With the PGA Tour’s season one-third of the way complete, I wanted to examine the potential Ryder Cup players for the U.S. Team and see how they are performing.
Agent to the European stars, Chubby Chandler, recently discussed how the European Team used advanced analytics to its advantage in winning the last Ryder Cup. Future analysis will dive more into optimal pairings based on the data. But for now, I will examine individual performances and keep in mind that the data shows that players with good short games tend to make the better performers in the Ryder Cup.
Jordan Spieth is not as sharp as he was at this time last year, but it’s mainly due to his iron play. Typically, Spieth’s iron play has been stronger than his driving, but this year it’s more of the opposite.
Bubba Watson has already won this year at Riviera. And performance at Riviera tends to have a correlation to performance at The Masters. While Bubba has driven the ball great, it’s been a down year by his standards, because he typically blows out the rest of the Tour when it comes to Driving Effectiveness in the first third of the season. Like Spieth, he’s still a fantastic performer, but he’s not quite hitting the lick by his standards.
Dustin Johnson’s problem has been consistency with the driver. When he’s on, he looks like the reincarnation of Jack Nicklaus off the tee. But when he’s off, he’s well off. I wonder if trying to round out the other parts of his game that have been traditionally weak (Green Zone Play and Short Game Play) has caused him to spend less time working on his driving. With that being said, if his Short Game Play legitimately improves he will be a better Ryder Cup player. Right now, he’s a more well-rounded golfer than he has ever been in his career.
What prevents Rickie Fowler from being a clearly established member of The Big Four is he cannot quite put everything together. He has great strengths, but usually has one outstanding weakness that prevents him from winning more often. This season it has been Yellow Zone Play, which is mostly due to him being the 2nd worst player from 125-150 yards on Tour. However, he has also improved his short game by leaps and bounds, and that will likely make him a more effective Ryder Cupper. And in the grand scheme of things, poor performance from 125-150 yards is not a big factor on the PGA Tour, since so few shots are hit from that distance per round.
Brandt Snedeker has been hot or cold this season. It’s likely that he will still secure a Ryder Cup spot, but he may be a difficult player to use in the Foursomes (alternate shot) format because his Driving and Red Zone Play has been poor.
Typically, Snedeker has been a serviceable driver of the ball. His Red Zone Play has been a weak spot, but he makes it up with his performance from 175 yards and in. The key in using Snedeker in the Foursomes format would be to find a player who is a good iron player, particular from out of the rough, and has a good short game to counter Snedeker’s weaknesses off the tee and from the Red Zone. Otherwise, he looks like he should be reserved to playing in the Four-Ball (best score) format.
He’s not your Father’s Phil Mickelson this season. He’s actually hit the driver quite effectively off the tee, but has been an above average iron player overall. This may make him a better teammate in the Foursome format, which has never been Lefty’s strength in the Ryder Cup. And having the versatility to play either format makes for better odds of the U.S. snapping the losing streak.
Zach Johnson has had a sub-standard season (for him) thus far, and it shows with his rankings in the performance metrics. And he just turned 40, which is when most Tour players start to make a large regression in performance. Thus, he could turn into a player who does not even make the top-12 in the Ryder Cup standings when all is said and done. However, Johnson has been a solid Ryder Cup player, and when he’s playing reasonably well he has a game that is a good fit for the Ryder Cup. I would not count Johnson out for the rest of the season, and even so, I would be more apt to want him to be a captain’s pick if available. He just had a good finish at Bay Hill and made it to the Round of 16 in the WGC-Dell Match Play, so he may start hitting his stride soon.
I learned a while ago that it’s an exercise in futility in examining Patrick Reed’s metrics for the entire season. Simply put, if he is playing average or less than average by Friday, he seems to tune out for the rest of the event and that kills his metrics. But if he starts getting into contention by Friday, he can perform with the best of them.
The good news is that Reed’s Driving Effectiveness is better than it has been over the years. And if there has been a clearly defined strength to Reed’s game, it has been his putting and his short game, which make him a great teammate to have in both the Foursomes and Four-Ball formats.
Bill Haas projects to being a great Ryder Cupper because he is normally a great driver and short-game performer, although he struggles a bit with the irons and is inconsistent with the putter. Still, he can be valuable because of his short game and his driving.
The U.S. has struggled mostly in the Foursomes format, and Haas makes for a better Foursomes performer than a Four-Ball performer (he’s only average in Birdie Percentage). Haas may be best paired with a good ball striker: someone who hits the driver well enough to make his iron shots easier, and somebody who can hit the irons close enough to take advantage of his driving. Haas’ partner can be confident enough to know that if he misses an approach shot, Haas’ short game is good enough to save par.
It will be interesting to see if Haas’ driving comes around as the season progresses. If it does, he could be in for a quality season, and based off his President’s Cup performance, he could be a great Captain’s pick.
Last year, Brooks Koepka was a great driver of the ball who hit it massively long and was also a great putter. That’s a great combination, because power off the tee has its greatest impact on putting. That’s why long hitters can be successful on the PGA Tour despite being weak putters. And when you have a player as long as Koepka off the tee, who also putts well, he can easily rack up wins.
This season, Koepka just has yet to strike the ball well for any length of time, and has also not been a good short-game performer. I still would not mind seeing him on the team, though.
One of my favorite teams was the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup squad, when Paul Azinger paired J.B. Holmes with Boo Weekley in the Four-Ball format. Weekly hits it fairly long, and was one of the best drivers on Tour at the time. He would tee off first and would continually hit 300-yard drives right down the middle. Once Weekley hit his drive and was fine, Holmes would step up to the tee and swing for the fences. Holmes routinely hit 375+ yard drives, so if his drive was playable it was a huge advantage for the U.S. Team. And with Weekley’s excellent driving, the pair had almost nothing to lose.
I can see Koepka taking over J.B. Holmes’ role and being more effective, because he’s a much better putter than Holmes.
Jason Dufner’s game over the years has been that of an excellent driver of the ball, an average iron player and a great short-game player who struggles with his putter. This still makes him a quality Ryder Cup prospect, because the team can use a player who drives it well and has a great short game in the Foursome format. And Dufner makes enough birdies to be effective in the Four-Ball format.
This season Dufner’s short game has regressed, although he has not played in a lot of events and that could change quickly. His iron play has improved a little and his driving has slightly regressed.
At this point, I think Kevin Kisner is a player that U.S. Ryder Cup team must have. He does everything fairly well, he’s young, he has a better-than-average short game for his career and makes a lot of birdies (5th). He should be able to perform well in both the Four-Ball and Foursomes formats. If he doesn’t in this year’s Ryder Cup, he projects to be a valuable prospect in future Ryder Cups, and therefore could use the experience.
The Wedge Guy: The Red Zone
For those of you who are big football fans, we are lost in the off-season, waiting a few more months before we get to watch our favorite pro or college teams duke it out on the gridiron. Living in Texas, of course, football is a very big deal, from the NFL Cowboys and Texans, through our broad college network representing multiple conferences and into the bedrock of Friday nights – high school football, which drives fans and entire towns into a frenzy.
In almost every football conversation on TV, you hear talk about “the red zone”. How a team performs inside the 20-yard line is a real measure of their offensive prowess, and usually a pretty good indicator of their win/loss record, too. It breaks down to what percentage of the time a team scores a touchdown or field goal, and how often they come away empty.
I like to think we golfers have our own “red zone”. It’s that distance from the green where we should be able to go on the offensive and think about pars and birdies, ensure no worse than bogey . . . and rarely put a double or worse on the card. Your own particular set of red zone goals should be based on your handicap. If you are a low single digit, this is your “go zone”, where you feel like you can take it right at the flag and give yourself a decent birdie putt, with bogeys being an unpleasant surprise. For mid-handicap players, it’s where you should feel confident you’ll guarantee a par and rarely make bogey, and for higher handicap players, it’s where you will ensure a bogey at least, give yourself a good chance at par, and maybe even a birdie.
But regardless of your handicap, your own “red zone” should begin when you can put a high loft club in your hands – one with over 40 degrees of loft. Of course, that has changed a lot with the continual strengthening of irons. In my early days that was an eight iron, then it migrated to a nine. But regardless of your handicap or the make and model of irons you play, my contention is that golf is relatively “defensive” with all the other clubs in your bag. With those lower lofted irons, your goal should be to just keep it out of trouble and moving closer to the goal line . . . er, the flag. Even the PGA Tour pros make a very small percentage of their birdies with their middle irons.
When you can put a high loft club in your bag – whether that’s from 150 yards or 105 – that’s when you should feel like you can put your offense into high gear and raise your expectations. It’s no longer about power, because this isn’t about raw distance, but rather distance control and precision. From the red zone, it’s about trusting your technique and your equipment and taking it to the golf course a little bit.
As most of us are in the early stages of the 2021 golf season, one of the best things you can do for your golf improvement is to begin tracking your “red zone” performance. Put the numbers down as to how you are scoring the golf course from your 9-iron range on into the flag. My guess is that you’ll see this is where you can make the most improvement if you’ll give that part of your game some additional time and focus. Any golfer can learn to hit crisp and accurate short range approach shots. And so you should.
Pay attention to your own red zone stats, and work to improve them. I guarantee you that you’ll see your scores come down quickly.
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