of the 9th and a guy comes out and throw 8 pitches against another team that knows they’ve already lost and don’t care
    Basketball has the assist…I throw the ball to a wide open or covered guy and he shoots and makes it. Nothing to do with me but I get a + in a stat category…
    idk but I’m pretty sure the winner on tour week in and week out is 1 or 2 in prox. to the hole. He may be middle of the pack or closer to last in a few or most categories, but never that one. That’s the only “stat” that matters, but at the end of the day score matters and not much else and especially not scoring average because of course setup.

  6. Tom Stickney

    Jun 6, 2015 at 12:57 am

    Its amazing how high and flat the tour guys hit the ball when the spin rate is under control.

  7. Paul

    Jun 6, 2015 at 12:10 am

    Good stuff Richie.

    Great information – gives us food for thought. Whether it’s a deliberate change that the players have implemented or if the club design is the reason behind it, it is still an interesting subject.

  8. golfiend

    Jun 5, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    i guess these stats could be interesting, but the more important stat is how often these guys drive it accurately (even if they are 5-10y shorter) to the right location in the fairway to get an easier second shot into the green

  9. Steve

    Jun 5, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    Wow this is news. Tech has change the way we look at a golf swing? is this 2005?

  10. ML

    Jun 5, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    If they limited the size of the driver head it would have no effect

    Many guys are playing smaller heads than retail to begin with

    They new mini drivers (essentially a 90’s driver ) are extremely accurate for most players and when flushed go nearly as far as the drivers do

    I’ve got to a point where I wonder why I even have a driver other than to make double on a couple par 5’s

    275 in the middle with those mini drivers is all you need

  11. Johnny

    Jun 5, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Interesting that launch angles are virtually unchanged from 2007 to 2015 while max height shows a pretty good change. So when we talk about high launch/low spin, I’m not sure about the high launch part. Yet spin has a pretty good drop as well.

    If tour players are hitting their drives different, I would have to say it’s due to the driver and not the launch monitor.

    • Jeez Utz

      Jun 6, 2015 at 5:12 pm

      my point exactly
      I would be slightly more to believe in launch monitors bringing down scoring average cuz players find “square” more easily

    • Rich Hunt

      Jun 8, 2015 at 2:45 pm

      The launch angles have gone up and much like smash factor and carry efficiency, there’s a ceiling as to how much you can go up with the launch of a driver and swing at a certain speed. So I think that like smash and carry efficiency, the launch angle going up by a small number is actually a bigger change than most people think.

      As I mentioned towards the end, the big difference I see is the numbers for the longer hitters. Guys like Rodgers and Thomas just used to never have those numbers. Used to be lower launch, higher spin. Now we are starting to see more long hitters change that.

  12. ca1879

    Jun 5, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Rich – hard to show significant change with just averages since all influences are aggregated. Since you clearly know this subject, can we assume that there isn’t enough information to tease out the performance deltas with respect to actual swing metric changes?

  13. Chris

    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Rich, while there are definitely some trends in regards to players increasing their launch and lowering their spin, I think this may have more to do with the improvement of equipment design over the last 8 years more-so than players changing their swings. Back in 2007 clubs were being marketed as having the deepest CG’s providing the most forgiveness. Nowadays the clubs are the complete opposite with low and forward CG’s.

  14. Jeez Utz

    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Launch monitors have changed how tour players hit their drivers????
    Where’s the proof

  15. ShutSteepStuck

    Jun 5, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Great article, Rich. Would love to know the AoA. Pretty sure Tomas is in the +4 range, but not sure about Rogers.

  16. Dennis Clark

    Jun 5, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Rich any attack angle data?

    • Rich Hunt

      Jun 5, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Unfortunately, there is no AoA data on Tour.

      • Dennis Clark

        Jun 5, 2015 at 8:06 pm

        Yea it seems that all Tman gives is ball flight never individual impact/club readings. Wondering if they might be proprietary.

        • Rich Hunt

          Jun 8, 2015 at 2:47 pm

          I was told that there are too many mis-reads when they track them during an event, so they throw them out.

          It’s pretty easy to tell what guys are hitting up versus hitting down though with all of the other numbers.

  17. Greg V

    Jun 5, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Good article. Not taking anything away from the phenomenal ability of Tour players to generate club head speed in combination with precise ball striking – which is a gift.

    But we see that an average increase in club head speed of 0.8 mph over the past 8 years has yielded an additional carry distance of over 9 yards. Part of reason is that players are generating better launch angles – an improvement in technique. But a big part is also that manufacturers are making drivers with higher launch/lower spin characteristics.

    Long drivers will always be long drivers, no matter what equipment they are using. But, it is difficult to stretch golf courses. With the trampoline effect inherent in modern titanium driver heads, longer drivers get a proportionately higher rebound effect than more moderate drivers. This doesn’t bother me as I compare my performance versus a Tour pro; but it does bother me as I compare their performance against the course relative to players from as little as 25 years ago.

    The USGA/R&A has been in denial relative to the advance in driver club head technology. It is time to roll back the ball, and roll back the COR of driver faces. In fact, it would be a better test of skill if driver head sizes were rolled back to around 1/2 the size of today’s driver heads – 230 cc. Let’s put more skill into playing off the tee for our highly skilled players. Even though I can’t come close to their skill, I would also adopt the new driver head size – even for my puny ss of 92.

    • MHendon

      Jun 5, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Greg I’ve seen this argument made over and over again about rolling back the ball and the driver because players are just getting to long. I’ll point out that average driving distance has actually been coming down the last few years and it’s only 285 right now on tour. Also the longest driving avg for a season goes all the way back to 2004, thanks Hank Kuene for that one. So while it may be true that there is more focus on distance than ever the distance numbers for an entire season have not chance significantly since the early 2000’s.

      • Ball

        Jun 5, 2015 at 1:02 pm

        I’d also like to add that in general, the courses on the PGA Tour are not as difficult as it looks because the fairways are wide and there isn’t much rough, coupled with clean sight lines without many trees or obstacles that they would have to curve the ball – because of TV viewing angle requirements, and because nobody wants to see poor scoring at courses that have thick rough. The modern ball travels fast and straight, with not much curving, and cuts through the wind really well too. It’s a mythical perception that Bubba curves the ball a lot – he does curve it fairly well, but you see him struggle on courses with tight fairways being guarded by tall trees on both sides of the fairway. That’s why you never see him do well or even show up at places like Harbour Town – way too tight for him to be curving his bombers – he doesn’t like to plod through the course like a Jim Furyk.
        If the courses forced the long and wild hitters to be more accurate, these guys wouldn’t always be swinging away with their big sticks all over the map, you would see thoughtful, conservative swinging to put the ball in play – but then the public don’t want to see 9 or 10 drives with hybrids and fairway woods, do they?

        • Jeff Borders

          Jun 9, 2015 at 2:32 am

          You’ve never been to the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio. There’s nothing easy about Muirfield Village. The short 14 is an easy layup, but a difficult wedge into a “fade” narrow green. The drive on 15, which many birdie, is a narrow shoot with a hog back fairway. You miss any of those greens and you get punished. on 18, I noticed many of those guys teeing off with fairway woods and long irons and leaving themselves 185-200 yards to an uphill green. Those shots are not in my bag. I also watched those guys hit pure shot after pure shot at the range with every club in the bag.

    • KK

      Jun 6, 2015 at 1:27 am

      Should we really focus on how golfers scored 25 years ago? Just about every sport has evolved to address inherent issues and to better provide participants and viewers with more enjoyment and entertainment. We’re losing tens of thousands of golfers every year in the US. Making golf more difficult is not the answer. If you can’t see that, you really don’t care about golf, only your ego.

      • gvogel

        Jun 6, 2015 at 10:00 am

        1. I am not calling for a roll back for the average golfer.

        2. Even with a roll back, the Tour professional will still amaze the viewer with length and accuracy that are hard to comprehend.

        Long is long; a Tour pro can hit a hickory driver longer than I can comprehend. A smaller club head would make driving a bit harder, which would be good for the game.

        One of the reasons that many players are leaving the game is that the game is hard. Modern courses are long, and difficult. IF the equipment is rolled back for elite players, courses can play shorter. Shorter courses take less time to play. The average player needs shorter courses, and shorter rounds.

        The game is hard, and it should remain that way. It requires patience, dedication, practice, and experience. But instead of making new courses longer and harder, we can make the equipment harder to use – for the elite player, and those who want to truly test themselves against that metric. That means playing exactly by the rules. But there should also be a class of golfer who plays for fun; drop a ball where it went out of bounds, etc. Those players could have the benefit of modern driver heads – and shorter golf courses.

  18. epyon

    Jun 5, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Shouldn’t smash factor = Ball Speed / Club head speed? I think its reversed in the article.

    • Zak Kozuchowski

      Jun 5, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Yes, and we have made that correction. Thanks for pointing out our mistake.

  19. patrick

    Jun 5, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Rich I’m a big fan.of your articles. And because you’re a statics guy it adds to your credibility. I wish I was 22 again and had access to a launch monitor.
    I saw the PGA tour video on Justin Thomas and his ability to consistently hit exactly the same spot on his driver plus his ability to replicate his swing faithfully , led to.his phenomenal smash factor. Like Bubba Watson , Justin Thomas has a gift. All you can do is sit back and admire.

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Opinion & Analysis

WATCH: How to Pull a Shaft from a Composite Club Head

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Composite club heads are increasing in popularity with golfers thanks to their technological and material advantages. For that reason, it’s important to know how to pull shafts from composite club heads without damaging them. This video is a quick step-by-step guide that explains how to safely pull a shaft from a composite club head.

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10 Years Later: Why the assistant coach has made college golf better

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It’s been 10 years since the NCCA Legislation began allowing assistant golf coaches to perform on-course coaching in college events. Today, 94 percent of the top-100 men’s golf teams have assistant coaches, and the coaching pool is stronger than ever, with individuals such as Jean Paul Hebert (Texas), Jake Amos (South Carolina), John Handrigan (Florida), Robert Duck (Florida State), Donnie Darr (Oklahoma State), John Mills (Kent State), Garrett Runion (LSU), Zach Barlow (Illinois), Bob Heinz (Duke), and 2017 Assistant Coach of the Year from Baylor, Ryan Blagg. The list includes a guy with 20+ PGA Tour experience (Bob Heinz), several former college standouts and some National Championship wins (Jean Paul Hebert – 1, Runion – 2, Amos – 2).

In the 10 years since the expanded role of the assistant golf coach, the National Championship has still been dominated by major conference schools, with only three non-major conference schools earning a spot in match play (Kent State 2012, and Augusta State in 2010, 2011). Of course, Augusta State went on to win both of its appearances in match play, earning back-to-back national championships under Coach Josh Gregory.

One of best examples of the success of assistant golf coaches is Chris Malloy at Ole Miss. Malloy, a graduate of Ole Miss, began his coaching career as the women’s assistant golf coach at Florida State. Shortly after, he was working with both programs and had an immediate impact, which included helping the men win their first ever ACC championship. Shortly after, Chris took over as the men’s golf coach at University of South Florida, transforming the team into a National Contender and a top-30 ranking. Today, at Ole Miss, Chris has done the same thing, transforming a team and a culture in three years, earning a spot in the 2017 NCAA National Championship at Rich Harvest Farms.

Although to date, mid-major teams have not fared consistently on the national level. The system of assistant coaches has proven to be an excellent tool in broadening the pool of candidates. Last year’s National Championship featured six mid-major schools with half being wily veterans, and half being a product of the assistant coach route; Michael Beard of Pepperdine served as the assistant at Arizona State; Bryce Waller of University of Central Florida served as the assistant at the University of Tennessee; Bryant Odem of Kennesaw State served as the assistant at the University of Wisconsin. It will also feature teams like Oklahoma State, Baylor, Virginia, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Purdue, which have coaches who have benefited from their experience as assistant coaches in their roles with these programs.

Practice Facility at the University of Central Florida

Practice Facility at the University of Central Florida

The pool of candidates for coaching positions today is deeper than ever. Athletic Directors are blessed to be able to interview several good candidates for almost each job. The result for the players are fully engaged coaches who bring passion and desire to improve each of their programs.

Bowen Sargent, the current head coach at University of Virginia and former assistant coach at the University of Tennessee under Jim Kelson, started coaching when the rules only allowed one coach. In the 10 years since the rule change, Bowen believes “it’s a positive change for sure. Having two coaches allows for a better student-athlete experience and for them to have more access to their coaches.”

Coach Bowen Sargent of UVA, along with former players Denny McCarthy and Derek Bard at the US Open

Coach Bowen Sargent of UVA, along with former players Denny McCarthy and Derek Bard at the U.S. Open

The diversity among coaches is also greater. Today’s juniors have the option to play for a skillful player such as a Mike Small at Illinois or Casey Martin at Oregon, or Doug Martin at Cincinnati, or even a world class instructor like Bryce Waller at UCF, Ben Pellicani at Limpscomb or Casey Van Dame at North Dakota State. Waller, an excellent instructor himself, has lead UCF to three National Championship appearance in 7 years. Likewise, Ben, a Golf Digest top-40 under-40 instructor who spent several years learning from Mike Bender has been instrumental in transforming Limpscomb into a national contender, participating in their first ever National Championship in 2017. Lastly, Casey who spent several years under Jim Mclean, then as the assistant at University of Tennessee, has transformed North Dakota State Men’s and Women’s Golf, with both teams currently ranked in the top-100 in the country.

Ben Pellicanni of Limpscomb University helping to read a putt

Ben Pellicanni of Limpscomb University helping to read a putt

Athletic Directors are also starting to put more funding towards golf resources. The result has been an explosion of golf-specific training facilities across the scope of college golf. Many mid-major schools have top-notch practice facilities, including places such as University of North Texas, University of Richmond, University of Central Arkansas and Illinois State to name a few.

Golf facility at the University of Central Arkansas

Golf facility at the University of Central Arkansas

The tremendous pool of coaching candidates has also benefited other levels of golf. For example, 2014 Assistant Coach of the Year Chris Hill is now the head men’s and women’s golf coach at Concordia University, a Division 3 School near Austin, Texas. In his two years as coach, he has already lead the program to seven tournament titles.

As time passed, I believe that we will see a change at the NCAA Championship and it will include a growing trend towards mid-major universities not only earning spots at the National Championships, but having success like Augusta State. The person at the head of one of those programs is likely to have come from the assistant coach ranks and should be thankful for the rule change, which lead to these opportunities.

Please note: As of writing this article, only 6 men’s teams in D1 do not have assistant coaches. They are UTEP (51), McNeese (84), Nevada (88), Richmond (89), Cincinnati (92) and Tennessee at Chattanooga (96).

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Fantasy Preview: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

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The West Coast Swing kicks off this week with the CareerBuilder Challenge in Southern California. Last year, Hudson Swafford survived the difficult weather conditions and prevailed to win the event by one shot at 20-under par, one stroke ahead of Canadian Adam Hadwin who shot a 59 in the third round.

For fantasy players and gamblers, the CareerBuilder Challenge is one of the most frustrating events of the year. The event is played over three courses… and only one provides Shotlink. That is the PGA West Stadium Course, which will host two of the four rounds. Along with the frustration of not knowing how your picks are faring on each hole, there is also the added frustration of only having stats available from one course, which makes things tricky in identifying the key categories for scoring on the other two.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Jon Rahm 10/1
  • Brian Harman 14/1
  • Patrick Reed 18/1
  • Webb Simpson 18/1
  • Kevin Kisner 20/1
  • Phil Mickelson 22/1
  • Zach Johnson 28/1

The best player in the field by some distance is Jon Rahm. The Spaniard has had a phenomenal rise since holing an improbable monster eagle putt to win The Farmers Insurance 12 months ago. He’s added two big wins on the European Tour since then, and he’s now No. 3 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Odds of 10/1 are certainly attractive, and if he plays his best or near to it then he’ll win the tournament. But the CareerBuilder Challenge is an event in which his immense driving ability will be nullified slightly; you can’t simply grip it and rip it. Instead, placement in the correct portion of the fairways offering the best angle of attack on the many short par 4’s is often the key here. Last year, Rahm managed a modest T34. At 10/1 he’s likely to be the most popular DraftKings pick, but I feel there may be better value down the line with Rahm — particularly on courses where he can showcase his dominant driving.

As I noted, hunting the value in this event is not an easy task. Fan favorite Phil Mickelson (22/1, DK Price $10,000) offers appeal at a time of year where he seems to always play well. Over the last three years, Mickelson has finished inside the top-25 each time. His best performance came in 2016 when he finished T3. Likely to have plenty of scoring clubs in hand from the fairway, Mickelson’s precise iron play should pay dividends this week. Last season, he finished 14th in Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. Through eight rounds in this new season he sits T2. In his last 10 rounds, he has averaged positive numbers on all the key statistics (Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, Off the Tee, Approaching the Green, Around the Green and Putting), which suggests his game is in very solid shape. After the media attention surrounding his split from long-term caddy Jim Mackay, I expect a doubly determined Phil Mickelson this year.

Kevin Na (80/1, DK Price $7,400) has had a disappointing 10 months on the golf course. Despite his lack of scoring, his statistics are indicating that he still has the game. Kevin enjoyed a brilliant stretch before 2017,  where he seemed to always be there or thereabouts on the leaderboard. But his inconsistent results of late have driven his price back to where I consider it value for a quality player. Kevin Na’s iron play is lethal, and on a course that demands aggressive approaches to the green he should be able to give himself lots of looks for birdie. In his last 12 rounds, Na sits second in this field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. This should come as no surprise; in 2017, he finished 8th in the statistic for the season. His course form is solid if not spectacular, a T3 in 2016 being the highlight. He missed the cut at the Sony Open last week, but it’s not something I’d be overly concerned about. It came down to a brutal two days on the greens, where he dropped 7.6 strokes to the field.

At the same price and in the same mold in terms of a disappointing 2017, Scott Piercy (80/1, DK Price $7,400) looks like a value play. Piercy suffered injuries last season that caused a disruptive and frustrating season for him. But the three-time PGA Tour winner is showing signs of turning things around in this wraparound season. He recorded a top-20 at the Safeway Open back in October, and last week at the Sony Open he played well. He finished T25 despite dropping 4.4 strokes to the field on the greens for the four days. Piercy is seventh in this field for his last 12 rounds for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green; he sits 9th in ball striking over the same period. The main concern is his putting. He does struggle with the flatstick at times, but on these pure greens he may be able to give himself enough chances to improve on last year’s performance where he finished T41.

It is worth a reminder that this is an event where there are three days of action before there is a cut, and I certainly feel that it’s worth adding an extra long shot to your DraftKings teams as an extra round opens a lot of possibilities. My long shot for the week is Hunter Mahan (300/1, DK Price $6,800). Mahan’s drop from the top echelons of the game is a reminder of how quickly it can all fall apart… but Mahan’s story might be turning around. He had his best stretch in some time at the back end of last year, where he managed to put a run of three-consecutive top-20 finishes together. He holds a positive Strokes Gained Total of 4.2 over his last 5 events, particularly showing promise off the tee and on the greens. At his price, there’s not much to lose in hoping Hunter can put together four rounds like he did at the back end of last year.

Recommended Plays

  • Phil Mickelson 22/1, DK Price $10,000
  • Kevin Na 80/1, DK Price $7,400
  • Scott Piercy 80/1, DK Price $7,400
  • Hunter Mahan 300/1, DK Price $6,800
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