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Opinion & Analysis

The Basics to Projecting Tour Winners

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Each week on my blog, I pick 10 players to win the PGA Tournament at hand. This is based on historical data as to what type of players the particular golf course favors along with three-year, five-year and 10-year averages in order to determine what holes are most critical to having success in the tournament and what players are most likely to play those holes the best. With the picks, I list the actual Vegas odds of the player being the outright winner of the tournament.

A couple of weeks ago in an interview with Matt Adams on his “Fairways of Life” show, he asked me to pick a winner and a dark horse for the Tampa Bay Championship. I selected Adam Scott as the favorite who was at 14:1 odds to win the tournament. But, the data suggested that Kevin Streelman was likely to play well at the tournament and I mentioned that he was my dark horse pick who was at 200:1 odds. Streelman went on to make me look really smart by winning his first PGA Tour event of his career and his first win in any tournament in five years since he won his local club championship in Arizona.

While there are some courses that certain golfers just seem to play well because the course fits their eye, it is very obvious that certain courses tend to favor players with certain strengths in their game. This week’s Shell Houston Open favors bombers as the course is fairly forgiving off the tee and each of the par-5s are very long. A course like Pebble tends to favor putting (Brandt Snedeker won) because the greens are so difficult to putt on. And a course like Innisbrook tends to favor driving and what I call “danger zone” play (shots from 175-225 yards); both of which Streelman has done exceptionally well this year.

However, as I continued to make picks I started to notice that Vegas’ odds were fairly accurate. There would be times that the data would heavily favor a certain player and when I would look up his odds, they would end up being a long shot to win and then he would put forth a poor performance. It’s the old mantra of “Vegas knows something we don’t.”

Eventually, I started to see what Vegas favors when it comes to making odds: performance in previous events.

While it is not the most accurate way to pick winners, I think that if a person can get a good idea of the style of game a course favors and the player’s performance in previous events, that person can better pick players for a fantasy golf leagues. I also think it gives a good idea of how important confidence and momentum is to a golfer’s success on Tour.

First, here’s a look over the last five years of the tournament winners and what they did in the tournament the previous week (made cut, missed cut or did not play).

Table 1

I did not count winners who played a WGC event in the previous week since there is no cut in those tournaments. I did count the first event of the FedEx playoffs, which is usually the Wyndham Championship. But, I did not count the rest of the playoffs since the design of the playoff system would skew the data.

With that said, we still see these results:

Made Cut Prior Week: 64 out of 166 players (38.6 percent)

Did Not Play Prior Week: 79 out of 166 players (47.6 percent)

Missed Cut Prior Week: 23 out of 166 players (13.9 percent)

There are few interesting parts here. For starters, 86.2 percent of the winners in the last five years on Tour either made the cut or did not play in the prior week’s tournament. The other is that the winners were more likely to have not played in the previous week’s event than to have made the cut in the previous week’s event. Lastly, many of the winners that did miss the cut in the previous week’s event won at a minor event like the Puerto Rico Open or they missed the cut in a major and won the following week.

I think this shows how important confidence and momentum can be for a player’s success on Tour. That is why Steve Stricker’s limited schedule makes sense. A golfer can struggle in a tournament, take a week or two off to regroup and have better odds of winning the next tournament than if he plays in a tournament and continues to miss cuts. And if you’re a player who has made a cut in a tournament, you probably should look to continue to ride that streak as it may lead to victory.

I also found another commonality in winners on Tour in that they have played in that tournament at least once before. Here’s a look at the winners from the past five years and whether or not they had played in the tournament previously.

Table 2

For regular Tour events, I only looked at tournaments where the same course was played in the previous year. For Majors, I counted any player who had played in that Major before. But once again, 86.2 percent of the winners over the past five years have previous experience in the tournament they won.

With that, over the last five years there was less than a 2 percent chance that a winner would be a golfer who had no tournament experience and missed the cut in the previous week’s tournament.

Therefore, I believe winning on Tour has a lot to do with getting a course that suits a player’s strengths, a player that has been playing fairly well recently and a player who has some sort of experience playing the tournament before. Mix in a little bit of luck and great things can happen.

But, for those of you who like to play in fantasy golf leagues or play the Vegas odds, I think this gives a general guideline of what players to avoid picking.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2015 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2015 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

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1 Comment

  1. Blanco

    Mar 31, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Really interesting article. I always suspected your methodology would be a safe bet, but have never had the time or wherewithal to get all those tidbits… Any good sites that provide concise summaries of lesser known player’s strengths/weaknesses? Maybe another that gives info about the course, it’s tournament setup, and changes to the layout from year to year?

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Courses

Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers to many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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Opinion & Analysis

Be Curious, Not Critical, of Tour Player Swings

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After a foul ball by a tour player, the talking heads on TV are often quick to analyze the “problem” with that swing. Fair enough, I suppose. Even the best players are human and our game has more failure than success. But I’d like to offer a different take on swings of the best players in the world.

First, let’s remember how good these guys and gals really are. If you met up with the lowest ranked player on any professional tour at a public course one day, I’ll bet that golfer would be the best golfer most of you have ever played with. You’d be telling your buddies in the 19th hole about him or her for a very long time. These players have reached a level of ball striking most people only dream about. That’s why I’m more curious than critical when it comes to a tour player’s swing. I’m not thinking about what he/she needs to do better; I’m thinking, “How do they do it so well?” In other words, I want to know how they put their successful move together. What part goes with the other parts? How did their pattern evolve? What are the compatible components of their swing?

Let’s use Jim Furyk as an example. Furyk has what we might call an “unconventional” move. It’s also a swing that has won nearly $70 million and shot 58 one day. But I’ll offer him as an example because his swing illustrates the point I’m making. From a double-overlapping grip, Furyk picks the golf club up to what might be the most vertical position one would ever see from a professional. Then in transition, he flattens the club and drops it well behind him. Now the club is so flat and inside, he has to open his body as quickly as he can to keep the club from getting “stuck.” Let’s call it an “up-and-under loop.”

Let’s take Matt Kuchar as a counter example. Kuchar’s signature hands-in, flat and very deep takeaway is pretty much the total opposite of Furyk. But he comes over that takeaway and gets the club back into a great position into impact. We’ll call that an “in-and-over” loop.

Both are two of the best and most consistent golfers in the world. Is one right and the other wrong? Of course not. They do have one thing in common, however, and it’s that they both balanced their golf swing equation.

What would happen if Kuchar did what Furyk does coming down? Well, he wouldn’t be on TV on the weekend. If he did, he’d be hitting drop kicks several inches behind. That doesn’t win The Players Championship. The point is that the Furyk downswing is incompatible with the Kuchar backswing, and vice versa, but I’m guessing they both know that.

How can this help you? My own personal belief and the basis of my teaching is this: your backswing is an option, but your downswing is a requirement. I had one student today dropping the arms and club well inside and another coming over the top, and they both felt better impact at the end of the lesson. I showed them how to balance their equation.

My job is solving swing puzzles, a new one very hour, and I’m glad it is. It would be mind-numbing boredom if I asked every golfer to do the same thing. It’s the teaching professional’s job to solve your puzzle, and I assure you that with the right guidance you can make your golf swing parts match. Are there universal truths, things that every golfer MUST do?  Yes, they are the following:

  1. Square the club face
  2. Come into the ball at a good angle
  3. Swing in the intended direction
  4. Hit the ball in the center of the face (method be damned!)

But here’s the funny part: Let Kuchar or Furyk get off base and watch every swing critic in the world blame some part of the quirkiness of their move that has led to their greatness. When players at their level get off their game, it’s generally due to poor timing or that they lost the sync/rhythm that connected their individual parts. The same holds true for all of us. We have to find the matching parts and the timing to connect them. You might not need new parts.

After all, weren’t those same parts doing the job when you shot your career low round?

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Opinion & Analysis

The numbers behind “full scholarships” in NCAA men’s college golf

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If you are in the world of junior golf, you’ve probably heard about a young man you know who’s getting that coveted full ride to college, maybe even to a Power-5 school. With all the talk in junior golf about full scholarships, and a lot of rumors about how many are available, we decided to poll coaches and gather some real data about “full scholarships.”

So, what did we find out? In total, we got responses to a voluntary online survey from 61 men’s D1 coaches, 19 men’s D2 coaches and 3 NAIA coaches (83 total). On average, the coaches in the survey had 11.8 years of coaching experience. Of the coaches that responded, 58 of the 83 coaches reported having zero players on full ride. Another 15 coaches surveyed reported having one player on full ride. This means that 69 percent of the coaches surveyed reported zero players on full scholarship and 18 percent reported one player on full scholarship, while another four coaches reported that 20 percent of their team was on full ride and six coaches reported between 2-3 players on full ride.

We then asked coaches, “what percent of golfers in Division 1 do you think have full scholarships based on your best guess?” Here’s what the responses looked like: 25 coaches said 5 percent and 36 coaches said 10 percent. This means that 73 percent of respondents suggested that, in their opinion, in men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA, there are less than 10 percent of players on full ride.

Next, we asked coaches, “what was a fair scholarship percentage to offer a player likely to play in your top 5?” The average of the 83 responses was 62.5 percent scholarship with 38 coaches (46 percent) suggesting they would give 30-50 percent and 43 coaches (52 percent) suggesting 50-75 percent. Only two coaches mentioned full scholarship.

The last question we asked coaches, was “what would you need to do to earn a full scholarship?”

  • Top-100 in NJGS/Top-250 in WAGR – 41 coaches (49 percent)
  • 250-700 in WAGR – 19 coaches (23 percent)
  • Most interesting, 17 coaches (20 percent) noted that they either did not give full rides or did not have the funding to give full rides.

The findings demonstrate that full rides among players at the men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA levels are rare, likely making up less than 10 percent of total players. It also suggests that if you are a junior player looking for a full ride, you need to be exceptional; among the very best in your class.

Please note that the survey has limitations because it does not differentiate between athletic and academic money. The fact is several institutions have a distinct advantage of being able to “stack” academic and athletic aid to create the best financial packages. My intuition suggests that the coaches who responded suggesting they have several players on “full rides” are likely at places where they are easily able to package money. For example, a private institution like Mercer might give a student $12,000 for a certain GPA and SAT. This might amount to approximately 25 percent, but under the NCAA rules it does not count toward the coach’s 4.5 scholarships. Now for 75 percent athletic, the coach can give a player a full ride.

Maybe the most interesting finding of the data collection is the idea that many programs are not funded enough to offer full rides. The NCAA allows fully funded men’s Division 1 programs to have 4.5 scholarships, while Division 2 programs are allowed 3.6. My best guess suggests that a little more than 60 percent of men’s Division 1 programs have this full allotment of scholarship. In Division 2, my guess is that this number is a lot closer to 30 percent.

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