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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

Rickie_Fowler_Improvement_4

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, 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

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Zapatoszx750.us

    Oct 25, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    I was recommended by one of my friends on facebook to watch out your article.
    Great job bro… looking for more from yours.
    However good luck with your channel…

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    Jun 28, 2019 at 5:59 pm

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  5. Sam

    May 15, 2017 at 4:16 pm

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

  6. MRC

    May 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. The Dude

    May 9, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    great article!!

  11. 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.

  12. 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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The Gear Dive: Discussing the drivers of 2020 with Bryan LaRoche

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with his good buddy Bryan LaRoche. They chat on life and do a deep dive into the drivers of 2020.

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

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The Wedge Guy: The 5 indisputable rules of bunker play

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I received a particularly interesting question this week from Art S., who said he has read all the tips about how to hit different sand shots, from different sand conditions, but it would be helpful to know why. Specifically, here’s what Art had to say:

“I recently found myself in a few sand traps in multiple lies and multiple degrees of wetness. I tried remembering all of the “rules” of how to stand, how much to open my club, how much weight to shift forward or back, etc. based on the Golf Channel but was hoping that you might be able to do a blog on the ‘why’ of sand play so that we can understand it rather than memorizing what to do. Is there any way you can discuss what the club is doing and why you open the club, open your stance, what you’re aiming for when you open up, and any other tips?”

Well, Art, you asked a very good question, so let’s try to cover the basics of sand play–the “geometry and physics” at work in the bunkers–and see if we can make all of this more clear for you.

First of all, I think bunkers are among the toughest of places to find your ball. We see the tour players hit these spectacular bunker shots every week, but realize that they are playing courses where the bunkers are maintained to PGA Tour standards, so they are pretty much the same every hole and every week. This helps the players to produce the “product” the tour is trying to deliver–excitement. Of course, those guys also practice bunker play every day.

All of us, on the other hand, play courses where the bunkers are different from one another. This one is a little firmer, that one a little softer. So, let me see if I can shed a little light on the “whys and wherefores” of bunker play.

The sand wedge has a sole with a downward/backward angle built into it – we call that bounce. It’s sole (no pun intended) function is to provide a measure of “rejection” force or lift when the club makes contact with the sand. The more bounce that is built into the sole of the wedge, the more this rejection force is applied. And when we open the face of the wedge, we increase the effective bounce so that this force is increased as well.

The most basic thing you have to assess when you step into a bunker is the firmness of the sand. It stands to reason that the firmer the texture, the more it will reject the digging effect of the wedge. That “rejection quotient” also determines the most desirable swing path for the shot at hand. Firmer sand will reject the club more, so you can hit the shot with a slightly more descending clubhead path. Conversely, softer or fluffier sand will provide less rejection force, so you need to hit the shot with a shallower clubhead path so that you don’t dig a trench.

So, with these basic principles at work, it makes sense to remember these “Five Indisputable Rules of Bunker Play”

  1. Firmer sand will provide more rejection force – open the club less and play the ball back a little to steepen the bottom of the clubhead path.
  2. Softer sand will provide less rejection force – open the club more and play the ball slighter further forward in your stance to create a flatter clubhead path through the impact zone.
  3. The ball will come out on a path roughly halfway between the alignment of your body and the direction the face is pointing – the more you open the face, the further left your body should be aligned.
  4. On downslope or upslope lies, try to set your body at right angles to the lie, so that your swing path can be as close to parallel with the ground as possible, so this geometry can still work. Remember that downhill slopes reduce the loft of the club and uphill slopes increase the loft.
  5. Most recreational golfers are going to hit better shots from the rough than the bunkers, so play away from them when possible (unless bunker play is your strength).

So, there you go, Art. I hope this gives you the basics you were seeking.

As always, I invite all of you to send in your questions to be considered for a future article. It can be about anything related to golf equipment or playing the game–just send it in. You can’t win if you don’t ask!

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Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Task to target

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In this week’s episode: How having a target will improve your direction and contact you have with the ball.

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