With the PGA Tour’s season one-third of the way complete, I wanted to examine the potential Ryder Cup players for the U.S. Team and see how they are performing.
Agent to the European stars, Chubby Chandler, recently discussed how the European Team used advanced analytics to its advantage in winning the last Ryder Cup. Future analysis will dive more into optimal pairings based on the data. But for now, I will examine individual performances and keep in mind that the data shows that players with good short games tend to make the better performers in the Ryder Cup.
Jordan Spieth is not as sharp as he was at this time last year, but it’s mainly due to his iron play. Typically, Spieth’s iron play has been stronger than his driving, but this year it’s more of the opposite.
Bubba Watson has already won this year at Riviera. And performance at Riviera tends to have a correlation to performance at The Masters. While Bubba has driven the ball great, it’s been a down year by his standards, because he typically blows out the rest of the Tour when it comes to Driving Effectiveness in the first third of the season. Like Spieth, he’s still a fantastic performer, but he’s not quite hitting the lick by his standards.
Dustin Johnson’s problem has been consistency with the driver. When he’s on, he looks like the reincarnation of Jack Nicklaus off the tee. But when he’s off, he’s well off. I wonder if trying to round out the other parts of his game that have been traditionally weak (Green Zone Play and Short Game Play) has caused him to spend less time working on his driving. With that being said, if his Short Game Play legitimately improves he will be a better Ryder Cup player. Right now, he’s a more well-rounded golfer than he has ever been in his career.
What prevents Rickie Fowler from being a clearly established member of The Big Four is he cannot quite put everything together. He has great strengths, but usually has one outstanding weakness that prevents him from winning more often. This season it has been Yellow Zone Play, which is mostly due to him being the 2nd worst player from 125-150 yards on Tour. However, he has also improved his short game by leaps and bounds, and that will likely make him a more effective Ryder Cupper. And in the grand scheme of things, poor performance from 125-150 yards is not a big factor on the PGA Tour, since so few shots are hit from that distance per round.
Brandt Snedeker has been hot or cold this season. It’s likely that he will still secure a Ryder Cup spot, but he may be a difficult player to use in the Foursomes (alternate shot) format because his Driving and Red Zone Play has been poor.
Typically, Snedeker has been a serviceable driver of the ball. His Red Zone Play has been a weak spot, but he makes it up with his performance from 175 yards and in. The key in using Snedeker in the Foursomes format would be to find a player who is a good iron player, particular from out of the rough, and has a good short game to counter Snedeker’s weaknesses off the tee and from the Red Zone. Otherwise, he looks like he should be reserved to playing in the Four-Ball (best score) format.
He’s not your Father’s Phil Mickelson this season. He’s actually hit the driver quite effectively off the tee, but has been an above average iron player overall. This may make him a better teammate in the Foursome format, which has never been Lefty’s strength in the Ryder Cup. And having the versatility to play either format makes for better odds of the U.S. snapping the losing streak.
Zach Johnson has had a sub-standard season (for him) thus far, and it shows with his rankings in the performance metrics. And he just turned 40, which is when most Tour players start to make a large regression in performance. Thus, he could turn into a player who does not even make the top-12 in the Ryder Cup standings when all is said and done. However, Johnson has been a solid Ryder Cup player, and when he’s playing reasonably well he has a game that is a good fit for the Ryder Cup. I would not count Johnson out for the rest of the season, and even so, I would be more apt to want him to be a captain’s pick if available. He just had a good finish at Bay Hill and made it to the Round of 16 in the WGC-Dell Match Play, so he may start hitting his stride soon.
I learned a while ago that it’s an exercise in futility in examining Patrick Reed’s metrics for the entire season. Simply put, if he is playing average or less than average by Friday, he seems to tune out for the rest of the event and that kills his metrics. But if he starts getting into contention by Friday, he can perform with the best of them.
The good news is that Reed’s Driving Effectiveness is better than it has been over the years. And if there has been a clearly defined strength to Reed’s game, it has been his putting and his short game, which make him a great teammate to have in both the Foursomes and Four-Ball formats.
Bill Haas projects to being a great Ryder Cupper because he is normally a great driver and short-game performer, although he struggles a bit with the irons and is inconsistent with the putter. Still, he can be valuable because of his short game and his driving.
The U.S. has struggled mostly in the Foursomes format, and Haas makes for a better Foursomes performer than a Four-Ball performer (he’s only average in Birdie Percentage). Haas may be best paired with a good ball striker: someone who hits the driver well enough to make his iron shots easier, and somebody who can hit the irons close enough to take advantage of his driving. Haas’ partner can be confident enough to know that if he misses an approach shot, Haas’ short game is good enough to save par.
It will be interesting to see if Haas’ driving comes around as the season progresses. If it does, he could be in for a quality season, and based off his President’s Cup performance, he could be a great Captain’s pick.
Last year, Brooks Koepka was a great driver of the ball who hit it massively long and was also a great putter. That’s a great combination, because power off the tee has its greatest impact on putting. That’s why long hitters can be successful on the PGA Tour despite being weak putters. And when you have a player as long as Koepka off the tee, who also putts well, he can easily rack up wins.
This season, Koepka just has yet to strike the ball well for any length of time, and has also not been a good short-game performer. I still would not mind seeing him on the team, though.
One of my favorite teams was the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup squad, when Paul Azinger paired J.B. Holmes with Boo Weekley in the Four-Ball format. Weekly hits it fairly long, and was one of the best drivers on Tour at the time. He would tee off first and would continually hit 300-yard drives right down the middle. Once Weekley hit his drive and was fine, Holmes would step up to the tee and swing for the fences. Holmes routinely hit 375+ yard drives, so if his drive was playable it was a huge advantage for the U.S. Team. And with Weekley’s excellent driving, the pair had almost nothing to lose.
I can see Koepka taking over J.B. Holmes’ role and being more effective, because he’s a much better putter than Holmes.
Jason Dufner’s game over the years has been that of an excellent driver of the ball, an average iron player and a great short-game player who struggles with his putter. This still makes him a quality Ryder Cup prospect, because the team can use a player who drives it well and has a great short game in the Foursome format. And Dufner makes enough birdies to be effective in the Four-Ball format.
This season Dufner’s short game has regressed, although he has not played in a lot of events and that could change quickly. His iron play has improved a little and his driving has slightly regressed.
At this point, I think Kevin Kisner is a player that U.S. Ryder Cup team must have. He does everything fairly well, he’s young, he has a better-than-average short game for his career and makes a lot of birdies (5th). He should be able to perform well in both the Four-Ball and Foursomes formats. If he doesn’t in this year’s Ryder Cup, he projects to be a valuable prospect in future Ryder Cups, and therefore could use the experience.
The Gear Dive: TrackMan’s Tour Operations Manager Lance Vinson Part 1 of 2
In this episode of The Gear Dive brought to you by Titleist, Johnny chats with TrackMans Lance Vinson on an all things TrackMan and its presence on Tour. It’s such a deep dive that they needed two shows to cover it all.
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
An open letter to golf
I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.
It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.
On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.
This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.
As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.
I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.
When you are able to return in full, I will be here.
Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)
The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact
One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.
As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.
I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.
So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.
So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.
I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.
I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.
If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.
[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]
It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.
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