Poulter, course strategy and ‘playing to win’
Much has been said about Ian Poulter’s finish at the Players Championship in May. Trailing Si Woo Kim by two shots, Poulter pushed his drive on the par 5 16th right and into the rough. With about 230 yards remaining, Poulter played a conservative layup, failed to hit his wedge close and two-putted for par.
Even though Poulter made it through 17 and 18 unscathed, Kim matched him and won the tournament by three. Afterwards, Golf Central analyst Brandel Chamblee said of Poulter “He clearly did not play to win”, criticising both his layup on 16 and a conservative tee shot on 17.
Now that the social media fireworks have calmed down, we can actually analyse how Poulter approached the 16th hole. As we’ve shown before, it’s important for pros to have a plan to get around a golf course; that way they’re prepared to execute when they find themselves in pressure situations on the back-nine on Sunday. In preparing their plan, they should honestly evaluate how well they have made decisions on the course in the past. The time for reflection is not in the heat of the moment after the round, but as part of a focused process involving objective analysis of the data.
As part of their plan, players should try to incorporate data on how players have executed shots on each hole in the past. Then they can bake in their individual traits, risk tolerance, motivations/goals, and other factors. This is our main role in helping our clients navigate a course: determine the ideal strategy given the characteristics of each hole and then tailor that to each client’s unique abilities and circumstances.
In this piece we’ll mainly focus on how to incorporate data into your approach, with the understanding that all the other factors can push the odds slightly in one direction or another. We’ll focus on the 16th hole at TPC Sawgrass, but this type of analysis can be translated to any other course where data is available.
What Factors Matter
Hole locations on Tour typically remain consistent from year to year. For example, at the 16th hole there’s three general pin locations. The front pin (gold), the front left pin (green), and the back pin (blue). These locations subtly change the character of the hole. The front pin allows more aggressive plays from rough/semi rough lies (53% of players go for the green vs 39% to the other pins). The back pin requires a longer shot with the risk of rolling out into the water, while the front left pin requires a hero shot over water.
Unsurprisingly, the front left pin requiring a shot over the water is the toughest of the three pin positions in an absolute sense (3.45 scoring average for shots played at the green in two vs. 3.43/3.37 for the other two pins) and especially relative to the baseline difficulty of length/lie (0.14 strokes harder than baseline vs. 0.06/0.07 strokes harder for the other two pins). Poulter was playing at this pin on Sunday.
Lie / Distance (ball location)
Strokes Gained analysis has confirmed what all golfers understand intuitively; that closer shots produce better scores and shots in the fairway are easier than those from the rough. The graph below shows the % of players who attempt to get home in two at the 16th hole based on their lie/distance to the pin.
You can see that for shots outside 225 yards from the rough, less than 20% go for the green for each hole location, while 80% go for the green from the fairway on similar shots. That’s a large gap and why it’s so crucial for shorter hitters to find the fairway at 16. For shots like Poulter’s (outside 225 from the rough), only 1 in 5 players would have gone for the green.
Bringing it all together, the table below shows the average scoring outcomes in strokes from Fairway/Rough for each hole location.
I’ve bolded the relevant statistics for Poulter’s situation in red. From the rough to a front left pin, the average player scores 3.63. From any layup (70-170 yards) in the fairway, the average player scores 2.66 strokes. In fact, playing from the rough to a front left pin is the hardest go-for-the-green shot of any pin/lie combination and a layup from the fairway to a front left pin is the easiest layup shot of any pin.
The clear play from the rough to a back pin is to go for the green. You lose about 0.30 strokes if you layup. However, from the rough to a front left pin you lose only 0.03 strokes if you layup. At this point, the margins get so tight that small factors can make laying up the best play on sheer balance of probability. If Poulter had a longer shot than most have from the rough (he did), if his lie was more difficult than the average lie from the rough (possible), if he’s better with his wedges than his long irons, if his pressure miss is right, etc.
The winning play is not always the hero play. Based on the numbers, it’s hard to say that he made the wrong play or “did not play to win” as Chamblee said.