15th Club Analyst Roundtable: Previewing the PGA Championship

May 16, 2019
Justin Ray

What kind of tests will Bethpage Black present this week for the world’s best players? What information could point to potential contenders at the PGA Championship? To answer those questions and more, 15th Club presents a major championship roundtable – Head of Golf Intelligence Jake Nichols, Quantitative Analyst Dylan Beirne, and Head of Content Justin Ray discuss the season’s second major.

Justin: Bethpage Black played as the most difficult course on the PGA Tour in both 2002 and 2009 when it hosted the U.S. Open. As the host of The Barclays (now Northern Trust), it ranked 15th and 12th in difficulty in those respective seasons – 2012 and 2016. My question for you both is – what type of test do you expect from Bethpage this week? Will it be the grueling grind of ‘02, or something closer to what we saw in the Playoff events? And what statistics are you pointing to as most significant going into the week?

Jake: Thanks to the PGA of America visiting past PGA TOUR venues like Quail Hollow and Bellerive in recent years, we can make an informed guess that conditions will be tougher than 2012 and 2016, but not to the degree of the US Opens here. Quail Hollow played 1.5 shots harder (with a stronger field) in 2017 for the PGA than in 2018-19 for Wells Fargo Championship. Bellerive played about 0.75 shots harder in 2018 for the PGA than in 2008 for BMW Championship.

Bethpage in 2012 and 2016 averaged 71.6 as a par 71. If you added 0.75 to 1.5 shots to that figure you can expect to see scoring around 72.5 or even 73.0. Last season, that would have ranked 2nd toughest on Tour behind Shinnecock and ahead of Honda Classic. Safe to say the players will be in for a serious challenge this week.

As always for the PGA Championship, driving stats are my starting point. An analysis we did ahead of Baltusrol identified that not only had the PGA Championship been pursuing longer courses in recent years (Bethpage will play about 250 yards longer than the average par 70 on Tour), but that driving distance was a much more important factor in PGAs than regular Tour events from 2004-2015.

I expect the importance of driving distance to carry-over this week at Bethpage. The field hit around 11 to 12 drivers per round in the playoff event in 2016 with little difference between how much long hitters hit driver vs shorter hitters. Expect guys like Rory and DJ to hit driver with impunity and gain accordingly.

Dylan: I think Jake has hit the nail on the head in identifying driving distance as a key factor this week. The numbers very clearly point to high driver use percentage, with driving accuracy also being key. Having seen the course up close over the last few days, it’s very apparent why.

There are a number of holes, particularly the 9th, where a big hitter will be taking a significantly different line (and approach club) to the majority of the field. The 300-yard carry over the bunker at the corner of number nine certainly won’t be possible for a large percentage of the field, leaving them an approach of 180 yards, rather than 130 yards.

Alongside that, the missed fairway penalty at Bethpage is around 0.4 strokes, which is well above PGA Tour average. Not to mention, the rough is grown up to about 3.5 inches and extremely thick.

Justin: Brooks Koepka is gaining 2.87 strokes per round on the field in majors since the beginning of 2017. That is about half-a-shot more per round than anyone else – Rickie Fowler is second in that span among players with 15 or more rounds, at 2.36. What does Koepka do better in big events than week-to-week on the PGA Tour? The easy reaction is some colloquial thing like, “he steps up in big events,” but the answer can’t be that simple.

Jake: It can just be as simple as “he’s played better golf”. Below I’ve broken down where he ranks in basic statistics across either majors or regular Tour events (unfortunately, strokes gained data is available for only half the major championships he has played in). He’s improved across the board – with most of his stats improving by a large margin.

On very tough courses in majors, Koepka’s birdies per round has barely dropped from 4.25 to 4.05 – this makes him a better birdie-maker in majors than anyone active including Tiger (2nd), Spieth (4th), Rory (6th), and Phil (8th). In addition, he has gotten up and down after a missed green more often on difficult major courses than in regular Tour events (improving from 49th percentile to 97th percentile).

Nichols Koepka Z

The limited Strokes Gained stats available paint a similar picture of across the board gains.

Nichols Koepka Z2

Whether Koepka’s strong major performance is repeatable is a question that could occupy this entire column. I will note that we have seen one other player in recent years who has exhibited a similar trend. Over his career, Phil Mickelson has out-performed his regular Tour event Strokes Gained per round by about half a shot in majors and finished top 3 in 22% of majors versus only in 18% in regular events.

You wrote earlier in the week that the golf public was still sleeping on Koepka as a major force (here), but the markets have finally come around. Only Dustin Johnson is priced as more likely to win this week than Koepka – even ahead of Woods and McIlroy who have won the first two meetings of the best players in the world.

On that topic, Woods vs McIlroy sets up an interesting debate around course history vs course fit. The course history is clearly on Woods’s side – he’s won a major and has a tie for sixth in another major in three events here.

Not so much for McIlroy, who has played here three times as well. He’s only managed a tie for tenth in the 2009 U.S. Open and two mid-pack finishes in the Playoff events – one year a T24 which sits in the middle of a run of three wins in four events and the other year a T31 which was followed by two wins in three events.

Any preference for one over the other this week?

Justin: It’s more anecdotal than analytical, but you have to wonder how Tiger’s back will feel in the cold air this week. He’s thoroughly documented how much work it is for him to get prepared before rounds – I’m wondering if a cooler climate this week lengthens that process.

This is the first time Tiger has led the PGA Tour in greens in regulation entering a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open. That’s not any kind of statistical omen, per se, but is more of a testament to how terrific his iron play has been all season – not just at Augusta National. Woods is also 66th in strokes gained off the tee, his best position in that statistic in seven years. Throw in his past successes here, and it’s easy to be bullish on Tiger again.

But if I have to pick between Woods and McIlroy, I’ll probably narrowly take Rory. His only finish outside the top-ten in 2019 came at Augusta. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained tee to green and average distance of all drives. The bar is so high for Rory that I think we take his consistency in majors for granted: over the last ten years, he leads all players in the majors in top-5’s, top-10s, rounds under par and rounds in the 60s.

Dylan: Last time out at Augusta, Tiger’s approach play was the clear differentiator for him, in line with previous winners at the Masters. That area of his game has by far been the strongest over the past year or so, however I don’t think that elite approach play will be as much of an asset this week. As we mentioned above, the key requirement will be positioning yourself well up the fairway in order to even have a reasonable iron to the green.

So while Tiger’s driving has been very solid this season, ranking top 70 in both accuracy and distance, I think Rory’s spectacular driving numbers will be positioning him significantly better than Tiger (and pretty much the whole field), which will inevitably have a positive effect on his scoring. So for me in this matchup – on this course – Rory’s got to be a big favorite.

Justin: Who is one sleeper pick that you think is interesting this week? For me, it’s Haotong Li. This course seems to set up to hide his weaknesses and exaggerate some strengths.

We should see far fewer wedge shots into greens by the field this week, which is great news for Li – he’s dead last on the PGA Tour this season in approach shot proximity from 50 to 125 yards. But his long iron play is great – he leads the Tour this season in proximity from 175-200 yards, and is 3rd from 200-225. He’s also first on Tour in scrambling percentage from the rough this season, something that helps around this place. What do you guys think?

Dylan: It won’t be a surprise that Rory leads the worldwide Driving SG this year, but the man in 2nd place might be an interesting name to keep an eye on this week. Julian Suri, he’s having a cracking season so far on the European Tour, and is currently gaining +1.28 strokes per round Off the Tee. Given the expected importance of Driving this week I think the 150-to-1 available on him is a fairly generous price.

Jake: I expect someone of the Jason Kokrak mold to be in the hunt on Sunday. Kokrak’s a long hitter and he’s moved into the top 40 in our Performance Index with really consistent play all year (last missed cut was in July 2018). Another two in that mold of long hitters who are underrated in terms of performance are Ben An and Aaron Wise.

Moving beyond sleepers to players I think the public is sleeping on, this has to be Jon Rahm’s best shot at a major yet. He’s ranked 4th in Performance Index (third best in field since JT pulled out) and he’s finally showing a pulse in majors with top 10s in three of the last five. On what should be a bomb-and-gouge course, a player like Rahm with enormous power and the confidence to pull driver often should be a big force. The market isn’t sleeping on him either placing him 5th mostly likely to win behind DJ, Koepka, Rory, and Tiger.

Though I think both DJ and Rory are more likely to win, I’m picking Rahm for this one.

Justin: History says we are long overdue for an under-the-radar winner – 18 of the last 19 major champion were ranked in the top-25 in the world that week. But I don’t think this is the course for it. I like Rahm a great deal, as well, but I will pick Rory McIlroy – who is gaining half-a-stroke more per round tee-to-green than anyone else on the PGA Tour this season – to win his fifth career major championship.

Dylan: Personally, I find it hard to see past the big trio of DJ, Rory and Koepka. They’ve all got the big hitting and all-around quality to win around here. If I had to be nailed down to one at the top end of the market I’d take Koepka. I think his major specialisation over the past couple of years has been amazing, improving his game by over a shot per round in majors, so I’d give him a slightly better chance of taking it home this week.