U.S. Open golf: do the new stats help predict the winner?

The stadium scene.
June 16 2011 11:28 AM

The Toughest Test in Golf

Looking at the new golf stats to see who will win the U.S. Open.

Michael Agger's "Moneygolf" series is available as an e-book for the Kindle. Download it today.

golfer Hunter Mahan
golfer Hunter Mahan

One of the shadows trailing the sport of golf is the idea that golfers are not athletes. This perception will not be helped by the klutzy dancing in "Oh Oh Oh," the new single from the PGA Tour's "exclusive boy band," Golf Boys. As one commenter on YouTube said of the great tour player Hunter Mahan: "Dam look at the gutttttttt on Hunter." But I am willing to cut Mahan some slack: Those are some tight pants and Mahan has shot a 62 at Congressional Country Club, site of this year's U.S. Open. Plus, we also learned recently that Jack Nicklaus can dunk! Golfers are more than "merely skilled technicians."

Tiger, of course, is hurt. As he tweeted yesterday: "Last time I missed a USGA event Salt N Peppa was still cool and Whitehead was a toddler." (The 23-year-old golfer Michael Whitehead got Tiger's place in the field.) But the remaining technicians will have lots to tweet about this week. The Congressional course now plays at 7,574 yards, the second longest in Open history. It features an 18th hole that could play at 523 yards, the second longest par 4 in major championship history. Naturally, the short hitters are not happy. Fred Funk spoke for his brethren when he told NBC Sports that the bombers have an unfair advantage: "There are guys who are great athletes that have a lot of clubhead speed, but they generate so much carry with the golf ball. There's more dispersion between the average guy and these guys that are really, really long."

Is Funk right? Have the long hitters taken over the game?

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Previously on Slate, I've written about the new generation of golf statistics that allow us to understand how a pro actually wins a golf tournament. What combination of putting, driving, and iron play will earn a player the glory of a major?

While the PGA Tour hasn't been as quick to embrace stats as Major League Baseball, golf is becoming more analytical. The tour put the first "Moneygolf" statistic into production at the Wells Fargo tournament in May. It's called "Strokes Gained—Putting," and it measures how many strokes a player gains on the field due to his skill with the flatstick. Greg Chalmers is currently first on tour, picking up nearly a stroke per round on his fellow pros. Poor Ernie Els is dead-solid last, giving up just more than a stroke per round. Els is something of a poster boy for the stat, the example of a great player who has excelled despite his putting. He recently took the once unthinkable step of trying out a belly putter to improve his touch.

Putting will be important this week, especially with talk of superfast greens at Congressional that will rate over 14 on the Stimpmeter. But a key insight revealed by the new golf stats is that a pro can do more to distinguish himself with his long game than with his putting. According to Mark Broadie, Tiger Woods gained 2.08 strokes per round with his long game from 2003-2010, the best on tour. David Duval was ranked 297th during this period, losing 1.41 strokes a round, for a best-to-worst spread of 3.59 strokes. On the green, Tiger was ranked third in putting during this period, gaining 0.70 strokes per round, while a terrible putter like John Daly (ranked 272nd) gave up 0.38 strokes per round, for a spread of 1.18. There's more room to excel with the long game.

Youtube video. Click to expand image.
Bubba Watson (center rear), is among the long-game leaders

The PGA Tour has not rolled out the "Strokes Gained—Long Game" statistic yet (next year, one hopes!), but Broadie has shared his personal stat trove with me. The regular PGA Tour players who have been picking up the most strokes with their long games are Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, and Gary Woodland. The top five putters are currently Greg Chalmers, Charlie Wi, Brandt Snedeker, Lucas Glover, and Steve Stricker. Together, the top putters have racked up three wins and 10 top-10 finishes. The top five bombers have four wins and 16 top-10s. So, the bombers are faring better than the putting artists, but not by a large margin.

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