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Opinion & Analysis

Overrated? That’s not what the stats say about Rickie Fowler

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One of the most publicized swing changes this season has been Rickie Fowler’s decision to alter some of his swing mechanics with instructor Butch Harmon.

Fowler had his first career victory in 2012 and finished 40th on the 2013 Money List. Since he began making swing changes with Harmon in December, however, he has missed the cut in three of five events. But Fowler played terrific in his most recent tournament, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he finished third. And when I look at Fowler’s metrics, the projections show him playing more like he did at the Accenture Match play than in his previous four events.

First, let’s take a look at Fowler’s rankings in the key scoring metrics in 2013. These rankings are based out of 180 players.

Chart 1

Typically, the ranking in Adjusted Scoring Average and Money List ranking tend to be very similar. If they are a bit off, then the Money List Ranking tends to eventually match the Adjusted Scoring Average ranking. In this case, Fowler’s Adjusted Scoring Average ranking is noticeably worse (67th) than his Money List ranking (40th). This is because Fowler ranked 20th in purse size per event. He was playing in more lucrative events and that allowed him to rank higher in earnings than his Adjusted Scoring Average indicated. However, Fowler had good reason to be concerned since his play in 2013 ran the risk of not being good enough to qualify him for the more lucrative events he was able to play in 2013.

With that said, Fowler’s rankings are pretty solid. Par-4 play is the most important metric, and he performed well on par-4’s in 2013. He also was in the top-10th percentile on the par-5’s. Even his Bogey Rate and Birdie Rate are pretty good. However, he was one of the leaders in double bogeys last year, which is what the bogey rate metric does not quite show. So every time he made a double bogey, he now had to make two birdies in order to break even. Lastly, if he wants to get to an elite status as a golfer, he needs to get into the top-10th percentile in par-4 play and Bogey Rate.

Here are Fowler’s rankings in the key performance metrics in 2013

Chart 2

These metrics are not overly impressive, but not poor either. And he was very good at the two parts of the game that correlate most to success on Tour: Danger Zone play and Putts Gained.

When we consider his trouble with double bogeys, I normally take a look at his driving and some key precision metrics:

Chart 3

Again, Fowler was not great at these metrics, but he was not poor by Tour standards either. The Missed Fairway – Other % is essentially any tee shot that finds a hazard, O.B. or results in a rescue shot, and he was still better than the Tour average there. However, I did find something very peculiar about his driving with his radar metrics.

Chart 7

Generally, a golfer’s driving distance ranking and club head speed ranking should come close to matching. If there is a large discrepancy, it is usually due to the golfer hitting upward or downward on the ball. In Fowler’s case, his driving distance is far less than his club head speed ranking. This would indicate that he is hitting down on the ball too much. However, his launch angle and Max Height indicate that he likes to hit up on the ball. Meanwhile, his high spin rate is more indicative a downward attack angle.

So, which is it?

Fowler ranked 55th in Ball Speed and given his ranking in club head speed it indicates that he was making quality strikes with his driver as his smash factor was rather high. I think he probably was hitting up a little on the driver and he was ill-fitted from an equipment standpoint. This would cause the ball to balloon, which would explain his high Max Height and it would come down with a lot of spin so he was not getting any roll. And this was causing Fowler to lose one of his strengths, in his ability to hit the ball far.

Still, I do not see the driving as the major culprit for his double bogey woes. He simply did not miss big off the tee frequently. Instead, I think he had a major problem from the Safe Zone (125-to-175 yards) as he was putting himself in pretty good position off the tee, but only ranked 102nd from that distance. Most of the high birdie makers that are not ‘Bubba-long’ tend to play very well from the Safe Zone and Fowler’s below average play also cost him some birdies. In the end, I could see why Fowler was looking for a new perspective. His game was slipping a little and he probably did not want to have to change too much when it was too late.

Here are his key performance metrics for the 2013-2014 season (out of 174 players):

Chart 4

Fowler’s iron play has improved quite dramatically. While he is slightly worse from the Danger Zone, the important metric to keep in mind is shots from the fairway as that is the greatest indicator of a Tour player’s pure iron skill. Fowler ranked 91st in the metric in 2013 and is now the best from the fairway on Tour. So if his Danger Zone play has dropped slightly, it is more due to him hitting a few more shots from the rough.

And while the driving effectiveness is roughly the same, the key radar metrics indicate that it will get better.

Chart 5

Fowler is not only hitting the ball farther, but he is generating more club head speed. And his driving distance ranking and club head speed ranking match. The other radar metrics are virtually the same except that his spin rate has lowered by about 450 rpm. He has regained his advantage of hitting the ball a long ways and his iron play has greatly improved.

The only thing that has hampered Fowler is his putting, as he currently ranks last in Putts Gained. Here are his rankings in Putts Gained each year since turning pro:

Chart 6

Fowler has been a pretty good putter on Tour throughout his career. I feel that he is on the right path with his ball striking to get to that next level of winning a major. He has regained his power with his driving and has been striking his irons at an elite level. His short game has been sound and the only thing lacking has been his putting, which has probably suffered due to him focusing more of his attention on his swing.

I have my doubts about him contending in the majors this year. But, if he can continue to improve at this rate with his irons, fine tune his driving and get his putting back, Fowler could have a breakout year in 2015.

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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, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: What you CAN learn from tour pros

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I have frequently noted how the game the PGA Tour players play is, in most ways, a whole different game than we “mere mortal” recreational golfers play. They hit their drivers miles it seems. Their short games are borderline miraculous. And they get to play from perfect bunkers and putt on perfect greens every single week. And it lets them beat most courses into submission with scores of 20-plus under par.

The rest of us do not have their strength, of course, nor do we have the time to develop short game skills even close to theirs. And our greens are not the perfect surfaces they enjoy, nor do we have caddies, green-reading books, etc. So, we battle mightily to shoot our best scores, whether that be in the 70s, 90s, or higher.

There is no question that most PGA Tour players are high-level athletes, who train daily for both body strength and flexibility, as well as the specific skills to make a golf ball do what they intend it to. But even with all that, it is amazing how bad they can hit it sometimes and how mediocre (for them) the majority of their shots really are — or at least they were this week.

Watching the Wells Fargo event this weekend, you could really see how their games are – relatively speaking – very much like ours on a week-to-week basis.

What really stood out for me as I watched some of this event was so few shots that were awe-inspiring and so many that were really terrible. Rory even put his win in jeopardy with a horrible drive on the 18th, but a very smart decision and a functional recovery saved him. (The advantage of being able to muscle an 8-iron 195 yards out of deep rough and a tough lie is not to be slighted).

Of course, every one of these guys knocks the flag down with approach shots occasionally, if not frequently, but on a longer and tougher golf course, relative mediocrity was good enough to win.

If we can set these guys’ power differences aside, I think we all can learn from watching and seeing that even these players hit “big uglies” with amazing frequency. And that the “meat” of their tee-to-green games is keeping it in play when they face the occasional really tough golf course like Quail Hollow. Do you realize less than 20 of the best players in the world beat par for those 72 holes?

It has long been said that golf is a game of misses, and the player who “misses best” is likely to be “in the hunt” more often than not, and will win his or her share. That old idiom is as true for those of us trying to break 100 or 90 or 80 as it is for the guys trying to win on the PGA Tour each week.

Our “big numbers” happen for the same reasons as theirs do – a simply terrible shot or two at the wrong time. But because we do not have anywhere near their short game and recovery skills, we just do not “get away with” our big misses as frequently as they do.

So, what can you take away from that observation? I suggest this.

Play within your own reliable strength profile and skill set. Play for your average or typical shot, not your very best, whether that is a drive, approach shot, or short game recovery. And don’t expect a great shot to follow a bad one.
If, no, when you hit the “big miss,” accept that this hole can get away from you and turn into a double or worse, regroup, and stop the bleeding, so you can go on to the next hole.

We can be pretty darn sure Rory McIlroy was not thinking bogey on the 18th tee but changed his objective on the hole once he saw the lie his poor drive had found. It only took a bogey to secure his win, so that became a very acceptable outcome.

There’s a lesson for all of us in that.

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Opinion & Analysis

Ways to Win: Horses for Courses – Rory McIlroy rides the Rors to another Quail Hollow win

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Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Rory McIlroy wins at Quail Hollow. The new father broke his winless streak at a familiar course on Mother’s Day. McIlroy has been pretty vocal about how he is able to feed off the crowd and plays his best golf with an audience. Last week provided a familiar setting in a venue he has won twice before and a strong crowd, giving McIlroy just what he needed to break through and win again. A phenomenal feat given that, not long ago, he seemed completely lost, chasing distance based on Bryson DeChambeau’s unorthodox-but-effective progress. McIlroy is typically a player who separates himself from the field as a premier driver of the golf ball, however this week it was his consistency across all areas that won the tournament.

Using the Strokes Gained Stacked view from V1 Game shows that Rory actually gained the most strokes for the week in putting. Not typically known as a phenomenal putter, something about those Quail Hollow greens speaks to McIlroy where he finished the week third in strokes gained: putting (red above). He also hit his irons fairly well, gaining more than 3.6 strokes for the week on a typical PGA Tour field. Probably the most surprising category for McIlroy was actually driving, where he gained just 1.3 strokes for the week and finished 18th in the field. While McIlroy is typically more accurate with the driver, in this case, he sprayed the ball. Strokes gained: driving takes into account distance, accuracy, and the lie into which you hit the ball. McIlroy’s driving distance was still elite, finishing second in the field and averaging more than 325 yards as measured . However, when he missed, he missed in bad spots. McIlroy drove into recovery situations multiple times, causing lay-ups and punch-outs. He also drove into several bunkers causing difficult mid-range bunker shots. So, while driving distance is a quick way to add strokes gained, you have to avoid poor lies to take advantage and, unfortunately, McIlroy hurt himself there. This was particularly apparent on the 72nd hole where he pull-hooked a 3-wood into the hazard and almost cost himself the tournament.

It’s rare that a player wins a tour event without a truly standout category, but McIlroy won this week by being proficient in each category with a consistent performance. From a strokes gained perspective, he leaned on his putting, but even then, he had four three-putts on the week and left some room for improvement. He gained strokes from most distances but struggled on the long ones and from 16-20 feet. Overall, we saw good progress for McIlroy to putt as well as he did on the week.

McIlroy also had a good week with his irons, routinely giving himself opportunities to convert birdies where he tied for seventh-most in the field. When he did miss with his irons, he tended to miss short from most distances. His proximity to the hole was quite good, averaging below 30 feet from most distance buckets. That is surely a recipe to win.

When you add it all up, McIlroy showed little weakness last week. He was proficient in each category and relied on solid decision-making and routine pars while others made mistakes on the weekend. Sometimes, there is no need to be flashy, even for the best in the world. It was good to see McIlroy rejoin the winner’s circle and hopefully pull himself out from what has been a bit of a slump. Golf is better when McIlroy is winning.

If you want to build a consistent game like Rors, V1 Game can help you understand your weaknesses and get started on a journey to better golf. Download in the app store for free today.

 

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: Fujikura MC Putter shaft review and cheap Amazon grips!

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Fujikura’s new MC Putter shafts are PACKED with technology that you wouldn’t expect in a putter shaft. Graphite, metal, and rubber are fused together for an extremely consistent and great feeling putter shaft. Three models to fit any putter stroke out there!

Grips are in short supply right now, and there are some very cheap options on Amazon. I bought some with Prime delivery, and they aren’t as good as you would think.

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