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Opinion & Analysis

How much of Bubba Watson’s success in 2018 can be attributed to his golf ball change?

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Every serious golfer understands the importance equipment has in allowing a player to play his or her best. Conversely, playing with equipment that isn’t exactly right can seriously hinder a golfer’s ability to play his or her best golf. Tour pros are no exception to this. Rory McIlroy’s poor 2013 season, the first year of his switch to a full bag of Nike clubs, is often cited as evidence of a player’s game suffering from being uncomfortable with equipment. And he’s far from the only player whose game suffered following a drastic equipment change.

Last year, Bubba Watson shocked fans, fellow tour pros and GolfWRX Members when he switched to a Volvik S4 golf ball from his previous ball, the Titleist Pro V1x. Watson was the only player on the PGA Tour with a contract to play Volvik balls. At the U.S. Open, 102 players teed up a Titleist. One player used a Volvik: Bubba. Much of his interest, to the surprise of many, was in the flashy colors of the balls.

Here’s what Bubba said to Golf Digest about his switch last year: “I took five balls out and hit all kinds of shots. Teddy [caddie Ted Scott] bought some [Volvik S4 golf balls] and tested them as well. And we couldn’t come up with anything wrong with them. Then it comes down to the fun factor — how could you not want a colored ball when you have a colored driver?”

It appeared to be a shockingly cursory testing process, as Bubba didn’t even mention testing the balls on Trackman before agreeing to play Volvik. For many, what ensued was predictable. His game plummeted.

Bubba had one of the worst years of his career. He underwent an unprecedented drop in the Official World Golf Rankings, going from 10th at the beginning of the year all the way to 89th. He ranked 145th in Strokes Gained Approach-the-Green, 156th in Strokes Gained Around-the-Green and 145th in Strokes Gained Putting. Watson hit less than 60 percent of fairways, landing him in the 112th spot on Tour. He ranked 161st in Greens in Regulation, and he finished 91st on the Money List. For a two-time major champion and a then nine-time winner on the PGA Tour, those numbers are… well, they’re not good. Unsurprisingly, Bubba arrived at his first tournament of the year with a year’s worth of frustration and a few sleeves of Titleists.

“My deal was up, and so I’m… ball-free,” said Watson after questions were asked of his ball situation. After an uneventful fall season, Bubba stormed into the new year, winning the Genesis Open at Riviera for the third time in his career. A month later, he won the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, emphatically beating Kevin Kisner 7&6. These wins were the 10th and 11th wins on the PGA Tour for Bubba, an extremely impressive career to say the least.

In addition to winning two of the biggest tournaments of the year thus far, a feat that would have seemed impossible just six months ago, Bubba’s stats are exponentially better for 2018. He ranks second in Money Earned, 11th in Greens in Regulation and 52nd in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green. He is back to 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings, currently sits at third in the FedEx Cup rankings and finished T5 at the Masters.

So. how much of this is the ball?

First, we have to determine which facets of the game are most affected by the ball. Tour pros can notice appreciable differences, even across varied top-tier balls from different manufacturers, in driving distance and accuracy, iron play distance and trajectory control as well as accuracy and shot variance for wedges and green-side shots. A ball change can drastically change spin numbers throughout the bag. Consistency and control are paramount aspects of golf balls that often set brands apart from each other. The only area that would almost certainly not be affected would be putting.

With this in mind, Bubba has improved in the following stats: SG Off-the-Tee, SG Approach-the-Green, SG Around-the-Green, SG Tee-to-Green, Greens in Regulation and Birdie Average, among others. All of these stats can be directly influenced by the golf ball. And while it’s obvious that these improvements are due to better play, it’s not clear if this better play is due to a different ball. Obviously, there’s more factors affecting play in professional golf than the golf ball.

At the end of the day, we can’t know for sure how much of Bubba’s refurbished game can be attributed to the ball saga. There’s plenty of other variables in play. Bubba is almost certainly more comfortable with his swing, and he is understandably a lot more confident. For someone who is infamous for being an emotional player, good play almost always breeds confidence, which lends itself to even more good play. It’s entirely possible that Bubba is simply in a better place with his game, and maybe his ball doesn’t have much to do with it. However, the evidence could suggest otherwise.

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Malcolm is an incoming freshman at Tufts University, and he recently graduated from Boston College High School in Massachusetts. He plans on playing on the golf team at Tufts and has a 2.5 index. He plays out of The Country Club in Brookline.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. The Champ

    Apr 11, 2018 at 9:41 pm

    Yep, Vodka golf balls will do that to you, we all know that playing drunk doesn’t help. Oh, wait I read this whole article thinking vodka instead of volvik. That’s a shame.

    All joking aside, the author deserves props for a well-written article, especially only being a senior in high school. I’ve seen many way worse articles from professional writers. Cheers! ????

  2. peter collins

    Apr 11, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    I WAS GIVEN THREE SLEEVES, AFTER THE FIRST SLEEVE, I GAVE THE OTHER TWO SLEEVES BACK. Oooooppps caps

  3. David Keen

    Apr 11, 2018 at 11:44 am

    My question is: if he’s switched back and his deal is up, why does he still have Volvik advertised on his shirt?

  4. Del

    Apr 11, 2018 at 6:51 am

    You would think that the article would at least mention his undisclosed health issues that caused him to lose 20 pounds as one of the “other variables in play”. Didn’t he even mention after one of his wins that his medical issues caused him to contemplate retirement?

    I’m not arguing that they ball had nothing to do with it, but that’s quite an important point to completely ignore for an article discussing “how much” the ball change impacted how success.

  5. Jack

    Apr 10, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Just cuz they sell for a premium price doesn’t mean they are premium! No idea. I’ve only found their cheap balls (in bushes) which are just normal balls I guess. Easy to find when it gets dark.

  6. ogo

    Apr 10, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    Forget the clubs…. it’s all about the baaaaaall …. 😮

  7. farmer

    Apr 10, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    The ball was undoubtedly an issue, but there appeared to be health problems as well. He looks much better this year.

  8. Man

    Apr 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    100% it’s the ball. Don’t play junk balls, kids. And Volvik is junk.
    It’s ruining even the Long Drive and they don’t want to admit to it – yet.
    Who cares about colors when it doesn’t perform

  9. Rev G

    Apr 10, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    I’m sure it mattered a lot. Not so much because Volvik doesn’t make decent balls. But because a player switched from a tour level ball that he’d been playing for years and that he had tremendous feel for – to a ball that was very different and as noted by many who’ve tried it, has less feel.

  10. The Law Professor

    Apr 10, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    From someone who grades college-level writing regularly, this is a nicely-written article and I expect the young man who wrote it will continue to hone his writing skills and put them to great use in his future career.

  11. James T

    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Where can I buy some Volvik golf balls?!

  12. Tyler

    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I completely agree and have been saying this since he changed. I think Volvik was one of the worst feeling premium priced golf balls, especially when putting, that I have tried.

  13. Jared D

    Apr 10, 2018 at 11:54 am

    What a fantastic article Malcolm!

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: The 2018 Open Championship

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The 147th Open Championship gets underway this week as 156 players launch their quest to capture the Claret Jug. The oldest and for many, most prestigious event returns to Scotland, where Carnoustie will host the tournament for the eighth time in its history.

The last time Carnoustie hosted The Open was 10 years ago when Padraig Harrington finished tied with Sergio Garcia at 7-under par after 72 holes. Harrington went on to outlast Garcia in a dramatic playoff to capture his first of two-straight Open Championships.

The weather is expected to be kind this year and the rough will less penal than it was in 2007, which should offer more birdies than it did in 2007. Carnoustie will measure just over 7,400 yards. With the course playing fast and firm, however, distance is not going to be an issue.

Strategy will be vitally important, and we’ve heard that players will be able to lay up on some of the holes by taking short irons off the tee. The likes of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, and Rory McIlroy have all stated that they will be taking driver off the tee to eliminate many of the pot bunkers on the course. The reason for this comes down to the fact that the rough is playable this year, which allows for attacking golf. As with any Open Championship, players will need to have every single part of their game in shape for the difficult challenge that links golf always provides.

Last year, Jordan Spieth won the Claret Jug by playing his final five holes in 5-under to post 12-under and beat runner-up Matt Kuchar by three strokes.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Dustin Johnson 12/1
  • Justin Rose 16/1
  • Rickie Fowler 18/1
  • Rory McIlroy 18/1
  • Jon Rahm 20/1
  • Jordan Spieth 20/1
  • Tommy Fleetwood 22/1

Considerably cheaper in salary than both Spieth and Mcilroy, and only marginally more expensive than Fowler, Jon Rahm (20/1, DK Price $9,800) looks to offer excellent value this week at the top of the board. The Spaniard has shown he can play links golf very well, as he once again performed excellently in Ireland, posting a top-5 finish two weeks ago. Rahm now turns his attention to Carnoustie where he’ll be gunning for his first major championship victory.

Rahm comes into this event with a clear strategy. He’s going to play as aggressive as always and hit driver off the tee at every opportunity. Rahm believes the course layout and conditions will suit his explosive game. When you listen to his assessment of Carnoustie this year, it’s difficult to disagree with him. Speaking to the media this week, Rahm said:

“If you hit a good one with a driver, you’re going to have nothing to the green. If you hit the rough this year, it’s not as thick as other years. You actually get a lot of good lies, so you can still hit the green with confidence.”

With playable rough, Rahm should feel every bit as confident as he sounds about his chances this week, as the only thing that prevented him from winning in Ireland was the odd blow-up hole. But with his power allowing him to take the pot bunkers almost entirely out of play, combined with light rough, Carnoustie should be an excellent fit for him. Rahm’s experience in contention at Augusta earlier in the year should put him in good shape mentally as he attempts to win his first major championship, and if he can keep his volatile temperament in check, then Rahm has every chance of claiming the Claret Jug.

From the middle of the range prices this week, Francesco Molinari (33/1, DK Price $8,600) may be the safest man to add to your lineups. The Italian has been in imperious form lately, winning twice and finishing runner-up twice in his last five events. Molinari leads the field in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green over his previous 24 rounds and sits third in ball striking over the same period.

Molinari’s Open Championship record has been solid, making the cut in five of his last six appearances at this event. His best finish at this event is a T9 back in 2013 at Muirfield, where the conditions were also dry. Molinari enters this event in the form of his life, and the way he is hitting the ball right now, he looks primed for his best Open Championship performance yet.

A links specialist, Marc Leishman (50/1, DK Price $8,000) has performed excellently at this event in recent years. Leishman has recorded three top-10 finishes at the Open Championship in his last four appearances, and he looks reasonably priced to go well once again this week. An excellent wind player, Leishman will relish any wind that may descend on Carnoustie. With him being so adept at playing links golf, taking an expert at $8,000 seems a prudent play.

Leishman’s immediate form hasn’t been spectacular, but he has made five cuts from his last six events, including a runner-up finish at the Byron Nelson where he shot a brilliant 61 in the opening round. The Australian finished T13 at his previous outing at the Quicken Loans National, which shows his game is in solid shape. With his expertise on links courses, Leishman may well be able to conquer Carnoustie and finally get his hands on the Claret Jug.

Emiliano Grillo (200/1, DK Price $6,800) is undervalued this week. On DraftKings, with the books, everywhere. Grillo has been playing terrific golf lately, and Carnoustie should suit the Argentine’s clinical ball striking. Over his previous 24 rounds, Grillo sits 15th in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, fifth in Strokes Gained-Putting, 17th in ball striking and 10th in Strokes Gained-Total. Grillo has three top-25 finishes in his last four events, and he has shown he can produce his best golf at this event in the past, finishing T12 at Royal Troon back in 2016. At 200/1 and $6,800 on DraftKings, Emiliano Grillo looks the value play of the week.

Recommended Plays

  • Jon Rahm 20/1, DK Price $9,800
  • Francesco Molinari 33/1, DK Price $8,600
  • Marc Leishman 50/1, DK Price $8,000
  • Emiliano Grillo 200/1, DK Price $6,800
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Opinion & Analysis

The Golf Engine predicts the top 25 finishers at The Open Championship

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The field for the 147th British Open is set at the historic Carnoustie Golf Links. The Golf Engine modeled over 1,500 statistics tracked by the PGA Tour for every tournament dating back to 2004. We looked at how each stat contributes to what we can expect from players on this stage, at this tournament. It’s a complex web of information that can only be properly analyzed by a machine, yet yields some objectively surprising results.

This year’s British Open is no exception as the model is calling for Webb Simpson (125/1 odds) to make a run into the top 10 at least.

Some surprises:

Back-to-back U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka (22/1) inside the top 5.

Webb Simpson (125/1) and Phil Mickelson (66/1) inside the top 10.

Emiliano Grillo (100/1) inside the top 15.

Kevin Na (175/1), Luke List (125/1), and Ryan Moore (150/1) inside top the 25.

Perhaps just as surprising are the golfers that may under-perform this week. Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood don’t make the top 10 cutoff. Alex Noren, Francesco Molinari who finished T2 at TPC Deere Run last week, and Sergio Garcia are all projected outside of our top 25.

Notable left-outs:

Rory McIlroy (16/1) and Tommy Fleetwood (20/1) finishing outside the top 10.

Alex Noren (30/1), Francesco Molinari (33//1), and Sergio Garcia (28/1) all finishing outside the top 25.

A few more points of note:

Top 5

It’s fascinating that Dustin Johnson gets the call for top dawg from both the oddsmakers and the model. No question he is the best player in the world right now, but it’s been a few years since DJ really contended (2011) in this tournament — and at a different course — Royal St George’s. He does have a pair of Top 10’s in 2012 and 2016 and has made the cut every year since 2009 (his first Open).

Justin Rose, not that his name doesn’t come up every year for this tournament, just that his style of play is generally considered to be different than the players on either side of him (Johnson and Koepka).

Speaking of Koepka, few are calling for him to win at Carnoustie though he does shows up inside the top 5 here…

Jordan Spieth, although winning this tournament last year – has not put up the best numbers of his already memorable career the past few months. Frankly I’m a little surprised the numbers bear this out…

Perhaps the third least surprising name to see on this list (aside from Johnson and Rose) is Rickie Fowler, aka: Mr. Consistency, aka: the Perennial Contender, aka: always the Bridesmaid. Rickie almost always brings his A-game, and the data suggests it suits this course well. Curious to see if this is the year his major championship drought comes to an end.

Top 10

Webb Simpson might be the most surprising pick on this list. Clearly the model likes something about his game this year and the way he is set up for this tournament. A career-low 61 to open at The Greenbrier (his last start), T10 at the U.S. Open a month ago and earning his 5th career victory at The PLAYERS were each separated by missed cuts.

Top 25

For a guy with short odds, Rory McIlroy to be projected outside of the top 10, which really speaks to the consistency (or lack thereof) of his game this season.

Other notables:

No love from the model for Matt Kuchar, Scotsman Russel Knox, Adam Scott, Ian Poulter, or Louis Oosthuizen.

Projected Rank Player Odds
1 Dustin Johnson 12/1
2 Justin Rose 16/1
3 Brooks Koepka 22/1
4 Jordan Spieth 20/1
5 Rickie Fowler 16/1
6 Webb Simpson 125/1
7 Justin Thomas 22/1
8 Jason Day 33/1
9 Phil Mickelson 66/1
10 Jon Rahm 20/1
11 Henrik Stenson 28/1
12 Emiliano Grillo 100/1
13 Paul Casey 40/1
14 Patrick Reed 35/1
15 Rory McIlroy 16/1
16 Tommy Fleetwood 20/1
17 Bubba Watson 80/1
18 Tiger Woods 22/1
19 Kevin Na 175/1
20 Hideki Matsuyama 50/1
21 Bryson DeChambeau 125/1
22 Luke List 125/1
23 Ryan Moore 150/1
24 Tony Finau 100/1
25 Charles Howell III 500/1
Odds Courtesy of Bovada

View the projected finish of the entire 2018 British Open Field.

How the Golf Engine makes its picks

In golf, a pro matches up as much with the golf-course as another competitor. Which is why any attempt to predict the outcome of a golf tournament, must take into account the nuances of the course. Beyond conjecture made by the golf pundits, analyzing past and present data through the use of math can more accurately project future performance.

In this model, we use machine learning to evaluate 1,500 different statistics for every golfer on the PGA Tour over each tournament since 2004. The analysis of this massive dataset allows gives us an opportunity to predict players that are sitting on low round scores.

The machine learns how these statistics can become a unique strength or glaring weakness for each golfer by comparing tens of thousands of different combinations and separating the patterns from the noise. The resulting ‘model’ is able to ‘deep dive’ and determine when to expect low rounds from a pro, given their unique style of play. These calculations are next to impossible to do quickly and certainly without personal and subjective biases, until now.

Learn more about the author, Pat Ross.

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Opinion & Analysis

I’m practicing. Why am I not getting better at golf?

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We all want to improve our golf games; we want to shoot lower scores, make more birdies and win bragging rights from our friends. As a result, we practice and invest many hours in trying to improve. However, do we improve as quickly as we want to? Is there something we’ve been missing?

“The secret is in the dirt,” Ben Hogan said. And he was right. To date, not one golfer has become an elite player without investing thousands of hours in improving their golf game. And yet, there are thousands of amateur golfers who practice every week and don’t get better. What is the difference? To me, this is a very interesting question. What underpins how or why we learn? Furthermore, how can we super-charge our rate of learning? 

To super-charge our learning, we must first realize that practice itself does not make us better at golf. This is an empty promise. It is close to the truth but incorrect. Instead, practice, when done correctly, will cause changes in our body to make us more skillful over time. This is a subtle, but important difference. There is no magic type of practice that universally builds skill, however, there are a handful of factors that can speed up, slow down or even stop your progress.

Remember: “You are not aiming to hit 50 balls; you are trying to become more skillful.”

There are the two major factors that stop golfers improving. Try not to view them as switches that are on or off. Instead, view both factors as sliding scales. The more you can fine-tune each factor, the faster you will improve your golf.

1) Give your body clear and precise feedback

What is 2 + 2? Imagine if you were never given the answer to this question at school. If you weren’t, you would never know the answer. Similarly, imagine you made a golf swing and the instant you hit the golf ball it disappeared. How would you know what to do on your next attempt to hit a straighter shot?

In both cases, feedback is the missing ingredient. Feedback comes from the shot outcome, watching the ball flight and many other sensations we get during our golf swing. As soon as our body does not have clear and precise feedback our learning will stop.

When we first learn to play golf, the feedback required to improve is simple – did the ball move at all, and did it get airborne? As we progress, we then need more precise feedback to keep developing our skill.

As a 20 handicapper, we need to know if the ball finished 10 or 15 yards right of our target. When we become an elite player, the requirement for feedback becomes even more stringent. The difference between a wedge shot landing 103 or 107 yards becomes important. This type of feedback, known as knowledge of results, is focused on the result of your golf shot.

“If your body can’t tell the difference between two outcomes, you will not make any changes – learning will not occur.”

To learn, we also require another form of feedback, known as knowledge of performance. In essence, your body needs to know what it did to cause “x.” Relevant practice drills, training aids and videoing your swing are all useful ways to increase feedback on performance. The best form of feedback, however, is an internal understanding of your swing and how it causes different ball flights. This is an implicit skill all great golfers master, and a by-product of many hours of diligent practice, refinement and understanding.

Many golfers hit a brick wall in their golfing journey when their practice stops providing the precise feedback they need to keep improving. They may not have enough information about their shot outcome, or they may not understand how the golf swing causes various shots. Both will completely halt your golfing progress.

Next time you practice, think of ways you can obtain clearer feedback. You don’t need Trackman by your side (although this can be helpful), but pay attention to where your shots finish during putting and chipping practice and note these trends. Find landmarks behind your golf range to gauge the lateral error of your long shots.

If you’re working on your swing path through the point of impact, one way of obtaining feedback on your performance is to place a bottle or a second ball on the ground. To put it simply, if the bottle/ball flies, you’ll know you’ve made a bad swing. Another way, if you are trying to improve your iron striking, is to place a towel one inch behind the ball to indicate whether or not you have hit the ground before the ball. These ideas are not mind-blowing, but trust me; they will speed up your rate of learning.

2) Make your practice suitably difficult

When you first go to the gym, lifting the lightest weight you can find is fine. But how much would your fitness improve if you were still lifting that same weight 12 months later? Now think of how your golf practice has changed over the past 12 months. If you were asked, could you explain the level of difficulty of your practice?

The reason many golfers can’t answer this question is they don’t have a good measure of success when they practice. Most golfers don’t have a quantifiable way to say “that shot I just hit was or wasn’t good enough.” Even fewer golfers have a way to say “this week my practice performance was 20 percent better than last week.” If you fall into this category, try the following game the next time you practice your long game.

Structure your practice so that you have set target zones (10 yards and 20 yards wide) with points for hitting each zone (3 and 1 points respectively). Take a set amount of balls (20 balls) and see how many points you can score with a 6-iron and a driver (10 balls with each). Each week, play this game and track your progress. We’ll call this game the “WRX Range Challenge.”

Set a goal for how many points you want to achieve. This goal should be challenging, but not impossible. When you reach this goal, make your target zones smaller and repeat the process. This way you can track your progress over time. As you make the target zones smaller and smaller, your body has to continually refine your swing to make it more effective.

Summary

We all want to improve our golf. We all want to get better at a quicker rate. The two factors discussed here are obvious and yet are not addressed by many golfers when they practice. Next time you head to the range or practice ground, ensure you have clear feedback on your shot outcome and golfing technique. Make your practice measurable, suitably difficult and enjoy watching your scores progress.

If you do try out the WRX Range Challenge, let us know. Post your score and a photo: #WRXrangechallenge @GolfWRX and me @golfinsideruk on Twitter and Instagram.

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