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Opinion & Analysis

The Numbers Behind Rickie Fowler’s Improvement

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Two years ago, fan favorite Rickie Fowler took what many felt was a leap into superstardom with his win at The Players Championship. Since then, Fowler has continued his success and was in contention at the Masters this April. Many analysts and fans feel that Fowler is on pace to have the best season of his career and perhaps secure his first championship victory.

The notion that this could be Fowler’s best season has some merit, as he is currently No. 1 in Adjusted Scoring Average on the PGA Tour. Many (including Fowler himself) have credited his shorter-length driver shaft as a key part of his success. In this article, I’m going to examine the data and see what Fowler’s strengths have been this year compared to his previous seasons on the PGA Tour.

Scoring

Rickie_Fowler_Improvement_1

There are two big factors that are immediately noticeable in Fowler’s game in 2017:

  • Fowler is playing the par-4’s the best he has ever played them.
  • His Bogey Rate is the lowest it has ever been.

When it comes to scoring metrics, Par-4 Scoring Average and Bogey Rates strongly correlate to success on the PGA Tour. Par-4’s are critical because the average Tour player plays roughly eleven par-4’s per round. I also believe that a player’s performance on par-4’s gives a better indication of their all around game, as it requires a driver (which par-3’s do not). In par-5 performance, sheer power off the tee plays a major role. Par-4’s, on the other hand, require distance and accuracy off the tee, quality approach shots and strong putting — along with being able to get up and down when the player misses the green.

In terms of Bogey Rate, it correlates to success on the PGA Tour more than birdie rate. My conclusion is that bogey rate also includes double bogeys, which are killers to good rounds. Furthermore, not only does avoiding bogey mean being able to get up and down when you miss a green, but one of the best ways to avoid bogeys is to hit an approach shot so close to the hole that three putts are unlikely. If putts are not falling, at least the golfer is coming away with a par.

From a scoring perspective, these are two improvements that Fowler needed to make in order to jump into a discussion about the top-3 golfers in the world.

Driving

Rickie_Fowler_Improvement_2

While much of the discussion about Fowler’s improvement revolves around his driving and shortening the length of the driver shaft to 43.5 inches, he was actually a better driver of the ball last season than he is so far this year. The reality is that Fowler has been a good driver of the ball in his career and any improvement is likely to be minute.

Putting

Rickie_Fowler_Improvement_3_Hunt

On the putting green is where we see some marked improvement from Fowler in 2017. He has been an underrated putter over the years, but this season he has taken hit putting to the next level. He ranks 6th in Stroke-Gained Putting, 59 spots better than last year and 18 spots better than any of his previous four seasons

Short Game

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Short-game performance used to be a major weakness for Fowler in his early years on Tour. He’s been excellent around the green for the previous three seasons, however, and he continues to be one of the best short game performers on the PGA Tour.

Approach Shots

Rickie_Fowler_Improvement_5

Approach shots are the part Fowler’s game that has improved the most. In particular, his play from the Yellow Zone (125-175 yards) and the Red Zone (175-225 yards) has improved. Those shots typically “count more” than shots from the Green Zone (75-125 yards), where he’s been excellent over the years. He’s also having the best season of his career on shots from the fairway.

All of these metrics bode very well for Fowler. His success this season is not smoke and mirrors; it has been supported by sustaining his strengths (driving, short game, Green Zone play) and making significant improvements in the weakest parts of his game (Yellow Zone play). Fowler’s game is right in line with shooting low scores and I like his chances at The Players Championship and for the rest of the season as he seeks the first major championship of his career. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets it.

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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

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Sam

    May 15, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Can’t win them all, it’s hard to win on the tour

  2. MRC

    May 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Well done Richie.
    Stats like these are worth reading.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Happyday_J

    May 10, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Rich, your analysis has always been very eye opening and informative and for myself has definitely opened my eyes to a different way of play, so thank you for taking your time to write the articles. Question, when you state:
    “Furthermore, not only does avoiding bogey mean being able to get up and down when you miss a green, but one of the best ways to avoid bogeys is to hit an approach shot so close to the hole that three putts are unlikely. If putts are not falling, at least the golfer is coming away with a par.”

    Have you found that statistically it is often more advantageous to fire at the pin to have a closer next shot even if it results in more greens than leaving yourself a longer putt by playing safely to the wider side of the green? Is there a breakeven point?

    • Richie Hunt

      May 10, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      Generally, the best golf strategy is more offensive than defensive in nature and that includes firing at pins. Of course, it depends on the situation. I have to do more research on the subject, but I tend to determine 3 different likely positions I will end up if I miss the green and then label them as:

      A = good % of getting up-and-down
      B = moderate % of getting up-and-down
      C = poor % of getting up-and-down

      I plan to avoid ‘C’ at all costs and if there’s a decent chance that aiming at the flag can result in landing in that ‘C’ zone, I avoid doing so. A lot of the time the ‘C Zone’ is a front bunker since there is a higher likelihood of the front bunker plugging.

      If you’re planning a round (practice round), I would take a handful of golf balls and hit chips from those areas and see how close you hit to the hole and you determine if they are a ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ Zone. I really believe that effective practice rounds are more about understanding what’s going on around the green more than anything else.

      Hope this helps.

  4. larrybud

    May 10, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Rich, what does “driver effectiveness” mean? What’s the metric?

    • Richie Hunt

      May 10, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      Driving Effectiveness is an algorithm that I use based off the following metrics:

      1. Driving Distance on All Drives
      2. Hit Fairway %
      3. Avg. Distance to Edge of Fwy (on tee shots that miss the fairway)
      4. Hit Fairway Bunker %
      5. Missed Fairway – Other %

      The algorithm runs the data thru the courses that the player has played and then ‘normalizes’ the data thru 35 of the courses played on Tour (this prevents players from masking their effectiveness off the tee by only scheduling events that fits their style of driving).

      It’s basically a very advanced way of calculating ‘Total Driving’, but is far more accurate in determining actual driving skill as it relates to shooting lower scores.

  5. Matty

    May 9, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    I know this is unrelated to the topic.

    This is your first article since the Masters, and I would like to say well-played, sir. The top-3 in this year’s Masters were on your list of 20 players.

    I’ll be looking forward to reading your Masters article every year.

  6. The Dude

    May 9, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    great article!!

  7. Patricknorm

    May 9, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    In the final round of this year’s Masters, Fowler shot 76. In the first three rounds Rickie was a putting machine, continually making those testy clean up putts for par. That magic deserted him in round 4 which lead to his poor finish relative to his fine play in the first three rounds.
    The other issue is one of confidence and I’m wondering if Fowler lost that feeling during his fourth round. I’m not disputing his putting stat, the numbers don’t lie, but under pressure, if Fowler wants to win a major he needs to putt like a 6 th ranked putter in strokes gained.
    I wonder what distance in the putting metric Fowler needs to improve upon. Over to you Rich.

    • Richie Hunt

      May 9, 2017 at 3:44 pm

      The golden number at ANGC is 50.

      That’s 50 GIR.

      Almost all of the winners at the Masters have hit at least 50 GIR in the event. IIRC, Rickie only hit 30 GIR after the 3rd round and just wasn’t hitting the ball that well and was likely to flame out come Sunday.

      • God Shamgod

        May 10, 2017 at 9:09 am

        I’ve not seen that before, but it is very interesting. Augusta does punish you badly if you are constantly trying to get up and down. Rickie was doing a great job of getting up and down the first three days, but that means he was sinking some 5-10ft pars which is hard to sustain.

  8. Leon

    May 9, 2017 at 9:14 am

    All I know is that he could not close the deal on Sunday under the heat.

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Opinion & Analysis

15 hot takes from Greg Norman on our 19th Hole podcast

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Our Michael Williams spoke with the Great White Shark himself, Greg Norman, for GolfWRX’s 19th Hole podcast. Not surprisingly, the two-time major champion had no shortage of hot takes.

While you’ll want to check out the full ‘cast, here are 15 takes of varying degrees of hotness, from Norman’s feelings about bifurcation to whether he’d pose for ESPN’s Body Issue.

1) He wants bifurcation immediately, rolling back technology for the pros, rolling it forward for amateurs

“I would instigate a bifurcation of the rules. I would roll back the golf ball regulations to pre-1996. I would roll back the technology that’s in the golf equipment for the professionals. And I would open up the technology and give it to the masses because the pros who developed the maximum club head speed of 118, 120 are the ones who maximize what technology is in that piece of equipment. So the person who’s under 100 miles an hour does not hit the ball an extra 30, 35 yards at all. They may pick up a few yards but they don’t get the full benefit of that technology…I would definitely do that because I think we’ve gotta make the game more fun for the masses. “

2) He has no relationship with Tiger Woods and doesn’t plan to watch him play golf

“And this might sound kind of strange. What I’ll say is … I really, in all honesty, I really don’t care what Tiger does with golf. I think Tiger is, golf probably needs him to some degree but golf doesn’t need him, if you know what I mean, because there’s so many other incredibly talented great young players out there, probably a dozen of them, maybe even more, that are equal, if not way better than Tiger, and they can carry the baton of being the number one player in the world. So, I get a little bit perplexed about and disappointed about how some of these guys get pushed into the background by the attention Tiger gets. I hope he does well. If he doesn’t do well, it doesn’t bother me. If he does do well, it doesn’t bother me.”

3) He plays almost no golf these days

“I really don’t play a lot of golf. I played with my son in the father-son at the end of last year, had a blast with him. Played a little bit of golf preparing for that. But since then I have not touched a golf club.”

4) He doesn’t enjoy going to the range anymore

“To be honest with you I’m sick and tired of being on the driving range hitting thousands and thousands of golf balls. That bores me to death now. My body doesn’t like it to tell you the truth. Since I’ve stopped playing golf I wake up without any aches and pains and I can go to the gym on a regular basis without aches and pains. So my lifestyle is totally different now. My expectations, equally, is totally different.”

5) It took him a long time to get used to recreational golf

“But I’ve been in this mode now for quite a few years now so the first couple of years, yes. My body was not giving me what my brain was expecting. So you do have to make those mental adjustments. Look, there’s no difference than when you hit 40, you’re a good player or not a good player. Things start to perform differently. Your proprioception is different. Your body is different. I don’t care how good you are and how great physical shape you are. Your body after just pure wear and tear, it eventually does tend to break down a little bit. And when you’re under the heat of the battle and under the gun, when you have to execute the most precise shot, your body sometimes doesn’t deliver what you want.”

6) He’s a big Tom Brady fan

“I’m a big fan, big admirer of his. He gets out of it what he puts into it obviously…But he’s also a role model and a stimulator for his teammates. No question, when you go to play Brady and the Patriots, you’d better bring your A game because he’s already got his A game ready to go.”

7) He believes we’ll see 50-plus-year-old winners on Tour

“I said this categorically when Tom Watson nearly won at Turnberry in his 50s, when I nearly won at Royal Birkdale in my 50s….if you keep yourself physically in good shape, flexibility in good shape, as well as your swing playing, and your swing. Yeah, maybe the yips come in maybe they don’t, that depends on the individual, right? But at the end of the day, my simple answer is yes. I do believe that’s going to happen.”

8) The Shark logo has been vital to his post-golf success

“But I realized very early on in life too that every athlete, male or female, no matter what sports you play you’re a finite entity. You have a finite period of time to maximize your best performance for X number of years. And with golf, if you look at it historically, it’s almost like a 15 year cycle. I had my 15 year run. Every other player has really has had a 15 year run, plus or minus a few years.”

“So you know you have that definitive piece of time you got to work with and then what you do after that is understanding what you did in that time period. And then how do you take that and parlay it? I was lucky because I had a very recognizable logo. It wasn’t initials. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just a Great Shark logo. And that developed a lot of traction. So I learned marketing and branding very, very quickly and how advantageous it could be as you look into the future about building your businesses.”

9) He’s tried to turn on-course disappointments into positives

“We all … well I shouldn’t say we all. I should say the top players, the top sports men and women work to win. Right? And when we do win that’s what we expected ourselves to do because we push ourselves to that limit. But you look at all the great golfers of the past and especially Jack Nicklaus, it’s how you react to a loss is more important than how you react to a victory. And so, I learned that very, very early on. And I can’t control other people’s destiny. I can’t control what other people do on the golf course. So I can only do what I do. When I screw up, I use that as a very strong study point in understanding my weakness to make sure that I make a weakness a strength.”

10) Jordan Spieth is best suited to be the top player in the world

“I think that Jordan is probably the most balanced, with best equilibrium in the game. He’s probably, from what I’m seeing, completely in touch with the responsibilities of what the game of golf and the success in the game of golf is.”

11) His golf design is built on two pillars

“Two things: Begin with the end in mind and the least disturbance approach. I think we, the industry of golf course design industry, really did the game of golf a major disservice in the 80s and 90s when everybody was leveraged to the hilt, thought they had unlimited capital, and thought they could just go build these big golf courses with big amounts of money invested in with magnificent giant club houses which weren’t necessary. So, we were actually doing a total disservice to the industry because it was not sustainable.”

12) He’s still not happy about having essentially invented the WGC events and not getting credit

“I’ll always be a little bit salty about that because there’s a saying that I keep telling everybody, “slay the dreamer.” I came up with a pretty interesting concept where the players would be the part owners of their own tour or their own destiny and rewarded the riches if they performed on the highest level. And quite honestly, Michael, actually a friend of mine sent me an article, it was a column written, “Shark and Fox Plan to Take a Bite out of the PGA”. And this is written in 11/17/94 and I literally just got it last night. And I’m reading through this article and I’m going, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I was ahead of my time!” I really was ahead of my time.

So, it was very, very kind of like a reflective moment for me. I read it again this morning with a cup of coffee and I did sit back and, I’ll be brutally honest with you and your listeners, and did sit back and I did get a little bit angry because of the way I was portrayed, the way I was positioned.”

13) He was muzzled by the producer at Fox

“I’m not going to dig deep into this, I think there was just a disconnect between the producer and myself. I got on really well with the director and everybody else behind the scenes, some of my thought processes about what I wanted to talk about situations during the day, and it just didn’t pan out. And things that I wanted to say, somebody would be yelling in my ear, “Don’t say it, don’t say it!” So it became a very much a controlled environment where I really didn’t feel that comfortable.”

14) Preparation wasn’t the problem during his U.S. Open broadcast

“I was totally prepared so wherever this misleading information comes saying I wasn’t prepared, I still have copious notes and folders about my preparation with the golf course, with the players, with the set-up, with conditioning. I was totally prepared. So that’s an assumption that’s out there that is not true. So there’s a situation where you can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

15) He would do ESPN’s Body Issue

“Of course I’d do it. I think I like being fit. I think on my Instagram account I probably slipped a few images out there that created a bit of a stir…And I enjoy having myself feel good. And that’s not an egotistical thing, it’s just none of my, most of my life I’ve been very healthy fit guy and if somebody like ESPN wants to recognize that, yeah of course I would consider doing it.”

Don’t forget to listen to the full podcast here!

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TG2: “If you could only play one brand, what would it be?” (Part 2)

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“If you could only play one brand, what would it be?” Brian Knudson and Andrew Tursky debate their choices in part 2 of this podcast (click here in case you missed Part 1). Also, TG2 welcomes special guest and GolfWRX Forum Member Ed Settle to the show to discuss what clubs he has in the bag.

Listen to our podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Greg Norman on why he won’t watch Tiger Woods this week at the Genesis Open

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Greg Norman, Hall of Fame golfer and entrepreneur, tells us why he won’t watch the Genesis Open this week even if Tiger is in contention. He also discusses his ventures and adventures on and off the course, and shares the thing about the PGA Tour that still makes him angry.

Listen to the podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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