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The problems with Rory and traditional golf statistics

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Mark Twain was once said “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

This is often a popular adage from critics of an advanced metrics point of view. Normally this tends to occur with people who utilize anecdotal evidence to formulate their opinions and when the numbers tell them something they don’t like. The reality is that statistics do not lie, but incomplete and flawed statistics can lead to faulty analysis and conclusions derived from that analysis.

A prime example of this right now is the “fall” of Rory McIlroy’s play. People are stating that his dip in his performance is due to switching equipment. Johnny Miller thinks it is a giant mistake for Rory to switch his irons, as he did the same thing in his prime and he could never quite adjust to the change. Let’s take a look at his “traditional” golf metrics:

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As we can see, Rory is better this year in fairway percentage and greens in regulation. He has regressed in scrambling percentage. Most people, including statisticians, would agree that greens in regulation has a larger impact on Tour success than scramble percentage. So, why has Rory performed worse this year despite hitting more fairways and greens in regulation?

Let’s take a look at his putting. While putts gained is not a “traditional” metric, it’s becoming more accepted as a traditional metric. Is the putting the problem?

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The table shows that Rory is actually putting better this year than he did last year. It’s traditional metrics like GIR percentage, total driving and scramble percentage that tend to confuse golfers and consequently brush off metrics as “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

However, all it takes is to dig a little deeper and to use more detailed statistics and we start to see a better depiction of Rory’s play in 2012. Here’s a look at my main ballstriking metrics which include:

Driving effectiveness: A proprietary formula that uses the metrics of driving distance, fairway percentage, percentage of fairway bunkers hit, distance from the edge of the fairway and “missed fairways – other” to determine a player’s effectiveness off the tee.

Birdie zone: Proximity to the cup on approach shots from 75-125 yards.

Safe zone: Proximity to the cup on approach shots from 125-175 yards.

Danger zone: Proximity to the cup on approach shots from 175-225 yards.

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These numbers suggest that the new equipment is not an issue or at least the new irons have worked out better for him this year.

While he is less effective off the tee, considering this is based out of 190 players on Tour he is still a driving the ball great.

So, where is the issue?

From what I have gathered so far, I would look at the two largest statistical regressions: scrambling and driving.

First, let’s look at my metric called “short game play.” This is the average proximity to the cup on all shots that are no more than 20 yards away from the edge of the green. We have seen that Rory has improved his putts gained, so let’s see if his actual skills around the green have regressed.

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So yes, there has been a regression. But we simply cannot stop there because it is not a big enough regression to explain Rory’s dip in play from last year as we the numbers tell us that short game play does not have that large of an influence on a player’s score. Let’s drill down further and look at the attempts per round on shots from around the green.

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And here is where we start to see some of the issue with Rory’s play. While he has regressed a bit in his ability to get the ball closer to the cup on shots around the green, one major issue is that he is leaving himself with more shots from a longer distance. With that said, that still does not quite tell the entire story. So, let’s drill down and examine his driving a bit further.

We know that he’s hitting it about the same distance off the tee. We also know that he is hitting more fairways this year. Since he is less effective off the tee this year, that leaves it to examining what I call the precision metrics of driving as we have already examined the power (distance) and accuracy (fairway percentage) metrics of driving.

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And here is where we are starting to see more of the entire story into the regression of Rory’s play from 2012. Essentially, Rory is hitting his irons better and putting better. He’s hitting the ball virtually the same distance off the tee and is actually more accurate (fairway percentage), but he is much more imprecise off the tee this year and it is affecting his play despite the fact that he’s been better at the popular “traditional metric” greens in regulation percentage.

This is why I generally avoid examining greens in regulation percentage, particularly on the Tour level. For starters, it is too vague of a metric to really learn from. I have seen plenty of high GIR percentage players who struggle off the tee, but hit it great with their irons (Tiger). Conversely, I have seen high GIR percentage players who hit it great off the tee but have their struggles with the irons (Bubba Watson). It simply fails to tell the golfer how they get the ball on the green in regulation, either from a good drive or a good iron shot or both.

Secondly, across the board the numbers show that proximity to the cup has a higher correlation to success on Tour than GIR percentage. In fact, if you go to a Tour event it is obvious that Tour players have some sense of this as they are more apt to fire at a flag, even with trouble nearby, rather than to aim for the middle of the green. Simply put, the average Tour player makes one birdie putt outside 25 feet per 98 holes of golf!

Thus, Tour players instinctively understand that in order to make birdies on the course they need to get the birdie putt close to the hole. And most of the time the Tour players would take a 25-foot chip shot from off the green than the 50-foot putt that is on the green. And if you’re a golfer, you should probably do the same as well or start improving your short game enough so you start to want to have those much shorter chip shots over those longer putts.

What greens in regulation percentage does not tell us about Rory’s game is that he is hitting a higher percentage of greens in spite of being more imprecise with the driver. And what is happening is that when he misses a green it is coming more from a bad tee shot than a bad iron shot. Not only does that possibly mean that he is finding hazards and out of bounds more often (missed fairway –- other), but his bad drives are much worse this year and it leaves him with much more difficult shots to save par from.

So for now, I would say that the new irons and putter are actually helping Rory. But he now has to figure out how to get back his precision off the tee with the new driver. If he can, he’ll be even tougher to beat.

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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, 2017 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 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. John R

    Apr 20, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Am I understanding correctly? You’re saying that he’s hitting the ball pretty well but when he does miss, he misses big and it’s the occasional big miss that’s costing him. Is that right? Is it possible to validate that with some sort of hole-by-hole scoring comparison? In other words, could we say that in 2012 his scorecard doesn’t have enough big numbers on it but in 2013, there are always a couple of holes that have more influence on the high score?

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 20, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      John,

      You have the right idea. Essentially, his bad shots off the tee are worse than last year.

      Unfortunately, the Tour does not have track double bogeys or worse on their Web site. However, he was 27th in Bogey Avoidance last year…currently 93rd this year. He was 1st in Birdies last year, 7th this year. The bigger dropoff is obviously in the Bogeys.

  2. Nick

    Apr 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I think the analysis of Rory’s game is fascinating. That being said, the advice for the average player to fire for the flag is wrong. Pro level short game is so far and above that of the average player that the penalty they pay for a missed green is not even close to what your average weekend warrior plays. Hit a green, and your going to be in at probably two, three max. For plenty of amateurs, 4 strokes from the green side is not entirely uncommon, three is the most likely result. Obviously, the problem their is not firing at flags, its sub-standard short game but that’s what most amateurs are bringing to the table. Combine that with the fact that a pro’s dispersion with his irons is much smaller than an amateur, and I still think firing for center of green is the better play for those who aren’t playing off low/mid single digit handicaps or otherwise don’t have the game to go pin-seeking everytime and make it pay for them.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 19, 2013 at 8:51 am

      It depends on the difference in closer to the hole. While Tour players have very good short games, more amateurs would be better off with a 25 foot chip/pitch than a 50 foot putt. Now if it was a 25 foot shot from the bunker, that would be a different story. And he better amateurs tend to aim for the middle of the green way too often.

      That’s why they can shoot the scores they do despite a Tour average of a little under 12 greens in regulation while averaging 1 birdie putt made from greater than 25 feet for every 98 holes played.

      They are more capable of firing at a flag and if they miss…miss in the right spot and make for an easy up-and-down. If they don’t miss…they end up with a birdie putt that is close to the hole and give themselves a better chance of making the birdie.

      From the amateur data I’ve collected, most amateurs aim at the flag unless there is a bunker or water hazard in the way. The closer to scratch amateurs tend to aim at the middle of the green more often and when they fire at flags…they do not account for where the best spot is located if they miss the green. It’s really the greatest example of poor strategy that kills rounds for good amateurs.

      The best way I would explain it is that regardless of handicap, it should not be mandatory to have to hit 14+ GIR in order to shoot in the 60’s.

  3. Ivan

    Apr 18, 2013 at 2:34 am

    And what if Rory was struggling simply because he has done some changes at his swing?
    His hips seems less rotating during a driver swing …

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 18, 2013 at 10:35 am

      The only difficulty I have with that Ivan is he’s hitting the ball just as far and hitting more fairways. It could very well be the issue rather than the new driver.

      I don’t necessarily think it’s quite either. Rory is a fairly streaky player and he hits a gigantic draw off the tee. I think that plays into why he is streaky…when the ball is not drawing like it should he has difficulty playing for it. Take a player that hits a smaller draw if he starts drawing it more or less than normal, I don’t think it’s quite as big of a problem for them.

  4. Jack

    Apr 17, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    I’m confused by that his GIR hasn’t dropped, but his distance from the edge of fairway has. Since the distance from edge is a contributing factor to the GIR, doesn’t that just mean his iron play has gotten better? And yet the end result hasn’t changed (getting it on the green), so why? It seems like to me it’s his short game. He’s regressed with less attempts in the 10-20 range. Plus when you add up the totals he gets 4.77 strokes played within 40 yards and 4.48 for 2012. If GIR remains steady, then the lower short game strokes would be beneficial as a cumulative measure. This is getting too involved. I’m just going to blame it on the driver.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

      Good points, Jack.

      First, while he’s ranked 103rd in Avg. Distance From Edge of Fairway; that is actually a very good ranking for a golfer that hits it as far as he does. When he ranked 29th in 2012, that was downright outstanding for his length off the tee. Usually good drivers of the ball that are that long are around 150-165th in that metric. He’s also hitting more fairways and hitting his irons better.

      I think it’s fairly simple to see that he’s hitting a lot of great shots on the course and that is allowing him to hit more greens. But, it’s the occasional big miss off the tee (and fairway bunkers) that is really killing his game right now. He didn’t have that last year and that’s why he dominated.

  5. john

    Apr 17, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    he has only played less than 10 rounds… obviously his stats will look better. how about you write another article after the conclusion of the 2013 season? It doesn’t take rocket science to see rory’s struggle. you are just playing devil’s advocate saying all the analysis is wrong for saying he is playing bad..

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 17, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      John,

      I disagree with your point because I’m utilizing the rankings instead of pure numbers which makes the comparison more apples to apples.

      I think it’s obvious that Rory is struggling as well as I inferred that in the title. I’m going into *why* he is struggling in spite of traditional metrics like GIR being better (ranking wise) this year.

      And he’s hitting his new irons and putter better which was supposed to be a big part of his struggles. And he’s even doing some things with the driver better. He’s just hitting more of those occasional bad drives than he was last year and that is causing him to lose strokes whether it be off the tee or of the subsequent shots.

  6. Morgan

    Apr 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Fantastic article Rich, great read and very informative.

  7. christian

    Apr 17, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Personally, I would always think it is a biggger issue changing drivers than irons. Especially blade irons, the blade rory plays is probably more or less exactly the same as his old one. With the same grind, look and probably even tha same steel. Starting to use a driver with a “cavity back” would seem to be a much bigger step, equipment wise. So, his driver (and also woods) is probably the issue.

  8. Richie Hunt

    Apr 17, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Thanks Roger. I think if anything, Rory does not have far to go. The assumption that his game has fallen badly off because of the equipment is inaccurate at this point.

  9. timmy

    Apr 17, 2013 at 5:38 am

    i think distance from the fairway edge is too subjective to be included in the calculation

    it is very possible that the player intended to land the ball closer to the edge under certain circumstances.

    • Richie Hunt

      Apr 17, 2013 at 9:41 am

      It’s not as subjective in the terms you think of it as. It’s very telling of a player’s precision off the tee. That is in part what made Rory #2 in my Driving Effectiveness metric, he hits it super long and was an astouding 29th in Distance From Edge of Fairway.

      All of the data I’ve collected thru ShotLink and Shot Tracker shows that the Tour players are always trying to find the fairway in some regard. The real difference is how much it really matters given the course. A course like Bay Hill…hitting fairways and having a close Distance from the Edge of the Fairway is fairly important to a player’s success. That’s because the rough is usually taller at Bay Hill. But a course like Redstone (Shell Houston Open) hitting fairways and having a close Distance from the Edge of the Fairway has never had statistical importance to a player’s success there. I’ve never been to Redstone, but my Tour clients tell me that the rough there provides virtually no consequences to hit out of.

      So at a place like Redstone, hitting a 280 yard drive in the fairway will provide an advantage over hitting a 280 yard drive in the rough. It’s just that the advantage is smaller than if those drives were hit at a course like Bay Hill.

      And there’s a correlation between distance from edge of fairway and ‘missed fairways – other.’ Strangely, that correlation doesn’t quite exist with fairway bunkers. That’s because the longer hitters who are less precise can often blast it well over the fairway bunkers. But for Rory, that has not been the case this year.

  10. Roger Faithfull

    Apr 17, 2013 at 3:39 am

    Rich,
    Thanks for a hugely detailed analysis on Rory’s game.
    So all he has to do is add a 910D3 in a Covert Cover into the Bag.
    I’m a great Rory fan. I wish him well for the balance of 2013.
    I seem to recall he did a Huge come back in 2012…………….
    Regards, Roger in New Zealand..just below Australia !

    • Eric

      Apr 17, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Great summary but I would want to know are you comparing the statistics from all of 2012 versus the first 3+ months of 2013 or are you comparing the first 3 months of play for both 2012 and 2013? It would be interesting to see how these statistics stack up at the end of the year versus the entire previous year. Anything that shuts Johnny Miller up is a bonus from my point of view. Now…..how can the average Joe track this stuff 🙂

      • Richie Hunt

        Apr 17, 2013 at 9:34 am

        I’m just comparing the first 3 months versus the entire 2012 season. That’s why I used rankings instead of the actual numbers to help make it more ‘apples to apples.’

        It is also another reason why I thought the short game shots around the green data wasn’t enough to cause the dip in his play. Instead, we see dramatic differences in his drives that go into fairway bunkers and drives that are ‘missed fairway – other’ which is any shot that is not in the fairway, rough or fairway bunker (i.e. trees, hazards, O.B., etc).

        I am currently collecting data that will be able to track specific data for each tournament. I plan to use that soon.

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Farmers Insurance Open

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There is a sense that this is the week where the 2018 PGA Tour season truly gets underway. An iconic golf course playing host to a world class field, which includes none other than Tiger Woods. Last year, Jon Rahm won the event in sparkling fashion, draining a monster eagle putt on the 18th green to take the title by three strokes at 13-under par.

With a top field usually on show here, it’s no surprise that the role of honor list is so impressive. Besides Tiger Woods having won the event a remarkable seven times, the likes of Snedeker (twice), Jason Day and Bubba Watson have all won here in recent years — the only surprise victor in the past seven editions being Scott Stallings in 2014. With this being his first event of 2018, Tiger will grab the headlines no matter what happens, and I think every golf fan will be fascinated to see how the 14-time major winner will perform on a course he dearly loves.

The event is played over two courses on the opening two days, Torrey Pines (South) and Torrey Pines (North) before switching to the South Course for the final two days. The South Course is a real test, measuring more than 7,500 yards and usually with thick rough. The shorter North Course offers up the best opportunity for scoring, which adds pressure to each player’s solo trip here during the week. There is even a difference on the greens, as the South Course uses Poa Annua while the North Course has Bentgrass.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Jon Rahm 8/1
  • Rickie Fowler 12/1
  • Hideki Matsuyama 14/1
  • Justin Rose 16/1
  • Jason Day 18/1
  • Tiger Woods 22/1
  • Marc Leishman 22/1

On such a long golf course such as the South Course here at Torrey Pines, there is no doubt that length off the tee is important. But the ability to find the fairway is equally so. It was a surprise that up until last year Justin Rose (16/1, DK Price $10,600 ) had never displayed his best golf at Torrey Pines, but a T4 in 2017 shows that at long last he may have finally figured out the course.

The usually reliable Rose ranks sixth in this field for Strokes Gained Tee to Green over his last 24 rounds and third in Strokes Gained Total. With limited birdie opportunities available, certainly on the South Course, I expect Par-5 scoring to be crucial this week… and Justin is a player with the ability to eat up Par 5’s. He sits fourth in Strokes Gained on Par 5’s in this field over his last 24 rounds. Performance on Par 4’s in the range of 450-500 yards should also prove vital with both courses containing five holes each in this range. Rose is 15th in Efficiency on holes of this length and sixth in Strokes Gained on all par 4’s in his last 24 rounds.

Rose made an important birdie on his final hole last Friday to make the cut in Abu-Dhabi, and in doing so seemed to shake off some of the rust in his game over the weekend. The current Olympic Champion shot bogey-free rounds of 67 and 69 over the weekend, giving him good momentum for this week. Rose finished ninth in Driving Distance last week and 10th in Driving Accuracy. If he can replicate that sort of form with the driver, then he should be able to give himself an excellent chance come Sunday afternoon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is an event which Tony Finau (35/1, DK Price $8,700 ) seemingly loves. In three appearances, he’s improved each time with finishes of  T24, T18 and most recently T4. His reliable Tee to Green game is a key factor behind his joy at Torrey Pines. Finau ranks 11th in this field in Strokes Gained Tee to Green over his last 24 rounds and ninth in Strokes Gained Approach. On the important 450-500 yard Par-4 range, he sits 13th in Efficiency over the same period. The long hitter also excels on the Par 5’s. In his last 24 rounds, he ranks third in this field for Strokes Gained on Par 5’s. As usual with Finau, the question mark surrounds his putting. But he seems to be a little more comfortable on the greens at Torrey Pines, where he has gained strokes over the field on the greens in all three previous visits here.

If you’re looking for reliability in your DraftKings lineups this week, then it’s hard to look past Charles Howell III (45/1, DK Price $8,300 ). In his last five trips to Torrey Pines, the Augusta native has finishes of T9-T37-T5-T16-T2 with a career Strokes Gained Total of +39 here. DraftKings players using Charles this week will also be glad to know that he has never missed the cut at this event in 15 visits. He scores very well on the key statistics for the week, suggesting another high finish may be in the offing.

Howell III is fourth in this field over his last 24 rounds on Par 4’s between 450-500 yards, while he’s 19th in Strokes Gained on Par 5’s in this same period. He is also trending upward in 2018, finishing T32 at the Sony Open and T20 at CareerBuilder last week. It would hardly be a shock to see Charles post his best finish of 2018 at a site he loves, and if he is ever to win again it would probably be less surprising to see him do it at Torrey Pines than anywhere else.

In terms of value down the board, J.J. Spaun (90/1, DK Price $7,500) jumped out right away at being a little undervalued this week. It seems like Torrey Pines is a good fit for the California native. Last year he finished an impressive T9 on his debut. It also seems like Spaun is hitting the ball better than ever at the moment. Over his last 24 rounds, he ranks ninth in Strokes Gained Tee to Green, seventh in Ball Striking, fourth in Approaching the Green and seventh in Strokes Gained Total — excellent statistics that he will be eager to see manifest into positive results soon. Spaun is sixth in Par 4’s ranging between 450-500 yards over his last 24 rounds and is also very competent on Par 5’s, where he sits 21st over the same period. At a price of $7,500there seems to be good value in adding Spaun to your DraftKings line up this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Justin Rose 16/1, DK Price $10,600
  • Tony Finau 35/1, DK Price $8,700
  • Charles Howell III 45/1, DK Price $8,300
  • J.J. Spaun 90/1, DK Price $7,500
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Opinion & Analysis

More Distance Off the Tee (Part 1 of 3): Upper Body Training

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If you read my previous story, Tour Pro’s Revealed: 3 Tests to See How You Stack Up, you are well aware of the fact that improving your upper body power is one of three sure ways to increase your distance off the tee. If you have not, I strongly suggest you check it out to gain some context about what is to follow and what is critical for your golf game.

Through our testing and the testing done of many of the industry leaders in golf performance, we have found that the ability of golfers to generate “push power” from their upper body is critical to maximize efficiency and speed in the swing. The way that you can test your power is simple. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Keeping your back on the chair, chest pass with both hands a 6-pound medicine ball as far as you can. When you compare this to your vertical jump as described in More Distance Off the Tee (Part 2 of 3): Lower Body Training Plan, the number in feet you threw the ball should be relatively close to your jump in inches.

If you threw the ball and it went 5 feet, you have an upper body power problem. If you threw the ball 25 feet and jumped only 14 inches, your upper body is not the problem — you probably need to focus on your lower body. It’s not rocket science once you understand what you are looking for. What can be challenging is knowing how to improve your power once you identify a problem. That is where the rest of this article comes in. What I am going to outline below are three of the most common upper body power exercises that we use with our amateur, senior and professional golfers.

The key with any power training exercise is to make sure you are as rested as possible between sets so that you can be as explosive as possible for the repetitions. Try not to do more than 6 repetitions in a set to assure that each one is as fast and explosive as possible.

Med Ball Chest Pass on Wall

This is one of the most basic exercises there is for developing upper body push power. Make sure your feet are about shoulder-width apart and don’t be afraid to use your legs to help maximize the punishment you deliver to against the wall!

Med Ball Wall Ball

Watching the video, you may be scratching you head and wondering why this is in the upper body power article when clearly the athlete is using his legs. The reason is that in the golf swing, power starts with the legs.

Med Ball Sky Chest Throws

This one is simple. Laying on your back, all you need to do is push the ball up as high as you can, catch it on the way down and the explode it back up into the air as high as you can. If you incorporate this exercise into your routine even once a week, you will see huge gains in your ability to swing faster if this was a problem area for you.

That being said, power creation requires not only speed but also strength development. It is also important that you have a solid strength program to increase your ability to generate more force. While this is beyond the scope of this article, finding yourself a solid golf fitness expert will help you create your ideal program.

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GolfWRX Forum Member dpb5031 talks about the TaylorMade Twist Face Experience

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Forum member dpb5031 (aka Dewey) joins TG2 to talk about his Twist Face Experience at The Kingdom. Recently, him and 6 other GolfWRX Members went to TaylorMade HQ to get fit for new M3 and M4 drivers. Does Twist Face work? Dewey provides his answer.

Listen to the podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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