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Even Jordan Spieth Has A Weakness!

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As the founder of ShotByShot.com, a Strokes Gained analysis website, I have been studying Strokes Gained and the relevant performance statistics for PGA Tour players and amateurs for more than 30 years. In all that time, I have never seen a player that was good at every part of the game. I have made it my business to help players at every level identify their strengths and weaknesses, as improving the latter generally represents the quickest route to consistently lower scores.

This week, I looked at Spieth’s 2017 Tour data through the BMW Championship, and I compared it to the other top-5 players in the FedEx Cup race to the same point in time. The other players, which I’ll refer to this group as “Other-4,” are:

  • No. 2: Justin Thomas
  • No. 3: Dustin Johnson
  • No. 4: Mark Leishman
  • No. 5: Jon Rahm

Off the Tee, Driving Performance?

If there is one weakness in Spieth’s game, it’s his driving. I believe that his quest for more distance, following his loss to Jason Day in the 2015 PGA Championship, has injected a two-way miss off the tee, resulting in more severe driving errors. With the help of my genius programmer, I extracted the two types of driving errors from the ShotLink data that are most frequent on Tour:

  • No Shot: A miss that requires an advancement shot to return to normal play. The average cost of this type of error in 2017 has been 74 percent of a stroke, or 0.74 strokes.
  • Penalty: A miss that causes a player to incur a penalty. The average cost this year has been 1.38 strokes.   

Note: There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball. This most severe miss is relatively rare on Tour and neither Jordan or the Other-4 had one.

As you can see in the charts below, 2015 Spieth, 2017 Spieth and the 2017 Other-4 all had just about the same frequency of driving errors, but the Spieth’s 2017 errors were much more costly (my definition of “cost” is calculated based upon the score, relative to par, recorded on the driving-error hole). As we can see, while Spieth’s frequency of errors has not increased, the severity/cost has jumped significantly: +41 percent over his 2015 average and +55 percent over the Other-4.

Jordan Spieth 2015 vs. 2017 Driving Errors

Spieth 15 vs. 17 Dr errors

*0.48/round is just under 1 driving error every 2 rounds.

 Other-4 2017 vs. Jordan Spieth 2017 Driving Errors

Spieth 17 vs 0ther-4 Dr errorsApproach Shots

This is clearly how Spieth separates himself from the rest and mitigates his less-than-stellar driving. Ranked No. 1 in this Strokes-Gained category, here are some of his impressive approach-shot numbers:

  • Strokes Gained: 0.958/round, Rank No. 1
  • Proximity to the Hole: 33-feet 8-inches, Ranked No. 8, Tour Average: 36-feet 4-inches
  • Greens in Regulation: 70.35 percent, Ranked No. 3, Tour Average: 64.94 percent, Other-4: 67.7 percent
  • Penalties Per Round: The Tour does not publish this, or any such negative numbers, but all players make them. Jordan: 0.18/round (1 every 6 rounds). Tour avg.: 0.2/round (1 every 5 rounds), Other-4: 0.15/round (1 every 7 rounds).

Short Game, Around the Green

This Tour stat includes every shot from within 30 yards of the edge of the green. Jordan is ranked No. 15. The short game is obviously one of Jordan’s strengths. We have all seen it, so I will not go into detail.

Putting

This is an extremely important skill in golf and approximately 40 percent of the game at any handicap level. Actually, it’s more than one skill; it’s two:

  1. The art of holing short putts.
  2. The precise distance control on the long putts.

While putting is a very important part of Spieth’s success, when one looks under the hood, what Jordan does so well is not what we would think. It’s his long-range distance control that separates him from the rest. Further, Spieth’s 1-Putt numbers are VERY AVERAGE.

Note, in the chart below, at each distance up to 20 feet, Spieth is either right at or literally within 1-percentage point of the 2017 Tour average. This is not at all what we would expect from a No. 1 player.

Spieth 1putt vs Tour 2017Again, below, Jordan’s 1-Putt percentages are below the Other-4 until he gets past 16 feet.

Spieth 1putt vs Oth-4 2017Spieth’s long-range excellence serves him well and in two ways:

No. 1: Fewer 3-Putts. Jordan is ranked 9th in 3-Putt Avoidance at 2.03 percent (a 3-Putt on only 2.3 percent of total greens). The Tour Average (3.16 percent) is 56 percent higher! This complements his approach-shot strength. By hitting 13+ greens each round with average proximity of 33.9 feet, Spieth is faced with a bundle of +20-foot opportunities.

No. 2: Fewer “Save” Putts. With fewer missed greens, Spieth is faced with fewer short-putting “save” opportunities, where he enjoys only average success.

Finally, a few points to support Jordan’s distance-control excellence. The numbers below are from a study that I performed for a Golf Digest article: Stats show why Spieth is a great putter (Masters issue 2016). I compared Spieth’s putting to a thorough, distance-control study that I had performed on the No. 1 Strokes-Gained putters for the prior five years (I’ll call them the FIVE #1’s below). Coincidently, it covered all putts from 20 feet and greater in the 2015 season and Spieth beat the averages of the FIVE #1’s in every key measurement.

  • Average Leave Distance: Spieth was the only player under 2 feet at 1.97 feet. The FIVE #1’s averaged 2.31 feet.
  • Percentage of 1-Putts: Spieth: 12 percent, FIVE #1’s: 7 percent
  • Percentage of 3-Putts: Spieth: 5 percent, FIVE #1’s: 8 percent
  • Percentage of Putts Holed or Past the Hole: Spieth: 69.3 percent, FIVE #1’s: 66 percent

What can we amateurs take away from all this?

No. 1: There are two important, but different, skills in putting. Understand and practice both. For more, see my GolfWRX article: Research shows golfers should spend more time practicing short putts?

No. 2: To improve as much as possible, golfers must determine the strengths and weakness of their game, because we all have them. Work to take advantage of your strengths while improving or mitigating your weaknesses.

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In 1989, Peter Sanders founded Golf Research Associates, LP, creating what is now referred to as Strokes Gained Analysis. His goal was to design and market a new standard of statistically based performance analysis programs using proprietary computer models. A departure from “traditional stats,” the program provided analysis with answers, supported by comparative data. In 2006, the company’s website, ShotByShot.com, was launched. It provides interactive, Strokes Gained analysis for individual golfers and more than 150 instructors and coaches that use the program to build and monitor their player groups. Peter has written, or contributed to, more than 60 articles in major golf publications including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women. From 2007 through 2013, Peter was an exclusive contributor and Professional Advisor to Golf Digest and GolfDigest.com. Peter also works with PGA Tour players and their coaches to interpret the often confusing ShotLink data. Zach Johnson has been a client for nearly five years. More recently, Peter has teamed up with Smylie Kaufman’s swing coach, Tony Ruggiero, to help guide Smylie’s fast-rising career.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Dtrain

    Sep 23, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    Also JS struggled with his putting early in the year. I’d like to see the poor rounds tossed out and compare JS to the other 4 at say their best 10 events relative to the field.

  2. Ron

    Sep 23, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Make you short putts, get close on the long putts. Brilliant insight.

  3. Joe

    Sep 22, 2017 at 7:35 am

    “Note: There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball.”

    That’s another advantage PGA pros have. Their ball usually hits a spectator or grandstand a lot of the times before it gets into any real danger!! On top of that they got so many eyes on their ball that it’s easily findable. Where us hackers can only spend “X” amount of time looking for it to keep pace of play. Pace of play is irrelevant on the tour if you’re a big name 😛

  4. Andrew

    Sep 22, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Good analysis. Unfortunately there isn’t a fleet of total stations and trackmans surveying and logging my every shot.

  5. Irma

    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    We didn’t need all this analysis, it’s fairly bloody obvious he’s bad off the tee lol

  6. Frankie

    Sep 21, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    “There is a third type of driving error, Out of Bounds/Lost Ball. This most severe miss is relatively rare on Tour and neither Jordan or the Other-4 had one.” That’s right, just disregard and ignore the fact that Jordan Spieth made a 9 on a par 5 this year by hitting back-to-back tee shots OB right…

    • Henry

      Sep 21, 2017 at 11:52 pm

      If that’s the only time he did that, I don’t think something that happened on .0006% of holes played should matter all that much. Do you?

  7. Speedy

    Sep 21, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Fake news.

  8. X-out

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Golf statistics are only two dimensional; they lack real-time competitive game perspective.
    IOW, they are misleading because they do not calculate what is happening on the golf course during play. Nobody can do that because the future is not predictable, particularly on a golf course in competition and the playing environment.

  9. Chris B

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    It seems that the fairways hit percent category is now the least important one of all.

  10. Mike

    Sep 21, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    How is the cost/error of the driving error calculated? Wouldn’t this cost be affected by the decision making/execution of subsequent shots in addition to the severity of the missed drive?

    • henry

      Sep 22, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      you cant calculate something based on a decision that he didnt make, and if whether an outside perspective thought the decision was the right one or not.

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Courses

The Harding Park experience

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When you turn onto the road that leads to the clubhouse at TPC Harding Park, it doesn’t take long for your eyes to focus on the 18th hole. The road winds between the par-3 17th green on your right and the back tees of the 18th on your left, presenting a direct view down the beautifully doglegged left finishing fairway. And if you weren’t already excited about your upcoming round, this ought to do the trick.

TPC Harding Park is San Francisco’s top public track. It was opened in 1925 and was designed by Willie Watson, who also is responsible for the nearby Lake Course at Olympic Club. And Harding Park has already been pegged to host the 2020 PGA Championship, which will only be the second time a municipally owned golf course will host the PGA. And even though the event is over a year away, the facilities are already being prepared for the major.

The clubhouse itself is impressive for a municipal layout; two stories with an event space on the second floor, the layout runs parallel with the 18th fairway, allowing for great views of the back dining patio and balcony. They already have it decorated in anticipation or the PGA Championship with large wallpaper photos of the Wanamaker Trophy, which gives off a serious feeling of legitimacy in the clubhouse entryway. The Cypress Grill, which comes with a full bar, is finished with a full wall of glass overlooking both the final hole and Lake Merced. It was packed at lunch on a Friday when I played…and not just crowded with golfers. The food and view must be good enough to attract regular patrons.

The pro shop is a nice size and the members of the staff were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Most of the apparel was Nike, Adidas and Under Armour but there were a few smaller brands as well. FootJoy was also present and the course’s logo on shirts and hats alternated between the traditional Harding Park logo with the lone tree and the PGA Harding Park logo. There is, of course, already 2020 PGA Championship gear for sale as well.

The course offers carts and pushcarts for rent, but if you do decide to ride, the course is cart path only year round. Rates range from $49-$188 depending on the day and if you are a San Francisco or Bay Area resident.

As you can imagine, Harding Park gets a substantial amount of play, being a first-rate daily fee in a highly populated city. My buddy and I opted to walk as we both believe that’s the best way to experience a course for the first time.

The bad weather earlier this year had left the driving range in disrepair. It was closed during my visit but they are planning to turn that area into a pavilion space for the PGA Championship anyway. Harding Park also has a short course called The Fleming 9 which weaves in between the holes of the Harding 18. That Fleming 9 space will be used as the professionals’ range during the major event.

The course conditions were top quality, especially for a daily fee course with so much traffic. The only real complaint from my group was the presence of so many ball marks on the greens. This can be expected from a course with that number of daily golfers added to the wet conditions of a place like San Francisco. I would imagine that the greens would run much smoother as we get closer to the 2020 PGA. Still, this was nit-picking; the greens were not in bad shape at all.

   

The first thirteen holes at Harding Park are good but don’t rise to the level of “great.” A friendly starter helps maintain pace of play off number one, a slightly right bending par four. The second hole is much like the first, which was a theme of the first 13. Looking back on my round, it’s tough for me to differentiate between each of the first 13 holes. Every hole was really solid, but not exactly unique, with the exception of number 4 and number 10, both fun par 5’s with some character.

Harding Park plays at 6,845 yards from the blue tees, which were the back tees on the day I played. There is a championship tee box that plays at 7169 but they were not set up for us. I would imagine that they’d be willing to do so with a special request. I heard the course is even better from back there. I was told that they will be working to lengthen some of the holes in anticipation of the 2020 PGA.

Along those lines, we were also treated with a special view of what the course will look like for the major next year. The PGA had been out to the course the week prior to my visit and had staked out each fairway with little red flags denoting where they want the first cut of rough to reach. On most holes, these flags were five-to-10 paces inside of where the rough currently was being cut, which showed us exactly how tiny these fairways will be for the pros. It was amazing to see some of the narrow landing spots these guys will be aiming for in a year.

As you walk off the 13th green, the course turns one final time back towards the clubhouse. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, you are about to play five incredible holes in a row to close out your round. The teebox on 14 is snuggled up next to the lake but elevated enough to give you a tremendous view of the water below and Olympic Club Golf Course across the way. The hole in front of you is a 440-yard par 4 that steadily climbs uphill with a gently slanting fairway to the left, pushing landing drives towards the water. As I stood over my approach shot, I looked around and then wrote “best hole so far” down on my scorecard. That was true. Until the next hole.

The 15th and 16th holes both follow the same blueprint: fairway bunkers at the elbow of the dogleg, grabbing the longer drives and forcing a club selection decision off the tee. The lake is still running along the left side of each fairway, giving a completely different feel to these holes than you had on the course’s first 13. At only 330 yards, hole 16 plays much shorter than the previous two lake-side par 4s. But the green slopes enough to make you nervous on your putts and keeps the hole from being an easy birdie. Honestly, after these holes were behind me, I took a moment to look back down the fairway and appreciate how good these holes were.

Hole 17 is a 175-yard par 3 that was playing much longer with a solid wind in our faces. The green is positioned near the entrance into Harding Park and, as I previously mentioned, one of the first views of the course you get as you arrive. The green is slightly elevated and protected by two bunkers in front. It requires a long and accurate tee shot, which is difficult because the 18th hole looms large to the right of the green. And once you finish on 17, it’s just a short walk over to the 18th tee.

The final hole is Harding Park’s most special. A 440-yard par 4, the tee shot requires a carry over the lake to a dogleg left fairway. The longer hitters can take a more aggressive line over the trees to cut off a substantial amount of distance. And by longer hitters, I mean guys like Tiger Woods and John Daly.

The fairway is picturesque. 18 is one of those holes that you want to take your time on. It just has a different feeling. The green is slightly elevated, providing amazing views of the clubhouse and Lake Merced. It is the perfect finishing par 4, giving you everything you could possibly want in a golf hole: strategy, challenge, and beauty all wrapped into one. And then it leaves you feeling grateful for having decided to play Harding Park.

 

 

 

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Opinion & Analysis

Hot & Cold: Where strokes were won and lost at the RBC Heritage

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In “Hot & Cold,” we’ll be focusing each week on what specific areas of the game players excelled and disappointed in throughout the previous tournament. On Sunday, we saw C.T. Pan claim the RBC Heritage, holding his nerve down the tricky finish to win his first title on the PGA Tour. Here’s a look at where some of the most notable players gained and lost strokes over the four days of action

Hot

C.T. Pan rode a hot putter to victory over the weekend at the RBC Heritage. Despite struggling slightly on the greens on day one of the event, Pan hit blistering form over the next three days with the flatstick and finished the tournament having gained over six strokes over the field for his work on the greens. It isn’t the first time that the Taiwanese player has done so either, with this being just his third best weekly performance with the flat-stick of his career. Pan also gained almost four strokes around the green, in what was a week-long display of short game excellence. Take a full look at what clubs drove Pan to victory at the RBC Heritage here.

Matt Kuchar is having a spectacular season on Tour, and at Harbour Town, the American produced the best putting performance of his career to date. The 40-year-old gained 9.4 strokes over the field on the greens at Hilton Head, beating his previous best total of 8.3 strokes which came at the 2012 Players championship, an event which he won. Kuchar’s putting peaked over the weekend, where he gained six of those 9.4 strokes.

It may just have been yet another solid top-20 finish for Webb Simpson at the RBC Heritage, but the signs are very good that something better is just around the corner for the American. Simpson produced his best display of 2019 tee to green at Harbour Town, gaining 7.5 strokes over the field with his long game, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise since the former U.S. Open champion came into the event having gained strokes in this area in nine of his last 10 outings. Look for Simpson to get himself in the thick of things on a Sunday afternoon soon.

Cold

Dustin Johnson’s collapse on Sunday at Harbour Town was a shock to many. The 34-year-old fired a 77 to plummet down the leaderboard in the final round, and Johnson’s irons were the issue behind him not getting the job done. The American lost strokes to the field for his approach play three out of the four days and finished 63rd in this department for the week. Johnson lost a total of 3.2 strokes to the field for his approach play, which is the worst total in this area of his career.

Bryson DeChambeau missed the cut at the RBC Heritage, and the blame for this lies almost entirely with his putting. DeChambeau lost over five strokes to the field for his work on the greens over the two days he was around at Harbour Town, his worst performance with the flatstick since 2017.

Jordan Spieth’s woes continue, and once more those woes continue to be caused from the Texan’s long game. Spieth may have made the cut last week, but the three-time major champion lost three strokes to the field off the tee, and his approach play wasn’t much better. Spieth lost strokes in all of the significant strokes gained categories at the RBC Heritage bar one – putting. Spieth’s putting continues to be the only part of his game that is delivering at the moment, as his play off the tee continues to cause him fits. The 25-year-old has now lost a total of 14.5 strokes for his play off the tee since the WGC-Mexico.

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Podcasts

On Spec: New Level Golf founder and designer Eric Burch

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An in-depth discussion with golf industry veteran Eric Burch: how he got his start in golf, how he has contributed to the club fitting industry, and his new company New Level Golf, which produces forged irons and wedges for every level of golfer.

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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