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.

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