Quail Hollow Favours Big Hitters
Despite a season filled with injuries and intermittent stretches of play, Rory McIlroy enters the PGA Championship fresh off consecutive top five finishes in the Open and WGC Bridgestone. Combine that with his record of success at Quail Hollow (two wins and a playoff loss) and he’s unsurprisingly the favourite this week.
Last year, we discussed McIlroy’s great record in the PGA Championship overall. In the last decade, the PGA has largely rewarded the big hitters. If you boil a player’s ability down to their driving distance, driving accuracy and ability around the greens, on the greens, and approaching the greens, driving distance is the factor that becomes more important in PGA Championships. It’s likely that this week will continue that trend.
As you can guess based on McIlroy’s record at Quail Hollow, the course possesses a number of factors that favour big hitters. First, it does not punish inaccurate drives as much as other venues on Tour. Second, those with shorter approach shots into greens benefit more from those shorter shots than at other courses. Finally, Quail Hollow has more opportunities to play aggressively and separate oneself from the field.
The easiest way to judge the importance of accurate drives is to find the difference in scoring between players who hit the fairway (or first cut) versus those who do not and compare across Tour venues. Over the last decade, Quail Hollow ranks 20th of 36 regular Tour courses in terms of the penalty for missing the fairway and at nearly the bottom of the rankings of courses that have hosted major championship. Missing the fairway is just not as harmful here as elsewhere.
Turning to the importance of driving distance, we modeled player scoring on a hole as a function of their lie after their drive and the distance left to the pin after the drive. This gave us an estimate of how valuable it was to play closer approach shots. At Quail Hollow, the advantage of closer approach shots ranks 5th highest for shots from the fairway and 3rd highest for shots from the rough among 29 regular PGA Tour courses. In short, the extra 15-20 yards gained by the biggest hitters are worth more like 20-25 yards here.
Quail Hollow also ranks as one of the Tour stops that provide the greatest opportunity to play aggressively by going for the green on par 5s or attempting to drive par 4s. In the past, four reachable par 5s and two driveable par 4s gave the field on average 2.7 attempts at going for the green. The PGA Tour average over that period is about 1.7 attempts. Among regular Tour courses, only Kapalua (3.7) and TPC Summerlin (3.0) offer more go-for-green chances. With the renovations changing the former par 5 5th hole, Quail Hollow will slip slightly down that list, but is still well above average.
All of those factors bode well for McIlroy’s status as favourite here. Last week in Akron he was 9 yards longer than the next best in the field off the tee on all drives and 30 yards longer than the field average of his elite peers. For the season he ranks #1 in driving distance versus the field at +20.0 yards and in his Quail Hollow career he’s gained +18.3 yards (behind only JB Holmes among those who have played 3+ events here).
In terms of overall driving ability, McIlroy’s driving performance at Quail Hollow is on another level. He’s gained 1.94 strokes per round Off the Tee in 26 career rounds here – nearly two thirds of a stroke beyond the next best player. Rory’s had a positive skew in his performance in other areas here (gaining in approach play and putting versus his career average), but he’s gained nearly a shot per round more over his career average by driving the ball better at Quail Hollow.
Rory’s also best suited to take advantage of those opportunities to be aggressive. Compared to field average in his Tour career, he’s been third best in going for the green (2.63 attempts per round) behind Tony Finau and Bubba Watson. At Quail Hollow, he has blown away the competition going for the green 4.60 times per round. Of ~7500 player/course combinations in our dataset, this is the 6th largest increase. Safe to say McIlroy feels comfortable being aggressive here.
In the last decade, only Tiger Woods has played better on holes where he went for the green (+0.32 strokes gained per hole) than McIlroy (+0.30). Supporting his aggressive reputation, Phil Mickelson ranks #3 (another dominant Quail Hollow performer). McIlroy ranks 5th best over that same time period when NOT going for the green; Woods ranks #2 and Mickelson #15. Again, it looks like no one is better suited to take advantage of those chances to play aggressively here.
Whether McIlroy delivers on his status as favorite will likely depend on whether he has a strong week with the putter. However, based on this quick overview, it looks likely that the final major of the year will be taken down by a big hitter who likes to play aggressive golf.