Relax, It’s (just) FedEx

19/09/2012 § Leave a comment

The final leg of the PGA Tour Playoffs wraps up this coming weekend at East Lake, and statisticians, including yours truly, are having a field day in anticipation of the possible scenarios that may play out.

As has been voiced in prior posts, the FedEx Cup Playoffs scoring scheme has been a work in progress over its first five campaigns.  Even though most golf fans still can’t wrap their heads around the system, or prefer to be spoon fed the scenarios, or simply wait for it all to unfold, most would agree that the PGA Tour has got to have it right now, finally.  How else could such perfect drama have been manufactured on last year’s final stage that saw Bill Haas splash his way from 25th in the standings to the top?!

I’m writing tonight in part to explain that what happened last year was both anomalous and unfair.  For Haas to win it all required the perfect storm; he needed to win the event of course, and hats off to him for doing so, but he also needed a ton to go wrong for the gentlemen who entered the week at the top.  That happened.  Webb Simpson (entering the week in 1st) finished in 22nd, Dustin Johnson (2nd) finished 23rd, while Justin Rose (3rd) and Matt Kuchar (5th) finished tied for 20th in the 30-man field.

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BMW = Big Moving Week?

07/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Golf fans are familiar with the term “moving day”, used to refer to the third of four rounds in a given tournament. As the FedEx Cup Playoffs entered their third of four legs yesterday, I started to closely examine the standings to see how much room there really is for upward movement.

With a particularly keen eye on Canadians Graham DeLaet and David Hearn, it seemed near impossible for them to make it into the TOUR Championship at East Lake in two weeks. Maybe that’s fair, given that they both started these playoffs outside the top 100. Still, I began to question just how much volatility there actually is come the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and what kind of chance guys who « Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday at The Barclays

27/08/2012 § Leave a comment

The first leg of the FedEx Cup entered its final 9 holes at Beth Page Black with several emerging storylines. There was the battle at the top for the $1.44 million winner’s cheque, the jockeying for position to get into next week’s Deutsche Bank, and of course the race for the overall FedEx Cup.

ReSergence of Garcia

Mr. Garcia refuses to go away, even in spite of himself.  After the seemingly countless collapses at majors, the implicative remarks after the 2007 British Open that he was the only man in the field who was also playing against God, and the foreclosed concession after this years Masters that he is “not good enough to win a major”, Sergio finds himself relevant again.  He won convincingly last week at the Wyndham, his first win on TOUR since 2008, and vied for back-to-back victories as he entered his the back nine on Sunday at Beth Page just one shot behind Nick Watney.  A 3-over 38 coming in was not how Sergio had hoped to close the tournament, but a T3 this week was good enough to crack the top 10 in the overall standings.

What now, Watney?

Things were setting up to be a two-horse race between Watney and Garcia, but Nick was just too steady coming down the stretch.  His three shot victory was his first of 2012, and all of a sudden he finds himself atop the FedEx Cup standings after the first leg.  One wonders whether a playoff push by Watney will grab the attention of Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III enough to merit a captain’s selection for the competition next month.  Love will make his announcement next Tuesday following the Deutsche Bank, so Watney better take his momentum into next week if he hopes to emerge out of the several other formidable names ahead of him on Davis’ list.

Snedeker Sneeking into the Picture

With his unkempt matted birds nest, usually hidden under the Bridgestone visor, Brandt’s popping jab of a putting stroke seems to jump into the radar ever now and then.  He won in a playoff early in the year at the Farmers Insurance, went into hibernation for a few months and then suddenly held the 36-hole lead across the pond at the Open Championship before fading on the weekend.  Sneds lurked 2 back of the lead entering his final 9 holes on Sunday, but left a few birdie putts hanging on lips and had to settle for second place.

DeLaet-ful Finish

It was a great weekend for Canadians in New York.  Graham DeLaet and David Hearn each sat on the bubble at 106th and 108th respectively, and both needed to make a big move to get into the top 100 and advance to the next leg of the FedEx Cup at the Deutsche Bank next week.  They did that and then some.  Hearn’s 67 on Saturday put him in a final round pairing with Tiger, where despite having to watch the worst round on the golf course today—Mr. Woods tossed up a 76—he finished T10 at -3, and more importantly moved into 67th in the FedEx Cup standings.

DeLaet outdid his compatriot.  Graham fired a scintillating 65 today, good for second lowest of the week, and vaulted into T5 for the tournament and 44th in the FedEx Cup standings.  I can’t recall a leaderboard featuring two Canadians in the top 10 since the glory days of the mid 2000s with Mike Weir and Stephen Ames. Both Hearn and DeLaet will play next week, and hopefully beyond.

Other big movers include Bob Estes, Tom Gainey, Jason Day and Jonas Blixt who each have snuck into the Deutsche Bank.  Some moves more modest that others, Blixt hardly blitzed his way in with a 67-73-73-73, but was good enough to move from 101st to 97th in the overall standings.

The Race

I don’t know why they call it a race.  Perhaps it’s because it’s loosely modeled on the Nascar points system.  But golf is more like a turtle and a hare playing chess.  And the early maneuvering has given intrigue to this month long FedEx Cup battle.

Tiger continued to look out of sorts on the weekend.  Needing to post a low number, he offset three birdies with three bogeys on the front before going 5-over on a 5-hole stretch on the back.  The feel with the flatstick and inability to adjust to changing greenspeeds continues to plague Tiger.  To compound things, nothing looked comfortable for him over the weekend.  Pull hooks followed by block fades followed by chunked chips made for an awful lot of pouts and yet more questions about the direction of his game.  Nevertheless, Tiger will still be in 3rd going into the Deutsche Bank.

With the volatility that the revamped FedEx Cup scoring system has encouraged, Watney jumped from 49th to 1st with his victory, while Sneds went from 19th to 2nd. Rory McIlroy yoyo-ed around even par all weekend and sits 4th overall.

Others lurking include both Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, Bubba, Carl Peterson, and Jason Dufner, who took the 2007 Tiger approach and sat this one out.  I’ll be in touch again this week to set up the Deutsche Bank and make some bold predictions for the rest of the “race”.

-Wittman

Special Delivery: The FedEx Cup Explained

24/08/2012 § 1 Comment

Five summers ago, I was wrapping up some research with a professor at UBC looking at shot-making on the PGA Tour and which stats are the best indicators of success.  In order to carry out our study, we were in touch with the people behind the scenes of ShotLink data, and during one conversation were made privy to the revamping of the scoring system for the season ending playoff series, The FedEx Cup.

I remember having my suspicions.

The problem was what occurred the previous year in the inaugural PGA playoffs.  Tiger Woods sat atop the standings heading into the four-tournament series and actually opted to sit out the first event, The Barclays.  The points system for the playoffs allowed for little volatility, and in the end the final standings very closely reflected the regular season standings.

In other words, the LA Kings had no chance of winning the Stanley Cup, perhaps in part because their opponents in the first round decided to take the series off (interpret as you wish).

So, the think-tank at the Tour made the aforementioned alterations heading into 2008, allowing for players to rocket up the standings with a strong showing in the playoffs.  Unfortunately, things played out about as badly as anyone could have imagined.  Vijay Singh won the first two playoff events, The Barclays and the Deutche Bank, and in doing so amassed such a lead over second place that all he had to do was show up the next week at the BMW to lock up the FedEx title; he did so by shooting 76-75-75-73 and finishing 67th of 70 players.  That was all before the final event, the Tour Championship at East Lake, where there was in fact nothing to play for.

For you hockey fans: seriously, nothing to play for

It was as if the Phoenix Coyotes, with wins in their first two series, had locked up the Stanley Cup even after being bounced in 5 games by the Kings.  LA and New Jersey were playing for fun in the finals, before Shane Doan came out to accept the cup.  It was an anticlimax worse than every blackout drunk one-night stand of mine in undergrad.

Subsequent emails I sent to the head of statistics at the Tour were met with auto-replies that he had left on stress leave.  No surprise, really.  The FedEx Cup Playoffs was in trouble and needed some serious reworking.

What was achieved in advance of the 2009 season was a system that sought to balance season-long consistency with playoff performance, but which also assured some drama at the Tour Championship at East Lake.  The scoring system devised then has survived the past three years with relative success.  But a problem still exists.  Fans have no clue what’s going on, and each year, a breakdown of scenarios needs to be provided heading into the final event, and further into the final day.

This year

Seriously, a handbook?!

There’s nothing new this year.  Come a month from now, something akin to the link above will be concocted heading into the Tour Championship.  Such is endemic to any system that wishes to perform the balancing act it seeks.  What follows are the essentials you need to know as a casual golf fan.

1. Players compete in tournaments from the Hyundai Championship beginning in the first week of January to the Wyndham Championship last week for FedEx Cup points.

2. The top 125 players in the FedEx Cup standings over the period above advance to the playoffs.

3. Points are “reset” or better put “recalibrated” according to the standings heading into a four-tournament playoff consisting of the Barclays, Deutsche Bank, BMW, and Tour Championship.

4. The top 100 players advance to the Deutsche Bank, 70 to the BMW, and 30 to the Tour Championship

5. Points are again recalibrated before the Tour Championship.

6. Each player in the top 5 of the standings going into the Tour Championship has controls his own destiny.  A win at East Lake wins the FedEx Cup.

7. Every player advancing to the Tour Championship has at least some faint chance of winning the FedEx Cup.

Tournament

Players

Cut

The Barclays

125

Top 70 and ties

The Deutsche Bank

100

The BMW Championship

70

No Cut

The TOUR Championship

30

And so it begins.  I can only hope that this year provides the splash of drama that Bill Haas gave us last year.

-Wittman

Sunday Funday at the PGA

12/08/2012 § Leave a comment


via New York Daily News

In the words of the venerable Rob Thomas, it’s 3 am and I must be lonely.  Why else would I be awake, with little intention of falling asleep, blogging about sports?

Well, it’s quite simple.

For one, the final day of competition in London is well underway.  But of course more importantly, play resumes at Kiawah in a mere hour and a half as heavy rain and the threat of thunder and lightning suspended third round action in the PGA Championship.

A look ahead to the final day of action reveals some great story lines which I will briefly set up and give my unabashed predictions for.  First, however, I’ll hold myself accountable to my Wednesday evening pre-tournament predictions.

1. Keegan Bradley

I was pretty high on this kid coming into the tournament off a win last week and defending his title from last year.  Keegan got off to a fast start Thursday, getting it to -5 at one point and making me look like a genius early.  However, he didn’t handle the blustery conditions on Friday too well, and began to fade.  Despite righting the ship for the most part on his first 16 holes of round 3 (he will go back out early to complete his final two holes), Keegan sits at +1 for the tournament and probably too far back to realistically contend.  A top 10 is not out of the question, though.

2. Jim Furyk

Jim never really seemed to be in the mix this week, though a steady 3rd round 70 has set him up for a possible strong finish, especially since he can enjoy his morning while many others head out early to complete round 3).

3. Zach Johnson

Zach was hanging around quietly until 3 straight bogeys before the stoppage of play more or less derailed him.  Perhaps the stoppage was just what he needed in order to recompose and finish respectably.  And I do expect Zach to get it going again and get into the top 10 or 15 tomorrow, especially with the possibility of more rain and gusty winds, which he handled well on Friday relative to the rest of the field.

4. Justin Rose

It’s been a strange tournament for the young Englishman.  He dropped 5 birdies in each of his first and third rounds, but a 79 on Friday has taken him out of contention.  If he can experience some more streakiness that he has enjoyed at times this week, look for him to get it under par for the tournament.

5. Bo Van Pelt

Here’s someone to watch out for.  Bo sits on the 3rd round clubhouse lead, while the four players currently ahead of him on the leaderboard have their back nines still to complete.   The weather in the early morning could be determinative of Bo’s chances.  If the leaders and those others lurking around him fall back in the challenging winds, then he could find himself in the final group.  If not, he’s got to take it low in round 4 to have a chance.

6. Luke Donald

Luke continues to disappoint at the majors.  A double bogey in each of his rounds has highlighted his unsteady play.

7. Phil Mickelson

Lefty has surprised me.  After barely holding it together on Thursday, Phil carded the second lowest round (71) in the tough conditions in round 2.  Still, he sits at +1 and would be shocked if he’s a factor tomorrow.

Who else?

Oh yeah, Eldrick.

Well, as always fans and commentators alike were ready to crown him after Friday (even without the 36-hold lead!).  Tiger struggled with the flat stick, as I worried he might, early in round 3.  He goes out shortly to try to tidy up am 8-footer for par to avoid dropping to E for the tournament with 28 holes remaining.  Maybe the extra time that he’ll be able to play in his traditional Sunday red will be the antidote for Tiger and his majorless streak, now at over 4 years.  Your guess is as good as mine, but I would think he would need to get back at least 2 of the shots he dropped for a 73 at worst to conclude round 3.

To rule him out, however, is always a mistake.

It’s hard not to like Rory‘s chances going into the final day.  His attitude seems to be world class, particularly demonstrated when his tee shot on the 3rd hole on Saturday lodged itself in the branch of a tree.  With poise, Rory took an unplayable lie and the accompanying penalty stroke and promptly got up-and-down for his par.

A win for Rory tomorrow would reignite discussion around his anticipated dominance for the next decade, much like how Tiger took control of things in the 2000s.  Rory, 23, would be the youngest player since World War II to have won two major championships.

On the other end of the spectrum, Vijay Singh has seemingly come out of nowhere to challenge and become the oldest player to win a major, at 49.  Vijay was completely off my radar coming into this week, but sits in a tie atop the leaderboard on the strength of his 69 on Friday (compared to a PGA Championship field average high of 78) and trying to cap off a bogey free front nine in round 3, a round that he will complete with Tiger as surely have his competitive juices flowing.

Other notables include Adam Scott, who is trying to do what Rory did a year ago at the US Open in bouncing back immediately after giving away the previous major down the stretch.  Adam appears to have found his equanimity at Kiawah, and hopes to fully exorcise the demons from Royal Lytham.  I expect Adam to play his way into the final grouping for round 4.

Two others that have caught my attention going into the final day are Trevor Immelman and Ian Poulter.  Their international experience and proficiency on links courses have allowed them to stay in the hunt, shooting respective rounds of 72 and 71 on the tough Friday.  Trevor’s a past major winner (2008 Masters) while Poulter has often found himself in the mix on Sunday only to fail in finding the decisive gear.  I look to both to make a charge.

Wittman

Best Bets for the 94th PGA Championship

09/08/2012 § Leave a comment


The Wanamaker Trophy (via PGA.com)

This weekend, the PGA Championship finds itself back at a Pete Dye(-abolical) designed track, where sand dunes and windy conditions will feature heavily, as they did in 2010 at Whistling Straights; Dustin Johnson was famously penalized that year for grounding his club in a what looked more like a small heap of spilled brown sugar than what was curiously and unfairly deemed to be a bunker.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina measures a ghastly 7950 yards at its most extended length, contains four par-5s, and plays to a par 72.  It cruelly combines links style golf with plateau greens surrounded by run-off bowls to difficult pitching areas, or worse, waste areas.  The champion golfer this year will be the player that is able to consistently put himself in position off the tee, shape a variety of shots into tough-to-hold greens, get out of jail when necessary, and as always wield a hot flat-stick.

In trying to predict the winner, I’ve compiled several lists below of players in this year’s field by “key stats”.  I acknowledge that some of these stats are highly correlated (for example, scrambling takes sand saves into account, and both depend very much on putting).  The combination of stats I’ve chosen bears this correlation in mind and implicitly weights the skills that the golf course requires accordingly.

While this method is not statistically rigorous by any means, it is meant to be easily accessible and interpretable.

1. Total Driving – the top 5 ranked players in the field in driving distance plus driving accuracy

John Rollins
Hunter Mahan
Tiger Woods
Bo Van Pelt
Jason Dufner

2. Scrambling – the top 5 ranked players in the field in “up-and-down” percentage

Ian Poulter
Jim Furyk
Chris Stroud
Phil Mickelson
Steve Stricker

3. Sand Saves – the top 5 ranked players in the field in sand save percentage
Jim Furyk
Justin Rose
Keegan Baddeley
David Toms
Matt Kuchar

4. Par-5 scoring – the top 5 ranked players in the field in par-5 scoring average
Bubba Watson
Rory McIlroy
Zach Johnson
Kyle Stanley
Keegan Bradley

5. Par-3 scoring – the top 5 ranked players in the field in par-3 scoring average

Keegan Bradley
Luke Donald
Geoff Ogilvy
Zach Johnson
Justin Rose

6. Strokes Gained Putting – top 10 ranked players in the field in strokes gained against the field from all putting distances
Aaron Baddeley
Luke Donald
Zach Johnson
Ben Curtis
Brendt Snedeker
Bo Van Pelt
Phil Mickelson
Keegan Bradley
Ken Duke
Jim Furyk


via GolfDigest.com

Of the 24 different names above, only one man appears on four of the lists: Keegan Bradley.  The awkward, 6’3″ visor-donning, narrow-shouldered, hunched, soon-to-be-illegal-putter-wagging 26-yr-old not only sets himself apart from the rest on this list, but also comes into this week off a win at the WGC last week following a gutsy par save on the 72nd hole.  Oh yeah, and Keegan just happens to be the defending PGA Tour champion.  Vegas has Keegan listed at 41 to 1.

Jim Furyk
Jim Furyk (via TourProGolfClubs/Flickr Creative Commons)

Two players emerge from the above stats with the distinction of making three of the lists: Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson.  Despite overall consistent play this season, Furyk has had two significant disappointing finishes.  The first came at the US Open in June where Furyk’s tornado generating lash of a swing broke down in the closing holes.  The second came just 3 days ago with a closing double bogey which yielded the trophy to Keegan.  Jim will no doubt be motivated this week and he’s got the game to back it up.

Zach Johnson tee shot
Zach Johnson (via TourProGolfClubs/Flickr Creative Commons)

Zach on the other hand has had many positives to take away from this season including two victories, the second coming at the John Deere Classic 3 weeks ago.

Jim is currently 51:1 for the championship while Zach sits at 46 to 1.

Four players appear on two of the lists above: Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Bo Van Pelt.

I’m going to tell all of you right now not to waste your money on Phil, even at 51 to 1, the highest I can recall it being at a major in some time.  He missed the cut at the Open Championship, had a near miss at the US Open, and generally appears to be struggling with his game.

Justin Rose is coming off a T5 finish at Firestone and looks to bounce back from a disappointing and surprising missed cut at the British.  He is comfortable on links style golf courses and is currently paying 31 to 1.

Luke Donald continues to top the list of best players in the world without a major, and perhaps this will finally be his week.  Also a comfortable player growing up playing links golf, he tied for 5th at Royal Lytham this year and is coming off a top 10 at Firestone.  At 19 to 1, Luke strikes me a a good bet.

Finally, Bo Van Pelt has quietly gone about his business over the last couple of seasons to sneak into the top 25 on the world rankings.  Like Rose, Bo missed the cut at the British but wound up in the top 10 at the Bridgestone last week.  Bo is currently paying 46 to 1.

Tiger Woods smiling
Tiger (via TourProGolfClubs/Flickr Creative Commons)

Of the rest who appear anywhere on the lists above, I will simply say this:  Tiger Woods seems due.  Everyone acknowledges this.  And yet at 10 to 1 and the pre-tournament favourite, I have my doubts.  With the amount of trouble that Kiawah Island presents, I just can’t see him getting the job done, as much as I’d like to.  Tiger has struggled all season on par-5s, an area of the game that he used to dominate, and this appears to be frustrating him.  With four par-5s on the track this week, I foresee Tiger getting impatient and trying to put a little extra into his driver.  That’s when things can start to go wayward for him, literally.  On top of that, Tiger’s struggles with his putter have been well documented of late, and he has had a particularly tough time judging the speed of the greens.  If he can’t figure out the pace early at Kiawah, he has no chance.

If you like to dabble with the odd fun bet, do so with caution when it comes to golf.  In my experience, this is the most difficult sport to predict, even when you take 2 hours out of your day to rake through recent performances when you should be studying for a law final the next day.  That is all for now.

They Say Memories Begin To Form After Two Years

03/08/2012 § Leave a comment

By way of the briefest of introductions, I am a golf enthusiast, as my name might very much suggest.  But in spite of the tragic exclusion of golf from the Olympics until 2016, I will begin my foray into the world of blogging by recounting some of my favorite memories from Vancouver’s Winter Games two years ago.

As 20th century American writer Bill Vaughn put it, “It’s never safe to be nostalgic about something until you are absolutely certain there’s no chance of its coming back.”  And even if the Sochi Committee were to crap the bed in its preparation for 2014, and the games improbably reverted back to Vancouver, I think it’s safe to say that it would be impossible to recreate the magic of 2010.  So, at the perils of over-romanticizing those special 17 days, I will set out now to reminisce about the most memorable moments to me.  As it is now Day 7 of the London Games, I will recount my Top 3 from the first week in Vancouver.  Beginning tomorrow, I will provide a corresponding daily flashback for each remaining day.

NUMBER 3 – A Very Canadian Opening Ceremonies

The image of Steve Nash and his awkward and uncomfortable smile has been burned into my memory forever.  It wouldn’t have been a truly Canadian event without the dose of innocence and humility that the fourth arm malfunction brought, hanging Catriona Le May Doan out to dry and leaving Nancy Greene, Rick Hansen, and Nash feeling equally helpless.

NUMBER 2 – Nesbitt’s Nail-biting Finish

Awkward and uncomfortable are two apt adjectives to describe Christine Nesbitt’s stutter-step finish (1:18 of the video) in the Women’s 1000m long track speed skating final.  The maneuver was good enough to takeover first place by 0.02 seconds and capture Canada’s third gold medal of the games.  Breathtakingly close finishes like this one are so much of why I excitedly tune into the Olympics each campaign.

NUMBER 1 – Home Soil Gold

“And Alex Bilodeau… has done it! HE HAS DONE IT! HE HAS DONE IT!”  There’s not much that can be said that will recapitulate how I felt as I watched Bilodeau and his brother celebrating with unbridled jubilation.  Even my goose bumps had goose bumps.  To me, the first gold for Canada on home turf truly set the tone for the remaining two weeks.