Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the PGA Tour is in the process of being handed quite an opportunity to grow by rival sports and their leagues. It might sound crazy, with the NFL dominating our Sundays and making the PODS championship, or whatever it is called next year, a distant second on even an avid golfer’s list of priorities. But I believe this to be the case. The tide might be ready to turn again, and the sports we choose to watch could be ready for another momentum shift.
Crazy right? Four major sports have dominated television ratings for a while now — the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, with golf hoping to sneak in during majors or whenever Tiger Woods is playing. But these things tend to be a bit more fickle then we give them credit for. The NFL has ruled the last 15 years, led by shorter seasons than most, neatly bunched games on Sundays, parity keeping every fan base interested and fantasy football drawing even people who didn’t play football into watching it. But this wasn’t always the case.
Before free agency kicked in and fans in places other then Dallas or New York had reasons to watch games, the late 80’s and early-to-mid 90’s saw many people praising basketball as “America’s new game.” It was a time where Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s battles captivated Americans, where Michael Jordan’s struggles against the Piston’s Bad Boys and his eventual championship three-peat (capped off with a win against the outspoken media darling Charles Barkley) brought the NBA to being arguably the hottest sport in the U.S. Before that, it was pretty much standard practice to call Major League baseball “the national pastime.” But drawn-out, boring games in the Internet age and the decrease in American stars shifted it to the back burner.
Football will soon have issues to deal with. Player health and safety concerns could cause some problems, either legally or by cutting out the natural funnel of talent as children stop playing it (this is more realistic than you think right now). Pro hockey is mired in a lockout that no one seems to care about. Major League Baseball is still limping along as it has the last 10-to-15 years — still pretty boring to watch for the casual fan. Think about it, I’m guessing your girlfriend would rather watch golf with you than baseball, right? And the NBA? Well, the NBA is actually in a pretty great spot.
What about golf? It’s a sport that is safe to play and becoming more and more affordable every year, as courses fight for our dollars in a struggling economy. Can golf capitalize on some of its young stars in conjunction with the struggles of other sports? I believe it can, but it starts at the top.
The PGA Tour needs to become more compelling. It needs to make people want to watch and want to play, because there are a lot of fans out there waiting to be wooed. And with the young talent on Tour right now, it doesn’t seems crazy to implement some fresh ideas. Here are a few things that could give golf a boost:
The most puzzling thing to me about the PGA Tour is the lack of an all-star weekend. How on earth has this one been missed? I mean, does Tim Finchem not watch any other sports on TV? Not only should the PGA Tour have an all-star weekend — I’m convinced it could be the BEST all-star weekend of any sport. Between the Masters and the Open Championship, there are some great tournaments – the RBC Heritage, the Wells Fargo Championship, The Players Championship and The Memorial. But other tournaments, such as the Zurich Classic, HP Byron Nelson Classic, Crowne Plaza Invitational and the FedEx St. Jude Classic don’t pack much of a punch. You’re telling me those sponsor wouldn’t rather be a part of something as cool as a PGA Tour All-Star Weekend.
Fans would go nuts to see Bubba Watson face off against J.B. holmes in a long drive content. And Phil Mickelson in a flop wall contest or Luke Donald in a skills competition? That’s must-see TV.
You are probably thinking that a lot of pros wouldn’t show up, but I beg to differ. There’s nothing the pros like more then easy money. The purse this year at The Greenbrier Classic was $6 million, which is why the second-tier PGA Tour event attracted golf’s two biggest names, Tiger and Phil. That proves that when big money is on the table, the pros take notice.
As far as actual golf, I’m thinking 27 holes with 9 on Saturday afternoon and 18 on Sunday. You could use a modified Stableford format that greatly increases points for birdies and eagles. You think these guys are good? You would surely see that watching them flag hunt for 27 straight holes. I’m convinced this would do as well in the ratings as anything other than the majors. Plus, it would help grow the game.
Country club-style tournaments
Another thing I don’t really get about the PGA Tour is the lack of diversity in its tournaments. Fans scream and scream for match play for example, and that seems to get shot down because the sponsors want some assurance that the television cameras can show Tiger on Sunday. I get it; I mean, I guess I do. But does that really mean we have to watch 30 tournaments every year using the exact same format?
With the increasing trend of seeing pros line their schedule with WGC’s, the Majors, the Middle East tournaments, The Players and the FedExCup (that’s half your schedule or more right there), there seems to be a real struggle from some of the lesser-known tournaments to attract sponsors and draw a field. Maybe they could get a bit creative you know? Country clubs all over the world have several different formats for tournaments that get members excited. Why couldn’t these work on the PGA Tour? Why couldn’t there be a team best ball event early in the season, like at Kapalua for example? Four rounds playing with a partner would be a good way to work on the game early in the year with less pressure, plus it would offer something different for fans to watch.
But to me, the biggest head scratcher of all is the lack of a “big money” Vegas tournament. HOW ON EARTH DOES THIS NOT EXIST? Every single club in America has a big money Vegas, and it’s usually one of the most fun weekends during the entire year. You couldn’t replace a tournament with this? There are 15 tournaments before the Masters! 15! If you are a fan, would you rather watch the Tampa Bay Championship or a three player team Vegas event? Maybe make 20 teams of three, one player ranked between Nos. 1 through 20, another from Nos. 20 through 40 and another from Nos. 40 through 60. You know, something like that. Have it be a two-day event with the pro-am Friday and throw a big purse at it. Cha-ching!
Again, I think there would be a good turnout since the field would be limited and there would be a greater chance to earn a bigger paycheck. Plus, it would be really great to watch and analyze. You know how golfers at country clubs spend hours analyzing the teams in the bar with everyone else, talking trash? You’re telling me a big-money team event wouldn’t lead off Morning Drive every day for a week and spawn countless threads about which team meshes together the best?
Fix the FedExCup
OK it’s been a few years now, and I’m yet to be convinced that the FedExCup is actually a playoff. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big supporter of the FedExCup and think it has a lot of potential. But it was pretty obvious the format was screwed since Jump Street. With Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh winning early on so convincingly, the Tour Championship became irrelevant. The reaction from the Tour was more predictable then the ending to a Night Shyamalan movie (No, I don’t mean that it’s a trick, I mean that it’s going to be bad). To combat the lack of volatility of the earlier years, the PGA Tour made the FedEx cup so volatile that it basically was reduced to being won by whoever won the Tour Championship. Congratulations Brant Snedeker and Bill Haas. It kind of takes some of the credibility away from the whole “Season-Long playoff event,” doesn’t it?
I understand the Tour has a problem in that they don’t want the thing over before East Lake, and they also want a way of guaranteeing they can show some Tiger and Rory on the weekend (so long pure match play), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to do this.
Here is my suggestion — Have the Tour Championship come down to an eight-person match play on Saturday and Sunday. To guarantee that there will be some big names, break it down is as follows:
Top-4 point getters from the regular season are automatically given byes to the weekend at East Lake as the top 4 seeds. This guarantees that the regular season, you know, counts for something and also that guys like Tiger, Rory and Phil could earn their way in without having to perform well only in the Playoffs. They would have the option of playing in The Playoffs to warm-up or just to pick up a check, but their spot is guaranteed at East Lake.
The winners of each playoff event are also given a bye into the match play portion at East Lake (Barclays winner gets the No. 7 seed, Deutsche Bank winner gets the No. 6 seed, etc). If one of the already exempt players wins a playoff event, then no one gets the spot and it gets delayed until the Thursday-Friday portion of the Tour Championship.
On that Thursday-Friday, the remaining spot or spots for the Match Play segment are decided by a play-in tournament that rewards the highest cumulative FedExCup points score of any non-exempt player in the playoffs. It would be points in the first three events, as well as the Thursday and Friday stroke play at East Lake combined. And there you have it, a mix of big names and hot players, dueling it out in match play on the weekend at East Lake. Try and tell me that wouldn’t be more compelling than what we currently have, and that sponsors could legitimately complain about it. You can’t convince me that would happen.
Scrap and replace the Presidents Cup
I am Canadian, so the Presidents Cup is supposed to be relevant for me. But I can pretty much tell you that it isn’t. I attended the Match Play portion of the Presidents Cup at Royal Montreal about 10 minutes from where I live in 2007. I watched Mike Weir defeat Tiger and watched the fans go nuts for that. But the fans didn’t care who won the actual event.
It was cool to watch golf, and fans overall showed a bit more preference to the international squad, but I think that it boils down to it being more of a fun jab at our neighbors to the south more thn anything, who we trade barbs with on occasion. But no one was hurt when the Internationals lost. I don’t think anyone playing or watching REALLY cares about the Presidents Cup, so why not replace it with someone genuinely interesting? Here is my suggestion:
There’s too much history and too much sports rivalry involved between Europe and the U.S. for the Presidents Cup to rival the Ryder Cup, so don’t try and compete with it. Change the format to something a little more fun.
Why not have the top-2 ranked players in the world get selected as captains and have them each draft a 12-man squad. No rules or country alliances, just straight drafting. Anyone is eligible anywhere in the world. Captains would pick teams, come up with a team name and then they would play against each other in the same manner as the Presidents Cup format. As with the Vegas tournament I proposed, how much fun would this be to analyze? How much discussion would spawn over why Rory picked this guy or that guy? You wouldn’t want to watch this more then the boring Presidents Cup? And of course, as with the other suggestions, forget the history or honor associated with playing in the event. Sell out to corporate sponsors and offer $5 million to the winning team. I’m pretty sure that will keep the competition fierce.
The 19th Hole: Host Michael Williams plays Shinnecock Hills and reports back
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!
TG2: What’s it like to caddie for Rory? GolfWRX Forum Member shares his experience
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!
An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team
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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