Stuck at Home Content

The kids started “school” this week, virtually, and will eventually have full-time help at home (aka, not me) before eventually getting back into a classroom. After five months of being stuck together, I am really going to miss inventing ways for the kids to be a part of my #content.

I also needed to have a place where I could come back and watch these. I don’t know if I posted them for sanity, therapy, entertainment or to leverage my children to advance my career, but I can’t wait to revisit these with them in 10 years, not to mention all of the fun #MathMondays they were a part of. (This was a favorite too)

 

 

 

Fi-now

Having a front row seat to Jon Rahm’s impressive win at Memorial, it was hard not to pay attention to the new world number one putting together a major-like performance all week. It was impressive for its consistency and for showing how all-around talented Rahm is at such a young age. It’s worthy of praise and lots of discussion, but it may have overshadowed two things I witnessed this past week.

One, which I won’t dive too much into, was the fine line of having it and not having it on the PGA Tour, by Ryan Palmer. He went from 77-81 on an easier setup at Muirfield Village the week before (-6.69 Strokes Gained: Total, weighted for field strength*) to a career-best +4.20 SG: Total* and his best iron performance on approach in five years. In the span of five prep days, he became 11 shots better, PER ROUND.

The second thing I witnessed, which I will dive into with numbers in this entry, was Tony Finau embracing his talents and deciding that now, in 2020, is the time to unleash the power. Now, he didn’t do it all the time, and picked his spots, but readily admitted after early-week success at Memorial that the immediate overall gains of Bryson DeChambeau’s distance made him take notice and start being more aggressive.

It’s something many around (and beyond) Finau have been dying waiting to see him try. He fizzled on the weekend, a blur of bogeys and doubles that had more to do with his short game and poor approach play than philosophy off the tee. But, if he and his team analyze the numbers, they will find that the experiment did and will work. Here’s a breakdown…

On 11 occasions this past week, Finau — who averages only +.331 SG: Off the Tee per round this season — gained .3 shots or better per hole with monster tee shots. That’s a big gain, and a big edge to start, and subsequently attack, a hole. One would think, statistically, that it would be hard to continue gaining strokes (in relation to the average score on that hole) from there. For Finau, it was not.

On those 11 holes, his average SG: Total was +.609! He was six-tenths of a shot better than the field on those 11 holes where he was aggressive off the tee. For the week, his strokes gained per hole was +.149. So, his aggressiveness off the tee led to him being almost a half shot better per hole than his baseline for the tournament.

Now, the quick counter to this is ‘Well, Will, of course his gains are better, because he was so good off the tee.’ This would make sense, but look at his numbers the rest of the way in after those tee shots, compared to his averages for the week.

  • SG: Approach on those 11 holes: +.166
    [SG: APP (per hole for the week): +.045]
  • SG: Around the Green on those 11 holes: -.009
    [SG: ARG (per hole for the week): -.030]
  • SG: Putting on those 11 holes: +.118
    [SG: PUTT (per hole for the week): +.088]

Finau was better, statistically, in all areas of his game after having his most aggressively successful moments off the tee. Is it mindset? Maybe. Is it a statistical oddity? Possibly. Is it a factor of 11 holes versus 72 in sample size? Could be.
What it is to me, is short-term validation that Finau should be more aggressive because the scoring metrics show it not only gave him lower scores, but also put him in a position to be better in other areas of his game.

It should also be noted that Finau only lost -.3 shots off the tee four times over the four days at Memorial. Twice was at #14 trying to drive the green and finding the water (he made double laying up there on Sunday, so no tee shot worked for him) and the other two were with hybrid off the tee on #5 and 3-wood off the tee on #17 (where he should’ve been sending it over the left bunker every day)

This does NOT mean that Finau needs to unleash 200 mph ball speed on every swing. The rough at Memorial merited finding fairways, and his failures on/around the greens late in the week highlighted how an all-around game was important. But, many weeks on Tour, Finau will increase his likelihood to win again if he takes on a more aggressive mindset.

Case in point, this week at the 3M Open, where 87% of the field hit the greens last year from 125 yards in, with a 27% birdie percentage from that distance (2nd highest on Tour in 2018-19). Finau should look to capitalize on his length to increase the number of short shots into the green, especially with the rough more manageable than Muirfield Village.

I saw enough from the new Tony Finau to make him my favorite to win this week. It feels like DeChambeau arriving in Detroit a few weeks ago. A golf course waiting to be punished by that length advantage and a strategy that actually improves performance, eliminates mistakes and creates better finishes.

Distance + Age in Golf

In a slow time for thought-provoking statistics in real golf — we have no real golf — I opened up the Twittersphere to any queries that folks might have about the game. Admittedly, this was a terrifying endeavor because I don’t have the bandwidth of many of my peers to dive quickly into the numbers, but here we go. Thanks to Mike Maddalena for the question…

This question, at its core, is more subjectively individual to the golfer in question. For instance, Fred Couples was 24th in distance during his age-49 season on Tour in 2009. We’ve documented what Phil Mickelson is doing as he hits 50 this year. Historical “bombers” find a way to keep hitting bombs, health permitting.

That last comment is important because for every Phil, there is a Hank Kuehne, who led the Tour in distance in 2004 but was ravaged by injuries. There is really no debate that age eventually leads to a drop in distance, and while there are cases of veterans finding power surges (see Francesco Molinari in 2018) to improve performance, Father Time is undefeated and there is generally a dip shortly thereafter (see Francesco Molinari in 2019).

So, to answer this question, I found it easier to look at it through two lenses:

  1. The youth movement of the PGA Tour in the Age of Distance
  2. The commitment to a new philosophy

*This was all sourced from ESPN.com because they have a handy age tool (thank you, Bristol!)

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 11.56.04 AM

There should be no surprise that as the group of hitters gets shorter on Tour, the average age of player gets older. What’s most important, to me, is to see how balanced this range has been throughout the entire distance era. Players who hit it 290+ are getting younger on average, but they continue to be below average in terms of age. In fact, in all 5-year increment windows analyzed, that middle tier was between 1 and 2.3 years younger than Tour average.

In 2004, there were 15 players on the PGA Tour who averaged over 300 yards off the tee. That number skyrocketed to 50 last season. However, there were more 40-year-olds (3) who did it in ’04 than last year (2).

While it would be irresponsible of me to make the claim across all of time in golf, it is logical to assume that age has always had an adverse effect on distance in professional golf. This should come as no surprise, but to see it be as gradual and consistent in this era of information shows that it is highly predictable.

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 12.02.59 PM

Just noticed the error in the final column – avg. distance in 2004 on the PGA Tour was 287.2

This was the one measurement that gave me something to latch on to. You would expect to see a gradual decline in average distance as players age, but the data showed a rise and/or plateau for players in their age-20’s seasons before sliding once they hit their 30’s. That is, until this past season on the PGA Tour, where the young players produced the spike.

This could simply be a Cameron Champ data bias, but I like to think it is representative of a trend that doesn’t get noticed as much as the distance gains – the youth gains. Technology and forgiveness haven’t solely been responsible for the average age on the PGA Tour dropping by over three years in the past 15 seasons. The preparedness of young golfers is greater than ever. I like to point to the growing strength of the college game as a big reason why, but its also greater training, understanding, data, swing tracking, etc. that has players well ahead of the learning curve that only experience and feel could improve in previous generations.

In 2004, young players were still waiting to hit their physical peak. Today, while a 22-year-old still has years to grow physically, advancements in all areas have shrunk the gap between him and his prime, late-20’s, self.
(I’d invest heavily in Jon Rahm futures if I could)

And to answer the initial question, yes, you could say there is a drop off in distance in age bracket. A player in his 40’s is now 3.6% shorter than a young gun fresh on Tour, whereas that number was 2.8% 15 years ago.

There are also just half the total number of players in their 40’s on Tour now than in 2004. It’s lazy simple to say that distance is the reason for that, when distance has always been a challenge for an aging, veteran player. More likely, the reality is younger players better understand the benefits of length and are built to succeed at an earlier age.

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.