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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open

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It’s off to the desert this week for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and along with it the loudest hole in golf. Thousands will once again surround the par-3 16th hole, and as always it will be interesting to see how some of the world’s best players handle the intimidating atmosphere. Expect TPC Scottsdale to offer up a few more birdie opportunities than Torrey Pines did last week, with 14-under par being the highest winning score since the course was re-designed in 2014.

Hideki Matsuyama has won the last two editions here, defeating Webb Simpson last year in a playoff after posting 17-under in regulation. The par-71 course measures just under 7,300 yards and has bermuda greens. As always at TPC Scottsdale, strong tee-to-green play will be vitally important. There are five par-4’s in the range of 400-450 yards, and another five from 450-500 yards. Three long (but reachable) par-5’s are in play that fall in the 550-600 yard range.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Hideki Matsuyama 9/1
  • Jordan Spieth 9/1
  • Jon Rahm 10/1
  • Rickie Fowler 14/1
  • Justin Thomas 16/1
  • Marc Leishman 30/1
  • Webb Simpson 33/1

It’s one of those weeks were you could absolutely make a strong case for any player at the top of the board. It won’t be a surprise to see Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler both being very popular choices as usual here — with the latter tempting me most. There’s a sense that this course owes Fowler something, and his exceptional putting on bermuda greens (second in this field for his last 24 rounds ) could set him up for a big week.

But it’s Jordan Spieth (9/1, DK Price $11,400) who I like the most from the market leaders. Jordan opened up 2018 with a ninth-place finish at the Tournament of Champions before finishing T18 at the Sony Open, a relatively quiet start for the Texan. Yet all the signs show he is ready to win for the first time since last summer. Surprisingly, it’s been his usual rock solid short game that has prevented him from challenging for a win so far in 2018. After the Sony Open, Spieth commented on his putting woes: “I’ve got a lot of work to do with the putter, it’s as simple as that. Everything else is plenty ready to win.”

Spieth has lost strokes to the field on the greens in his last three official PGA Tour events. The last time he did so for four consecutive events? Back in 2013. The smart money is on one of the best putters of the last few years regaining his touch on the greens quickly.

If Spieth can manage that, then it’s very hard to argue against the fact that every other part of his game is good enough to win. Over his last 24 rounds, he ranks No. 1 in this field for Ball Striking and Strokes Gained Approaching the Green. He also sits second in Total Strokes Gained. Spieth’s long game has been exceptional for some time now, and it’s been no different in the eight rounds he’s played so far in 2018 where he’s ranked second in this field for Strokes Gained Tee to Green. Also in Jordan’s favor: he seems very comfortable at TPC Scottsdale. He’s recorded two top-10 finishes in his only two starts here, and if he’s managed to address some short game issues in the past fortnight then he will be a hard man to beat this week.

Another player who I feel could be close to putting it all together is Daniel Berger (40/1, DK Price $9,500). Berger has had a solid start to 2018, finishing 11th at the Tournament of Champions before finishing 14th at the Sony Open. He has yet to really contend for a victory, but I feel TPC Scottsdale offers up the best chance of 2018 so far for him to do so.

Berger has a very consistent tee-to-green game, which is crucial to succeed at TPC Scottsdale. He ranks ninth in this field over his last 12 rounds in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 27th in Strokes Gained Total. It’s a course where Berger feels very comfortable, too. He has recorded top-10 finishes in two out of his three visits. Daniel also seems to putt best on bermuda greens. In his last 50 rounds on all greens, he ranks 65th in this field for Strokes Gained Putting. Narrow that down to his performance solely on Bermuda Greens, and he sits 11th over the same period.

Looking further down the board, there are two names that I was surprised to not see a little shorter in price. Keegan Bradley (66/1, DK Price $7,400) has been in the wilderness for too long. Plagued by putting problems since the anchoring ban came into play, he hasn’t had the high finishes that his excellent ball striking deserves. But this season could be a lot different for Bradley. He already has a runner up finish at the CIMB Classic to his name, and last week he finished solo 5th thanks to some exceptional Tee to Green play (he gained 7.6 strokes over the field).

TPC Scottsdale is a good fit for Bradley, too, where long and straight driving is demanded. He has recorded three top-25 finishes here in his last five starts, and with the condition of his current long game he will be confident of posting his best finish here yet. In his past 12 rounds, he is second in this field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, 10th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green and eighth in Ball Striking. He also sits T10 for the season in Proximity to the Hole. From a DraftKings perspective, a price of $7,400 looks to have a lot of value.

In the same range, I couldn’t pass up Scott Piercy (66/1, DK Price $7,500) this week. The Las Vegas native has had a very good start to 2018. He finished T25 at the Sony Open before settling for a T6 at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where he briefly held the lead on Sunday. Over his last 12 rounds, he ranks fifth in this field for Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, ninth in Ball Striking and sixth in Strokes Gained Total. He is also 19th for the season in Strokes Gained Tee to Green. TPC Scottsdale is a course where Piercy has had some success, too. He finished third in 2013 and T15 a year later. He is another who looks to be a little undervalued this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Jordan Spieth 9/1, DK Price $11,400
  • Daniel Berger 40/1 DK Price $9,500
  • Keegan Bradley 66/1, DK Price $7,400
  • Scott Piercy 66/1, DK Price $7,500
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Gianni is a freelance writer. He holds a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Diploma in Sports Journalism. He can be contacted at gmagliocco@outlook.com. Follow him on Twitter @giancarlomag

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole: Host Michael Williams plays Shinnecock Hills and reports back

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Host Michael Williams reports on his visit to Media Day at Shinnecock Hills, the site the 2018 U.S. Open, where he played the course. How are the current conditions? He weighs in on the Unlimited Mulligan Challenge made by Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports that day, as well. Also, famed Architect David Kidd talks about how he created Bandon Dunes at the age of 25, and Steve Skinner of KemperLesnik gives his views on the health of the golf business.

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

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TG2: What’s it like to caddie for Rory? GolfWRX Forum Member shares his experience

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Marine and GolfWRX forum member “djfalcone” explains the story of how he got to caddie for Rory McIlroy and Johnny Vegas through the Birdies for the Brave program, and how knowledgable Rory is about his equipment. Make sure to check out his full forum thread here.

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

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Opinion & Analysis

An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team

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With the Masters and the Players Championship complete, I wanted to examine the statistics of the current leaders in Ryder Cup Points for the U.S. Team. Over the history of the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Team has relied on pairings that were friends and practice-round companions instead of pairing players that were more compatible from a statistical standpoint. This has led to disappointing performances from the U.S. Team and top players such as Jim Furyk performing poorly at the Ryder Cup, as he is ill-suited for the Fourball format.

After a disastrous 2014 Ryder Cup where the U.S. Team lost by a score of 16.5-11.5, the U.S. decided to use a more statistical approach to Ryder Cup play. According to my calculations, the 2016 U.S. Team’s pairings were the closest to optimal that the U.S. Team has compiled in the last seven Ryder Cups. And not surprisingly, the U.S. Team won 17-11 over the Europeans.

Since there are several months to go before the Ryder Cup, I won’t get too much into potential pairings in this article. Instead, I will focus more on the current games of top-12 players in U.S. Ryder Cup Points Standings and how that translates to Ryder Cup performance.

About the Ryder Cup Format

In the Ryder Cup, there is the Foursome format (alternate shot) and the Fourball format (best score). There are distinctly different metrics in the game that correlate to quality performers in each format.

In the Foursome format, short game around the green performance is usually critical. In a typical stroke play event such as The Players Championship, short game around the green performance usually has a much smaller impact on player’s performance. But in a match play, alternate-shot format the opposite has been true. My conclusion is that with the alternate-shot format, more greens in regulation are likely to be missed. The team that can save par and extend holes is usually likely to come out on top. The European team has mostly dominated the U.S. team over the past 20 years in the Foursome format, and the European teams typically are stronger with their short game around the green.

Other factors involved with Foursome play are Red Zone Performance (shots from 175-225 yards) and being able to pair the right players together based on how they each play off the tee and with their approach shots from the rough. For example, a pairing of Phil Mickelson (who misses a lot of fairways) and Zach Johnson (who is not very good from the rough) would likely be a poor pairing.

In the Fourball format (lowest score), the best performers are high birdie makers and players that perform well on the par-4s, par-5s, and par-3s. Bubba Watson makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, thus making him a good candidate for the Fourball format. The only issue with Bubba in the past is he has occasionally struggled on the par-3s. That can be resolved by pairing him with a player who makes a lot of birdies and is a strong performer on the par-3s. The reason for Jim Furyk’s struggles in the Fourball format is that he does not make a lot of birdies and is a merely average performer on the par-5s.

Note: All rankings below are based out of 209 golfers.

1. Patrick Reed

In the past, it has been difficult to get an accurate depiction of Reed’s game. He was notorious for either getting into contention or blowing up if he wasn’t in contention after the first round. He is now far better at avoiding those blowup rounds and remaining competitive regardless of how he well he performs at the beginning of the tournament. His iron play has been excellent, and since he is good on approach shots from the rough, short game around the green and he makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, he should continue to be a great competitor in the Ryder Cup format. Given his inability to find the fairway off the tee, however, I would recommend pairing him with a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

2. Justin Thomas

On paper, Thomas should be Team USA’s toughest competitor as he has little in the way of holes in his game. He drives it great, hits his irons well from every distance, has a superb short game and can putt. He also makes a ton of birdies, plays every type of hole well and rarely makes bogeys. Like Reed, it would be advisable to pair him with a player that is a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

3. Dustin Johnson

DJ is the second-strongest performer on paper. The only thing that currently separates Justin Thomas from DJ is their Red Zone play. DJ has typically been a world-class performer from the Red Zone, however, and the data suggests that his ranking from the Red Zone should rapidly improve. He struck it well from the Red Zone in his last two events at Harbour Town Golf Links and TPC Sawgrass. And with his putting performance this season, he could make for a great competitor in this year’s Ryder Cup.

4. Jordan Spieth

Spieth has the metrics to be a strong Ryder Cup performer, as he strikes the ball well with his driver and his irons while having a superb short game around the green. His only weakness in the Fourball format is his performance on the par-3s, but that is due to his inability to make putts from 15-25 feet (198th). That is the crux of the situation for Spieth; can he get his old putting form back?

A look at previous great putters on Tour that inexplicably struggled with their putter shows that Spieth is going about his putting woes the correct way. He’s not making equipment or wholesale changes to his putting stroke. He is continuing to work with what made him a great putter just like Jason Day did last year when he inexplicably struggled with the putter early in the season… and then turned it around and regained his old putting form.

The question is, how long will it take for Spieth to regain his old form? Typically, players like Spieth that have a dramatic drop-off in their putting take about a year to regain their old form. He may not regain that form by the time the Ryder Cup takes place. If he does, Team USA is very strong with its top-4 points earners.

5. Bubba Watson

Bubba is off to a strong enough year to make the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, but the best bet for him is to stick to the Fourball format given his struggles around the green. Watson’s performance on the par-5s has not exactly been remarkable, but typically he’s one of the very best in the world on par-5s and can make a ton of birdies.

6. Rickie Fowler

Fowler has not been as strong in some areas of the game such as Red Zone, shots from the rough and putting as he has been in recent years. That makes him a little less appealing in the alternate shot format, but he still has a solid foundation to be a quality contributor in either format. The upside is if Rickie gets back to his old form with the putter and from the Red Zone, he should be a top-notch Ryder Cup performer because he is well suited to perform in either team format. At this time, he would be best suited to play with an accurate driver and very good performer around the green (i.e. Matt Kuchar) in the alternate shot format.

7. Brooks Koepka

There currently is not enough data on Koepka due to his wrist injury he suffered early in the season. Koepka is arguably the best bomber in the world who is also a great putter and a solid performer from the Red Zone. The main issue for Koepka has been his short game performance around the green. That would typically make for a weak partner in the alternate shot format, but Koepka was spectacular in the 2016 Ryder Cup. His combination of length and putting may make him a formidable Ryder Cup performer for years to come.

8. Phil Mickelson

As a statistical analyst for golf, I never quite know what I’m going to get from Lefty. This season Lefty has putted superbly, but his performance around the green has left a lot to be desired.

In recent Ryder Cups, he has been a quality performer in both the Foursome and Fourball formats. His recent success in the alternate shot format makes him a mandatory candidate, however, his inability to find the fairway means he would need a partner who is very good from the rough. The data suggests that his performance around the green should get closer to his old form as the season goes along.

9. Webb Simpson

Like Mickelson, it’s always a surprise as to what the strengths and weaknesses of Simpson’s game will be by the end of the season. Typically, he’s been a decent driver of the ball that is often a superb iron player and short game performer. With the anchoring ban, he has struggled with the putter up to this season. Lately, he has been an incredible putter that is struggling a bit with the irons.

Most of Simpson’s struggles with the irons have been from the rough, so a partner who finds a lot of fairways off the tee could be an excellent pairing in the foursome format with Simpson.

10. Matt Kuchar

Kuchar could be a very critical player for Team USA down the stretch. There are potential players on the team that could be valuable in the alternate shot format if they can find a teammate to find fairways off the tee to make up for their struggles on approach shots from the rough. Historically, Kuchar has been the most accurate off the tee of the players mentioned thus far.

This season, however, Kuchar has been underwhelming in his ability to find the fairway. The next most-accurate drivers of the ball that are near the top-12 in Ryder Cup points are Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Kisner and Andrew Landry, and none of them have nearly the experience in the Ryder Cup as Kuchar has. If Kuchar continues to miss fairways, his chances of making the team are not good unless he’s a Captain’s pick. If he cannot find the fairway, he has little-projected value as a member of the team. He is not making a lot of birdies, and his struggles on the par-3s and does not make him a favorable teammate in the Fourball format either.

11. Brian Harman

Harman’s value is that he has fairly decent Fourball metrics and his accuracy off the tee, putting, and iron play can work well with players like Fowler, Simpson, and Kuchar in the alternate shot format.

Harman has not performed that well from around the green using the Strokes Gained methodology, however; he ranks 15th on shots from 10-20 yards. I placed that metric in there as strokes gained takes into account all shots from less than 30 yards, but 10-20 yards is the most common distance range from which scrambling opportunities occur on Tour. Thus, Harman is an excellent performer from 10-20 yards and is only losing strokes around the green due to poor performance from 20-30 yards, and those shots occur less frequently on Tour. His struggles from 20-30 yards would also explain why his par-5 performance is roughly average, as that is the distance players typically finish from the hole when they go for par-5s in two and do not make the green.

And even though Harman is not very long off the tee (147th in Measured Driving Distance), he is a quality performer from the rough and thus he does not have to be tethered to another short-hitting, accurate driver in the alternate shot format.

12. Bryson DeChambeau

Dechambeau makes for a solid Ryder Cup candidate, as he has no outstanding weaknesses in his game this season as he appears to have rid himself of the putting woes that have hurt him in the past. I think he is better suited for the Fourball format, however, given how many birdies he makes. Pair him with a strong performer on the par-3s like Rickie Fowler or Phil Mickelson and it would make a very formidable duo in that format.

A pairing with Mickelson in the Fourball format would be intriguing given DeChambeau’s excellent driving. DeChambeau could hit first and — if he continues to drive it superbly — that would free up Mickelson to not worry so much about his woeful driving and focus more on making birdies. Perhaps a Fourball pairing with Bubba would make for a situation where DeChambeau could tee off first and pipe his drive, and then give Bubba a free rip to hit it as far as he possibly can and give them a sizeable advantage over their opponents.

31. Tiger Woods

I know I said I was only going to look at the top-12 players in Ryder Cup points, but the readers would inevitably ask about Tiger anyway. Furthermore, Tiger is an intriguing candidate for the team given his current game.

Tiger has struggled in both the Foursome and Fourball format. He seems to not play that great in alternate shot. In Fourball, it appears that he plays well by himself, but he is often let down by his teammates. The Europeans have always gunned for Tiger in the Ryder Cup, and it takes a special type of teammate to deal with the hysteria of having Tiger as their partner.

There are the makings of a very good alternate shot partner with Tiger, as his iron play and putting are still really good and his short game has been incredible this season. In the Fourball format, it would be advisable to find a strong par-5 performer, as Tiger’s performance on the par-5s has not been outstanding thus far. Having said that, I could see three excellent partners for Tiger in either format.

Patrick Reed has the numbers to be compatible with Tiger’s game, and he also has the track record of living up to the moment in the Ryder Cup. Dustin Johnson is can make up for Tiger’s possible big misses off the tee and can overpower a course with Tiger. And Phil Mickelson, whose game is compatible with Tiger’s, and could provide a symbol of the old guard working together to beat the Europeans.

There are certainly a lot of compelling possible pairings for Team USA, and there is still a long way to go before we start to see what pairings are available. The European Team looks like one of the strongest in years, and with all of the potential storylines for the 2018 Ryder Cup, it could be one of the greatest Ryder Cups of all time.

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19th Hole

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