Surface changes could lead to big results for Rory

March 4, 2020
Justin Ray

Two years ago, Rory McIlroy went to the Arnold Palmer Invitational with part of his game in disarray.

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In his four PGA Tour starts to begin the year, he hadn’t finished better than 20th. Rory had missed the cut at the Valspar Championship the previous week largely due to poor putting. At Copperhead, he lost four full strokes to the field putting in two rounds, missing five times from inside seven feet.

But after a talk with Brad Faxon the Monday of Bay Hill week, all of that changed.

Rory lit up the greens in Orlando, leading the field in strokes gained putting. His ten strokes gained on the greens for the week and 25 putts per round were PGA Tour career bests – and haven’t been approached since. McIlroy would win the tournament by three shots in what was his only victory worldwide that year.

Rory has been terrific so far in 2020 – he hasn’t finished worse than fifth in his three starts – but the club that has done the most to keep him from victory is once again the shortest one in the bag. After ranking a very respectable 36th on the PGA Tour last season in putting inside ten feet, McIlroy is currently 219th (of 228 total players) this year.

There could be one course trait this week that helps change that for the world number one: bermudagrass greens. Or more specifically, just getting away from pesky poa annua.

Since the 2018 PGA Tour season began, Rory has averaged 0.14 strokes gained putting per round on poa greens. On all other surfaces, that number doubles to 0.28. While that may not sound like an enormous difference, that works out to more than half-a-stroke per 72-hole tournament. (Strokes gained putting also works better than traditional stats to tell the story in this instance; it takes into account if other players see improved performance and compares Rory’s numbers accordingly).

Change the putting surface, and maybe Rory re-surfaces in the winner’s circle.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

At Bay Hill, players are required to hit long irons into greens at a higher rate than normal. In 2019, the field hit more than 2,000 approach shots of 200 yards or more, third-most of any course on the PGA Tour. Bay Hill led the Tour in that statistic in 2018.

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As a direct result, greens in regulation and proximity to the hole numbers spike in difficulty. Bay Hill yielded the fifth-lowest G.I.R. percentage on the PGA Tour last year, and third-toughest average approach shot proximity to the hole.

Winners at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tend to rely more on strong putting performances than normal. Over the last ten years, the average strokes gained putting rank of API winners is 6.0. In that same time span, the PGA Tour average is 13.3. On putts from 10 to 15 feet, winners at Bay Hill have an average field rank of 10.9 – that rank is normally more than doubled, at 23.6.

Bay Hill’s par threes average 216 yards on the card, the second-longest of any course on Tour. Only Corales Golf Club in the Dominican Republic (230 yards) play longer.

NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Patrick Reed assembled one of the more memorable putting performances in recent years two weeks ago in Mexico City. His 45 one-putts at Chapultepec were not only most in the field, it was the most by any PGA Tour winner over the last three decades. Reed leads the PGA Tour this season in putts per green in regulation, birdie conversion percentage and putting average.

– At this time last year, Francesco Molinari looked unquestionably like one of the best players on the planet. He solidified that theory with a win at Bay Hill, then nearly won his first Masters the following month.

Since then, though, it’s been a brutal stretch: in 18 starts worldwide since Augusta, Molinari has no top-ten finishes and five missed cuts. He is currently 200th on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained tee-to-green.

Molinari will try to right the ship this week at a place he’s loved over the years: his 82 birdies-or-better at Bay Hill since 2016 are second to only McIlroy. Francesco has never missed a cut here in seven appearances.

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– In news that surprises nobody, Sungjae Im is playing this week fresh off his first PGA Tour victory at The Honda Classic. Sungjae has played 168 official PGA Tour rounds since the beginning of last season, 23 more than any other player in that span.

More staggering though is this sheer-volume-statistic: Im has made 724 birdies-or-better since the 2018-19 PGA Tour season began. That’s 144 more than number two on the list – Adam Schenk (580).

– Which of the T.F.-initialed contingent of stars wins next on the PGA Tour? Tommy Fleetwood nearly did it at Honda, picking up his 12th top-five finish – second-most of anyone without a win since 2014. Tony Finau seems to contend every week but hasn’t broke through since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. His 28 top-ten finishes over the last four seasons are most of anyone without a victory during that span. Second on that list? Fleetwood, with 16.

Both men bring elite ball-striking form to Bay Hill: Tony is sixth on Tour this season in strokes gained tee-to-green, while Tommy is eighth.

– The early returns on Bryson DeChambeau’s distance-gaining efforts are extremely positive. Bryson has jumped from 24th to 4th on Tour in strokes gained off the tee and from 34th to 4th in driving distance. In the statistic ‘distance of all drives,’ which measures every drive a player hits, and not just the traditional two measured holes, DeChambeau’s average is up nearly 16 yards. Protein shakes for everyone.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Tiger was a combined 121-under-par at the Arnold Palmer Invitational from 1997 to 2013, 72 strokes better than anyone else in that span. Vijay Singh was second at 49-under.