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Hot & Cold: Where strokes were won and lost at the Honda Classic

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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. Last week saw one of the most dramatic Sunday’s thus far in 2019, and here’s a look at where some of the most notable players gained and lost strokes over the four days of action.

Hot

There is only one man to begin this section with, and that’s the winner himself, Keith Mitchell. Mitchell came into the event with three missed cuts in his last four tournaments, and unlike many breakthrough winners on Tour, Mitchell didn’t claim victory due to an exceptionally hot putter in Florida. Mitchell gained less than a stroke with the flat-stick for the four days of action at PGA National, which was less than any other player who finished in the top-six, and significantly less than every other winner on the PGA Tour so far in 2019.

What Mitchell did was produce the performance of his career tee to green. The American led the field in strokes gained tee to green for the four days with a total of 11.9 strokes. Sergio Garcia was the only other player in the event to gain double digits over the field in this department. Click here to see what driver, woods and irons Mitchell had in his bag at PGA National.

Rickie Fowler came agonizingly close to forcing a playoff on late Sunday evening, and unlike in Phoenix where he scorched the course with his flat-stick, the 30-year-old did his best work last week with his long game. Equipped with his Cobra F9 driver, Cobra Forged irons, and Cobra V-grind wedges, Fowler gained 7.8 strokes over the field for his play tee to green. Only once since 2017 (last year’s PGA Championship) has Fowler gained more strokes in a tournament in this department.

Brooks Koepka was another man to miss out on a playoff on Sunday night narrowly, but his performance on the greens will buoy the American. After losing strokes to the field on the greens in seven of his last nine events on Tour, Koepka gained almost four strokes over the field with his Titleist Scotty Cameron Tour Only T10 Select Newport at PGA National. However, it’s Koepka’s iron play with his Mizuno JPX 919 Tour Irons which spearheaded his charge in Florida. Koepka gained 6.6 strokes over the field for his approach play last week, the third-best total of his career and best since 2017.

Cold

Known throughout his illustrious career as being one of the best putters in the game, last week Zach Johnson suffered a nightmare on PGA National’s Bermuda greens. Johnson lost strokes each day on the greens and finished the event with a negative total of 6.7 strokes with the flat-stick. Johnson was the second worst in the field in this department, and the total is Johnson’s worst strokes gained putting statistic post-2011.

Webb Simpson came into the Honda Classic boasting seven straight events on Tour where he had gained strokes over the field for his approach play and sitting third on Tour for the season for strokes gained approaching the green. Simpson, however, struggled mightily with his iron play at the Honda Classic, losing 4.7 strokes to the field for his approach shots. It was a case of what could have been for Simpson, who gained strokes in every other significant strokes gained statistics and finished the event T36. Only on two different occasions has Simpson lost more strokes to the field with his approach play in his career.

Justin Thomas failed to get himself into contention at the Honda Classic settling in the end for a T30 finish. One area of Thomas’ game which was off all week was his approach play. Thomas lost 3.2 strokes to the field with his irons at PGA National, and incredibly, it is the first time Thomas has lost strokes for his approach shots since the WGC-Mexico in March of last year.

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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 @giannimosquito

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Opinion & Analysis

Squares2Circles: Course strategy refined by a Ph.D.

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What do you get when you combine Division I-level golf talent, a Ph.D. in Mathematics, a passion for understanding how people process analytical information, and a knowledge of the psychology behind it? In short, you get Kevin Moore, but the long version of the story is much more interesting.

Kevin Moore attended the University of Akron on a golf scholarship from 2001-2005. Upon completing his tenure with the team, he found himself burned out on the game and promptly hung up his sticks. For a decade.

After completing his BS and MS degrees at the University of Akron, Kevin then went to Arizona State to pursue his Ph.D. Ultimately what drew him to the desert was the opportunity to research the psychology behind how people process analytical information. In his own words:

“My research in mathematics education is actually in the realm of student cognition (how students think and learn). From that, I’ve gained a deep understanding of developmental psychology in the mathematical world and also a general understanding of psychology as a whole; how our brains work, how we make decisions, and how we respond to results.”

In 2015, Kevin started to miss the game he loved. Now a professor of mathematics education at the University of Georgia, he dusted off his clubs and set a goal to play in USGA events. That’s when it all started to come together.

“I wanted to play some interesting courses for my satellite qualifiers and I wasn’t able to play practice rounds to be able to check them out in advance. So I modified a math program to let me do all the strategic planning ahead of time. I worked my way around the golf course, plotting out exactly how I wanted to hit  shot, and minimizing my expected score for each hole. I bundled that up into a report that I could study to prepare for the rounds.

“I’m not long enough to overpower a golf course, so I needed to find a way to make sure I was putting myself in the best positions possible to minimize my score. There might be a pin position on a certain green where purposely hitting an 8-iron to 25 feet is the best strategy for me. I’ll let the rest of the field take on that pin and make a mistake even if they’re only hitting wedge. I know that playing intelligently aggressive to the right spot is going to allow me to pick up fractions of strokes here and there.”

His plan worked, too. Kevin made it to the USGA Mid-Amateur at Charlotte Country Club in September of 2018 using this preparation method for his events just three years after taking a decade off of golf. In case you missed the implied sentiment, that’s extremely impressive. When Kevin showed his reports to some friends that played on the Web.com Tour and the Mackenzie Tour, they were so impressed they asked him to think about generating them for other people. The first group he approached was the coaching staff at the University of Georgia, who promptly enlisted his services to assist their team with course strategy in the spring of 2019. That’s when Squares2Circles really started to get some traction.

At that point, UGA hadn’t had a team win in over two seasons. They also hadn’t had an individual winner in over one season and had missed out on Nationals the previous two seasons. In the spring of 2019, they had three team wins (including winning Regionals to advance to Nationals) and two individual wins (including Davis Thompson’s win at Regionals). Obviously, the credit ultimately belongs to the players on the team, but suffice it to say it appears as though Kevin’s involvement with the team was decidedly useful.

“One of the things we really focused in on was par 3 scoring. They finished 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in the field as a team in their spring tournaments. Then at the SEC’s they struggled a bit and finished 6th in the field. At Regionals, they turned it around and finished 1st in the field with a score of +6 across 60 scores (186 total on 60 par 3’s, an average of 3.10).”

Sample Squares2Circles layout for the 18th hole at Muirfield Village. Advanced data redacted.

Kevin is available outside of his work with UGA and has been employed by other D-I teams (including his alma mater of Akron), Mackenzie Tour players, Web.com Tour players, and competitive juniors as well. Using his modified math program, he can generate generic course guides based on assumed shot dispersions, but having more specific Trackman data for the individual allows him to take things to a new level. This allows him to show the player exactly what their options are with their exact carry numbers and shot dispersions.

“Everything I do is ultimately based off of strokes gained data. I don’t reinvent the wheel there and I don’t use any real new statistics (at least not yet), but I see my role as interpreting that data. Let’s say a certain player is an average of -2.1 on strokes gained approach over the last 10 rounds. That says something about his game, but it doesn’t say if it’s strategy or execution. And it doesn’t help you come up with a practice plan either. I love to help players go deeper than just the raw data to help them understand why they’re seeing what they’re seeing. That’s where the good stuff is. Not just the data, but the story the data tells and the psychology behind it. How do we get ourselves in the right mindset to play golf and think through a round and commit to what we’re doing?”

“Even if you’re able to play practice rounds, this level of preparation turns those practice rounds into more of an experiment than a game plan session. You go into your practice round already knowing the golf course and already having a plan of attack. This allows you to use that practice round to test that game plan before the competition starts. You may decide to tweak a few things during your practice round based on course conditions or an elevation change here and there, but for the most part it’s like you’ve gained a free practice round. It allows you to be more comfortable and just let it fly a lot earlier.”

Kevin is in the process of building his website, but follow @squares2circles on Twitter for more information and insight.

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Podcasts

The Gear Dive: Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf Innovation on Cobra Connect, new ways to evaluate good play, and the future of golf improvement.

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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Mondays Off: U.S. Open wrap-up | Steve plays against the new assistant pro

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Would Woodland have won the U.S. Open if he had to hit driver on the 18th hole? Knudson doesn’t think so. Steve loved the U.S. Open, but he didn’t really love the commentator crew. Also, Steve tees it up with the new second assistant pro at the club, how did he do?

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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