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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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Podcasts

Gear Dive: USC head golf coach Chris Zambri on the challenges that will come with the new NCAA rules

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In this Special Edition of The Gear Dive, USC Men’s Head Golf Coach Chris Zambri discusses his thoughts on the new NCAA mandates, how to get recruited, and the pros and cons of recruiting can’t-miss superstars.

  • 9:55 — Zambri discusses thoughts on new rule
  • 17:35 — The rule he feels is the toughest navigate
  • 26:05 — Zambri discusses the disadvantages of recruiting a “can’t miss” PGA star
  • 32:50 — Advice to future recruits
  • 44:45 — The disadvantages of being tied to an OEM as a college golf team

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

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A new NCAA transfer rule gets passed… and college coaches are NOT happy

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New rules just keep on coming from the NCAA; college coaches are not happy about this one.

In a summer of block buster coaching changes, the NCAA has done its best to stay atop the news cycle by making some significant changes, which will impact the recruitment process. In an article two months ago entitled “The effect the NCAA’s new recruiting rules will have on college golf,” I spoke to college coaches about a new rule, which will not allow unofficial or official visits until September 1 of the players Junior Year. To go along with this rule, the NCAA has also put in place a new recruiting calendar which will limit the sum of the days of off campus recruiting between a head and assistant coach to 45 days starting August 1, 2018.

The 45-day rule will have several potential impacts for both recruits and assistant coaches. For recruits, it is likely that after a couple (2-3) evaluations, coaches will make offers and ask for speed responses to ensure they are not missing out on other options. I also think you will see far less assistant coaches recruiting, which ultimately hurts their opportunities to learn the art of recruitment.

The new transfer rule

In the past, players were subject to asking their present institution for either permission to contact other schools regarding transfer, or a full release.

Now, starting October 15, players can simply inform their institution of their intensions to leave and then start contacting other schools to find an opportunity. This is a drastic shift in policy, so I decided to poll college coaches to get their reactions.

The poll was conducted anonymously via Survey Monkey. Participation was optional and included 6 questions:

  1. New NCAA Legislation will allow players to transfer without a release starting October 2018. Do you support this rule change?
  2. Do you believe that this rule will have APR implications?
  3. Who do you think will benefit most from this rule?
  4. What are the benefits of allowing students to transfer without a release? What are the potential harms?
  5. New NCAA Legislation will make December a dead period for recruiting off campus. Do you support this legislation?
  6. What implications do you see for this rule?

In all, 62 Division I golf coaches responded, or about 10 percent of all Division I coaches in Men’s and Women’s Golf. The results show that 81.25 percent of DI coaches said that they do NOT support the rule change for transfers.

Also, 90 percent of coaches polled believe that the rule will have APR implications. APR is Academic Progress Rate which holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes through a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete for each academic term.

The APR is calculated as follows:

  • Each student-athlete receiving athletically related financial aid earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible.
  • A team’s total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to equal the team’s Academic Progress Rate.
  • In addition to a team’s current-year APR, its rolling four-year APR is also used to determine accountability.

Teams must earn a four-year average APR of 930 to compete in championships.

While the APR is intended as an incentive-based approach, it does come with a progression of penalties for teams that under-perform academically over time.

The first penalty level limits teams to 16 hours of practice per week over five days (as opposed to 20 over six days), with the lost four hours to be replaced with academic activities.

A second level adds additional practice and competition reductions, either in the traditional or non-championship season, to the first-level penalties. The third level, where teams could remain until their rate improves, includes a menu of possible penalties, including coaching suspensions, financial aid reductions and restricted NCAA membership.

Clearly coaches are not happy about the move and feel that the rule unfairly benefits both the student athletes and major conference schools, who may have a swell of calls around middle of October as Student athletes play great fall golf and look to transfer. Although coaches are unhappy about the new rule, it is very difficult to predict what direct impact the rule will have on teams; coaches are extremely smart and understand recruiting and development within the frame work of college better than anyone can imagine. As a result, I think coaches will react in many ways which are impossible to predict.

The survey also asked, “new NCAA Legislation will make December a dead period for recruiting off campus. Do you support this legislation?” For this, coaches were more divided with 45 percent in favor of the rule, and 55 percent not.

Although coaches supported the legislation, many (41/62) suggested that it would potentially hurt international recruiting at tournaments like Doral and the Orange Bowl and they had, in the past, used December as a time to recruit.

As we move forward with these changes, here are some potential things that recruits, and their families should consider, including consequences of the rules:

  1. With a limit of 45 days and these transfer rules, it is likely that coaches will be doing significantly more investigation into a player’s personalities and family situation to make sure they know what they are getting.
  2. Coaches may also start skipping over better players in favor of kids they think will be a good fit and are likely to stay
  3. Rosters may get bigger, as coaches are trying to have larger numbers to potentially offset transfers

Unfortunately, we enter a new era of rules at the worst time; we have never had a more competent and deep group of college coaches, the clear majority of whom are tremendous stewards of the game. Hopefully this rule will have insignificant effect on the continued growth of college golf but only time will tell.

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Opinion & Analysis

Is golf actually a team sport?

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Do a little research on the top PGA Tour players, and what you’ll see is that most (if not all of them) employ a team of diverse professionals that support their efforts to perform on the golf course. Take two-time major champion Zach Johnson; he has a team that includes a caddie, a swing instructor, a sports psychologist, a physiotherapist, an agent, a statistician, a spiritual mentor, a financial adviser… and of course his wife.

“I know this seems like a lot, and maybe even too much,” Johnson readily admitted. “But each individual has their place. Each place is different in its role and capacity. In order for me to practice, work out and just play golf, I need these individuals along the way. There is a freedom that comes with having such a great group that allows me to just play.”

My best guess is that Zach Johnson commits hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to this team, and I assume most players on the leading professional tours are making significant investments in their “teams.” There are three questions that jump out at this point. First, is a team necessary? Second, how can anyone compete without one? And third, how to pay for it?

From the club player to the collegiate player to the aspiring/touring professional, everyone can benefit from a team that offers individual instruction, support, guidance, and encouragement. Such a team, however, needs to be credible, timely, beneficial and affordable.

To be affordable, serious golfers should build their team one piece at a time. The obvious first choice is a swing coach. Golf swing coaches charge from $100-$1,500 per hour. The cost explains why players have historically been responsible for their own practice. The next piece, which is a newly developing trend, should be a performance coach who specializes in the supervision of practice, training and tournament preparation. Performance coaching on-site fees range from $200 to $3,000 per day.

So is team support essential for a player to be as good as he/she can be? My research says it is. When a player schedules a practice session, that session is usually based on what the player likes to do or wants to do. “Best Practices” utilized by world-class athletes suggest strongly that great progress in training always occurs when someone other than the player writes, administers and supervises the programs and sessions. The team approach says the player should focus on what needs to be done. Sometimes what the player wants to do and the things needed to be done are the same thing; sometimes they aren’t.

Now for the question of how to pay for it all. Wealthy players, or those with substantial or institutional support, have access to what they need or want… whatever the cost. If you use an on-site coach, teacher or other professional you will be paying for blocks of time. Fees can be hourly, weekly, monthly, yearly or lifetime arrangements based upon several factors. If your coach of choice is not local, you can also incur travel and per diem expenses. The process of paying for someone’s time can really add up. You can review what I charge for various services that require my attendance at edmyersgolf.com.

For those of you who don’t have easy access to on-site expertise or don’t want to incur the expense, I want to offer an approach that business, industry, colleges/universities and entrepreneurs are turning to: “Distance Coaching.” Distance learning is made possible through modern technology. In today’s world, expertise can be delivered using FaceTime, Skype, texting, email and (old fashion) phone calls. Textbooks, videos, specific programs and workbooks can be accessed from anywhere at any time by anyone with a desire to do so… and who knows what’s coming in the future. Through Distance Coaching, individuals can employ professional expertise on an as-needed basis without incurring huge costs or expenses.

The primary team expenses that can be avoided are those associated with face-to-face, on-site visits or experiences. Distance Coaching brings whatever any player needs, wants or desires within financial reach. For example, a player in Australia can walk onto the practice ground and have that day’s practice schedule delivered to a personal device by his/her performance coach. The player then forwards the results of that session back to the coach — let’s say in Memphis, Tennessee. The player is then free to move onto other activities knowing that the performance, training and preparation process is engaged and functioning. In the same vein, that same player in Australia may have moved into learning mode and he/she is now recording the golf swing and is sending it to the swing teacher of choice for analysis and comment.

So what is the cost of Distance Coaching? Teachers, trainers and coaches set their own fees based upon their business plan. Some require membership, partnership or some other form of commitment. For example, I offer free performance coaching with the purchase of one of my books or programs, as do others. Where face-to-face, on-site fees for performance coaching is available for $200 a day, the same expertise from the same coach can cost as little as $50 a month using the distance format, tools and technology. I highly recommend that players responsibly research the options available to them and then build the best team that fits their games, desires and goals. I’m happy to forward a guide of what to look for in a performance coach; just ask for it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Back to Zach Johnson; he recently admitted that his lack of recent success could be traced to his lack of focus and practice discipline. Additional, he concedes that he has been practicing the wrong things. “It goes back to the basics,” he said. “I have to do what I do well. Truth be told, what I’m practicing now is more on my strengths than my weaknesses.”

Zach Johnson has a great team, but as he concedes, he still needs to put in the work.

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