Previewing the Arnold Palmer Invitational

March 5, 2019
Justin Ray

Who says perceived field strength equals entertaining golf?

It’s tough to make that claim after a thrilling Sunday at The Honda Classic, where first-time PGA Tour winner Keith Mitchell scooped up 48 Official World Golf Ranking points for his victory. That was less than the 50 Matt Kuchar got for winning the Sony Open, or the 52 that Sotashi Kodaira earned for last year’s RBC Heritage title.

It certainly didn’t hamper any of the excitement, as Mitchell played his last seven holes in 4-under (gaining 4.28 strokes on the field in that span) to finish one ahead of two gentlemen named Fowler and Koepka.

We’re on to Orlando, where The King’s perpetual presence awaits.

 

*What Rory McIlroy’s 2018 performance at this event can tell us:

For a player whose driver is usually his greatest weapon, Rory McIlroy’s showcase at The King’s place in 2018 was a tad surprising.

Consider that in his victory, McIlroy led the field in strokes gained putting (+10.03) and average proximity to the hole (29’7”). He was 31st for the week in strokes gained off the tee. For the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, Rory was 97th in strokes gained putting, 49th in proximity, and 6th in strokes gained off the tee. In his greatest performance of the season, Rory’s relative weaknesses turned into great strengths.

Strokes gained putting has proven to be a more significant indicator of winning at Bay Hill than at other courses on the Florida Swing. Since 2007 – the year The Honda Classic moved to PGA National – the average winner of that event had a strokes gained putting rank of 19.2 (Mitchell was 38th last week). At Valspar, the average rank in that span is 9.8. At Bay Hill, that number is 6.5.

In fact, every Arnold Palmer Invitational winner since 2004 – the first-year strokes gained putting was tracked – has been 22nd or better in that stat. Seven straight champions have been in the top ten.

Historically, driving accuracy (average winner’s rank since 2004 of 36.1) and strokes gained off the tee (26.1) have been much less significant harbingers of winning. Only one winner at Bay Hill since 2008 has been in the top-ten in strokes gained off the tee, and the last winner to rank in the top-five in driving accuracy for the week was Kenny Perry in 2004.

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*Trends within this tournament in recent years:

*Since 2014, Henrik Stenson has averaged the most strokes gained against the field per round at API, averaging 2.63 per round. Rory McIlroy (2.59), Francesco Molinari (1.91) and Jason Day (1.90) round out the top-four.

*Among players with at least 15 career rounds at Bay Hill over the last thirty years, the player with the best scoring average is no longer Tiger Woods (69.97). It’s McIlroy (69.25). Molinari, Stenson and Greg Norman finish the top-five of that list.

*Stenson has the best cumulative score to par at Bay Hill over the previous five years at -49. Next are McIlroy (-44), Molinari (-39) and Day (-33).

*Since 2010, among players with at least ten rounds played, the player with the most birdies and eagles per round at Bay Hill isn’t McIlroy (5.06), Woods (4.63) or even Adam Scott (4.44) – it’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, at 5.20 per round.

*How about some more Aphibarnrat gold? Since 2010, there are 148 players with at least ten rounds played at Bay Hill. Three of those players have a scoring average under 70: McIlroy, Woods and Aphibarnrat.

*Since 2010, McIlroy and Stenson have six rounds apiece of 67 or lower on this course. No other player has more than four such rounds in that span.

*Notes on players headlining the field this week.

*Dustin Johnson officially reclaimed the top spot in the World Ranking on Sunday night. Justin Rose, in the field at Bay Hill, is back to number two. This is the eleventh time in the last ten months that the top spot has changed hands. As for Rose – who’s name appears several times previously in this article – he’s never won at Bay Hill but has three top-3 finishes since 2011.

*Former Ole Miss star Braden Thornberry will make his second PGA Tour start as a professional this week. Thornberry, who spent 18 weeks as the number one ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, made his pro debut at Torrey Pines in January (finished T-52).

*Sunday was the seventh runner-up finish of Brooks Koepka’s PGA Tour career. Go figure: on the PGA Tour, Koepka now has three wins and zero runner-up finishes in majors, two wins and seven runner-up finishes in non-majors. Koepka will make his fourth start at Bay Hill this week.

*Viktor Hovland, the number three ranked amateur in the world and reigning U.S. Amateur champion, is in the field this week. Hovland has played in four previous official pro events – in four different countries – since July. Hovland’s Oklahoma State Cowboys are the reigning NCAA champions and number one ranked team in the GolfStat rankings.

*Prominent on the radar is Michael Thompson, who has rattled off five straight top-20 finishes. Thompson is 18th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained total, ahead of the likes of Jon Rahm (22), Matt Kuchar (31) and Phil Mickelson (36). Thompson is in the field at Bay Hill for the first time since 2012.