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Analyzing Tom Watson’s Potential Ryder Cup picks

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Captain Tom Watson’s captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup became more difficult when Dustin Johnson announced that he will not play in the event. And that was just the start.

I’ve posted the current U.S. Ryder Cup Team standings below. Remember, the top-9 finishers on the points list automatically earn a spot on the team, and T. Watson will pick two additional players of his choice to round out the lineup. Qualifying finishes this weekend at the conclusion of the PGA Championship.

  1. Bubba Watson
  2. Jim Furyk
  3. Jimmy Walker
  4. Rickie Fowler
  5. Matt Kuchar
  6. Jordan Spieth
  7. Patrick Reed
  8. Jason Dufner
  9. Zach Johnson
  10. Phil Mickelson
  11. Keegan Bradley
  12. Brendan Todd
  13. Ryan Moore
  14. Chris Kirk
  15. Webb Simpson
  16. Harris English

Jason Dufner (No. 8) announced that he has bulging disks in his neck, and Tiger Woods, who all expected to either make the team or be a captain’s pick before his back surgery, has yet to play well enough to prove that he can be a good addition to the Ryder Cup team, even if he is 100 percent healthy. To make things worse, Matt Kuchar (No. 5) withdrew from the PGA Championship today with back spasms, bringing his health into question.

The U.S. Team will also be playing against an impressive European team that has a red hot Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. Despite these recent events, I still believe that a statistically oriented approach to the Ryder Cup can greatly overcome these odds.

First, I want to run over some of the main tenets when it comes to using a statistically oriented approach to the Ryder Cup:

No. 1: Versatility is critical

Ryder Cup teams need golfers who are suited to play both the four-ball and foursome format. This way, if a player is playing poorly, the team does not have to rely on him to start playing well and can have a different golfer come in and win valuable point(s).

No. 2: When in doubt, favor youth over experience

Most of the U.S. Ryder Cup team captains in recent years have favored experience above all else. Even if a Ryder Cup player is experienced, however, if he has proved to be a poor Ryder Cup player he is simply an experienced, poor Ryder Cup player.

The other part about youth is that if a young player gets a hot hand, the captain can keep him in the lineup without worrying about his stamina. That’s not always true for an older player or an injured player. Lastly, it serves future Ryder Cup teams to see how well these young players perform. It will help future captains better determine if they are a good, poor or indifferent Ryder Cup players.

No. 3: Favor players with great short games over the “hot putter”

While being a good putter is certainly helpful, the best Ryder Cup players historically have been very good around the green. This includes players like Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Jesper Parnevik, Raymond Floyd, Billy Casper, Larry Nelson and Seve Ballesteros, to name a few. The problem with looking purely at putting is that it is hard to rely on player to putt well at any given moment. Even the best putters on Tour putt great (+1.0 strokes gained per round per event) in only about 30 percent of the events they play. Conversely, players with good short games can take that short game from event to event much more consistently, and the ability to save par and stymie your opponent appears to be critical to successful match play.

No. 4: Four-ball format is about birdies and playing each type of hole well

In the four-ball format, Ryder Cup team captains want players who can make a lot of birdies. One of my favorite teams in the four-ball format was Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes in 2008. Weekley is a long hitter who finds a ton of fairways and is usually one of the most effective drivers of the ball. Holmes was the long distance hitter who made a ton of birdies and had the capability to make eagles. So they would have Weekley tee off first and he would usually blast a 300+ yard drive down the middle. And if Weekley was in good shape that would allow Holmes to get a free rip and blast a 375+ yard drive. If the ball was in play, it would put them at a sizeable advantage. Weekley was also a strong par-4 player and a pretty good par-3 player, while Holmes was an excellent par-5 player. Essentially, they had all of their bases covered and could rattle off birdies.

5. Foursome format is about avoiding bogeys and pairing players whose styles of play compliment each other

The foursome format is where bogeys are more likely to happen and this is where a great short game can be even more important. You can have two players who make few bogeys, however, who are a terrible match for each other. For instance, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk may not make a lot of bogeys, but that is on their own ball. Furyk is a player who hits fairways and does not play well from the rough. Since Mickelson is an errant driver of the ball, the combination would not likely be a very good one.

With those out of the way, here’s a table looking at the rankings of some key players that are not in the top-8 in Ryder Cup points. You can click the table to enlarge it.

Hunt Ryder Cup Table 1

I will start with some of the obvious players. Zach Johnson should be a sure fire pick if he doesn’t automatically qualify. He’s played well in previous Ryder Cups and his rankings in the key performance metrics are excellent. In fact, he has done a nice job of hitting shots from the rough this year, which have typically given him issues. And he has been spectacular on the par-5’s despite being a short hitter.

I would also eliminate the following players:

  • Matt Every (poor driving and par-4 play).
  • Erik Compton (poor driving, poor iron play, poor bogey rate).
  • Webb Simpson (poor 175-to-225 yards play)
  • Brendon Todd (poor 175-to-225 yards play)
  • Kevin Stadler (poor par-4 play)

The Ryder Cup courses generally favor hitting shots from 175-to-225 yards, so I would be leery of using any player who has struggled from that distance this year. And since there are 11 par-4’s to be played, the team cannot afford a weak par-4 player.

From there, I will bring it down to these players for the final three spots.

  • Phil Mickelson
  • Keegan Bradley
  • Ryan Moore
  • Kevin Na
  • Harris English
  • Brian Harman

Keegan Bradley becomes the first obvious choice. He has driven it well and has been good with his long approach shots, short game and putting. The issue for Bradley has been iron shots from less than 175 yards. However, he can be paired with an accurate driver of the ball and keep him playing those shots from the fairway. Combine that with his performance on par-3’s, par-4’s and par-5’s and his Birdie Rate, and Bradley is a versatile player who played superbly in the last Ryder Cup.

Mickelson

phil-mickelson_t640-600x350

I will assume that Phil Mickelson will be selected if he does not automatically qualify. Regardless of what the data says, I have a hard time believing a captain would not select Lefty if he is healthy. So as far as his analysis goes, he’s been a streaky Ryder Cup player. But, he has been better in recent Ryder Cups.

The interesting thing about Phil is that while he has had an off year, the numbers indicate that he is better suited for the Ryder Cup than he has been over the years. His driving has been the best it has been in years, although I would not call him overly accurate. What has hurt him this year, however, is that his iron play has not been quite as good from inside 175 yards than it has been in previous seasons, but he is still a great long approach player. The other issue is that his putting was giving him issues, but we have seen some progression lately.

I don’t think Phil will be a bad pick, although both Ryan Moore and Brian Harman are enticing. Harman is ranks 6th on shots from the fairway, has a good short game and has quality scoring metrics. If there is a worry about Mickelson, it’s that he has yet to finish in the top-10 this year and suffered back problems earlier in the year. I would not be vehemently against a Mickelson pick, but I am not assuming that he and Keegan Bradley will automatically pick up where they left off in 2012 at Medinah.

The Last Pick

This player currently has all of the elements of a good Ryder Cup player.

  • He has a super low bogey rate.
  • He has a great short game.
  • He is one of the premier putters on Tour.
  • He hits his long approach shots well from both the rough and the fairway.
  • He has having a fine year with his scoring metrics.
  • He is only 30 years old.

Who is this player? If you guessed Kevin Na, you are correct.

The possible knock against Na is he has gone fairly unnoticed this year. He has five top-10 finishes, however, which include two second-place finishes. He also finished T12 at the US Open.

The other knock against Na may be his slow play. That could aggravate his partner, but it may aggravate his opponents as well. Colin Montgomerie was not overly liked and was a phenomenal Ryder Cup player, and Sergio was one of the slowest players on Tour during his unbeatable years in the Ryder Cup.

Regardless of how this year’s Ryder Cup qualifying plays out, I see Captain Watson making sure that Mickelson, Z. Johnson, Bradley, Simpson and Dufner (if he’s healthy enough) for this year’s team. That’s a shame, because I’d like to see Harman and especially Na get a chance to prove that they could be fantastic Ryder Cup players.

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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

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Ryder Cup Preview: The Course, Home Field, & Competition | Golf Analytics

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  3. Pingback: ¿En qué nos deberíamos fijar para la elección del Capitán de la Ryder Cup? - Golf76.com

  4. marcel

    Aug 10, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    hes gona pick Rory

  5. Ronald Montesano

    Aug 8, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Guess what? He’s going to pick himself. He’ll be the first playing captain in over fifty years, he has played well in two major championships and (here’s the funny part) he’s not injured. He just added Steve Stricker as an assistant captain, probably because Stricker is young in comparison to the other assistants.

    Stricker is also a possibility as a pick. If one of the guys (Kuchar, Dufner) on the team goes down in Scotland, Stricker will be there and will be a legitimate choice to play.

  6. BogeyFree

    Aug 8, 2014 at 10:44 am

    My order would be Moore, Bradley, then Na. I’d even take those 3 over Woods or Michelson. At some point it is entertainment and I understand that, so Michelson is probably a lock.

    I am older guy, but frankly it’s time to bring some youth to the US side. The team already has Furyk and Johnson, plus Watson and Stricker coaching. How much experience do you need…especially when that experience is more with losing than winning Ryder Cups?

  7. Alex

    Aug 8, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Nice.

    Na could be a golden idea, or turn out to be a total bad move. It’s interesting how much you have to decide if stats alone are worth making a decision on.

    I think Na could be a good choice. Unless he can’t rise to the occasion. I’d say, give him a shot.

    Any chance we will see a European article soon?

    • Richie Hunt

      Aug 8, 2014 at 9:08 am

      I may do a European article. Depends on how many of the players qualify statistically on the PGA Tour so I can have statistical data on them to analyze.

      While the data appears to favor the European team heavily, I could say the same for the US team in 2012. Jumped out to a big lead and then lost at Medinah. You never quite know with this rivalry.

      • ND Hickman

        Aug 12, 2014 at 6:58 am

        As a Brit I’m confident for Europe this year, but as you say the Americans should have closed things out at Medinah so we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way it’s going to be a brilliant Ryder Cup.

  8. gunmetal

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I absolutely love the Na pick. He sorta flies under the radar but possesses everything you outlined as critical.

    I’m not sold on the Bradley pick. I should be, but I feel like he lets his emotion get out of control and it ends up hurting. He got destroyed by Rory last year despite Rory essentially falling out of the car on to the first tee box. I know he’s the popular pick and will likely make it, I just hope he keeps his emotions in check.

    I also think another thing to consider is matchplay record. Mahan got a bad rap for what went down in Wales, but he should have been on the team at Medina. Despite winning twice in 2012 (once at the Matchplay) Love chose Striker and Furyk. Mahan won the matchplay!! IIRC Ryan Moore has a nice matchplay record as do Reed and Fowler. I’d be happy with Na or Moore.

    Nice read.

    • SN

      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:53 am

      Na is a good choice.
      I think his pace of play will also pixxed the heck out of Europeans.

      and THAT is another advantage.

      • C web

        Aug 8, 2014 at 8:41 am

        Just Pair Na with Furyk…. And watch the Euros self destruct

  9. Brad

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Great overall analysis. Even though statistics are an awesome way to determine many things (I am an engineer) in the case I have to disagree with Kevin Na. He is a nice player statistically, but he has really struggled with the mental game over the years. The Ryder Cup may be the most mentally stressful environment in golf. I think it would be tough for him to excel in this environment.

  10. mb

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    I feel bad for Tom he’s screwed J Duf just pulled out of the PGA

  11. Travis

    Aug 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Nice article

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The 19th Hole (Ep. 165): One-on-one with Shane Bacon

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Host Michael Williams talks with the co-host of the Golf Channel’s Golf Today about the Open Championship and Collin Morikawa’s place in the history books.

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All of a sudden, today’s newest trend in golf is yesterday’s clubs.

Golfers are making a move towards old classics the way car enthusiasts would ogle a classic Porsche 911 before they would look twice at a new Tesla Model 3. On the spectrum of art to science, Tesla is peak science and focused on efficiency in every fathomable way. The other will absolutely get you from A to B, but you are more likely to have a smile on your face while you take the detour along the water while enjoying the journey to get there. It is the second type of club that is enjoying this latest resurgence, and I can’t get enough.

New businesses are springing up to refurbish old clubs such as @mulligansclubmakers and @twirledclubs with price tags approaching (and exceeding) the RRP at the time of release of many of the clubs in question. These old clubs are often found in pictures of major champions being used in the 1970s and 1980s, which serves to make them more valuable and interesting to enthusiasts. Other clubs are simply polished examples of the clubs many of us owned 25 years ago and now regret selling. The more polish on an old blade, the better, with classic designs from brands like Wilson Staff, Mizuno, or MacGregor seeing demand and prices increase every month. Seeing these old clubs reimagined with shiny BB&F co ferrules, updated shafts, and grips can get some golfers hot and bothered, and they will open their wallets accordingly.

Around 15 years ago, I bought an old set of blades from the brand Wood Brothers. For many years, I was unable to find out a single thing about those clubs, until @woodbrosgolf came out of hibernation this year onto Instagram and into a frothing market for handmade classic clubs from a forgotten past. I was able to get information that the blades had come out of the Endo forging house in Japan, and my decision to keep the clubs in the garage all these years was vindicated. Now I just need an irrationally expensive matching Wood Bros persimmon driver and fairway wood to complete the set…

Among other boutique brands, National Custom Works (@nationalcustom) has been making pure persimmon woods with the help of Tad Moore to match their incredible irons, wedges, and putters for some time, and now the market is catching up to the joy that can be experienced from striking a ball with the materials of the past. There is an illicit series of pictures of persimmon woods in all states of creation/undress from single blocks of wood through to the final polished and laminated artworks that are making their way into retro leather golf bags all over the world.

There are other accounts which triumph historic images and sets of clubs such as @oldsaltygolf. This account has reimagined the ‘What’s in the Bag’ of tour pros in magazines and made it cool to have a set of clubs from the same year that shows on your driver’s license. I hold them wholly to blame for an impulse buy of some BeCu Ping Eye 2 irons with matching Ping Zing woods… The joy to be found in their image feed from the 70s and 80s will get many golfers reminiscing and wishing they could go back and save those clubs, bags and accessories from their school days. If you want to see more moving pictures from the era, @classicgolfreplays is another account which shows this generation of clubs being used by the best of the best in their heyday. Even better than the clubs are the outfits, haircuts and all leather tour bags to match.

It seems that this new generation of golfer – partially borne out of COVID-19 — is in need of clubs that can’t be sourced fast enough from the major OEMs, so they have gone trawling for clubs that were cool in a different time, and they want them now. Those golfers who match the age of the clubs are also experiencing a golfing rebirth, as the technology gains from the OEMs become incremental, many are now finding enjoyment from the classic feel of clubs as much as they are searching for an extra couple of yards off the tee.

Either way, the result is the same, and people are dusting off the old blades and cavities from years past and hitting the fairways more than ever before. With the desire shifting towards fun over challenge, they are even creeping forward to the tees that their clubs were designed to be played from and finding even more enjoyment from the game. If only I hadn’t got rid of those old persimmons in high school…

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The Wedge Guy: Top 4 reasons why most golfers don’t get better

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A couple of years ago, I attended a symposium put on by Golf Digest’s research department. They explored the typical responses as to why people quit or don’t play more – too much time, too expensive, etc. But the magazine’s research department uncovered the real fact – by a large margin, the number one reason people give up the game is that they don’t get better!

So, with all that’s published and all the teaching pros available to help us learn, why is that? I have my rationale, so put on your steel toe work boots, because I’m probably going to step on some toes here.

The Top 4 Reasons Golfers Don’t Improve

  1. Most golfers don’t really understand the golf swing. You watch golf and you practice and you play, but you don’t really understand the dynamics of what is really happening at 100 mph during the golf swing. There are dozens of good books on the subject – my favorite is Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons – The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.” But pick any good one and READ IT. LEARN IT. It will help you immensely if you understand what the swing is really all about. Use a full length mirror to pose in key positions in the swing to match the drawings and photos. All the practice in the world will not help if you are not building a sound fundamental golf swing.
  2. Learning golf doesn’t start in the middle. A sound golf swing is built like a house. First the foundation, then the framing, roof, exterior walls, interior, paint, and trim. You can’t do one before the other. In golf, it all starts with the grip. If you do not hold the club properly, you’ll never accomplish a sound golf swing. Then you learn good posture and setup. If you don’t start in a good position, the body can’t perform the swing motion properly. With a good grip and a sound setup posture, I believe anyone can learn a functional golf swing pretty easily. But if those two foundations are not sound, the walls and roof will never be reliable.
  3. Most bad shots are ordained before the swing ever begins. I am rarely surprised by a bad shot, or a good one, actually. The golf swing is not a very forgiving thing. If you are too close to the ball or too far, if it’s too far forward or backward, if you are aligned right or left of your intended line, your chances of success are diminished quickly and significantly. The ball is 1.68 inches in diameter, and the functional striking area on a golf club is about 1.5-inches wide. If you vary in your setup by even 3/4 inch, you have imposed a serious obstacle to success. If you do nothing else to improve your golf game, learn how to set up the same way every time.
  4. Learn to “swing” the club, not “hit” the ball. This sounds simple, but the golf swing is not a hitting action: it’s a swinging action. The baseball hitter is just that, because the ball is in a different place every time – high, low, inside, outside, curve. He has to rely on quick eye-hand coordination. In contrast, the golf swing is just that – a swing of the club. You have total control over where the ball is going to be so that you can be quite precise in the relationship between your body and the ball and the target line. You can swing when you want to at the pace you find comfortable. And you can take your time to make sure the ball will be precisely in the way of that swing.

Learning the golf swing doesn’t require a driving range at all. In fact, your backyard presents a much better learning environment because the ball is not in the way to give you false feedback. Your goal is only the swing itself.

Understand that you can make a great swing, and often do, but the shot doesn’t work out because it was in the wrong place, maybe by only 1/4 inch or so. Take time to learn and practice your swing, focusing on a good top-of-backswing position and a sound rotating release through impact. Learn the proper body turn and weight shift. Slow-motion is your friend. So is “posing” and repeating segments of the swing to really learn them. Learn the swing at home, refine your ball striking on the range and play golf on the course!

So, there you have my four reasons golfers don’t get better. We all have our own little “personalization” in our golf swing, but these sound fundamentals apply to everyone who’s ever tried to move a little white ball a quarter-mile into a four-inch hole. Working on these basics will make that task much easier!

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