Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thoughts on Boiling the Game Down…


As a statistician I like to use my skills into other things I love. For instance, I’m a huge fan of the NFL and if you go onto my forum, I have an advanced algorithm built in place to predict wins. The team that was on top of the ‘projected wins’ for the longest time this season? The Green Bay Packers.

Some statistics in the NFL are useful for me to keep in mind while watching a game. For instance, the team that returns an interception for a touchdown has historically gone on to win that game 80% of the time. And last I checked, a team that is up by 9 or more points after the first quarter has historically gone on to win the game 75% of the time.

While those statistics are nice to know, inevitably one has to analyze why those outcomes happen. With the interception return for a TD thing, obviously there’s a major point value that goes along with that play. But the NFL is about the passing battle. If Dallas passes the ball more effectively and efficiently than Washington, Dallas will likely win the game. Thus, an interception returned for a TD plays a major role in a team’s passing efficiency and effectiveness. And with the team being up by 9 or more points after the first quarter, I believe what happens is that the losing team really has to play catchup and even though they have 3 quarters of football left, every series means more to them. If they go 3 and out on offense, that’s not a game ender, but it reduces their odds of winning much more noticeably than if they went 3 and out and they were down by a field goal after the first quarter.



PUTTING IS OVERRATED, TO A DEGREE

One of the conclusions I’ve come up with is that putting is overrated, to a degree. One of the reasons why I decided to devote most of my time in practice to ballstriking is that I just felt that I wasn’t going to be able to take good putting from golf course to golf course. I may putt well on some greens and then putt terribly on other greens. And some greens I may putt well on compared to the rest of the field, but because the greens are bumpy and slow, the advantage of putting well on those bumpy and slow greens will be minimal. I will get back to this point in a second.

Let’s say that the MIT ‘Putts Gained’ statistic is the true measure of a PGA Tour player’s putting ability. I believe that unless you finish in approximately the top 20 or in approximately the bottom 20 in that stat, putting doesn’t mean that much for these guys on the PGA Tour as they think it does.

I know, it sounds really radical.

But what I’m saying is that if Steve Stricker is the 69th best putter on the PGA Tour and Colt Knost is the 111th best putter on the PGA Tour, I believe from a statistical standpoint that putting skill has virtually nothing to do with Stricker being the far superior player.

That doesn’t mean that a golfer or a Touring pro shouldn’t work on their putting. If a Joe Durant (typically a bottom 20 putter) could finish in the top 100 in putting, that would help him. And if Colt Knost could putt as well as the Luke Donald’s, Brian Gay’s and Matt Kuchar’s of the world, that would help him as well. But I hear a lot of mini-tour players claiming that they can’t make the PGA Tour because they can’t putt. I actually think they could putt well enough to finish in the top 100 in Putts Gained, but they have other factors as to why they have not made the PGA Tour.

Lastly, I think that a lot of Tour players have not even come close to putting to their potential. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, the really good putters on the PGA Toru are still more or less streaky putters. And as Mark Sweeney (www.aimpointgolf.com) has mentioned, nobody on Tour putts every type of green well. Some struggle on certain grasses, some struggle on different slopes. Some of the best putters oddly enough struggle badly on flatter greens. I think the Tour golfer who has some talent for putting and who works to become no worse than above average on every type of green they play on will reach the zenith of putting.


APPROACHES FROM 175+ YARDS

According to Slate.com’s series of articles on ‘Money Golf’, the top 20 ranked players in the world pretty much have one thing in common…they are tops in the long game. Particularly in approach shots from 175 yards or more.

Now, this doesn’t mean that they are hitting beautiful, picturesque shots into the green. It just means that one way or another they have consistently gotten the ball closer to the cup than their peers.

Think about it for a second.

Let’s say Kevin Na and Graeme McDowell hit the ball the same length with their irons.

From 140 yards, we’ll say that Na takes a mediocre swing at it and McDowell takes a pretty good swing at the ball.

It is very possible that they may break even on that hole because that mediocre swing may result in Na still winding up on the green, but having a 30 footer versus McDowell having a 12 footer. McDowell will still have a much better chance of making the 12 footer than Na making the 30 footer, but that 12 footer is no gimme. And it’s not impossible for Na to drain his 30 footer. Or even more crazy…for Na to drain the 30 footer, put pressure on McDowell and cause him to miss the 12 footer. So Na hits a worse shot from 140 and actually winds up with a lower score than McDowell who hit a pretty good shot into the hole.

Now, we’ll move that to 210 yards with both guys hitting 4-irons. And again, McDowell takes a pretty good swing while Na takes a mediocre swing. McDowell could be 20 feet away with that pretty good swing. OTOH, Na will likely miss the entire green. Birdie is almost out of the equation and depending on where he wound up, par may be out of the question as well. BIG difference in the outcome.


POWER IS THE GREAT EQUALIZER


I believe power has three great advantages

1. It can turn par-5’s into long par-4’s, making a par-72 into possibly a par-68
2. It can get a golfer to avoid approaches from 175+ yards
3. The golfer can use less club from 175+ yards, increasing their margin for error.

I think we can understand #1, but let me explain the significance of #2 and #3.

Let’s say JB Holmes is hitting his driver on average 340 yards that day versus Steve Stricker who is hitting his driver on average 280 yards that day.

If they get up on a 460 yard par-4, Holmes will have missed that 175+ yard approach range and will only have 120 yards into the green. OTOH, Stricker is in that 175+ yard range with a 180 yard approach into the green. BIG difference.

Let’s say the next hole is a 210 yard par-3. Stricker may have a 4-iron into the green. Holmes, who is now in the 175+ yard range, will only have a 7-iron into the green. Now, Holmes may hit an ugly shot, but because he is hitting a 7-iron, he has more room for error than Stricker hitting a 4-iron. Plus, Stricker may hit a very nice shot with that 4-iron and it may not hold the green.

Where I believe Stricker has the advantage, and I think it’s important to understand in match play when playing somebody who is a bomb-n-gouger, is twofold:

1. Stricker is still very accurate and precise with his long irons and hitting a 4-iron accurately isn’t that difficult for him.

2. The par-4’s that will put him under the 175+ yard approach shot, like a 410 yard par-4 where he may have 130 yards into the green on the approach, he’s got a large advantage over Holmes who may struggle to find the fairway and doesn’t have the iron or wedge game to really compete with Stricker.

And remember, there are 10 par-4’s typically on a golf course. The bomber’s advantage normally is on the par-5’s and super long par-4’s. So if the shorter player only has 1 super long par-4 to deal with, then they can make things up on those par-4’s.


THE OTHER DIFFERENCE


While I feel that putting is overrated to a degree, I believe the actual short game is overlooked by golfers. Many golfers automatically think of putting when they hear the word ‘short game.’

But I think it’s more important to focus on the game around the green. If I can consistently leave myself with 5 footers from a 30 yard pitch or leave myself with 10 footers but be a better putter, I’d still take the 5 footer.

I sorta look at the 175+ yard approach as a crucial situation for a golfer. If they swing well, they likely gain shots on the field. If they swing poorly, they lose shots on the field. But if they miss the green, the short game can either be a safety valve or a detriment to your game. I think that the PGA Tour players are usually much better around the green and much better from 175+ yards than the mini-tour player and thus they consistently gain more shots and save more shots than the mini-tour player will in a round of golf.


JACK AND LEE


Two of the golfers that helped me start thinking along these lines were Nicklaus and Trevino.

Nicklaus was known as a golfer with a very poor wedge game and terrible sand game by PGA Tour standards. We’ve always been told how important it is to have a great wedge game and how every PGA Tour players has the best wedge games from 100 yards out on the planet.

So how did Jack become the greatest ever with his poor wedge game?

Well, as I’ve shown before on this blog, from ages 40-45, he was leading the PGA Tour in total driving AND greens in regulation. He also hit it a mile and was known as the greatest long iron player of all time.

For their time, we’ll shorten the ‘175+ yard range’ to 155+ yards because of the changes in technology. So if Nicklaus was hitting 300 yard drives and got up to a 430 yard par-4, he was probably hitting 9-iron or PW into the green and missing the 155+ yard range.

Then when he got on a long par-3 and needed a long iron, he was the greatest long iron player that ever lived, so it was just playing into his strength. And he could also hit almost ever par-5 in two.

Thus, Nicklaus was playing par 72’s as par 68’s and since he usually found the fairway, he didn’t have to worry so much about finding jail and having to punch out. He dominated the long par-3’s as well and on par-4’s, he was constantly under the 155+ yard range. So while he may have been a poor wedge player by PGA Tour standards, if he’s hitting wedge and the rest of the field is hitting 6-irons and 7-irons, I’ll take Jack.

I hate to say this, but I honestly think Jack’s course management skills were probably overhyped. Jack is the greatest of all time because he really was great at striking a golf ball and putting it in the hole.

Trevino OTOH was shorter off the tee, but was considered one of the all time great ballstrikers, but a terrible putter. How could this be? I thought every player on the PGA Tour is a great putter and surely one of the all time greats had to be a great putter?

I think Trevino probably wasn’t a great putter, but had plenty of years where he wasn’t in the bottom 20 on Tour. I think he found himself in the 155+ yard approach range as often as the next guy on the Tour, but it didn’t matter when you struck the ball as well as he did. And if he got on a 380 yard par-4, nutted a driver 260 and had a PW in, he was going to hit it stiff. And he’s considered one of the best bunker players of all time and probably was just great around the greens in general. So if he did miss a green, he would make the save anyway.








3JACK

10 comments:

Robert said...

I have enjoyed your blogs more than I can say. Your writing style is excellent. Your analysis is thoughtful. And your links to interesting articles and products are outstanding. Thanks a million!

Phil said...

Great article! However, all this analysis is geared towards pros. What is your take on the average golfer or high handicappers? Thanks.

Rich H. said...

Phil,

Obviously, every golfer may have their own 'story.' Brian Gay doesn't hit it long, so that hurts him a bit, but he makes up with his putting which is some of the best on Tour.

Still though, I think this applies with all golfers. Let's say I put a 12 handicapper on the PGA Tour, playing the same tees and such. While they would lose strokes in just about every category, I think they wuold lose most of their strokes in the 175+ yard approach territory (we'll call it the danger zone).

I'm still working on this and hope to have more answers in the upcoming months.




3JACK

Phil said...

The reason I asked is because I am having some interesting discussions with a fellow pro over which aspect of the game is more important for improving students' handicaps - the short game/putting or the long game.

I am starting to come to the same conclusion as you that every golfer is a different story.

I look forward to reading your results in the months to come.

Thanks again!

Rich H. said...

Yes. I believe that every golfer has their own 'story.' However, at this moment I feel the long approach game (175+ yards) and the short game around the green are the biggest factors. Obviously, if you can't keep your driver out of the woods...that needs to be corrected. Or if you can't putt to save your life, that needs to be fixed. But I believe where golfers lose the most strokes is in the 'danger zone' (175+ yards) and the short game around the green. I think if one goes from average to very good in those two areas, dramatic improvements will ensue.




3JACK

John said...

Love your site btw. Glad I found it. I will check back. I love the way you break it all down for me.

-John

Siteseer2 said...

I can tell you what Hardy teaches his Pros--we talked about it at length...and it makes sense. The odds of making a putt outside of 12 feet go down to 2/10. Outside 22 feet it goes down to about 1/10, POINT: It matters not whether your 22 ft or 40ft-- you'll likely two putt. So, forget the long game and focus on anything inside 140 yds. because its only the twelve footers (range) you will likely make....and you gotta be GOOD with the wedges and 9 iron. Period.

Siteseer2 said...

Oh...guess Kuchar too it to heart, too

Rich H. said...

All I'll say Siteseer is that MoneyGolf points a much different picture and from my initial look at this statistically, it paints a much different picture for the PGA Tour players...and it's not even close.




3JACK

elliot gould said...

Sorry to be late to this but I once read a Trevino interview in which he said that he could "land the ball on a sprinkler head" with his irons.