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The problems with Rory and traditional golf statistics

by   |   April 16, 2013
Rory McIlroy

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.

About

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, 2013 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 2013 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10


18 Comments

  1. John R

    April 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

      April 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

    April 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

      April 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

    April 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

      April 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

    April 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

      April 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

    April 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

      April 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

    April 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Fantastic article Rich, great read and very informative.

  7. christian

    April 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

    April 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

    April 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

      April 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

    April 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

      April 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

        April 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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