Bigger, faster, stronger….longer. That might as well be our adopted cultural motto. This doesn’t just apply to sports, mind you. People have always been very quick to pull out the measuring tape to compete with others in most ways, shapes and forms.
The measure of a person always seems to be measurable, doesn’t it? Or at the very least, more about the catchy sizzle then the substantive steak. This isn’t even a very recent phenomena. Our desire to reduce ourselves to this dates back to our origins. Not that we need to go back that far, but one certainly doesn’t need to think hard to come up with a few examples.
Baseball fans might remember Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux telling us that “chicks dig the long ball” in a famous 1990s commercial that spoofed on the popularity of the home-run-hitting Mark McGuire, as oppose to their brand of crafty pitching. How about the Cadillac CTS-V commercials in 2010 detailing the exact times its car was able to circle the famous Nurburgring circuit in Germany in order to call it the world’s fastest production sedan? To this day, I wonder how many CTS-V owners drive their car in such a manner, or if it would have mattered if their car had come up a few seconds short of a BMW M5 in the commercial. Would they still have bought it?
Want to go back further? How about the railroad and mining tycoons of the Guilded Age, trying to outdo each other by building the world’s biggest houses. Or before that, European and American naturalists and archeologists arguing over which side of the pond was more manly by comparing how big the respective fossils they found were (yes this actually happened, and actually involved Thomas Jefferson). Golfers want to hit the ball further then their friends. They just do. Original equipment manufacturers (OEM) know this, and for the past few years, they have been selling clubs to us has been like shooting fish in a barrel.
But the questions we want to ask, or should be asking ourselves is: Why do we believe we are going to hit the ball longer? And are distances really increasing to back up OEMs claims and promises?
First, why do we believe the claims? Well, we believe because we want to believe, and because what we see on TV can be a bit confusing. With a drive, the average golfer hits the ball roughly a bit longer than the length of two football fields. If we are to focus more closely on males between the ages of 18 to 49, which for many markets is the target consumer, I’m going to guess that would go up a little bit. I don’t have exact facts to back this up but I’d certainly think 220 yards is reasonable to guess.
If you were to ask the average golfer from that bracket, he would probably tell you that pros hit the ball 300 yards regularly, and based on that they’d probably think he is way behind their potential for how far they can hit. Naturally, he’d be wrong. Pros don’t hit the ball 300 yards regularly, in fact my colleague just printed that the average PGA pros carry distance carry the ball roughly 269 yards. Think about that for a second. Joe Couch-Potato hits the ball within 82 percent of the average pro. Ummm, isn’t that pretty good?
If I can humor you for a second with tales from my youth, I could tell you that I was a fairly athletic teenager. I ran track for my high school team, and was a decent junior baseball player. The fastest I ever threw a baseball when clocked was 73 mph, and the fastest I ever ran the 100-meter dash was in (if I remember correctly) 12 seconds. Neither is that terrible. I’d venture a guess that most people couldn’t top either, and both those marks are about the same percentage off the average pro as your average drive compared to a golfing pro. What would you tell your friend if he told you he was going to buy new shoes so he could get closer to the 10-second 100-meter dash? You’d probably tell him he’s crazy.
Further diluting things is total distance, which is completely irrelevant. The courses amateurs play are completely different then the ones pros play, and total distance is all but meaningless. Every 340-yard drive you see is suspect, because the fairways the pros play are similar to the greens the average golfer plays. Again, if I can tell you tales of my own exploits, my carry distance with driver is very similar to the average pro, roughly 265 yards. I can tell you that I have had days where I’ve averaged more than 300 yards off the tee when playing hard and fast courses, and days where I’ve hit balls that have stuck in the ground. Carry distance is all that matters really. Next time you play your local municipal, imagine how much further you’d hit it if the fairways were as hard as the greens. Pros can get 50-plus yards of roll, remember that.
Iron shots aren’t much more reliable, because not a tournament goes by where the casual fan will see a pro line up a shot and hear the announcer say, “Here’s Kuchar, hitting 7-iron from 195,” and naturally the thought process is that pros absolutely murder their irons. This again is a bit of a misnomer, as all announcers really have to go by is the word of the players caddy, or an educated guess. And it’s not like caddies are always going to tell the truth; why not make his pro seem superhuman?
Another important data point is the release the pros get on greens, so be sure to pay attention to where the ball lands. It’s not uncommon for a pro to hit 5-iron to a 225 yard par 3. Notice that a lot of times, the ball lands on the front of the green rolls to the back. The pro might be carrying it 200 yards as oppose to 225. Still long, but not ridiculous. Chances are that you hit the ball further comparatively then you believe you do, and new clubs might not really change that.
The second question is: Are people really hitting it longer then they did? OEMs definitely want you to think so. It would be easy to pick on TaylorMade or Callaway, who seem to be at the forefront of the cold war of distance, and I will try to minimize the finger pointing. But both are engaged in campaigns of convincing players there are several yards to be found. TaylorMade in 2012 had its much publicized (and successful) “17” campaign, based on the premise that players would gain 17 yards by switching to its Rocketballz 3-wood. TaylorMade even had its players wear soccer-style jerseys on the course during last year’s WGC event at Doral promoting this, truly a first in golf marketing (note: the campaign was nixed mid round by the PGA Tour).
Callaway has responded by signing every big hitter this side of Art Sellinger to its staff, and airing ads where Alvaro Quiros smacks balls over the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. I can only imagine what they have in store for uber-driver Jamie Sadlowski! But the question really is, despite the theatrics, are players really hitting it further?
Distance numbers for amateurs are tough to come by. But not so much on the PGA Tour, where one would think technology would be just as beneficial. In 2012, Bubba Watson led the Tour in driving distance at 315 yards, Charlie Beljan was second at 311. In 2010, Robert Garrigus led the tour at 315 yards, and Watson was second at 309. In. 2008 Watson led the tour at 315 yards. Garrigus was second at 311. What about 2006? The one and only Watson led at 319 yards and J.B. Holmes was second at 318. Wait? Were people longer in 2006? Or what about in 2004, when Hank Kuehne set the still standing record of 321 yards and John Daly was second at 314 yards, a number that would have still ranked second in 2012?
This is before adjustable-lofted drivers, full acceptance of 460cc heads, speed slots and most other features you see listed as performance attributes of 2013 drivers. With all the supposed advancements, why aren’t we seeing evidence on the tour? Sure, more people are hitting it further these days and averaging 300 yards, but you could just as easily argue that is a case of simple Darwinism than equipment, as a result of the “Tiger Proofing” of courses (think about it, if all food in the world was on 10-foot shelves, chances are humans would have a higher vertical leap 100 years from now right?). But the longest guys don’t seem to be driving it further. To take it even a step further, in Jack Nicklaus’ “Golf my Way,” he says his driving distance was “250 and up.” This was with a sub-43-inch steel-shafted driver, wound balls and wooden heads.
How far would Nicklaus carry the ball with a 45-inch graphite-shaft, a modern titanium driver head and a Pro V1X? Probably Watson long, and these are all advancements that are a decade old right now. Fact is, Nicklaus could’ve probably changed nothing other than his golf ball and he would’ve carried as far as the average pro does today, or at least very close. So how far have we really come?
Irons are another fun discussion. I recently bought a set of refurbished Ping Eye2 irons and plan on using them in the 2013 season. The pitching wedge is 50.5 degrees. Read that again! My new pitching wedge is almost two-degrees weaker than my Mizuno JPX-800 gap wedge! When I started playing golf roughly eight years ago, most pitching wedges were around 46 to 47 degrees, and now in 2013, it is common for them to be 44 to 45 degrees. The loft of my first ever 7-iron (a Tommy Armour 845 Silver Scot) was 36 degrees, as compared to my last 7-iron, a Mizuno JPX-800 which was 32 degrees. That’s over a 10 percent difference in lofts! Taking that a step further: I could hit my last 7-iron 165 yards and my original 7-iron 150 yards with the exact same swing!
These are important things to remember when considering an iron purchase. Next time you hit clubs in the store further than your original set, make sure to check the specs. To come back to Jack Nicklaus’ yardages, in “Golf my Way,” he claimed he hit his 7-iron 140 to 155 yards, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But remember his 7-iron was really a modern 8-iron at least, and at worst relatively close to a 9-iron! Suddenly his yardages with a wound ball don’t seem so bad! So again, how far have we come with technology? Or really, is it more a clever way of selling?
Another random thing I remember from my youth was a Fox Network special where a masked magician revealed many of magic’s secrets. At the relatively anticlimactic end, he said that he did it not to shame anyone, or make himself famous. He did it to push other magicians to come up with new material, to force them to come up with new tricks. I wish we as consumers would force that upon golf manufacturers. I wish all golf publications and reviewers would mention things like loft and shaft length in their reviews, but many do not currently do that.
Golfers everywhere have spent $799 for new irons under pretenses they might not understand, and ended up with a 4-GW set that performs the exact same as their previous 3-PW set. It’s time we stopped whipping out the measuring stick and forced golf manufacturers to come up with something that really benefits us. This will not happen until golfers out there truly understand what is being sold to them and how flawed their basis of comparison is. Until then, OEMs will continue to feed us distance promises that don’t quite jive. I hope, in my most ambitious sense of optimism, that this can start us along that path.
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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