Friday, September 7, 2012

A Statistical Examination of the US Ryder Cup Team


With the Ryder Cup coming at the end of the month, I wanted to do an overview of each player on the US Team, their strengths and weaknesses and what formats I see them excelling in with certain teammates.

First, I think this has the makings of a great Ryder Cup. I think the American side is fairly strong and even better than the ’08 team, which won at Valhalla. Furthermore, outside of Bubba Watson, no other player on the American team is higher than 68th in Putts Gained. Meanwhile, the European team has Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, all sporting excellent metrics this y ear. Luke Donald’s iron game has suffered, but he’s still as good as anybody with the flatstick and has improved his iron play. Plus, it appears that Sergio is back.


Generally, I think the American team has more depth, but when Rory is playing well he seems virtually unstoppable and the Euros have great Ryder Cuppers like Sergio and Luke Donald. I could see Olazabal relying heavily on McDowell, Sergio, Donald and Rory to gain the majority of their points and leading the Europeans to victory. Lastly, while Medinah is not the most exciting course to watch on TV, I think if the weather holds up it will be perfect for the Ryder Cup because we don’t have to worry about a unique design adversely affecting one team. Plus, the Chicago crowd should be into it.


In the Fourball format, this consists of each player playing their own ball and the team’s score is represented by the player with the lowest score. This is often referred to as ‘best ball’ or ‘low score’ format.

Unfortunately, the sample size of data is limited when it comes to the Ryder Cup because the earliest ShotLink data goes back to is 2004 and not all of the data even goes back that far. But from what I have been able to research along with my own interpretation of the data, the better Fourball teams usually have golfers that excel on par-4’s and par-5’s along with have a good rate of birdies and bogey avoidance.

I think it plays out that way because your typical golf course has 10 par-4’s, 4 par-5’s and 4 par-3’s. Thus, it’s easy to see why par-4 play is so important…there are more par-4’s on a typical golf course thant here are par-3’s AND par-5’s, combined. I think par-5 play is important because that’s where you run into birdie and eagle opportunities. And on average, the Tour birdies par-3’s about 12-13% of the time. But , they birdie or eagle par-5’s about 40-45% of the time. Thus, par-3 play does not appear to matter in the Fourball format because it’s generally a hole that Tour players will not birdie very often and between the 2 Tour players who were good enough to make the Ryder Cup, they should typically come away with par.


As far as birdie and bogey rates go, I think captains emphasize birdie rates too much. While it’s certainly important in the Fourball format, you still need players who can extend every hole and force their opponent to win the hole instead of them losing the hole. Here is my statistical rankings, in order, of the best to worst Fourball format players on the US team.

1. Bubba Watson
2. Jason Dufner
3. Tiger Woods
4. Webb Simpson
5. Steve Stricker
6. Dustin Johnson
7. Brandt Snedeker
8. Matt Kuchar
9. Zach Johnson
10. Phil Mickelson
11. Keegan Bradley
12. Jim Furyk

That being said, I think that outside of Furyk, each player appears to be a very competent to great Fourball participant. Furyk’s problem is that he’s 161st in birdie or better rate and 64th in par-5 scoring average.

However, I do believe that there are some combinations that work from a psychological perspective in the Fourball format. Much like the ’08 tandem of Boo Weekley and JB Holmes. Weekley is a perennial top driver of the ball on Tour who not only hits it accurately, but very long off the tee as well. Holmes is often referred to as the longest player on Tour. In the ’08 Ryder Cup, the duo would have Weekley tee off first and blast drive after drive over 300 yards down the middle. And if Weekley was in good shape (which he usually was), that would allow Holmes a free rip and he was routinely blasting drivers 375 yards. From a psychological perspective, you could see it wear on poor Lee Westwood who was being outdriven by Weekley and if Holmes could keep the ball in play, he would be up to 100 yards behind his tee shot.

From that perspective, even Furyk is not a terrible bet in the Fourball format if he’s paired with a golfer who can make a lot of birdies. Somebody like Keegan Bradley, who I have 2nd to last on the list, could work well with Furyk in a Fourball format as Bradley is 2nd in birdie rate, 5th in par-5 scoring average, 1st in par-3 scoring average (Furyk’s 2nd weakest metric) and is an excellent driver of the ball (14th in ATD). With Keegan’s total driving and Furyk’s incredible steadiness and bogey avoidance (2nd), they can still make an effective pairing in the Fourball format.

To me, the first day pairings are most important. I’m not exactly sure if they will start off with the Fourball format matches or the Foursome (alternate shot) matches. I would tend to go with the philosophy of having the young, inexperienced players go off the in first series of matches. I think this helps get the jitters out of the way and I would be a little leery of an older player having the mental and physical stamina to play 2 matches on the first day. Furthermore, I would want the experienced players to be in the 2nd round of matches because if the team gets off to a slow start in the first round of matches, I think experience would be helpful in not having the teams push too hard to try and make up lost ground.


The foursome format is often referred to as the ‘alternate shot’ format or sometimes the ‘Scotch Twosome’ format. This format is simple, one player hits a shot and then the other player hits the next shot. And they do that throughout the entire round


I get the feeling that most golfers think that metrics are not relevant in the Foursome format as continually in each Ryder Cup, I see players who ‘get along’ or are from the same general region paired up for that. As Billy Beane once said ‘hope is not a strategy.’

I think that the foursome format is where metrics are even MORE important to observe. For instance, I think it would be a poor pairing to put a player who struggles from the rough, like Zach Johnson, with a player who misses a lot of fairways like Phil Mickelson. I would rather see a tandem of players whose strengths and weaknesses mix well together. The difference here is that the metrics I’m more concerned with are actual performance with different types of clubs instead of performance with regards to scores on a golf holes. I also tend to favor putting and short game play in the Foursome format. Players are bound to screw up and you need that player who can hit a short-sided pitch close or save the team with an 8-footer.


One team I think would be strong is the duo of Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson. Simpson has dominate the Tour from the fairway this year, finish 4th, 3rd and 37th in shots from the fairway in the Birdie, Safe and Danger Zones. Simpson’s problems this year have been off the tee as he’s 84th in fairway % and 102nd in distance to the edge of the fairway. So a partner like Dufner, who is 18th in fairway % and has played very well from the rough this year should be a good fit. You could also take Simpson with Stricker, although I think Stricker and Tiger would be a good fit based solely on their metrics. And since they have experience together, it may be worth a shot.


I’m assuming that the Fourball (low-score) format will be the first to go off and the afternoon matches will the Foursome (alternate shot) format.

Fourball Pairings

Bubba & Tiger – Ranked #1 and #3 in my best suited players for Fourball. Weak spot is that Bubba is traditionally a terrible par-3 player and this year is no different as he ranks 162nd in par-3 scoring average. However, Tiger is ranked 23rd in par-3’s and their par-4 and par-5 play is superior. And while I don’t make this a big consideration, they do play a lot of practice rounds together. I would recommend that Tiger tee off first and allow Bubba to hit his bombs when Tiger is in good position.

Jason Dufner & Webb Simpson– Ranked #2 and #4 in my Fourball power rankings. They don’t have a glaring weakness in this format and should make a lot of birdies. I also want these two together for the Foursome format in the afternoon, so I might as well have them play together in the morning.

Brandt Snedeker & Dustin Johnson – I want Snedeker out on day one because he’s a great putter who has been riding a hot streak with the putter and I want to see if he can get the team some momentum early on and then see if I can ride him later on. DJ is a big-time player and young. He also has been playing well lately. He’s another player that can fit into the Foursome format and if he’s playing well early on, I would not mind having him play all day.


Matt Kuchar & Keegan Bradley – I have a good feeling that Keegan Bradley is a good fit in the Ryder Cup. He continually shows up for big tournaments, he’s a great total driver of the ball and he can putt pretty well. The big key is that if you took a ‘best score’ scoring average for the year, this team would be 1st in par-3 scoring average (Bradley), 5th in par-4 scoring average (Kuchar), and 5th in par-5 scoring average (Bradley). And that’s with Bradley being 2nd in birdie percentage and Kuchar 6th in bogey avoidance.

Foursome Pairings

Jason Dufner & Webb Simpson – I would like to think that this is a top pairing that I would want to use again for the reasons stated. I think when Dufner is driving the ball, this team would be tough given how adept Simpson is with his irons from the fairway. And even if Simpson misses, Dufner is ranked #2 in Adjusted Short Game play. The only thing that concerns me a little is that Dufner has never been known as a great putter. He’s ranked 68th in Putts Gained right now. But, I think that I would take Dufner putting from a much shorter distance than a European player putting from a longer distance, even if it’s Luke Donald.


Tiger Woods & Steve Stricker – I think that Simpson and Stricker could be a better team, but you have to make some room for Tiger. Tiger’s issues this year have been shots from the rough from both the Safe and Danger Zones. Keep him in the fairway and he’s deadly. While Stricker isn’t the greatest driver in the world (75th in Advanced Total Driving), he does hit it fairly accurate. He’s also dominated from the rough this year. So Stricker can keep Tiger in the fairway and if the longer Woods hits the fairway he’ll put the deadly Stricker in great shape. If he misses the fairway, you have the current best player from the rough this year still hitting the shot.

Bubba Watson & Phil Mickelson – I know, Mickelson is not exactly the ideal foursome player. Neither is Bubba. But together they may just work because as wild as Mickelson is off the tee, Watson can recover with crazy shots as well. Plus, I don’t like the idea of having some players not get into the action on day one. On day one, I would want to see a little from everybody and then determine who the hot hands are for the rest of the tournament. While Phil may be better suited for Fourball play, this year his putting (6th) and Short Game (48th) may be too good to pass up in this situation.

Jim Furyk & Zach Johnson–Johnson may be better suited in Fourball format, but Furyk is not (I really wish they would have selected Bo Van Pelt instead) and I don’t want to veterans going into the next day cold. They both play a similar type of game and have both putted well and have had a good year with their short game.

Tomorrow, I will do something on the Europeans.


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