Phil Bombs

Let’s be honest, the last 18-24 months of Phil Mickelson have been the best stretch of his career… for us as consumers. You can have his joyful leap at the 2004 Masters, but I’ll take youth-guiding, Phiresiding, sound bite appetizing, Tweeting, Unapologetic Bombing Phil Mickelson all day at this point. Even as the most sympathetic superstar of the past 25 years, don’t you feel closer than ever to him now?

Cue the distance debate, where Phil dropped different bombs on the discussion about athleticism and issues he has with the governing bodies. While it seems some of the loudest voices in golf media support some level of bifurcation or complete rollback, Phil is Team Hulk Smash. He was quickly blasted by many for his take, but I think much of it had to do with his inability to properly communicate his numbers. So, let me do it for him…

Mickelson has never been a short hitter in his career. In the late 1990’s, before the solid core golf ball accelerated distance, Mickelson annually ranked in the top 10 in driving distance on the PGA Tour. He is tall, he is flexible, and he has incredible hands to deliver a perfect strike. It made sense. He was also in his physical prime, just shy of his 30th birthday.

What has happened more recently – once Phil turned 40 – is his understanding of what it would take to stay relevant in the game. Any golfer should, naturally, decline in speed as he ages – Dustin Johnson lost 2 mph last year over five years ago, although his knee may have something to do with that – but Mickelson has found a way to not just gain speed as he approaches 50, but gain it at a rapid rate.

Phil Speed

The chart above shows Mickelson’s clubhead speed over the past decade. In 2010, he ranked 9th on the PGA Tour at that speed, bottoming out in 2017 at 91st on Tour. “New” Phil has committed to both length as a strategy, and fitness for sustainability to see incredible gains. His speed gain from 2016 to now is right around 4%. The Tour average speed improvement is just under 1% in that same time frame. Phil has quadrupled Tour average in his speed improvement, in his late 40’s!!

So, in many respects, Phil was correct. A commitment to athleticism and speed can have big gains, more than just the control line of technological advances shows. While his delivery could probably use an adjustment, his physical wonder should be championed, especially with some recent positive results. What he is doing at his age is impressive. Case in point…

Phil Speed w DL3

This second chart adds Davis Love III to this equation. DL3 was just as long, if not longer, than Mickelson back in the late 90’s. Love is five years older than Phil, so his decline in speed in the first four years on this chart would be what you would expect Mickelson’s to look like on the final four years of hisI Again, impressive.

Not to drop a bomb on this whole blog and throw all of this evidence under the bus, but there was an interesting (perhaps coincidental) discovery I made when looking this data over…

I was drawn to Phil’s speed in 2015, when he suddenly gained 3 mph and dipped back down the following year. There was no significant equipment change for Mickelson that year. (More on 2015 in a second)

While Mickelson is hitting it farther now, there has been a sharp decline in his iron game over the past year. He posted his worst Strokes Gained: Approach season in the ShotLink era last year on the PGA Tour, just above the 0.0 mark, and has seen his 50-round average (as of the end of Pebble Beach) drop to the lowest of his career, SG: App of -0.18.*

Screen Shot 2020-02-10 at 3.18.11 PM*Courtesy of DataGolf
It marks only the second time since 2004 that Mickelson has seen this 50-round average dip below average/zero. The other time?! Yep, you guessed it, 2015. Could a commitment to trend-defying speed be costing him with the irons? That seems like the more relevant question than whether or not Mickelson’s speed gains are justified or not.

Heat Check

In a week where we lost one of the transcendent, great figures in sports, I am reminded of what it meant to shout “Kobe” in anything you did. Pickup games, throwing away a tissue, changing a diaper, it didn’t matter. You shout his name and it was synonymous with clutch. Kobe Bryant was a walking heat check every time he played.

Transitioning to golf, what defines a hot golfer? Simply winning one week is too small of a sample size. We can’t say, for sure, that Marc Leishman is “hot” right now. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but one week does not a trend make in golf. Three months? Six months? Ten starts? Twenty?

This has come to the front of my mind because of how we treat Jon Rahm right now. I listed some of the numbers in the video above:

  • +2.68 SG: Total in 15 starts dating back to the U.S. Open
  • 380-11 head-to-head in his last five worldwide starts

The only publicly recognized method we have for measuring golfers worldwide right now is the Official World Golf Ranking. That’s a two-year, sliding scale based on field strength. In it, Rahm is No. 3 in the world. But what if we picked our own beginning to this? Go back to the U.S. Open last year. If you started the ranking then, provided for the same diminishing value as presently used in the OWGR, this is what the world rankings would look like in that span of time:

  1. Jon Rahm – 20.25 avg. points
  2. Rory McIlroy – 16.95
  3. Justin Thomas – 16.02
  4. Brooks Koepka – 14.06
  5. Tiger Woods – 12.93

Rahm gets a bump up two spots and is the clear Alpha of the sport. There is some moderate shuffling behind, but it gives you a clear view of who the “hottest” player in the game is.

Of course, this exercise has bias flaws in it. Why settle on the U.S. Open? Go back one week earlier, and Rory’s win in Canada significantly closes the gap to first. Add 3 more weeks in and Koepka’s PGA win, not to mention a solid run from Patrick Cantlay dramatically shifts the list above.

The point isn’t to be “right” about who is deserving of Number One, it’s to lend perspective to the current state of talent we are watching in the game. If you had to ask me who the best player in golf is right now – January 28, 2020 – it is Jon Rahm, and I won’t hesitate.

The Koepka Conundrum

One of the nuggets I tackled this week is something I continue to come back to when it comes to my golf geekdom… Brooks Koepka.

The Number One player in the world has arrived there because of how he plays in majors, and that’s about it. Yes, he won a WGC event last year. But his ratio of major wins to regular wins is far closer to Angel Cabrera than Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or most players who have the consistency to be considered the top players of the game.

This is not a knock on Brooks. Please don’t add this to the pyre of slights he uses to fuel motivation. It is a psychological exercise in motivation. That somebody is able to channel world-class ability on the largest, most pressure-packed stages is beyond fascinating. It thens opens up only two possible solutions to the query:

  • Brooks Koepka’s ability to win majors is a fluke
  • Brooks Koepka isn’t motivated in non-major events

I explored those numbers a bit on #MathMondays above, but here is the full breakdown…

Since his win at the 2017 U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka has played 10 major championships, and this is his record: 1, T6, T13, 1, T39, 1, T2, 1, 2, T4

Win % = 40%
Top 2% = 60%
Top 10% = 80%
SG: Total = +2.957 

If you were to take that final number over the course of a season, only Tiger Woods has ever had a +3.000 or greater year. Koepka is nearly there – in a decent sample size – in majors alone. Now, the other side of the Brooks’ coin:

All Other Tournaments Since the 2017 U.S. Open (43 in total)

Win % = 7%
Top 2% = 12%
Top 10% = 30%
SG: Total = +0.747

The last number again would have ranked right around 40th on Tour last season, just better than Vaughn Taylor. When it is not a major, Brooks Koepka is Vaughn Taylor.

Koepka is 2.21 strokes better, per round – nearly 9 strokes better in 4 rounds – in majors.

For comparison’s sake, we look at, arguably, the best season for Tiger Woods in the Shotlink era. In 2006, Tiger won 9 times in 19 starts, including 2 majors.

Win % = 47%
Top 2% = 63%

So, you could say Tiger’s results in 2006 mirror those of Koepka in majors over the last 3ish seasons. What was Woods’ SG: Total that year?

SG: Total in majors = +3.18
SG: Total in non-majors = +3.78

Tiger was slightly better than Koepka in terms of strength in majors, but he was BETTER than the field in all other events. This shouldn’t be a surprise. He was the dominant player against the BEST fields in golf, he should be better against weaker fields. This just isn’t the case for Koepka today.

Again, this isn’t a criticism of Koepka. He understands that value, legacy and strength in golf Is measured unfairly by results in major championships. In his defense, he has had injuries that have hurt his numbers in non-major portions of the calendar. He also has said that he wants to use the full schedule in 2020 to show more consistency and validate his spot as the top-ranked player in the world. But, if all of his wins and top finishes come in majors again, he will continue to be one of the most fascinating athletes in all of sports.

Greatness

What makes a golfer great? We answer that question historically by looking at win totals, majors won and – depending on the player – reputation.

But with so many tools at our disposal now with Shotlink data, we can now show how great a player is in a tournament, a stretch, a season or even a career. The flood of information since 2004 has changed how we measure that success.

Last year, Rory McIlroy had one of the greatest statistical seasons in PGA Tour (modern) history. He knew it, and was proud of his +2.551 Strokes Gained: Total final mark. It was one of the best seasons of the past 15 years, and only Tiger Woods really showed as much dominance.

Hey Will, what does that number mean?!

Simple answer: Over the course of an entire season, Rory McIlroy was 2.551 strokes better than the average PGA Tour golfer. So, if the average player shoots 71 on a Friday, Rory fired 68.5, on average.

I’ve come to appreciate that +2 SG: Total number as the characteristic of a GREAT (not good) player. If you can hit that number over a significant stretch of golf, you are doing everything really well. Which leads to Webb Simpson…

There may not be a player in the world right now playing as much under-appreciated golf as Simpson. Go back to the middle of April last year, the week after the Masters. Start then and look at 16 tournaments that Simpson has played since. That is a fair sample size. [Tiger Woods played an average of only 18 tournaments in 2006-2007]

Simpson’s Strokes Gained: Total in that span since the 2019 Masters = +2.23

Webb Simpson is a top 5 player in the world right now

But Will, he hasn’t won

You’re right. A lot of top 3’s, but no W to show for it. Should we expect a win soon? History says, ‘YES.’

Since 2004, there have been 12 golfers achieve that magical +2 or greater number, on 24 occasions. Here is the list, with the number of total wins achieved in each season:

2019 – Rory McIlroy (won 4 times)
2018 – Dustin Johnson (won 3 times)
2017 – NONE
2016 – Jason Day (won 3 times)
2015 – Day, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson (12 total wins)
2014 – McIlroy (won 4 times)
2013 – Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods in 2013 (5 total wins)
2012 – McIlroy and Woods (8 total wins)
2011 – Luke Donald (won 4 times)
2010 – NONE
2009 – Woods (won 7 times)
2008 – Woods (won 3 times)*
2007 – Woods (won 7 times)
2006 – Donald, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott and Woods (15 total wins)
2005 – Vijay Singh and Woods (11 total wins)
2004 – Singh and Woods (11 total wins)
*Season cut short by knee surgery

That is 97 wins from players in the +2 Club, or just over 4 wins per player on average. Of those 24 occurrences, only two players did not win. Here are their resumes in more detail:

Henrik Stenson in 2015: 24/25 made cuts, 6 runner-up finishes, 11 top 10’s
Steve Stricker in 2013: Semi-retired, 14/14 cuts made, 4 runner-ups, 8 top 10’s (57%)

So, in reality, Stenson’s wild ride in 2015 (he would win a major in 2016) is the only season at that statistical height that doesn’t have a win in it. While Simpson’s current pace overlaps two years, the odds would indicate he will win sometime in his next half dozen starts.

 

 

#Content

Holy blog-less existence, Batman! This site was never intended to be a click grabber. It was an island in the web’s abyss where my name, likeness and work could be housed and interested parties directed in case there was a need for a hack like me. Why? Because that is the way the old guard did it. Rather than a box of VHS tapes, a few pages on a site with YouTube clips should do it.

Wanna know a secret? I’ve never received a job because somebody stumbled upon my work on here. That’s okay. Ninety-nine percent of the work I have earned in my life has been through networking, connections and word-of-mouth. This business is as much right place/time/people as anything in this world.

Except when it isn’t.

While I still hold on to that outdated dream of rising the broadcasting ranks through the old boys’ club of promotion, the modern media world is about making your own magic, producing your own #content and building your own #brand.

I love numbers and stats. It’s not all of my toolbox, but a majority of it. I believe in emotion triumphing paper, karma and Gods, Alphas and so much more. But, while still keeping one watchful eye on the boys’ club above, forging a path in numbers and stats is a safe way to build one’s brand.

Having said all of that – and thanks for still reading – I am grateful for the thousands who have helped grow the audience of my podcast. With a weekly commitment, the conversations will continue to be lively, only now I’ve added some predictions and number crunching for the gambling community as well. Bet at your own risk.

I want to use this site to archive the work/research I have done, so it doesn’t get lost. For example…

With his T2 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Xander Schauffele continued an amazing trend of big finishes in big field events. Since winning the 2017 Tour Championship, Schauffele has played in 27 such tournaments (Majors, WGCs, Players, Tour Championship, ToC and Hero World Challenge), and his results are staggering:

27 finishes in order: 1, T46, T22, T18, T17, T50, T2, T6, T2, 68, T35, T7, 1, T8, 1, T14, MC, T24, T2, T16, T3, T41, T27, 2, 2, T10, T2

– Has 9 top 2’s (33%)
[For Reference: Tiger Woods’ career top 2 percentage is 32%]

– Has 14 top 10’s (52%)

– Has 18 top 20’s (67%)

Now for the fun… In his 30 other (regular event) starts, he has 1 other top 2 (3%), 6 top 10s (20%). Wrap your head around that.

Okay, that felt good. Maybe I will try more next week!

Influence

When I set out to muddy the golf podcast waters a little bit more last year, I wanted my stain to be just a little different from all the rest. Why create something that is merely a cheap facsimile of what is already out there?! As many are well aware, while I am a stats/numbers fan, I am certainly not an expert. But that aspect of the game of golf seemed to be underserved a bit in the podcast space.

So, even though The Perfect Number Podcast dives into other geeky areas, the stats/analytics angle has been the most concentrated effort. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one loyal listener used the first season as his inspiration to dive into the golf analytics world and start crunching his own data from PGA Tour stats.

I had no idea this little podcast could influence, but if it helps provide a central ground for a passionate base of golf fans and media, giddy up!

Thanks, Lou Stagner!

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2k18YE

I don’t blog enough. That’s an obvious statement based on the sporadic nature of content on this site, which is, ironically, the root of the problem discussed below.

Earlier this year, I launched a podcast. If you’re one of the five people reading this blog, you probably know this. What you may not know is why I started it. The Perfect Number Podcast has become a place for stats and analytics professionals in golf to collaborate, learn and listen. It, I think, filled a tiny void in a massive world of golf podcast #content. Here’s the thing: I don’t know if I was the right voice for it.

I love stats, and I love numbers, but I am not an analyst. I don’t know how to create formulas or build decks. I am a simply a broadcaster with questions.

I created my podcast not to fill a void in golf, but in my professional life. I missed having an audience on a platform of my control. While I love calling games or tournaments, I really developed a love for the talk and conversation of radio. Without a regular show, a podcast made the most sense. But, with so many great ones out there, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Hence, a podcast of something I was curious about.

Here’s the dilemma…

As I have studied the modest growth of the Perfect Number’s brand this past year, I analyzed the rise of so many others. What separates most of the best voices out there is autonomy – the power to independently create and speak. That is where sports media is splintered.

Governing bodies, conferences and leagues control the content you see and hear on television and radio. You can’t blame them. With the money on the line and various brands to protect, live event broadcasts are more controlled by those playing than ever before. Critical thought about those events now must take place outside of the “safe zone” that is the broadcast.

How do you straddle that line if you want to work on both sides? That’s the professional question I ask myself every day. It’s more complicated than writing “tweets are my own” in a bio.

When I was 13, I said I wanted to call sports for a living. Nothing about that has changed. It’s what I do for a living. What the past decade has given me is an additional love for wanting to talk about sports on a more critical level. What 2018 has given me is the start of a marriage of both, I hope.

The Perfect Number Podcast is safe because it has to be for me. I want the niche to expand and unite an audience, like me, who embraces the intersection of statistical analysis and sport. To everybody who helped the podcast grow in 2018, thank you! It’s just the beginning.

Revving The Pod Up

For those who have been a part of helping The Perfect Number Podcast grow, thank you! May was the best month by far (equaling the downloads from the previous three months combined). Look for a lot more in the coming weeks, including a fantasy preview of this week’s U.S. Open, which is up now with Rob Bolton…

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Episode 12 – Golf Data

Yes, I have failed in blogging for every podcast, but this one is the reason I launched the podcast. I find the endless amount of data to be fascinating in the sport. Who is the best putter? We have a zillion data sets to try and answer this question. Which stat correlates most with success? (Answer: Strokes Gained Approach)

Players are starting to really capitalize on the value of those stats. Some companies, like the 15th Club, are on the front lines in terms of analyzing those numbers to maximize player performance. Jake Nichols is the Director of Golf Intelligence and joined the podcast to break it all down:

  • Which stat is most useful
  • How players use and consume the data
  • Outlying performances in history
  • What is the margin between great and good

I hope you find the chat to be as fascinating as I did…

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Episode Eight – Masters Picks

In 2014, I said I would always pick Bubba Watson to win the Masters if he showed solid form leading up to the tournament. After Jordan Spieth won in 2015, I said he would win so many green jackets that you’d be a fool not to pick him every year.

I am picking Justin Rose to win the Masters in 2018.

Yes, that is a hypocritical choice given my historical “absolutes.” And guess what? I can make an argument for Phil Mickelson to win. I can give you the stats to sell a pathway for Rickie Fowler to Butler Cabin. Rory McIlroy is damn good. And there’s Tiger.

This is the busiest week of the year in golf for a million different reasons, and like most of you, I am gambling… with friends, with colleagues and with perfect strangers. What is my strategy? Which players are sleeper picks? Who should you shy away from? Set your betting strategy with this episode, featuring fantasy golf writer Mike Glasscott.

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